The war between the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire for control of south, central and eastern Europe was decisive in shaping the continent’s history. After centuries of the Muslim Ottomans pushing further and further west into Christian territory, this massive but little-known conflict, which took place between 1673 and 1699, turned the pendulum back the other way and paved the way for Hapsburg domination of the region.
The decisive battle of the war took place at Zenta, in modern-day Serbia, where an Ottoman force was ruthlessly crushed by the brilliant leadership of Prince Eugene of Savoy.
The Ottomans suffered a setback at Vienna
The high water mark of Ottoman expansion came at the Hapsburg capital of Vienna in 1683. Since the Sultan’s armies had overrun the remains of the Roman Empire two centuries earlier, they had mercilessly pressed into Christian Europe until they reached modern Austria.
There they suffered stunning defeat at the hands of the besieged Hapsburg forces and their Polish allies, and were forced to withdraw to the east. From then on they were pushed back, losing Belgrade and great swathes of the eastern European plain throughout the 1680s.
Many historians therefore credit Vienna as being a decisive history-changing turning point which forever stalled the steady advance of Islam into Europe, but that is an oversimplification.
But they soon came back with a vengeance
In 1689 the Hapsburg-lead Holy Roman Empire was dragged into a long and bitter conflict with France, just as the Ottoman armies were successfully re-organized and re-grouped by the new Grand Vizier Köprülüzade Pasha.
The results of these new developments were almost instantaneous, as Belgrade was re-captured in 1690 as part of a renewed push west. After that the 1690s were years of Ottoman ascendancy, with Sultan Mehmed’s forces winning important victories in Romania Serbia and Hungary to push the overstretched Hapsburgs back.
Exhausted, fighting a war on two-fronts and dangerously short on money, the situation in Vienna was beginning to look bleak once again.
The man who was to ultimately prove to be their saviour came from Savoy, a Franco-Italian state on the other side of Europe, and only a scandal at court in his youth prevented him from fighting against the Holy Roman Empire.
Prince Eugene’s mother had been implicated in a scandalous accusation of poisoning at the French court, leading to her expulsion from the country, and her son holding enough of a grudge to enter the service of France’s sworn enemy the Hapsburgs.
First seeing action as an ungainly twenty year-old at Vienna, he rose through the ranks of the Imperial armies astonishingly quickly, and in July 1697 he was trusted with the main army in the east, which was gathered to resist the Ottomans on the recently conquered Pannonian plain in modern Hungary.
Sultan Mustafa II, meanwhile, left Istanbul in June, ready to begin his third campaign of expansion into eastern Europe. He was accompanied by as many as 100,000 men, and his military commander, the Grand Vizier Elmas Pasha, whose name – meaning “diamond” came from his famous good looks.
Preparing for war
Eugene, meanwhile, had his work cut out as soon as he took command of the eastern army. Of its nominal strength of 70,000, only 35,000 were fit for military service, and a lack of funds meant that he had trouble paying them or supplying them with the most basic medical necessities.
The prince was forced to borrow the necessary money, and hope that in victory he would have the means to pay it back. The time for caution was over.
As soon as the Hapsburg army was in something resembling fighting shape, news arrived that Mustafa had reached Belgrade, and Eugene knew that the blow had to be struck now. Gathering all the available forces in the region, he marched to give battle with 50,000 men: a polyglot mix of infantry and cavalry, Germans Hungarians Austrians and Serbs.
The summer was a frustrating one, as all the Prince’s attempts to bring Mustafa into a pitched battle failed, with the Ottoman Sultan wishing to back his superior numbers and treasury in a siege. Only in September, when the Ottomans pushed north to take Szeged, the largest city of the Pannonian plain, did Mustafa present Eugene with an opportunity, and his army followed.
When General Cafer Pasha was captured in a skirmish and revealed his strategic plans, however, Mustafa’s resolve failed him, and he began to lead his large and ungainly army back south to their winter quarters in Timișoara, Romania. This took them back towards Eugene’s army and gave him his best chance for a crushing victory.
The Battle of Zenta
On 11 September, the Ottoman forces began the slow exhausting business of fording the river Tisza near the city of Zenta, completely unaware that the Imperial forces were closing in on them. They were caught at the worst possible moment, halfway through fording the river and horribly bunched together by the necessity of crossing a narrow ford.
The experienced Austrian artillery caused horrific casualties on the crossing troops, who were unable to respond in any way other than to attempt to swim to safety According to Imperial reports, over 10,000 drowned doing so.
The dismounted Imperial cavalry, meanwhile, began to engage the Ottoman camp on the riverbanks, and with the bridge crossing murderous, the confused and terrified Ottomans were quickly surrounded. The most savage fighting of the day occurred in the trenches around the fortified camp, but eventually Eugene’s jubilant forces broke through and mercilessly slaughtered its inhabitants, and the Prince’s left flank swung round to cut off any hope of retreat across the bridge.
Though Mustafa escaped Elmas was killed, along with 20,000 of his men, to go with 87 heavy guns, the royal treasury and the state seal captured. Eugene would have no trouble paying off his loan, and cemented his reputation as one of Europe’s best commanders.
As victories go, this one was absolutely crushing. The Austrians had lost just 500 men, mostly in the trenches around the camp, and the Ottoman survivors were completely scattered, allowing the Imperial forces to sack Sarajavo and march around Bosnia with impunity.
The “sick man of Europe”
The most important consequence of the battle, however, was that the scale of the defeat forced Mustafa to come to the negotiating table at Karlowitz in 1699, where he was forced to give away huge swathes of central and eastern Europe. This truly marked the end of an era, and the Ottoman Empire never recovered its former glory.
Though it persisted until the end of World War One, it was known as the “sick man of Europe” as its territories, prestige and importance shrank year by year. Today its remnants are confined to its successor state: Turkey.
The Hapsburg empire expanded into Ottoman lands over the following centuries, and remained the dominant power in the region until it was eclipsed by its neighbour Germany after a brief war in 1866. Its cultural and religious legacy over the lands it wrestled from Ottoman rule remains potent to this day.