Tabor battle wagons of the Hussites
Hungarian and Polish tabors
Why were warwagons limited to Eastern Europe?
Through out history there are instances of wagons being used on the battlefield for defence. These usually took the form of a circle or square of baggage wagons around the camp. These wagon defences were frequently employed by nomadic nations as they offered a strong defensive position for their families and a fall back position should the battle go against them. The Nations of Eastern Europe were quick to integrate the wagon defences into their battle strategies. The use of the wagon in war took on a new aspect with the Hussite revolts in Bohemia.
For some excellent pictures of scratch built warwagons and numerous items of wargaming interest, check out Luke Ueda-Sarson's website. His articles on ancient military history are very good.
The Tabor battle wagons of the Hussites
The Hussites developed wagons specifically for the open battlefield and these became known by the term Tabor in the Christian sources of the time and as Tabur by the Ottoman Turks. Tabor was also used to discribe the defensive laagers built from the individual wagons. For more details on the Hussite wars see the Hussite pages. The term tabor has several possible origins. The commonly held origin is that it comes from the biblical name Mount Tabor, which was the name the Hussites gave several of their Meeting places in Bohemia, One later become the town of Tabor. The second origin, which I find more persuasive is it comes from the Czech word Tabor meaning camp. The associations with a camp wagon are obvious and these wagons formed the initial battle wagons of the Hussites. There is also the battle of Sudomer in 1420, which was one of the first conflicts in the crusades against the Hussites. This battle is also called the battle of the Tabor as Jan Zizka defended a wagon square against a vastly superior force of Royalist Cavalry. This battle predates the founding of the fortress (a pre-existing ruined castle) and town of Tabor whose name, I believe also being chosen on its founding.
The first Hussite tabors
The original wagons used by Zizka were large baggage haulers. These had either basket work or planked sides and could be covered. They were strengthened with additional planking and the use of mantlets. These modified wagons were only used for stationary defenses. This reliance on wagons led to the Hussites developing the 'hradba vozova' (war wagon)
Picture of wagon defences
Jan Zizka's Battle tabors
The body of the tabor was a rectangle of stout planking some 3-4 feet high from the floor. Fixed to the top of these sides with hinges were additional boards. These could be raised and fixed in place forming a tall shed like structure (usually roofless but not always). The sides of these boards were pierced to allow archers, handgunners and crossbowmen to fire on the enemy with maximum protection. Some of the later tabors were further modified with doors or a ramp on one side to allow the crews to disembark on the inner side of the laager. The tabors also had a large container filled with stones, either attached to the rear of the tabor or held within it. This was to increase stability and to provide additional missiles for the crew. Slung below the body of the tabor was another hinged large plank, pierced with firing slits. This plank could be lowered to close off the space under the tabor, helping to prevent enemy infantry gaining access to the tabor laager and allowing defending infantry to fire from comparative safety.
The tabors also carried large mantlets that could be attached between them to provide additional protection for defenders. These were generally used when a 'quick' or extended defensive formation was required.
The Wheels of the tabor were large and usually iron rimmed. The front pair projected out slightly from the body. This was to allow one front wheel to be locked into place with the rear wheel of another tabor and chained together. This method of securing the tabors together was for two reasons. The first was enhanced stability. In this locked position it was almost impossible for enemy infantry to overturn the tabor. The second was for tactical advantage. The interlocking tabors formed a series of enfilading fire zones. This method eventually became the norm for a defensive tabor formation but as it required greater effort and time to construct meant the tabors could form an in line defense using the mantlets and chains to cover the larger gaps. The chains were also used to secure the front and rear wheels together (at their closest point) this help to prevent the tabor being man handled out of the defensive line.
The Hussites also used other types of wagons to support their standard battle tabor. These included a 'ballast' wagon filled with large stones. These were used to strengthen and add mass to tabors defensive laagers. They were used in the corners and at 'gates' in the laager. These wagons further prevented enemy troops tipping over individual tabors. At Malesov in 1424 Zizka deployed on high ground and rolled these ballast wagons down the slopes punching a hole in the enemy centre. Some sources describe these wagons at Malesov as supply wagons however given that that Zizka was being closely pursued by the Praguer army it seems unlikely that there was sufficent time to prepare them. and as ballast wagons were in use by the Hussites at this time they seem the more likely.
