The Long War, Part 16 / 1596, The Battle of Mezőkeresztes
After the Battle of Mohács (1526), perhaps this was the second-largest grand-scale battle between the main armies of the Ottomans and the Allied Christian Forces. There were about 40,000–50,000 in the Christian and 80,000–100,000 in the Muslim army. The Christian army had 10,000 Austrians, 4,000 Germans, 3,000 armored cavalry, 13,000 Hungarian Hussars, and 10,000 Transylvanians, plus 15 other European countries. The location of the battle is called Mezőkeresztes, it stands for Plain of the Cross, Haçova in Turkish. After the taking of Eger, the Ottomans marched out to face the Christian army on a battlefield that was not the most advantageous to them.
Read the previous parts for more information about Eger’s fall:
22 October 1596 – The first clashes of the Battle of Mezőkeresztes, Hungary
Let us read the summary of this hard battle, written by the historian, Szibler Gábor:
The Christian armies had joined their forces on 18-20 October and they arrived in the well-chosen field of Mezőkeresztes on 22 October. It was the suggestion of Prépostváry Bálint, former captain of Eger castle, that the retaking of Eger should be attempted only after the Sultan’s army has gone home but if they were forced to hold a battle, they should choose a narrow and marshy area which would be better for the Christian artillery and their infantrymen. This was why Miksa has chosen Mezőkeresztes.
As the Sultan’s commanders have been informed about the advancing enemy, they sent a vanguard out which was led by Pasha Dzsafár (Jafar) and contained 15-20,000 men. They were to find out the number of the Christian army by launching smaller attacks.
There was a stream that crossed the field at Mezőkeresztes and it was surrounded by marshy lands and there was a destroyed village on its northern part. The troops could pass the stream only through a narrow ford and it was taken by the Ottomans who got there sooner.
The Christian vanguard arrived there in good military marching order, led by Chief Field Marchal Hermann Christoph Russwurm and Chief Camp Master Johann Baptist Pezzen. They had 5-600 riders and reached Mezőkeresztes towards the evening of 22 October. They ran into the Turk troops who were just crossing the stream.
Dzsáfer’s original plan may have been to send his army in double ranks against the Christians. He thought that the first line would snare the enemy in front of the second line which would fire at them with muskets and cannons and crush them unit by unit.
Yet, Russwurm and Pezzen were holding up the Ottoman attack valiantly and they sent for reinforcement. The horsemen of the Austrian Schwarzenberg and the Hungarian Pálffy came to their aid, with the Transylvanian riders following them. They pushed back the first Turk line to the other bank of the stream. Then, they asked for cannons in order to force their crossing through the ford.
The Transylvanian elite blue-uniformed infantrymen (Hajdú soldiers) succeeded in crossing the stream a bit northern and caught the Ottomans in the side. The cavalry came after them and attacked the second Turk line. However valiantly was Dzsáfer fighting, he was made to flee. The Turk cannons were taken and the Transylvanian and the Walloon cavalry were chasing the runners until Mezőkövesd Town. The Turks’ losses were small and the Christians lost only 15-16 men. However, the success filled the Christians’ hearts with joy and self-confidence and Prince Báthory wanted to chase the enemy at dawn but Archduke Miksa (Maximilian) and Schwarzenberg suggested taking a rest instead. So they withdrew a bit from the ford and built a reinforced camp at the slopes of the hills.
The initial defeat made panic in the Ottoman camp. According to one of their suggestions, a bigger army was supposed to attack the Christians but others suggested the total withdrawal of the Ottoman army and leaving behind the Anatolian forces at Eger Castle. They could not have remained there anyway because the Christians could have blocked the narrow valley easily from the south, closing the army of the Sultan in a trap. The location was not good for the larger Ottoman army because they could not take advantage fully of their cavalry.
Sultan Mehmed III at that point was not very brave. At first, he agreed to the first plan but his tutor has convinced him to accept the battle with his whole army. Even fleeing home alone has occurred to the Sultan as an option, leaving the army behind. It must have demoralized the troops, though. Grand Vizier Dammad Ibrahim has dissuaded him from this plan, too.
However, the Anatolian troops had to be relocated because the Ottoman army would not have had its right wing in this case. This way, they left behind only 5,000 men to guard their backs.
The Sultan`s army set out in the dawn of 24 and most of them arrived in Mezőkeresztes on the 25 October.
You might like the article of Béres Sándor about the role of cavalrymen in the 16th-century battles, especially the Hussars:
24-25 October 1596 – The first bigger battles at Mezőkeresztes
All the different sources agree about the main battle’s date which took place on 26 October. Yet, they either do not mention the clashes on 22 October or between 24-25 October and they rather talk about a two- or three-day-long battle. The first arriving Ottoman units began to make camp on the southern bank of the small river. There were 300 Transylvanian horsemen who engaged in battle with the newcomers. The Ottoman vanguard consisted of the Crimean Tatar troops of Pasha Dzsigalazáde Szinán and Beglerbey Murád of Diyarbekir. They aimed to cross the river. Miksa (Maximilian) and Báthory decided to let 10,000 of them cross and then they would slaughter them. Many thousands crossed the river and they hid behind a small mound while the rest was fighting with the Transylvanians.
