#3 Battle on the Lechfeld, August 10, 955

In 955 king Otto I annihilated the largest army the Magyars ever fielded, ending their raids into his territory.  His soldiers hailed him emperor, kicking off the (Holy Roman) Empire.

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In the 9th and 10th century pagan raiders threatened Europe. Most famously the Vikings but in Germany, Western France and Itay the Magyars, horse archers with composite bows from the steppes were feared even more. In 954 they raided all the way to Spain.

The following year, 955 they put together the largest army they ever fielded ~ 10,000 fighters plus slaves and labourers to build and operate siege engines. This time it wasn’t just a raid, this time they came to stay.

Their target was the city of Augsburg at the intersection of two ancient Roman roads. The siege started August 8th, 955. The dilapidated walls of the city and its small band of valiant defenders can hold out at best for a few days.

Time is of the essence. Otto I pulls together whatever troops he can get hold of at short notice, in total about 7,000 men. Augsburg is about to fall when Otto I arrives in the area. Luckily, the Hungarians decide to abandon the siege and tackle the arriving army first.

In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved onto the Lechfeld, a gravel floodplain near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there before. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain.

Next morning, the 10th of August 955, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Otto took his troops down to the Lechfeld. He had lined up his eight detachments and marched under the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by arrows.

Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, the Hungarians went behind him and attacked his rear guard.  They captured the baggage train, and wounded and captured the defenders, 3 out of the 8 detachments are now down.

But once the Magyars had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Otto’s generals to bring down a detachment of Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. Otto’s forces regroup and he holds a rousing speech:

“As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord.” and We rather want to die in glory than being beaten by our enemies, taken away in servitude or even be strung up like feral animals.”

That worked. Item 1 on the list was the most important. The fighting style of the Magyars was horse-based archery. The riders would attack and then feign retreat. With their fast horses they would create a gap over the pursuers until they are at perfect shooting distance.

The maximum impact was achieved by shooting volleys of arrows into the sky that would come down on the attackers like hail. The ideal distance to achieve that was somewhere between 200 and 500 metres.

Had the enemy come closer the Hungarians had to shift to individual point-blank shots, which were less efficient and if the enemy got even closer it was down to hand to hand combat.

Henry the Fowler had proven that an army of heavy armoured knights could break a Hungarian force. They have to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the enemy line and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt.

And that is likely what happened at the Lechfeld. The Hungarians feigned retreat, but Otto’s highly trained personal troops and the battle-hardened Bavarians pushed through the death zone at speed, crashing into the Hungarian lines.

There might have also been a flank attack by the armoured knights from Augsburg who tried to join up with Otto but had not found him in the dark. When they saw the enemy dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.

There are other theories about the battle. In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat s blamed in a sudden rainfall that made the composite bows unusable. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day.

Whichever way it happened, the Hungarians were annihilated, their leaders captured and killed. The raids stopped for good and by 1000 King/Saint Stephen formally converted to Christianity.

This was Otto’s greatest military and political success. The chronicler Widukind of Corvey reports that the assembled troops declared Otto emperor on the field of battle, just like the ancient roman legions had done.

It will take until 962 before Otto I is crowned emperor, but after the battle on the Lechfeld he was the undisputed leader of Western Europe. From this point the political entity that will later be called the Holy Roman Empire comes into existence. If you want to hear the whole story, check out Episode 6 of the History of the Germans available on all podcasting platforms: https://pod.fo/e/162dc9

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  1. Hello Dirk,

    I moved to Germany this past summer and have loved listening to your podcast. I’m living in Weimar and really enjoy to learn what has happened in Erfurt and the other places in Thuringia.

    I hope it is not too late to ask a question: are there any records of notable court jesters in Germany? I recently saw the painting of Stańczyk again, and it made me think of your podcast.

    Thank you for all the entertainment and information you have provided.

    –Tyler Davis

    P.S. A few months ago you swore during the podcast, and I couldn’t stop laughing at the timing of it. Apparently one of the listeners was offended by it, but I thought it was hilarious. So I just wanted to let you know there are members of your audience who appreciate it a little profanity while the Germans try keep the Popes out of their business.

  2. 90% of this blog post is pure speculation. It was a minor loss to the Magyars, they were under Constantonople 3 years later. There were nowhere near 10000 horseman, they didn’t go to stay, they were invited to loot, etc, etc.

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