Battle of Lechfeld, 9 August 955

In the year 896 the Hungarians (also known as Magyars) crossed the Carpathian Mountains from the steppes adjacent to the Black Sea. They were primarily warriors, horse archers, when they settled on the plains of the middle Danube, whence they made periodic incursions into western Europe. Their invasions came to an abrupt halt in 955, however, when the East Frankish king, Otto I, annihilated their swarms in an encounter generally known as the battle of Lechfeld.

Forces Engaged

German: Approximately 10,000 men. Commander: Otto of Saxony.

Magyar: Approximately 50,000 men. Commander: Lél.

Aside from the legend of a Middle Eastern origin, the Magyars in reality seem to have had Finn-Ugaric origins with traces of Turco-Tartar elements. They had long practiced a nomadic lifestyle in central Asia and finally migrated westward past the Ural, Volga, Don, Dnieper, and at last the Danube Rivers. In this movement, they had to successively fight and defeat other nomadic tribes, such as the Bulgars, Khazars, and Petchenegs. It was finally the pressure of the Petchenegs and Bulgars who drove the Magyars into Europe. As they entered eastern Europe, they encountered the power of the Byzantine Empire, which hired them as mercenaries and introduced them to Christianity; likewise, Germanic kings hired them to aid in fighting the Slavs.

By the ninth century a.d., the Magyars had moved into central Europe under the leadership of Arpad. Under his direction, some 150,000 men entered the Hungarian plain; they defeated the Slavs and Alans, settled there, and used it as a base for further raiding into German and Italian lands. The Magyars became the permanent occupants of this region. Magyar soldiers under Arpad ranged successfully into Italy as far as Milan and Pavia in 899, finally leaving upon receiving sufficient bribes. The Magyars fought in much the same style as the Huns and were precursors to the Mongol invasion of Europe. Employing mostly light cavalry and archers, they avoided close contact with their enemies, harassing them into exhaustion and then exploiting any openings. Unlike their Hunnish kin, the bows they employed were straighter than the standard curved bow of the steppe peoples. They also carried a slightly curved sword, which they adopted from the Alans, and at times they fought with a mace. The heavy cavalry developed in western Europe at this time did not at first succeed against the Magyars, but over time the westerners adopted some of the eastern tactics and began to have more success.

For a time, the Magyars allied themselves with various Germanic principalities and accepted bribes to leave one region alone or attack another. By 907, however, Magyar interest in Germany forced competing nobles into cooperation. Luitpold of Bavaria allied with Ditmar, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Their efforts proved futile as the Magyars defeated them at Presburg. In the 920s, the Magyars raided as far as the Champagne region of France, into northern Italy again, and as far as the Pyrenees. The Magyars created as much terror as the Vikings were doing from the north, but the Germanic nobles soon began to prevail against them. Henry the Fowler, king of Saxony, defeated the Magyars in 933 at Merseburg, inflicting 36,000 Magyar casualties. He and his successors began fortifying the frontier, and that lessened the frequency of the Magyar raids, while the Bavarians began to raid Magyar lands.

Henry’s successor on the Saxon throne was Otto, a son by his second wife. Otto spent much of his early reign putting down rebellions while at the same time dealing with the troublesome Magyars. As late as 954, Otto was still defeating surly vassals, while the Magyars were organizing for a major offensive into western Europe.

In 925, the Magyars had formed an alliance with Hugh of Provence. They cooperated with him in campaigns against rival Italian rulers as well as the Moslem kingdom of Cordoba, which threatened to expand past the Pyrenees. In 954, the Magyars convinced Hugh to allow them free passage through his southwestern French province of Provence. With a force of between 50,000 and 100,000, the Magyars swept through Bavaria and through central France as far as the southeastern province of Aquitaine. Such an attack strengthened Otto in his appeals to the German nobility to rally around his standard and fight a common enemy. Otto, after suppressing an uprising by Conrad of Franconia, put an army in the field in the late summer of 954, but failed to locate and engage the Magyars.

The Battle

In 955, the Magyars once again rode into southern Germany. Their leadership consisted of two men: the civil leader of the Magyars was the harka, a position held by Bulcsú; the military commander’s position was that of gyula, held by Lél. Their intent seems to have been to defeat the Germanic princes sufficiently to protect the extended frontiers that the Magyars wanted to maintain around their adopted homeland, which stretched from Transylvania in modern Rumania into Austria. They had devastated a large buffer zone around their lands to discourage invasion and apparently wanted to keep that buffer zone intact as well as make sure no neighbor was strong enough to restrain their raids into western Europe. They started their campaign in an unusual manner. Rather than engage in their standard light cavalry sweeps, they approached the city of Augsburg and prepared to lay siege. This they began on 8 August, but the siege was lifted after a single day with the news of Otto’s approaching army. The Magyars moved to the nearby Lech River and set up camp.

Otto’s army comprised units from Bavaria, Saxony, Franconia, Swabia, and Bohemia. Establishing their camp somewhat upriver from the Magyars, Otto ordered his men to fast the night before the battle in order to pray and purify themselves. Knowing that their force of 10,000 faced one five times their strength probably was sufficient to keep most of the men too nervous to eat anyway. They celebrated mass the following morning and then mounted and rode toward the Magyar army. The German force was comprised mainly of heavy cavalry, and they hoped to use their superior weight and mass to overwhelm the more numerous but lighter enemy. Henry the Fowler had accomplished just that in his victory 30 years earlier, and Otto hoped to repeat his father’s victory.

