The Ottoman Empire was the most rapidly growing state of late Medieval and Early Modern Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. The armies of the Sultan conquered Anatolia, the Balkans, Syria, the Levant, Egypt and Suleiman the Magnificent even destroyed the Kingdom of Hungary, which brought the Ottomans into direct conflict with the Habsburgs.
Yet, by the end of the 16th century, the Ottoman expansion was checked in both Europe and in Asia. The Ottoman-Safavid borders remained somewhat fluid throughout the 17th century, but the European borders of the Ottomans were more or less static in Central Europe.
There were several reasons why the Ottomans were unable to further expand, and in the following, I will try to expand these reasons.
Logistics are somewhat overlooked in modern representations of military conflicts. In films and tv shows, armies are always well-fed, and diseases rarely ravage the camps. What happened in reality, was of course a very different story. Up until WWI, more soldiers died during wars as a result of starvation or some kind of disease than during the fighting itself.
Logistics were crucially important for all armies and failed logistics were as deadly an enemy as any hostile armed force.
One of the key reasons why the Ottomans were unable to further expand in Europe or Asia was due to their stretched logistics. The Ottoman army, well into the 17th century, was a cavalry dominated army. Anyone who says a horse knows how much that animal is capable of eating and drinking. To keep the horses in good shape, the animals needed regular food, and the easiest way to give them this food was by starting military campaigns when the grass was already growing. This pattern gave a seasonal feeling of Ottoman campaigns, and in Hungarian history, many contemporaries already knew this.
Generally speaking, the Ottoman campaigns into Central Europe started between March and May, depending on the specific objective of the campaign.
Cavalry was the dominant arm of the army, but the Ottoman army also had an infantry core to it. The existence of the infantry core made the progress of the Ottoman army somewhat ponderous, and on a normal day, the Ottomans usually progressed between 15 to 20 kilometres. This speed allowed the armies of the Sultan to reach Belgrade by mid to late May if the campaign began in March, or by late June or early July with a later start.
The two sieges of Vienna were good examples to showcase this. In 1529 a late start and bad weather meant that it was already September by the time the Ottoman armies arrived under Vienna. In 1683, an earlier start to the campaigning season, plus better weather allowed the army of Kara Mustafa pasha to arrive under the walls of the imperial capital by July, and without the arrival of the relief army, he would have taken it by October.
The Ottoman army was very well supplied for an early modern period army, as the administrations of the provinces were obliged to store both foods for the soldiers, fodder for the animals and armament on the possible marching routes of the Ottoman army. Nonetheless, all good plans could go wrong if the weather was unseasonably cold or rainy. Failed harvests would leave the stores depleted, as in the pre-industrial world failed harvests often led to famines, where the local population was unable to feed itself, let alone give the surplus to the administration to store it. Unusually rainy weather would also turn the roads into seas of mud, which greatly slowed down the progress of the armies, and sometimes forced the Ottomans to leave behind their heavier artillery, like in 1529, when Suleiman’s army arrived under the walls of Vienna without its great guns.
The campaigning season usually began in early Spring and generally ended in mid to late Autumn. The reason why the campaign had to end by this time was similar to why it had to begin in Spring only, supply problems.
By late Autumn, fodder for the horses was usually running low, and the army also needed some time to reach its barracks and home region from the frontline. Prolonging the campaign to November risked the army getting caught in the cold, which is exactly what happened with the Ottomans in 1529, when an early onset of winter forced them to retire even in October, and the march home was both arduous and costly.
All in all the characteristics of the Ottoman army and the climate of Eastern and Central Europe meant that the Ottomans were limited to a 6-7 month campaign season between March-October.
Military Revolution in Europe
During the 16th century, European militaries went through a huge transformation.
The successes of the Swiss pikemen against the Burgundian armies of Charles the Bold led to the widespread use of pikemen as the core of European infantries. Swiss pikemen became the most sought after mercenaries in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but with time other nations also trained their pikemen. The German Landschnechts became a reputed infantry force during the 16th century.
In the end, it was the Spanish tercios that became the dominant infantry of European battlefields during the 16th and early 17th centuries.
The tercio initially was made up of pikemen, arbequisiers and swordsmen. With time the pikes and firearm wielding units put the swordsmen in the shadow, and after their dominance, this era of warfare became known as the pike and shot era.
The Ottomans were slow to catch up, and it wasn’t until the Long Turkish War(1593-1606) that the Ottomans started to adopt their armies. They did so by hiring more infantrymen during the campaigning years and substantially expanding the Janissary Corps( from around 12k to over 40k). Cavalry remained the dominant force of the Ottoman army, but the percentage of infantry rose significantly.
Not only the armies of Europe were much changed in the 16th century, but engineers were forced to redesign European fortifications.
The advance of artillery made the medieval castles obsolete. The high, but thin walls of medieval castles were easy targets for armies that had a powerful artillery train, as the French army showed in Italy in the 1490s.
Engineers redesigned fortresses in the 16th century, to make these more resistant against artillery. The new fortresses had much lower, but also much ticker walls, often using earth to fill it up, as the earth was more durable. A new type of defence tower, the bastion, was also developed, which allowed the defenders to hit the advancing enemies from multiple sides.
These new fortresses required more soldiers to men them but were very difficult to besiege. A properly built start fortress, if a safe re-supply line was open like for the Dutch against the Spanish, was capable of withstanding siege for years, and it took the attackers very heavy casualties to capture it.
Though these new fortresses were very expensive to build, the Ottoman-Habsburg border fortresses usually were a mixture of a medieval base with some modifications along with the new designs, and not brand new fortresses designed along the lines of the new fortifications, these were still hard and costly to take.
The logistical difficulties of supplying armies and the difficulty of capturing the latest generation fortresses usually meant that the Ottoman armies had to settle to besieging and capturing a few of these during a campaigning season, which, if they succeeded, was already a considerable achievement.
Large scale offensive campaigns like the one Kara Mustafa Pasha in 1683 were rather rare, and the defeat of the Grand Vizier showed risky also.
Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700 by Rhoads Murphey
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler