On the 9th of November 1444 a large Ottoman army of 50 to 60 000 under the command of Murad II advanced towards Varna and in doing so effectively trapped the Papal army, which had a combined strength of 20 to 30,000, between lake Varna, the Black Sea and the steep slopes of the Franga Plateau.
Janos Hunyadi persuaded the Christian commanders that the best course of action would be to make a stand and give battle; “To escape is impossible, to surrender unthinkable. Let us fight bravely and honour our arms.” So the decision was made and on the 10th November Hunyadi deployed the army, which was under the symbolic command of the young King Wlayslaws of Poland, in a sweeping arc between Lake Varna and the Franga Plateau.
The Historical Battle
The various accounts of the battle describe a fluid situation of cavalry charges and counter charges in which early Christian gains were reversed by flank attacks by Ottoman Sipahis and Akinci cavalry. At one stage a gap in the Ottoman lines enabled Vlad Dracul’s force to charge through and plunder the Ottoman camp. Janus Hunyadi gathered the now disorganised Papal forces and captured much of the ground around the Ottoman centre in which the Sultan and his Janissaries stood behind a line of stakes. At this crucial point of the battle the young King Wlayslaws took upon himself to lead the knights of his Polish and Hungarian bodyguard in a frontal assault on the Ottoman centre. However, this vain attempt at glory resulted in him having his head cut off and impaled on a stake! After this the Christian forces started to disintegrate and many tried to flee across the River Devnya and were slain in the surrounding marshland.
The Ottoman victory at Varna prevented the sending of Christian relief forces to assist the defence of Constantinople. It also paved the way for the expansion of the Ottoman Empire towards Central Europe until this was halted at the siege of Belgrade in 1456.
The Beaumanor Game
Tony, Dave and I took the epic Battle of Varna game to Beaumanor Hall, the home of the Son’s of Simon De Montford wargames club for the members to play. This was the fifth time that this game had been run; the Ottomans had won three times and the Christian crusaders only once so far. It was organised as a ten player game with five commands on each side. The Ottoman army was more than twice the size of the crusader army and so the Ottoman commanders individually had far more units of troops to command. When the two armies were deployed at the beginning of the game, the sheer size of the Ottoman force was a very intimidating sight to the five Christian commanders.
Historically, the crusader army made the first move and so in recognition of this; the Christian commanders were given first move of the game. They took the initiative to quickly close on the Ottoman lines of vassal infantry and in doing so, gain and control as much ground as possible. The Ottoman Azab archers occupied the wooded high ground on both sides of the battlefield and the Christian cavalry commanders wisely kept a safe distance from these areas during their advance.
The masses of leading Ottoman infantry were soon smashed into by the Christian heavy cavalry on their left wing. On the other wing the Wallation lighter cavalry were confronted with Akinci light horse which passed through their stationary lines of infantry. These Akinci were driven off only to be replaced by Sipahis medium cavalry supported by infantry. The Polish and Hungarian knights in the centre made a more cautious advance towards the Ottoman Janissaries massed and waiting behind a deep wall of stakes.
The charge of the Christian heavy horse soon demolished many units of Ottoman spears but waiting patiently behind were multitudes of Sipahis and Akinci cavalry ready to charge into the gaps that were quickly appearing. A small number of crusader cavalry units were tasked with keeping the Azab archers on the wooded slopes of the plateau busy in order to protect against an outflanking move against the Christian right wing. This strategy worked well and although vastly outnumbered, at this point of the game both wings of the massed Christian cavalry were steadily whittling down their opponents with limited cost to themselves.
In my role of non-partisan game organiser, I could see that the crusader commanders were implementing an agreed battle plan. The Ottomans on the other hand, who enjoyed a strong defensive position, were reacting to crusader attacks but in so doing were beginning to surrender too much ground to their opponents. This would in time prevent them from bringing their far greater numbers to where they were most needed.
On the Ottoman right wing, Trevor (Ottoman), and Dave (Christian) fought a prolonged struggle in which the advantage swung to one side then the other. Dave pulled some infantry and field guns from the wagon larger in support to protect his flank and rear. This tied up more Sipahis and Akinci cavalry which I’m sure was part of the Christian battle plan.
The might of the crusader cavalry had been directed against the Ottoman left and Luke’s command of five units of Teutonic knights moved ominously into position to deliver a massive blow to the left of the Janissaries who were still standing ‘safely’ behind their line of stakes, with Mrrad II behind them. The elite Qapukulu Ottoman cavalry units stood immobile behind him.
By this stage of the game Phil had worked his Ottoman Azabs and Akincis behind the Crusader right flank; Tony had to sacrifice a couple of units of heavy cavalry as targets for their bows in order to keep them occupied. The main assault on the centre went in with King Wlayslaws kept safely out of the way – the Christians didn’t want a repeat of the historical outcome! And so, with the king’s head still firmly attached to his shoulders he could watch as his crusading knights broke the Ottoman left wing and swung in towards the Janissaries and Qapakulu defending their Sultan. The combined strength of Teutonic and Hungarian knights overwhelmed the Qapukulu and soon Murrad II was fighting for his life with his with only his Janissary halberdiers left to defend him.
The Christian commander Janus Hunyadi was killed by Janissary halberdiers. The Ottoman centre fought well sending many units of Christian knights to the casualty trays, but the overall situation was irreversible as not enough units from the Ottoman left were available to offer support to their beleaguered Sultan. The Wallation cavalry had done their job! After an epic five hour struggle the end came as the Ottoman commanders accepted defeat.
With the Murad II gone, the Crusader army could now continue southwards and hopefully prevent the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire!
Many thanks to everyone who took part and a special thanks to the Sons of Simon De Montford (Loughborough) wargames club for providing the opportunity to play this epic game at their club room at Beaumanor Hall. The score for the Battle of Varna game is now 3 wins to the Ottomans and 2 to the Christians!