Jan Žižka (1360?–1424) III

Through the second half of 1420 Žižka had to engage in some intra-Hussite fighting. The poorest people of Bohemia not only embraced the teachings of Hus but carried them further into a millennial belief that a completely equal society would bring about Christ’s second coming. The middle class and minor aristocracy opposed this for economic more than religious reasons, and Žižka depended on the city burghers (his own background) for the majority of his support. Thus, the poor who rallied around the most radical priests found themselves suppressed and ultimately defeated in battle. Some survivors left for more radical settlements, but the bulk of the poor, both rural and urban, realized that what progress they could make in advancing themselves in any socioeconomic way was by following Žižka. The fortress town of Tabor was still regarded as one of the more radical communities, but it was controlled by the middle class. By early 1421 Žižka had solidified his position as commander in chief of the Hussite forces, in and out of Tabor.

Early in 1421, Sigismund had withdrawn from Bohemia back to Germany, leaving the Hussites time and opportunity to deal with their own issues, and bringing an end to the first crusade. For the Hussites, the absence of any crusaders gave them the chance to spread their own influence. Many towns were attacked, with sieges lasting at times a few days and other times a few months. It was during one of these sieges that Žižka suffered a significant injury: during the siege of the town of Rabi, near the Hussite-held city of Tachov, Žižka led the first assault and was hit in the face by an arrow. This took out his second eye and almost killed him, but several weeks in Prague allowed him to recover his health, though he was now blind. It mattered little: Žižka fought some of his greatest battles and campaigns after he lost his second eye. Although he could have sustained himself on his reputation alone, his talents were undiminished. His reputation did indeed precede him, however. In late July German forces from Meissen crossed the border to successfully relieve the Hussite siege of Most. The Hussite Prague army was reconstituted a month later with Žižka in command and marched back to face the leading elements of the second crusade. When news arrived that Žižka was leading the Hussite force toward them, even as he was still recovering from his wound, the German army turned and went home rather than face him.

The second crusade consisted of larger forces than the first; estimates range from 120,000 to 200,000. The crusaders had orders to kill all Czechs but small children. The initial force marched east out of the Upper Palatinate through Cheb on the way to Zatec, a Hussite stronghold. A second force came out of Meissen in three prongs, attacking a number of towns northwest of Prague before joining with the first army. Zatec was soon invested, but held off six major assaults. Collapsing morale from the crusaders’ failures and Hussite sallies were compounded by word on 2 October that Žižka’s army was on its way. Again, that was all the Germans needed to convince them to pack up and retreat. To make matters worse for them, a fire broke out in their tent city just before they were ready to leave. The defenders sallied out and inflicted serious damage on the already hurting crusader force, leaving them with a total of some 2,000 dead. Worse still, this defeat came even before Sigismund got his army moving, leaving the second crusade in a less than hopeful state.

Kutná Hora and Německý Brod

A third offensive from the south kept Žižka busy through the autumn of 1421. During that time Sigismund was finally getting his offensive under way. A Hungarian force of 60,000 (including 23,000 cavalry) marched into Moravia under the command of Philip Scolari, an Italian mercenary general better known by his nickname Pipo Spano; Sigismund joined him in late October at the town of Jihlava on the Moravian-Bohemian border. Instead of immediately marching for Kutná Hora to recover the mint and mines, Sigismund practiced his normal hesitation and waited for reinforcements. This gave Žižka’s army of 12,000 time to reach the city first (on 9 December) and strengthen its defenses. The imperial army also took twenty days to march the fifty miles from Jihlava to Kutná Hora. Heymann describes the advance: “All the time [Sigismund’s] Hungarians destroyed Czech villages, burned the men, mutilated the boys, raped the women and girls. The behavior of his troops was so atrocious that not one of the Czech chronicles which describes this invasion omits reference to it.” Sigismund and Scolari arrived at Kutná Hora on December 21.

As the imperial army of some 50,000 approached, Žižka deployed his wagon fort in front of the city walls, stretched over a sufficient length to cover both western roads into the city. Scolari, in military command of this operation, stretched his cavalry in a thin line to face the wagons and attacked repeatedly throughout the day. The Hussite cannon inflicted heavy casualties, but this action also kept the Hussite attention focused to the west. Scolari and Sigismund appreciated the leanings of the Germanic citizens of Kutná Hora and had secretly contacted their leaders. With the battle raging outside the walls, an imperial cavalry force had swung wide south and approached the gate on the Malesov road, which conspirators opened to them. The small garrison Žižka had left in the city was quickly overwhelmed and the Hussites were now surrounded.

