“Jian is Defeated!” – The Battle of Fei River

The Battle of Fei River 淝水之戰 or the Battle of Feishui was a major battle of the Chinese Age of Fragmentation. At this battle, the forces of Former Qin 前秦, under the command of the Heavenly King 天王 Fu Jian 苻堅 were defeated by the much smaller army of Eastern Jin 東晉, under the command of Xie Xuan 謝玄 in December, 383.

The battle was the result of the meteoric rise of a new military dynasty in North China. Following the collapse of a unified Chinese empire (Western Jin 西晉, 265-316) in the early decades of the 4th Century, the land became divided. The North fragmented into many warring states founded by non-Chinese, many of whom had previously served the dynasty. The South remained largely whole under a remnant of Jin, which allowed it retain a measure of prosperity though the southern court was impotent and power rested in the hands of powerful land-holding aristocrats.

Lead by the Fu clan and its allies among the proto-Tibetan Di 氐 people, the new Qin empire was founded in the 350s following the catastrophic collapse of Later Zhao 后趙 at the beginning of the decade. It rose rapidly under a string of capable leaders, of whom the greatest was Fu Jian, nephew of the dynastic founder. Jian overthrew his cousin, traditionally portrayed as a tyrant, in 357. A man of some genius, Fu Jian had the ambition and energy to push the borders of his state aggressively. In 370, his prime minister, the ethnic Chinese official Wang Meng 王猛 conquered the Xianbei 鮮卑 state of Former Yan 前燕 to the east, Qin’s most formidable northern adversary. The fall of Yan left Qin with no more northern enemies that could realistically challenge it. In 376, he united North China with the fall of the Chinese state of Former Liang 前涼 in the northwest and Dai 代, another Xianbei state, in the extreme north. Three years before that Jian had taken his first steps against Jin by wresting control of modern Sichuan (Yizhou or Yi province 益州) from them.


China after Fu Jian’s unification of the north and the conquest of Sichuan. By Ian Kiu [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Fu Jian wanted to reunite China under his rule, and it appeared he was close to achieving that goal. He knew the fastest way to subdue the south would be to invade Jin through Jing province or Jingzhou 荆州 and from there marched on to Jiankang 建康, the imperial capital. The key to Jing was the city of Xiangyang 襄陽, positioned as the gateway to the central Yangzi River region 長江 and exerting control over the confluence of that river with its tributary the Han 漢江. Control of Xiangyang also provided a land route over the Huai 淮河. Strategically, the city was vital, and alongside Shouyang 壽陽 (perhaps better known as Shouchun 壽春) in Huainan 淮南 necessary for any attempted conquest of the south. So it was that Fu Jian dispatched an army his son Fu Pi 苻丕 to take Xiangyang in the second lunar month of 378. By the fourth month, the Qin army had reached the north bank of the Han. Any hopes by Jin that the invaders would be unable to ford without boats were soon dashed when Fu Pi’s elite cavalry swam across. Huan Chong 桓沖, the governor of Jing, sat put at his headquarters in Shangming 上明 south of the Yangzi.

Meanwhile, Qin forces attacked Jiangling. Shortly after that the cities of Weixing 魏興 and Pengcheng 彭城 were attacked as part of a general offensive in Huainan and the Han River region to stretch the southern defenses. The siege of Xiangyang was continuing to drag out, longer than anticipated, and Fu Pi was faced with the choice of either achieving victory by the beginning of spring or committing suicide. Pi decided on making an enveloping assault on the walls. Early the new year, 379, the city finally fell, and Qin stepped up its offensive along the rest of the front and captured several strongholds including Pengcheng (after some difficulty) and Weixing.

By now the situation had gotten so bad that the mere appearance of a cavalry patrol was enough to frighten the elite Western Palace Guards stationed near Jiankang into dispersion. A new defense strategy was needed. As a result, a new plan was drafted calling for the southern garrison forces to defend along the Yangzi river line. The Northern Headquarters Army 北府兵 which was considered to be the best army then under arms was tasked to defend along the Huai. It was commanded by Xie Xuan, a nephew of Xie An 謝安, prime minister and the dominant power in Jin since 373. An’s brother Xie Shi 謝石 also held a military command in this campaign. However, members of the family were better known as dandies rather than military leaders. On June 25th Xuan scored a victory over Qin forces led by Ju Nan 俱難 and Peng Chao 彭超 at a place called Boma Embankment. On July 7th, he defeated Ju and Peng again at Xuyi. The third victory at Huaiyin forced them back over the Huai, and a fourth at Jun Stream proved decisive. These defeats convinced Fu Jian to return north, but even had though he had failed in conquering the south, he had still succeeded in pushing the border closer to Jiankang and held Xiangyang.

In 381-2, he sent another invasion force into Jing, but Huan Chong reacted quickly and countered the Qin force decisively, defeating them and gaining a great victory. Huan Chong followed up in the 5th lunar month of 383 with a large offensive to retake Xiangyang and Yi province. The attack was beaten back handily, and Qin was left in a strong position both militarily and morally. If Fu Jian invaded now, he would look like he was just retaliating for Huan Chong’s invasion. So the order went out, and mass conscription was enforced empire-wide in the seventh month. The scale was unprecedented, with one man for every ten being conscripted for service. According to period sources, such the “Chronicle of Fu Jian” in the official Jin history, the vanguard force alone under Jian’s youngest brother, Fu Rong 苻融, numbered 250,000 of cavalry and infantry. The main body was composed of 600,000 infantry and 270,000 cavalry and marched from the capital of Chang’an 長安. Even accounting for exaggeration, Qin’s sovereign was obviously intent on finishing what he began in 379. The advance was to proceed along many different routes into Jing, with a column advancing from Sichuan and a second to Pengcheng in the lower reaches of the Huai River.

