Battle of Mezokeresztes 1596 – Long Turkish War

Battle of Mezokeresztes 1596 – Long Turkish War. In previous centuries, Ottoman military dominance was almost unchallenged, but by 1594, the performance of their armies was flagging. This can be attributed to the fact that the basic command structure and military doctrine of the Ottoman Empire had remained largely unaltered for over 200 years.

The army was divided first between the Timarli provincial forces, raised by feudal Sipahi lords in Anatolia and the  Balkans, and the Kapikulu – a blanket term for the salaried standing army directly serving the  Sultan, of which the Janissaries were the most famous contingent, but which also included elite cavalry units that would traditionally make up the Ottoman rearguard and reserve during battle.

Ottoman Military Leadership

These two larger groups, representing both military and political divisions, had made up the professional core of the Ottoman military machine since the end of the 14th Century. And though firearms had taken a more and more central role in European warfare, Ottoman tactics had not changed fundamentally during this period either – the Kapikulu took the center, while Sipahi cavalry, notoriously reticent to adopt gunpowder technology, operated on either flank, disrupting enemy formations and drawing out enemy cavalry for engagement. 

Though these tactics could be quite effective,  their continued usage betrayed a tactical inflexibility and a slowness to adapt that plagued much of Ottoman military leadership. This can also be seen in Sinan Pasha’s failure to change battle plans after the defeat at Calugareni demonstrated general Ottoman ineffectiveness against experienced enemy commanders now well familiar with their tactics.

Battle of Mezokeresztes

To compound matters, the weakening power of the Sultan and central government during this period gave various factions within the military undue political sway, making major changes to these entrenched power structures a difficult proposition even if the largely disinterested Mehmet III made serious efforts to address them. The situation in the Ottoman realm proved a stark contrast to that of their main geopolitical rivals.

By the end of the 16th century, the Holy Roman Empire had a rapidly growing population, which coupled with rising food prices brought on by the Little Ice Age had spurred thousands to take on military service as a means of subsistence, narrowing the gap in manpower advantages the Ottomans had enjoyed in past campaigns. Years of warfare in the Netherlands had also provided a new generation of officers, giving a further edge to the Habsburgs despite the lack of a proper standing army. 

Sinan Pasha’s Army

Taken together, these various factors left the Ottoman army far more vulnerable than its size and discipline would suggest, a vulnerability that would be on full display in the months following the Battle of Calugareni. Despite Michael the Brave’s impressive victory over Sinan Pasha’s larger army, September of 1595 would see the Ottomans largely unopposed in their advance into Wallachia. The city of Giurgiu, situated on the Danube River dividing Ottoman Bulgaria from Wallachia, was the first major target to fall.

But with  Michael, the Brave having withdrawn his diminished army to its winter camp, Sinan Pasha’s army quickly captured both Bucharest and the Wallachian capital of Targoviste, neither of which boasted the modern Italian-style fortifications that had stymied Ottoman advances so effectively in Austria and Royal Hungary. On other fronts, however, momentum was very much on the side of the Imperials.

Battle of Calugareni

On September 2, after a two-month siege and two failed Ottoman relief attempts, a Holy  Roman army under the command of Karl Mansfeld captured the strategically vital Hungarian fortress of Esztergom from a sizable Ottoman garrison. The Transylvanian forces of Sigismund  Bathory, meanwhile, had split into two. 

One army under the command of Gyorgy Borbely marched West into the still Ottoman-dominated region of Banat, winning several victories against Ottoman forces under Suleyman Pasha – two forts had fallen into Transylvanian hands already before the Battle of Calugareni,   and while Suleyman Pasha’s staunchly defended base of Temesvar – today’s Timisoara and was able to beat back any attempts at a siege, Borbely had won effective control of Banat by mid-October.  

