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Posted on Aug 8, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Guest POV – What was the Decisive Moment at the Battle of Nicopolis?

By Joshua Gilbert

Joshua Gilbert is a freelance writer and researcher from Northeastern Michigan with a passion for history, especially military history. He has been writing about history for five years, primarily for magazines and the freeware game 0 AD. He also does historical research for video game modifications. In this article, he examines how conflicting concepts of warfare doomed the last great Crusader army at the battle of Nicropolis on the Danube.

 

Jean I had lost all patience; he initiated a charge straight into the Ottoman light cavalry.

As the battle of Nicopolis opened on September 25, 1396, Prince Mircea the Elder of Wallachia took his light cavalry to perform reconnaissance on the arriving Ottoman forces. When he returned he asked Sigismund, King of Hungary, for permission to lead the attack. Sigismund was inclined to grant his request; Mircea had the most experience in fighting the Ottomans of any the Christian lords present. But Jean I, Count of Nevers and the leader of the Franco-Burgundian Crusaders, was outraged and countered that Mircea wanted the glory for himself.

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This brought to a head what had so far been the Crusade’s biggest problem: Sigismund and Mircea thought in the mold of Eastern-style warfare. Mircea’s request was based on his belief that he could harass the Ottoman lines and weaken them enough to collapse upon contact with the Franco-Burgundian knights. The French—and for that matter Western—concept that the first man in combat gains the most glory was not understood by the Wallachians or the Hungarians. The disagreement reached its height when Robert de Artois, a member of Jean’s entourage, spoke out:

“Yes, yes, the king of Hungary wishes to gain all the honor of the day. He has given us the vanguard, and now he wishes to take it away, that he may have the first blow.”

Sigismund could not risk alienating the French and Burgundians, so he caved in to their demands, allowing the knights to take vanguard. The main body of knights all took position in front of the Crusader line. King Sigismund took command in the center with the Hungarians and German Crusaders (who joined the march late). The Transylvanians, also subject to Sigismund, were on the right while Mircea and his Wallachians took position on the left.

On the opposing side of the battle, the Turkish Sultan Bayazid, called the Thunderbolt, had none of the problems afflicting the Crusaders. He had already formed his men to the south of the Sigismund’s lines. His akinjis and timariots (regular and irregular light cavalry) had been sent out in front of the Ottoman lines to implant a line of stakes. Behind the stakes and further back was the azaps and behind them the crack yeniceri (light and heavy infantry, respectively). Hidden in the hills behind the infantry were Bayazid and his elite cavalry; further west waited the Serbian knights of his brother-in-law Stefan Lazarevic.

Sigismund was reluctant to engage the Ottoman lines and intended to play a waiting game with Bayazid, but the French had no such ideas. Jean I had lost all patience; he initiated a charge straight into the Ottoman light cavalry. Surging forward, the Western knights collided head on with the akinjis and timariots. Jean himself commanded from the front, earning the nickname "the Fearless."

The Ottoman cavalry at first appeared to have broken on impact but it was in fact a clever ploy by Bayazid. Pretending to flee, they led the Crusader knights into the wall of stakes. At first the Westerners attempted to ride over the wooden barricade, but their horses were not bred for leaping. The knights dismounted. Seeing their adversaries were now afoot, the azaps and yeniceri opened fire with their bows.

[continued on next page]

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2 Comments

  1. Great stuff.

  2. Joshua Gilbert provides these answers to the questions he raised here. Do you agree?

    In my opinion, the Crusaders really lost the battle once Sigismund committed his center without flank support. The loss of the Franco-Burgundian knights was tragic, but the remaining Western forces supported by the Wallachians and Transylvanians could have stalemated Bayazid or even defeated him. As to Lazarevic, I feel his role was crucial to the battle’s outcome. His knights gave Bayazid extra tactical options, and his flank assault really decided events in the Ottomans’ favor.

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