The army of Former Qin was a polyglot force of many different ethnic groups. The Di themselves numbered relatively few and were more sedentary than their close cousins and old neighbors the Qiang 羌族. Unlike other “northern barbarians” of Chinese imagination, the Di fought primarily as foot soldiers instead of cavalry. As Qin’s rapid rise to prominence was built on a string of military victories they were able to incorporate the defeated into their armies. Meaning Jian could count on the well-organized Xianbei and Xiongnu 匈奴 to provide his mounted troops and plenty of Chinese to serve either on foot or for menial tasks. Fu Jian went the extra step of either keeping defeated officials in place or appointing them to new, high-level, posts both civil and military regardless of their loyalty. As a result, and due to the structural weaknesses of the Qin government, the entire edifice was only kept together so long as the leaders continued to win.

On November 28th, 383 AD, the Qin vanguard captured the city of Shouyang. Yuncheng 運城 fell shortly after. A Qin general, Liang Cheng, led 50,000 to nearby Luo Creek 洛澗 to the east and fortified it. At the same time, word of the invasion reached Jiankang and threw the imperial court into disarray. Hurriedly Huan Chong was put in charge of the defense of the middle Yangzi. The Northern Headquarters Army with mixed land and naval forces was called up to defend the Huai with Xie Shi and Xie Xuan in command. As prime minister, Xie An was put in overall command of the defense despite his lack of military experience. Rather than go into the field, An went to his villa outside the capital and played weiqi (also known by its Japanese name of go).

Meanwhile Fu Jian, bolstered by reports from Fu Rong that the Jin forces were in pitiful shape, left the bulk of his army behind on the northern banks of the Huai River at Xiangcheng (where he had been in command since September) to join his brother at Shouyang. Zhu Xu 朱序, a Jin officer, captured in 378, was dispatched to negotiate with Xie Shi. Xie had been frightened by the size of the invasion forces and by Fu Jian’s personal appearance at Shouyang. Zhu now informed him that only the Qin vanguard was present in the Shouyang area and urged him to attack before the main body could arrive from Xiangcheng. Together both Xie Xuan and his cousin Xie Yan (謝琰), the prime minister’s more militarily minded son, managed to convince their uncle to commit to an offensive policy.

Liu Laozhi 劉牢之, a protégé of Xie Xuan and noted non-gentry military officer, assaulted Liang Cheng’s fortifications (where he now had 20,000 men). This surprise night attack across the stream succeeded in killing Liang and 15,000 northern troops. The victory was an important and much-needed morale booster for the Northern Headquarters forces and shook the resolve of the invading army. Even Fu Jian began to doubt if he could win now. Meanwhile, Xie Shi and his troops had started advancing after their victory until encountering Fu Rong’s general Zhang Ci at the Fei River. The Fei was a tributary of the Huai near Shouyang and west of Luo Creek to which it parallel south-north. Xie Shi was defeated, but Xie Xuan and Xie Yan moved quickly in support and Zhang returned to the west bank of the river, outside the walls of Shouyang. By this point, the Jin had been drawn their troops in a much wider formation than usual to give the appearance of much larger numbers. With the Qin army’s formation crowding the opposite bank, making any assault across the river difficult, Xie Xuan dispatched a messenger to the other camp.

Xie Xuan’s messenger informed Fu Rong there was no room on the western side of the Fei for his soldiers to fight on with the massive size of his army. He requested that the Qin army back up from the banks to allow the Northern Headquarters Army to cross. This way they could settle the war in a single quick, decisive, battle rather than drag things out with a stalemate. There two separate traditions regarding who gave the fateful order to back up. According to the “Chronicle of Fu Jian”, Rong gave the order, but in Xie Xuan’s biography in the same work, it was Jian himself who did so over the objections of his officers. Sima Guang in his “Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government” (an 11th-century universal history of China) accepts the latter theory. In any case, regardless of which brother gave the order, the reasoning was the same. They expected to be able to take advantage of the Jin army once it was at its most vulnerable at mid-crossing. The order went out to back up. However, something went terribly wrong. The majority of the Qin army had little to no formal training or military experience. The mounted troops were still little more than spoiled teenagers newly conscripted from rich northern families. The call to fall back came as a surprise and when they could not find out why they panicked. At the front ranks Zhu Xu, taking advantage of the situation, leaped up and shouted: “We are defeated!” (or “Jian is defeated!”). At this point what little resolve remained in the Qin army failed, and the whole vanguard began to rout.

Meanwhile, the Northern Headquarters Army on the other side of the river could hardly believe their eyes. Xie Xuan was already sending his vanguard under Liu Laozhi across the river when the Former Qin army began to disintegrate. Quickly recognizing the opportunity before him, Xie Xuan immediately sent Xie Yan and Huan Yi 桓伊 (no relation to Huan Chong) across the river as well with 8,000 men for a major assault on the Qin positions. At this point, Fu Rong, who was desperately attempting to rally his men, was thrown off his horse and killed by Northern Headquarters soldiers. The battle turned into a slaughter as the Jin soldiers pursued and cut down the Qin survivors. Some of the stragglers managed to escape to safety on the northern bank of the Huai River, but it is estimated up to 80% later died from either starvation or hypothermia. Most the battle’s casualties died from drowning in the Fei or being trampled to death during the rout, traditionally the fallen were numerous enough to block the flow of the river. Fu Jian himself had been struck by an arrow but was able to retreat to safety alongside some of his cavalry. However, despite this, the battle was certainly the most unexpected, if not most influential, battle upset in medieval Chinese history. Shortly afterward Former Qin began to break up as the same leaders with whom Fu Jian had been so generous took advantage of his defeat to rebel against him. The dissolution of the empire plunged North China into chaos as it had not seen since the fall of Western Jin. For Eastern Jin, the battle ensured its continued survival and the independence of the south until unification in 589.



