The wily one-eyed general who invented tank warfare—500 years ago.
You’re a knight. Your armor is not shining—it’s rusty, dented and foul-smelling—but you’re one tough character. You’re a Teuton crusader who has marched the length of Europe, and your sword is sharp enough to section a stallion or purée garlic.
But you’ve never seen anything like what’s now approaching. If it were 1921 rather than 1421, you’d call them tanks. Their ungreased axles groan and screech, and the thick planks that gird them—high enough to hide whoever is inside and low enough to protect the undercarriage—rattle and clank as they roll toward you, plunging down a hill not far from Prague.
Small ports are cut into the planks, and through them, hidden peasants are firing at you with handguns. The Czechs call them pistalas. You’ve smelled the sharp tang of gunpowder before, but medieval gunmen are wildly inaccurate. And since it is time-consuming to reload a pistala or an arquebus, one shot and they are meat to be minced by your sword.
But these war wagons are filled with shooters, and they are sheltered while reloading, so the fire is rapid. You can actually see the round about to kill you—its muzzle velocity is that slow. It tumbles toward you like a stone from a sling, just fast enough to pierce the metal of your breastplate.
Thank Jan Zizka.
If you must ask, you’re not Czech.
Jan Zizka is the most famous Czech warrior of all time—a general who created armies of peasants; supposedly never lost a battle; developed imaginative tactics at a time when war was largely a matter of frontal charges by mounted horsemen. And, oh yes, he invented the tank.
Millions of tourists have seen him in effigy, astride a bronze horse on a hill just outside central Prague in the Czech Republic. Few Westerners among the sightseers likely know or care who Zizka was, although some are aware this is one of the largest freestanding equestrian statues in the world—the horse alone stands 27 feet tall.
“Within the Czech Republic, Zizka is revered,” says West Point Assistant Professor Major William Mengel, whose specialty is Germanic history, “but he’s underappreciated in the West. The Hundred Years’ War was going on in England and France at the same time he was fighting, so Westerners know far more about Joan of Arc.”
Jan Zizka was born around 1360 in a town called Trocnov in Lower Bohemia. Bohemia was part of “the Czech lands,” a place in an age of city-states and duchies run by endlessly competing aristocrats.
Evidence suggests the nickname Zizka meant “one-eye” in a dialect of the time, and Zizka was indeed one-eyed. While legend has it he lost the eye in battle, it’s more likely he lost it during a teenage fight, as he is already “Zizka of Trocnov” in the first written record of his signature, on a deed when he was 18.
Not much else is known about Zizka during the first 40-odd years of his tumultuous life, except that he raised hell. He was an out-and-out mercenary, fighting throughout Central Europe for whoever would pay him, and there were plenty of minor nobles around with gelt they’d wrenched from serfs to spend on hard men willing to do their bidding.
Zizka wasn’t picky. In 1409 he became part of, well, let’s call it a gang—brawlers from the lower nobility (which included Zizka’s family) who specialized in holding up members of the merchant class. Zizka was arrested for his acts, but later pardoned by Czech King Vaclav IV.
For the next couple of years, Zizka was in Poland, fighting as a mercenary against Prussian Teutonic knights, most notably at the Battle of Tannenberg, where on July 15, 1410, Polish forces (among others) routed the Germans, halting their eastward expansion. Zizka cared little about Poles and had nothing against Teutons, but the pay was good. Certainly a leader by then but not yet a general, he was learning. Tactics were simple and unimaginative.
“It was a formative experience for Zizka,” says Mengel, “in terms of seeing the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of heavy cavalry in a major decisive battle. Tannenberg was a battle between two very large mounted cavalry forces. Later, Zizka would try to find a way to defeat heavy cavalry with infantry.”
In 1412 Zizka returned to Prague and became a minor member of King Vaclav’s court, as chamberlain to his queen, Sophia. But something important was astir in Prague. For nearly 200 years, Bohemian mines had been yielding rich lodes of silver, and many men, as well as the Catholic Church, had become wealthy—so wealthy that silversmith guild members were importing German craftsmen rather than having Czechs do the work. Unknown to the oppressive nobles, peasants throughout the Czech lands grew to realize there was life beyond traditional serfdom.
Into this smoldering mix came a preacher, Jan Hus, who delivered well-attended sermons in Prague, decrying the wealth of the church and urging reform. What particularly upset Hus was the church practice of selling “indulgences”—guaranteed negation of sins for a sliding scale of fees—to anyone who professed to be a Christian. The Vatican was warring with Naples at the time, and the Pope needed money. Hus’ followers were Protestants—protesters—known as Hussites.
Enraged by Hus’ insolence, the Catholic hierarchy summoned him to a church conference in Koblenz to explain and defend himself. The cardinals and bishops promised Hus safe passage. “Safe passage,” it turned out, was a year’s horrific imprisonment followed by a one-way trip to the stake where, on July 6, 1415, he was burned as a heretic.
Discontent bubbled and stewed among Hussites until, on July 30, 1419, an angry mob invaded the Prague New Town Hall and threw the town councilors out of third-story windows onto a forest of spears held erect by the jeering crowd below. There is strong evidence that Jan Zizka led the mob. If so, it would have been one of his earliest acts as a Hussite leader, a cause to which he would devote the rest of his life.
Emboldened, the Hussites began sacking churches and monasteries. Meanwhile, following King Vaclav’s death in 1419, his pro-Catholic brother Sigismund, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, saw an opportunity to eject the Hussites and, with the help of crusading Catholic knights, chastise the Czech lands. Thus began the Hussite Wars.
