Jan Žižka leading his troops (illumination from the late 15th century)
One-eyed Taborite fanatic and brilliantly innovative general who invented the Hussite tabor. In 1409 he led Tatar, Cossack, Hungarian, and Bohemian mercenaries in the pay of Poland-Lithuania in a campaign against the Teutonic Knights, culminating in the extraordinary fight at Tannenberg in 1410. His main claim to fame was as the original Hussite commander during the Hussite Wars. He won victories at Kutná Hora (1422) and Nêmecký Brod (1422), both battles where he deployed firearms troops behind the Hussite Wagenburg.
In contrast to the urban Hussites of Prague, Žižka represented a different population within the movement. A minor landowner from Budweis (Ceske Budejovice) in southern Bohemia, he had not only served as a captain in King Wenceslaus’s palace guard but also served as a mercenary-possibly even at the famous Battle of Tannenberg against the Teutonic knights in 1410.16 Battle scarred and strategically minded, the one-eyed Žižka was a formidable commander whose leadership fueled the radical Hussites’ military strength against the increasingly daunting crusading forces arrayed against them. Infuriated by the Prague Hussites’ capitulation to Sigismund in 1419 and by the royalists’ subsequent brutal persecution of rural Hussite communities, Žižka had withdrawn from the city to Pilsen in the south; however, he would not remain there for long.
Jan Žižka, “the Blind” (a disability he shared with the Bohemian king, John of Luxembourg, killed in the French line at Crécy, in 1346), who was to lead the Hussites to many a victory, was also the pioneer of mobile warfare in the West. His troops were largely untrained townsmen and peasants, but under Žižka they defeated trained foot-soldiers and cavalry. His great innovation was the Hussite war wagon. Nearer in capability as a military vehicle to a twentieth-century tank than an ancient war chariot, it was a four-wheeled farm cart, modified to produce a fighting vehicle. A heavy board was slung on one side of the cart to provide protection for the vehicle’s crew of eighteen armed men. Other boards could be slung out over the wheels to protect the vehicle and between the wheels beneath the wagon as stabilizers. On the march, the wagons carried army supplies. With the approach of an enemy in open country the crews maneuvered their vehicles to form a compound where infantrymen could shelter. This could be further reinforced, if the army was under prolonged attack, by closing the gaps between the wagons with dedicated heavy shield boards. Sited on rising ground and further defended by a ditch, such a wagon laager became a near impregnable fortress. Žižka may have got the germ of the idea from campaigning experience in Russia where transport wagons were sometimes thrown into a defensive laager known as a goliaigorod. The Hussite armies seem to have been the first to deploy the fully developed idea on a Western battlefield. Within minutes the enemy who thought he was engaging a bellicose rabble of under-trained civilians found himself confronted with a Well-defended fortress.
Žižka experimented with the concept. He mounted artillery pieces in the Wagons-“those snakes with which they destroy walls,” wrote a contemporary. Then he equipped the crews with handguns. There is evidence that he deployed the war wagons in action on the move. In one battle, we are told, “they advanced and, by shooting at the enemy with their guns, drove the king and his whole army from the positions that they held.” At the Battle of Malesov in June 1424 he anticipated tank tactics, using his wagons to break an enemy formation. Holding a hilltop, he positioned a line of rock-filled supply wagons flanked by cavalry troopers. “When half of the enemy force had crossed the bottom of the valley … he ordered the battle wagons be rolled down the slope and thus broke up the enemy ranks.” His own horsemen were then able to scatter their opponents with comparative ease.
The new war wagons, adaptable to attack or defense, became the hallmark of Hussite armies and probably influenced military development elsewhere. For them to be effective, chain-of-command discipline, far from standard in the average medieval army, was essential. Maintaining them in running order, deploying them efficiently on the move and finally working them in battle conditions meant division of labor among the eighteen-man crew, rigidly enforced in action.