Qin and Jin as they were in 383. The black marks the furthermost advance of the border before the catastrophe at Fei River, the red line the new border after Jin northern offensives in the years following the battle. By 淝水之战前后形势图.PNG: noidea  derivative work: Zer0taku (淝水之战前后形势图.PNG) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Nicopolis Crusade

In 1389, the Ottoman Sultan Murad, I led his army into Serbia following a defeat at the hands of a Serb-led coalition at Plocnik some years previous. In the battle that followed at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds, the Ottomans won a great victory and Serbia became a vassal of the young Ottoman Empire. However, it came at a high price. In the course of the battle, Murad was assassinated by a Serbian knight making a false surrender. While this is the common belief, the circumstances of Murad’s death remain unclear. His oldest son, Bayazid, quickly took control after executing his younger brother Yakub. After marrying the Serbian princess Olivera Despoina and setting her brother Stefan Lazarevic on the Serbian throne, Bayazid made his way back into Anatolia. However, the Ottoman state had no peace, and the new Sultan was forced to move at a pace most would find unbelievable, earning him the nickname, Yildirim, the Thunderbolt.


Sultan Bayazid the Thunderbolt from an Ottoman family tree. By Ottoman miniature painter (Badisches Landesmuseum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1391, Bayazid had won control of all of Western Anatolia, bringing the Ottoman Empire to direct borders with the Emirate of Karaman, ruled by his troublesome brother-in-law Ala ud-Din Beg. To celebrate his conquests, Bayazid called for a conference at Edirne (formerly Adrianopolis, conquered by Murad), the Ottoman capital in Europe. This conference highlighted a rising tension between Bayazid and the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, Manouel II. Earlier in life Manouel had been an enemy of the Ottomans, and the passage of time had done nothing to smooth his hostility. Bayazid for his part had already begun to cast his eyes on Constantinople, the Queen of Cities and capital of the Roman Empire. Other matters in the Balkans soon drew Bayazid’s attention.

In 1393, Bayazid moved into the remnants of the Second Bulgarian Empire, having heard of Bulgarian negotiations with Ottoman enemies. With the fall of Tarnovo in the summer, he had nipped this threat in the bud and Ivan Shishman, the former Tsar, was kept under close watch at Nicopolis. Bayazid continued to move, dealing with border skirmishes with the Sultan of Sivas, Qadi Burhan al-Din in Anatolia. By winter he was back in the Balkans, and called for another conference, this time in Serres, a Roman princedom in Macedonia. News that Manouel II was plotting to reconcile with his nephew and rival for the throne, Ioannes, was a cause for concern. So Bayazid called Manouel, all of the Roman princelings, and Stefan Lazarevic, to report to him. Strangely enough Bayazid did nothing more than berate the assembly for not governing their lands well and sent them on their way.

In the spring of 1394 his intentions became clear: Ottoman forces began to move into Thrace and construct a series of castles to encircle Constantinople. Bayazid was going to lay siege to the city. However when the Roman and Latin princes of Greece decided to move toward independence Bayazid left his preparations and struck west. Macedonia and Thessaly were both annexed outright, and the Latin Duchy of Athens forced into vassalage.

In 1395, Bayazid seemed intent on reducing the Despotate of Morea when news from the north called him back. Mircea cel Batran, or Mircea the Old, was Voivode of Wallachia and self-proclaimed champion of Balkan Christianity. He was also allied to the powerful Sigismund I of Luxembourg, the king of Hungary. Taking advantage of the Ottoman focus on Greece, Mircea had launched an invasion. Bayazid replied in kind, living up to his nickname by striking like a thunderbolt into Wallachia. While ultimately ending in a stalemate the invasion had the aftereffect of destabilizing Wallachia and sending Mircea straight into the arms of Sigismund.

  Ottoman success had finally caught Western Christendom’s attention. The rapid rise of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans since they first entered the area under Murad I had been a cause of concern in Europe. By 1395, Bayazid was almost in complete control of the Balkans. Bulgaria was dying a slow death, the Roman Empire’s authority extended little beyond Constantinople’s famed triple walls, and now with Mircea the Old pleading in Buda for aid the situation had reached a critical stage.  However, Western Christendom had problems of its own.

The Western Schism, which had begun in 1378 when two popes, both elected by the Curia following Gregory XI’s death, had split Europe in two. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France had also flared up again, creating further chaos. With the threat of the Ottomans looming over them though, a strange thing began to happen. Richard II of England and Charles VI of France agreed to a cease-fire in 1384 and started to plan for a joint Crusade to end the Hundred Years’ War permanently and heal the Western Schism.

A desire for a real chivalric culture of peace, love, and understanding had become popular in both England and France and the two kings realized that all this energy needed a powerful outlet. Richard and Charles reaffirmed the peace in 1389 and headed by Charles’ tutor Philip of Mezieres preparation and organization for a Crusade was underway.

  In 1392, Charles VI laid down the first concrete plans for what was to become the Nicopolis Crusade with his uncle, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Sigismund had already started calling for aid by this time, and the first joint Anglo-French army arrived in Hungary. In 1394, Richard II, Philip II, and the French king’s brother Louis I, Duke of Orleans organized a joint planning session with Sigismund. A massive Anglo-French army would be gathered to wage a Crusade for the salvation of Constantinople.

