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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 3 — John Huss and the Hussite Wars

Chapter 15 — Marvellous genius of Ziska as a general

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Blindness of Ziska – Hussite mode of Warfare – The Wagenburg – The Iron Flail – Successes – Ziska's Death – Grief of his Countrymen.

OUR space does not permit us to narrate in detail the many battles, in all of which Ziska bore himself so gallantly. He was one of the most remarkable generals that ever led all army. Cochlaeus, who bore him no good-will, says, that all thing considered, his blindness, the peasants he had to transform into soldiers, and the odds he had to meet, Ziska was the greatest general that ever lived. Accident deprived him in his boyhood of one of his eyes. At the siege of Raby he lost the other, and was now entirely blind. But his marvelous genius for arranging an army and directing its movements, for foreseeing every emergency and coping with every difficulty, instead of being impaired by this untoward accident, seemed to be strengthened and enlarged, for it was only now that his great abilities as a military leader fully revealed themselves. When an action was about to take place, he called a few officers around him, and made them describe the nature of the ground and the position of the enemy. His arrangement was instantly made as if by intuition. He saw the course the battle must run, and the succession of maneuvers by which victory was to be grasped.

While the armies were fighting in the light of day, the great chief who moved them stood apart in a pavilion of darkness. But his inner eye surveyed the whole field, and watched its every movement. That blind giant, like Samson his eyes put out, but unlike Samson his hands not bound, smote his enemies with swift, terrible, and unerring blows, and having overwhelmed them in ruin, himself retired from the field victorious. [1]

What contributed not a little to this remarkable success were the novel methods of defense which Ziska employed in the field. He conferred on his soldiers the advantages of men who contend behind walls and ramparts, while their enemy is all the time exposed. It is a mode of warfare in use among Eastern and nomadic tribes, from whom it is probable the Poles borrowed it, and Ziska in his turn may have learned it from them when he served in their wars. It consisted in the following contrivance: – The wagons of the commissariat, linked one to another by strong iron chains, and ranged in line, were placed in front of the host. This fortification was termed a Wagenburg; ranged in the form of a circle, this wooden wall sometimes enclosed the whole army. Behind this first rampart rose a second, formed of the long wooden shields of the soldiers, stuck in the ground. These movable walls were formidable obstructions to the German cavalry. Mounted on heavy horses, and armed with pikes and battle-axes, they had to force their way through this double fortification before they could close with the Bohemians. All the while that they were hewling at the wagons, the Bohemian archers were plying them with their arrows, and it was with thinned ranks and exhausted strength that the Germans at length were able to join battle with the foe.

Even after forcing their way, with great effort and loss, through this double defense, they still found themselves at a disadvantage; for their armor scarce enabled them to contend on equal terms with the uncouth but formidable weapons of their adversaries. The Bohemians were armed with long iron flails, which they swung with prodigious force. They seldom failed to hit, and when they did so, the flail crashed through brazen helmet, skull and all. Moreover, they carried long spears which had hooks attached, and with which, clutching the German horseman, they speedily brought him to the ground and dispatched him. The invaders found that they had penetrated the double rampart of their foes only to be dragged from their horses and helplessly slaughtered. Besides numerous skirmishes and many sieges, Ziska fought sixteen pitched battles, from all of which he returned a conqueror.

The career of this remarkable man terminated suddenly. He did not fall by the sword, nor did he breathe his last on the field of battle; he was attacked by the plague while occupied in the siege of Prysbislav, and died on October 11th, 1424. [2]

The grief of his soldiers was great, and for a moment they despaired of their cause, thinking that with the death of their leader all was lost. Bohemia laid her great warrior in the tomb with a sorrow more universal and profound than that with which she had ever buried any of her kings. Ziska had made the little country great; he had filled Europe with the renown of its arms; he had combated for the faith which was now that of a majority of the Bohemian nation, and by his hand God had humbled the haughtiness of that power which had sought to trample their convictions and consciences into the dust. He was buried in the Cathedral of Czaslau, in fulfillment of his own wish. His countrymen erected a monument of marble over his ashes, with his effigies sculptured on it, and an inscription recording his great qualities and the exploits he had performed. Perhaps the most touching memorial of all was his strong iron mace, which hung suspended above his tomb. [3]

The Bohemian Jesuit Balbinus, who had seen numerous portraits of Ziska, speaks of him as a man of middle size, strong chest, broad shoulders, large round head, and aquiline nose. He dressed in the Polish fashion, wore a mustache, and shaved his head, leaving only a tuft of brown hair, as was the manner in Poland. [4]

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