On this day, August 10, 955 the Magyars (=Hungarians) are comprehensively defeated by Otto the Great (936-972). The defeat brings Otto the imperial crown of Charlemagne and domination of Western Europe. It ends the annual Hungarian raids and ushers in a period of Christianisation of the East as gradually Hungary, Bohemia and Poland join the catholic faith.
The devastation of the civil war of 954 lures in the largest Hungarian army anyone had ever seen anywhere. Enticed by the disinherited sons of former Bavarian dukes, the mighty host makes for Augsburg, a city whose walls are as weak as their defender is steadfast. This time they are here to conquer not just to plunder. Otto has to run hell for leather south gathering an army from wherever he can get his hands on to face the most amazing military of the times on a battlefield of their choosing.
That means apart from his personal bodyguard of Saxons, Otto’s army consisted of 3 contingents of Bavarians under Otto’s brother Henry, 2 contingents of Swabians, led by their new duke Burchard, 1 contingent of Franconians led by, surprise, surprise, Konrad the Red and, even more surprising a large contingent of Bohemians, led by our old fratricidal friend Boleslaus. Given Otto’s army was made up of in total 8 contingents, one of which consisted of allegedly “1,000” Bohemians, it gives us a high estimate of 8’000 men, though it is likely that the number was considerably lower. If we work of the assumption that total Magyar population in Hungary was 60,000 of which 20,000 were fighters, and they would not have sent all of them suggests a high estimate of 10,000 Hungarians. They may have had camp followers and slaves along to operate the siege engines, which suggests the overall army may have been larger. In any event, the Hungarians outnumbered Ottos troops by a margin.
Practically everything that I will say about how the battle unfolded is heavily debated, given that we have only 2 sources close to events and another three written many years later and all five give different accounts. There are also Hungarian chronicles written hundreds of years later.
The battle begins two days earlier on August 8th, with the siege of the city of Augsburg. The city nearly fell on their first attempt when they pressed on the eastern gate in large numbers. However, armoured knights stationed in Augsburg scored a success when they killed one of the Hungarian leaders. Shaken by this loss, the Hungarians retreated. With the Hungarians back in their camp, the citizens of Augsburg worked through the night strengthening their weak defences, building palisades and digging trenches.
On the morning of the 9th the Hungarians come back, now fully equipped with ladders and siege engines. I guess moral in the city was severely dampened when they saw the great host arriving.
But no major attack takes place. What had happened? One of the last surviving members of the rebellious former Bavarian ducal family had come to the Hungarian camp and told them that Otto’s army had arrived. The Hungarians sat down for a war council and decided that if they beat the field army first, the city would fall immediately thereafter – so no need to continue the siege. In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved off onto the Lechfeld, a large floodplain of flat gravel near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there before in 910. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain. Otto had no choice but to accept the battlefield. If he had tried to lure them into a more suitable terrain for his army, the Hungarians would have simply ridden away and evaded battle.
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 as follows. The first three battlegroups of Bavarians were in the front. Then came Konrad the Red’s Franconians, followed by Otto himself with his bodyguard. Then the 2 divisions of Swabians and finally the Bohemians with the baggage train. During the march down he kept his troops within the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by Hungarian arrows.
Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, they did not see that the Hungarians had gone behind his army and attacked the rear guard. That was very successful. The Hungarians captured the baggage train, dispersed the Bohemians and caused heavy damage to the two Swabian columns that had marched just ahead of the train. But once they had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Konrad the Red to bring down his Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. When Konrad and the Swabians re-joined the army, it nevertheless became clear that the Hungarians had inflicted major damage with three out of his 8 columns seriously weakened. Otto then addressed his troops. He said: “As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord. Their only shield is their bravery, whilst we can hope for the protection of the lord. We, as masters of all Europe, would have to be ashamed were we to surrender now. 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” Basically he says – we have the better armour, we have the help of the lord and guys, if you do not get yourself in gear, we will all be strung up like rabid dogs. That seems to have worked. Though the first item on the list was probably 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 for their composite bows.
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 riders could break a Hungarian force. The way to do that is to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the Hungarian lines without getting killed and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt. Once amongst them, the knights with their strong armour and huge swords could easily slaughter the lightly armoured Hungarians.
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 riders who were defending Augsburg. These knights had left the city the night before to join up with Otto but had not found him in the dark. When they saw Otto’s troops attacking the Hungarians dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.
There are other theories, one of which is that after the raid on the train, the remaining Bohemians crossed the river Lech and attacked the Hungarian camp. The Hungarians than raced to the ford at Augsburg to protect their plunder. When they got stuck on the river crossing, Otto and the Bohemians fell on them from both sides. In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat is blamed on sudden rainfall. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day. What makes the difference between the battle on the Lechfeld and the battle of Ried in 933 is that this time the Hungarians did not escape. At Ried, the Hungarians could just turn their horses around and run back to Hungary. This time their route had been blocked. Bridges were either taken down or well defended and fords guarded. After the battle, the Hungarians split up into smaller groups which were picked off one by one, probably mostly by the Bohemian troops of Boleslav, though the Saxon chroniclers prefer to credit the Bavarians. Most were captured and their leaders were hanged. That ended the Magyar threat for good.
The victorious army hails Otto the Great as emperor on the field of battle like the Romans of antiquity have done. The actual coronation will take place 7 years later in Rome. This and what happens next is in Episode 6 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on this website as well as on Apple Podcasts, SPotify or wherever you get your podcasts from.