Long Turkish War

The larger portion of the Transylvanian army,  under the joint command of Bathory and Stephen   Bocskai – Bathory’s trusted general and future enemy, a man who would play a significant role in the coming struggle for Romania – had a far greater challenge awaiting them, as they marched East to join forces with Michael the Brave. The Transylvanians arrived on September 6 to find Michael all but trapped in his winter camp of Stoeneşti, located to the northwest of Targoviste in a mountain pass through the Southern Carpathian Mountains.

The bulk of the Ottoman army had pursued them to their camp following Targoviste’s capture but had settled into a long standoff with the smaller Wallachian army rather than assaulting the camp. There are several possible reasons for this – the defeat at Calugareni had hurt Ottoman morale and may have created a reluctance to press the assault if battle could be avoided. It is also worth mentioning that Michael the  Brave had been an Ottoman vassal until the outbreak of the Long War.

The Hungarian’s

Negotiating from a position of strength as he was, it is possible Sinan Pasha hoped to compel Michael to end his rebellion and rejoin the Ottoman side, and avoid a bloody battle against a  prince his empire had invested heavily in. Whatever the reason may have been, Michael the Brave’s army remained largely intact when   Sigismund arrived. The Transylvanian Prince had brought a fairly small army of regulars – some   7,500 cavalries, with Moldavian voivode Stefan  Razvan, fielding a similar number.

But was bolstered by bands of Serb brigands known as  Hajduks, well-used to fighting against the   Ottomans from years of peacetime raids. But the most important move Sigismund made in his bid to gather support against the Ottomans would be one that would haunt him in later years. The Szekely, a Hungarian ethnic group native to Transylvania, were agitating for autonomy after having been forced into serfdom 25 years earlier. 

Ottoman Empire

Without the backing of the Transylvanian nobles, the young prince promised huge concessions in exchange for Szekely’s aid on the battlefield. These unexpected alliances allowed Sigismund to mobilize an army of as many as 40,000, reinforcing Michael and taking Sinan Pasha off-guard,  forcing the Ottomans to withdraw to Bucharest. Recapturing Targoviste on the way with little difficulty on October 18, the allied armies dislodged the invaders from Bucharest as well after a short skirmish.

On October 22nd, before falling on them in force on October 25th Giurgiu Sinan Pasha attempted to cross the Danube back into friendlier territory.  In the Battle of Giurgiu, the most decisive engagement between the Ottomans and the allied princes of Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia, the disastrous consequences of Sinan Pasha and the Ottoman officer corps’ outdated tactics came to bear. Marching his army across a small bridge.

Transylvanian Wallachian Army

Sinan left a rearguard of akin light cavalry behind to protect the crossing soldiers from their pursuers. But while these fast-moving provincial horsemen could be effective flankers and raiders, and might have even made a fine rearguard a  hundred years prior, their lack of firearms left them helpless when they found themselves suddenly under heavy fire from the muskets and cannons of the Transylvanian Wallachian army.

With their mobility and initiative limited by their rearguard duty, and with no way to return fire, the akin soon routed, stampeding onto the bridge in their attempt to flee until Wallachian cannon fire and the weight of the retreating soldiers brought the bridge collapsing into the Danube. The rearguard perished nearly in its entirety, with Sinan Pasha’s blunder causing the deaths of over 5,000  troops in a disastrously one-sided engagement. 

The Battle of Giurgiu

The Battle of Giurgiu would mark the end of the  Ottoman invasion into Wallachia, but not of the conflict in the region – the victorious alliance of Stefan Ravzan, Sigismund Bathory, Michael the Brave, and Steven Bocskai would not last long, with a Polish-Lithuanian invasion in December defeating a Transylvanian force and deposing  Ravzan, while the clash between Michael’s dream of an independent Romania and Sigismund’s loyalty to the Holy Roman Empire would soon bring the two princes to blows.

