Jan Zizka, a one-eyed, sixty-year old former mercenary, was a brilliant general who saved a medieval peasant revolution from the usual fate of such uprisings: quick and bloody extinction.
For a thousand years after the fall of Rome, the Germanic style of heavy cavalry ruled the battlefield in Europe. Armies had no training as a unit and tactics were crude: horse and foot were massed and charged each other. Infantry consisted of ill-equipped, untrained and disorganized mobs. When such a mob could be induced to venture forth, unprotected, onto the field of battle, then knights, heavily armored and highly skilled killing machines, could slaughter them like cattle.
By the 1400’s, this venerable style of wafare was becoming obsolete. The English, for example, throughout the Hundred Years War, repeatedly induced French knights to attack prepared defenses, held by pikeman supported by massed archers. Under such conditions, heavy cavalry’s shock was blunted and its numbers could be decimated. However, since the feudal army generally was an ad hoc affair with no institutional memory, even the most dramatically successful tactics were forgotten or obscured by myth.
The radical Hussite revolutionaries consisted entirely of peasants and townspeople. The Czech aristocracy was not at first particularly supportive of reform nor agitated by the news of Hus’ martydom, and were opposed to the social reforms favored by the radicals. Thus, the Taborites, named after their headquarters at the Bohemian town of Tabor, had no knights. Fortunately, they had Jan Zizka.
Zizka had participated in the battle of Grunwald (or Tannenberg) in 1410. There was never a greater victory of Slavic arms over the Germans, until World War II’s Battle of Kursk, where Soviet tank armies defeated elite Nazi SS panzers. The Poles defeated the Teutonic Knights the old-fashioned way: with their own cavalry. Zizka could have observed, however, a couple of innovations which were useful to the Hussites. First, the Polish armies circled wagons around their baggage train to protect their supplies. Second, some of the troops on the Polish/Lithuanian side had early gunpowder weapons.
The Haufnitze (from which we get the word “howitzer”) used by the Hussites were small caliber, short-barrelled cannon. They were used to deliver shrapnel (consisting of small stones) at point-bank range. They also had early handguns (the word “pistol” comes from a Czech word meaning whistle) which similarly fired multiple shot at point-blank range. The crossbow and gunpowder weapons were used to protect the wagons from cavalry charge. With very little training, these weapons could repulse the most determined assault. They were, however, vulnerable during the long time it took to reload or rewind them. The misslemen had to be protected by pole-arms. Against the cavalry, the Hussites adapted farm implements: iron flails, and hooked halberds. Zizka’s genius was to build units around the wagons, consisting of complementary missle and pole-arms. These units were then trained to respond to battle drums, signal flags and standards. On the march, the wagons proceeded in parallel lines, but could quickly be formed in to concentric circles and chained together, forming an relatively instant fortress, called a “wagenburg”.
The Wagenburg was normally used defensively, relying on chivalry and tradition to induce the German knights to stupidly attack the prepared defenses. They did this repeatedly in the Hussite Wars, and like the French in the Hundred Years’ War, never did figure out that their tactics were flawed, instead blaming random extraneous factors.
In December, 1419, Zizka’s force of around 400 men, besieging the town of Nekmer, was attacked by over 2000 Royalist cavalry. The Hussites manage to escape with few casualties. Sensing a major problem on the western Church’s eastern border, Pope Martin V declared the first crusade against the Hussites in 1420. Emperor Sigismund’s first crusader army included knightly adventurers from as far away as Spain and England. In March of 1420, while under a flag of truce, the Hussites at Sudomer were attacked by overwhelming Royalist cavalry, perhaps as many as 2500. Casualties are heavy on both sides, but again the Hussites managed to escape. Thus, Zizka prevented his army from suffering the usual fate of peasant rebellions: rapid annihilation by hordes of aristocratic professional horsemen.
In December, 1421, Hussites numbering around 12,000 assembled near the strategic town of Kutna Hora, prepared defenses and girded themselves for a major battle with Emperor Sigismund’s amassed German and Hungarian forces. They made a square with one side defended by the walls of the town. The Emperor arrived with at least 50,000 troops (some sources say 100,000) and surrounded the Hussite wagenburg. Meanwhile, the Emperor has arranged for the town itself to be betrayed to the Royalists. The Hussite army was then completely surrounded. At dawn the next day, however, Zizka used a concentrated charge of wagon-mounted cannon to break through the Royalist lines and escape.
By 1422, the Hussite army had the confidence, training, numbers and equipment to counterattack with pole-arms. It was then unbeatable. While Zizka himself died of plague in 1425, he was succeeded by Andrew Prokop, who continued the Hussite string of victories using Zizka’s tactics. For the next decade, the Hussites were the dominant military force in Central Europe, and acquired a mystique of invincibility. Crusader armies are reputed to have disband and fled, merely upon getting close enough to the Hussites to hear them sing a battle hymn. Ultimately, it took other Bohemians to defeat the Bohemians: the revolution dissolved into internecine squabbling among Hussite factions, allowing Emperor Sigismund to seize control of Bohemia in the 1430’s.
Zizka’s veteran Hussite units continued to fight as mercenaries throughout the fifteenth century. Once artillery with some accuracy and range was deployed, however, the warwagon’s day in the sun was over.