Philip II, Louis I, and the English king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster were appointed to hold joint command of the Crusade. The following year was set as the departure date. Crusade taxes were levied in Burgundy, France, and England. By the end of the year, Philip II had the money needed to fund the Crusade and John of Gaunt had gathered 1,500 men-at-arms. Contracts with Venice to provide naval support were agreed on. Finally in June and again in October that year the Roman Pope Boniface IX issued a papal bull for the Crusade, preaching it to the masses. The Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII, did not like being left out and copied him, preaching the Crusade to his flock as well.

However in 1395 the plan began to fall apart. Negotiations to finalize the contracts with Venice dragged on for months, and it was not until May the planned summit between Sigismund, Philip II and Louis I at Lyons could take place. This ended all hopes of the Crusade getting off on schedule. Further problems resulted as France experienced internal turmoil while bickering with England over whom Richard II should marry, now that his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, was dead. This moved John of Gaunt to cancel his Crusade obligations, and he delegated his responsibilities to John Beaufort, his eldest illegitimate son. However, Beaufort never went on Crusade, due to a revival in Anglo-French tensions. Philip II followed his lead and pulled out, delegating his obligations to his eldest son, Jean I, Count of Nevers. Louis I then pulled out entirely and the Crusade, which had stood as the best hope for peace in Western Europe, had become little more than a Burgundian expedition.

In April 1396, the Crusade finally left France for Hungary, under the command of Jean. By late July, the Western Crusaders had reached Buda, the capital of Hungary, and the leadership met with Sigismund and Mircea the Old to decide how to proceed.


An older Sigismund of Hungary. Pisanello [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

From the start, the campaign was fraught with problems. Sigismund feared Bayazid and knew the Ottoman Sultan would attempt to invade Hungary. He had called the Crusade in hopes of having at his disposal the force necessary to defend his lands. However, the Crusaders had come to lift the Siege of Constantinople, not to support Hungary and overruled the angry Sigismund at the Buda conference. Instead, they opted for a massive strike into Ottoman territory, forcing Bayazid to meet them on the field of battle as soon as possible. This choice seemed to be the right one in the eyes of the Western leaders as Sigismund’s much-feared invasion never materialized. As a result, they labeled him a coward. The territory the Crusaders chose, with the aid of Mircea, was the former lands of Ivan Shishman.

Meanwhile on the other side of the line Bayazid had hardly been sitting still.  He ended the possibility of Bulgarian collaboration with Mircea by having the former tsar, still at Nicopolis, beheaded and the city invested with an Ottoman garrison. He then turned to Constantinople and with the ring of castles now complete settled in for a siege. However, the Ottoman fleet was unable to cut off the Romans by sea and even with the ring of castles cutting them off by land the Queen of Cities remained supplied. Bayazid was quickly growing impatient and attempted to assault the city, but the triple walls, which had saved Constantinople so many times before, saved the city again. News reached Bayazid relatively quickly of the Crusade, and he left only a small holding force behind while rallying an army at Edirne. In the meantime, he issued orders to his irregulars and scouts to not engage. The Crusaders were at this time advancing into former Bulgaria.

When they arrived at Vidin, the city surrendered to them. As it turned out, Vidin was ruled by Ivan Sratsimir, the younger half-brother of Ivan Shishman. While technically an Ottoman vassal, Ivan Sratsimir had claimed the title of tsar following the execution of his half-brother and had aspirations to restore the Bulgarian Empire. After negotiations with Ivan Sratsimir were concluded the Crusader-Hungarian force proceeded to the next fortress, Rahowa. Here they encountered resistance from the Ottoman garrison. Rahowa held out for five days before surrendering. When the Crusaders entered the city, they massacred the Turkish population before moving on.

On September 12th, the Crusaders and their allies arrived at Nicopolis, the last major fortress to besiege. Unfortunately the Ottoman commander, Dogan Beg, proved far more skilled then the Western leaders expected. Neither the Crusaders nor the Hungarians had brought siege weapons, probably hoping to reduce any obstacles by starvation. Alternatively the Crusaders hoped to force Bayazid to break the blockade. While the siege continued, the Ottomans made real progress and Bayazid met Stefan Lazarevic on the 22nd. That same day a Hungarian scouting party encountered the main body. The Crusader-Allied army, surprised, dispatched more scouts and located Bayazid’s newly fortified camp on the 24th, just south of Nicopolis (he had just arrived the previous day). In reaction, the Crusaders prepared to leave Nicopolis (executing their prisoners beforehand) to face Bayazid on the open field the morning of the following day, September 25. The battle of Nicopolis had begun.

The Crusader army was a diverse group of men drawn together from all walks of life. The central component of the Crusader forces at Nicopolis was the Franco-Burgundian cavalry.  Jean I, Count of Nevers and his personal household contingent and Burgundian vassals formed the core part. The other leading commanders, the epitome of French chivalry and valor, were Jean Boucicaut, the Marshal of France, Philip de Artois, the Constable of France, and Jean de Vienne, the Admiral of France. Enguerrand VII de Coucy, Henri de Bar, and James I de Bourbon were other prominent knights and lords present with the main body but had joined the Crusade after the march had begun.

Jean I, Count of Nevers

Jean I of Nevers, later duke of Burgundy. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

While the Crusade was passing through Germany, it was joined by men from the Palatinate of the Rhine, the Duchy of Bavaria, and the city of Nuremberg. Many other Germans besides joined the Crusade. Also, there may have been a small English detachment serving under the Earl of Huntingdon, but this is disputed. Lastly, we know of contingents from Aragon, Poland, and many other Christian powers. Naval support was provided by the Hospitallers, Venice, and Genoa.

On reaching Buda in Hungary King Sigismund joined his men, mostly light infantry, and cavalry, to the Crusader forces. The Hungarian army was remarkably varied and while centered around a superficial knightly class was made up predominantly of horse archers and mixed infantry (especially crossbowmen).

