Foreign mercenaries in Hungary
Foreign mercenaries in Eastern Europe and in Hungary…
When it comes to mercenaries, the top-quality Christian soldiers, their loyalty always was questioned. It was always up to their pay. We also know that mercenaries were infamous for their cruelty against the local population in an age, when logistics were not provided to feed an army. In Hungary, though, it was also a bit different: the land was so depopulated and poor (or the peasants were so expert in hiding) that there was almost nothing to plunder so feeding the armies was a double nightmare for each mercenary general. It was partly the reason why Prince Bethlen could beat Wallenstein.
Besides, the lay of the Hungarian land was different from the western terrain. It was just no good for an „appropriate” battle. The land didn’t offer a proper option to deploy a typical western mercenary army in order to fight a battle in their fashion.
In our divided countryside, the plains and marshes varied with scattered hamlets and woods or valleys among the low hills – not to mention the impenetrable Carpathian mountains and their well-guarded passes.
On the other hand, the whole landscape suited perfectly the ancient Hungarian warfare: the unexpectable ambushes, hit-and-run raids, and snares of the typical Eastern light cavalry.
On top of that, each city or castle had to be taken by siege. In vain were the mercenary armies superior in their military technics and fire-power when they couldn’t take advantage of it. Most Imperial armies in Hungary were defeated not in a single battle but were rather corroded and crushed by hundreds of harassments of light cavalry units who seemed to know the land like the back of their hands.
The Hungarian soldiers’ pay was little compared to the westerners but they fought for their country, religion and their families.
The German mercenary General Mansfeld could easily sell his cannons to the Turks and it didn’t cause him a moral crisis to offer his sword to them. The Turks could hire rather Albanian and South-Slavic mercenaries or westerners for that matter. The western mercenaries were not welcome in the Hungarian Frontier-castles either, because everyone knew that they easily yielded the forts to the enemy if their pay didn’t arrive or they simply declared that they wouldn’t fight against an overwhelming enemy that outnumbered them.
Still, foreign mercenaries were employed by the Transylvanian princes: Scotts and Germans who received three times higher pay than Hungarians, often deservedly enough. As for the Scotts, the heroism of their defending the castle of Lippa, 1596, became legendary.
The mercenaries fought in closed formations and learning it required a long and hard training from the soldiers. The modern fighting style demanded blind obedience and steel discipline so that the formation should work smoothly, it was a question of life or death. The huge war-machine didn’t allow any individual bravery or initiative action because their efficiency would have been injured. Meanwhile, the mercenaries fighting in the formation knew perfectly well that they could survive better and might even win the battle if they and their comrades standing next to them could just obey the orders. They were part of a clockwork thus they could not give in to fear so easily. The orders and their comrades’ attention had been always a great psychological support to them in a chaotic bloody, smoky, and loud situation as a battle used to be.
Here is my dramatized description of the Battle of Palást in 1552 where the western mercenaries were not able to take advantage of the Hungarian terrain. Their formation was disrupted and they lost the fight:
This inner cohesion contributed to their battlefield-value a great deal, regardless of the lack of motivation and the fact that they may have been the lowest villains of any society. Unlike in the Ottoman army, the mercenaries’ cavalry never left alone the footmen on the battlefield, either.
If somebody wants to see the value of early firearms against the Ottomans, please study the Battle of Mezőkeresztes, 1596, when albeit the outcome favored the enemy but the firearms and the superb organization of forces were pointing towards the future superiority of the combined Christian armies. I have described this battle in my book:
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In the pictures, you can see western type soldiers in the 16th and 17th centuries: