Battle of Lechfeld: Germans defeat Magyars

 
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Battle of Lechfeld: Germans defeat Magyars

Battle of Lechfeld, illustration by Hektor Mülich (1457)
From Sigmund Meisterlin's codex of history of Nuremburg
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 10, 955 AD

Today's stroll through military history highlights one of the important – but little-known – battles of European history. It involved forces of the Eastern Frankish (read German) kingdom and the nomadic horse-raiders of the Magyars, later to become the founders of the kingdom of Hungary.

Background

Charlemagne, ruler of the Frankish Empire (768-814) united large portions of western Europe, creating the first major successor to the Roman Empire since its ending in the mid-late fifth century AD. Upon his death in 814, his son Louis the Pious ruled the united realm for nearly 30 year. However, when he died in 840, his three sons fought a civil war over the succession to the throne. Finally, in 843, the Treaty of Verdun divided the Carolingian kingdom into three distinct realms.

East Francia became the basis of the German kingdom and later the Holy Roman Empire. West Francia evolved into France, and Middle Francia only survived until the death of Lothair – grandson of Charlemagne – in 869. The lands of Middle Francia were then divided between the other two nations. By the mid-tenth century, East Francia ruled an area that included the modern nations of Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, the Netherlands, and portions of Belgium, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.

Carolingian Empire divided, by Treaty of Verdun (843); West Francia in red, Middle Francia in green, East Francia in yellow
Carolingian Empire divided, by Treaty of Verdun (843)
West Francia in red, Middle Francia in green, East Francia in yellow

One of the biggest threats to the German kingdom was the Magyar tribal confederation. These raiders – whose likely homeland was the southern Ural Mountains of Russia – spoke a language most closely related to Finnish. They probably acquired their horse and raiding culture from their neighbors, which included the Alans, the Pechenegs, and the Bulgars. In about 895-896, the Magyars migrated westward into the area north of Adriatic Sea, and west of the Carpathian Mountains, known as the Pannonian Plain. [This is the same area that was the heartland of the Hunnic Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries AD.] The Magyars easily occupied this vast, fertile grassland, enslaving or pushing out the Slavic peoples who had already settled there.

Soon after occupying the Pannonian Plain, the Magyars began to raid much of western Europe, mostly Germany and France, but some raids reached as far as the Spanish border and into northern Italy. These mounted raiders became nearly as feared as the Vikings, who were making nuisances of themselves all along the European coastlines during the same time period.

Prelude to the Battle

In August of 936 Otto – oldest son of the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler – was crowned Duke of Saxony and King of the Germans a month after his father died. His right to rule was almost immediately challenged, and within three years of his coronation, Otto faced a number of ducal rebellions (especially 937 and 939). On occasion, these rebellions would be timed to coincide with Magyar raids and invasions. Otto sponsored the construction of border defenses to cut down on the effectiveness of the Hungarian attacks.

The Magyars in 954 launched a large-scale invasion of Bavaria, then continued on into central France as far as the southeastern province of Aquitaine. Otto used this raid as a pretext to convince the German dukes to rally around his standard and oppose Magyar invasions. In late summer, Otto had just put down another rebellion, this time by Conrad of Franconia. He put an army into the field, but never came to grips with the Magyars.

The next year, Otto put down another rebellion. In late June, he received word that another Magyar invasion force had crossed into his domain, raiding into Bavaria. Acting quickly, Otto sent word to his major dukes to gather their troops and meet him near Neuberg. Otto hoped to either attack the Magyars directly, or to intercept them during their retreat.

Otto the Great, in Romanesque stained glass; At the Cathedral of Our Lady, Strasbourg, France
Otto the Great, in Romanesque stained glass
At the Cathedral of Our Lady, Strasbourg, France

After making arrangements to keep troops in duchies which could face enemy raids, Otto received a message that the Magyars were headed for the city of Augsburg on the Lech River. Augsburg was an important intersection of many important European east-west and north-south connections, which later evolved as major trade routes of the Middle Ages. It was also near several of the major Alpines passes which gave access to Italy and its markets.

The Magyars laid siege to Augsburg, starting sometime in early August. On August 8, the invaders launched a massive assault on the town's eastern gate. The city walls were vigorously defended by the garrison under the command of Bishop Ulrich, Chronicles claim he motivated the garrison by constantly reciting the 23rd Psalm ("yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…"). The attack was broken off when Magyar scouts reported the approaching German relief force. The Magyar commander ordered his men across the Wertach River, which merged with the Lech River just north of Augsburg, and they prepared a laager (fortified camp) and made their plans to meet the Germans.

