Battle of Kosovo Field: Turks and Serbs Fight to Bloody Stalemate on "Field of the Blackbirds"

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Battle of Kosovo Field: Turks and Serbs Fight to Bloody Stalemate on "Field of the Blackbirds"

Today in Military History: June 23, 1389

For today's military history offering, I bring you one of the most famous – and yet totally confusing – battles of late 14th century eastern European history. This fight is immortalized by Serbian patriots and stands as the symbol of enormous heroic sacrifice in the face of inevitable subjugation by a foreign enemy.

Background: Kingdom of Serbia

The Balkan peninsula had broken up into warring sub-states, a legacy from the attack on the Byzantine capital by Western warriors of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. However, much of the political power had shifted to the Serbian kingdom. The Serbs had established a viable kingdom in about 1077, copying much of the pomp and ceremony from the Byzantines. They even managed to establish their own Serbian Orthodox Church, separate and distinct from the main Orthodox religion centered in Constantinople. Their kingdom encompassed much of what is today Albania, Macedonia, and parts of Bulgaria and Hungary, and later expanded into northern and central Greece. By about 1355, Serbia became the "top dog" of the Balkans, assuming the mantle formerly worn by the East Roman Empire to shield eastern and central Europe from the expansion of Islam.

Knez Lazar of Serbia (1329-1389)

The last truly great Tsar of the Serbs, Stefan Uroš Dušan, died in 1355. Though succeeded by his son Uroš, the royal dynasty ended in 1371, as Uros had died without issue. Thereafter, various Serbian warlords arose and laid their claims to various provinces, splintering the nation. In about 1370, Lazar Hrebeljanović took charge of the province of Moravian Serbia, one of the most powerful of the remaining Serbian provinces. Though never achieving the title of "tsar" of Serbia, he nonetheless was known as "knez" or prince. He married his five daughters off to various other Serbian provincial rulers, forging alliances in hopes of preserving their national integrity.

However, the inexorable march of the Ottomans was not his only problem. The Hungarians to the north sought to intrude on his lands. In fact, at one point Lazar even recognized the suzerainty of the Hungarians, which freed him to concentrate of preserving the Serbian nation. He also had to contend with a Bosnian kingdom to his northwest, ruled by Serbian nobleman Trvtko, who proclaimed himself "King Stefan of Bosnia and Serbia." Lazar never seriously challenged Trvtko, believing himself to be the de facto ruler and sole hope of the survival of Serbian independence.

The Ottoman Empire was still in its formative stages, flexing its muscles in Asia Minor in the mid- to late-14th century. The Byzantine Empire was fading away, but not giving up entirely. [On the map below, the East Romans in about 1355 still controlled Constantinople, portions of northeastern and southern Greece, and a few Aegean islands.] Soon, however, the Turks landed near Thessalonika in northern Greece, capturing the city in 1387. Using that city as a beachhead, the Ottomans began their expansion. First, they conquered the last European remnants of Byzantine territory, and forced the Bulgarian nation into vassalage. Their next target was the disintegrating Serbian nation.

Several smaller Serbian provinces submitted to the Turks. Using his ties of marriage to several neighboring nobles, Knez Lazar began working to forge a Christian coalition to oppose the rampaging Muslims. In August of 1388 a large Turkish raiding party (about 18,000 strong) was met and defeated by Serbian warlord Vlatko Vuković near Kosovo Field. This raiding party also gathered intelligence about the political situation in Serbia. In early 1389, the Turkish sultan gathered a larger army and determined to end the Serbian state for good.

Ottoman Turks' Military, Late Fourteenth Century

The armies of the Ottomans evolved over the course of its existence (1299-1921). It was originally composed almost exclusively of steppe horsemen-archers similar to the Mongols. Their prime motivation was acquiring loot. Starting with Murad I (ruled 1362-1389), major changes were instituted. Perhaps the most revolutionary was the creation of a paid, standing army, the first one in the Near East since the original Roman Empire. Unlike many of the nations of Europe, who raised armies at need, Murad founded the nucleus of the Ottoman standing army.

