Medieval Tank Warfare—- The Hussite War Wagon,
In the early 1400’s a Czech priest named Jan Huss began to preach a theology of reform within the Catholic Church. Like Martin Luther 100 years later, Huss heavily criticized the corruption and abuse of church officials at the time. Immediately Huss gained the loyalty of a large number of followers in the Czech Kingdom and Bohemia. The Catholic Church declared Huss to be a heretic, excommunicated him in 1411, and ordered the Hussite movement quashed.
The Hussites formed an hasty army as Catholic kingdoms in Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, and Eastern Europe rallied to destroy the Hussite movement. The Hussites were badly outnumbered and outgunned, especially when their enemies were the famous Teutonic Knights. The Hussite Army however was drawn mostly from conscripted peasants who had little military experience. It didn’t seem like the Hussites could stand a chance against the might of the Catholics.
With their enemies closing in the Hussites would turn to a brilliant Czech general named Jan Zizka, whose battlefield tactics would shock medieval Europe and would foretell the nature of warfare over 500 hundred years later.
Zizka knew his men could not stand alone against heavily armored knights and men-at-arms. To give his army an edge Zizka ordered the construction of scores of “war wagons”. These large wagons were covered on all sides giving the men inside protection in combat, and also had portholes from which the soldiers inside could fire from. Zizka created two different types of wagons, “battlewagons” and “infantry carriers”. Battlewagons would hold about a dozen men who were armed with crossbows, handgonnes (a primitive musket), and one or two small cannon. The infantry carrier would hold 2 to 3 dozen regular footsolders armed with pikes and halberds. The wagons were made so that they could be pushed into battle rather than pulled, thus giving the horses cover in combat.
If this sounds awesome already, how he used these wagons in battle is even more incredible. Zizka would order the battlewagons first. Like mighty armored tanks the battlewagons would bash through the enemy line, ripping gaping holes in their formations with its cannon, guns, and crossbows. The infantry wagons would then race in and drop their doors, allowing the infantry to rush out and storm the weakened enemy positions. When being attacked, Zizka ordered his wagons to form a circle, creating an improvised defensive position much like circled wagons in an Old Western movie.
Modern armored warfare doctrine today calls for similar tactics, with heavily armored tanks smashing enemy lines while mobile infantry in armored vehicles would race in to storm enemy positions. These were the tactics that made generals like Guderian, Rommel, and Patton famous. These were also the tactics used by the US military in the Persian Gulf War and Operation Enduring Freedom. Essentially Zizka had developed armored mobile warfare 500 years before the tank and armored personnel carrier, while using Medieval technology.
In the 1420’s Jan Zizka won battle after battle, crushing every army sent to quell the Hussite Rebellion. In fact in his career Zizka never lost a major engagement. Using tactics that were 500 years ahead of their time, the enemies of the Hussite’s did not stand a chance. Unfortunately neither did the Hussite movement stand a chance as well. At the height of their power the Hussites fell into civil war between radical and moderate factions. Although Zizka would lead the moderates to victory, the Hussites were greatly weakened and could not stand another attack by Catholic forces. A peace accord was drawn up between the Catholic Church and the Hussites, instituting some token reforms in Bohemia and the Czech Kingdom. Soon after in 1424 Jan Zizka would die of the black plague. A celebrated Czech national hero, his legacy lives on with the modern tactics and strategies of military’s of the world.