The Battle of Varna

  By alexandruu, 4 February 2006; Revised
  Category: Hungarian History
November 10th 1444

The story I'm about to tell is seldom given attention compared to other epic-battles of the High Middle Ages (Kosovopolje, Nicopolis or Mohacs), but, as we are about to see, this event was a turning point, that sent waves in time that were felt at the Second Battle of Kosovo in 1448, Constantinople in 1453, Vaslui in 1475, and even at Mohacs and Vienna in the early 16th century.  

The time was November 1444, and the gods demanded for blood. The ideal place to satisfy their bloodlust would have seemed to be the Balkans - the battleground of the ancient Greeks, Macedonians, Thracians, Sarmatians, Romans, and Bulgars, that was still a chessboard for famous battles. Any chessboard needs 2 high-kings, and this time the gods picked the Polish Vladislaw III and the Ottoman Murad II, 2 great men that lead huge kingdoms, and kept them by force. Given the importance of their showdown, we should take a closer look at their moral portraits and achievements. The Polish king was a very ambitious, powerful character, that managed to maintain under his iron fist 2 great kingdoms - Poland and Hungary, thanks to his ancestry. He came to power when he was only 10, but the rigorous training and his overly-competitive edge made him a formidable opponent at only 21 years of age. The Turk was also a very capable leader, and, similar to his rival, came to power at a very early age. Murad II extended the borders of the Ottoman Empire, by annexing Anatolia and Serbia, and was determined to put Venice, Hungary, the Romanian Voievodates and even Poland under Muslim control. Inspiring power and resilience, this strong character will prove to be a rock to hard to brake by Wladislaw's courage.

Driven by his need for power, Wladislaw rallied an army to help him destroy the Ottoman threat in the Balkans. This army was a coalition of Poles, Hungarians, Rutens, Bulgarians, Walachians, Papal Knights, and others, summing up to 25.000 men. The Turkish response was to summon a very large army, of almost 100.000 warriors, to behead the Polish Dragon. The 2 massive forces moved slowly, like two giant land-beasts across the continent, until they finally came face to face near the fortress of Varna (present-day Bulgaria), where they made the final battle preparations.

Before the battle, the king examined the enemy positions, and realized in horror that the Turks had at least 4 times more soldiers. That's why he called a meeting, in order to make the best decision regarding the battle. In the war room stood John Hunyady, the Cardinal Cesarini, Michael Szilagyi and the Polish King. While the Cardinal asked for a very defensive formation, Hunyady (who was by far the most experienced warrior in the room) replied that "To escape is impossible, to surrender is unthinkable. Let us fight with bravery and honor our arms".

Let us now dig deeper into the past, to find out what was the historical context of the battle. In the middle of the 15th century, the Ottoman empire was still at his dawn, and Europe was sank in intrigue and war, as usual. Poland was a very powerful state, that greatly extended its influence after the victory of Grünwald (also known as Tannenberg), and, boosted by the new alliance with Hungary, was claiming the title as "the most powerful state in Eastern Europe". The Turkish threat had been recognized earlier, after the defeat of the last crusade at the battle of Nicopolis. That is why the Pope Eugene IV demanded new actions against "the infidels", and even financed attacks against the Ottoman-held fortresses and settlements in the South of the Danube river. The voice of the Pope commanded that the 10 years peace treaty signed between Hungary and the Turks in 1444 to only last for 5 months, and that the tides of war to ravage again the Balkans. The European plan was excellent - the Polish-led alliance would sweep the enemy of Bulgaria, Albania and Greece, while the Venetian fleet would deny the crossing of enemy reinforcements across the Bosphorus. Unfortunately, the plan failed miserably, and the Italian fleet (Genovan in fact) not only "missed" its goal, but also helped the Sultan's army to cross the strait. That's why, even before the battle started, dark clouds were gathered above Wladislaw's forces.

On the morning of November 10th 1444, the 2 armies lined up in front of the fortress of Varna, determined to obliterate the enemy. The mixed European forces were a very imbalanced mix of cavalry and infantry, the mounted troops making over 60% of the total force. On the right wing, the Christians placed the papal knights, Croatian soldiers, and German mercenaries, led by Cesarini and Jan Dominek of Varadin, while the left wing - consisted of Hungarian and German mercenaries, along with Romanians from Transylvania. The center was being held  by the King and Hunyady, with their knights.

The Turks had the fanatical janissary corps in the center (some 40.000 men), while azeps, akincis, beslis and Spahis held the left wing. The right wing was comprised of Kapikulu warriors and Spahis of Rumelia.  

The dark clouds that metaphorically gathered above Wladislaw's army became very real just before the battle started - in a dark irony, nature smashed against each other huge cloud formations, setting an apocalyptic scenery to a hellish battle.

Lightings pierced the skies, and thunders defeaned the soldiers, while heavy rain started whiping both Poles and Turks. While the storm was getting stronger, the Ottoman forces started advancing - it was the point of no return.

