(An Excerpt by Rik Suligowski-Fox)


“Great Men and Women of Poland”

Stephen P. Mizwa-Editor

1967, Kosciuszko Foundation NY, NY


The Lead-up to Vienna…

     “…At the siege of Vienna, September 12, 1683, Sobieski not only saved the city, but so decisively crushed the Ottoman forces that he was hailed as ‘The Defender of Christendom’, while the Turk never again regained sufficient power to menace Western Civilization (…) Even Louis XIV, relentless enemy of the House of Hapsburg, and friend to the Turk, who had done everything in his power to prevent the Christian victory, was temporarily overshadowed by the King of Poland and made haste to congratulate him upon his success. Humbler folks compared Jan Sobieski with Charles Martel and the siege of Vienna to the Battle of Tours in 732 (…)

     In foreign policy, Sobieski sided with Louis XIV in the Hapsburg-Bourbon Wars, but in March 17683, definitely broke with France and signed an offensive-defensive alliance with Emperor Leopold of Austria, directed against the Turk (…) To be sure, even in our own day certain writers, influenced by political considerations, have attempted to minimize the achievements of Sobieski as did the Emperor Leopold of Austria, to lessen the debt to Poland (…)

     It is not surprising that after this series of remarkable victories in the field, Jan Sobieski was elected King of Poland upon the death of King Michael in 1674. He was the one man who could save Poland from disaster in this crisis. Without waiting for the coronation ceremonies, he returned to the battle line, checked the advance of the Turkish invaders, and forced upon the Sultan, the Treaty of Zorawno, in 1676, wiping out the disgraceful Treaty of Buczacz signed by his predecessor.

     No one has ever seriously questioned the military genius of King Jan, but there has been criticism of his ability as a statesman. It is alleged that he was too honest, trusting, and religious a nature to achieve any measure of success in international diplomacy and there is some truth in this charge. Machiavellian diplomacy was not his strong point. He believed in a united Christendom as a possibility and placed great faith in the sanctity of treaties which he carried out to the letter despite the perfidy of his so-called allies, Austria, Russia, and Brandenburg. Yet his policies show statesmanship of a high order.

     In domestic affairs Sobieski clearly saw the need for reforming the Polish Constitution, tried to strengthen the monarchy by making it hereditary, and made every effort to establish a regular army that would be adequate for the defense of the state. However, none of these objectives was attained because of suspicion and opposition of the szlachta and the interference of neighboring states which desired a weak Poland.

     In foreign policy he co-operated with Louis XIV until 1683, maintained peace with the Turks, and with French and Swedish assistance, sought to reconquer East Prussia for Poland. In 1683, however, Sobieski went on the offensive-defensive alliance with the Emperor Leopold, and returned to his favorite project of a Christian League against the Turks.

     In view of the recent attempt of certain German writers to disparage the services of Sobieski and Poland as the siege of Vienna by asserting that Poland had no choice in taking the course which she did, that Sobieski was only in nominal command of the Christian forces while the actual commander was Charles of Lorraine, that the Poles were compensated for their services by the Emperor although they failed to furnish the stipulated number of soldiers, that the Polish army was slow in arriving in Vienna, and finally, that the heaviest fighting fell to the German forces, it might be well to consider the facts in some detail…


     The treaty of alliance between Poland and Austria signed on March 31, 1683, provided for a joint war against the Turk. The Emperor agreed to recruit an army of 60,000 men, while Poland was to furnish 40,000. If the Sultan should besiege Krakow in Poland or Vienna in Austria, the allies were to come to each others’ aid with all their available forces, not including, of course, soldiers performing garrison duty or engaged in attending secondary objectives.

     It is noted that Sobieski signed this alliance with full knowledge that Poland was not directly threatened, for it was common knowledge that the army of four hundred thousand Turks was preparing to march on Vienna and not against Krakow.

His action in coming to the aid of Leopold was therefore, a generous deed of Christian chivalry. Even if Vienna had fallen, it is certainly conceivable that Poland might have defended herself successfully, as she had done again and again in the past.

     To say that the Emperor had reimbursed Poland for her services verges on the ludicrous. Leopold promised a subsidy of 200,000 Thalers or 1,200,000 zlotys, which he paid in June, but the Polish diet voted taxes amounting to 18,000,000 zlotys to cover the expenses of the war.

     For the defense of his own territories Leopold was able to recruit an army of only 40,000 instead of the 60,000 demanded by the terms of the treaty of alliance. The princes of the Empire arrived with 30,000 men, while Poland mobilized an army of 45,000 men of whom 37,000 took an active part in the campaign on the Danube and in Hungary. In addition, Poland sent 20,000 Cossacks into Moldavia. While the Emperor failed to furnish the stipulated quota of soldiers in defense of his own country, Poland put into the field an army far greater than she had promised.

