By the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the era of heavy cavalry in the form of the armored knight was declining. In France the English longbow was reestablishing the dominance of the infantry; the Swiss pikemen were doing the same with a reborn but more effective phalanx. Neither of these developments, however, had reached eastern Europe by the time of the Hussite wars, so the German aristocrats still dominated the invading armies. On the other hand, they were hardly the only military arm deployed in combat; infantry, especially cross-bowmen, outnumbered the mounted knights.
The relative importance of the knights is the subject of much debate. Some scholars have argued that in spite of the increasing number of infantry from the lower classes, the aristocrats were still the dominant arm with their heavy cavalry. The charge of the heavy horse breaking through anything in its way was receding, but it could still play a decisive role in coordination with the other arms. The early Middle Ages (up to about 1300) actually saw few wars and few battles outside the Crusades, so the knights suffered few casualties in European warfare, which may have given impetus to the concept of their bravery and overall success.
The knights had reached the apogee of body armor by the time of the Hussite wars. Chain mail continued to be used by soldiers in the fourteenth century, but as longbows and crossbows were able to break the rings and penetrate, new, more capable defensive wear was needed. Ultimately, this led to the development of plate armor, initiated in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and lasting well into the sixteenth century. Plate armor was developed first for the upper body and later for the limbs as well. The suits of armor for which knights are today best known were a trade-off between protection and weight. A standard suit of armor weighted fifty to sixty pounds. Thus, an unhorsed rider was at the mercy of swarming infantry, especially on muddy terrain. While astride his charger, however, armed with a strong straight sword and with a lance supported by a bracket fastened to the breastplate (an arrét de cuirasse), the heavy cavalryman of the fifteenth century remained a formidable warrior when intelligently used.
Siege warfare dominated the era, and infantry was a vital component. After the start of the fourteenth century, as battles became more frequent and casualties mounted, what had once been chivalric combat between Christian soldiers became class warfare. Perhaps the most convincing reason for the increased numbers of battles after 1300 is that infantry was beginning to dominate the battlefield. Although several battles during the Middle Ages had been fought using primarily infantry and in some instances these troops had been victorious, the myth of cavalry superiority prevailed. Perhaps the fact that the defeated aristocrats were saved for ransom while defeated peasants were without financial worth finally motivated the peasants to see killing knights as retribution for being ignored. Certainly the increasing sense of freedom and self-worth felt by Hus’s peasant followers could account for their disregard for the lifestyle, and the lives, of their “betters.”
Infantry training came from an almost guild-like organization in the cities and towns. As military historian Dennis Showalter suggests, “If each task had its specific skill, taught and supported by specific guilds and craft brotherhoods, was it not correspondingly reasonable to divide up the labor of military service, and to provide specialists in this craft as in all the others? From a few experienced captains and armorers held on retainer, the permanent armed forces of Europe’s cities and city-states tended to increase during the fourteenth century.” Infantry levies were expected to provide their own weapons and acquired some training either at fairs or under the direction of local commanders. As in all militia, training standards varied wildly and there was no training in cooperation with the cavalry. In Germanic states the basic unit of manpower was the gleve, numbering up to ten men with at least one horseman in the group. This varied, however: in Swabia a gleve denoted four horses; in Nuremberg, it meant two horses and a spearman; in Strasbourg, five horses; in Regensburg, one spearman, one archer and three horses. Further, there could be a variety of attendants, servants (who may or may not have fought), and archers. Each city had a set number of gleven they were to provide when called upon. Ten gleven were commanded by a hauptman (captain), a hundred commanded by an oberhauptman.
Infantry tended to carry what weapons were handy: townspeople used clubs or spears, peasants employed farm implements. The only infantry technology was the bow and crossbow. Although crossbows were easy to use and required little training, there were still some professionals (like the Genoese) who were specialists and widely used as mercenaries. By the early 1400s the crossbow had evolved into a sophisticated weapon made of steel. Although it could launch a bolt at a high velocity, the increased power required increased technical measures to cock the bow, which lowered the rate of fire. The crossbow’s penetrating power versus the knight’s armor led to a constant game of tag through the medieval period, and a crossbowman had minimal time to launch a bolt and reload with a cavalry charge approaching at high speed. Only large units of crossbowmen behind some sort of protective screen could hope to break a charge once it was under way. Generally, crossbowmen tried to prevent cavalry’s forming-up process with harassing fire, for they were lambs at the slaughter in an open field.