The Hussites also used tabors specifically designed to carry cannon. these tabors had to be exceptionally strong to withstand the shock of firing. The earliest recorded use of tabor mounted cannon is at the siege of Nekmer in 1419. It is probable that these pieces were quite light and the wagons were modified baggage carriers,as the war wagon development was still in its infancy.
Evidence for tabors with cannon are plentiful. Many cities and states of Germany attempted to copy the Hussite system and some of their military instructions have survived. One from Nuremburg, dated 1430, details that one in every twenty five wagons should carry a medium cannon and be drawn by six horses. Additionally in each wagon group there should be a large wagon mounted cannon drawn by eighteen to twenty horses
picture of interlocked tabors
Hungarian and Polish tabors
Hungarian and Polish tabors were modelled very closely on those of the Hussites. Where possible both Nations prefered to employ Bohemian mercenaries to crew their war wagons. Janos Hunyadi's armies contained a large proportion of these mercenaries. Six hundred Bohemian handgunners defended the tabor laager at the battle of Varna in 1444 AD. His son Matthius after becoming King of Hungary demanded men schooled in the Bohemian style of fighting. The resulting 'black army', as it was to become known was predominantly Hussite mercenaries. The armies of the Polish Crown Hetman Tarnowski in the 16th century also contained large contingents of Bohemian mercenary infantry. These were specifically used for crewing tabors. Bohemian mercenary infantry are recorded as defending the tabor laager at Obertyn 1533 AD, while the majority of the Polish infantry formed a reserve in the centre of the camp.
Initially the German tabors were modeled on those of the Hussites. By the latter half of the 1400's the German states had introduced new styles of warwagons. These warwagons were in reality large mantlets carried on wagon chassis's. These came in two types, cannon and infantry based. The Infantry mantlet was essentially a tall wall of wooden planking with firing slits. The artillery wagon was the same but had sliding doors to allow the artillery to fire out. Only the smallest cannon could be carried on such a wagon. The infantry and artillery mantlets were primarily designed to be used for stationary defence, linked with each other to form either a wagon laager or a long defensive line. The mantlets were used to protect the flanks of an army's line of march and to secure flanks of infantry groups on the battle field. These mantlets were not however as effective as the tabors of the Hussites as they did not offer their supporting infantry an enclosed defensive position and so were vunerable to being overrun by enemy forces. These mantlets were adopted as they were significantly cheaper to produce than a Hussite style tabor. Drawings of both types of mantlet can be seen in the 'Das Mittelalteliche Hausbuch'. This work shows the mantlets on the march and deployed as camp defenses. It also clearly shows that the wheels for these wagons were not iron rimmed, suggesting a certain economy in their manufacture.
Ottoman Taburs followed the Hussite model but were almost entirely used for static defence. The Taburs were deployed as part of the camp and Sultan defenses. See Ottoman pages for notes on Ottoman tactics of the period. The Ottomans did refine their wagons by including 'ultra light' guns for the crews. The Taburs made ideal platforms for these over sized handguns as their long loading times made them too vunerable on the open battlefield. Their heavy shot and 'blunderbus' close range loads made them defenses to be feared. These guns came into use towards the end of the fifteenth Century.
picture of ottoman taburs
Why were warwagons limited to Eastern Europe?
Simplistically, Warwagons require two resources to be effective. The first is open and flat spaces with few obstacles where they can be deployed or manouvered. Western Europe just did not contain these steppe like areas. Although open terrain was there it was still criss crossed with ditches, hedge rows and other obstacles, all of which would severely limit wagon manouverability. The second and by far the most important is that of a trained and disciplined infantry force. The very nature of the Hussite revolt meant that infantry were their primary fighting force. Warwagons and their tactics were the key to the long term survival of the Hussites. In essence the warwagon made sure that the Hussite revolt did not suffer the consequences of many of the other 'peasant' revolts of the era. Western Nations were just not prepared to raise such forces from their 'lower' social ranks prefering to rely on mercenaries for their Infantry. Even the Eastern Nations employed large numbers of the ex-Hussite forces as mercenaries in preference to raising and training their own 'peasants'. By the time that Western Nations were raising and training effective infantry the advancement of artillery had made warwagons obsolete.
Copyright © 2002 Matthew Haywood
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