Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire

Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire

Patrick Lynch - December 19, 2016

The Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman, an Oghuz Turkish tribal leader at the end of the 13th century. The Turks came to Europe in 1354 and created one of the world’s most powerful states in the 15th and 16th centuries. After taking Byzantine territory in Anatolia in the 14th century, the Ottomans finally took the city of Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul.

By 1520, the Ottomans were the clearly the leaders of the Muslim world and under Suleiman ‘the Magnificent,’ they threatened to take over Western Europe. Only stubborn resistance from the Hapsburg emperors prevented Austria from being conquered and by the end of the 16th century, Ottoman leaders focused on defense rather than further expansion. Defeat in Austria towards the end of the 17th century marked the limit of their territorial gains in Western Europe. Further losses in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a period of reform and modernization known as Tanzimat. The Ottoman Empire gradually lost territory in the Balkans throughout the 19th century, and it finally fell in 1922 when it was replaced by the Republic of Turkey. In this article, I will look at six significant battles that shaped the Ottoman Empire before World War I.


Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire
Flickr – Battle of Chaldiran

1: Battle of Chaldiran – 1514

This was a major battle as it ended the influence of the Iranian Safavid dynasty over the Turkmen tribes that were rebelling against the Ottomans. Selim I emerged victorious in a power struggle to become ruler of the Ottomans in 1512 and quickly turned his attention to dealing with the Shia Qizilbash who he believed would turn his people against him in favor of Shah Ismael I, the ruler of the Safavids.

Selim had to deal with discontent within his army, and once he learned that the Safavid leader was at Chaldiran, he moved quickly to deal with his enemy. Selim had an army of up to 100,000 men and was better equipped than his rival who boasted a force of up to 80,000. The battle began with Selim employing heavy artillery and Janissaries (elite Ottoman troops) with gunpowder weapons.

Shah Ismael tried to attack the Ottomans on their flanks to avoid the artillery in the middle. He soon discovered just how maneuverable the enemy artillery was as his army suffered heavy losses. The onrushing Safavids had no chance as they only possessed traditional weaponry. Chaldiran was one of the first field battles in history to be won by gunpowder weapons.

The Safavids suffered losses of over 5,000 troops, and within a couple of weeks, Selim captured the enemy capital of Tabriz. However, his Janissaries showed discontent which prevented him from pressing home his advantage. Although Selim was forced to return home after Chaldiran, the Ottomans did annex Eastern Anatolia, and the Shia uprisings ceased.

Ismael’s confidence was permanently shattered after the defeat; matters weren’t helped by Selim capturing two of his wives and an entire harem! He drowned his sorrows in alcohol and stepped away from matters of state. The defeat persuaded the Persians to incorporate firearms, and they used cannons in future battles.

Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire
Alchetron – Suleiman and Louis II

2: Battle of Mohacs – 1526

While Selim I solidified his sultanate’s supremacy, his son, Suleiman I (the Magnificent), expanded the empire in the East and West during his 46-year reign which began in 1520. During his rule, Ottoman expansion in Europe centered on the Mediterranean and Hungary. The powerful Habsburg dynasty was his main rival in Europe, and his chief ally was France. The first stage of the Habsburg-Ottoman wars took place from 1520 to 1526 with Hungary acting as a buffer between the warring empires.

The long Hungarian resistance against the Ottoman invaders started to crumble in 1521 with the fall of Belgrade in modern day Serbia. This left southern Hungary open to attack. King Louis II of Hungary was a weak ruler, but he tried to find a solution to the problem by marrying Mary of Habsburg in 1522. Suleiman saw this as the formation of a dangerous alliance that had to be destroyed. Louis reportedly refused at least one peace offer from the Ottoman central government. When the Turks took Petervard in July 1526, Louis rushed to assemble an army and met Suleiman at the Battle of Mohacs.

