Monday, October 10, 2005
Last night, sitting in Newark Airport waiting for my very delayed flight to Boston, I read Peters' account of the battle at the gates of Vienna in 1683, even then one thousand years in to the long war between Islam and Christendom. Since yesterday was also the first "blogiversary" of one of my favorite blogs, the Gates of Vienna, I laboriously typed up Peters' four page passage in honor of Dymphna and The Baron (illustrations gathered elsewhere):
At three o'clock on Sunday afternoon, the twelfth of September 1683, the clang of steel on steel and the deafening gunfire subsided before the walls of besieged Vienna. A titanic battle had been underway since dawn, with the future of Europe dependent on its outcome. A cobbled together Christian relief force under Poland's King Jan Sobieski had fought its way down from the hills and into the open ground before the city, but the Ottomans resisted tenaciously. The earth had been drinking the blood of soldiers for nine hours without decisive advantage to either side. The Christian infantry was fought out, and the Turks were bringing up their elite reserves. Weakened by hunger and disease, the garrison within the city walls lacked the strength to influence the battle. The strange lull that presages war's fateful moments settled over the plain.
An Ottoman army 140,000 strong had advanced on the greatest city in central Europe, the seat of the Austrian Habspurgs and a bulwark of Christendom that had defied repeated Turkish campaigns, assaults and sieges. This time the sultan did not intend to fail. He had dispatched his grand vizier, Kara Mustafa, with the finest soldiery the empire could muster: the corps of janissaries formed of Christian boys taken as tribute and school to Muslim fanaticism, and the Spahis, cavalrymen who had swept away the sultan's enemies from the Danube to the Euphrates. The Muslim heart of the Ottoman army was wrapped in the muscle of tributary states: Christian auxiliaries swelled the sultan's leviathan force, the contingents of princes and noblemen whose lands had been conquered in generations past. Mercenary French artillery masters directed the Ottoman siege guns, and the king of France, Louis XIV, had concluded an agreement with the sultan not to assist his fellow Christians against their would-be conquerors. For the Sun King, humbling his Habsburg rivals was more important than the fate of Europe. He set a pattern from which the policy of France has only rarely strayed.
French diplomats had done their best to dissuade any other European states from sending troops to raise the siege of Vienna. Fearful of Bourbon malice, the states of Italy chose to remain passive, and the Habsburgs could rely upon only the remnants of their battered armies and slight reinforcements from Bavaria and a few lesser German principalities.
The numbers were not enough to defeat the massive Ottoman force. Only a single power remained with the strength to save Vienna. The Poles had defended Europe against Turks and Tatars, against Cossack raids and Muscovite barbarism, for a quarter of a millennium. Attacked on all sides in the mid-seventeenth century -- by Tatars, Turks, Ukrainians and Swedes -- the Poles had nonetheless presesrved their state and further burnished their reputation as dauntless soldiers and devoted Christians.
France did all that policy could effect to prevent the Poles from riding southward to rescue the Habsburg Empire. The rough democracy that prevailed among the Polish nobility proved susceptible to French blandishments and threats. Poland's kind could not unite his own country behind his purpose of saving Vienna. Louis XIV and his coutiers at Versailles were certain that France would soon be the dominant power remaining in Europe.
In an hour of greatness that leaves the West forever indebted, King Jan decided to march to Vienna with only his household troops and those Polish nobles willing to follow him. Defying France and his own magnates, and still threatened by the appetites of his neighbors, Jan Sobieski risked his crown and his life for his fellow Christians.
After uniting his forces with the Habsburg remnants under Charles of Lorraine, King Jan was given overall command for the looming battle. The Austrian emperor -- no soldier -- kept himself at a safe distance from the coming slaughter.
By three o'clock in the afternoon King Jan's plan had carried the battle within a last charge of the city walls, but the Ottomans were far from broken. On horseback atop a hill the king could see the Turkish forces rallying as the janissaries moved into the foremost lines. The Ottoman cavalry wheeled to face the Christian flank, ready to sweep down on the survivors of any failed attack. The day was warm and the sky was clear, and the smoke of the earlier fighting drifted off. For those upon the city walls or ranked on the low hills won in the day's hard fighting, the spectacle of Ottoman might unfolding must have chilled the sweat that greased their spines.
Behind King Jan stood twenty thousand horsemen, the West's last hope. Immediately at his back, the shock troops of the Polish kawaleria glittered in their armor, heavy cavalrymen whose equipage resembled that of the knights of past centuries. The force that would have to decide the day were those regiments of the Polish husaria, the greatest cavalrymen of the age and the greatest heroes Europe ever produced. Waiting in their shimmering ranks on the high ground, the Polish hussars were an otherwordly sight. Each rider's height was increased by a pair of feathered wings fixed at his back, giving him the look of a warrior angel. A Polish hussar was a mobile fortress, armored and equipped with a lance, a bow, one or two heavy dragoon pistols, and multiple sabers -- all of which he wielded expertly. With each regiment arrayed in its own color -- blue, green, yellow, red -- and with animal pelts raked over the shoulders of their gleaming breastplates, the riders in the lobsterback helmets were feated throughout Europe's desperate frontiers. Veterans of ceaseless wars, the Polish hussars would have to break through three successive Turkish lines to gain a Christian victory.
At twenty minutes after three o'clock King Jan lifted his mace -- Poland's symbol of military authority.
Trumpets blared and kettledrums thumped. The Polish cavalry began to move forward, first at a walk, then increasing their pace to a trot. Spurring to a canter, the riders maintained their ranks with iron discipline. The Turkish cavalry charged across the Ottoman front to face them, screaming their war cries and calling upon Allah.
