Hussite Battle Tactics and Organisation

 

Contents

Introduction

Army Organisation

The Wagons

The Infantry

The Cavalry

The Artillery

The Hussite Army Equipment

Strategy and Tactics

Battle Standards

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Introduction

The Hussite wars brought about a brief but significant revolution in Eastern medieval warfare. The innovations of Jan Zizka would in one form or another last well into the 16th Century. For the Hussite cause they prevented what was essentially a peasants revolt being quickly crushed.

In 1419 Jan Zizka and the other radical Hussite leaders were faced with the unpleasant prospect of taking poorly trained and equipped troops up against the Mercenaries and Noble forces of Emperor Sigismund. It was Jan Zizka, possibly drawing on his experiences as a mercenary in Poland who developed new and highly effective strategies and tactics to combat this threat. It is possible that Zizka had already planned out his strategies well in advance of the actual conflict as he was able to implement them very rapidly and they appear in the earliest battles.

Jan Zizka was able to implement his unique ideas because of the very uniqueness of the revolt. The Taborite faction, from which Jan Zizka created the first Hussite armies were not only demanding religious change but political and social change as well. Their revolt has been compared by Historians to the Communist and Marxist ideas of the Russian revolution. This somewhat stretches the facts but the Taborites did have a policy of communal property and equality amongst its followers, its leaders being elected. This communal spirit is likely to have been as a response to the threats facing them. As a result Jan Zizka had a large pool of reliable manpower at his disposal, the combined resources of all the participants, the political authority to carry out his reforms and initially significant amounts of money and jewels looted from the Church properties.

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Army Organisation

The command structure of the Hussites was organised under four Captains, one each for wagons, Infantry, artillery and cavalry. Each Captain being responsible for his assigned troops. The army was trained to respond to battle drums and to orders by signal flags and standards.

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The Wagons

To successfully counter the large numbers of Knights and better equipped infantry the Hussites would face Zizka turned to the humble haulage wagon. From these wagons Zizka created a method of rapidly deploying a defensive wagon laager, in essence a mobile fort. A similar structure was used at the battle of Tannenberg by the Polish for protecting their camp and baggage. From this Wagenberg or Tabor the lightly armoured Hussites would be better equipped to fend off their opponents. Having established the basic structure Zizka further refined the process by creating the Warwagon and other specialised equipment, See warwagons for the details on the differing types of wagons.

The basic unit of the Hussite army was the wagon. Sources either quote 10 or 20 as the standard crew for a wagon. Certainly German ordinaces of the era put the required crew at 20 'after the Hussite fashion'. This is usually broken down as 2 armed drivers, 2 handgunners, 6 crossbowmen, 4 flailmen, 4 halberdiers and 2 pavisiers. The wagons were organised in a basic tactical group of ten.The tactical groups of wagons were assigned to a combat line, commanded by a Zeilmeistern (line master). The number of wagons per combat line was either 50 or 100 presumably the varience depended on the size of the army.

See the warwagon pages for additional information on Hussite wagons.

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The Infantry

Jan Zizka began the Hussite Revolt with large numbers of ill equipped men with little training. These men were ideal for Jan Zizka's new methods of fighting. Very few had previous war training or experience and so no pre-conceived ideas. All had a brutal understanding on just how hideously effective their opponents would be if they attempted to fight a 'normal' battle. Jan Zizka was able to impose discipline and training that would have been impossible to enforce on the more traditional feudal host of the time. As a result Jan Zizka was able to create a well trained army, versed in new tactics and capable of resisting far larger enemy armies.

The missilemen of the Hussites were permanently assigned to the wagons, there being no evidence of them being used as a separate body of troops during any battles of the period. The Captain of Infantry was responsible for the close combat troops, those armed with flails,spears and Halberds. These were organised into Rotas of 100 men under their own commander.