Žižka found himself in the most dangerous position of his career, but his brilliant mind was not daunted. Sigismund had delayed entering the city until he could do so in triumph; he was still in his headquarters on the imperial left flank. Žižka decided to launch an ambitious surprise attack, assailing the enemy leader’s headquarters at sunrise. Knowing the enemy once again provide invaluable, as Žižka knew that Sigismund never put himself in danger; he always commanded from the rear. Thus, the Hussites were sure he would not lead any resistance that was aimed directly at him, being too interested in getting himself out of the way. Just before dawn on 22 December, Žižka formed his wagons into line and opened fire on Sigismund’s headquarters. No one expected this gunfire to come out of the night and, as Žižka had planned, panic ensued in the imperial ranks. Although the column stopped now and then to reload and shoot again, preventing a constant moving line of artillery fire, it was nevertheless enough to scatter the defenders and leave a hole in their lines through which the Hussites made their escape. Žižka’s decision to attack at night had been a good one; a daylight gambit along these lines probably would not have been successful.

As dawn broke the Hussite wagons were out of sight, and Žižka deployed them on a hill about a mile away and prepared for the pursuit, which never came. Once positive he would not be caught in the open, Žižka moved his men to Kolín, from whence he spent the next two weeks scouring the region for reinforcements. In the meantime, Sigismund (assuming his enemy was on the run and would not be a bother until spring, if at all) had settled himself into Kutná Hora. He could not quarter all his men in the town, so he dispersed them to villages around the region, paying particular attention to Cáslav, a Hussite stronghold just to the east, and to Nebovidy, about halfway to Kolín, to act as a covering force. Žižka took advantage of this dispersal on 6 January when he surprised the force at Nebovidy. Unfortunately, no sources give details of the next few battles, other than to say the Hussites attacked and the imperial troops broke. An anonymous late nineteenth-century description, probably taken from the George Sand biography of Žižka, says that Žižka “suddenly burst upon Sigismund’s scattered troops like a thunderbolt. Hundreds of Hungarians were cut down at the first onslaught, and the panic spread with awful rapidity from village to village.” No one else provides any more detail.

What is important is that the crusaders fled toward Kutná Hora and created a panic there, especially in Sigismund’s heart and mind. He fruitlessly begged the German town elders to defend the city from Žižka’s army while he withdrew, then ordered the city burned rather than let it fall into Hussite hands. The citizens were hustled unprepared out of the town while a Hungarian cavalry contingent remained behind to light the fires. Their desire for loot, coupled with the speed of Žižka’s pursuit, however, meant that few fires were actually set, and those were quickly extinguished. The pursuit continued, as did the panic. Sigismund decided to make a stand a few miles to the southwest at Habry. His advisors, particular Scolari, counseled against it: the troops were too demoralized. The advisors were right, though Sigismund didn’t listen. When the Hussites did attack, the defenders once again turned tail. The rout was total, with the crusaders abandoning everything but personal arms in their haste. Again, no details of assault or defense are available.

Sigismund fled for the Moravian border town of Jihlava. He crossed the Sázava River at Německý Brod, well ahead of his army, some of whom again tried to make a stand, but the hot Hussite pursuit forced a mad dash across the frozen river. It was not, however, totally frozen, and the breaking ice led to the drowning of a reported 548 knights. A hasty defense of the town was soon rendered useless by Hussite heavy artillery that made short work of the walls. An attempted negotiated surrender fell apart when a Hussite patrol found a particularly weak section of wall and broke through without orders, setting the fighting off once again.

In the wake of the Hussite victory and the ensuing pillage, and a similar lapse of control a year later, Žižka developed one of history’s first sets of regulations of war, dictating the behavior of troops in and out of combat. Overall, the combat between 6–9 January 1422 cost the imperial forces at least 4,500 dead; there is no account of Hussite casualties, but they must have been very light.

The campaign beginning at Kutná Hora and ending at Německý Brod showed Žižka at his best on offense and defense. He had several days to prepare his wagenburg outside Kutná Hora, and it dealt heavy casualties to the imperial cavalry that attacked it. When he found himself betrayed by the townspeople and cut off, Žižka massed his combat power at a single weak point, the king’s headquarters, and through firepower and psychological intimidation paralyzed his opponent and made good his own escape. Taking advantage of his opponent’s assumption of victory, his innate proclivity not to fight, and the dispersed nature of his army, the offensive that began on 6 January combined all the elements of the offense: surprise, concentration, control of tempo, and audacity. His movement to contact led to a deliberate attack, followed by immediate exploitation and long-range pursuit. One has to be amazed at the ability of a blind general to command a breakout from encirclement, then follow it up with a cross-country pursuit of a broken enemy, and all in the dead of winter. This was not typical medieval warfare.