     The great expense entailed by the necessity of tripling the peace-time strength of Poland, prevented recruiting for the army until May, yet in the month of July, the Polish forces already completed their concentration at Lwow according to plan. From Lwow, King Jan intended to move into Moldavia and Hungary when he learned of the imminent danger of Vienna, and issued a new order on July 17, for a new concentration of the army at Krakow. In the first week of August, only three months after recruiting had begun in Poland, concentration of the army was completed, and on August 11, the army started for Vienna. The speed of mobilization of the Polish army broke all records for that age and won commendation of all military men including the German officers!  

     By September 5, 1683, the Polish army reached Stetteldorf on the Danube, a distance of 500 kilometers from Krakow. To accomplish this record-breaking maneuver, Sobieski marched his men at the average rate of 20 kilometers per day, an unheard of speed for that age!

     Since Leopold had requested that a part of the Polish forces, namely, the Lithuanian contingent * of 10,000 men be sent directly into Hungary, only 25,000 soldiers of the regular army, exclusive of volunteers, arrived at Vienna, where they joined the Christian host consisting of, from 18,000 to 20,000 Imperial troops and from 27,000 to 30,000 men sent by the princes of the Empire. Thus the Christian forces totaled about 70,000 to 75,000 men.


     The question of leadership was settled by the treaty of Alliance of March 31, 1683, which stated that in the event of a union of all the armies, that sovereign should be in supreme command who was present with his respective army. ** When Leopold called upon King Jan personally to lead his army before Vienna, he, by that very act, placed command in the hands of the polish king. Besides, the reputation of Sobieski as a military leader in conquering the Turks was well known and no one doubted that he was to be in command. Charles of Lorraine, the Imperial General, in his correspondence with Sobieski, always assumed that he was writing to his superior officer. For instance, in a letter dated August 21, 1683, he addressed Sobieski in these terms, “Deo auspice, Vestra Maie-state duce.”

     Nor can it be said that this leadership was merely honorary or formal, for Sobieski made all his military decisions regarding the plan of battle. He decided the point at which the Danube was crossed, determined on the direction of attack, personally reconnoitered the terrain on which the fighting was to take place, determined the disposition of the troops, and finally made changes in the plan of attack when he discovered that he had been badly informed regarding the nature of the terrain before the walls of Vienna. *** (all this while Leopold taking his court, retreated away from the battle, essentially leaving Vienna to fend for itself without his leadership, which could be construed as an act of cowardice).

     Since the Poles were veteran soldiers with considerable experience in fighting the Turks they were ordered to advance over the most difficult terrain and encountered the heaviest fighting. Under the personal command of Sobieski, the Polish Hussars descended the neighboring hills and charged the main mass of the Turkish army in the camp of the Vizier. Driving the enemy before them, they pushed on past the city to the bridgeheads of the Wien River, which were most strongly defended. Prince John of Anhalt, the envoy of the Elector of Brandenburg, who was with the German armies during the attack, without qualification, reported to his master that the charge of the Polish Hussars decided the battle.

     A vivid account of the victory was sent to Queen “Marysienka”, by Sobieski himself in a letter dated September 13, and headed, “In the tents of the Vizier.” “God be forever blessed! He has given our nation victory; He has given it such a triumph as no past centuries ever saw. All artillery, the whole Moslem camp, all its uncountable riches have fallen into our hands. The approaches to the town, neighboring fields, are covered with the infidel dead, and the remainder is in flight, and stricken with panic…”

     In 1684, Sobieski joined the Christian League against the Turks and to the end of his reign continued the struggle with the infidel. His campaigns in Moldavia, though less successful than his earlier triumphs, enabled Austria ands Russia to reap the fruits of his work in the later Treaty of Carlovitz (1699).

     The greatness of Sobieski consisted in his ability to arouse, revitalize, and lead the Polish nation on to further triumphs at a time when the people were demoralized and exhausted by the twenty years of continual warfare (1648-67) of the period known as “The Deluge.” His successors on the throne down to the Partitions of the eighteenth century failed to check the decline of the Polish state and did not preserve if from destruction. In the gloomy years that followed the Partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the achievements of Sobieski brought hope and encouragement to a nation struggling against desperate odds to achieve its independence.”


* Due to internal political disagreements in policy, it is well-known, that the Lithuanian Hetman did not want to participate in this battle, and purposely delayed his forces from arriving at Krakow at the agreed time. 


** Although it is known in various documentation, that Sobieski insisted that if he were to come to the aid of Vienna, he was to be supreme commander, without question.


*** It has been speculated and generally accepted, that the Poles were given incorrect cartography information in order to purposely delay their arrival time, (taking them through a thick forest), in hopes of presenting them from partaking in the rich spoils of the Turks, which, after the fact, did, in fact, infuriate some of the victors and especially Leopold, looking to rebuild his city. It is well documented that upon his shameful return to claim the victory as his, Leopold diplomatically condescended to Sobieski and his son Jakub, who, according to Sobieski’s wishes, was to be introduced to Leopold’s daughter for prospective marriage between both Royal houses. Sobieski had now diplomatically but unintentionally burned both French and Austrian bridges…The French, by partaking in the battle against their wishes of trade alliance with the Turks, and the Austrian, by consuming most of the rich spoils and glory of the battle, further embarrassing Leopold causing his further loss of face.