A wagon fort is a mobile fortification made of wagons arranged into a rectangle, a circle or other shape and possibly joined with each other, an improvised military camp. It is also known as a laager (from Afrikaans) (English: leaguer).
Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman army officer and historian of the 4th century, describes a Roman army approaching "ad carraginem" as they approach a Gothic camp. Historians interpret this as a wagon-fort. Notable historical examples include Hussites, which called it vozová hradba ("wagon wall"), known under the German word Wagenburg ("wagon castle"), tabors in the armies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Cossacks, the Laager of the settlers in South Africa.
Similar ad hoc defense formations were used in the United States, and were called corrals. These were traditionally used by 19th century American settlers travelling to the West in convoys of Conestoga wagons. When faced with attack, such as by hostile Native American tribes, the travellers would rapidly form a circle out of their wagons, bringing the draft animals (sometimes horses, but more commonly oxen) and women and children to the center of the circle. The armed men would then man the perimeter, the circled wagons serving to break up the enemy charge, to create a certain amount of concealment from observation and shelter from enemy firearms fire. They would also slow down and separate any warriors who attempted to get past the wagons into the circle, making them easier to dispatch, although they never formed a perfect barricade as a true wall would. This tactic was popularly known as "circling up the wagons", and survives into the modern day as an idiom describing a person or group preparing to defend themselves from attack or criticism.
One of the earliest examples of using conjoined wagons as fortification is described in the Chinese historical record Book of Han. During the 119 BC Battle of Mobei of the Han–Xiongnu War, the famous Han general Wei Qing used armored wagons known as "Wu Gang Wagon" (武剛車) in ring formations to neutralise the Xiongnu's cavalry charges, before launching a counteroffensive which overran the nomads.
Czechs and Hussites
In the 15th century, during the Hussite Wars, the Hussites developed tactics of using the tabors, called vozová hradba in Czech or Wagenburg by the Germans, as mobile fortifications. When the Hussite army faced a numerically superior opponent, the Bohemians usually formed a square of the armed wagons, joined them with iron chains, and defended the resulting fortification against charges of the enemy. Such a camp was easy to establish and practically invulnerable to enemy cavalry. The etymology of the word tabor may come from the Hussite fortress and modern day Czech city of Tábor, which itself is a name derived from biblical Jezreel mountain Tavor (in Hebrew תבור).
The crew of each wagon consisted of 18 to 21 soldiers: 4 to 8 crossbowmen, 2 handgunners, 6 to 8 soldiers equipped with pikes or flails, 2 shield carriers and 2 drivers. The wagons would normally form a square, and inside the square would usually be the cavalry. There were two principal stages of the battle using the wagon fort: defensive and counterattack. The defensive part would be a pounding of the enemy with artillery. The Hussite artillery was a primitive form of a howitzer, called in Czech a houfnice, from which the English word howitzer comes. Also, they called their guns the Czech word píšťala (hand cannon), meaning that they were shaped like a pipe or a fife, from which the English word pistol is possibly derived. When the enemy would come close to the wagon fort, crossbowmen and hand-gunners would come from inside the wagons and inflict more casualties on the enemy at close range. There would even be stones stored in a pouch inside the wagons for throwing whenever the soldiers were out of ammunition. After this huge barrage, the enemy would be demoralized. The armies of the anti-Hussite crusaders were usually heavily armored knights, and Hussite tactics were to disable the knight's horses so that the dismounted (and slow) knights would be easier targets for the ranged men. Once the commander saw it fit, the second stage of battle would begin. Men with swords, flails, and polearms would come out and attack the weary enemy. Together with the infantry, the cavalry in the square would come out and attack. At this point, the enemy would be eliminated or very nearly so.
The wagon fort's effect on Czech history was lost, but the Czechs would continue to use the wagon forts in later conflicts. After the Hussite Wars, foreign powers such as the Hungarians and Poles who had confronted the destructive forces of Hussites, hired thousands of Czech mercenaries (such as into the Black Army of Hungary). At the Battle of Varna in 1444, it is said that 600 Bohemian handgunners (men armed with early shoulder arms) defended a wagon fortification. The Germans would also use wagons for fortification. They would use much cheaper materials than the Hussites, and they would have different wagons for the infantry and the artillery. The Russians also used a type of movable fortress, called a guliai-gorod in the 16th century.
Another use of this tactic would be very similar to the infantry squares used by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo and the South African laager. The wagon forts would form into squares that would support each other. Whenever an enemy charged between two forts, marksmen from both of them would easily exploit the advantage and kill many of the enemy. The wagon fort was later used by the crusading anti-Hussite armies at the Battle of Tachov (1427). However, the anti-Hussite German forces, being inexperienced at this type of strategy, were defeated. The Hussite wagon fort would meet its demise at the Battle of Lipany (1434), where the Utraquist faction of Hussites defeated the Taborite faction by getting the Taborites inside a wagon fort on a hill to charge at them by at first attacking, then retreating. The Utraquists would reunite with the Catholic Church afterwards. Thus ended the wagon fort's effect on Czech history. The first victory against the wagon fort at the Battle of Tachov showed that the best ways to defeat it were to prevent it from being erected in the first place or to get the men inside of it to charge out of it by means of a feint retreat. Thus, the fortification would lose its prime advantage.
