Battle of Chocim, 11 November 1673 – for fame and crown

The loss of Podolia and the shameful treaty of Buczacz brought the Polish gentry and the mutually clashing magnates to their senses. The treaty signed with Turkey on 18 October 1672 reduced the Commonwealth to the level of a vassal of the High Porte. In the spring of 1673 Jan Sobieski presented the Sejm with a project for waging a war against Turkey, and planned the enlistment of an army of 60 000, with a strong artillery and infantry, the levying of suitable taxes and the establishment of an anti-Turkish alliance of Christian states. The deputies took to heart the words of Andrzej Trzebicki, the bishop of Cracow: “That we may extract the last grosz, even if it were embedded under our hearts, and contribute it to the cause of the war” and levied taxes sufficient for an army of 43 000 men. A considerable impact upon this decision was exerted by an audacious letter from the Grand Vizier  calling for the realisation of the Buczacz resolutions.

Battle of Chocim, relief rom the attic in Wilanow Palace, end of 17th century.

The parliamentary statutes offered the hetman less than he expected but much more than he had at his disposal a year earlier, when the Commonwealth was commencing its battle against the High Porte. The levying of taxes and the recruitment followed an unhurried course. None of the neighbours hastened to support Poland in her strife with Turkey. On the other hand, Poland had accomplished the neutralisation of the Cossacks and the Tartars. Khan Selim Girey, unwilling to see the Ottoman Empire grow any stronger, declined to participate in an expedition against Poland under the pretext of a Kalmuk invasion. While the diplomats were engaged in elaborate intrigues, Polish forces were gathering at Hrubieszów and Giniany, facing a 30 000-strong Turkish army under Sylistrii Hussein Pasha. Having reached Chocim, the army occupied the old Chodkiewicz trenches. Apart from his own army, the Turkish commander relied on a 100 000–strong corps led by Halil Pasha at Kamieniec Podolski and the 15 000 soldiers of Kaplan Pasha, concentrated around Jassy. In view of the limited forces and the encroaching winter, Hussein Pasha decided to avoid defensive action.

This was precisely what the Polish commander was waiting for. Initially, he intended to attack Kamieniec Podolski, but having learnt about the enemy plans he resolved to set off for Moldavia. First, he had to overcome the greatest problem of the campaign – to break the resistance of the Grand Hetman of Lithuania Michał Pac. At a council held on 24 October his old enemy announced that he did not intend to accept Sobieski’s command and added that the Lithuanian army should rest after a tiring march instead of fighting. His statement met with Sobieski’s violent reaction, which urged to act: ”I shall vanquish the enemy or honourably die for my homeland”. These arguments did not convince the stubborn Lithuanian, who threatened that ”he would return home”. The next day, Sobieski demonstrated his considerable talent, and declared that considering Pac’s emotions, he would be willing to hand over the command as long as both allies were to attack the enemy.  This was an extremely bold declaration since Sobieski could not be certain that Pac would not accept the command. The great hetman of the Crown was probably well aware of this risk, but for the sake of victory he was ready to sacrifice his ambitions and interests. The ploy worked, and the combined armies finally set off against the enemy forces.

When the Poles were crossing the Dniester, the Turkish envoy Hussein Aga arrived at their camp carrying a kaftan intended for the king, a symbol of subjugation to the sultan. The pugnacious Turk refused to even talk with Sobieski and was thus dispatched to Lwów, where the ailing king was staying. Next, news came from Moldavia that Hospodar Stefan Petriceicu and 1 500 of his men had crossed over to the Polish side. At the same time, the Poles were informed that the corps under Kaplan Pasha had reached Cecora. This fact stirred the king into action; it was his wish to at all cost prevent the two Turkish forces from merging. Without waiting for the Lithuanians, who did not join him until Bojan in Bukovina, he marched towards Moldavia. The joint armies now went ahead, driving a wedge between the two Turkish groupings. Initially, Sobieski wished to crush the corps under Kaplan Pasha, but once he realised that the latter did not plan to march towards Chocim, he changed his project. Now, the prime objective was to crush the army of Hussein Pasha.