Otto and his German army approached the vicinity of Augsburg, established a camp north of the town on August 9. Mass was said for the whole army, and the soldiers fasted. [They were probably too nervous and wound up to eat anyway.] The king and his dukes made their plans, then went to bed, anticipating a vigorous battle in the morning. Sometime before dawn, the German army broke camp and prepared for battle.

German Army

Later Frankish (German) heavy cavalry, c. AD 950 (Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_102a_figure_1.htm)
Later Frankish (German) heavy cavalry, c. AD 950
(Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_102a_figure_1.htm)

Otto's army was mainly composed of heavy cavalry, probably some light cavalry, and an unknown number of infantry. The best guess-timate of its size is somewhere around 3-4000 men, perhaps as large as 8000. It was divided into eight divisions. It included three units of Bavarians (placed in front because the army was traveling through their native land, and it was thought they knew the terrain)[A]. Next came a division of Franconians [B], led by their Duke Conrad the Red, who had recently rebelled against Otto, was pardoned, and appointed Duke of Franconia. Next was the royal division [C], composed of a combination of Saxons, Thuringians, and King Otto's bodyguard troops. Following them were two divisions of Swabians [D]. Bringing up the rear was a division of Bohemians [E], led by their Duke Boleslav. For whatever reason, King Otto assigned the Bohemians the job of guarding the army's baggage train.

Magyar Army

Magyar light cavalryman, c. AD 950 (Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_107_figure_1.htm)
Magyar light cavalryman, c. AD 950
(Image courtesy of http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_107_figure_1.htm)

The numbers for the Magyar force are even more problematic. Some scholars think it may have numbered up to 50,000 men, but modern historians have put the number closer to 10-25,000. It was composed mainly of horse archers [I, J], using steppe tactics learned in their migration from the southern Urals. In addition, there was likely a number of peasant militia [G] and foot archers [H], probably for city assaults during the expedition. In addition, there were likely some heavy cavalry armed and armored in a fashion similar to the German heavy horseman; they were probably only bodyguard units for the Magyar leaders.

Battle of Lechfeld

Battle of Lechfeld, August 10, AD 955; Initial dispositions [Image is authors work, based on map in "Campbridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages 768-1487" by Nicholas Hooper and Matthew Bennet (1996)]
Battle of Lechfeld, August 10, AD 955; Initial dispositions
[Image is author's work, based on map in "Campbridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare:
The Middle Ages 768-1487" by Nicholas Hooper and Matthew Bennet (1996)]

Otto and his army began marching in line of column, heading south to confront the Magyars besieging Augsburg. The local terrain was generally heavy forest, but closer to Augsburg was a the pebbly, stony plain that was the leftovers of glacial action hundreds of thousands of years before. This area, called the Lechfeld, dominated the area north and south of Augsburg, especially the area between the Lech River and its local tributaries the Wertach and the Schmutter. The Germans followed an old Roman road which led south directly to Augsburg.

As Otto's army marched south on the western bank of the Lech, apparently no one paid attention to a Magyar force galloping north along the east bank of the same stream [F]. The Magyar leaders decided to use a portion of their army to confront the approaching Germans, while a flanking force was sent to attack the rear of the German column. The hope was that the Germans would be disconcerted by the twin attacks, panic, and flee the field.

Battle of Lechfeld, Attack by Magyar flank force, rout of Bohemians & Swabians
Battle of Lechfeld, Attack by Magyar flank force, rout of Bohemians & Swabians

Consequently, the first action of the day occurred when the Hungarian flanking force attacked the Bohemian division guarding the army's baggage. The attack was so sudden and unexpected, the Bohemians broke and ran (1). The Magyar horse archers then continued their attack, galloping southward and contacting the Swabians. These men apparently put up some resistance to the rear attack by the enemy, but before long they were also routing (2). [It makes sense to me that both the Bohemians and Swabians would ride toward their comrades. They would likely have stopped when encountering the division commanded by their ruler and report on the Magyar attack from the rear.]

At this point, the Magyars made their first mistake. Instead of continuing their attack on the German column, the greedy horsemen returned to the rear of the German army and began looting the baggage train and taking prisoners, either for ranson or slavery (3).

When King Otto received news of the attack on his rear, he acted promptly. He ordered Conrad the Red to lead his legion of Franconians to the rear and directed them to drive off the rampaging Magyars. The Franconians accomplished their mission quickly, recovering much of the baggage and most of the men the Magyars hoped to carry off (4). Upon completion of their assigned mission, Conrad and his men returned to their position in the column of march (5). [It is likely the Bohemians and Swabians had reordered, and when Conrad and the Franconian knights returned with the baggage, it was once more assigned to the Bohemians.]

