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May 23, 2024

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Time Now


Poland’s Early Kings – Part 9

A series focusing on the Poland of old, when warring tribes were common and kings were really tested by the mettle in their swords, the strength in their words, the philosophy of their politics, and the honor in their hearts…..



  After repulsing the invasion by Sweden and her allies and after the long drawn out war with Russia, Poland experienced a series of internal upheavals: a revolt by troops demanding backpay, civil war provoked by Jerzy Lubomirski, a pro-Habsburg magnate, and extreme financial difficulties. John Casimir abdicated in 1668. During the interregnum, foreign powers gained influence in Polish internal affairs. After a stormy election, Michael Wisniowiecki, supported by the Court of Vienna, was proclaimed king. Election of a Habsburg-supported candidate ignited the already tense situation with Turkey, hostile to the Habsburgs’ Austria.

  Louis XIV, who established the absolute monarchy in France, reigned from 1643 to 1715. Under his rule, France became the leading power in Europe.

  In 1672, Turkey sent a huge army against Poland, supported by large Tartar contingents from the Crimean Khan, vassal of the Sultan. The Turks captured the fortress of Kamieniec Podolski, one of the strongest points in the system of defense along the southern border. In October 1672, Poland and Turkey signed a peace at Buczacz, through which Podolia and part of the Ukraine came under Turkish sovereignty.

  Only after two successive sessions of the Seym were broken off in one year and Poland stood at the brink of civil war between the court party and the troops of the Grand Hetman John Sobieski, did the country suddenly awake from its lethargy, mobilize its strength and defeat the Turks at the Battle of Chocim in 1673. Shortly after, King Michael died, and John Sobieski, victor of Chocim, was elected his successor.

  The Turkish commander, Husein Pacha, at the head of an army of 35,000 men, had shut himself up in a fortified camp at Chocim. Sobieski’s force was much smaller and many of his men had never seen action before. It was at the head of his army that Sobieski captured the fortress in one assault and smashed Husein’s army. His tactics proved most successful: he selected exactly the right moment for the attack — at dawn on a cold November morning, when the Turkish troops, exhausted by an artillery bombardment which had kept them on alert all night, were unable to withstand the charge. The Turkish camp was taken; enormous booty fell into the victor’s hands.

  John Sobieski was born in 1624. He was the eldest son of Jakub, Castellan of Cracow, and, though his grandmother, great grandson of Grand Hetman Zolkiewski. After completing his university studies in Cracow, he set out in 1646 on a two-year tour of Europe. In 1654, he spent two months in Constantinople. After his return to Poland in 1648, he was given command of a regiment and took part in all the major campaigns as a colonel. In 1656, he became the Ensign Bearer of the Crown. He was elected deputy to the Seym and took part in several sessions. In 1665, he became Grand Marshal of the Crown and in 1666, after Czarniecki’s death, Field Hetman. Two years later, he became Grand Hetman of the Crown. Before his victory at Chocim, he had already won renown for his brilliant defense of a fortified camp at Podhajce against an overwhelming Tartar and Cossack forces in 1667.

  In 1676, King John III brilliantly defended the fortified camp at Zorawno against a combined Turkish and Tartar army. Though the Turks had not withdrawn from Podolia and part of the Ukraine, the king concluded a peace treaty with them to be able to resume operations against the Elector of Brandenburg and to conquer Ducal Prussia. Unfortunately his’ plans for the conquest of Prussia with the help of France and the recovery of Silesia came to nothing, because of opposition from some of the magnates who wanted war with Turkey, to win back their estates in Podolia and the Ukraine.

  In the meantime, Turkey was preparing for the conquest of Hungary, and had fomented a rebellion against Habsburg rule in that country. In view of this direct threat to Austria, the Emperor Leopold I asked for Polish assistance. A treaty of alliance was signed between Poland and Austria on April 1, 1683.

  When a huge Turkish army under the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa besieged Vienna in the summer of that year, Poland hastened to Austria’s assistance, in fulfillment of her treaty obligations.

  The Polish army set out from Cracow in two columns. The right-wing column under Grand Hetman Stanislaw Jablonowski marched through Tarnowskie Gory, Bliwice, Raciborz and Opawa, while the left-wing column under Field Hetman Mikolaj Sieniawski proceeded through Bielski and Cieszyn to Olomouc, where the two columns reunited and crossed the Danube together at Tulln, where the allied armies: Polish, Austrian, and German, met. The marching speed of the Polish army over such a great distance had amazed even the most experienced imperial commanders. The Turks believed the rumors that a Polish army was advancing to the relief of Vienna only when they saw the dread Polish winged hussars charging down upon them. Impeded by the vast train of 8,000 wagons with food supplies for a six-month campaign, the Polish army had covered an average distance of 26 kilometers a day. John III took command of the combined Polish, Austrian and German army of roughly 74,000 men.

  Before reaching the outskirts of Vienna, the army had to cross the Danube over pontoon bridges and get the artillery through the Vienna Woods, a thickly wooded mountainous country cut by streams and ravines. Polish peasants found a method for carrying the cannon across the heights and woods. Concentrated fire from their cannon enabled the infantry to capture the first line of Turkish defences and to clear the field for the winged hussars, whose charge carried everything before them. The entire Turkish army seized with panic turned tail and fled.

  “I captured all the enemy cannon and their camp with an incredible wealth of booty. The Vizier fled from the battle field with only the clothes he stood in . . . leaving behind vast treasure, most of which I deemed fit to keep for ourselves… The booty captured at Chocim was absolutely nothing compared to this. So, my dear, you will not have to welcome me in the words Tartar women welcome their menfolk returning empty handed from battle: ‘what soldier are you to return without spoils from war, only men in the forefront capture the booty’….The enemy covered the field with dead, turned tail and fled in great confusion.”

  These are extracts from the letter John III wrote to his Queen, from the tents of the Vizier immediately after the battle.