It was a complete disaster for the Hungarians right from the start. First of all, the Hungarian war council foolishly chose an open battlefield with swampy marshes. Then they engaged the enemy without waiting for reinforcements. The Hungarians had no more than 30,000 men against the 100,000 strong army of Suleiman. Instead of attacking the tired enemy as they waded through the marsh, the Hungarians waited until the Ottomans emerged as it would apparently have been ‘unchivalrous’ to attack an unprepared rival.

The Hungarian army was annihilated and lost at least 14,000 men. Louis II was killed as he attempted to flee the battlefield. The Ottomans ransacked Buda and returned home with 100,000 captives; they would return to take the city in 1541. Mohacs marked the end of any hope for Hungarian independence as Suleiman established Ottoman rule in all but the western part of the country. The rest of Hungary was divided among the Principality of Transylvania and the Habsburgs.

Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire
Dariusz caballeros – John III Sobieski

3: Battle of Vienna – 1683

The Ottoman Empire had wanted to take the city of Vienna for a very long time. It was a strategically vital location in their quest to conquer further territory in Western Europe and its first attempt in 1529 was a failure. In August 1682, the Ottomans declared war and were ready to attack Vienna. However, the Ottoman leader, Kara Mustafa Pasha, knew it was too late in the year to launch the assault. It would take three months to reach Vienna, and it would have been the middle of winter when they arrived. The battle didn’t occur for another 15 months and gave the weakened Austrians time to regroup.

The main Ottoman army finally arrived in Vienna in July 1683 and laid siege to the city. The Ottomans faced fierce resistance but successfully cut off all means of food supply into the city. Fatigue was such a problem within the city that any soldier found asleep at their post was to be executed! After two months, the leader of the Vienna garrison, Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg, knew his men were on the verge of defeat. There were fewer than 4,000 healthy troops remaining, and their supply of munitions had almost run out.

Finally, a relief army under the command of John III Sobieski arrived to save the day, and the tired Ottomans were now forced to meet new enemies in the Battle of Vienna. Armies from Baden, Bavaria, Saxony, Swabia and Franconia also arrived to aid the city. By the time of the battle, the Christian coalition forces numbered 90,000 against up to 140,000 Ottomans. The combined Christian armies ultimately ground down their enemies, and after a fight that lasted at least 14 hours, the Turks were forced to retreat. The Holy League alliance eventually forced the Ottomans to agree to peace at the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. The Battle of Vienna is seen as a major turning point in world history as it ended Turkish expansion into Western Europe.

Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire
Voyage Virtuel – Eugene of Savoy

4: Battle of Petrovaradin – 1716

The Ottoman Empire had passed its peak and began to lose territory throughout the next few centuries until its eventual fall. The Austro-Turkish War of 1716-18 was yet another conflict between the Hapsburgs and Ottomans. The Turks sought revenge for the loss at Vienna and the Treaty of Karlowitz and defeated the Russian army of Peter the Great in 1711. The Ottomans retook Morea from the Venetians in 1715, and this prompted the Austrians to threaten their old enemy. The Ottomans refused to back down and declared war in 1716.

Although the Austro-Turkish War lasted for two years, the most decisive battle occurred within the first few months at Petrovaradin in modern day Serbia. Turkish leader, Grand Vizier Damat Ali, gathered a force of 150,000 at Belgrade. Prince Eugene of Savoy was in charge of the Austrian forces, and he chose to meet the enemy at Petrovaradin. The battle took place on August 5, 1716, and the combined Austrian, Serbian, Croatian and Hungarian forces totaled less than 90,000, so they were significantly outnumbered.

Given their numerical disadvantage, Eugene had wisely decided to station his men within the city’s fortress and had a fortified encampment set up there. Three days before the battle, up to 30,000 Janissaries arrived and bombarded the fortress. On the day of the battle, the Austrian forces launched an offensive but were quickly pushed back into the fortress. However, Eugene managed to encircle the Ottomans with cavalry and extra troops and wiped out thousands of the enemy. Eugene quickly seized the initiative and attacked Damat Ali’s encampment.