Battle of Lechfeld; attack of Franconians on Magyar flanking force
Battle of Lechfeld; attack of Franconians on Magyar flanking force

By this point, the lead elements of the Bavarian divisions had emerged from the forest. Coming out upon the Lechfeld, they observed the remainder of the Hungarian army. Messages from the flanking force had informed their leaders that the baggage train had been taken and the Swabians and Bohemians scattered. Expecting the rest of the German army to panic and retreat back across the Danube, the Magyar leadership had given the order for the army to return to their camp. They were probably in the process of leaving the field, in some disorder, when the Bavarian divisions began pouring onto the alluvial plain. The Magyar army was arrayed in a crescent, with the peasant infantry and foot archers in the center, with formations of horse archers on each wing.

Battle of Lechfeld; Germans deploy, begin the battle
Battle of Lechfeld; Germans deploy, begin the battle

King Otto quickly gave orders for the disposition of his forces. The Bavarians assumed position in the center of the German formation, with their infantry placed in the middle and the two divisions of cavalry on either side (6). Conrad the Red and his Franconians were sent to the left, and attempted to flank the Hungarian horse archers on the right wing (7). Otto and his division – consisting mainly of Saxons, Thuringians, and the king's household troops – swung to the right in an effort to outflank the Magyar mounted bowmen on the enemy's left wing (8). [No mention is made in the primary sources of what actions the re-ordered Swabian and Bohemian divisions took during the battle. I will assume they were held back as a reserve and guards for the army's baggage (9).]

The Bavarian contingents began a slow advance (10), while Conrad and his Franconians and Otto and his men made their threatening flanking moves. Knowing the Germans were more heavily armed and armored than themselves, the Magyar horse archers fell back (11), flattening out the two wings of the Hungarian crescent. This was exactly what King Otto wanted.

[A modern Hungarian historian hypothecized that a sudden summer thunderstrom occurred about this time, causing the Magyar horse archers to put their bows away to protect their bowstrings.] Taking advantage of Mother Nature's gift, Otto gave the signal for his heavy cavalry to charge the Magyars. In previous battles, the Magyars used their bows to disrupt the German formations, or to kill their enemy's horses. Apparently, the sudden attack of the German knights took the Magyars by surprise, and an uneven battle raged for hours. At some point during the battle, the Hungarian horsemen tried to use feigned retreats, to break the German battleline. But the Germans refused to be fooled, and their formations remained intact.

Finally, in mid-afternoon, the Magyars' morale failed, and a precipitous rout gripped the entire Hungarian army. They ran to the banks of the Lech River, where many of the Magyars drowned in the suddenly-swollen river. Many of the casualties suffered by the Magyars that day were sustained trying to escape the rampaging Germans, now in hot pursuit of the fleeing enemy.After a battle that had raged nearly the entire day, the battle of Lechfeld was over.

Aftermath

Otto and his Germans lost about 3000 men in the battle, while the Magyars lost about 1000 in the battle itself, with another 2000 likely killed in the rout afterwards. In addition, small groups of Hungarians tried to hide in local woods and farms. They were discovered by local farmers, who either killed the invaders themselves or directed German patrols to the enemy's hiding places, costing the Magyars another 1500 or so soldiers.

Footnote #1: King Otto spent the night after the battle in Augsburg. He gave orders that all local fords over the major rivers were to be guarded in hopes of capturing Magyar leaders. His plan succeeded, and all three major commanders of the Hungarian army were captured. Rather than holding them for ransom, the Hungarians were transported to Regensburg, and hanged.

Footnote #2: During the final stages of the battle, as the Magyars were routing, Conrad the Red and his men were chasing the fugitive Hungarians. Probably exhausted from all the action his Franconians had participated in, Conrad stopped and loosened the mail ventail which protected his neck during battle. Unfortunately for him, a stray Magyar arrow struck him in the now-exposed throat, killing him instantly.Conrad had fought bravely and well that day, probably trying to regain his honor and reputation, after his previous rebellion against Otto.

Footnote #3: Duke Boleslav of Bohemia had ascended to the rulership of this duchy by murdering his brother, Wenceslaus. This is the same duke memorialized in the Saint. Stephen's Day carol "Good King Wenceslaus." Saint Stephen's Day is celebrated on December 26; it is a public holiday in many European nations. In Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, it is celebrated as "Boxing Day."

Footnote #4: While this was a major victory for the Germans, the Magyars realized that the days of raiding western European lands were coming to an end. The Magyars began to settle down, became Christians shortly afterwards, and eventually joined the fraternity of nations of Europe.

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