10 August 955

An eighteenth-century engraving shows the aftermath of the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 when the emperor Otto I defeated a large Magyar army. As the Hungarians retreated they were harried by garrison troops in the nearby cities who butchered the cavalry and caught and hanged the Magyar leaders.

The battle that took place over a number of days in and around the Bavarian city of Augsburg in 955 signalled a dramatic change in European history. The defeat of an invading Hungarian (Magyar) army, organized on principles that had dominated warfare in Eurasia for centuries, brought to an end the long age of violent migrations from the Asian heartland. The only object that stood in the way of Hungarian conquest was an army of Germans hastily brought together by the Saxon king Otto I early in August. The Saxons knew their enemy, as German armies had suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Hungarian horse-archers forty-five years earlier on the plain of Lechfeld. Otto understood that the hail of arrows likely to greet his men had destroyed most armies that had suffered such an attack, from the Parthian defeat of the Romans at Carrhae onwards. He led his army towards the invaders hoping that courage and luck would be enough.

The battle was sought by the Hungarian leaders, among whom the best-known was the general Horka Bulksú. Their aim was to impose Hungarian military domination on central and southern Germany and even beyond, but above all they wanted booty and tribute. Otto had troubles of his own with local insurrections and Slav wars to the east, but in the summer of 955, these dangers were dwarfed by the threat of Hungarian military might undermining the whole region of central Europe. When emissaries from the Hungarians arrived in late June at Otto’s base in Magdeburg, it was evident that they were there to assess his readiness for war. What they saw reassured them, and a large Hungarian army of infantry, siege weapons and, above all, an estimated 9–15,000 horsemen, lightly armoured but carrying the lethal short bow of the steppe archer, set out for southern Bavaria. They crossed the River Lech and ravaged the countryside over a wide area, taking plunder but also creating a barren waste for any approaching army. They then laid siege to Augsburg, ruled by a very martial bishop, Ulrich, in the hope of tempting Otto south for a decisive battle.

Otto was told of the invasion by messengers from Bavaria. He took only a few of his Saxons with him, since the Saxon army was still battling with its Slavic neighbours, and called on levies from Bavaria, Swabia and Bohemia to join him. His son-in-law, Conrad the Red, brought 1,000 Franconian horses. By early August, they had gathered near Ulm to cross the Danube and confront the enemy. Augsburg was not yet captured, thanks in part to a brief sally by Ulrich’s professional soldiers to drive away a Hungarian assault on a weakly held city gate, but when the Hungarians got news of the advance of Otto’s army, they withdrew to their camp on the east side of the River Lech. There they prepared a strategy to lure Otto onto the plain, the Lechfeld, where their mobile archers would surround and annihilate the Germans once again. The infantry were to be put in front, to entice the enemy horsemen, while part of the cavalry would sweep northwest to outflank Otto’s army and attack the rear as the main Hungarian force waited on the edge of the plain to smash the Germans fleeing from the flanking attack. The horsemen each had spare mounts and a large supply of arrows.

The details of the battle are little known, since the two main accounts, both written some years later by contemporaries, gloss over the actual combat. There are no reliable estimates of the size of either force, though Otto’s eventual victory was hailed as a remarkable triumph against overwhelming odds. What is known is that Otto, afraid of exposing his men to encirclement and probable annihilation by the enemy archers, organized his army into six columns, protected at the back by units of Bohemians guarding the baggage train, and marched them through the forest northwest of Augsburg, in rough, wooded terrain where horsemen and arrows were equally disadvantaged. This was too late to prevent the Hungarian horsemen sent to outflank him from attacking the Bohemians and either destroying them or driving them off. Greed or overconfidence led them to loot the baggage rather than finish off the Germans. This was a tactical error, since suddenly out of the forest stormed Conrad’s column of Franconians, who, it seems likely, killed the pillaging Hungarians. No quarter was usually given.

The battle that followed was not fought, despite the name, on the Lechfeld, but further north on the edges of the Rauherforst. Otto chose battle with the shelter of the trees behind him and his left flank protected by high cliffs to prevent any outflanking movement. What happened next is not known, but the best estimates suggest that Otto probably did what Epaminondas did at Leuchtra when he routed the Spartans – he concentrated his main force on one wing, and used it to drive the enemy back and encircle them. The strategy, if such it was, seems to have half-worked this time. The Hungarian infantry was pushed back, surrounded and annihilated to a man, but the archers tried to lure Otto onto the plain by feigning retreat. Otto understood the dangers and refused to be drawn. As it was, his army was subjected to volley after volley of light and deadly arrows, which could penetrate armour when shot in a long arc. Conrad the Red fell to an arrow as he loosened his armour to cool off. The critical factor seems to have been the discipline of the Germans, who neither gave way in the face of heavy casualties nor risked pursuit and the danger of encirclement.

Puzzled, exhausted or both, the Hungarian cavalry retreated past Augsburg, allowing Otto to capture their camp. The decisive nature of the defeat, however, was due to what happened next. Over the following two days, the Hungarian cavalry were separated into small groups or ambushed by soldiers from the smaller fortified cities behind them. Most seem to have been killed or captured; their leaders, including Horka Bulksú, were taken to Regensburg to be hanged in public. Why this happened has eluded clear historical explanation, but the best guess is rain, or, as contemporary Christians called it, the ‘tears of Saint Lawrence’, a Christian martyr whose feast day fell on 10 August. Heavy summer storms are now thought to have followed the engagement by the Rauherforst, swelling the rivers that were usually passable by cavalry and, crucially, rendering the highly crafted composite bows, on which Hungarian military success depended, all but useless. Damp and rain led the bows to unravel or limited their operational effectiveness. Left to wield rather brittle sabres, it is thought that the Hungarians had nothing to match the heavy lances and swords of German and Bohemian cavalry. This remains the most plausible explanation for the catastrophic Hungarian defeat, which ended the country’s depredations for good, allowed Otto to claim the title of Holy Roman Emperor a few years later, and earned the fiery Ulrich his sainthood.