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The Cavalry

       The initial armies of the Hussites lacked effective numbers of cavalry, their radical ideas being too much for the Nobles, who traditionally provided the mounted contingents for a medieval army. Even so the Taborites were able to form small cavalry contingents made up from men who had served in the retinues of Nobles. In the early years Jan Zizka created a small force of mounted crossbowmen, initially mounted on draft horses. The role of this cavalry was to provide scouts for the columns of wagons as they moved, not to participate in pitched battles. These crossbowmen later became more effective as they were able to re-mount on captured Royalist war-horses and could have had a limited battlefield role. As support for the Hussites spread many of the lesser Nobility and Gentry joined. They however tended to side with the moderate Utraquist faction. The largest cavalry forces of the Hussites were usually fielded when the various Hussite factions combined. Cavalry never became a strong arm of the Hussite armies and on average the infantry outnumbered them by 10 to 1. The main role for the cavalry was in protecting the flanks of the wagon columns while on the march. On the battlefield the roles reversed, the Tabor provided protection for the cavalry, who usually deployed inside it preventing their more numerous opponents overwhelming them.

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The Artillery

Zizka had his Weaponsmiths make a number of different artillery pieces with which to support his infantry. The commonest type was a tarasnice, essentially an overlarge handgun, with a bore of around 2 inches and a length in the region of 4 to 5 feet. The tarasnice of the Hussites were probably mounted on a free standing framework within the wagon, possibly with a swivel mount. The other main type was a Haufnitze, with a bore of 8-12 inches and it also had a short body allowing it to be wagon mounted., The name is probably the originator of the modern word howitzer. The wagons for the Haufnitze would have been especially constructed to cope with the recoil. The advantage of the two cannon types above was that they could be manufactured relatively easily. The smaller the calibre and length the less complicated the casting process and the fewer raw materials required as well. The Tarasnice could probably have be made by a skilled gun smith rather than a cannon forger. The final cannon in the Hussite arsenal was the bombard, these particular cannon were of limited use in open battle due to their long reload times and their cumbersome manoeuvrability. The Hussites did however use them to effect in the numerous sieges they participated in. The Hussites did mount a number of the smaller cannon on fixed wagon frames from which they could , allegedly, be fired from. The availability of these large cannon would have been limited as they were extremely hard to cast.

Although not used in vast numbers the field pieces used by the Hussites added significantly to their firepower, particularly as it is likely that the Haufnitze and tarasnice were used to fire 'canister' at point blank range. The first documented use of cannons being used to fire multiple small rounds, in this case stones, is from a Polish/lithuanian source of 1410 about a battle against the Teutonic Knights. It should also be noted that the Polish described their Czech mercenaries of the late 15 Century as firing handguns loaded with multiple shot, when the enemy was at point blank range.

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The Hussite Army Equipment

Zizka had the basic building blocks to hand when he set about creating his new army. To make the Tabor truly effective Zizka required firepower with which to shatter attacking troops. To this end the many craftsmen among the Hussites were set to work making Crossbows, handguns and cannon. It should be noted that it was the crossbow that was the predominate weapon amongst the Hussite wagon crews, although by the 1430's one missileman in four was likely to have been handgun armed. Crossbows and handguns require very little training to use and as such were ideal weapons for creating an effective fighting force in a very short space of time. The weapons biggest problem was their slow reload times which left their users vulnerable to attack. This was partially compensated for by their use from within the Wagons where the high sides protected the missilemen. To further lessen the vulnerability of the missilemen and the wagons themselves Zizka turned part of his infantry into 'support' squads. These elements of the army were equipped with a mixture of close combat pole arms which due to their long reach could be used effectively from within and behind wagons. The two most popular, or at least the ones that made the most impression on their enemies were a long handled flail and a hooked halberd. The flail became closely identified with Bohemia and for many years after the wars was still used by Bohemian infantry. It was in essence a conversion of an agricultural flail It replaced the blunt wooden head with a spiked iron one attached to a long chain. It was a brutally effective weapon against those wearing 'soft' armour such as leather and chainmail where the concussive blunt trauma of the blow alone could incapacitate a man. Besides the main blade to the front the halberd had a smaller curved or hooked one at the back. The main purpose of this hooked blade was to allow a infantryman to pull a cavalryman to the ground, or failing that hamstring his horse.

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Strategy and Tactics

The dominance of the warwagon in the Hussite forces called for new battlefield tactics and strategies to maximise their effectiveness.