The Wallachians of Mircea the Old also joined the Crusade with what remained of his army, though he was Orthodox, not Catholic like the Crusaders. While organized along tribal lines rather than feudal the Wallachians were known as some of the best soldiers in the Balkans. The Crusader army in total then numbered somewhere in the ballpark of 16,000 men.

The Ottoman army was the living legacy to the brilliance of Murad I. Bayazid Yildirim owed much of his success to the new model army that his father devised and that he perfected. This new army was not based on tribal ties, but instead on a professional, standing, basis. The core was the Ottoman ruler’s household, divided into an inner and outer “service”. These men were called the kapikulu, or slaves though most of those in service would have long since been manumitted. This included the elite palace cavalry corps (the Six Regiments) and the Yeni Ceri (Janissary) infantry battalions.

The majority of the Ottoman troops were divided up between two large formations, the Anatolian, and Rumelian corps. Comprised of men from the eastern and western halves of the state respectively, the organization of these troops was much more streamlined than in the West. The cavalry were divided into timariots, (regulars maintained by Latin-style fiefs called timars), maasli, (regulars supported by the state) akinjis, (irregular frontier warriors) and musellems (irregular mounted pioneers). Infantry were divided up between the yayas (irregular spearmen) and the azaps (semi-regular skirmishers).

To this forces must be included the Serbian army of Stefan Lazarevic. Latin feudalism had entered the Balkans earlier in the century and had been embraced by the Serbs. Stefan Lazarevic’s army was organized into a mainly heavy cavalry force supported by mercenaries and a general levy though it appears that only the Serbian knights themselves took the field at Nicopolis. The Ottoman army in total then numbered somewhere in the ballpark of 15,000 men.

The final preparations were underway. The previous evening Sigismund had advised caution to his allies, suggesting to first of all discover whether or not the Ottomans planned to attack and second to send Mircea’s troops out in front to clear the field of akinijs ahead of the main assault by the Franco-Burgundians. This plan was met with resistance by the other leaders, angered at being denied the right to lead the charge.

Jean, I was more outraged then anyone and countered that Sigismund wanted the glory for himself. 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. The Hungarian king’s plan was backed by a belief that he could harass the Ottoman lines into weakening enough to collapse upon contact with the Franco-Burgundian knights. The concept of first man in combat gains the most glory, so dear in the contemporary West, was foreign in the Balkans, even with Hungary fielding knights of its own. The matter reached its height when Robert de Artois, Count d’Eu, made the following speech:

“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. Let those who will believe what he sends to us, but for my part I never will… In the name of God and Saint George, you shall see me this day prove myself a good knight.”

This brought the second problem to the fore. Western thought in general and French thought, in particular, focused on the superiority of the knight over all others on both the battlefield and in society. Even though this certainly did not hold true even in Europe itself anymore, the lesson was hard learned. Sigismund was caught in a vice, but could not risk alienating the French and Burgundians. He caved to their demands, allowing the knights to take vanguard.

The line was organized thus: The Franco-Burgundian knights all took a position out in front. King Sigismund took command in the center with the Hungarians and the German Crusaders. The Transylvanians under Stephen Laczkoivc (subject to Sigismund) took a position on the right, and the Wallachians took a position on the left.

Bayazid had none of the problems that afflicted the Crusaders and already formed his men in a classic crescent formation. He had established a fortified camp with the purpose of forcing the Crusaders to attack him, another classic move. The Rumelian regulars were deployed on the right, the Anatolians on the left. In the center, behind the stake barricade, were the azaps and Yeni Ceri. In front of the barricade were the akinjis. Behind the main lines, hidden from view, was the household division of Bayazid with his personal guard in the center and the Six Regiments divided into three each on his right and left. On the further left was the knights of Stefan Lazarevic.

Sigismund was reluctant to engage the Ottoman lines and intended to play a waiting game with Bayazid. However, the French had no such ideas. Jean had lost all patience and unable to hold it in any longer shouted the charge straight into the Ottoman light cavalry. Surging forward on their great horses the greatest warriors of Western Christendom collided head on with the akinjis. Jean himself commanded from the front, earning him the nickname ‘sans Peur’, the Fearless. The Ottoman skirmish cavalry at first appeared to have broken on impact, but it was, in fact, a clever ploy by Bayazid.


The battle of Nicopolis. By J. Schiltberger (J. Schiltberger, Ein wunderbarliche…) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning around the skirmishers led the Crusader knights into the wall of stakes. At first they attempted ride over the wooden barricade but their horses were not bred for leaping, especially over sharpened logs. Realizing they would have to dismount, the knights began to leave their horses. On that signal, the azaps and Yeni Ceri took out their bows and opened fire. Under a hail of arrow fire, the French and Burgundians tore the stakes out of the ground and took many casualties. Finally, they managed to clear a path through the barricade but because they could not remount their horses Jean ordered his men to advance on foot. The other knights followed his lead and engaged the azaps and Yeni Ceri. Some of the akinjis and regular cavalry were also drawn into the melee. Even without horses the Western knights were still formidable opponents, and the Ottoman infantry was devastated, especially the azaps, who soon broke and fled for real. In a testament to their skills, the Yeni Ceri managed to maintain their cohesion and begun an orderly retreat, drawing the dismounted Crusaders with them.

When they reached the hills, the main body of the Ottoman regular cavalry moved to engage. However, they withdrew almost as quickly as they came. The Franco-Burgundians continued to struggle uphill only to walk into an ambush by the Ottoman household troops led by Bayazid. The regulars then rejoined, to surround the Crusaders on three sides. Within minutes, the entire body was either dead or captured. Among the first group was Jean de Vienne, who was slain defending the French banner and among the latter group Jean I, Count of Nevers.

