|A thousand years of the Hungarian art of war|
HUNGARIAN RENAISSANCE WARFARE
In 1456, Ladislas, sixteen years old at the time, became the unchallenged king of Hungary. Not trusting the loyalty of the Hungarians, he named his uncle, Frederick III, as captain-general of Hungary and moved to Bohemia. Seeing Hunyadi's sons as possible candidates for the Hungarian opposition to his throne, he ordered the execution of the elder on the basis of trumped-up charges. The younger brother, Mathias, he transported to Prague as his prisoner. Ladislas enjoyed his kingship for only one year: in 1457 he died, leaving vacant both the Hungarian and Bohemian thrones again. Then the Czech estates elected George Podebrady as king of Bohemia. He released Mathias from captivity after signing an alliance with him, and after Mathias had duly sanctioned the treaty by marrying Podebrady's daughter.
Mathias was elected king of Hungary on January 24, 1458, after a long series of behind-the-scenes negotiations and agreements among the competing factions of rich and powerful magnates. Since Mathias was only 17 or 18 years old, the magnates expected him to comply with all of their wishes. But the young king had learned well in Prague the intrigues and secret ways of renaissance politics. Step by step, with the help of the lesser nobility, he established his own, unchallengeable authority. To secure their loyalty, in the Diet of 1458, Mathias confirmed their privileges (granted to them by King Albrecht in the Law of 1439). According to Section 3 of this law, the king's duty was to defend the country with his own military forces as well as those of the great magnates. The insurrection of the lesser nobility could be called only in case these forces proved insufficient to protect the frontiers./1/ Although Mathias' estates were enormous, in light of the foreign political situation of Hungary he needed even more resources to organize and maintain a large army./2/
On the southern borders of Hungary, the Turks had extended
their occupation to the principality of Serbia and begun to raid Hungarian territories. The powerful Czech warlord, Giskra, occupied northern Hungary and sought the support of King Casimir of Poland, one of the unsuccessful pretenders to the Hungarian throne, for an all-out war against Mathias. In the West, Emperor Frederick III refused to return the Holy Crown to Mathias. Without being crowned with the Holy Crown (of the first Hungarian King, St. Stephen), Mathias was not considered the constitutional King of Hungary. Frederick also conspired with dissident Hungarian magnates to dethrone the young king - if necessary, at the cost of war.
Under such conditions, it was a question of life or death to find the right grand strategy to protect Hungary from its enemies./3/ Mathias proved himself an excellent statesman by using diplomacy and, when necessary, war, to reach these goals. First he struck against Giskra's occupation, but in the following conciliatory peace treaty, Mathias took Giskra and his well-trained and experienced soldiers into his own service, gaining additional forces for his future wars. In 1459, while Mathias was still waging war against Giskra, Frederick III was elected King of Hungary by the dissident Hungarian magnates. He was crowned on March 4th with the Holy Crown of St. Stephen at the same time his troops invaded western Hungary. After two decisive victories, Mathias, who forced Frederick to withdraw his troops from Hungary was ready again for a conciliatory peace. For the return of the Holy Crown he paid 80,000 florins in gold to Frederick, leaving several cities hostage in Frederick's possession as a guarantee of peace. In 1463, the Turks invaded Bosnia, a land belonging to the Hungarian Crown, with an army of 150,000. With 25,000 soldiers, Mathias defeated the divided Turkish forces and within six months recaptured Bosnia./4/ Four more campaigns consolidated the southern frontier against the Turks. Only in 1483 was Mathias able to sign with the Turks a peace treaty which recognized his authority in Bosnia and also in Moldavia.
The moral justification for his war against Bohemia was provided by Pope Sixtus IV, who in 1466 excommunicated Podebrady for his Hussite heresy and called upon Mathias to punish the Czech king. Mathias, with the Pope's consent, kept the Czech crown for himself. His campaign, begun in 1468, lasted for seven years. Although Podebrady died in 1471, his successor, Wladislaw, son of the Polish King Casimir, continued the war until 1475, when, according to the Treaty of Prague, Mathias was recognized as master of Moravia, Silesia, and Lusatia.
Against Frederick III, Mathias fought two wars (1477 and 1480-
1488) which left him undisputed ruler of Austria from Vienna to Salzburg. Two years later in Vienna, he unexpectedly died at the peak of his glorious career.
We may rightfully ask, what kind of military art and organization enabled Mathias to fight so many victorious wars, sometimes on two and even three fronts? To understand his military genius, we should compare his art of war with the renaissance art of war of Europe.
Military strategy and tactics, in a period of transition in the 15th and 16th centuries, were influenced by religious upheavals, peasant revolts, new philosophy and - maybe most importantly - by technological inventions. The armored knight armies lost their superiority over the infantry. The Swiss pikemen and the English longbowmen had already proved their superiority in Laupen (1339), as well as in the Battle of Crecy (1346)./5/ During the 15th century, the Swiss infantry tactic was refined; the former Confederate freedom-fighters and their descendants hired themselves out as mercenaries to any prince who needed them. In Germany, as a result of the peasant revolts, escaped serfs provided soldiers for the new, mercenary infantry troops called Landsknecht./6/ Their combat formation was the square, their weapons the pike and halberd. Finally, the Hussite rebellion (1419) invented the first "motorized infantry transporting an average of twenty men on a wagon, and using the wagons also as a 'fortress' by chaining them together to provide protection against heavy cavalry attacks."/7/ Some infantry soldiers were also equipped with muskets. The handling of a musket required special skill. The weapon, as well as gunpowder, was expensive and thus it was accepted only gradually. At the turn of the 16th century, as yet only 10 per cent of the infantry used muskets./8/ The number of infantry troops was limited only by the financial resources of a king or prince. Thus, the size of the armies began to grow in contrast to the former knight armies, but usually did not rise above 15,000 to 20,000 men.
