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Battle of Vienna – Second Islamic wave – Year 1683
The Battle of Vienna, Turkish: İkinci Viyana Kuşatması), took place on 11 and 12 September, 1683 after Vienna had been besieged by the Ottoman Empire for two months. The battle broke the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, and marked the political hegemony of the Habsburg dynasty in Central Europe.
The large-scale battle was won by Polish-Austrian-German forces led by King of Poland John III Sobieski against the Ottoman Empire army commanded by Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha.
The siege itself began on 14 July 1683, by the Ottoman Empire army of approximately 90,000 men. The sieging force was composed by 60 ortas of Jannisaries (12,000 men paper strength) with an observation army of c.70,000 men watching the countryside. The decisive battle took place on 12 September, after the united relief army of 84,450 men had arrived, pitted against the Ottoman army.
The battle marked the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the forces of the Central European kingdoms and the Ottoman Empire. Over the sixteen years following the battle, the Habsburgs of Austria gradually occupied and dominated southern Hungary and Transylvania, which had been largely cleared of the Turkish forces.
The capture of the city of Vienna had long been a strategic aspiration of the Ottoman Empire, due to its inter-locking control over Danubean (Black Sea-to-Western Europe) southern Europe, and the overland (Eastern Mediterranean-to-Germany) trade routes. During the years preceding the second siege (the first one was in 1529), under the auspices of grand viziers from the influential Köprülü family, the Ottoman Empire undertook extensive logistical preparations this time, including the repair and establishment of roads and bridges leading into Austria and logistical centers, as well as the forwarding of ammunition, cannon and other resources from all over the Empire to these logistical centers and into the Balkans.
On the political front, the Ottoman Empire had been providing military assistance to the Hungarians and to non-Catholic minorities in Habsburg-occupied portions of Hungary. There, in the years preceding the siege, widespread unrest had become open rebellion upon Leopold I's pursuit of Counter-Reformation principles and his desire to crush Protestantism. In 1681, Protestants and other anti-Habsburg Kuruc forces, led by Imre Thököly, were reinforced with a significant force from the Ottomans, who recognised Imre as King of "Upper Hungary" (eastern Slovakia and parts of northeastern present-day Hungary, which he had earlier taken by force of arms from the Habsburgs). This support went so far as explicitly promising the "Kingdom of Vienna" to the Hungarians if it fell into Ottoman hands.
Yet, before the siege, a state of peace had existed for twenty years between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire, as a result of the Peace of Vasvár.
In 1681 and 1682, clashes between the forces of Imre Thököly and the Habsburgs' military frontier (which was then northern Hungary) forces intensified, and the incursions of Habsburg forces into Central Hungary provided the crucial argument of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha in convincing the Sultan, Mehmet IV and his Divan, to allow the movement of the Ottoman Army. Mehmet IV authorised Kara Mustafa Pasha to operate as far as Győr and Komarom castles, both in northwestern Hungary, and to besiege them. The Ottoman Army was mobilised on January 21, 1682, and war was declared on August 6, 1682.
The logistics of the time meant that it would have been risky or impossible to launch an invasion in August or September 1682 (a three month campaign would have got the Turks to Vienna just as winter set in). However this 15 month gap between mobilisation and the launch of a full-scale invasion allowed ample time for the Habsburg forces to prepare their defence and set up alliances with other Central European rulers, and undoubtedly contributed to the failure of the campaign. It proved most decisive that the Habsburgs and Poland concluded a treaty during this winter in which Leopold would support Sobieski if the Turks attacked Kraków; in return, the Polish Army would come to the relief of Vienna, if attacked.
On March 31, 1683 another declaration, sent by Kara Mustafa on behalf of Mehmet IV, arrived at the Imperial Court in Vienna. On the next day the forward march of Ottoman army elements began from Edirne in Thracia. The troops reached Belgrade by early May, then moved toward the city of Vienna. About 40,000 Crimean Tatar forces arrived 40km east of Vienna on 7 July, twice as many as the Austrian forces in that area. After initial fights, Leopold retreated to Linz with 80,000 inhabitants of Vienna.
The King of Poland prepared a relief expedition to Vienna during the summer of 1683, honouring his obligations to the treaty. He went so far as to leave his own nation virtually undefended when departing from Kraków on 15 August. Sobieski covered this with a stern warning to Imre Thököly, the leader of Hungary, whom he threatened with destruction if he tried to take advantage of the situation — which Thököly did.