Meanwhile on the other side of the field the horses of the French and Burgundian knights had begun to return to camp. King Sigismund, who had already ordered the center forward in an attempt to support the charging knights, now knew something was wrong. The fresh troops first encountered the reformed Ottoman infantry on the plateau before facing the mounted regulars. The resulting contest was far more equally matched, but Bayazid had one last trick up his sleeves. As the day passed into the late afternoon, the Serbian knights of Stefan Lazarevic burst from cover and hit the king of Hungary’s undefended flanks.

The Transylvanians and Wallachians had retreated during the march (neither Mircea nor Steven Lazarevic felt any great loyalty to Hungary, and were more concerned about their people), and left the center exposed. The Serbian knights threw themselves toward the main Hungarian banner and overthrew it. Seeing the lead banner fall, the Hungarian commanders prevailed on Sigismund to disengage. The King agreed, and his forces retreated in good order to the banks of the Danube, where the joint Hospitaller and allied Italian fleet was waiting. The remaining Crusader-Allied senior leadership was able to embark safely, but many others were not so fortunate as there was not enough room for everyone on the ships. As word of this spread, a panic broke out in the ranks. A few ships were sunk in the chaos by overloading. As the water was low in September, many Crusader-Allied troops were able to ford the river safely by swimming or crossing further downstream where it was broken up by islands. The Ottomans took advantage of the chaos, isolating bodies of Crusaders on hill tops (including the famous incident of the “Knight of Poland”, who sacrificed himself to keep the Ottomans from being able to fire on the fleet from the heights), or hunting them in the space between the hills. However, Bayazid was largely content to watch his enemy self-destruct. Observing this as his ship sailed for Constantinople, Sigismund famously remarked on the French:

“If only they had listened to me… We had men in the plenty to fight our enemies.”

The battle of Nicopolis, the last great battle of the Crusading Era was over. The Ottoman dominion was reaffirmed.

In the aftermath of the battle much happened. The outcome of the Nicopolis Crusade was a surprise to the powers of Western Europe. In one single horrific afternoon, the flower of the west were either struck down or captured. For those who were caught the culture shock left a profound and lasting effect. Islamic culture did not have the same codes toward the treatment of prisoners that Christian culture had.

The worst came when Bayazid, in a fit of anger over the massacres and the heavy casualties his men suffered in the first phase of the battle executed a large number of Crusaders he had taken prisoner. Only the most wealthy (Like Jean I) or young (like Johann Schiltberger) survived. The exact number is unknown (ranging from 300 to 10,000), but it seems likely that Bayazid wanted to execute even more, holding off out of awe from the peaceful way in which the executed went to their deaths. This was perhaps an even wider shock to Western Europe, and never again would a Crusade be launched against the Ottomans. Left alone the Ottoman Empire continued to expand, only to be nearly destroyed in 1402 when Bayazid was defeated and captured by the great Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur-e Lang, or Tamerlane at Ankara.



Norman Housley, The Later Crusades, 1274-1580: From Lyons to Alcazar.  New York, 1992.

Aziz Atiya, The Crusades of the Later Middle Ages. New York, 1965.

Aziz Atiya, The Crusade of Nicopolis. New York, 1978.

George  Nafziger and Mark Walton, Islam at War: A History. Westport, 2003.

Buchan Telfer, trans, The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger. London, 1979.

David Nicolle, Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade, illustrations by Christa Hooks. Oxford, 1999

Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York, 2005.

The Rise of Massed Tactics in Japanese Warfare

It has been all too commonly assumed that guns triggered a tactical revolution in Japanese warfare, giving rise to “massed tactics”. That is, fighting in close quarters formation as a coherent group. But massed tactics were already being used in Japan well before the introduction of guns. In fact, it seems the transformation was triggered by pikes in the 15th century around the time of the Onin War.

So first, let us look at the prior history of the pike. Long polearms had been imported into Japan from the continent for the armies of the Ritsuryo state (the Chinese influenced centralized imperial system) in the 7th century. Once those armies began to break down as military force became privatized those polearms declined, though the shorter spear fared somewhat better. In the 14th century a weapon called the Kikuchi pike appears, an innovation of the Nambokucho Wars (a civil war on its face about the imperial succession, but somewhat more complicated than that). A Kikichi pike was a short blade attached to a long bamboo pole, and may have been related to a polearm used during Mongol Invasions. That weapon had been a knife mounted on a pole 5 feet in length, and can be found in the Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga. In both cases the pike was the weapon of the lesser warrior, and may have functioned as the poor man’s replacement for the naginata, the Japanese curved halberd or glaive. They do not appear to have been effective weapons, as they account for only fifteen casualties known from battle reports made during the 14th century. By contrast swords of all types caused 92 percent of all documented nonprojectile casualties.

Once the samurai realized just how useful pikes could be when massed together in close formation and large numbers this changed. Doing so would require both cash and supplies, also leading to the creation of standing armies. The logistics were provided by a new tax created during the early years of the Ashikaga Shogunate. In 1352, the founding shogun, Takauji, introduced a new tax, the hanzei (half-tax) on eight provinces most affected by the Nambokucho Wars, and gradually expanded nationwide. The half tax allowed the Ashikaga’s military constables, the shugo, to use half of the revenue of their provinces for provisions and upkeep of their armed forces. Increased income and other powers exercised by the Shogunate and its officers made it more profitable for warriors to work with the system rather than against it. Most importantly for our purposes, the half tax allowed the shugo to amass the kind of logistical support base needed to train and maintain organized troops indefinitely.