The Long War would continue in Hungary, where the  Imperial and Ottoman armies continued to clash.   Koca Sinan Pasha, disgraced by his string of defeats, was removed from his position as Grand Vizier in the aftermath of Giurgiu – and though his successor, Lala Mehmed Pasha, would die unexpectedly after a record short term of three days and thus allow Sinan to return briefly to power, Sinan Pasha would lead no more armies in the months before his death in April of 1596. 

The Holy Roman Empire

In his place, the leadership of the army passed to none other than Sultan Mehmed III, who despite his apparent disinterest in rulership and military matters was convinced to ride out to lead the troops as Sultans of the past once had and restore the army’s flagging morale. In an odd form of symmetry on the Austrian side, the talented general Karl Mansfeld who had led the Imperial armies for the early stages of the war had also perished, of wounds received during the successful storming of Esztergom.

Thus,  when the Ottoman and Imperial armies next met,   it would be a clash of royals, with  Emperor Rudolf II’s younger brother Archduke Maximillian III leading the Imperial army into battle against Sultan Mehmed. The campaign season of 1596 would be a bloody and decisive one. Despite numerous sieges and skirmishes, the balance of power in Hungary had not greatly changed over the previous years,   and the main armies of the two belligerents were yet to meet in a full-field battle.  

History of Sultan Mehmed III

But on September 3, Maximilian’s army stormed into the Ottoman-held fortress of Hatvar, putting all its Turkish inhabitants to the sword,  non-combatants included. Enraged by this massacre, Mehmed laid siege to nearby Eger on September 21, repaying Maximillian’s brutality with a similar slaughter when it fell on October 13th. Maximilian arrived too late to relieve the fortress’ defenders, who were slain to a man  – but taking off in pursuit of the Ottomans.

He caught up to Mehmed’s army on October 22  a short distance to the southeast of Eger,   near the small village of Mezőkeresztes. The two armies were very nearly evenly matched in size, with most estimates placing both forces at nearly 100,000 strong once Sigismund Bathory’s supporting troops were factored into the Imperial side. Despite the slight edge in numbers, the Ottomans enjoyed, however, several problems were becoming obvious even before the first shots of the battle were fired.

Mezokeresztes 1596

After three years of profitless and inconclusive warfare, many of the feudal Timar holders the Ottoman army drew the bulk of their forces from had deserted back to their lands to protect them from the ravages of war, or simply failed to arrive for the Battle of Mezokeresztes – even  Mehmed III doubted the wisdom of meeting Bathory’s and Maximilian’s combined armies, having favored a retreat to Constantinople with only significant pressure from his generals and viziers convincing him to make a reluctant stand. 

Initial skirmishes on October 22nd and 25th  would favor the Christians, with their greater infantry firepower beating back several forays by Ottoman feudal cavalry. The common Ottoman cavalry tactic of feigning retreat to lead foes into the punishing fire of heavy Turkish cannons was by now quite familiar to Bathory and other more experienced commanders on the Imperial side, and the disorganized and increasingly obsolete sipahi and akinci units failed to inflict serious damage in the initial days of battle.

The Ottoman Battle

When the main battle began on October 26th, the entrenched Austrian artillery significantly outperformed their Ottoman counterparts, creating havoc among Janissaries and musket-armed Tufenki levies already outmatched by the Austrian pike-and-shot formations. Midway through the day, the Ottoman infantry began to rout, leaving the Ottoman camp and Mehmed himself exposed to Imperial units breaking through their beleaguered lines.

Despite Maximillian’s inexperience and lack of talent as a commander, victory seemed all but assured.  Just as the over-eagerness of Sinan Pasha’s  Janissaries had robbed the Ottomans of victory at   Calugareni, however, overconfidence would be the undoing of the Christian forces at Mezokeresztes.   Lacking Karl Mansfeld’s experience and popularity as a military leader, Maximilian had failed to instill the same level of discipline in his troops as his predecessor.

