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Remembering the largest cavalry charge that saved Europe from the Ottomans

It is the 339th anniversary of an event that is believed to have inspired J. R. R. Tolkien himself – the Vienna Victory when the Polish army led by King John III Sobieski came to the rescue not just of Habsburg and various German forces besieged in the city of Vienna but also the whole of Europe.

In July 1683, the Ottoman armies led by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa laid siege to Vienna, pushing the Austrian Habsburg Empire forces back. The capital of Austria turned into a stronghold which kept fending off the enemy’s assaults and yet its garrison could not avoid casualties and its morale waning as the uncertain days passed.

But to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the maxim that agreements must be met was as obvious as one could be. In line with an alliance signed with the Habsburg Empire that obliged it to help in the case of a Turkish attack, around 27,000 soldiers, including 14,000 cavalrymen, were assembled by the Polish monarch and led to the rescue of embattled Vienna.

Having crossed the Danube about 30 kilometres north of Vienna, John III Sobieski took general command over the allied forces of the Holy League, which amassed around 70,000-80,000 soldiers facing an Ottoman army of 150,000.

The decisive clash took place on September 12, 1683. While the Habsburg and various German soldiers attacked the main Turkish units engaging their attention, the Polish winged hussar cavalry launched a devastating charge down the hills at their rear, taking the Turks by surprise, sowing dread in their hearts and putting the Ottoman army to flight.

The death toll among the Turks was 10,000, while 5,000 were wounded. The Holy League forces lost between 3,500 and 4,500 men. Although most of the Ottoman army managed to escape, they lost all the guns used in the Vienna siege and all their supply stocks.

Engaging nearly 20,000 mounted belligerents, the battle came down as the largest known cavalry charge in history and one, arguably, that inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s depiction of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings, as British Historian Dan Snow argues. The defenders held out in the Hornburg fortress until dawn, when Théoden and Aragorn led a cavalry charge that drove the Orcs from the fortress.

Today in 1683 was the mighty climax of siege of Vienna, one of the largest cavalry charges in history smashed the Ottoman besiegers. 18,000 men and horses, led by Polish king Jan Sobieski and his 'Angels of Death' galloped down the hills. Surely inspiring Tolkein's Helm's Deep…

— Dan Snow (@thehistoryguy) September 11, 2022

Not only did the glorious victory stop the Ottoman army in its tracks but it also put an end to Ottoman expansion into Europe once and for all. For his failure, the Turkish chief commander, Kara Mustafa, was decapitated at the behest of Sultan Mehmed IV.

Apart from glory, repute and battle-hardness, the victory brought Poland few gains. In less than 100 years, the country, engulfed in squabbles and political games between various factions of its nobility, its army disorganised, entered into a long period of partitions by the neighbouring powers.

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