It was on 20 January 1664 that Zrínyi Miklós launched his famous Winter Campaign. Zrínyi in Croatian is called: Nikola Subic Zrinski. Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first; as Zrínyi was Hungarian-Croatian, now I take the liberty of using the Hungarian version.
Let us learn more about this war that is still being taught in every proper military university in the world. The ultimate goal of this sudden campaign was to trigger a grand war that would liberate Hungary and Croatia for good. The plan was to cut off the Ottomans’ logistic lines leading to Kanizsa castle, a key fort in Turk’s hands. Then, the arriving German and French reinforcement could join the Hungarian-Croatian army and began their advance. It was a shame that the whole plan was against the Habsburgs’ imperial interests and was sabotaged. Yet, the Winter Campaign is such a military deed that deserves our attention.
The political environment before 1664
Prince Rákóczi György II of Transylvania had led his disastrous campaign to Poland in 1657 and because of his strong insistence on his throne of Transylvania, the Sublime Porte had led several revenging campaigns into Transylvania. Read more about these events here:
The prince himself received a lethal wound in 1660 and his successors, Barcsay Ákos and Kemény János were contesting against each other for the Principality’s throne. It had caused the intervention of the Ottoman and the Holy Roman Empires. The Habsburgs had already been blamed internationally for idly watching the loss of one of the most important forts on the border of Transylvania: they were allowing the Turks to take Várad Castle (Oradea) in 1660. However, hearing the bad news about Várad, Zrínyi Miklós besieged the Castle of Kanizsa in 1660 but the Habsburgs stopped his efforts and called him back.
Later, General Raimondo Montecuccoli was hurrying to help Kemény but with little success. Yet, his intervention along with Zrínyi’s construction of New-Zrínyi Castle in 1661, triggered the Ottomans to take action. The Habsburgs wanted to avoid the war at all cost so they made a secret treaty with the Turks in which Emperor Leopold promised the demolition of New-Zrínyi Castle and stopped helping Prince Kemény. However, Kemény didn’t want to cede his throne to Apafi Mihály who was supported by the Sultan, and he kept on fighting. When Kemény was defeated by the Ottoman troops, the Habsburgs failed to make peace with the sultan. Finally, the Turks have had enough, and the Sublime Porte declared war against Emperor Leopold I in 1663, and 80,000 Ottoman warriors were on the go.
The army of the Grand Vizier, Köprülü Ahmed, took the important northern fort of Érsekújvár (Nove Zámky) in September and it was too late when the army of the Hungarian nobles finally had got assembled to save it. The aim of the Turks was Vienna, as always but the siege lasted for too long and they had to withdraw their troops to the Balkan when cold weather arrived. Zrínyi could not do much against them with his 20,000 men at that time but he used his time well to find allies. In September 1663, he created an alliance with the Chief Judge of the Kingdom, Nádasdy Ferenc, and Palatine Wesselényi Ferenc at Kőszeg.
When Grand Vizier Köprülü Ahmed left for their wintering area, Zrínyi, and his younger brother, Péter (in Croatian he is Petar Zrinski), could only have some minor victories in October against the vanguards of the Ottomans. Köprülü Fazıl Ahmet Paşa was a remarkable politician and he was a talented soldier as well. He was Albanian and let us note here that 92% of mercenaries in Ottoman service. There were about 45,000 men who defended the Turk-occupied castles in the Ottoman Occupied Land of Hungary, they were either Albanian or southern Slav people, either Orthodox or first- or second-generation Muslims.
Interestingly, these three high-ranking lords of Hungary (Zrínyi, Nádasdy, Wesselényi) established international contacts without even asking Emperor Leopold about it. This individual political move was on the edge of treason. No wonder, they were the greatest lords in the kingdom of Hungary. They were powerful enough to do so, the Zrínyi family was so wealthy that they had the right to mint their own coins, a royal privilege rarely allowed by monarchs. So their envoy, Bory Mihály bypassed Vienna and traveled straight to Regensburg. Thus, Zrínyi informed the Imperial Assembly of Regensburg about his plans of liberating Hungary.
Johann Philipp, the Archbishop of Mainz and the President of the League of the Rhine supported his plan. The League of the Rhine was a defensive union of more than 50 German princes and their cities along the River Rhine, formed in 1658 by King Louis XIV of France and negotiated by Cardinal Mazarin (the de facto prime minister of France), Hugues de Lionne and Johann Philipp von Shönborn who was not just a high priest but also the Elector of Mainz and Chancellor of the HRE. It was the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that authorized the princes of the Holy Roman Empire to conclude alliances between themselves or with foreign states. Let us not forget that the Principality of Transylvania was also a signatory of the Treaty that closed the 30-Year-War.