On the other hand, the Turks maintained a light infantry; the janissaries were highly trained professionals, armed with sword, lance and bows. Their discipline was strict, their courage world-famous. Since the majority of the Turkish soldiers served either out of conviction (religious faith, fanaticism) or in hopes of loot and plunder, the numerical strength of Turkish armies was always high, close to 60,000 to 100,000 strong.
Mathias found himself in a very difficult situation: against the German Landsknecht and the Hussite-type Czech armies, he needed a relatively small but well-trained infantry. Against the
Turks, a mass army had to be organized. The Hungarian army system /9/ precluded his using either the magnates' forces or the noble insurrectionist troops outside the frontiers. On the other hand, to fight battles within Hungary's borders would have turned the kingdom into a theatre of war. Thus Mathias needed a permanently standing army to follow him everywhere so that war might be waged mostly in foreign territories. After the initial successes against Giskra, more and more Hungarian nobles offered their services to Mathias. Spending larger and larger amounts on the army, Mathias increased the number of soldiers in 15 years to an unbelievable 163,000, without calling the noble insurrection. The branches of the army were: infantry, 84,000; cavalry, 64,000; river forces, 10,000; Serbian light cavalry, 5,000./10/ The proportion of Magyar nationals (who should be considered professional soldiers) to foreign nationals (mercenaries) was 75 per cent to 25 per cent,/11/ while the higher ranks were filled, with a few exceptions, exclusively by Magyar professional officers./12/
The infantry of Mathias' army was organized into mixed units. The heavy armored infantry (helmet and breastplates, lances and swords) stood in the first line. The second line was made up exclusively of soldiers carrying large shields. The main assignment of both lines was to protect the third line of musketeers and the fourth line of light infantry with bows, lances, and axes. Such mixed units were unknown in the West European armies. The great proportion of musketeers (25 percent) was also unusual. Such mixed units were able to defend themselves in the wagon fortresses, even against overwhelming enemy forces. During attack they approached the enemy lines, protected by the musketeers' fire: once the enemy line was broken, hand-to-hand combat was carried out by the light infantry.
However, to make a decisive, deep breakthrough, the heavy cavalry was employed. While the light cavalry in Western Europe was used only for communication and reconnaissance, Mathias used large light cavalry units to operate behind the enemy lines, destroying or capturing road intersections, enemy supply trains, and pursuing the fleeing enemy army. The use of light cavalry in such a way meant the renewal of ancient Hungarian methods of fighting, and proved to be successful in many battles.
The artillery was divided into three different branches. Mathias left the heavy artillery, which slowed down the marching speed of other European armies, for the defense of fortifications. The light artillery was transported on wagons in unusually great numbers: more than 10,000 wagons were used to move the light artillery and ammunition. With this innovation, the army remained mobile,
always had great firepower, and also had the wagons for defense. Thus, the role of the light infantry, transported on wagons in the Hussite armies, was taken over by the light cavalry in Mathias' army. The third branch of the artillery was outfitted with siege equipment: catapults, ballistic missiles, and so forth. According to Mathias' judgment, these ancient weapons proved more effective against the walls than heavy artillery.
But the most important factor, one which made Mathias' army such an excellent instrument in his grand strategy, was the patriotic spirit. Unknown in Western Europe, Hungarian nationalism was more than local patriotism or a recognition of such common characteristics of nationality as language, customs, tradition, political system, and so forth. The invasions of foreign armies, especially those of the Turks, made the Hungarians realize that their own individual interests were the same as those of their king. Loyalty to the king and to each other offered them the best chance for survival. Thus, Hungarian nationalism crossed class barriers and, with the exception of a few power-hungry magnates, united the people behind Mathias. Although the maintenance of his large army required additional taxes, the period of his reign was free from peasant revolts. The common people awarded him the title Mathias the Just.
The king himself also felt this strong nationalist spirit. When the Holy Father demanded judicial authority over Hungarian subjects simply because they were Christians, Mathias rejected the demand: "We would prefer to suffer the greatest consequences rather than to lose our people's freedom." As far as other monarchs were concerned, he proudly announced: "In matters of authority, domains and honor, we are equal to the German emperor. We are the free king of the free and independent Hungarian nation."/13/
Throughout the last three centuries, the Habsburg and German-influenced Hungarian historical interpretation, with a few exceptions, has neglected to recognize King Mathias' military achievements. Foreign historians, probably due to language barriers, have omitted from their military histories studies of the role of Mathias. Yet this treatment should not be permitted to diminish the measure of his shining talents as statesman, army organizer, strategist, general, and, as testified to by his many wounds received in battle, his courage as an individual fighter.
|A thousand years of the Hungarian art of war|