Battle of Lechfeld (955)
|The Second Battle of Lechfeld|
|Part of the Hungarian invasions of Europe|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Otto I the Great
Conrad the Red †
|harka Bulcsú †
chieftains Lél and Súr †
|8,000 heavy cavalry||17,000 light cavalry
|Casualties and losses|
1,000 fell in the battle
~1,500 killed by local farmers
2,000 fleeing Hungarians killed by German reserve-troops
The Battle of Lechfeld (10 August 955), often seen as the defining event for holding off the incursions of the Hungarians into Western Europe, was a decisive victory by Otto I the Great, King of the Germans, over the Hungarian leaders, the harka (military leader) Bulcsú and the chieftains Lél (Lehel) and Súr. Located south of Augsburg, the Lechfeld is the flood plain that lies along the Lech River. The battle appears as the second Battle of Augsburg in Hungarian historiography. It was followed up by the Battle of Recknitz in October. It was the first national German battle against a foreign enemy.
The most important source is Gerhard's monograph Vita Sancti Uodalrici, which describes the series of actions from the German point of view. Another source is the chronicler Widukind of Corvey, who provides some important details. The chronicle Gesta Hungarorum provides insight from the Hungarian side; however, this chronicle was only written in the 12th century.
After having put down a rebellion by his son, Liudolf, Duke of Swabia and son-in-law, Conrad, Duke of Lorraine, Otto I the Great, King of the Germans, set out to Saxony, his duchy. Upon arriving in Magdeburg he received reports of the Hungarian invasion. The Hungarians had already invaded once before during the course of the rebellion. This occurred immediately after he had put down a revolt in Franconia. Because of unrest among the Polabian Slavs on the lower Elbe, Otto had to leave most of his Saxons at home. In addition, Saxony was distant from Augsburg and its environs, and considerable time would have elapsed waiting for their arrival. The battle took place six weeks after the first report of an invasion, and historian Hans Delbrück asserts that they could not have possibly made the march in time.
The King ordered his troops to concentrate on the Danube, in the vicinity of Neuburg and Ingolstadt. He did this in order to march on the Hungarian line of communications and catch them in their rear while they were raiding northeast of Augsburg. It was also a central point of concentration for all the contingents that were assembling. Strategically, therefore, this was the best location for Otto to concentrate his forces before making the final descent upon the Hungarians.
There were other troops that had an influence on the course of the battle. On previous occasions, in 932 and 954 for example, there had been Hungarian incursions that had invaded the Germanic lands to the south of the Danube, and then retreated back to their native country via Lotharingia, to the West Frankish Kingdom and finally, through Italy. That is to say, a wide sweeping U-turn that initially started westward, then progressed to the south, and then finally to the east back to their homeland; and thus escaping retribution in Germany. The King was aware of the escape of these Hungarians on the above-mentioned occasions, and was determined to trap them. He therefore ordered his brother, Archbishop Bruno, to keep the Lotharingian forces in Lorraine. He did this with the fear that the Hungarians would follow their plan of retreat on the previous occasions. However, with a powerful enough force of knights pressing them in the front from the west, and an equally strong force of knights chasing them from the east, the Hungarians would be unable to escape.
The Bishop Ulrich defended Augsburg, a border city of Swabia, with a contingent of soldiers. Motivating them with the 23rd Psalm ("Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death"). While this defense was going on, the King was raising an army to march south.
There is no reliable source on the size of the armies and the numbers are still disputed. The most accepted view is that Otto called up about 8,000 men. The eight, 1,000-strong legiones (divisions) included three from Bavaria, two from Swabia, one from Franconia and one from Bohemia, under Prince Boleslav I. The eighth division, commanded by Otto, and slightly larger than the others, included Saxons, Thuringians, and the King's personal guard. The King's contingent probably included seasoned knights of Frankish origin.
According to chronicles, the Hungarian army amounted to 25–50,000 men, but a more realistic figure is 10–25,000 men.
Gerhard writes that the Hungarian forces advanced to the Iller River and placed Augsburg under siege. At this time, Augsburg did not quite touch the left bank of the river, upon which it was situated. The city was defended by Bishop Ulrich. Most probably the fiercest battle took place on August 8 at the eastern gate, which the Hungarians tried to storm in large numbers. The Bishop's men defended bravely and killed the leader of the attack, forcing the Hungarians to withdraw. The next day the Hungarians launched a wider general attack. During the battle, Berchtold of Risinesburg arrived, which heralded the approach of the German army. At the end of the day, the siege was suspended, and the Hungarians prepared for the next day's battle. Count Dietpald led soldiers to Otto's camp during the night.
Battle at Lechfeld
The order of march of the German army was as follows: the three Bavarian contingents, the Frankish contingent under Duke Konrad, the royal unit (the center), the two contingents of Swabians and the Bohemian contingent. The Bavarians were placed at the head of column, according to Delbrück, because they were marching through Bavarian territory and they therefore knew the territory best. All of these were mounted.
According to the chronicler Widukind of Corvey, Otto "pitched his camp in the territory of the city of Augsburg and joined there the forces of Henry I, Duke of Bavaria, who was himself lying mortally ill nearby, and by Duke Conrad with a large following of Franconian knights. Conrad's unexpected arrival encouraged the warriors so much that they wished to attack the enemy immediately."
