Archive for June, 2009

Arms and the Men: There are many reasons why the Turks didn’t take Vienna.

Monday, June 29th, 2009

The Enemy at the Gate
Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
by Andrew Wheatcroft
Basic, 384 pp., $27.50
The heart may sink a bit reading the Introduction to The Enemy at the Gate: “This book is first of all about Europe’s fear of the Turks and then, by the end, about fear itself.”

This book “is not a straightforward history” (italics Andrew Wheatcroft’s) but it soon becomes evident that the trendy posturing is skin-deep. Wheatcroft has, thankfully, not lived up to his promise to write about “fear itself.” His fourth book is primarily a military history of the clashes between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires in the 17th century, the fruit of more than 20 years researching the field. If anything, it is old-fashioned in its emphasis on day-to-day battlefield action, with little about the economic life of the two empires or behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.

Some of the most suggestive material here is on military organization, equipment, and tactics. Wheatcroft tracks the burgeoning use of grenades (named for their resemblance to pomegranates and giving their name to a new military branch, the grenadiers) and the bayonet, a new weapon particularly useful in defending against Ottoman cavalry. The Europeans who besieged Buda in the 1680s brought “wicker gabions to be filled with earth in front of the Ottoman lines”–ancestors of today’s Hescos.

It was by no means clear when the Turks besieged Vienna in 1683 that they fielded the less advanced army. Turkish flintlock muskets were more accurate than European matchlocks. The Turkish Janissary was “astonishingly versatile” as well, master of many weapons. But Janissaries had “no uniformity of equipment nor did they march in step like Western soldiers.”