We can already see this beginning long before the Onin War. In 1417-18 men from the province of Musashi organized into a Northern White Flag Corps (or possibly a Southern Corps). These two groups reveal that geographic origins had begun to mean more than kinship ties in warrior organization (demonstrating that organization had become more cohesive). The former corps also reveals that its men were identifying themselves with common insignia, in this case, a white cloth representing the Minamoto lineage. In the following decades, geographic organization became more frequent. In 1423 men from Musashi, Kozuke, and Shinano fought together as a cohesive group from central Japan. In the 1440s, generals were commanding troops out of a single region. Tactical changes were still not coming into force quite yet, as evidenced by battle reports.

For that, we turn to the succession struggle within the House of Hatakeyama. The Hatakeyama was one of the three leading cadet families of the Ashikaga, alongside the Hosokawa and Shiba and the theoretically shared the position of Deputy Shogun or Kanrei. They were also shugo in Kawachi, Kii, Noto, and Etchu and gained prominence from that. In 1450, Hatakeyama Mochikuni retired as family head but left the matter of his successor unclear. He had a son, Yoshinari but had given the boy up for holy orders while he was young. In the 1440s, he adopted a nephew, Masanaga and made him the heir. When Mochikuni retired, he attempted to pass the headship to Yoshinari, pulling him out of the monastery in contravention to the previous arrangement. Masanaga’s camp was enraged, but the Ashikaga ruled in favor of Yoshinari in 1454. Political bickering ran for months and the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, reversed his ruling. Open fighting broke out in the streets of Kyoto. By the next year, Masanaga was deposed a second time, and he fled to Kawachi.

File:Ashikaga Yoshimasa.jpg

Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the 8th Muromachi Shogun. By 日本語: 伝土佐光信 English: Attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Here enters the figure of Hatakeyama Yasaburo. Widely unknown, Hatakeyama Yasaburo was the older brother by blood of Masanaga and commanded his brother’s troops at this stage of the war. At one point, Yasaburo and Yoshinari engaged in a clash described as an “exchange of pikes”, a phrase never before encountered. The phrase suggests a tactical innovation, with the battles in Kawachi and Kii being fought nearly exclusively with pikes. Later events would suggest Yasaburo had taken his pikemen and transformed them into a formation with the discipline to defeat cavalry on the open field. Hatakeyama Yasaburo died in 1459 after gaining pardons for the faction of Masanaga at court, leaving much about him and his battlefield accomplishments unknown.

The peace did not last long. In 1460, Shogun Yoshimasa revoked Yoshinari’s right of attendance and ordered him to vacate the Hatakeyama mansion. Supposedly angered by the gift of a withered tree, the Shogun changed sides in the succession dispute, again. Masanaga was placed back in power and given a commission to take down Yoshinari. By this time, the latter had fled back into the Hatakeyama lands of Kawachi and Kii. The fighting centered on the siege of Mt. Take, lasted until early 1463 when Yoshinari finally surrendered the mountain. He went into hiding, slinking between Kii and Yamato while Masanaga took up posts at shogunal court in 1464. All throughout the fighting the Hatakeyama used pike formations (exposing the provincial corps of 28 provinces to it in the process), and this would spill into the Onin War.

With the beginning of the Onin War, Japan descended into the longest period of civil war in its history. On the surface, the fighting was over a series of succession issues for family headship for several great families, such as the Hatakeyama and Shiba. But after 1465 an even more significant dispute arose: the succession of the Ashikaga House itself. The two greatest statesmen in the land, Hosokawa Katsumoto, and Yamana Sozen, already engaged in a fierce rivalry, supported the opposite sides. Previously Katsumoto and Sozen would on occasion join, such as in the Hatakeyama incident where both had backed Masanaga. Now they took all out positions against the other over the shogunal succession, Katsumoto for the Shogun’s dispossessed former heir and brother Yoshimi, Sozen for the infant Yoshihisa the Shogun’s son. Within this dispute, all others became polarized between Hosokawa and Yamana and no one could remain neutral.

We shall focus on the effects on this on the Hatakeyama dispute and how it directly leads to the outbreak of fighting. In the last days of 1466 Hatakeyama Yoshinari, long a wanderer, was allowed to return to Kyoto in triumph. Behind the scenes, Yamana Sozen had taken Yoshinari’s cause and pleaded his case with the Shogun’s wife, Tomiko. She procured pardon for Yoshinari, and fear of Yamana pushed her husband into dispossessing Hatakeyama Masanaga for the third time. Also, he was given a commission to take down Masanaga. Already bolstered by previous victories in the Shiba succession dispute, Sozen demanded Katsumoto abandon Masanaga.

Instead of complying, Katsumoto fortified his mansion and called up troops. Shogun Yoshimasa panicked and ordered both Hosokawa and Yamana to sit out the fighting between the Hatakeyama factions. The Hatakeyama were commanded to fight it out in the woods near the Goryo Shrine north of the city. In a sudden attack at dawn on the 18th day of the first month of 1467 (according to the Japanese lunar calendar), Yoshinari emerged victorious.

But this would not be the end of the matter. Hosokawa Katsumoto would not abandon Masanaga and eventually stopped attending at the shogunal court. Instead, he was fortifying his mansion, and those of the shugo aligned with him followed suit. Yamana Sozen and those shugo aligned with him did the same. By a quirk of geography, the mansions of Katsumoto’s faction was largely in the eastern wards of the capital and those of Sozen’s in the west. Thus, they became known as the Eastern and Western armies, respectively. Tensions ran high until the 26th day of the fifth month when Eastern troops set fire to the mansion of Isshiki Yoshinao, the only Western estate in the eastern wards of Kyoto. The Western army retaliated by setting fire to the few mansions of Eastern supporters in the western wards and the war was on.

