Battle of the Leh River, or how the Magyars were stopped
"De furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine De sagittis hungarorum libera nos, Domine", "Save, O God, from the sword of the Norman and the arrows of the Magyar." These words of prayer, contained in the Modena manuscript, reflect the wave of fear and terror that swept Europe in the late eighth and early ninth centuries due to the Hungarians, a group of pagan tribes invading from the Eurasian steppes. For more than a century they spread throughout Europe, which was facilitated by a state of deep crisis in which there was a large Carolingian empire, torn apart by a continuous struggle for succession to the throne. After entire areas, abandoned to their fate, were plundered and devastated, the threat of a Hungarian invasion was stopped by the German king Otto I, who, on August 10, 955, inflicted a decisive defeat on the Lech River on the Lech River.
Ruthless and ferocious people
The ethnic composition of the Hungarians, also called Magyars, was diverse and reflected a volatile and restless history steppes, which for centuries were under the rule of the Scythians, Celts, Huns, Alans ...
In 568, the plains of Pannonia were occupied by the Avars until their submission by Charlemagne around 800, as a result of which a kind of buffer arose between Western and Central Europe and the vast expanses of Asia: the Carolingian empire, the Bulgarian Empire and the Moravian kingdom.
It was during this period that the Hungarians entered the historical stage of Europe. These tribes did not control stable territory and were not part of the empire, but lived in nomadic groups, crossing the plains in search of pastures and prey: they usually moved in the spring, when climatic conditions made it possible to travel on horseback. The first decisive contact took place in 892, when the then king of Germany, Arnulf, seeking to expand his influence to the east, sought support against the Moravians.
The Hungarians almost immediately entered into an alliance with Byzantium, and in 896 they occupied the territory of Moravia. From there, they set their sights on the lands of modern Germany and Italy.
In 899, the Hungarians launched a series of raids, first to Northern and Central Italy, then to Lorraine, Burgundy, Germany, and even Scandinavia and Byzantium (here, in 934, they began to threaten Constantinople itself).
Horror of Europe
The Hungarian raids were sudden, swift and destructive. They attacked poorly defended but wealthy places such as abbeys and monasteries, farms and unfortified villages. The lightly armed Hungarian archers were second to none in Europe: their arrows hit with precision and lethality thanks to the functionality and flexibility of the composite bow.
Hungarians usually avoided large, fortified cities, did not participate in general battles, since in terms of weapons and tactics they could not compete with the organization of European armies.
The Hungarians were able to take advantage of the political crisis and strike, plunging vast territories into a complete economic and demographic decline. In 899, on the Brenta River, they attacked and destroyed the army of King Berengar I of Italy, then set fire to all of Northern Italy, from Treviso to Vicenza, from Bergamo and Vercelli to Gran San Bernardo. They then plundered Modena, Reggio, Bologna and the wealthy abbey of Nonantola. The state of the cities and countryside is eloquently testified by the Abbot of St. Gallen Solomon III of Constance, who visited Italy after the raid in 904:
True, the Hungarians were not content with raids alone. Sometimes they were used to support the ambitions of certain counts, dukes and marquises fighting with each other for the throne of Italy. In 924, for example, Berengar himself did not hesitate to hire a detachment of 5 Hungarian mercenaries to defeat his rival Rudolph of Burgundy. Hordes poured into Pavia, a major city and coronation site, and set it on fire.
Before the battle
In 954, the Hungarian hordes, numbering about 50, began a new raid on German lands (most likely, this raid was financed by Conrad I, Duke of Lorraine, who opposed his king Otto I, trying to prevent him from consolidating sovereign power over the restless German feudal lords) ...
Realizing the seriousness of the threat, Otto wanted to imitate his father Henry I, who defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Riad in 933 and called on his feudal lords to provide troops against the Hungarians. The army was already ready in the summer, but did not manage to intercept the Hungarians in time, who had retreated to Moravia for the winter.
In the spring of the following year, a huge horde of Hungarians began a new campaign in Germany. The goal of the Hungarians was the rich city of Augsburg, which was besieged, but on August 9, when it became known that the army of Otto was approaching, the Hungarians lifted the siege. Waiting for the approach of Otto's troops, the Hungarians set up camp at the nearby Lech River.
Otto moved from the northeast, with a contingent of about 7-8 thousand people, mainly horsemen, recruited by his vassals: Bavarians, Saxons, Franconians, Swabians and Bohemians.
Otto had at his disposal five times fewer troops than his opponents, but he counted on the ability of his heavy cavalry to defeat any enemy contingent, especially lightly armed, just as it was under his father and, before that, famous at that time Frank Karl Martell, who in 732 stopped the Arab invasion of Poitiers.