The Ottoman camp

It is perhaps for this reason that the Imperial soldiers, having fought through the Ottoman lines, chose to fall on the Ottoman camp to begin looting rather than continuing forward to neutralize the still-deadly Ottoman artillery. With the discovery of the Ottoman pay chests, formations and discipline broke, with individual soldiers carrying off what plunder they could lay their hands on rather than pursuing their retreating foes or moving to flank those still fighting.

With the foremost Imperial units crippled by greed and disorganization, it would take only the barest hint of resistance to turn the tides – and that counterattack would come from a most unexpected direction.  Despite his general reluctance as a leader and desire to abandon the battle and join his fleeing soldiers, the timid Mehmed III was finally inspired by the advice of his favored advisor and teacher, the renowned religious scholar Hoca Saad ad-Din, to make a stand and continue the apparently-lost battle to its bitter conclusion. 

Mehmed’s Army

When the first of the looters reached his tent,   they found themselves facing unexpected resistance from not only Mehmed’s personal Janissary guard but by the numerous non-combatants that served in the Ottoman camp and supply trains – cooks, grooms, and servants, taking up what arms they could find and falling on the disorganized Imperial troops in bloody exchanges of point-blank musket fire and close-quarters combat.

Taken off-guard and disoriented, the flight of these looters caused confusion and panic to set into the units behind, while bolstering the morale of the wavering Ottomans. With their superior firepower and the shattered Ottoman frontline, the allied Christian forces could likely have still won a  decisive victory if a more coordinated push on the Ottoman camp and artillery had been made.  

Varna and Mohacs

But with their momentum lost, the confused  Imperial forces in the center found themselves bogged down and leaderless directly in the teeth of the Ottoman guns. As the devastating artillery volleys began anew and the last of the Ottoman infantry surged forward, the confusion turned into a full rout, with the Ottoman cavalry that had just hours past been deserting or ineffectually charging impregnable pike-and-shot squares now chasing the defeated Imperials from the field. 

The Battle of Mezokeresztes would be the largest engagement in the Long War and an unexpected but pivotal Ottoman victory. More than 30,000  soldiers from the Austrian and Transylvanian armies had fallen in battle, deserted, or been taken prisoner, with Ottoman historians comparing the battle to such great victories of the past as  Varna and Mohacs. But where Mohacs had left a   whole country ripe for Suleiman to conquer.

The Victory at Mezokeresztes

The victory at Mezokeresztes would be comparatively empty despite the grand celebrations it inspired in Constantinople. While the Ottomans had been ultimately victorious, their losses had been nearly as bad as those of their defeated foes, and the battle had convincingly demonstrated the growing inferiority of Ottoman armies and tactics. Some much-needed reform did come about as a result of the battle, with feudal lords who had failed to arrive on the battlefield being stripped of their titles and lands.  

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However, no great conquests would follow the victory at Mezokeresztes, and Mehmed III would soon retire back to the luxuries of the palace – the last Ottoman Sultan to personally command an army during a major battle. While the war would continue for a full ten years after this decisive confrontation, pressing issues of rebellion and the failure of so many feudal  Sipahi to honor the call to arms would preclude the Ottomans from committing another large army to the Hungarian front.

The Great Siege

While a financial crisis and looming bankruptcy similarly crippled the  Imperial war effort. The later stages of the war, like its beginning, would consist largely of indecisive siege operations, with the two sides only agreeing to peace in 1606 long after the war had resolved itself into an intractable stalemate. The Treaty of Zsitvatorok, which laid down the terms of the peace, would nevertheless contain a small victory for the Holy Roman Empire.

While the status quo of the last decades had very much placed the Ottomans in the dominant position, with the Holy Roman Empire paying yearly tribute to the Sultan and with pa treaties framing the Emperor as lesser in status, the Treaty of Zsitvatorok placed the Emperor on equal standing, with the yearly tributes ended an with the Turkish text formally addressing Rudolf II with the title of Padishah, equal to that of   Mehmed III.

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