Janissary archers

This standing army had two major components: the janissaries, and the sipahis. The janissaries were former Christian children, taken as slaves in the Ottoman conquest. These boys were forcibly converted to Islam, then trained as foot soldiers. In this time period, their main weapons were the axe, the bow, the lance and the yataghan. The latter was a single-edge sword with a forward curve (see below). The janissaries-to-be were chosen for their physical size and intelligence, with latter being trained as engineers, architects, physicians, even prime minister to the sultan. They were expert archers, and would later adopt muskets as their primary weapons. Janissaries were also considered unequaled artillerymen and grenadiers.

The sipahis were the elite cavalry contingent of the army. At this time period, they were recruited in the same manner as the janissaries. They served as the sultan's bodyguard on the battlefield, also guarding his advisors. As needed, the sipahis could be used to strengthen other cavalry division of the Ottoman army. The sipahis wore plated mail (see below), chainmail, round shields, composite bows, lances, maces, and axes.

Turkish plated mail (in Topkapi museum, Istanbul)

With the core of the two abovementioned units, the Turkish sultan would then put out the call for further forces. One component was the akinci, often-mounted light cavalry that acted as scouts and irregulars (see below). These troops were the successors of the religion-crazed soldiers of the original Islamic expansion of the 7th and 8th centuries. In battle, they usually skirmished with the enemy horsemen, employing the hit-and-run tactics of the steppe ancestors. They employed the bow, the lance, the sword and the battle axe. They wore outlandish outfits – including leopard skins, feathers, or helmets with bulls' horns – and their own people called them "deliler" (or the crazies).

The next troop type used by the Turks was the timariot. These horsemen were the nearest Turkish equivalent of the classic European knight. Soldiers who had proved their bravery or battle skill were often awarded fiefs (called timar). The timariot, essentially local militia, had to assemble with the army when at war, and had to take care of the land entrusted to him in times of peace. When at war, the timariot had to bring his own equipment and in addition a number of armed retainers, depending on the size of the timar. As with most Turkish soldiers, the timariot was skilled with the bow, the lance and the sword, using tactics similar to the Mongols.

Finally, when needed, every town and village were obliged to provide a fully equipped conscript at the recruiting office created by the order of the Sultan. This new force of irregular infantrymen was called the azabs and they were used in many ways: to build roads and bridges for the army, to support the supplies for the front-line, and sometimes they were even used as cannon fodder to slow down enemy advance. The başıbozuk (literally "damaged head" or possibly "leaderless" or "disorderly") were a branch of the azabs especially recruited among the homeless and criminals. They were fierce, undisciplined, and specialized in close combat.

Tomorrow: The Battle of Kosovo Field 

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"a Bosnian kingdom to his northwest, ruled by Serbian nobleman Trvtko"
Tvrtko's title as the "King of Bosnia and Serbs" is often cited by Serb fascists today (and over the centuries) as "proof" that in fact Tvrtko was a Serb and, of course, Bosnia - a Serbian nation/kingdom.
Please don't fall for this nonsensical propaganda ploy intended for illiterate peasants.
The title "and Serbs" -- was just that -- a title. A medieval ruler could style himself as a "king" or "duke" of, well - anything. Titular claims - do not mean a darn thing without actual possession of lands.
In the same fashion - the Serbian Tzars - styled themselves as "Tzar of Serbs and Greeks" , even before the Serbian expansion into Thessaly.
Does this mean that either Stefan Dusan or Uros V were Greeks? o_0

It's very simple - Tvrtko was a Catholic ruler, and a Bosniak. Bosnia was overwhelmingly a Catholic nation, with Orthodoxy present only in southeastern Hertzegovina. Then- as today - religious affiliation was not just a closely related indicator of nationality - but the Defining Factor of national identity.
After the collapse of central power in Serbia, with the death of last emperor, Tvrtko had his eye on Serbian lands - and entered one of his dreams into his title. Just like countless other rulers, large and small, throughout history.
Why does this matter? Why bother to write this comment? -- Because it was one of the excuses for Serbian expansion in the last century, denial of nationhood to Bosniaks, and an excuse for genocide, my good sir.
It matters.

"Serbian warlord Vlatko Vuković"
Vlatko Vukovic was the Duke of Hertzegovina, a Bosniak, a Catholic.
Just one of the contingents in that battle, who rushed to aid of his neighbors.
At Ottoman invasion of Bosnia, 1463, Vukovic's put up a great fight again, while the king fled westward.

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