A laager, lager, leaguer or laer (Afrikaans, from Dutch leger (camp or army); Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈlɑːɡər] or Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈliɡər]). The word is South African in origin, and originally referred to a formation used by travelers whereby they would draw wagons into a circle and place cattle and horses on the inside to protect them from raiders or nocturnal animals. Laager were extensively used by the Voortrekkers of the Great Trek during the 1830s. The laager was put to the ultimate test on 16 December 1838, when an army of 10 000 Zulu Impi's besieged and were defeated by approximately 350 Voortrekkers in the aptly named Battle of Blood River. In 19th century America, the same approach was used by pioneers who would "circle the wagons" in case of attack.
A tabor is a convoy or a camp formed by horse-drawn wagons. For example, nomadic Gypsies used to wander and camp in tabor formations. Tabors supported the armies in Europe between the 13th and 20th centuries. Tabors usually followed the armies and carried all the necessary supplies and rear units, such as field kitchens, armourers or shoemakers.
The tactics were later copied by various armies of Central Europe, including the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these tactics were also mastered by the Cossacks, who used their tabors for the protection of marching troops as well.
- Michno, Gregory; Michno, Susan (November 24, 2008). Circle the Wagons!: Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-3997-3.
- Gulyay-gorod, Russian pre-fabricated mobile wooden fortification
- The dictionary definition of laager at Wiktionary
- The Zaporozhian Cossack Battle at Korsun
- wikisource:1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Laager
- Ammianus Marcellinus, book 31, chapter 7, in the Latin.
- Ammianus Marcellinus; Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (1986). The Later Roman Empire: (a.D. 354-378). Penguin Books Limited. pp. 423–. ISBN 978-0-14-044406-3. (Hamilton translates "ad carraginem quam ita ipsi appellant" as "to what they call their wagon-fort".)
- Jerry Keenan (2000). The Wagon Box Fight: An Episode of Red Cloud's War. Da Capo Press. pp. 21–. ISBN 1-882810-87-2.
The corral was composed of fourteen of these wagon boxes, placed end-to-end so as to form an oval-shaped enclosure ... The corral was positioned so that both "pineries" were under visual control and was "well selected for defense, and the ...
- Albert Jerome Dickson (1929). Covered Wagon Days: A Journey Across the Plains in the Sixties and Pioneer Days in the Northwest. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 106–. ISBN 0-8032-6582-4.
Scattered trains, as before stated, were to be brought together and arrangements made for defense. Just as this ... us down there. Within an hour all the trains were merged in one immense corral, the wagons as ...
- John H. Monnett (2008). Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed: The Struggle for the Powder River Country in 1866 and the Making of the Fetterman Myth. UNM Press. pp. 197–. ISBN 978-0-8263-4503-5.
The Wagon Box fight has gained legendary status over the years as a tumultuous and successful defensive stand by ... at Phil Kearny had constructed a protective corral of wagon beds to protect livestock and serve as a defensive position in ...
- Mayne Reid (1871). The Wild Huntress; Or, Love in the Wilderness. Carleton. pp. 411–.
There were about a score of the large tilted wagons (Troy and Conestoga), with several smaller vehicles (Dearborns and Jerseys). The latter ... With the larger wagons, a 'corral' had been formed, as is the usual custom of the prairie caravan.
- Improvement Era. 60. General Board, Y.M.M.I.A. 1957. pp. 719–.
Grain fields cover the land where oxen once pulled the huge Conestoga wagons. Once the wagons were well away from the water, the waiting Indians swooped down. Quickly the wagons were swung about to form a corral. Inside were three ...
- Random House Unabridged Dictionary: "Corral: a circular enclosure formed by wagons during an encampment, as by covered wagons crossing the North American plains in the 19th century, for defense against attack"
- Chronicle of the Horse. 14-26. 50. Chronicle of the Horse, Incorporated. April 1987. pp. 59–.
Of course, "circling up the wagons" (to repel Indian attack) has become a standard phrase in the language.
- The Book of Han, Ban Gu, 111 CE
- The Hussite Wars (1419–36), Stephen Turnbull, Osprey Publishing (ISBN 1-84176-665-8)
- Wisniewski, J.; Kevin Nakamura (April 24, 2013). "5 Ridiculous Myths Everyone Believes About the Wild West". Cracked. Retrieved 2014-08-18.
- Gregory F. Michno; Susan J. Michno (24 November 2008). Circle the Wagons!: Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films. McFarland. pp. 196–. ISBN 978-0-7864-3997-3.