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Wagon fort

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The Hussite wagenburg

A wagon fort, wagon fortress, wagenburg or corral,[1] often referred to as circling the wagons, is a temporary fortification made of wagons arranged into a rectangle, circle, or other shape and possibly joined with each other to produce an improvised military camp. It is also known as a laager (from Afrikaans), especially in historical African contexts,[2][3] and a tabor (from Polish/Ukrainian/Russian) among the Cossacks.[4]


Circled wagons

Ammianus Marcellinus, a Roman army officer and historian of the 4th century, describes a Roman army advancing "ad carraginem" as they approach a Gothic camp.[5] Historians interpret this as a wagon-fort.[6] Notable historical examples include the Hussites, who called it vozová hradba ("wagon wall"), known under the German translation Wagenburg ("wagon fort/fortress"), tabors in the armies of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Cossacks, and the laager of settlers in South Africa.

Similar, ad hoc, defensive formations used in the United States were called corrals.[7][8][9][10] These were traditionally used by 19th century American settlers travelling to the West in convoys of Conestoga wagons.[11][12]





One of the earliest written claims of using conjoined mobile shields 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 led his army through a fatiguing expeditionary march across the Gobi desert only to find Yizhixie chanyu's main force waiting to encircle them on the other side. Using armored heavy wagons known as "Wu Gang Wagon" (Chinese: 武剛車) in ring formations as temporary defensive fortifications, Wei Qing neutralised the Xiongnu's initial cavalry charges, forcing a stalemate and buying time for his troops to recover strength, before using the cover of a sandstorm to launch a counteroffensive which overran the nomads.[13]

Czechs and Hussites

"The Women of the Teutons Defend the Wagon Fort" (1882) by Heinrich Leutemann.

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. It was first used in the Battle of Nekmíř. 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 town of Tábor, which itself is a name derived from biblical Jezreel mountain Tabor (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. Furthermore, they called their guns the Czech word píšťala (hand cannon), in that they were shaped like a pipe or a fife, from which the word pistol is possibly derived. When the enemy approached near enough, crossbowmen and hand-gunners emerge from the wagons and inflict more casualties at close range. There would even be stones stored in a pouch inside the wagons for throwing should the soldiers run out of ammunition. After this huge barrage, the enemy would be demoralized. The armies of the anti-Hussite crusaders were usually heavily armored knights. Hussite tactics were to disable the knights' horses so that the dismounted (and ponderous) knights would be easier targets. Once the commander saw fit, the second stage of battle would begin. Men with swords, flails, and polearms would spring out and attack the weary enemy. Alongside this infantry, cavalry would leave the square and strike. The enemy would be eliminated, or very nearly so.

The wagon fort was later used by the crusading anti-Hussite armies at the Battle of Tachov (1427). Anti-Hussite German forces, unfamiliar with this type of strategy, were defeated. The Hussite wagon fort strategy failed at the Battle of Lipany (1434), where the Utraquist faction of Hussites defeated the Taborite faction. On a hill within a wagon fort, they were drawn into charging out prematurely, when their enemy pretended to retreat. The Utraquists would be reconciled with the Catholic Church afterwards. Thus ended the wagon fort's impact 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 to charge out prematurely after a feint. Such solutions meant the fortification lost its prime advantage. The importance of the wagon fort in Czech history diminished, 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 used much cheaper materials than the Hussites, and different wagons for infantry and artillery. The Russians also used a type of movable fortress, called a guliai-gorod in the 16th century.[14]

A danish peasant rebellion in 1441, culminating In the battle of St. Jørgensbjerg also used the war fortresses. The leader of the danish peasants were lead by Henrik Reventlow who had participated in the Hussite Wars and had learned of the war fortress by participating in Albert II’s war against the Hussite. There he saw what a formidable defence the war fortress was, and then used it in the peasant rebellion. While it’s not certain how the fortress was built, it still played a crucial role in defending Husby against a more well equipped army under Christopher of Bavaria. While the fortress did defend Husby initially, Henrik’s army was defeated after much of his army had left. The casualties of the peasant army is speculated to be 6,000-25,000. Henrik was executed shortly after by Christoffer. [15]

Another use of this tactic was the very similar infantry squares deployed by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Likewise the South African laager. The wagon forts would form into squares, supporting each other. Were an assault made between two forts, marksmen from both would easily exploit the advantage and kill many of the enemy.




A romanticized depiction of the Great Trek

The English word laager comes from the obsolete Afrikaans word lager (now laer), which comes from the German word Lager ("camp" or "lair")[3][2] and the Dutch leger which also gives English 'leaguer' ("military camp").[16] The word refers to the ancient defensive formation used by travelers throughout the world in dangerous situations in which they would draw wagons into a circle and place cattle and horses on the inside to protect them from raiders or nocturnal animals. Laagers 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 10,000–15,000 Zulu Impis besieged and were defeated by approximately 460 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.[17][18]

Leaguer was used in the British Army for temporary overnight camps made by armoured formations.[19]


Oilette postcard view of a Romani camp

A tabor is a convoy or a camp formed by horse-drawn wagons. For example, nomadic Romani used to wander and camp in tabor formations.[20] 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.[21]

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.

See also



  1. ^ Jonathan Simon; Christopher Riley-Smith (2002). The Oxford History of the Crusades. Oxford University Press. p. 228. ISBN 9780192803122.
  2. ^ a b "laager". Collins Dictionary.
  3. ^ a b "laager". merriam-webster Dictionary.
  4. ^ Davies, Brian (2012-01-01). "Guliai-gorod, Wagenburg, and Tabor Tactics in 16th–17th Century Muscovy and Eastern Europe". Warfare in Eastern Europe, 1500-1800. Brill. pp. 93–108. doi:10.1163/9789004221987_006. ISBN 978-90-04-22198-7.
  5. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, book 31, chapter 7, in the Latin.
  6. ^ 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".
  7. ^ 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 {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  8. ^ 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 ...
  9. ^ 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. ... Within an hour all the trains were merged in one immense corral, the wagons as they were driven into place being fastened together with four chains apiece.
  10. ^ 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 woodcutters and their 27th Infantry escort. ... [T]he garrison at Phil Kearny had constructed a protective corral of wagon beds to protect livestock and serve as a defensive position in case of Indian attack.
  11. ^ 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). ... With the larger wagons, a 'corral' had been formed, as is the usual custom of the prairie caravan.
  12. ^ Improvement Era. Vol. 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 hundred men, women, and children, and all their animals.
  13. ^ Ban Gu (111). The Book of Han.
  14. ^ Stephen Turnbull (25 May 2004). Random House The Hussite Wars (1419–36). Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-665-8.)
  15. ^ Hau, Christian (2016). Slaget på Sct. Jørgensbjerg [Battle of Sct. Jørgensbjerg] (in Danish). pp. 30–32.
  16. ^ "laager, n.", OED Online, Oxford University Press., September 2021, retrieved September 20, 2021
  17. ^ Wisniewski, J.; Kevin Nakamura (April 24, 2013). "5 Ridiculous Myths Everyone Believes About the Wild West". Cracked. Retrieved 2014-08-18.
  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.
  19. ^ TM 30-410 Handbook on the British army : with supplements on the Royal Air Force and civilian defense organizations, September 30, 1942, p. 210
  20. ^ "Polish Romani (gypsy) surnames". Sounds right for a Gypsy name. Tabor in Polish is a wagon train and a "tabor cygański" is a Gypsy wagon train.
  21. ^ Waliczek-Raczka, Manuela (21 August 2014). "Building A Gypsy Wagon". Retrieved 2018-12-04.

Further reading