The Christians watched in terror as the firs tidal wave of akingis was larger than their entire army. The soldiers packed together, and awaited in fear the first charge. The Turks quickly passed over the muddy terrain, and engaged the left wing of the Polish army. Still, even if they had a huge number advantage (4:1 on that side), they were lacking in both offensive and defensive equipment. That's why, when the Christian cannons and handguns started firing, the achingii lost heart. The German mercenaries rained death upon them until they broke, and, as the wave started to dissipate, the victorious knights charged against the routing enemies. Fueled by and honor, the Germans and Italians slashed and gunned down many of the Turkish attackers. But, the tides of war are almost never mono-valent. The Ottoman commander Kardza Bey charged the European forces from the flank, leading the light Arab cavalry and the Spahs detachment. The Turkish strike was like a hammer blow to the papal knights, who were swamped and slaughtered by the colossal numbers of enemies (over 10.000). Seeing that his chance hang by a thread, Wladislaw ordered the Walachian cavalry to engage the enemy. Immediately, the fast, powerful horses from the Romanian stables, made their entry on the battlefield, and, just as the Turks surprised and routed the European mercenaries, they broke the back of the Anatolain Spakhs, and pursued the survivors into the Ottoman camp; they pillaged it, and than left the battle scene.
While the Romanian cavalry was engaging its Arab counterpart, the Christian right wing was under attack by both Turkish infantry and cavalry, that slowly bu surely consumed the Polish forces. That's why the king sent forward the knights of Joan Hunyady, while himself preparing for one final, desperate charge. Hunyady's men, clad in shining armour, with fire in their eyes and molten led in their veins, started an avalanche-like charge, that cut through the enemy lines like a hot knife through butter. The heavily-armoured knights slashed their way through the Turkish flags, routing them almost instantly. The akincis, spakshs and beslii were running in terror as the Hungarian forces hunted them down mercilessly.
There was no escape. The horrified worshipers of Allah were destined to die that day. That's what Hunyady thought. That's what set the European soldier's hearts alight, that's what the Ottoman soldiers were afraid of, and, surely, that's what the King thought when he ordered the decisive charge of his own bodyguards against the enemy center. Clad in iron, riding on the best horses of Poland, descendants of the legendary Sarmatian knights, the King's guard was a view to remember.
500 tons of steel and flesh rolled, lances extended, against the frightened janissary corps. To better understand the effect of such a charge, we must bear in mind that the horses used were very heavy, their speed was high, and all that energy was concentrated in the knights spears. That's why when the Turkish soldiers felt the ground shaking under the King's charge, they must have seen him as a lightning bolt, cast among them. But, unlike normal lightning bolts, that only last a second, this one became more powerful and deadlier by the minute. The knights, driven by a berserker rage, cut large paths through the janissary lines, the king leading the way towards the Sultan's tent. Like tigers amongst wolves, the Poles caused rampage in their haste, disgorging the pride of the Turkish forces.
Wladislaw was at the peak of his power - the Romanian cavalry took the enemy camp, the Ottoman left wing was melting under Hunyady's hammer-blow charge, and the Janissaries started to route beneath his own devastating attack. it was as though the Archangel Michael had descended from Heaven, and stroke terror into the hearts of the infidels. The proud son of Wladislaw IInd and Sofia of Halshany appeared to be destined to rule an even larger empire, and to ascend to higher levels of glory. It looked like the Christian cross had beaten the Muslim Crescent Moon.
But the ways of the gods are not to be judged by the mortals. As in many events in history, this one took a completely different turn because of one single decision - that of the King to separate from his men, and to carve his path towards the Sultan. Wladislaw, already battered by spears and swords, was in a personal killing spree. He drove his horse faster than the other knights, and quickly got himself surrounded by the janissaries. Still griping his sword, the king hacked from right to left everything in his path, obsessed to find his eternal glory by spilling the blood of the Muslim leader. That's when the eyes of Kodza Hazar - one of the Turkish janissaries- crossed with those of the king. The Ottoman soldier pierced Wladislaw's horse with his spear, and, because of the sudden fall, the King felt helplessly to the ground. Hazar's eyes glowed as he stroke the fallen king with his sword, beheading him instantly. The death of the king sent ripples through his knights spines, and gave breath to the shattered Ottoman army. The Christians started to run in terror, and not even Hunyady couldn't re-organize the European forces.  In full disarray, horrified by what would happen to them if the would be caught, they all fled the field.
The Christian Archangel gave way to his Islamic counterpart - the war-Angel Azrael, that bloodlusted the Spakhs and fanatized the janissaries to run all over the field, through mud, blood and water, to capture as many Christians as they could. And, indeed, over 3000 men were captured...

The storm ended as the last Christian knight was fleeing, and as the first tortures were being applied to the prisoners. The cruelty of the battle didn't compare to the sadism exhibited after it. Some knights were impaled, others were roasted or boiled alive. For 3 days, the prisoners suffered the worst tortures the Turks could conceive, rising the death toll of the Polish Alliance to over 13000 men.

Of course, the Turks had also suffered great loses, over 20.000 spaksh, achingii and beslii being killed. But that matters less. What matters the most is that the Ottoman army proved once again that it could stand against the best European forces, and that it is ready to assault the heart of Eastern Europe. The crushing victory of the Ottomans also symbolicaly proved that Islam had once again triumphed against Christianity.  

And so ends a story forged from ambition, fought with courage, and ended in hate and bloodlust.