Otto moved his men over rough terrain in a column of units broken down by their nationality. The leading three units were Bavarians, followed by Franconians led by the previously rebellious Conrad; Otto commanded the Saxons in the middle of the column, followed by two units of Swabians and the Bohemian cavalry in the rear. As they rode down the eastern side of the Lech, they failed to notice a force of Magyar cavalry riding in the opposite direction on the western side. This almost proved their undoing. The lighter Magyar cavalry crossed the river and swung down on the Bohemians in the rear, who were escorting the army’s baggage train. This surprise attack scattered the Bohemians, and the two Swabian units to their front soon fled as well.

Caught between two large forces, Otto’s army should have been crushed. They were not because of poor coordination between the flanking force and the main body of the Magyar army to his front. They also were aided by the Magyars themselves, who stopped their attack in order to loot the baggage train. This one mistake has cost innumerable victories for armies throughout history, yet it is a lesson that rarely seems to be learned. Otto ordered Conrad’s Franconians out of column and to the rear, where they came quickly upon the dismounted pillagers and ran over them. Most of the Magyars fled with what they could carry, leaving behind what prisoners they had captured in their initial success.

With his rear now unthreatened, Otto deployed his force out of column into line, facing the main Magyar host. His knights began their charge in good order, presenting a solid heavy mass bearing down on the oncoming Magyar army. As the two armies headed for their collision, Otto is said to have shouted, “They surpass us, I know, in numbers, but neither in weapons nor in courage. We know also that they are quite without the help of God, which is of the greatest comfort to us” (Guttman, “Survival of the Strong”). This sounds more like a prebattle speech, but such is the nature of legend. As the two armies bore down on each other, the Magyars loosed a volley of arrows, but the knights raised their shields just in time to deflect most of them. Before the Magyars could let go another volley, the Germans were on them.

As Otto had hoped, the stability of his line made its weight overpowering, and the lighter armed and armored Magyars began to fall back. Lél ordered a portion of his cavalry to fall back in mock retreat, hoping to encourage the Germans to break their ranks in pursuit, but their discipline brought the Magyar ruse to naught. As the Magyars began fleeing the German onslaught, they had nowhere to retreat but into the Lech, where many drowned. Others fled to local villages, but the inhabitants either over-whelmed them or pointed out their hiding places to the German troops when they arrived scouring the area for prisoners. For 2 days, Otto’s men rounded up the Magyar survivors. Many of them were executed, but the rest were sent home minus ears or noses.

The opening attack on the German rear guard to the final rout of the Magyar army took 10 hours. That, coupled with the rounding up of stragglers, virtually destroyed this Magyar force, but another, larger army remained in the east in defense of the homeland. Otto decided against invading, but he had no need to do so. This serious defeat changed the attitude of the Magyar population. Seeing that a strong and united Germany stood against them, they realized that their days of raiding were over. Unlike the Huns previously or the Mongols later, the Magyars did not return to their eastern roots. The leaders who rose to power in the wake of the battle of Lechfeld were descendants of the great Magyar leader Arpad, and they established what became the kingdom of Hungary (from the Magyar word Onogur, Ten Arrows, an ancient tribal confederation). The population, which traditionally were animists, soon were converted to Christianity, and that brought them into the community of European nations.

At home in Hungary, they settled down to a more stable and civilized lifestyle under the leadership of Duke Geyza in the 970s. As Christianity replaced their Asiatic animistic and totemic beliefs, the Magyars began showing a toleration and acceptance of other cultures. King Stephen (997–1038) defended his homeland from takeover by the Holy Roman Empire and acquired from the pope the authority over a national church. Stephen oversaw the construction of monasteries and cathedrals and for his efforts and example was later canonized. The Magyar language became and remains the official language of Hungary; but for the battle at Lechfeld, it may have been the language of much of western Europe. For all their terrorism of the west, it was the Hungarians who defended western Europe from the Ottoman Turks as they fought to capture Vienna and expand the Moslem faith into Europe in the sixteenth century.

Otto received widespread recognition for his victory, being given the title “emperor” by the Byzantines and given the same title by Pope John XII in 962. Visiting Rome in that year, Otto reconfirmed the temporal power of the pope as Charlemagne had done almost two centuries earlier. Under Otto, however, the pope was to be a vassal of the Germanic king that took the title Holy Roman Emperor. Although the geographic entity of the Holy Roman Empire was fluid over the succeeding centuries, the position of emperor lasted until 1806. Otto was serious in his intent to control the pope, for in 963 he deposed John XII and replaced him with the more pliant Leo VIII. Leo was followed after his death in 965 by another of Otto’s appointees, John XIII, after a military campaign into Italy crushing Roman opposition to the installation. The link between emperor and pope proved to be a tenuous one, with one alternately exercising authority over the other through the next several centuries, but the linking of the Germanic states and the Italian ones proved to be the primary power structure in Europe until the rise of Spain in the sixteenth century. Although Germany failed to unify under any single leader until 1871, Austria came out of this struggle as the state from which the Holy Roman Empire would be run.

References:

Balász, György, and Károly Szelényi. The Magyars: The Birth of a European Nation. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1989; Guttman, Jon. “Survival of the Strong,” Military History 8(2), August 1991; Markov, Walter. Battles of World History. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1979; Vambery, Arminius. Hungary in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Times. Hallandale, FL: New World Books, 1972.

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