As a result of the three Hungarian lords’ quite transparent plotting, Johann Philipp von Shönborn sent an army led by General Wolfgang Julius von Hohenlohe to Hungary. They established contact with the French King Louis XIV who was supporting everything that was not seemingly loved by the Habsburgs. Emperor Leopold was just willy-nilly supporting this war, it was against the Habsburg dynastic interest. If Hungary was to be liberated by the French, German, and Hungarian-Croatian forces, how could Austria benefit from the conquest?
To distract the enemy’s attention, the military actions were not limited to the area of the Dráva river, though. In the northeastern part of Royal Hungary, a Hungarian army set out to besiege Várad (Oradea) castle, led by Rákóczi László and Barkóczy István. They didn’t try to take the fort back in earnest but they could make the Pasha of Várad busy. Sadly, a noble and learned member of the Rákóczi family, László died of the wounds that he received at Várad.
His death took place during a secret attempt of taking the fort: the Hungarian soldiers sneaked into Várad castle in disguise to free a certain captive, Barkóczy Zsigmond. Rákóczi was among them. Sadly, he could not stop the soldiers who began to loot the houses as soon as they got in. The Turks could use the time to assemble and beat them back. The Hungarians suffered tragic losses and the head of Rákóczi was placed on a stake, on the top of the rampart. However, they were able to distract the Ottomans’ attention from other military movements going on in the south and the north.
At the same time, other units attacked the Turks in the north. The Imperial and Hungarian army was led by General Jean-Louis Raduit de Souche and Koháry István. They set out from the direction of the Mining Town District of Upper Hungary, and soon they were joined by a Polish unit led by General Jerzy Lubomirski. He was in charge of soldiers who had been recruited by the Palatine in Poland.
The events of Zrínyi’s Winter Campaign in 1664
Trusting in the western help, Zrínyi Miklós prepared a plan. Knowing, that the Ottoman main army was idle during the winter, he timed his attack at this time. January was the coldest month of the year when the Ottomans stayed within the walls of their castles. His goal was to destroy the 8-kilometer-long bridge of the River Dráva at Eszék (Osiek) to cut the main Turkish supply line. He thought he could delay the Ottoman army and meanwhile the Christians could take the important frontier castle of Kanizsa while the Turks would be rebuilding the bridge.
Hohenlohe had 10.000 soldiers while Zrínyi led 13-15,000 Hungarian and Croatian troops. They had to organize the food supply very carefully because of the extreme cold. The supply had been well provided all along the three weeks of the campaign. The combined army marched along the River Dráva and began its attack on 20 January.
First, they took the castle of Berzence then laid a siege on Babócsa castle which opened its gate without a fight on 25 January. Hearing this, the Ottoman guards of Barcs castle have run away, too. Then, Zrínyi and Hohenlohe marched against Szigetvár castle. They didn’t lay a siege on the castle but Kiss Farkas and his 2,000 Hussars chased the Crimean Tatar riders as far as Siklós and Pécs castles. The army took the Türbe (Tomb) of Sultan Suleiman near Szigetvár and they killed the Muslim hodjas (priests) and the sheik in it. The report says that the soldiers wanted to dig up Suleiman’s remains (some of his inner organs had been buried there) but Zrinyi banned it, saying: „We have come against the living and not against the dead.” Yet, he had the fort around the Türbe pulled down. Lord Esterházy Pál, later Palatine, had written about this campaign in his work „Mars Hungaricus” and he made a drawing of the Türbe that helped its discovery in our days.
Zrínyi had the cannons transported from Barcs castle and they went on toward Pécs on 27 January. In the meantime, the Turkish guards of Szigetvár castle were keeping away the allied troops with strong fire from the walls. They had sent out only a smaller cavalry unit against the 20-25,000 strong Christian army but could not effectively disturb their vanguard.
The army made camp at Pellérd on 27 January and they appeared before the walls of Pécs city on the next day. Zrínyi launched an attack with his Croatian and Hungarian riders against the Eastern gate (called the gate of Buda) of the city and the Bey rode out to confront him. The fight lasted until midday and they could stop the Turks. 1,200 Crimean Tatar riders in the castle disobeyed the orders and fled toward Eszék (Osiek) but they were chased away from that place. The Tatars made camp at Nagyharsány.
