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Jun 18, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Hussite War Wagons

Warriors in the Middle Ages thought up all sorts of strange weapons. One of the strangest was the war wagon, developed during the Hussite Wars in Bohemia from 1419-1436.

The war started when Jan Hus led a protest movement against the sale of indulgences and other corrupt practices by the Catholic Church. He was assassinated in 1415 while attending negotiations with the Church, and his supporters rose up in revolt against the ruling Holy Roman Empire and the Church itself. They called themselves Hussites after their slain leader and rallied around Jan Zizka, a one-eyed knight. The religious revolt soon took up the banner of Czech independence.

Zizka knew the peasants wouldn’t stand a chance against knights, so he converted farm wagons into mobile forts by covering them with wooden planks and chaining them together. These wagons could be drawn into a square or circle called a wagenburg.

Each wagon was protected by wooden siding equipped with loopholes. They were crewed by handgonners, crossbowmen, and peasants armed with flails and halberds. The crossbowmen and handgonners fired from the loopholes while those with melee weapons protected the gaps between the wagons while themselves being protected by men holding large shields called pavises.

As you can see, most of the wagenburg equipment could be found or easily made in any peasant village. Flails were everyday items, and any blacksmith could make a halberd or simply adapt a farm implement and put it on the end of a pole. He could also make the simple handgonnes of the time.

The peasants could maintain devastating volleys or a continuous fire. The wagons even carried a supply of rocks so those not armed with a ranged weapon could toss the rocks while their comrades reloaded. Other wagons had cannons mounted on them. The enemy would attack and the heavy fire from the wagons would disorganize their ranks. Then part of the wagenburg would open up and the Hussites would counter-attack.

Enemy knights fell for this tactic again and again, convinced they could easily beat the “peasant rabble”. Eventually they began to learn and defeated some Hussite armies by luring them out of their protection with fake retreats or destroying wagons with artillery. Other armies began to adopt the wagenburg but newer, more mobile artillery eventually made the tactic obsolete.

For more on the Hussite Wars and early black powder weapons, see my friend and fellow blogger Sean McLachlan's book; Medieval Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I'm a fan of history and enjoyed this post. Do you think this 'war wagon' may have been a forerunner of the armoured tank? Or at least put the idea in their heads?

    (Selling Indulgences, indeed - that would probably be very popular today. . .) BTW - I follow Sean's blog, too.


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  2. So basically, it was the first tank?

  3. Yes, I think this is what you could call the first tank. It worked well enough until artillery improved, then it took until World War One before someone could come up with a tank to stop artillery. I'm not sure anyone even tried. Modern tanks were an experiment born of the desperate search for a way to break the impasse of trench warfare.