The arrival of Conrad, the exiled Duke of Lotharingia (Lorraine), and Otto's son-in-law, was particularly heartening because he had recently thrown in his lot with the Magyars, but now returned to fight under Otto; in the ensuing battle he lost his life. A legion of Swabians was commanded by Burchard III, Duke of Swabia, who had married Hedwig, the daughter of Henry, the brother of Otto. Also among those fighting under Otto was Boleslav of Bohemia. About 3,000 Saxons were commanded by Otto himself.
The Hungarians crossed the river and immediately attacked the Bohemians, then later the Swabian legions, but retreated after a short fight. As Otto received word of the attack, he ordered Conrad to recover the baggage train, which Conrad succeeded in doing before returning to the main forces. For Otto, it became evident that this was the time to attack the Hungarians, and he did not hesitate. Despite a volley of arrows from the Hungarians, Otto's army smashed into the Hungarian line, and began to sweep over it.
The Germans were able to fight hand-to-hand with the Hungarians, giving the traditionally nomadic warriors no room to use their favorite shoot-and-run tactics. Bulcsú feigned a retreat with part of his force, in an attempt to lure Otto's men into breaking their line in pursuit, but to no avail. The German line maintained formation and routed the Magyars from the field. The German forces maintained discipline and methodically pursued the Magyars for the next couple of days, rather than dispersing jubilantly, as German forces had been known to do in the past. "Some of the enemy sought refuge in nearby villages, their horses being worn out; these were surrounded and burnt to death within the walls." The captured Magyars were either executed, or sent back to their ruling prince, Taksony, missing their ears and noses. The Hungarian leaders Lél, Bulcsú and Sur, who were not Árpáds, were executed after the battle. Duke Conrad was also killed, after he loosened his mail armour in the summer heat and one arrow struck his throat. "Never was so bloody a victory gained over so savage a people," was Widukind's conclusion.
Otto deployed his divisions in a single line, without reserves. From right to left the line was held by Duke Conrad's Franconians, the three Bavarian divisions, Otto's division and the two Swabian divisions. The Bohemian division defended the camp. The Hungarians mounted a rapid frontal attack in a typical horse archer swarm, raining arrows among the German knights, but this was only a feint. The main attack circled behind Otto's host and struck the camp, routing Boleslav's knights. The Hungarian flanking force then attacked the two Swabian divisions from the rear, while their compatriots attacked in front.
The Swabians were disordered by the double attack, but they did not panic. Instead, they fell back fighting toward the King's division. Otto ordered Conrad to pull his division out from the extreme right and bring it behind the German line to help the Swabians on the enveloped left flank. Conrad brilliantly executed the difficult maneuver, and his knights charged the Hungarian flanking force. Pinned between Conrad and the Swabians, these horsemen were cut to pieces. Meanwhile, Otto and the Bavarians had successfully held off the enemy frontal attack. Once Conrad disposed of the flanking force, Otto led a general advance. Conrad was killed by an arrow.
Seeing the day going against them, the Hungarians bolted for their camp. Fleeing across the river, many were caught in the shallow river bed (made up of banks of pebbles) and killed as they urged their tired horses up the steep and slippery west bank of the Lech. After the Germans stormed and plundered the Hungarian camp, the raiders set out for Hungary. They had to swing a long detour south and east, during which a number of the smaller war parties were overtaken and slaughtered by the enraged local people.
On the field of battle, the German lords raised Otto on their shields in the Germanic manner and proclaimed him emperor. A few years later, on the strength of this, Otto went to Rome and had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII.
The King spent the night after the battle in Augsburg. He specifically issued the order that all river crossings were to be held. This was done so that as many of the Hungarians as possible, and specifically their leaders, could be captured and killed. This strategy was successful, as Duke Henry of Bavaria captured a number of their leaders and killed them.
It is disputed how this had affected Hungarian statehood. What is certain is that it was not a crushing defeat, as Otto was not able to chase the army and extend the battle to Hungarian lands. After the defeat, the Hungarians reached the end of the almost 100-year era in which they were seen as the dominating military force in Europe.
After 955, the Hungarians completely ceased all campaigns westwards. In addition, Otto did not launch any further military campaigns against the Hungarians. The Hungarian leader Fajsz was dethroned following the defeat, and was succeeded as Grand Prince of the Hungarians by Taksony.
The battle has been viewed as a symbolic victory for the knightly cavalry, who would define European warfare in the High Middle Ages, over the nomadic, light cavalry that characterized warfare during the Early Middle Ages in Central and Eastern Europe.
- Bowlus, p. 1
- Baron Edward Francis Twining Twining, A history of the crown jewels of Europe, B. T. Batsford, 1960, p. 387
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- Charles R. Bowlus, The Battle of Lechfeld and Its Aftermath, August 955: The End of the Age of Migrations in the Latin West, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006, p. 166
- Delbruck, p. 115
- Delbruck, p. 116
- Delbruck, p. 118
- Delbruck, p. 122
- Beeler, p 229. The author gives no figures for the Magyars.
- Delbruck, p. 678
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- Beeler, p. 230-232
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- Delbrück, Hans (1982). History of the Art of War, Volume Three: Medieval Warfare. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-6585-9.
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- Monk Widukind of Corvey's account
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