The Grand Vizier died in the ensuing fight while up to 30,000 Ottomans perished in total. Eugene continued on the offensive after Petrovaradin and captured Timisoara in October 1716. Belgrade was taken in 1717 and in 1718, the Turks signed the Treaty of Passarowitz. It was a clear sign that the Ottoman Empire was on the defensive.

Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire
Wikimedia Commons – Shipka Pass

5: Battles of Shipka Pass – 1877-78

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 ended in defeat for the Ottomans, and it lost a significant amount of territory in Europe. The four Battles of Shipka Pass were crucial to the outcome of the war and took place over a six-month period. The first battle took place in July 1877 and the Russian Army, led by Joseph Gourko, forced an Ottoman garrison of up to 5,000 men to flee Shipka Pass.

The second battle occurred in August 1877 and was arguably the most crucial moment of the four conflicts. The Russian General Stoletov and his garrison of 7,500 men (which consisted of 5,500 Bulgarians) took up defensive positions on the Pass and faced an army of 38,000 Ottomans led by Suleiman Pasha. The defenders held firm for five days until reinforcements came. By the end, the Russian and Bulgarians troops had almost run out of ammunition and resorted to hurling rocks at the enemy.

Pasha made another attempt to take the Pass in September with a force of 25,000 men. Although the Russians had worked to improve their defenses around Shipka Pass, there were only 8,000 defenders as the siege of Plevna prevented further reinforcements. After four days of bombardment, the defenders once again held firm until a relief force came and drove the Ottomans back.

The Russians took the fortress of Plevna in December 1877, and General Gourko brought a 65,000 strong force to deal with the Ottomans at Shipka Pass once and for all. The final battle took place from 5-9 January and ended in a resounding defeat for the Ottomans. On 16 January, Gourko defeated Suleiman Pasha’s forces at the Battle of Philippopolis. The Turks retreated and lost an array of European territory including Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro.

Conquest, Killing & Kilij: 6 Crucial Battles in the History of the Ottoman Empire
This Day in History – The Famous People – Siege of Adrianople

6: Siege of Adrianople 1912-1913

The Ottoman Empire was on its last legs by the early 20th century and by the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913, it had lost all of its European territories to the west of the River Maritsa. During the First Balkan War, members of the Balkan League including Serbia and Greece had enjoyed numerous victories over the dwindling might of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of 1912, Turkish troops only occupied a handful of fortified cities.

Adrianople (modern-day Edirne) was the most important remaining Turkish city, and the Ottomans were determined to defend it at all costs. A Bulgarian force defeated the Ottomans at Kirk Kilisse in October 1912 and laid siege to Adrianople. However, they faced 75,000 determined defenders in a city designed by leading German engineers. It was believed to be impregnable, so the Turks were confident of beating back their attackers.

The siege began in November 1912, and by March 1913, Bulgarian morale was low. They were weakened by diseases such as cholera and supplies were running out. Their leader, Mihail Savov, knew he needed a quick breakthrough and was boosted by the arrival of approximately 46,000 Serbian reinforcements. The additional heavy artillery brought by the Serbs persuaded Savov to launch an all-out assault on Adrianople.

On March 24, 1913, an enormous heavy artillery attack launched thousands of shells at Adrianople. The barrage lasted all day and the next morning, Serb, and Bulgarian troops attacked the south of the city in what proved to be an elaborate trick. The defenders focused on this latest attack and were unprepared for a bigger attack on their eastern defenses. The attackers breached the outer Turkish defenses on the morning of 26 March and the Turkish commander, Mehmet Sukru Pasha, surrendered that afternoon.

The loss of Adrianople inflamed Turkish Nationalists and led to a growing distrust of the Ottoman Empire’s minorities. The Ottomans entered WWI on the side of the Germans and committed terrible atrocities; most notably against Greeks and Armenians. After defeat in the Great War, a Turkish national movement was formed which led to the end of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.