The wagon forts of Hussites were quite successful tactically, and helped them repel five crusades from European leaders. I was wondering why did the wagon fort tactics not see a wider adoption in contemporary warfare. These in particular and mobile fortifications in general...

In the 15th century, during the Hussite Wars, the Hussites developed tactics of using the tabors, called vozová hradba in Czech or Wagenburg by the Germans, as mobile fortifications. When the Hussite army faced a numerically superior opponent, the Bohemians usually formed a square of the armed wagons, joined them with iron chains, and defended the resulting fortification against charges of the enemy. Such a camp was easy to establish and practically invulnerable to enemy cavalry.

The crew of each wagon consisted of 18 to 21 soldiers: 4 to 8 crossbowmen, 2 handgunners, 6 to 8 soldiers equipped with pikes or flails, 2 shield carriers and 2 drivers. The wagons would normally form a square, and inside the square would usually be the cavalry. There were two principal stages of the battle using the wagon fort: defensive and counterattack.

A video. Not very academic, but good to get a feel of the era. An illustration

  • 4
    Some Hungarian leaders (namely János Hunyadi and his son, King Matthias) included such wagons in their army. They were even present at Varna against the ottomans: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Varna#Deployment – b.Lorenz Jun 15 '18 at 17:25
  • american civil war: the difference between novices and veterans is that novices needed to be told to dig trenches and build defenses; veterans needed to be told to NOT do that, otherwise no wooden door, window or furniture piece would be left standing in nearby houses. Even in XIX c., wood is in trench structure and might stop infantry bullets. So I guess: (a) wagons are not mobile enough to be more practical than static defenses built at every stop, or a fort if the camp is permanent; (b) soldiers would not use their food/supply wagons as defenses. (never mind the ammo wagons :-) ) – Luiz Jun 15 '18 at 18:17

There are several reasons that probably played together

First, the Wagenburg was a device of asymmetric warfare, that proved effective when first used against Crusader and Holy Roman forces, that still mostly relied on heavily armed knights, and were arrogant enough to charge head-on.

Later the asymmetry faded away as these tactics became more or less prevalent in the region – for example some Hussites changed sides and supported Emperor Sigismund, while others became mercenaries (for example in the army of Corvin Matthias in Hungary – and this immediately decreased its usefulness: Two wagonforts set up on opposing hills and trying to trick each other into opening the circle or trying to starve each other do not represent a particularly efficient way to decide a battle.

Simultaneously, the enemies of the Hussites learned tactics that could sometimes be used to defeat such wagons: See the Battle of Lipany again.

Secondly, as field artillery advanced both in mobility and firepower, it would have meant more danger to the wagons. Wood is a credible material to be used against arrows or contemporary small arms, but can not absorb cannonballs the way earth ramparts can. It will burst into deadly fragments, as the poor sailors of 18th century warships had experienced. So if your plan is to sit in your camp and weather the enemy charges, but the enemy sets up a powerful battery on the next hill, you are dead.

Thirdly, the type of armies that used the Wagenburg – namely mercenaries and religious fundamentalists, recruited mostly from lower class burghers and peasants, and sometimes gentry – had by the end of the 15th century developed a much more effective tactic: dense pike (and shot) formations These were almost as cavalry proof as the wagonforts, while they were much more mobile. They could actually charge on the field and they could be disassembled to much smaller pieces (individual landsknechts). So they could pass on any kind of terrain (including in siege trenches) and then form up as necessary. Look at how Marignano was different from battles a century earlier.

Other countries, namely Poland and Hungary, where the wagonfort was introduced, later lost their strong royal authority, while they developed the highest percentage of nobility. Without strong kings, they could not afford standing professional armies, and their poorer nobles preferred horseback fighting. Hussars emerged. (whose etymology is uncertain, but has nothing to do with Hussites ) So the Ottoman wars in Hungary after the disaster at Mohács (still fought with armoured knights) consisted of sieges and raids. On raids, the wagons are a hindrance, and they are not needed during sieges either: The besieged have better fortifications already, while the attackers are usually so overpowering, that they need little defense, or they have plenty of time to build proper contra- and circumvallations.

  • While field artillery was still some distance away in time, thanks for the point about pike and shot. – Rohit Jun 16 '18 at 3:51
  • 1
    The 'some time away' depends on the time frame you take. I refer to the battle of Marignano (1515) again. There field guns were most definitely an important factor. – b.Lorenz Jun 16 '18 at 5:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.