Jan Žižka: One of History’s Greatest Military Leaders, Who Was Blind but Undefeated

During the Hussite Wars, one Bohemian military leader triumphed in every battle – despite constantly being outnumbered, outgunned and not even being able to see the battlefield.

Any list of history’s greatest military commanders will include some clear and undeniable choices: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, and maybe Sun Tzu for his book The Art of War. But no list is complete without Jan Žižka.

A national hero to the Czechs, the 15th-century general was an unmatched tactician and an innovator in weaponry, who never lost a single battle despite leading an army of peasants and farmers against hardened soldiers. And most of the time, he was completely blind.

While Žižka’s deeds in the Hussite Wars made him a legend, his life before has either been lost to history or can only be guessed. Maybe born c1360 or 1376 in Trocnov, Bohemia, to an upper-class family, it is believed he became an experienced mercenary, maybe a bandit too.

At some point, he lost one of his eyes. He may have fought in the battle of Grunwald in 1410, a major engagement that shifted the balance of power in Europe, before possibly entering the service of King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia.

What can be said is that Žižka became a follower of the religious firebrand Jan Hus, whose movement was a forerunner of the Reformation. For criticising the Roman Catholic Church and seeking reform, Hus had been condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415.

His ‘Hussites’, hailing him as a martyr, continued to grow in number and split into factions, with Žižka joining the more radical and militant Taborites, who called for a complete break from Rome.

In 1419, religious tensions between the Church and Hussites snapped. In what became known as the First Defenestration of Prague (not to be confused with the second, the 1618 Defenestration of Prague) a Hussite procession led by priest Jan Zelivsky – with, according to some accounts, Žižka present – turned violent and several of Prague’s town councillors were thrown out of a window.

Shortly afterwards, Wenceslas died and his half-brother Sigismund, King of Hungary, looked to take the Bohemian throne. He was a staunch opponent of the Hussites, who had betrayed Hus to his death.

These events lit the spark of the Hussite Wars. Žižka was immediately appointed a commander of the Taborite forces and undertook the daunting task of getting them ready to face not only Sigismund’s royalist armies, but – since the pope launched a crusade to eradicate the Hussites – thousands of experienced mercenaries and knights from across Europe.

He had to make do with Bohemian peasants or farmers, poorly armed and equipped, and with next to no training. Žižka set about introducing drills and discipline, as well as a devotion to their cause to turn the Hussites into an army.

His real strength as a leader, though, was his ability to utilise his limited resources effectively: farmers were more used to agricultural flails and pitchforks than swords and bows, so he simply adapted and gave them flails and pitchforks as weapons.

But to be one of history’s greatest commanders required innovation. That came in the shape of his war wagons and battle-winning tactic wagenburg (wagon fort). Reinforcing common carts with thick wooden sides, mounting small cannons and guns on top, and manning each with up to 20 soldiers with hand weapons, crossbows and pistols, Žižka developed the rudimentary concept of mobile artillery.

These could be positioned in a square to form a defensive barricade – the wagenburg – against which enemy cavalry could not launch an attack. The fighting was on his terms. His Hussites could stand their ground against numerically superior forces, and win.

From his first battle, at Sudomer in March 1420, Žižka’s revolutionary tactics and strategic mind proved their worth. By establishing a position in a swampy area, his 400-strong force, which included women and children being escorted across Bohemia, defeated 2,000 crusaders forced to dismount in the unfavourable terrain.

He followed that by defending Prague at the battle of Vitkov Hill. Thousands of knights led by Sigismund were repulsed by an estimated 60-80 Hussites, before retreating in panic amidst Žižka’s surprise counterattack.

The battle of Vitkov Hill
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