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Battlefield tactics

The basic battlefield tactic of the Hussites was to start the battle in a defensive square of wagons. Use their massed firepower of missilemen and artillery to wreck attacks on the Tabor and then once the enemy was sufficiently weakened counter attack with their pole armed infantry, while their cavalry swept out from the sides of the Tabor to attack the enemy's flanks.

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Tabor deployment

The tabor fortress was usually a square with the wagons interlocked and chained together, if time permitted a ditch would be added around it. Large mantlets or pavises were used to cover any gaps in the structure. It is also possible that these were used to construct a second line of defence behind the wagons. The inside of the square would hold the cavalry, baggage, horse teams for the wagons and any infantry not assigned as wagon defenders. This infantry was used either to shore up weakened areas of the defence or to head the counter attack. Ideally they played no role in the early stages of the battle so were well rested and fresh for the counter attack.

The Hussites tried to use the terrain of the battlefield to their advantage, where possible the ideal deployment for the Tabor was on high ground. Failing this impassable features such as lakes or in the case of Kutna Hora the city wall were used to secure one flank. This freed up additional wagons to extend the frontage of the Tabor, maximising the firepower that could be brought to bear.

Deployment on high ground had several advantages for the Hussites. Firstly the enemy were slowed down and tired out attacking up hill, sometimes the ground was sufficiently steep to prevent effective cavalry attacks forcing the Royalists to dismount. This was however an incidental bonus, the main reason for such a deployment was to negate enemy missile and artillery fire, both of which could prove deadly to the Hussite army. Artillery would be very dangerous to the wagons of the Hussites and any missile fire aimed into the middle area could cause severe casualties to the horses, the life's blood of the Hussite army.

It is probable that the Hussites preferred to deploy, to steal a modern phrase, 'Hull down'. That is to say with only the top part of the wagons being visible from lower ground. Diagram 1 shows that close in missile weapons are unable to target the wagons. Diagram 2 shows that at a distance they can be targeted but compared to Diagram 3 the viable angle for attack is much smaller. This deployment meant enemy missilemen were immediately disadvantaged particularly as the force of their fire would be exponentially reduced the further from their target they were. Crossbows, Handguns and cannons are all high velocity weapons and so have a very flat trajectory. This meant that to drop a shot over the wagons on a hill into the camp either required a very steep angle, obviously not possible with cannons, or firing from a considerable distance from the target.

The following diagrams are not to scale and are a simplistic but hopefully show what I mean.

Angle of Fire

The Hussites did occasionally take the offensive with their warwagons. At Kutna Hora in 1421 Jan Zizka charged and broke through the Royalist lines. This battle should not be taken as typical though as the Hussites were surrounded by a larger Royalist force. The battle of Malesov saw a general charge of the army in the final phase and at Domazlice the Hussite army was manoeuvring offensively against the Royalists, although contact was never made. The capacity of the warwagon to manoeuvre on the battlefield should be treated with caution. While limbered the wagons must have been very vulnerable to having their horses killed, quickly immobilising it. In the right circumstances I am sure that they could be used in such a fashion but the parsity of examples argues strongly that this was not the normal course of events. The Hungarian armies of Janos Hunyadi and his son Matthius throw up a few further examples of warwagons moving in concert with the rest of the army but their army structure was radically different to that of the Hussites.

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On the March

The formation for attacking with wagons and when marching were essentially the same. It comprised a central core of baggage wagons and infantry, flanked on either side by columns of warwagons. When sufficent cavalry was available this would deploy on the outer flanks of the warwagons, providing a scouting screen. This minimised vunerability to surprise attack and allowed a Tabor to be set up very quickly.

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Battle Standards

The symbol adopted by the Hussites for their cause was a Chalice. This representing their key demand of Comunion in two kinds. It appeared in one form or another on nearly all of their Battle and signal standards. The other major symbol was that of a goose, often combined with a chalice. The Goose was used because in his death speech Huss said that a goose dies but a swan will arise. It being a play on his name which is close to the Czech word Hussi meaning Goose.

I would suggest reading Armies of the Middle Ages book 2 for additional information and drawings of Hussite Standards.

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Copyright 2002 Matthew Haywood

All images and text, unless otherwise noted, may not be copied without my written permission.