Hussite Wars

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History of the Hussite Wars

Hussite War Wagons and Hand Cannoneers
Hussite War Wagons and Hand Cannoneers
By the early 15th century, many Czechs had become followers of Jan Hus (1369-1415), a religious reformer who attacked many of the beliefs, practices, and abuses prevelant in the Catholic Church. The Hussites, named after their leader, continued to be a powerhouse in Bohemia and Moravia even after the chilling death of Hus. He was declared a heretic at the Council of Constance and burned at the stake in 1415 for preaching against the beliefs of the Catholic Church and the sale of indulgences. The inciting action of the Hussite Wars would be the ever famous First Defenstration of Prague. An angry Hussite mob, led by priest Jan Zelivsky whom held the Sacred Host, stormed through the streets of Prague, demanding the release of Hussite prisoners. The Hussites were angered, and when they heard claims that someone threw a stone from the town hall's windows at the Sacred Host. Some men of the mob, led by Jan Zizka, stormed the town hall and siezed the mayor and town council members and threw them onto the mobs spears. This act would cause a Papal call for a Crusade into Bohemia. The man who would lead this was Emperor Sigismund.

Jan Zizka, the half-blind Hussite military leader, defeated the First Anti-Hussite Crusade in 1420 and defeated the Second Anti-Hussite Crusade at the Battle of Kutna Hora in 1422. After Zizka's death due to plague, the division between the radical and the moderate parties was widened greatly. A Taborite, Prokop the Great, would become the new Hussite leader. From 1425 to 1431 the Hussite army launched the first of its spanile jizdy(beautiful rides) and invaded Silesia, Saxony, Poland, Austira, and Hungray.  One Hussite raid made it to the Baltic sea at the German city of Danzig in 1432. The Third and Fourth Anti-Hussite Crusades were utterly routed by Hussites because of their superior tactics and the low enemy morale. Negotiations with the Council of Basel began, especially through the University of Prague, and in 1433 the Hussite delegates arrived at Basel. Many of the Taborite delegates refused to negotiate, however, the Utraquists did negotiate. Through more negotiation, the Utraquists were taken back into the Catholic Church. The Taborites rejected the Compact. Civil war now broke out between the Utraquists, the noble faction, and the Taborites, the peasant faction.

At the decisive battle of Lipany in 1434 the Taborites were routed and both Prokop the Great and Prokop the Lesser were killed. The Taborites had displayed such great skills in battle that Emperor Sigismund declared "the Bohemians could only be overcome by Bohemians (the Utraquists were the only anti-Taborite forces that actually fought at the battle). The Utraquist victory at Lipany led to Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund being recognized as the sole king of Bohemia in 1436. Also, the Hussite movement in Poland was destroyed in 1439 at the Battle of Grotniki. The Hussite movement was not completely dead. George of Podebrady, who became the King of Bohemia in 1458. George of Podebrady was excommunicated and declared deposed from his position in 1466. A new war began between George and the nobles, and in 1468, Matthias Corvinus of Hungary attacked Bohemia. One must note that George of Podebrad was a Utraquist Hussite, as he made the town of Tabor become Utraquist. By the time peace was made 1478, long after George's death, the religious element of the wars had largely disappeared, as it was now a war between the invaders and the Bohemians. So ended the Hussite influence on Bohemia.

The Hussite Tactical System

War carts had been used to cover the camps in the rear of fighting armies quite early in various countries of Europe, particularly in France and Italy. However the first time the defensive Wagenburg became of great importance was during the Hussite Wars in Bohemia (1420-1434). The Hussites moved in columns of horse-drawn carts, most of which were armor-plated, the sides pierced with loopholes. Inside these protected wagons or on other open four-wheeled carts, was a number of small bombards. Troops were mostly footmen, highly disciplined by the intensive training and control methods established by Zizka in his Mount Tabor stronghold. In addition he had a small force of lightly armored cavalrymen (mostly made up of Polish allies), used for reconnaissance and for counterattack.

Hussite Wagon Formation
Hussite Wagon Formation
Since the infantry absolutely prevailed in the Hussite armies, it might be effectively covered against the charge only by the carts. These carts seemed to be like moving fortress on the strength, which the battle has been waged. Whereas previously the cart had been used only when the cavalry failed, during the Hussite Wars the cart became fundamental to the army formation in which battles were to be waged.