Events during the siege
The main Turkish army finally invested Vienna on July 14. On the same day, Kara Mustafa sent the traditional demand for surrender to the city.
Ernst Rüdiger Graf von Starhemberg, leader of the remaining 11,000 troops and 5,000 citizens and volunteers with 370 cannons, refused to capitulate. Only days before, he had received news of the mass slaughter at Perchtoldsdorf, a town south of Vienna whose citizens had handed over the keys of the city after having been given a similar choice.
The Viennese had demolished many of the houses around the city walls and cleared the debris, leaving an empty plain that would expose the Turks to defensive fire if they tried to rush the city. Kara Mustafa Pasha solved that problem by ordering his forces to dig long lines of trenches directly toward the city, to help protect them from the defenders as they advanced steadily toward the city.
Although the Turks had 300 good cannons, the fortifications of Vienna were very strong and up to date, and the Turks had to invent a more effective use for their gunpowder: mining. Tunnels were dug under the massive city walls to blow them up with explosives.
The Ottomans had essentially two options to take the city: the first, an all-out assault, was virtually guaranteed success since they outnumbered the defenders almost 20-1. The second was to lay siege to the city, and this was the option they chose.
This seems against military logic, but assaulting properly defended fortifications has always resulted in very heavy casualties for the attackers. A siege was a reasonable course of action to minimise casualties and capture the city intact, and in fact it nearly succeeded. What the Ottomans did not take into account however was that time was not on their side. Their lack of urgency at this point, combined with the delay in advancing their army after declaring war, eventually allowed a relief force to arrive. Historians have speculated that Kara Mustafa wanted to take the city intact for its riches, and declined an all-out attack in order to prevent the right of plunder which would accompany such an assault.
The Ottoman siege cut virtually every means of food supply into Vienna, and the garrison and civilian volunteers suffered extreme casualties. Fatigue became such a problem that Graf Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg ordered any soldier found asleep on watch to be shot. Increasingly desperate, the forces holding Vienna were on their last legs when in August, Imperial forces under Charles V, Duke of Lorraine beat Imre Thököly of Hungary at Bisamberg, 5km northeast of Vienna.
On 6 September, the Poles crossed the Danube 30km north west of Vienna at Tulln, to unite with the Imperial forces and additional troops from Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Franconia and Swabia who had answered the call for a Holy League that was supported by Pope Innocent XI. Only Louis XIV of France, Habsburg's rival, not only declined to help, but used the opportunity to attack cities in Alsace and other parts of southern Germany, as in the Thirty Years' War decades earlier.
During early September, the experienced 5,000 Turkish sappers repeatedly blew up large portions of the walls, the Burg bastion, the Löbel bastion and the Burg ravelin in between, creating gaps of about 12m in width. The Austrians tried to counter by digging their own tunnels, to intercept the depositing of large amounts of gunpowder in subterranean caverns. The Turks finally managed to occupy the Burg ravelin and the Nieder wall in that area on 8 September. Anticipating a breach in the city walls, the remaining Austrians prepared to fight in Vienna itself.
Staging the battle
The relief army had to act quickly to save the city from the Turks, and to prevent another long siege in which they might take it. Despite the international composition and the short time of only six days, an effective leadership structure was established, indisputably centered on the King of Poland and his heavy cavalry. The motivation was high, as this war was not as usual for the interests of kings, but for Christian faith. And, unlike the Crusades, the battleground was in the heart of Europe.
Kara Mustafa Pasha, on the other hand, was less effective, despite having months of time to organise his forces, ensure their motivation and loyalty, and prepare for the expected relief army attack. He had entrusted defence of the rear to the Khan of Crimea and his cavalry force, which numbered about 30 - 40,000.
There are serious questions as to how much the Tatar forces participated in the final battle at Vienna. Their Khan felt humiliated by repeated snubs by Kara Mustafa. He reportedly refused to attack the Polish relief force as it crossed the mountains, where the Tatar light horse would have that advantage over the Polish heavy cavalry. Nor were they the only component of the Ottoman army to defy Mustafa openly or refuse assignments.
This left vital bridges undefended and allowed passage of the combined Habsburg-Polish army, which arrived to relieve the siege. Critics of this account say that it was Kara Mustafa Pasha, and not the Crimean Khan, who was held responsible for the failure of the siege.