It was these types of soldiers and weapons the Hussites faced: heavy cavalry to break an enemy’s line followed by infantry to take advantage of the disorder. Thus, the best way to defend against such an assault was, as noted above, from behind some sort of protective screen. Žižka made defense the key to his battles, but kept his defense mobile by employing wagons that had been specially adapted to stop arrows or bolts and to provide a position for missile fire to cause disorder among the attackers. The concept of circling wagons to provide a quick defensive position had been used at least as early as the Roman experience in Gaul. A Gothic wagon fort was employed at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, and the practice was used regularly by the Byzantines. The Mongols likewise used the tactic, and brought the practice into Eurasia. It has been suggested that the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg retreated into what came to be called a wagenburg, or wagon fort. The formation was also called a tabor, from the Czech word for camp. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor Dupuy call it “one of the simplest and most effective tactical systems in history.”
Žižka’s contribution was to use wagons as specially constructed war machines that could create a sophisticated defense; this became the main part of his tactics. He started with common baggage wagons and modified them for maximum defense. First, he had a quick release harness developed to get the horses away from the wagon and the harness poles made removable to get the wagons end to end as close to each other as possible. The wagons were then chained together and any gaps between them covered with a removable shield called a pavise. An extra wall of boards was suspended from the side facing the enemy, with the bottom board covering the wheels and access underneath. This board had loopholes for crossbow fire. On the opposite side an opening, often with a ramp, facilitated reinforcement and resupply. Each wagon was ten feet long and held a crew of sixteen made up of crossbowmen and hand gunners as well as soldiers with threshing flails and polearms such as halberds. Completing the wagenburg were small cannon placed between the wagons.
Even though the concept of a wagenburg was not new, Žižka perfected it by constantly training his drivers. On hand or flag signals they could very quickly deploy into circle, square, or triangle formation. Signal flags raised on the leading and trailing wagon of each file controlled the maneuvers. The wagon line moved ahead in four columns: two outer ones and two inner ones. The wheels of the tabor were large and usually iron rimmed. The front pair projected out slightly from the body, allowing one front wheel to be locked into place with the rear wheel of another tabor and chained together. The forming up and chaining together took one to two hours. Given more advance notice of the enemy approach, the Hussites would strengthen the position with ditches and throw the excavated dirt under the wagons for extra security against infiltration. The first time Žižka used the formation he had but seven wagons, but as his army grew he regularly deployed 180 wagons, which created a position some 2,500 yards in circumference.
While peasants provided the bulk of the manpower, Žižka did have some nobles in his army with cavalry expertise. They stayed within the wagenburg until the enemy charge had been broken; then the defenders would open a gap and the cavalry would engage in pursuit. The infantry were the backbone of the army, however. They were protected by whatever armor they could scavenge after the battles, so there were no standardized uniforms. Since most soldiers did their fighting behind wagon walls, helmets were the most necessary armor. The broad-brimmed iron “kettle hat” was the typical helmet of the Germanic lands and appeared in many slightly varied forms. Weapons included standard swords and maces, supplemented with peasant farm tools: knives, hatchets, pitchforks, and scythes. The threshing flail, with spikes added, became the Hussite trademark weapon. In yet another change from normal warfare, peasant women also aided in building defenses and even engaged in combat. After one battle in 1420, Hungarians captured 156 armed Hussite women dressed as men. In another battle in 1422, Hussite women fought openly alongside the men, often with the same intensity and ferocious zeal as the men, for they were involved in a holy war. The last reference to Hussite women in battle was in 1428.
Perhaps most important in the Hussite arsenal was the use of gunpowder weapons. While they certainly did not invent them or even improve on them, almost all use of such weapons to this time had been only in sieges. The handguns were basic in construction: an iron tube some sixteen inches long was fastened to the end of a short wooden pole, long enough to hold firmly under the arm but short enough for the gunner to reach the rear of the tube with a smoldering wick to light the touchhole. The weapon was somewhere between .50 and .70 caliber. It was virtually impossible to aim, so only had any effect when fired at a crowd. In German sources these are referred to as Pfeifenbüchsen or “pipe guns,” a reference to the musical instrument rather than to a tobacco pipe. In Czech the expression is pistala or pischtjala, meaning a fife. This may be the origin of the word pistol.
Some sources say slightly larger guns were mounted within the wagons, but the cramped conditions make this unlikely. The somewhat larger tarasnice (a small cannon) was mounted on a stand and placed behind the pavises between the wagons. Later, the even larger houfnice (from which comes the word howitzer) was mounted on wheels. Both handguns and tarasnice had been in general use since the 1380s, and it should be noted that Žižka didn’t make any innovations in gunpowder weaponry. It was his tactical exploitation of the devices from mobile bases that mark his contribution to warfare. As Charles Oman comments, “It was evident that these war-waggons, when once placed in order, would be impregnable to a cavalry charge: however vigorous the impetus of the mail-clad knight might be, it would not carry him through oaken planks and iron links.”