In the grand strategic scheme of things, the campaign had major significance as well. It ended the second crusade and so disheartened Sigismund that he did not approach Bohemia himself for years. By keeping himself in Hungary and letting the German princes conduct the future crusades, he alleviated Bohemia’s necessity to prepare for or fight a two-front war. Žižka’s reputation, as well as that of his followers, remained one of the most important factors in the three crusades that followed over the next few years. One of the crusading armies barely got inside Bohemia when the sounds of Hussite soldiers singing one of Žižka’s war songs frightened the invaders out of the country without a battle. Hans Delbruck notes, “Once the warlike character had gained the upper hand and had become completely dominant, the Hussites were preceded by a wave of fear so that the Germans dispersed before them whenever they simply heard their battle song from afar.”

Unfortunately for the Hussite cause, internal feuds caused more troubles than did invasions. Although the wagenburg tactic became standard for all Hussite forces, they used it against each other at times, as in the last of Žižka’s great victories at Malesov against a rival religious faction. Žižka would ultimately die of the plague while preparing an invasion of Moravia in 1424, and his leadership position was ably taken up by Prokop the Great, who continued the long line of Hussite victories over German Catholic crusades. Finally, in 1434, a truce was signed that granted the Hussites some concessions. They remained outside the good graces of the church, which, however, did not reestablish its authority in Bohemia until two centuries later at the Battle of White Mountain at the start of the Thirty Years War.

Žižka’s Generalship

Jan Žižka was certainly the most imaginative general of the late medieval–early Renaissance period. Although he was not the first to use gunpowder weapons, he was more forward-thinking than anyone of his time in how to employ them. His use of soldiers from the lower economic classes was also employed by England with the longbowmen of the Hundred Years War and by the Swiss pikemen, and as Charles Oman observes, contributed to “the overthrow of feudal cavalry—and to no small extent [to] that of feudalism itself.” The strengths of Žižka’s leadership were his mastery of maneuver, surprise, simplicity, and morale.

The goal of maneuver is to place the enemy in a disadvantageous position. For Žižka, this meant obliging his heavy cavalry enemy to attack a position across terrain for which it was not suited. The first two battles covered, Sudoměř and Vitkov Hill, show this perfectly. The Bohemians were on narrow raised ground with steeply falling sides, forcing the attackers into a narrow front where their strength of numbers was negated. The Bohemians drew their enemy into an attack against a fortified position in order to employ superior firepower. The ability to force a disadvantageous position depended on knowing the nature of the enemy’s mind-set as much as their tactics. Žižka knew the knights would not take a peasant force seriously, no matter what their position. Hence, he drew the imperial cavalry into attack after attack against fortified positions that horses could not penetrate and where infantry or dismounted knights had to fight hand-to-hand against soldiers with a height advantage in the wagons. The peasant defenders, using spears and flails, also had superior reach against foot soldiers armed with swords.

Žižka also employed maneuver in the offensive-defensive nature of his warfare. Although he did engage in siege work, that was a traditional practice of warfare albeit with the newly implemented heavy cannon. His wagenburg, however, could be used across most of the relatively level Bohemian terrain. Thus, he could take war to the enemy, but employ the strength of a defensive position against armies that did not employ the necessary weaponry. As long as Žižka carried the firearms and his enemy did not, all he had to do was make sure his wagenburg was deployed before the enemy struck. This, of course, is what made the wagenburg a relatively short-lived aspect of warfare, for armies would soon be employing their own firearms, and the wooden wagons could only absorb so much gunfire, unlike the archery fire they had dealt with in the early fifteenth century.

The first time any new tactic or weapon is introduced it produces surprise, and Žižka’s wagon-borne firearms were no exception. This is what makes Žižka, like the other generals studied in this work, stand out: he saw the strengths and weaknesses of his own forces and the enemy’s, and he adapted his strength to their weakness. His first two surprises therefore went hand in hand: the wagenburg and the peasant soldier. The shock of facing gunpowder arms in large numbers had to have amazed the knights at Sudoměř, no matter what actual damage was inflicted. This was the first time that guns had been used in massed defensive positions, and the effects were notable. The noise was terrifying in itself, and it combined with the gunpowder flashes and thick smoke to confuse enemy troops. The horses apparently began to get over it after a time, for by the battle at Kutná Hora the imperial cavalry attacked repeatedly throughout the day. Even if the actual damage inflicted by the handguns and small cannon was not great, it was supplemented by arrows and crossbow bolts.

