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The Enemy at the Gate

On Wednesday 8 September Vienna celebrated the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Emperor Leopold’s grandfather, Ferdinand II, had declared that Mary, the Mother of God, was the generalissima sacralewho commanded the Habsburg armies in their struggles against heretic Protestants and infidel Turks alike. In the cathedral and throughout the city, the day was celebrated with special fervour, and priests, served by altar boys and thurifers, brought the Host to the men on the walls. At the masses held through the day, soldiers and civilians alike prayed for their supreme commander and patroness to save them in this, their hour of desperate need. There was a hint that a miracle might indeed unfold before their eyes. The nightly procession to St Stephen’s, to launch the signal rockets from the roof, had become a vain ritual, but on the night of 8 September there was the long-hoped-for response. As the rockets soared into the sky, flared and died away, the little party prepared to descend the narrow stairway into the cathedral. Then they noticed, high on the Kahlenberg Hill to the west of the city, ‘five rockets as a signal that our expected succours were at hand . . . answered by us in the same manner’.

But on the following day, from the walls they saw only the Grand Vizier massing his men far back out of cannon shot. It was clear that there was intense activity all along the battlefront, signs of renewed Turkish mining, men moving into the trenches.

For the Grand Vizier, taking Vienna was like opening a walnut, that familiar staple of Ottoman cuisine. Crack the walnut’s hard and impenetrable shell at the right point and the soft kernel would be exposed. The point of fracture, all accepted (even the defenders), would be the zone by Leopold’s palace. Kara Mustafa pitched his palatial tent before this flank, looking down on the city. Further forward, in the still-smouldering ruins of the suburbs, which Starhemberg had torched only two days before the Turks arrived, he ordered that an elaborate and luxurious palanka-like structure should be built as his forward command post only some 450 yards from Vienna’s palisade, well within cannon shot. This was a more luxurious version of the traditional Ottoman wooden-walled fortification. Evliya described these as ‘wooden walls filled with mortar’ and Luigi Marsigli drew its likeness precisely. Two solid lines of stout poles were hammered into the ground with a gap of at least two feet between each line. That gap was filled with compacted earth, and the structure strengthened with wooden ties and braces. Covered with canvas outside and silk inside, the solidity of the structure would have been completely hidden. It would withstand a fire from small arms, and even a direct hit from a heavy cannonball. From here Kara Mustafa would watch the advance of the Ottoman trenches

and, from a distance, command the repeated assaults.