The Christians arrived with some cannons and either killed or made the Tatars flee to the other side of the river, taking their cannons. The darkness fell and it ended the battle for that day. The Christians reinforced their camp and placed guards on the fords. The main units of the Sultan’s army arrived one by one on Friday, 25 October. The Rumelians came first, then the mercenaries of the Sublime Port with the Sultan, and the Anatolians were the last to arrive. The Ottoman units launched a new attack at dawn against the ford and chased away the guards. The Christians sent for reinforcement; cannons arrived and the Tatars have been pushed back again.
Seeing the main Ottoman army arrive, Archduke Miksa (Maximilian) deployed his army on the field. One of his units guarded the camp while Teuffenbach was defending the ford. Miksa led the center, and Báthory led the left wing. The Turks have deployed their army, too. The Crimean Tatars stood in the first rank, the Diyárbekirs, the warriors from Damascus led by Dzsigalazáde. The cannons were placed before the second rank, with the Janissaries behind them. Then, the Sultan and his bodyguard cavalry were standing right after them. The Rumelians stood on the left while the Anatolians were on the right wing.
The fight began around noon with artillery fire. The Christians were more successful in this. The Rumelian army, aided by the vanguard, was fighting at the ford, trying to build out a bridgehead on the other side. In the beginning, the Janissaries and their cannons pushed Teuffenbach back when the blue-uniformed infantrymen arrived, led by Király Albert. (Note, I use the Eastern name order for Hungarian names where family names come first.) They counterattacked and killed about 3,000 Ottomans, taking away their cannons. The riflemen followed them to the other side of the river but the hidden units of Dzsigalazáde ambushed them and made them flee. The Hungarians lost 150-200 Hajdú riflemen from the army of the Upper Lands.
Again, the fight has ended because of the evening. The Turks withdrew into their camp and the Christians returned to the northern bank of the stream. The battle of 25 October also brought the success of the Christians but it was obvious that they would have to face the entire Ottoman army on the following day.
26 October 1596 The Battle of Mezőkeresztes
After the battle of 25 October, the Christian commanders held a military council in the evening. They decided to let the Turks cross the ford and crush them gradually. At the same time, they placed guards on the other ford which was more defendable.
Archduke Miksa wanted to keep together his army and basically, he deployed his troops in a defense pattern. He strictly prohibited chasing the enemy beyond the marsh and to sack the fallen, under the penalty of death. He thought, in case they could successfully defend themselves, the Turks would have to withdraw after a while. As a result of this, the road to Eger would be freed.
We don`t know the decisions of the Ottoman military council of that evening. Both armies got deployed at dawn, the next day. The Christians left behind just a couple of thousand men to guard their camp, led by Carl Tettauer and Pogrányi Benedek.
The Christian army stood up in three lines. In the front of the center, it was Prince Báthory standing with his Hussars from Transylvania, the Hungarian riflemen stood on the right wing while the Székely guardsmen and the Transylvanian infantrymen were on the left. You can read more about the Székelys of Transylvania here:
Miksa and his 4,000-strong heavy cavalries stood in the front of the second line, in the center along with the riders of Pálffy and Teuffenbach. The other cavalry and the infantrymen were placed on the wings of the second line. The Hungarian troops of the noblemen from Royal Hungary stood in the third line with Walloon, Austrian and Moravian infantrymen, and cavalry. There must have been cannons in the first line.
The Ottoman army stood in the usual crescent-moon formation. The cavalry of the Sublime Port was in the middle with the Janissaries, the Crimean Tatars stood on the left wing, behind them the Rumelians, while the troops from Asia were on the right wing. Most likely, the vanguard was led again by Pasha Murád and Dzsigalazáde Szinán.
As the ford was not guarded, the Ottomans crossed it. The first and the second lines have completed the maneuver and the unit of Beglerbey Hassan of Rumelia attacked the second ford so as to divide the forces of the Christians. He had wanted to attack their camp from behind but they were unable to cross the damaged and strongly defended ford.
The main body of the Ottoman army was crossing the ford slowly with great difficulty, dragging along their cannons. About 10,000 men could cross until noon but this maneuver has not been finished yet. The Janissaries tried to make a bridgehead.
The Christians launched their counterattack between noon and 1 pm and soon they got the upper hand. At the same time, the Janissaries were attacked, too, in front of the crossing troops.
The Christian cannons worked very well but the first line of Schwarzenberg was fighting valiantly, too. The Tatars tried to surround the Christians but Teuffenbach defeated them and chased them beyond the marshland. The fleeing Tatars ran into the Anatolians who were trying to cross the small river, and they all got mixed. In the meanwhile, the Christian army, cavalry, and infantrymen together, were dynamically advancing, spreading havoc among the enemy with their strong musket fire.