Meanwhile, the Christian army surrounded the city and the castle of Pécs. The walls were in such a bad condition that they didn’t need to use even ladders to scale them at certain places. The next day, early in the dawn, the Christians’ cannons began to fire and within an hour the Germans broke into the city at the Budai Gate. The guards were resisting for a while quite strongly but soon they had to withdraw into the castle. As it happened quite often, the attackers began to plunder the city and got so much drunk that the officers could hardly find 1,000 men to surround the castle. It was night when they could somehow make an order and launch an attack against the castle but it was easily repelled. They began bombarding systematically the castle on 30 January but the small cannons could make no harm. Thus, they decided that Zrínyi and the German-Hungarian-Croatian cavalry would ride out and attack the bridge of Eszék while the infantrymen would continue the siege.
Seeing the Christian army’s approach, the Ottoman guards of the Palisade of Szalánta fled to Siklós castle. however, they all together were too weak to interfere with the moves of the Christian army. Zrínyi got informed about the Crimean Tatars’ camp at Nagyharsány and wanted to attack them but the Turks had warned them by a rifle shot so the Tatars could flee through the bridge of Eszék.
Next, the attackers took the castle of Dárda, slaughtering all its guards. Zrínyi’s men began destroying the 8-kilometer-long and 6-meter-wide bridge on the following day. According to a writer of an anonymous report, the people were fascinated by the huge bridge where four wagons could go across side by side. While a unit of the riders was collecting firewood, Zrínyi sent Kiss Farkas with 1,000 cavalrymen against the neighboring places of Mohács, Baranyavár, and Nádasd. Kiss has destroyed these forts and pillaged them. The collected firewood was set on fire on 2 February and the great oak construction began to burn soon, helped by the rising wind.
Finally, the bridge has been destroyed, to the joy of the nations of Europe. A larger Ottoman unit was being concentrated at Eszék (Osiek) so Zrinyi issued the order to go home on 3 February. They were going home around Siklós via Túrony and Szalánta and arrived at Pécs on 5 February. They were quite disappointed to see that it hadn’t been taken by the Germans, yet. The Germans tried to explain the failure with the sudden snowstorm and that the Turks killed many high-ranked officers with their rifles.
Then, Zrínyi decided to withdraw. He was right that they could not have kept Pécs behind the Turkish forts of Szigetvár and Kanizsa, anyway. After plundering and burning the city of Pécs, the Christian army set out toward the west in the early morning of 7 February. Hungarian and Croatian riders covered their moves but the Turks didn’t try to interfere. The army took the road against the Ottoman-owned Segesd. They besieged the small fort on 12-13 February which soon surrendered. The exhausted Christian soldiers arrived in a friendly territory only on 15 February.
It was the end of the three-week-long campaign while they covered nearly 500 kilometers. They had pillaged the area and destroyed several forts in weather that was not suitable for war. They manned the forts of Babócsa and Berzence but the most important success was the destruction of the bridge of Eszék and thus cutting the Ottoman supply lines. Here is more about Babócsa castle:
The campaign was well received in Europe and Zrínyi’s fame has been increased. He could find the way to achieve his new goal, the siege of Kanizsa but the generals of Vienna gave him their permit only for the spring. This decision ruined all his advantage because by that time the Ottomans could repair the bridge and bring along their main army to reinforce Kanizsa.
Zrínyi tried to take Kanizsa, I am going to talk about the Siege of Kanizsa next time. The unsuccessful siege just caused more tensions between Zrínyi and the Habsburg Court. Due to the efforts of Zrínyi’s enemy, Montecuccoli, the Grand Vizier could destroy New Zrínyi Castle as well. Finally, the Turks were defeated only in the major battle of Saint Gotthard (Szentgotthárd) in 1664, without Zrínyi. After the battle, Emperor Leopold signed the rather unfavorable Peace of Vasvár, which did not take into account the major victory at Saint Gotthard. That was a shame. All in all, the Winter Campaign is a splendid example of a military deed and it is a pity that Zrínyi’s efforts were eliminated by the German generals.
My remark: After the Peace of Vasvár, Zrínyi began to lose faith in the Emperor. Allegedly, the Ottomans offered him the Hungarian throne in secret, and soon after he had a hunting accident on 14 November 1664 when he and was killed by a boar…You can read my imaginary interview with Zrínyi Miklós that takes place a day before his death: