12 Sep 2007

The Last Crusade

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Juliusz Kossak, Sztandar proroka [The Prophet’s Standard]
1882. Watercolor. 22 x 37.2″ (56 x 94.5 cm)
National Museum, Warsaw.

Adam Zamoyski
describes the relief of the Siege of Vienna:

He’s badly camped — we shall beat him!” said (King Jan III Sobieski), turning to his generals. …

Just before dawn on the following day, 12 September 1683, the King of Poland attended Mass in the ruins of an old convent on the Kahlenberg and then dictated the ordre de bataille. The left wing was given to the Duke of Lorraine. It consisted of three corps of Imperial and Saxon infantry under Count Caprara, the Duke of Baden, and the Elector of Saxony, supported by a large force of Polish cavalry under Stanislaw Lubomirski. It was to advance along the Danube to relieve Vienna itself. The centre, under the Prince of Waldeck, was made up of troops from Franconia and Bavaria — with the young Elector going into his first battle as a mere soldier. The right wing, lost from sight throughout most of the day as it swept round through the Vienna Woods, consisted of Polish infantry and cavalry under Stanislaw Jablonowski. Only the Polish artillery had been nimble enough to haul their ordnance over the mountain roads, so their twenty-eight guns would have to race about from one corner of the battlefield to another- at one stage they were to run out of wadding and had to commandeer the fine wigs of some indignant French gentleman-volunteers. Only about one third of the 68,000 troops were Polish – the rest were Germans, Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Scots and Irishmen. It was a crusading army, come together from all corners of the Christian world to face the Infidel, and in its ranks fought no fewer than nine sovereign princes.

As they began their descent from the Kahlenberg, a Turkish force came out of the camp to face them. The janissaries took up defensive positions on hillocks, along gullies and in vineyards, and the Christian troops had to pick their way through difficult terrain to dislodge them. It was a sweltering day, and by early afternoon when the Christian army had pushed the Turks off the last foothills, the men were thoroughly exhausted. Around three o’clock there was a lull in the fighting, as they consolidated their new positions and the Turks fell back to regroup.

The king felt tempted to put off the decisive battle to the following day, even though this would give the Turks time to turn the heavy guns bombarding Vienna to face his army. Through his telescope he saw fresh Turkish regiments being drawn up and a red tent being put up behind them. Beside it stood a pole bearing the horse-tails which were the sign of the Grand Vizir’s rank. At about four o’clock Kara Mustafa unfurled the banner of the Prophet, emblem of Ottoman victory, to loud cries from the ranks of Janissaries. Instinct made the king change his mind, and he sent a galloper to Jablonowski on the right wing. Then he rode forward himself.

As Sobieski’s mounted figure appeared on a prominent hillock in the front line, over to the right the leafy gloom of the Vienna Woods burst into blossom, as a few, then a few hundred, then a few thousand brightly-coloured lance-pennants thrust out between the branches. One by one, the glittering squadrons of the Polish heavy cavalry, the Husaria, detached themselves from the mass of the woods and trotted forward. Led by senators and senior dignitaries of the Most Serene Commonwealth of Poland, its ranks made up exclusively of the highest-born, this great war-machine shimmered with the wealth of vast acreages. Each rider was helmeted and plumed; his breastplate encrusted with gold and gems; cloaked with leopard-skins; winged with great arcs of eagle-feathers rising over his head; mounted on a magnificent charger caparisoned in silk and velvet embroidered with gold. Each husarz carried sabres and pistols with jewelled handles, and a twenty-foot lance with streaming pennant. As they broke into a lumbering canter and lowered their lances, the pennants and the wings on their backs set up an evil hiss while the ground shook with the pounding of fifteen thousand hooves.

Selim Girey, Khan of the Crimean Horde, had been waiting to pounce on the right wing of the Christian attack. When he recognised the Polish king and the winged riders who had defeated his Tatars before, he turned about and led his riders away. Everything now hinged on whether the janissaries could stand firm against the Husaria, which lumbered on purposefully, sparing its horses, diagonally across the whole battlefield, making for the landmark of the Vizir’s tent. Idle soldiers on both sides stared in disbelief at the slow, mesmeric charge. Then the Husaria broke into a wild gallop and the heavy mass of men and horses cascaded over the Turkish ranks, bowling over the first, slicing through the second, surging on towards the exquisite red tent, before which the Grand Vizir sat and watched. He saw the Pasha of Aleppo fall and the horse-tail banner of Kara Mehmet of Mesopotamia go down in the fray. Next came the turn of the Pashas of Silistria and Buda. Their janissaries hesitated for a moment, then turned and fled, followed by the rest of the army. The Grand Vizir leapt on to a horse and made his own escape moments before the winged riders thundered up to the tent and the banner was struck.

The entire Christian army moved forward and the king rode into the Turkish camp to take possession. One of the Vizir’s servants handed him a jewelled stirrup which had broken offas Kara Mustafa heaved himself into the saddle to flee. A true galant, the king gave it to one of his young gentlemen, bidding him ride hard all the way to Krakow: to lay it at the feet of his French queen. Another messenger was sent to Rome, to the Pope, bearing the standard of the Prophet; the Jihad had been defeated by the last Crusade.

Baron Bodissey commemorates his admirable blog’s theme, thusly:

On this day in 1683 King Jan Sobieski of Poland arrived at Vienna to break the siege of the Turks and rescue the Christian West from the Hosts of Mohammed. The rout of the Ottoman troops before the gates of Vienna by the Polish hussars gave us a little breathing room, a coffee-and-croissants break that lasted for the next three hundred and eighteen years.

But no longer. From now on in, every day is September 11th.

Hat tip to Bird Dog.


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