On 9 November, after a two-days long exhausting march across muddy terrains, the Polish cavalry halted at a distance “of half a field gun shot” from the Chodkiewicz ramparts, concealing 30 000 Turks. The   deployment of skirmishes did not tempt the enemy to leave its reinforced camp. On the following day, the guns of General Marcin Kątski gave signal for attack. Infantrymen under Jan Denhoff and Jan Motowidło moved ahead and climbed the ramparts but finding themselves alone were driven off. Despite this fiasco, the balance sheet of the battle was favourable for the Poles. They had established the strength of the enemy and managed to attract to their side the forces of the Hospodar of Walachia.

This was a busy night for Polish and Lithuanian soldiers. At a distance of only 200 meters from the Turkish position, they built ramparts for the artillery batteries, on which they then placed their field guns. Men working on the fortification were protected by the whole Polish-Lithuanian army arranged in battle order. The left wing was composed of the Lithuanians, and the centre and right wing - of the soldiers of the Crown.

The night of 10/11 November was exceptionally cold, with rain and snow falls and a bitter wind. The weather reduced the number of the besieging forces. Sobieski, however, knew what he was doing. In the morning, it became apparent that the majority of the Turkish soldiers, not accustomed to the cold, had abandoned their positions. This was exactly what the Polish commander was waiting for, and ignoring the Lithuanians he ordered to attack.

Once again, Polish field guns could be heard. The infantry and a voluntary detachment surged ahead, with Sobieski at the head of his regiment of dragoons. “Soldiers, fight the heathen and win. My soul tells me that a brief moment will suffice to gain a victory. I am willing to wager my head that I shall capture them” - he addressed his men. This prediction soon came true. The infantry seized the ramparts, armed with bardiches killed the janissaries weakened by the cold night, and immediately started to destroy the ramparts so as to enable the cavalry to enter the camp. This was the breakthrough in the battle. The Turkish horsemen, crying ”Allah”, attacked the infantry busily engaged in their sapper tasks. The Poles did not withdraw and the cavalry repulsed the Turkish counterattack.

The Turkish trenches were finally taken, and new detachments entered  the camp. The prime objective was to capture the bridge over the Dniester so as to make it impossible for the enemy to retreat. It appeared that victory was final, when suddenly Soliman Pasha and his cavalry attacked, seeking salvage in breaking through the Polish ranks. The path was blocked by detachments led by Dymitr Wiśniowiecki and Andrzej Potocki, who once again drove the Turks behind the ramparts. The determined cavalry under Soliman then launched an attack against Sobieski’s retinue. A bold charge carried out by the hussars not only saved the life of their commander but defeated the Turkish cavalry.

The battle was won. The Poles and the Lithuanians inevitably made their way towards the Dniester. Soon, the only bridge over this river found itself in the line of fire of the Polish field guns. The overloaded construction could not withstand the pressure and soon collapsed. Hundreds of people and horses perished in the cold river.  Only 4 000 Turks survived, determinedly pursued by the light cavalry of Atanazy Miączyński and Roman Ruszczyc. The Polish losses were considerable; some 1 500 men fell in battle, a loss bemoaned by Sobieski: ”Many good men of our armies had perished in this heavy battle. More than half of the kopias [lance-units] are crushed, and I realise that such brave men as those from the Turkish army had not existed for saecula and that while being inside the camp we were twice close to defeat”. Fortune, however, smiled upon the Poles.

In the captured camp the army intoned a ceremonious Te Deum. The reasons for joy were multiple. The humiliation Buczacz had been  revenged and the Turkish danger was averted for some time. Unfortunately, one of the most magnificent Polish victories was not put to proper use. The envious grand hetman of Lithuania marched off with his men towards Lithuania, and the Crown detachments started to demand that they too return home. True, they continued the struggle, but everyone’s attention was focused on different matters. King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki died on the eve of the Chocim victory. There now  flared up a clash for the throne. The popular ”Gazette de France”, discussing the victory of the grand hetman of the Crown, wrote openly: ”He has become worthy of the throne which he salvaged”. The Sejm gathered on the election field also felt that the country needed a king-warrior and pronounced Sobieski the new monarch.