THE HUSSITE WARS
Between 1421 and 1434, antagonism was the dominant theme of Bohemian history. The thirteen years of warfare between is best understood not as sustained combat but rather a slow (yet violent) series of crusading waves met, sometimes defensively and sometimes offensively, by Hussite armies. Already in midsummer of 1421, Sigismund was coordinating an assault on Bohemia with German support, hoping to cut the Hussite’s ground out from beneath them. Crusaders’ early success in sieging the town of Zatec northwest of Prague soon failed, however, when news of the rehabilitated Žižka’s imminent arrival prompted many of their number to flee. Undaunted, Sigismund augmented his army with expensive mercenaries (many experienced from fighting Turks) and turned his attention east. Pointing the “crusader” army toward his old base of Kutna Hora, Sigismund hoped to seize the largely German Catholic town whose minority Czech population had recently joined the Hussites. The armies met in late December 1421, clashing at strategic external positions, while royal supporters within Kutna Hora secretly opened a gate to the crusaders. Soldiers massacred the Hussites within the city.
After desperately fighting their way through the opponents’ ranks, Žižka and his forces made their way to safety north of the city. Regrouping within only a matter of weeks, they charged back south in early January of 1422 with renewed force that so overwhelmed a crusading army that Sigismund decided to evacuate Kutna Hora. Royalist attempts to face off against the Hussites were repulsed along the way, and morale was finally shattered when fleeing troops jammed a bridge at the town of Nemecky Brod. Žižka’s army devastated both town and army, forcing the defeated Sigismund to flee east to Moravia for safety.
To rub salt in the wound, the grand duke of Lithuania (whom the Hussites had “elected” king in Sigismund’s place) chose this moment to make his move. Writing to the pope in early March, the duke offered to protect the Czechs and heal the religio-political rift, bringing them back safely to Roman Catholicism. And to make his presence directly felt in Bohemia, he sent his own nephew, Prince Charles Korybut of Lithuania, to act on his behalf. Sigismund, safe but isolated in Moravia, doubtless felt the ground shifting uncomfortably beneath him. In the autumn, a new wave of crusaders (this time invading Bohemia from the north and west) encountered Prince Korybut at the castle of Karlstein, where the outcome was an armistice signed on November 8, 1422.
Interestingly, the settlement and ensuing lull turned out to be more damaging to the Hussite cause than the furious warfare had been. External foes had always served to temporarily unite the riven Hussite ranks-in the absence of such pressure, however, religious disputes once again splintered the Czech cause, as did the social and economic divisions of urban and rural culture. By the summer of 1423, rival groups of Hussites were fighting one another, a breach in which Žižka himself played a role. Abandoning the extreme radical community at Tabor in August 1423, the commander relocated to eastern Bohemia as leader of a more moderate group known as the Orebites. In June of 1424, Žižka’s army defeated Hussite rivals from Prague, and the rural Orebites and Taborites reconciled. On October 11, the old soldier died of disease while besieging an enemy position; distraught at his loss, his followers among the Orebites now called themselves “the Orphans.”
After his death the Taborites reputedly stretched his skin to make from it a great war drum.
Among the most influential leaders after Žižka ‘s death was the surprising figure of Prokop Velicky, a married priest and Utraquist from Prague who headed up Taborite armies in their many battles against royalist crusaders in the following years. Prokop the Great, as he became known, shifted Hussite warfare to a more deliberately offensive strategy of raiding into territories that had previously yielded crusading forces. After another failed crusader attack in 1427, no further Catholic armies tried to invade Bohemia for four years. Far from dampening the Czech martial spirit, however, the crusading lull merely provided the Hussites an opportunity to raid expansively and destructively on what they called “beautiful rides” through Germany, Austria, Hungary, and even Poland. Sigismund’s repeated efforts to intercept and rout the Hussite armies failed, despite his increasing familiarity with their methods and technologies, and a final devastating defeat of the crusaders in 1431 paved the way for a final settlement. Yet divisions among Hussites had been deepening across the years, and the process by which peace finally emerged had as much (or more) to do with internal conflicts as with pressure from royalist Catholics.