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Battle of Varna, 1444

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John Hunyadi versus Murad II: A Crusader army under Hunyadi chooses terrain to secure its flanks against an Ottoman army under Murad. Can Hunyadi maintain control over his multinational forces and repel Murad’s grand attack? Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation. | Legend |
 
 
While nominally a “crusade,” do not get too engrossed in the rhetoric and historical framing of battles such as this as merely episodes in an ongoing civilizational-religious war. Modern politics has a tendency to consolidate any battles between Christian and Muslim factions into a continuous timeline, one inevitably leading to the next up until the present day. To simplify history into a struggle between two homogenous factions is to ignore the vital complexities of history and warfare. That being said, Ottoman victory at Varna precipitated the destruction of Byzantium and within a few decades brought the Ottomans to the gates of Vienna.
 
Poor command and control doomed Hunyadi’s efforts: first the impetuous charge by the bishops on his right wing, then the Wallachians’ abrupt flight from the battlefield, and finally the suicidal attack by King Vladislav. Hunyadi led from the front and, indeed, his presence correlated with smashing victories wherever he was. But he could simply not be everywhere at once and failed to exercise authority over his army as a whole. Murad for his part ensured the obedience of his subordinates and the battle plan was typical of most Ottoman engagements: create disorder with skirmishers and then hit the enemy wings while preserving one’s center.
 
 
This battle replaced the highly anticipated Siege of Belgrade, 1456 when I failed to find the necessary maps to animate it. Luckily, my long list of possible battles is rich with Ottoman battles between 1300-1600 and was easily replaced by Varna. After unexpectedly animating Strasbourg and Varna, I am vowing to focus on battles that have been long announced and likely long anticipated.
 
The Crusader strength was fairly easy to estimate as all sources estimated between 15-23,000 and all of the low estimates seemed to not include the 4,000 Wallachians who joined the army fairly late. The Ottoman strength I settled on is much lower than any estimate my sources provided; in fact the lowest I found was 30-40,000 (Housley, 1992: 88) with most being around 60,000 while acknowledging uncertainty (Chasin, 1989: 304). Unfortunately, my most valuable source, a biography of Hunyadi by Muresanu, did not even venture to make an estimate (2001: 110-111). Such extraordinary numerical superiority is not consistent with the events of the battle and reeks of grandiose medieval tales of defeating an endless torrent of inferior enemies. Two pieces of information were key to my estimate. First, sources were consistent in their estimates of how large particular units were; there were 6,000 skirmishers, 7-8,000 Rumelian cavalry and fewer Anatolian cavalry, let’s say 6,000 for a total of 19-20,000. The only formation missing is the infantry which likely did not comprise a great proportion of the Ottoman army, the Janissaries being quite few in number at this stage of history. Second, Pears writes that 100,000 Ottomans crossed into Europe and that by the time of the battle, 60,000 or 60% opposed the Crusaders (1903: 165). These numbers are too high for such a war, insignificant at least compared to the grand campaign against Cosntantinople in 1453, but they provide us with a ratio. So if 40,000 Ottomans crossed into Europe, our lowest, most prevalent estimate, then applying our 60% ratio taking part in the battle is consistent with my estimate based on individual formations.
 
Our most reliable casualty figure is 3-12,000 for each side (Muresanu, 2001: 111). Estimates of Ottoman casualties are astronomically ridiculous and estimates of 10,000 Crusader casualties (Heath, 1984: 97; Haywood, 2002) seem too high considering how only 16,000 were heavily engaged.
 
- Jonathan Webb
 
Works Consulted
 

Babinger, Franz. Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

 
Chasin, Martin. “The Crusade of Varna.” In A History of the Crusades Vol. 6: The Impact of the Crusades on Europe, 276-310. Edited by Kenneth M. Setton. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
 
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
 
Haywood, Matthew. “Hungarian Tactics and Significant Battles.” Warfare East. http://www.warfareeast.co.uk/main/Hungarian_Battles.htm (accessed Apr. 22, 2011).
 
Heath, Ian. Armies of the Middle Ages Vol. 2: The Ottoman Empire, Eastern Europe and the Near East, 1300-1500. Sussex: Flexprint, 1984.
 
Housley, Norman. The Later Crusades, 1274-1580. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
 
Imber, Colin. The Crusade of Varna, 1443-1445: Crusade Texts in Translation. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
 
Inalcik, Halil. “The Ottoman Turks and the Crusades, 1329-1451.” In A History of the Crusades Vol. 6: The Impact of the Crusades on Europe, 222-275. Edited by Kenneth M. Setton. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
 
Muresanu, Camil. John Hunyadi: Defender of Christendom. Translated by Laura Treptow. Portland: Center for Romanian Studies, 2001.
 
Pears, Edwin. Destruction of the Greek Empire. New York: Haskell, 1968.
 
Thuroczy, Janos. Chronicle of the Hungarians. Translated by Frank Mantello. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991.

Images
 
Hungarian cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_166_figure_1.htm
 
John Hunyadi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hunyadi
 
Murad II: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murad_II
 
Ottoman cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_160b_figure_1.htm
 
Ottoman infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_160b_figure_1.htm
 

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  1. 5 Comments to “Battle of Varna, 1444”

  2. Very interesting piece as it poses the paradox: How much control should a general exert? Fail to delegate enough authority and your subordinates will fail to seize advantageous opportunities. Delegate too much or (In this case) fail to exert enough control and your army is unweildy and disfunctional.

    Depictions of modern warfare talk constantly about allowing field commanders initiative to seize the advantage. However some control must be asserted to maintain enough integrity whether the battle is for a street corner or for the hearts and minds of a nation.

    By Kien Tran on Jul 25, 2011 at 9:48 pm

  3. The young king Vladyslav was a gay man by an oral communication of some profesor on the “Radio BIS” channel in Poland, on 2004 Christmas’ Eve, soon before midnight. (Now it is called “Program 4″.) Check it out. He was a “queen”, not a king. The other day, I learned that he fell while showing off in front of his soldiers, by another expert on radio. Like a “queen”!
    In fact, he was not a Pole at all: his father was a pure Lithuanian (from the Yogaylo family.) And the last wife of Yogaylo (Sonka, an Ukrainian) was his mother, if I remember correctly.
    I’ve been to Varna, but you know… I prefered the beaches of Golden Sands and Albena than history. (The bottom at the beach in Varna was covered with sharp shells and the water was shallow, plus the neighbourhood of the port, full of ships.)

    By Kowalski, Paul on May 28, 2012 at 10:55 am

  4. The young king Vladyslav was a gay man by an oral communication of some profesor on the “Radio BIS” channel in Poland, on 2004 Christmas’ Eve, soon before midnight. (Now it is called “Program 4″.) Check it out. He was a “queen”, not a king. The other day, I learned that he fell while showing off in front of his soldiers, by another expert on radio. Like a “queen”!
    In fact, he was not a Pole at all: his father was a pure Lithuanian (from the Yogaylo family.) And the last wife of Yogaylo (Sonka, an Ukrainian) was his mother, if I remember correctly.
    I’ve been to Varna, but you know… I prefered the beaches of Golden Sands and Albena than history. (The bottom at the beach in Varna was covered with sharp shells and the water was shallow, plus the neighbourhood of the port, full of ships.)

    By Kowalski, Paul on May 28, 2012 at 10:55 am

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