Depending on the terrain Hussites prepared the carts to the battle forming them in square or circle. The carts were joined by means of the chain (wheel to wheel). Therefore the carts were located aslant (their corners attached to each other) in order to allow, if necessary, to harness the horses quickly. . In front of this wall of carts a ditch was dug by camp followers. The crew of each cart consists of 18-21 soldiers: 4-8 crossbowmen, 2 handgunners, 6-8 soldiers equipped with polearms and flails (flail was Hussite "national weapon"), 2 shield carries and 2 drivers. The wagons also had a little pocket of rocks in case the soldiers ran out of ammunition. There were two different handguns used by the Hussites. One was called the "trestle gun"(nicknamed the hook gun) and it was used as field artillery on the wagons. The trestle gun was so heavy that it required a hook to the wagon, hence its nickname. The other gun was called the pistala (from the Czech word for flute, because of its shape, possibly became the word "pistol" in English).

The battle, during which the cart was used, was waged in two principle stages. The first one was defensive; the second one was offensive (counterattacking). In the first stage the army placed the cart nearby the enemy's army and by means of artillery fire it provoked this enemy into the battle. As a matter of fact the artillery fire inflicted heavy losses on the knighthood standing in close arrangement. In order to avoid more losses the knighthood finally attacked. Then the infantry hidden behind the carts by means of firearms and crossbows warded off the attack, weakening the enemy. The shooters aimed first of all at the horses depriving the cavalry of its main advantage.

As soon as the enemy was enough morally and physically weakened the second stage of the battle has begun - that was the aggressive stage. Suddenly the infantry and the cavalry burst out of the carts striking violently at the enemy - mostly from the flanks. While fighting on the flanks and being shelled from the carts the weak enemy could not put too much resistance. Finally it was forced to withdraw and leave its knights who dressed in the heavy armours and being without the horses could not escape from the battlefield. That was the reason that the enemy's armies suffered so heavy losses of the knights and were absolutely terrified of Hussites who were famous for not taking captives.

Hussite Pavise Holder and Crossbowman
Hussite Pavise Holder and Crossbowman

Even more specific wagon tactics were used by the Hussites. Usually, the Hussites would draw their wagons out into squares(similar to the British squares at the Battle of Waterloo). These square Wagenburgs would often mutually support each other against the enemy. They would make sure a good portion of the enemy was in between their wagons, and then they would encircle the enemy and slaughter them. This is described by Aenas Silvianus Piccolomini, who would later become Pope Pius II said that "When a battle was about to begin, the drivers, at a singal form their captain, quicly encirled a part of the enemy army and formed an enclosure with their vehicles. Then their enemies, squeezed between the wagons and cutoff from their comrades fell victim to either the swords of the foot troops or the missiles of the men and women(the Hussites were one of the early groups to allow women to fight alongside the men) who attacked them from above the wagons, The mounted troops fought outside the wagon stronghold, but moved back into it whenever the enemy threatened to overpower them, and then then fought dismound as if from the walls of a fortified city. In this way they fought many battles and gained as many victories as possible, because the neighboring peoples were not familiar with such methods. Bohemia, with its broad and level fields, offers good opportunities to align carts and waongs to spread them apart and to being them together again."

The Hussite wagon tactics also had their weaknesses. At the Battle of Tachov, the Crusaders tried to use wagon tactics, but because they were inexperienced with using the wagon, they were slaughtered by the Hussites. At the Battle of Lipany, the Utraquists were able to get the Taborites to charge down from their Wagenburg on a hill, and the Taborites were defeated. There were two ways to defeat the Wagenburg, to either get the soldiers inside of it to charge out or to prevent it from being erected in the first place.

The wagon tactics used by the Hussites would influence other wagon fortifications made by the Germans and the Russians. The Hussites were the first group to largely use gunpowder based weapons, and thir use of this influenced the gunpowder revolution. They were made up of mostly infantry, and to defeat the "invincible" knights of the day led to the infantry revolution. Also, many former Hussites were hired as mercenaries by Hungary, and it is said that they even served at the Battle of Varna. Zizka's wagon tactic was one of the most imaginative and offensive minded use of field fortifications, and his battles were classics of defensive-offensive tactics.



[3] The Encyclopedia of Military History by Trevor and Ernest Dupuy

[4] Armies of the Turkish Tribes by Andrezj Michaek


[6]The Hussite Wars 1419-36 by Stephen Turnbull