File:Hosokawa Katsumoto.jpg

Hosokawa Katsumoto, the leader of the Eastern army. By 日本語: 不明 English: Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It did not take long for the fighting to come to a stalemate. The opposing factions and the shugo who supported them fought in the capital as neither could afford to leave their fortified positions and both feared leaving Kyoto. As that would cause them to be labeled an enemy of the court, a loss of legitimacy they could not survive. Also, the shugo were already funneling men and supplies from their provinces into their respective camps. The Shogun Yoshimasa, not grasping what was happening, insulated himself in his cultural pursuits and remained above the fray. Meanwhile, the two factions had burned much of Kyoto to give themselves room to maneuver, especially the cavalry. Not just shugo mansions, but the temples and the dwellings of aristocracy and common alike were destroyed. As the fighting continued the East and the West both struggled for position, with the Western army forcing the East into cramped quarters in the northeast quadrant. The reason was the ongoing struggle for control of the supply lines into the capital, which the Western army seemed to be winning. For example, the Western victory in the battle near the temple of Nanzenji around mid-late summer in southwestern Kyoto. They were aided significantly by the arrival in the eighth month of Ouchi Masahiro and Kono Michiyasu with some 20,000 troops, leading to the first documented use of pikes in the Onin War.

On September 13th Western forces, still operating in the southwest, attacked and burned the temple of Sanboin. Battle reports state that six members of the Kikkawa family sustained pike wounds. An additional four were wounded by pikes on the 2nd and 3rd days of the tenth month. While not all Kikkawa casualties were caused by pikes (arrows caused eight casualties, rocks five, swords one) the increase in pike related injuries is still significant. The battle at Sanboin witnessed as many pike wounds as the previous century. The Western commanders were oblivious to this and only saw a chance to break Eastern resistance. The following month the Western commanders made a mass offensive inside Kyoto proper, demolishing the temple complex of Shokokuji to make room for their cavalry.


The modern Shokokuji, Kyoto. By Chris Gladis [CC BY-ND 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/)] via Flickr.

Opposing them was 2,000 pikemen under Hatakeyama Masanaga. According to the Chronicle of Onin the Hatakeyama leader had decided to take the initiative and led his pike squads in close formation behind shields to charge the Western cavalry where Shokokuji had once stood. The attack was a success, with the cavalry (despite numbering some 6,000 men) unable to break the infantry line. They suffered 67 casualties before withdrawing. Hatakeyama Yoshinari was also active in the area, allowing the cavalry to retreat behind his pikemen and forcing Masanaga to himself withdraw.

Never before had Japanese infantry successfully withstood cavalry out in the open. The battle marked the end of the mobile warfare phase of the struggle for the capital, and from this point on what mattered was the ability to hold ground. The Eastern army took the lead in this regard, building a trench system along their front lines at the beginning of 1468. The Western army followed, suit and was not long before Kyoto resembled a WWI battlefield. Some trenches were over 9ft deep and 19ft wide with watchtowers ranging from 69-99ft in height dotting the landscape. Night raids by small squads of light infantry became the favored tactic.

Despite this, army size and the demand for weapons only increased. The provincial support bases of the shugo proved unable to keep up with the needs of the soldiers. Leading to the ironic situation in Kyoto in which the manufacturing centers of the south were spared the worst fighting to make more weapons and armor. Cavalry shifted to supply line attacks, village raids, and reconnoitering. The fight for control of the supply lines, which continued nearly the whole eleven years, was never decided decisively. One line for Katsumoto or Sozen always remained open, and always had enough to keep the East and West in the field.

At this point let us examine the battle reports again. In contrast to the battle reports noted earlier in this article after 1467, the sword declined in use in favor of the pike. Swords account for 20 percent of all nonprojectile casualties across the Sengoku while pikes start off at 74 percent nonprojectile casualties during the Onin War to 98 percent nonprojectile casualties by the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. As a testament to the changes in Japanese warfare the practice of submitting battle reports began to change as well. Troops stopped sending reports of where they had marched, arrival at camp, and so on. Casualty lists replaced reports of warrior movements. Advances in army organization had made such practices unnecessary as commanders now knew more about the location of their troops and armies increased in size.

The Onin War would continue until 1477 (at least the stage of fighting in the capital) when Ouchi Masahiro pulled out of Kyoto. During that time, Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sozen had both died without achieving a decisive victory in 1473. The dispute over the shogunal succession ceased to matter relatively quickly, and Yoshimasa stepped down to place Yoshihisa in power to little notice or fanfare the same year Katsumoto and Sozen died. Yoshimi, the other “contender” lived a life in semi-nomadic exile, having already been bounced between sides so many times he no longer cared. Fighting in Kyoto spilled out into the provinces after 1473, marking the beginning of the Sengoku.

An interesting postscript to our topic is the triumphs of Miyoshi Nagayoshi in the 16th century. This man, originally a deputy shugo under the Hosokawa, used massed tactics to accomplish one of the better-known examples of gekokujo (the low overcoming the high). This practice was born out of the Onin War, as the Ashikaga political and social order broke down, and subordinates overthrew those over them. Using 900 pikemen, Miyoshi Nagayoshi was able to defeat Hosokawa Harumoto, who was not only the shugo he served but the real power within the Ashikaga Shogunate, in 1549. That same year he expelled the Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiteru, and would not allow him to return until 1552. The Miyoshi later killed Yoshiteru shortly after Nagayoshi’s death. During his lifetime Miyoshi Nagayoshi had based his power solely on military might, stemming from the efficient use of massed infantry acting in cohesion.


Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD by Thomas D. Conlan

The Onin War: History of Its Origins and Background With a Selective Translation of The Chronicle of Onin by H. Paul Varley

Warrior Rule in Japan edited by Marius B. Jansen

Samurai, Warfare, and the State in Early Medieval Japan by Karl F. Friday