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The Hussite Wagenburg

A laager, (English: leaguer)[1] also known as 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.

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.[2] Historians interpret this as a wagon-fort.[3]

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 sometimes called corrals. These were traditionally used by 19th century American settlers traveling to the West in convoys of Conestoga wagons. When faced with attack, such as by hostile Native American tribes, the travelers 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 know as "circling up the wagons", and survives into the modern day as a idiom describing a person or group preparing to defend themselves from attack or criticism.[4]

From Second World War armoured warfare, a laager is a defensive formation of tanks (sometimes other armoured vehicles, such as assault guns) formed by backing all of the vehicles into a circle with their strong frontal armor and main guns facing outward. More vulnerable support and reconnaissance vehicles and personnel would be stationed in the center of the circle, where they would be protected by the tanks armor. This formation was mostly used for quick resupply or refueling, or for bivouacking at night, and was only to protect against sudden ambush, never as an active combat tactic (except when forced to refuel in the middle of a fluid battle zone). It was particularly popular with German forces on the Eastern Front before the Soviets managed to get effective attack aircraft into service, and was meant to protect against sudden armored or infantry attack from any direction, a real possibility in the highly mobile warfare on the Russian steppes. It also served to protect the crews maintaining, refueling or resupplying the vehicles by putting the armored tanks between them and enemy infantry, snipers or mortar/artillery fire landing outside the laager. While bivouacking, it was common for crewmen to dig foxholes underneath their tanks, to provide an additional measure of protection in case of sudden artillery barrage. Most tanks provided a belly escape hatch, making it easy to re-enter the vehicle.

Parking the tanks in a circle also meant that no matter what direction the enemy attacked from, it would face thick frontal armor and at least several main guns pointing in their direction. This was important, as a tank had much thinner armor and very little visibility to the rear; an ideal anti-tank ambush involved maneuvering into position behind an unaware enemy and dispatching him with a shot in the rear of the hull. Tanks were also vulnerable to infantry approaching the tank unseen from the rear, and dispatching it with a satchel charge, Molotov cocktail, or similar weapon. While tank crew were originally taught to always seek a solid position (such as a wall) that they could reverse up to to protect their rear armor if they planned to stop for more than a few minutes, they found that it worked even better to back up to several other tanks to provide mutual protection and 360 degree defense (although when forming a defense line against an advancing enemy, it was necessary to revert to the older method of backing up to an obstacle or digging into a hillside; this allowed the whole force to concentrate fire on the expected enemy advance, while maintaining protection against any attacks from the rear).

Although this tactic worked well on the Eastern Front, especially in the early days, it proved highly dangerous in the presence of aircraft, which were extremely lethal to concentrated formations of armor. The only defense against a rocket-firing Il-2 or bomb-laden P-47 was to keep dispersed as possible, to minimize losses and to make a smaller target. Thus, its popularity dwindled on the Eastern Front, and it never gained the same popularity on the Western Front, where the German forces operated under almost constant Allied air superiority, and aircraft proved to be the greatest threat to their armored divisions. However, it continued in use as a protective formation during bivouac under the cover of darkness, since a crew couldn't easily sleep inside a cramped tank hull, and the unarmored elements of an armored division required some form of protection against infiltrating enemy units. The laager formation was also employed by the Allies, who had little to fear from the Luftwaffe after the first half of the war.


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.[5]

In the 13th century the armies of Kievan Rus used the tabors in the Battle of Kalka to defend themselves from Mongol forces.

Czechs and Hussites[edit]

"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. 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, 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 close to it.

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 either 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.

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 (e.g. 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.[6]



A laager, lager, leaguer or laer (Afrikaans, from Dutch leger (camp or army); Dutch pronunciation: [ˈlaːɡər] or [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 1830's. In 19th century America, the same approach was used by pioneers who would "circle the wagons" in case of attack.[7][8]


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.

Circle the wagons[edit]

In English, to "circle the wagons" is an idiom to prepare to defend against an attack or criticism.

See also[edit]

  • Gulyay-gorod, Russian pre-fabricated mobile wooden fortification

External links[edit]


  1. ^ wikisource:1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Laager
  2. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, book 31, chapter 7, in the Latin.
  3. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire, Translated by Walter Hamilton, Penguin Classics (1986) ISBN 0-14-044406-8, p. 423; Hamilton translates "ad carraginem quam ita ipsi appellant" as "to what they call their wagon-fort"
  4. ^ 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"
  5. ^ The Book of Han, Ban Gu, 111 CE
  6. ^ The Hussite Wars (1419–36), Stephen Turnbull, Osprey Publishing (ISBN 1-84176-665-8)
  7. ^ Wisniewski, J.; Kevin Nakamura (April 24, 2013). "5 Ridiculous Myths Everyone Believes About the Wild West". Cracked. Retrieved 2014-08-18. 
  8. ^ Circle the Wagons!: Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films