The nature of the wagenburg would have been surprising enough when first encountered, but his quick shift from defense to breakout at Kutná Hora, as well as the fact that he attacked at night, again show Žižka’s ability to think outside the box. He knew his enemy’s general attitude toward the nature of combat and the personal attitude of Sigismund, and he played on them both to paralyze his enemy—even if he inflicted few casualties. In the battles that followed, his quick strikes and close pursuit were like nothing his enemies had encountered. This again was not normal medieval warfare, for the usual aftermath of battle was a peaceful withdrawal. The Hussites, however, did not act in accepted knightly fashion and the crusader knights don’t seem to have adapted. Heymann notes that while it was fairly common for medieval generals to pursue an enemy, “to follow up a victory by a continued pursuit over scores of miles, to press on after a beaten enemy so as to achieve his complete destruction—this was by no means usual or ‘normal.’ It was ‘normal’ only for Žižka who always acted according to the military needs of the situation as his unfettered mind saw them.”

Žižka’s soldiers were a surprise to their enemies not necessarily because they were peasants, but because they were disciplined. Showalter observes, “Medieval armies lacked anything like a comprehensive command structure able to evoke general, conditioned responses…. At their best the civil militias of urban Europe were part-time fighting men. Their tactical skills were correspondingly limited.” Žižka benefited from his own military experience as a guerrilla fighter and also had the all-important motivating factor of religion to help keep his troops disciplined. Žižka did not really ask his soldiers to do anything out of the ordinary as far as their abilities were concerned, as driving wagons and handling tools were second nature. In this way Žižka brilliantly implemented the principle of simplicity. The gunpowder weapons were so basic that no real training was necessary to handle them. He also taught his army of farmers to fight as well as they could with the tools they knew best: scythes, iron-tipped grain flails, axes, rakes, picks, hoes—implements that turned out to be vicious at close quarters when wielded by people who were very strong, very motivated, and used to hard labor.

Žižka’s experience, coupled with a zeal that matched or exceeded their own, made him a leader his men could follow into any situation, and they could easily accomplish the assigned tasks within the wagons on the move or when deployed into the fortress. The Hussites’ early victories sufficed to give them the confidence they needed to buy into the fixed way of doing things, and their do-or-die attitude of fighting for God against heretics and aristocrats tapped into their already existing attitudes and emotions. None of the disciplined movements or fanatical willingness to fight were things for which the invading crusaders were prepared. The most complex maneuver Žižka ever asked of his men was forming up in a straight line and following each other into Sigismund’s headquarters, stopping periodically to shoot into the dark to keep the enemy disorganized. Other than that (and the necessary movements to create the wagenburg), all their actions were straightforward attack or defense. Only the two-pronged attack out of Prague up the Vitkov Hill showed anything like sophistication.

Žižka was also a skilled commander when it came to the principle of morale. Religion is an incredibly motivating cause, and Žižka used this to his advantage to keep the morale of his troops high. He showed himself to be more religious than the conservatives controlling Prague, but not as radical as the millenarian sects that emerged in the wake of Jan Hus’s death. His belief was never in doubt, even when he made war against the radical factions, made up of the lowest rung of society. He maintained the loyalty of the rank-and-file Hussites and the respect of the conservatives, who looked for some sort of compromise with the church. But it was for social and economic advancement and freedom from outside rule, as well as religious freedom, that his people followed him. Žižka could therefore rely on the support of the country people and urban poor who brought their own weapons with them.

While religion may have been the glue holding the army together, it was discipline that gave it shape. A disciplined force always has greater unit cohesion and therefore fights better than one lacking in those traits. Žižka set rigid standards: each man was assigned a place in ranks with a specific tactical mission. Straggling, disobedience, and disorderly conduct were severely punished. Promotion was based on ability rather than social status and the serf was considered the equal of the noble. We have seen this same attitude in most of the generals discussed thus far: ability trumps birth. That was just as true concerning punishment, and equal justice maintained belief in the system.

And then, of course, there was the man himself. When he still had his sight, he fought alongside his troops. Sharing dangers and conditions always promotes loyalty to a leader. Then, when he completely lost his sight, he still commanded in the field for another three years. For a religious peasant army, that was surely a sign of God’s grace. It also illustrates how Žižka’s reputation became a demoralizing factor for his enemies. Žižka’s regular victories gave him an air of invincibility on both sides of the battlefield, and the songs he wrote for his troops (a mixture of hymn and military instruction) were as frightening to his enemies as the Hussites’ crude weapons.

Jan Žižka is unfortunately not a widely known figure outside central Europe, but no work on him or on the Hussites fails to describe him as a genius, the most talented general of his time. Although his wagenburg was effective for only a short period in military history, it shows what one imaginative leader can do with the materials at hand to exploit an innate but often unseen weakness in his enemy. Unseen, that is, except to a blind old man.

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