Saturday, 22 August 2020

Hooray for Hussites

A long, long time ago, I can still remember, the way the army lists used to go….

I have finally (at least, very nearly) achieved a long held wargame ambition: to own a Hussite army. I suspect that many wargames might have a soft spot for the Hussites; they are, after all, a bunch of oddballs, an interesting anticipation of what came a lot later (e.g. the tank) and, of course, they were a bunch of peasants who seriously embarrassed the most powerful of states and rulers in Europe of the time.

I worked out recently why it was that I liked and would like to have this army. On my shelf downstairs in the snug / wargame room is a copy of George Gush’s Wargames Research Group Renaissance Rules Army Lists. While looking for something else (serendipity will out) I flipped it open and there, on the first page of the lists themselves, was a Hussite army. I bought these lists an awful long time ago. I have no idea where or when, but clearly the idea of the Hussites had never quite left me.

This happens to me from time to time. The last I remember it was a craving for armies of hoplites, assuaged a while ago by actually buying and painting a load thereof. This arose, so far as I recall, from two sources. The first was Charles Grant’s articles on the Battle of Marathon, which were in Military Modelling in the 1970s (I was extremely young at the time). The second was my first ‘real’ wargame figure, which was a 25 mm Spartan hoplite from, as I recall, a company called Asgard in Nottingham. 25 mm was way out of my budget at the time, of course, but it was a nice figure and I did paint him. He served sterling work for years as my role playing game player character figure, even though he really annoyed some of my fellow gamers by not having a weapon in his hand.

Anyway, having reacquainted myself with the idea of the Hussites, I scanned the web for books on the subject. When I last looked, fifteen years ago or more, there was very little about on the revolt or the battles. That situation has improved a little over the intervening years, but not hugely. Nevertheless, I am the owner of the Osprey on the subject and also

Verney, V., Warrior of God: Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution (London: Frontline, 2020).

This appears to be a 2020 reprint of a 2009 text.

I have also squirrelled through my other books. Oman has a chapter on the Hussites in his Art of War in the Middle Ages. He is not all that impressed by them, it has to be admitted, regarding them as having been lucky to be up against some rather poor commanders. It is true that the Emperor Sigismund was a far better politician than war leader, but nevertheless, you have to give Zizka some credit for finding a way for peasants to resist the charge of noble cavalry.

Oman, in fact, seems to regard the Hussite war wagon as a bit of a historical dead end. Perhaps so but, the Polish and others continued to use war wagons into the Seventeenth Century (at least). Duffy, in Siege Warfare reckons that the Muscovite gulyai-gorod might have been inspired by the Hussites (p. 171), although Oman suggests that the technology transfer was the other way.

Hall, in his Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe observes that the important thing about the Hussite war wagon laager was the density of fire available at threatened points. While Zizka recognised the usefulness of firearms, there were in fact three to four times more crossbows available in the mix (p. 112). There were also some cannon, and the whole thing seems to have resembled a small city, stoutly defended.

Of course, the main answer to the Hussites would have been either to use artillery to bombard the wagon fort until it fell apart, or not to attack it at all. Artillery was not that mobile at the time, and the fact is that the Hussites would have simply moved somewhere else before the bombards were in place. Politically, not attacking the rebel heretics was not an option either, whether or not the impetuosity of the noble classes would have really accepted it as an option. Ultimately, only Hussites could successfully fight Hussites.

The problem for the Hussites, as it was for the English in France in the later Hundred Years War, was that you have to have an enemy who is willing to attack you. Both the English armies and the Hussites were often on the strategic offensive but the classic victories of both relied on the charge of upper class knights determined to grind the faces of the peasants back into the mud where they belonged. The shock waves the defeats created across Europe were because the knights were not supposed to be defeated and killed by their social inferiors.

The problems come, of course, in trying to work out how to run wargames with these loonies. The Hussites, some of them at least, were religious fanatics; the background to the revolt is complicated and interesting and includes theological issues and nationalism. But the problem for a wargamer is to ensure that the enemy attacks, even though we sort of know what the outcome of a frontal assault on a wagon fort will be. How do we simulate the fact that the heavily armoured noble knight simply could not believe that the peasants were not just grist for his mill?

Hall reckons that the Hussite revolution and subsequent wars led to a great increase in the use of firearms in Germany, and this seems to have given a fillip to the gun trade in the south. Fear of the Hussites seems to have led to a proliferation of firearms and, presumably, gave a stimulus to the development of more effective small arms, which led to the development of the arquebus in the 1450s to 1470s.


  1. Isn’t the next step to get an Imperialist/Hapsburg army (or whatever the appropriate term is)?

    1. It would be if I couldn't cobble together one of them from my WotR and Italian Wars armies. Historical accuracy? We don't need no...

    2. Educayshun?

      What's the 15th century equivalent of a button counter?

    3. Good question - for knights it might be rivets....

      How about Armorial cases before the Court of Chivalry, over who was allowed to wear what heraldry?