Battle of Aussig: Hussites Besiegers Defeat German Relief Force

 
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Battle of Aussig: Hussites Besiegers Defeat German Relief Force

"Battle of Aussig" by Věnceslav Černý, date unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 16, 1426

Today's historical spotlight falls upon one of the most fascinating wars of the late Middle Ages: the Hussite Wars of Religion (1419-1434). It had equal portions of religious strife and temporal turmoil, as the mostly peasant, lower-class Hussites opposed the nobility of the Catholic Germans.

Background

Modern map of Czech Republic, western and central portions are ancient Bohemia; Town of Usti nad Labem is the modern-day name for Aussig. Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/place/Czech-Republic
Modern map of Czech Republic, western and central portions are ancient Bohemia
Town of Usti nad Labem is the modern-day name for Aussig.
Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/place/Czech-Republic

The rebellious anti-Catholic sect known as the Hussites were still bedeviling the Holy Roman Empire in 1426, after seven years of intermittent fighting. Since the 1415 execution of Jan Hus, who preached reform of the Catholic Church, the Bohemian Hussites sought to have their beliefs recognized by the church – and by extension the Holy Roman Empire. But they were disappointed as Sigismund, King of Bohemia and the Romans (later to become Holy Roman Emperor), called for action to put down the heretical rebels.

In March of 1420, Pope Martin V (reigned 1417-1431) called for a crusade to "for the destruction of the Wycliffites, Hussites and all other heretics in Bohemia." The first anti-Hussite crusade ended in failure, so a second crusade was preached in 1421; it also resulted in defeat for the Catholic Crusaders.

Not ones to sit idly by, the Hussite leadership launched expeditions against individual cities and towns in the region of Bohemia that resisted them. One of these towns was Aussig (today known as Ústí nad Labem). It was a trade and manufacturing center on the Elbe River. Its population was mostly of German descent, and had a garrison consisting of Saxons – another reason why the Hussites targeted the town.

Prelude to the Battle

In the spring of 1426, the Hussites surrounded Aussig, putting the town under siege. Word of the encirclement reached Frederick I, the Margrave of Meissen and Elector of Saxony, the ruler of Aussig. Frederick's nom de guerre was "the Belligerent" or "the Warlike." He had participated in a number of campaigns against the Hussites, winning a number of battles. Frederick sent out a call for troops to relieve the siege. The majority of the troops came from Saxony, Thuringia, and Silesia. Frederick's relief force arrived at Aussig on June 15, made camp and prepared to break the Hussite blockade of the town.

Hussite Army

The core of the Hussite army – minor nobility, merchants, craftsmen, and peasants – were ill-equipped to wage a stand-up fight against the German knights, men-at-arms, and professional mercenaries that composed the Crusader armies that came against them. With so many craftsmen and artisans in their forces, the Hussite leadership ordered them to construct a new weapon: the hradba vozova or war wagon. It was also known as a "tabor."

The use of wagons or carts in wartime actually goes back to at least the 4th century AD, when the Goths used a wagon laager as a defense against a Roman army at the battle of Adrianople in AD 378. The tactics developed for Hussite forces used the tabor as the heart of its system.

The body of the tabor was a rectangle of stout planking some 3-4 feet high from the floor. Additional boards were fixed to the top of these sides with hinges. These could be raised and fixed in place forming a tall shed-like structure (usually roofless but not always). The sides of these boards were pierced to allow archers, handgunners and crossbowmen to fire on the enemy with maximum protection. [The Hussites were one of the first armies of the Middle Ages to deploy large numbers of handguns, in addition to the usual bows and crossbows.] Some of the later tabors were further modified with doors or a ramp on one side to allow the crews to disembark on the inner side of the laager.

The tabors also had a large container filled with stones, either attached to the rear of the tabor or held within it. This was to increase stability and to provide additional missiles for the crew. Slung below the body of the tabor was another hinged large plank, pierced with firing slits. This plank could be lowered to close off the space under the tabor, helping to prevent enemy infantry gaining access to the tabor laager and allowing defending infantry to fire from comparative safety.