Also, the Ottomans could not rely on their Wallachian and Moldavian allies. These peoples resented the Ottomans, who extracted heavy tributes from their countries. The Ottomans also intervened in the internal politics of these countries, seeking to replace their ruling princes with men who would be mere Turkish puppets. When George Ducas, Prince of Moldavia and Şerban Cantacuzino, Prince of Wallachia learned of the Turkish plans, they tried to warn the Habsburgs. They also tried to avoid participating in the campaign, but the Ottomans insisted that they send troops. There are a great number of popular legends about the Wallachian and Moldavian forces in the siege. Almost invariably, these legends describe them loading their cannons with straw balls, so as to make no impact upon the walls of the besieged city.
The Holy League forces arrived on the "Kahlen Berg" (bare hill) above Vienna, signaling their arrival with bonfires. In the early morning hours of 12 September, before the battle, a Mass was held for the King of Poland and his nobles.
The Turks lost at least 15,000 men dead and wounded in the fighting + at least 5,000 men captured and all cannons; compared to approximately 4,500 dead and wounded for the Habsburg-Polish forces.
The loot that fell into the hands of the Holy League troops and the Viennese was as huge as their relief, as King Sobieski vividly described in a letter to his wife a few days after the battle:
"Ours are treasures unheard of... tents, sheep, cattle and no small number of camels... it is victory as nobody ever knew of, the enemy now completely ruined, everything lost for them. They must run for their sheer lives... Commander Starhemberg hugged and kissed me and called me his savior.”
This emotional expression of gratitude did not distract Starhemberg from ordering the immediate repair of Vienna's severely damaged fortifications, guarding against a possible Turkish counter-strike. However, this proved unnecessary. The victory at Vienna set the stage for Prince Eugene of Savoy's re-conquering of Hungary and (temporarily) some of the Balkan countries within the following years. Austria signed a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire in 1697.
Long before that, the Turks had disposed of their defeated commander. On 25 December 1683, Kara Mustafa Pasha was executed in Belgrade (in the approved manner, by strangulation with a silk rope pulled by several men on each end) by order of the commander of the Janissaries.
Although no one realised it at the time, the battle shaped the outcome of the entire war as well. The Ottomans fought on for another 16 years, losing control of Hungary and Transylvania in the process, before finally giving up. The end of the conflict was finalised by the Treaty of Karlowitz.
The battle marked the historic end of the expansion into Europe of the declining Ottoman Empire.
The behaviour of Louis XIV of France also set the stage for centuries to come: German-speaking countries had to fight wars simultaneously in the West and the East. While German troops were fighting for the Holy League, Louis ruthlessly used the occasion, before and after the battle of Vienna, to annex territories in western Europe, such as Luxembourg, Alsace with Strasbourg, etc. Due to the ongoing war against the Turks, Austria could not support the interest of German allies in the West. The biography of Ezechiel du Mas, Comte de Melac illustrates the devastations of large parts of Southern Germany by France.
In honour of Sobieski, the Austrians erected a church atop a hill of Kahlenberg, north of Vienna. The train route from Vienna to Warsaw is also named in Sobieski's honour. The constellation Scutum Sobieskii (Sobieski’s Shield) was named to memorialise the battle. Because Sobieski had entrusted his kingdom to the protection of the Blessed Virgin (Our Lady of Czestochowa) before the battle, Pope Innocent XI commemorated his victory by extending the feast of the Holy Name of Mary, which until then had been celebrated solely in Spain and the Kingdom of Naples, to the universal Church; it is celebrated on September 12.
The period of Polish-Austrian friendship did not last long, as Charles V of Lorraine began downplaying the role of John III Sobieski and his troops in the battle. Neither Sobieski nor the Commonwealth profited significantly from saving Austria; on the contrary, the battle of Vienna cleared the path towards the forming of the future Austrian Empire (1804 to 1867) and the destruction of the Commonwealth. In 1772 and 1795 the Habsburg Monarchy took part in the first and third partitions of Poland, which wiped the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth off the maps of Europe. In contrast, the Ottoman Empire never recognised the partitions and provided a safe haven for many Poles.
The feast of the Holy Name of Mary is celebrated on September 12 on the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church in commemoration of the victory in this battle of Christian Europe over the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Empire. Before the battle King John had placed his troops under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After the battle Pope Innocent XI, wishing to honour Mary, extended the feast to the entire Church.
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