Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Cavalry Charge and Melee

the charge of the Polish winged Hussars

Heavy and light Hussars

As we had read it before in the work of Béres Sándor, the Hussar horses were heavier than the Turk ones but lighter and sturdier than the western ones. As it was, the applied tactic depended on the size and strength of the horses. As for Hussar units, we have to remark that the early Hungarian Hussars were not heavily armored cavalrymen, their armor became heavy or semi-heavy by the mid-16th century. Nevertheless, there were lightly armored and heavily armored Hussars, depending on their task.

(Here is the previous article about cavalry:

16th-century Polish armor, composed of 1074 plates

Having been crowned as a Polish and Lithuanian king, it was Prince Báthori István (Stefan) of Transylvania who introduced the heavy Hussar cavalry in Poland and in Lithuania in 1576. By this time, Hungarian Hussars had a pistol issued everywhere which gave them superiority over the armored Sipahi riders of the Ottoman Empire who despised these firearms at that time. In Poland, Báthori lengthened the lances and took away their shields, adding more armor. The fashion of wearing wings was preserved in Poland for a longer time, unlike in Hungary. Not to forget the Ottoman Deli riders who also wore wings.


Ottoman Deli riders with wings and flags

Heavy Hussars became perfect shock cavalry while light Hussars were perfect for raiding, dueling, scouting, and reconnaissance, making the western cavalry tired and overrunning the Ottoman cavalry on their larger horses.

a Sipahi rider

Horses in large units

Battles were fought by huge units of cavalry (their rate was well over 60% to the infantry), under the central control of their commanders. At the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the biggest cavalry units were deployed on the wings of both Christian and Muslim sides. These wings were composed of smaller cavalry units who were following their “flag”. (In the Hungarian language they were called “zászlóalj”, meaning roughly “fighting men under one flag”.) There were even smaller groups of horsemen inside these battalions, they were the soldiers of the bigger lords or the men-at-arms of the Hungarian noblemen.

a Hungarian (winged) Hussar with his flag

If we regard these groups from the viewpoints of the horses, the “wing” of the army was not a solid social group so it was extremely hard to make maneuvers with it as its cohesion was very limited. The control of horses required great attention if the commanders wanted to keep the battle order.

Egyptian Mameluk riders: the descendants of Kuman warriors

Fortunately, the horses coming from the same Hungarian County or from the same Ottoman Sandjak area had been a community since the beginning or they “have got sniffed together” during the march to the battlefield. As a result of this, the horses under one “flag” usually moved together and tried not to get detached from each other. They tolerated each other better and didn’t want to join other groups of horses. According to Béres Sándor, the artificially generated huge crowd of horses included several “natural” groups of horses and in case of confusion, it would have been very difficult to re-unite as the horses tried to separate themselves from every “foreign” group of horses.

When the two wings clashed, whoever was able to keep together his “flags” gained the upper hand in the battle, a great advantage over the opponent by shattering the connections between the “flags” of the enemy.

the Battle of Mohács (painted in 1555 by J. Schreire)

The dominant horses

The dominant horses played an important role in leading the attack. They were ridden by dominant soldiers. Both these horses and officers were at the top of the hierarchy. The rest of the horses regarded them as natural leaders and followed them. 

Before getting to the battlefield, there had been a constant fight for hierarchy among the horses and a certain order of ranks had been taking shape. It was very important for the human commanders to ride quicker and stronger dominant horses because all human communication was limited in the meleé. Also, Hungarians rode stallions, unlike the Ottomans who preferred gelding horses. Riding or using a mare for any other purposes like pulling a cart or carrying a burden, was a shame according to the Hungarians.


Preferred tactics

As for the Turks, they literally anticipated the disintegration of their cavalry wing. As a result of this, they were able to carry out maneuvers a lot easier and they were able to attack the side or the rear of the Hungarian heavy cavalry which always tried to keep its closed battle order. Yet, the Hungarian light cavalry tried to respond in kind. When the Hungarian light cavalry was able to check the movement of the Ottoman light cavalry units, in this case, the Hungarian heavy cavalry was able to crush the enemy who had nowhere to elude and was not able to withstand the heavily armored assaults. In order to achieve this, the heavy cavalry had to be flexible enough, though. They needed to keep their battle order all the way so as to carry out the required turns in unison.  

a heavily armored knight from the Black Army of King Matthias

Forget the preconception that the heavy cavalry units were just a crowd of indisciplined daredevil knights who rushed in hugger-mugger into their unknown destiny. Dzselálzádé Mustafa, the Ottoman chronicler described the Hungarian heavy cavalry like this:

“The Hungarian nation has a habit in the battle, namely, that  30-40,000 monsters don themselves in iron and steel, covering their horses in that, too (…) their charge cannot be hindered by cannons or rifles, no weapon can block their advance, their carcass body cannot be penetrated by lance and cannot be cut by a sword, arrows would not wound them. There is only one way to oppose them, to split to the right and to the left before their battle order and attack them in the rear, then we will have the celebration.”

According to the Chronicle of Brodarics István, the Hungarian heavy cavalry was deployed in rows and columns in the Battle of Mohács in order to maximize the ability to carry out the above-described maneuvers. Each soldier had their assigned place in their row or column and they were allowed to leave their place only in special cases. The existence of these formations is proof that the contemporary commanders anticipated keeping their units together in the battle for a longer time. These formations were quite flexible and individual soldiers or units could be easily replaced or changed by the officers. Moreover, these columns were able to attack in multiple directions quite easily as they were 1-3 horsemen deep and kept enough space at all sides to turn anywhere they wanted to.

Even if the columns and rows got disintegrated, the men-at-arms who composed the group of a certain lord or bishop could keep together and fight effectively against the lighter enemy cavalry.

More will be told about cavalry issues in subsequent posts.

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