The tabors also carried large mantlets or pavises (shields) that could be attached between them to provide additional protection for defenders. These were generally used when a 'quick' or extended defensive formation was required.

Modern reconstruction of a Hussite tabor (war wagon)
Modern reconstruction of a Hussite tabor (war wagon)

The wheels of the tabor were large and usually iron rimmed. The front pair projected out slightly from the body. This was done to allow one front wheel to be locked into place with the rear wheel of another tabor and chained together. This method of securing the tabors together was for two reasons. The first was enhanced stability. In this locked position it was almost impossible for enemy infantry to overturn the tabor. The second was for tactical advantage. The interlocking tabors formed a series of enfilading fire zones. This method eventually became the norm for a defensive tabor formation but as it required greater effort and time to construct, this meant the tabors could form an in-line defense using the pavises and chains to cover the larger gaps. The chains were also used to secure the front and rear wheels together (at their closest point); this helped to prevent the tabor being manhandled out of the defensive line.

The tabors could be formed either into a circular or square formation, or laager. They were usually deployed in groups of 10 under a single officer. When a large defensive perimeter was used – and time allowed – the army would dig a deep ditch surrounding the entire laager. Some of the Hussite army's pikemen, halberdiers, and flailmen would be positioned in front of the war wagons and behind the ditch.

Hussite haufnitze, which could fire solid shot or canister (Illustration courtesy of http://getasword.com)
Hussite haufnitze, which could fire solid shot or canister
(Illustration courtesy of http://getasword.com)

In addition, the Hussites used a number of small (relative term) caliber cannon (similar to the one depicted above). These were called haufnitze, with a bore of 8-12 inches and it also had a short body allowing it to be wagon-mounted. The name is probably the origin of the modern word "howitzer." The wagons for the haufnitze would have been especially constructed to cope with the recoil. The Hussites did mount a number of the smaller cannon on fixed wagon frames from which they could, allegedly, be fired. The availability of these large cannon would have been limited as they were extremely hard to cast.

Although not used in vast numbers these Hussite field pieces added significantly to their firepower, particularly as it is likely that the haufnitze was used to fire a primitive form of canister at point-blank range. The Hussites also used handguns, which were also firing canister at very close range. There were large numbers of handguns – called pistalas – in the Hussite army, as they were fairly easy to manufacture and learn how to use. They more closely resembled smoothbore rifles, and also could fire 2-inch stone or metal balls.

Hussite war wagon in action, c. 1423 [Note handgunners, crossbowmen, and flailmen, as well as small cannon] (Illustration courtesy of http://historum.com)
Hussite war wagon in action, c. 1423
[Note handgunners, crossbowmen, and flailmen, as well as small cannon]
(Illustration courtesy of http://historum.com)

The vast majority of the Hussite army was comprised of peasants, who used mainly spears or pikes, modified agricultural flails, axes, and halberds. The pikes and flails were sufficiently long enough that they could be used either from the beds of the wagons or from behind them. Some few better trained Hussites wielded swords, but they were usually former soldiers or mercenaries. In the latter stages of the Hussite wars, some light cavalry and noble Czech cavalry joined the army. The light cavalry were mainly scouts; the heavy knights were used – in conjunction with the light horse – in the pursuit of the enemy after the battle.

A Hussite battle was waged in two principal stages: The first one defensive; the second offensive (counterattack). In the first stage the Hussite army placed their wagenburg near the enemy's army and, by means of artillery fire, provoked the enemy into battle. As a matter of fact, the artillery fire inflicted heavy losses on the knights standing in close formation. In order to avoid more losses the crusader knights and their mounted men-at-arms finally attacked. Then the infantry hidden behind the tabors by means of firearms and crossbows warded off the attack, weakening the enemy. The shooters aimed first of all at the horses, depriving the cavalry of its main advantage, mobility.