The Polish riders broke into a gallop. Lowering their lances, they shouted "For Jesus and Maria!" Eighty thousand hooves pounded the earth.
The forces collided with a roar and a crash of metal. Horses thudded into one another, wild-eyed, rearing, and tumbling to the earth. The lances of the first Polish rank splintered against their targets. The impact hurled the lighter Turkish cavalrymen from their saddles.
The hussars smashed through the broken troops of Spahis, drawing their sabers and spurring their horses back to a gallop, howling with the fury of battle and calling once more for the aid of Christ and the Virgin.
The charge was catastrophic for the Ottoman army. Dutiful to the last, the janissaries died in place, ridden down by Polish hussars exploding through their defenses, intoxicated by victory. The grand vizier fled, barely escaping as hussars reached the movable palace of his tent, sweeping through the Ottoman camp as soldiers and servants ran madly from the avenging angels of the north.
When darkness ended the last skirmishes twenty thousand Ottoman bodies littered the ground. The remainder fled in disorder. Vienna had been rescued. The myth of Ottoman invincibility, already weakened, had been destroyed. Fewer than two thousand Christians lay on the field.
The Ottoman Empire nevere again posed so serious a threat to the West. For centuries the names of the sultans had resounded, associatede with conquests. Now the names of Christian generals would be remembered, from Prince Eugene to Suvorov and Skobelev. The Ottomans would fight on, but the empire had bled into twilight. All that remain was a long, grim, losing battle against the night as an empire famed for its diversity contracted in body and soul, reduced at last to economic capitulations to Western creditors, to cruelty in lieu of competence, and to the grisly slaughter of the empire's last minorities.
The West had won on the continent of Europe, with Christendom saved by a Polish king. Poland's thanks was dismemberment in the next century, as the rulers of Austria, Russia, and Prussia partitioned its territory and drove its heroes abroad to fight for freedom wherever such wars were waged -- and still fought for their homeland in hopeless rebellions.
No Europeans fought longer for their freedom and the liberty of others than did the Poles. And none have received less gratitude.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
This account somewhat underplays the effectiveness of the imperial forces under Herzog Karl von Lothringen and Prinz Eugen von Savoie, who managed to stave off the mere 250,000 infidel Turks besieging Vienna and keep them off balance until the reinforcements arrived.
It also fails to fully exploit the perfidy of Louis XIV of France, who would have gladly allowed Vienna to fall in order to advance his own aims. In point of fact Louis used the distraction to his own advantage and invaded the Kurpfalz to wreak a little further havoc amongst the Hapsburg allies.
On a less significant but still important culinary side note, the invention of the croissant (Butterhoernle) can be traced to the siege of Vienna. If memory serves correctly it commemorates the pluck of the Viennese bakers who rose at 4 am to hear the Turks attempting to dig under and mine the city wall, said bakers then raising the general alarm and saving the city (anyone who knows bakery in Vienna will attest to its saving qualities, at least in conjunction with a large cup of coffee.) In our mind the expropriation of the croissant is merely another case of French underhandedness, taking credit for something they did not invent.
PS. My new favorite read is "1066, The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry" by Andrew Bridgeford. A stitch by stitch analysis with alternative interpretations based on the latest scholarship. Highly recommended.
I wanted to bake a plate of crescents for our 'blog-o-versary' but the Baron, having been subject to a few too many Cub Scout son 'n dad cake projects insisted that we bake a red crescent with star, not just to commemorate the occasion but as a comment on the Red Crescent of Embarrassment in that field in Pennsylvania.
The final product ended up looking rather like a Play-Doh snake, though I assure you it was not. *That* would've been easy. Go here to see this haram dessert:
Cakes of Vienna
Not for the faint of heart.
I just finished reading David Fromkin's "The Last Summer", an historical detective account of the causes of the Great War. That July of 1914 was the final summer of Europe, but it was also the winter of the Ottoman Empire, whose long retreat began at the Gates of Vienna. Yet the Ottomans left in the wake of its withdrawal one last poison: the lands it was quitting; and that temptation whetted the appetites of the Great Powers who ruled practically the entire surface of the earth. It was that competition for power which touched off the Great War. The Europe which had found redemption before Vienna lost it by meanly grasping at lands they did not need.
Bruce Campbell put it best when he played Elvis in Bubba Ho-tep. "Why didn't fame hold off old age and death? ... Do I want it back? Could I have it back? And if I could... would it make any damn difference?" No, the only thing that is really worthwhile -- for countries as for men -- is to do the worthwhile, even if (as fans of that movie know) that means fighting off Egyptian mummies terrorizing East Texas rest homes.
"Gone down with both guns blazing. Soul intact."
Very good. Thank you.
While Sobieski was no doubt one of histories great field (hetman) generals, Jozef Pilsudski was probably even greater or met and succeeded in a greater challenge with less assets.
Polish history is the most neglected, most often distorted and altered of any country in existence.
As an American of Polish ancestry I have spent many years researching Poland's sad history. From the Celtic beginnings, through the Sarmatian and later Jewish(Khazarian)/Germanic blendings-- there was no more diverse or tolerant culture on our planet. The achievments were amazing.
It was the last place where you could find Latin--spoken, written and read by a sizeable populace.
The greatest fear of modern Europe seems to be a reunification of the ancient Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It's borders expanded to include Croatia, Latvia and Estonia along with the expanse of Poland's greatest land area of the 1500's.
This would create a superpower that Russia, and the French/German led union would not be able to bully.
A steadfast ally of the USA too.