Hunyadi’s Long Campaign in 1443-44, part three
Having defeated four Ottoman armies in two days, Hunyadi János joined the main bulk of the army that was led by King Ulászló I.
Soon, they were marching towards Sofia and occupied the abandoned city on 1 December 1443. They were only 7-8 days’ walk from the Ottoman capital, Edirne, according to the estimated speed of Hunyadi’s heavy cavalry.
It was in Sofia where they got the news of Sultan Murad’s arrival from Asia who was at Philippopolis with a huge army.
Why did the Crusaders choose the harder route?
Interestingly enough, the Sultan could reach the Zlatica Pass sooner and he was able to reinforce it. They flooded the roads and cut the forests in so as to make a hell of a route for the crusaders. But how did the Turks know that the Hungarian army picked that particular northern pass instead of the southern route along the Marica River?
You can read about the previous events here:
Historians note that the Christian army could have taken a different route but they were intentionally led to that particular pass which became a death-trap. Why? According to some theories, the Serbian guides were leading the army that way because Grigor and Stefan, the sons of Despot Brankovics were hostages in Istanbul. Also, the daughter of the Despot was the first wife of the Sultan. Still, I have the feeling that they wanted to blame somebody for the mistake.
It could be a conspiratory theory because Despot Brankovics offered 100,000 gold Ducats to Hunyadi in December and asked him that in case of retreating, he should leave behind Hungarian forces to hold the regained Serbian territories for him. He seemed not to have worried much about his sons or daughter.
There were three passes on the Zlatica Mountain and each was fortified by the Ottomans who decided to listen to the advice of Bey Jesze, son of Vrenez who thought that the Christians should be allowed to attack and waste their army. The Asian troops remained in reserve and waited for the chance when they could attack the tired enemy while the European troops of the Sultan entrenched themselves.
Anyhow, the Hungarian army could have turned to the south, following the Marica River but instead of this, they marched towards Murad who was waiting for them at the right places. It was a very cold winter and Hunyadi’s soldiers were slowly going hungry, too. There was also a disease that decimated them.
At the Pass of Zlatica
The Crusaders arrived at the entrance of the pass on 10 December and they made a camp. Two days later, Pasha Halil launched his attack against them, causing panic in the camp. It was only Hunyadi who was able to stop the runners, reorganizing them for battle. He quickly had many sharpened stakes erected against the attacking Sipahi cavalry. Thus, he could force the enemy to dismount and fight on foot. They could push the attackers back but Hunyadi could not launch his counter-attack because of the coming dusk.
The next day, he led his men and attacked the Ottomans but the bloody fight had no result. The Hussite wagons could not be used on this icy and slippery terrain. Then, Hunyadi pretended to withdraw his army and the Crusaders retreated in order to lure the Turks after them. But cleverly, the Janissaries didn’t move out of their safe positions. The situation was hopeless, the fight went on with a dogged struggle. Finally, the orders to a real retreat were issued by the king, after a three-day-long battle.
Moving backward was almost as dangerous as attacking the enemy, though. Hunyadi decided to take his army to the Pass of Nis and take up positions there. At first, Hunyadi got rid of the burden that he didn’t want to drag with him, slowing down the troops: he had the horseless Hussite wagons burned, had the surplus supplies and bounty destroyed or hidden. Treasures and weapons were buried into the ground, thrown in wells or into the abyss.
Pasha Kászim was sent after the retreating Christians, followed by several larger Ottoman armies.
Intact, the Christian army crossed Sofia on 20 December, on the way home. This time, Hunyadi and his men were following the main army a day’s walk distance. It was why Pasha Kászim ran headlong into him and was defeated at Melstica.
The last battle at Kunovica
By 1 January 1444, the bulk of the army has crossed the Kunovica Pass. Only Hunyadi’s contingent remained on the other side, all the way fighting. Their struggles were not in vain, they beat back the attack of Bey Turakhan’s army. Yet, this time Hunyadi needed all his strength because the Hungarians wanted to run away four times: but he stopped them each time and was able to deploy them again in battle order. In this battle, Hunyadi ordered the Polish pikemen to aim at the Turk horses, instead of the riders. It was recorded, that the Christians were protected by armor so they were not easy to get injured while the Ottomans suffered heavy wounds from the Hungarians’ sabers that cut until their bones.
Fortunately, King Ulászló hurried to his help with reinforcement. It was the first time during the campaign when the king threw himself into armed combat. He was even wounded by an arrow on his hand.
They could finally gain the victory, capturing high-ranking Ottomans again. Pasha Kászim was captured but Hunyadi saved his life, unlike 170 captives who were executed.
King Ulászló was still marching on Serbian terrain when he received Sultan Murad’s plea for a truce. Murad had to hurry back to Asia Minor to put down the Emir of Karaman who has rebelled again. This peace offer was flatly refused by King Ulászló at that time.
The Crusaders arrived in Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) on 25 January. They marched in Buda castle on 2 February, triumphally, amid great celebrations. The coats of arms of those Hungarian and Polish noblemen who had taken part in the campaign were hanged out in the Holy Virgin Cathedral of Buda. The polish ones were Peter Scekoczin, Peter Schamatuli, Paul Vojniczki, Jan Tarnov. Hunyadi was rewarded with the domains of Kucevo and Branicevo but he gave them to his valiant soldier, Marnavich György who distinguished himself in the battle of Kunovica.
Conducting a 2,000-kilometer-long winter campaign on a hostile territory with 35,000 soldiers would be a hard task even in our days. Obviously, the Hungarian Kingdom has remained the main rival of the expanding Ottoman Empire in Europe.
Besides, Hunyadi was able to break the invincible reputation of the Turks by beating them in a series of shocking battles. Moreover, hope was planted into the heart of the Balkanian nations. However, the joy and the support of these people have quickly faded away when the Orthodox churches were put on fire by the Crusaders. We, Hungarians were very good at alienating the Balkanian folks, encouraged by Rome.
However, the Long Campaign could have been successful if it had been launched a few months earlier. Due to the slow marching speed (5-6 kilometers per day) and the harsh winter, they could not get to their destination. On the way home, this speed was almost 20 kilometers a day. As for Hunyadi’s cavalry, he calculated 65-70 kilometers a day…
Some notes: the town of Ragusa sent a bitter letter to the Pope on 10 February 1444. They said they had managed to block the Ottomans on the sea but the Pope failed them.
At the same time, we know a letter of Pope Eugene IV from February 1444 in which he claims the honor of the entire campaign as his and Cardinal Cesarini’s.
We will see the role of these high priests in the future: how they would make King Ulászló break his oath and ruin the very favorable peace with the Ottomans. However, the infamous oath-breaking has another interpretation. In the subsequent articles, we can read about these. Sadly, history took a worse path when King Ulászló and Hunyadi were marching towards Várna later in 1444.
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