As soon as the enemy was physically and psychologically weakened, the second stage of the battle began – that is, the Hussite counterattack. Suddenly the Czech infantry and the cavalry burst out of the carts striking violently at the enemy, mostly from the flanks. While fighting on the flanks and being shelled from the carts the weakened enemy could not put up too much resistance. Finally it was forced to withdraw and leave behind its dismounted and/or wounded knights and other soldiers. As the knights were dressed in heavy plate armor and lacked their major mode of transport (horses), they could not escape from the battlefield. That was the reason that the enemy armies suffered such heavy losses of knights and were absolutely terrified of the Hussites, who were famous for not taking captives.

The Hussite army at Aussig had somewhere around 10,000 men besieging the German towns. Contemporary chronicles give a number of 20,000 to 24,000 men, but modern historians doubt the veracity of the figure. A total of 500 tabors were also present, a figure not out of the realm of possibility.

The overall commander of the Hussite force was Duke Sigismund Korybut, a Lithuanian noble serving as the regent on the throne of Bohemia for Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas. In addition, Prokop the Great commanded the Taborite faction among the Hussite army.

German Army

The composition – and size – of the German relief force is very conjectural, with contemporary sources giving 75,000 up to 100,000 as its size. Again, modern historians characterize these figures as exaggerated. An estimate of 13,000 to 20,000 is generally believed to be correct.

The German force probably consisted of at least 20 to 25 percent heavy cavalry and men-at-arms, with the remainder composed of infantrymen and missile troops. Most of these soldiers were likely part of the personal retinues of the many German nobles who answered the call of Frederick the Elector of Saxony. One chronicle also claims that the German army brought 180 artillery pieces, likely to try to overcome the Hussite use of artillery. [Personally, I think the number of German field pieces is also inflated. Chronicles of the battle appear not to mention the use of the German artillery in the upcoming battle.]

Boso of Vitzthum commanded this polyglot German force in the absence of the Elector of Saxony.

Battle of Aussig

After receiving word of the approach of the German army, Korybut ordered the raising of the siege of Aussig. Scouts found a large hill west of the town that was chosen as the centerpiece of the Hussite wagenberg. At some point either during the initial preparations or during the battle itself, a second smaller defensive line of pavises was set up inside the Hussite perimeter.

A German cavalry assault on the wagenberg began the battle. The knights may have been equipped with very large battle axes or hammers because one account of the battle has them hewing through the retaining chains on the tabors to breach through the fortress and get inside. Then, the knights broke through the second defensive line made up of pavises. This was the highest point of German morale in the whole battle.

However, the Hussite cavalry inside the wagenberg emerged and attacked the knights trying to breach the wagon chains from the flank and rear. The Germans were then surrounded and fell under a huge barrage of artillery, crossbow, and handgun fire. The Hussite footmen then charged in on the knights and showed no mercy. The battle of Aussig had ended…

Aftermath

The actual battle was brief (perhaps 1-2 hours at most), and for that reason, it is possible that no more than 4000 to 5000 German soldiers were lost in the actual battle. However, after the battle, many of the Germans fled to nearby villages, where the fleeing enemy troops were either hunted down by Hussite pursuers, or were massacred by local Bohemian peasants. It is possible that an additional 10,000 to 15,000 Germans were killed in this manner.

By contrast, the "official" Hussite casualty figures for the battle were…30 killed. This is almost certainly an underreporting.

Footnote #1: The day after the battle of Aussig, the Hussites converged on the city, looting it and burning it to the ground. For the next three years, Aussig was a virtual ghost town, until new settlers entered the town and began to rebuild.

Footnote #2: Over the next eight years, the Hussite armies would make several raids (termed "beautiful rides") into Germany, Hungary, and even Poland, in retaliation for these areas providing troops to put down the Hussite "heresy." But internal discord amongst the various Hussite sects spelled eventual doom to their fight for religious reform.

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