The Janissaries were put down in a bloody meleé and they were also driven beyond the ford. Here, the soldiers ran into a stronger resistance, the attacks of the Christians have been repelled several times. Finally, the Christian artillery and the charge of the cavalry have given success to the forces of the coalition. The whole Ottoman army has been beaten back by 3 pm, the Turks lost 1,000-3,000 men during this. The casualties of the Christians were a lot fewer. Thus, the plan of the Archduke worked but after this, they failed to follow their strategy.
Miksa and Schwarzenberg wanted to withdraw to the camp but Pálffy, Király Albert, and Báthory, along with the Hungarian commanders all demanded the chase of the enemy and its total destruction. The Archduke finally has had to agree.
The second phase of the battle has begun.
Miksa agreed to chase the enemy just because he heard that the Sultan was allegedly fleeing toward Szolnok. It has proved to be fake news later, though. Mehmed was not the bravest man but he hasn`t left the battlefield. The command to chase the enemy changed the battle plans and it led to a tragic outcome.
Miksa demanded to Schwarzenberg to take the troops through the swamp intact. By this time, some units had been already fighting on the other side so the crossing could not have happened in a full military order. As they had to be fighting in the meanwhile, the marching order fell to pieces and the different troops got mixed up with each other and it was impossible to organize them in the proper units on the other side of the river.
The Christians` charge was so strong that they could push the central body of the Turks, led by Grand Vizier Ibrahim back to their camp. At the same time, they scattered the Anatolian army and the vanguard led by Dzsigalazáde Szinán on the right wing. The attackers pushed the center to the edge of the camp where the first rank of the Turks ran away. Thus, the Christians have run into the firm line of Janissaries and their cannons who fired at them in unison. In spite of the losses caused by them, the Christians were not stopped, captured the Ottoman cannons and took them away, then entered the camp. They ran until the baggage wagons and they have even taken the tent of the Sultan.
The looting has begun. Being sure of their victory, the foreign mercenaries, the Transylvanians, and the Hungarians began to throw away their weapons and they all set out to pillage the tents and the baggage. They set those Hungarian warriors free who had been taken at the siege of Eger, like Captain Nyáry Pál. The Christians seemed to have seized victory between 3-4 pm when they could get into the Turk camp and could scatter the enemy – but they failed to destroy them, though. The looting caused total disorder and they didn`t know that the Sultan was still at his place and the Ottomans were still outnumbering them.
The sultan has given two orders: everybody had to join the fight and secondly, he promised the camp servants to make them Sipahi lords in case they attacked the enemy in the camp. Mehmed has also called Pasha Hassan of the Rumelian army back from his futile fight against the ford and slowly everything has been prepared to launch the counterattack. Pasha Hassan caused a surprise to the Christians by attacking their side, forcing them to defend themselves and it gained time for the Sultan`s army to regroup.
At the same time, some of the scattered units of Dzsigalazáde got together on the other side and attacked the enemy, too, along with the Tatars. In the camp, the Janissaries have come to their senses and they were joined by the servants, killing the looters one by one.
The Christians were attacked from three sides and the infantrymen began to panic. They fled and dragged the cavalry with them. Neither Miksa nor Báthory could stop them, the troops were running through the swamp, chased by the Turks. The cavalry abandoned the footmen who got stuck in the Ottoman camp, and they have been all slaughtered. The Christian cavalry fled from the Tatars and the riders of Pasha Dzsigalazáde who quit the chase at the fringe of the swamp. The fight has been ended only by the darkness.
The total losses of the Christians may have been between 5,000-16,000 men, the Turks lost slightly fewer men. The Christians abandoned their camp to the enemy with all their baggage. Miksa, Báthory, Pálffy, Schwarzenberg, and Teuffenbach were able to escape from the battle. In the Ottoman army, the mercenary riders and the Anatolian Sipahies were severely punished for their cowardice. Dzsigalazáde Szinán has been made a Grand Vizier and the Tatar commander, Feth Girájt has become a Khan in place of his brother, Gázi Giráj who remained in the Crimean Penisula. As for the Christians, the most serious result of the battle may have been that they were striving to avoid the larger open-field battles in the future.
My remark: the victory of the Ottomans is not obvious to me. It is worth reading the letter of Archduke Maximilian, he has drawn the following conclusion from the conflict:
“This most disadvantageous clash can duly indicate that the enormous army of the pagans and their best forces can be easily beaten and defeated in a grand-scale battle with the aid of God if we keep a good battle order and attack the enemy bravely and chase them steadfastly.”
Sir Edward Barton, an envoy from England used to view the whole battle from the sultan’s camp. I described the battle of Mezőkeresztes from his point of view in my book “33 castles, Battles, Legends”:
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