As pro-Catholic forces streamed toward Prague, Zizka took part in skirmishes and several all-out battles. In one of the earliest, he demonstrated his flair for innovation and imaginative tactics. Zizka emplaced his troops so the mounted knights would have to ride across a shallow pond to reach them. The night before, he’d had his men— and women, as Zizka happily accepted women into his army—scatter women’s heavy clothing on the bottom of the pond. When the knights galloped to attack, their horses’ hooves tangled in the fabric, and Zizka’s men easily cut down the immobilized horsemen.
His cunning would repeatedly prove its worth. Zizka shoed some of his horses backward, so the tracks would leave the enemy wondering whether he was coming or going. He also developed a battlefield semaphor system, whereby flagmen would wave colored banners, signaling quickly to distant troops.
Zizka led at a time when battles were won by the army that had the most troops or had lucked into adopting the most effective new weapon. The age of gunpowder had only just begun, and brute force ruled. Zizka may have been the first thoughtful tactician to take the field of battle since the days of the Roman Empire, when innovation, organization, efficiency, engineering and logistics were all a routine part of warfare.
He didn’t have legions of veteran troops, although he was opposing professionals—armored knights who killed for a living and had been at it for years. Zizka’s troops were serfs. He realized it would be ridiculous to try to turn them into skilled longbowmen, accomplished swordsmen or adroit horsemen. Anyway, the only horses to which Zizka had easy access were farmers’ wagon-draggers, not warhorses.
So he taught his army of farmers to fight as well as they could with the tools they knew best: scythes, iron-tipped grain flails, axes, rakes, picks, hoes— implements that turned out to be vicious at close quarters when wielded by people who were very strong, very angry, very messianic and labor-hardened.
“The Hussites were a different kind of force,” Mengel says. “The European armies of that period were formed around a core of mounted knights from the aristocracy—the top 5 percent of the population. The rest of the populace was peasants.” Zizka’s novel citizen army ran roughshod over some of the best professional forces in Europe and hastened the “Infantry Revolution,” which would change warfare for centuries.
The invention of the stirrup in the eighth century had made it possible for a top-heavy, armor-suited horseman to remain stable atop a huge horse while fighting with weighty weapons— broadswords, lances, maces, battleaxes and the like. Until then, light cavalry, riding virtually bareback on ponies, might dash around and do reconnaissance, but stirrups put the warrior up high on a true warhorse and served as the equivalent of a seatbelt.
Less than a century before Zizka democratized the battlefield with his citizen soldiers, archers and pikemen on foot had already begun to outmaneuver and outgun cumbersome horsemen. But combat at a distance with crude longbows and spears was not chivalrous.
“The aristocracy resisted this,” says Mengel. “It wasn’t just that the new military tactics and innovation threatened their role on the battlefield, it threatened their role in society overall.”
How outraged the nobles must have been by Zizka’s most famous innovation—armored war wagons. Peasants hidden in shielded farm carts could now shoot through narrow slots at knights.
Zizka used the carts both defensively and offensively. He would back them into a circle, wheel to wheel, and chain the wagons together to shelter troops and horses inside the ring. Readying his troops unseen within the wagenburg (“wagon town,” as Germans came to call them), he would roll one wagon aside to spring the surprise attack. “Circling the wagons” was a technique later borrowed by American plainsmen under attack by Indians, but few Western movie buffs know they have a one-eyed Czech to thank for the tactic. “Wagons had been used before in battle, but never as a fighting platform,” says Mengel. “The issue was, how do infantry gain control over cavalry? Zizka weighted some of the wagons with stones and chained them together to make a heavy, immovable object that the charging cavalry is unable to leap over or drive through.
“The infantry, and the draft horses that pulled the wagons, stayed within this mobile defensive fortification and were able to inflict casualties…using primarily crossbows but also handguns and larger cannons from inside the fort,” says Mengel. “They were primarily defensive, but there were several instances when the wagons were used offensively. Zizka once found himself surrounded, and basically everybody jumped into the wagons and charged off before the opposing forces could react. Another time he used some of the heaviest wagons, weighted down with stones, and rolled them downhill at the opposing force to break holes in their line.”
Zizka’s army ultimately beat back five separate crusades against the Hussite heretics. Zizka’s reputation was by then widespread, and his blindness contributed to it; some thought he was a demon. It was well known that his troops sang a marching song, “Ye Warriors of God,” as they went into battle. When the knights of the Fifth Crusade heard the song in the distance even before they saw the Hussite soldiers, they simply fled.
By 1421, Zizka had become completely blind. One story suggests he lost his good eye to a crossbow bolt in battle, but it could just as well have been inevitable progressive blindness. Despite his handicap, he continued to command troops effectively, making tactical decisions based on the battlefield accounts of trusted subordinates.
Zizka’s surprisingly short career ended on October 11, 1424, when he died of bubonic plague during the siege of Pribyslav. “His opponents tried to use some of Zizka’s ideas,” Mengel says, “but they were not very effective at it, because it was tied to social issues. If you have heavy cavalry based on the aristocracy and are opposed to the idea of arming your peasants, who potentially might turn against you, then you’re missing a key piece of the wagenburg— the soldiers who fight from within it, the infantry that fires crossbows or are equipped with polearms.”
According to legend, Zizka’s dying wish was that his skin be made into drumheads, so that even in death he could lead his soldiers into battle.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.