Jan Žižka ‘the One-Eyed’ is one of that elite band of great military commanders who never lost a battle and the man who invented the tank 500 years before World War One, and yet in death, he chose to be eternally beaten. But more of that little riddle later.
Žižka was born in 1360 in the Bohemian village of Trocnov, in what is now the western half of modern-day Czechoslovakia, and spent his early years attached to the court of Queen Sophia.
He first saw action at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, one of the largest in Medieval Europe. It was fought during the Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War marking the decline of the Teutonic Knights as a power in Eastern Europe.
But it was during the Hussite Wars that Žižka‘s name came to the fore. As with almost all medieval wars, at its heart was religious practice and the abuse of power and a brief introduction to the cause of the war might be helpful, but if you’d rather cut to the chase you can click here to skip to Žižka‘s part in it.
It was the time of the Papal Schism when politics drove two men to both claim to be the rightful Pope. The Hussites, which included most of Bohemia, were followers of the Christian dissenter, priest and scholar, Jan Hus, who denounced the corruption of the Papacy, in particular, the sale of indulgences by the ‘antipope’ John XXIII to fund his machinations against Gregory XII, his counterpart in the east.
Hus was considered something of a heretic because he promoted the Protestant ideas of John Wycliffe, but 1n 1414 he was invited to attend the Council of Constance which Sigismund of Hungary convened to bring an end to the schism.
Hus was promised safe conduct but was promptly imprisoned on his arrival and then executed before anyone could kick up a fuss.
Unsurprisingly this angered the knights and nobles of Bohemia and passions were inflamed further when Sigismund sent letters threatening to drown all Hussites.
Dissent became active revolt leading to the Defenestration of Prague, the expulsion of Catholics from Bohemian cities and there was a war before you could say ‘close that window’.
This is very much an abbreviated account of the causes of the war. If you want more detail try the Wikipedia entry or even Warrior of God: Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution by Victor Verney.
By 1419 Žižka came to the fore as a military leader when an armistice was agreed between the forces King Sigismund and the city of Prague, but Žižka despised such compromise and took himself and his men off to Plzeň.
The first major battle of the Hussite War took place the following year when Žižka defeated Sigismund’s partisan army at Sudoměř.
The Hussites found themselves outnumbered five to one and at first raised the white flag, but the heavily armoured knights of the Royalists sensed an easy victory and refused to accept their surrender. Which was a mistake.
It was here that Žižka honed his genius for tactics and military innovation. He had developed the idea of the vozová hradba, or war wagon, which were effectively armoured vehicles or tanks that acted as mobile fortifications.
The wagons formed a square or circle, each chained to the corner of its neighbour so that horses could be harnessed quickly if need be. The wagons were armoured and carried artillery and a crew of around twenty soldiers armed with handguns, crossbows, pikes and the national weapon of choice – the flail.
The first part of Žižka’s plan was to launch an artillery assault against the knights from behind the wagon barrier, inflicting terrible casualties and provoking the knights to attack.
The soldiers armed with arquebuses then emerged to weaken the enemy further by aiming for the horse rather than the rider.
Žižka then went on to the offensive by sending in his infantry and cavalry to attack the knights from the flanks causing massive losses.
You can read more about Žižka and the Hussite War from the references above, but he was the first European to manoeuvre canon mounted on carts and the first to use pistols on the battlefield successfully. Indeed, the Czechs called their handguns ‘píštala’ (meaning flute), and the anti-infantry field guns’ houfnice’ which gave English the words ‘pistol’ and ‘howitzer’.
Žižka died of the plague at Přibyslav on the Moravian frontier in 1424. I mentioned at the beginning, his dying wish was to be eternally beaten which is the factlet that first sparked my interest in Žižka. You see, he asked that his skin be used to make a drum to be beaten at times of national emergency so that he might forever lead his troops.
I also mentioned that he is one of only six generals never to lose a battle. The other five were Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, Genghis Khan, Alexander Suvorov, and Khalid ibn al-Walid, so he ranks among great company indeed.
Finally, Žižka’s nickname ‘the One-eyed’ – it seems we don’t know which eye he was actually missing. The general consensus according to his statue in Prague is that it was his right eye, although the Jan Vilímek drawing at the top of the page has the patch over his left.