On the evening of August 9, Otto ordered his men to prepare for battle by fasting and prayer. The next day, early in the morning, Mass was celebrated on the field, at the end of which Otto mounted his horse and set off to meet the enemy. He intended to reach the Hungarian positions through the forest bordering the river - the best way to escape the summer heat - but some spies warned him that the enemy had set up a camp nearby, forcing Otto to decide to attack the Hungarians in an open field.
The German army was a feudal army, and was divided into regiments, depending on the nationality of the province, each under the command of its lord: in the vanguard there were three Bavarian regiments (albeit without a commander, since he, Heinrich - Otto's younger brother - was seriously ill), followed by the Corrado il Rosso Franconians, in the center were Saxon regiments led by Otto himself. Two Swabian regiments of Burcardo III and a contingent of Bohemians (numbering about a thousand people) were instructed to be in reserve and accompany the wagon train.
The battle begins
While the army was marching along the eastern bank of the Lech, Otton did not notice that part of the Hungarian cavalry, hidden by dense vegetation, crossed the ford, with the explicit purpose of striking his forces from behind. And so it happened.
Suddenly a shower of arrows fell on the rear of the Germans. The Swabians and Bohemians, struck by this unexpected blow, tried to retreat while the rest of Otto's army tried to line up for battle.
An unexpected blow from the Magyars soon made it possible for the Hungarians to calmly surround Otto's army, attack it and defeat it thanks to their superior numbers. Instead, the unexpected happened. True to their nature of marauders, the Magyars preferred the robbery of German carts to a crushing victory.
This was a very serious mistake: Otto took advantage of this situation to reorganize his army and order the Franconians to attack the dismounted marauders. Thus, having lost their fast horses, most of the Hungarians were mercilessly killed.
Battle of the Leh River
Otto, however, remained outnumbered, and understood that continuing the march would mean again exposing his rearguard to surprise attacks by the Hungarian cavalry. In addition, he had to face the overwhelming part of the enemy army, which camped unharmed by the river.
What was he to do?
Otto decided to get ahead of the enemy, going towards him, but rebuilding and changing tactics: as soon as his army crossed the ford, she put her forces no longer in columns, as before, but in a line, which gave the German cavalry the opportunity to attack the enemy head-on, using all its destructive power. Otto didn't stop at giving orders from above, he wanted to talk to the militias to give them the courage they needed to fight. His speech - or what the court propaganda wanted to pass off as it, being in fact constructed on the basis of well-known classical models - has come down to us thanks to Vidukind of Corvi in his History of the Saxons:
At this moment, waving a banner with the image of the Archangel Michael and holding a spear and shield in his hands, Otto spurred his horse and headed for the Hungarian positions, dragging all his heavy cavalry with him.
The Hungarian commander was well aware of the degree of danger posed by the German army, which rushed at a gallop against an army like his own. Therefore, to stop it, he put the best people on the front line: the rest, who were behind, had to help them in this. He also tried to use the only really effective weapon that the Hungarians had at their disposal: arrows. As soon as the enemy cavalry was in front of him, he ordered his men to raise their bows and fire a hurricane of arrows, hoping to reduce the German ranks as much as possible. But this measure turned out to be useless: Hungarian arrows could not thoroughly penetrate the heavy armor and shields of the Germans, causing negligible damage when hit.
Even before the Hungarians could reload their bows and try to fire a second volley, Otto's cavalry attacked them. The cavalry blow was so strong that it was able to break through the entire Hungarian formation.
Suffering huge losses, the Magyars fled, seeking refuge in nearby villages, but were captured and killed by the peasants. Part of the Magyars tried to escape by swimming across the river, but because of the strong flow of water, this attempt turned out to be their death. The Hungarian commanders were captured and executed on the spot. After ten hours, Otto's victory was complete.
Success at the Lech River was obtained by Otton at a high price: a significant part of the German nobility died in that battle (including Konrad I, who, with his appearance on the battlefield and bravery, was able to atone for his guilt and could now enter the pantheon of national heroes of the kingdom). As well as ordinary soldiers.
Despite this, Vidukind remarks triumphantly:
... The king, renowned for his grandiose triumph, was thus appointed by the troops as the father of the army and the emperor. "
The imperial coronation of Otto actually took place only in 962 in Rome. But, of course, the victory at the Leh River opened the way for him to this event.
However, the battle ended not only with the strengthening of Otto's power. The European feudal lords were finally freed from the threats of raids from the Hungarians. The Hungarians themselves, soon after that converted to Christianity, created their own state - the Kingdom of Hungary.
- Vladimir Zyryanov
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