Battle of Nicopolis, 25 September 1396

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Disastrous finale to what was in effect a crusade launched against the Ottoman Turks. The crusader army was based on the Hungarian army of Sigismund of Luxembourg, with a large French element led by some of the greatest French nobles, including Marshal Boucicautalong with German, Polish, Italian and English elements. The army may have reached sixty thousand men, a vast army for the time, and was almost entirely cavalry. Sigismund crossed into Ottoman territory, and laid siege to Nicopolis, a large Bulgarian city. The Ottoman sultan, Bajazet, was not rushed into reaction, and waited for his entire army to muster before responding. The Ottoman army formed up some four miles from the Crusader camp, and invited attack. Sigismund proposed to use his own horse-archers as the first attack, with the Crusader cavalry in reserve to deliver the decisive blow against the Ottoman lines. However, the French leaders refused any role that denied them the first attack, and leaving the Hungarian army behind, they charged the centre of the Ottoman line, where they thought there was a cavalry force for them to attack. However, once the French knights came within range, the Ottoman horse-archers let loose a volley, then pulled aside to reveal well dug-in archers behinds rows of wooden stakes. Despite taking heavy casualties, the French broke through to the archers, and were also able to hold off an attack by Ottoman cavalry, before finally being beaten by the arrival of yet another cavalry force. The French took severe casualties, including Philip, Count of Bar, and Jean de Vienne, the Admiral, although many more were captured.

The Hungarian royal army, meanwhile, was moving towards the battle. Sigismund's force was engaged with the Ottoman cavalry, when it was ambushed by the Serbian allies of Sultan Bajazet, led by Stephen Lazarevitch, who had retained his lands at the price of becoming an Ottoman vassal. This attack by the Serbs broke the Hungarians, and when Sigismunds banner was cast down, the army dissolved. Sigismund himself managed to escape downstream to Constantinople, but the Sultan, apparently enraged by earlier massacres of Turkish prisoners, killed all but a dozen of his French captives. Very few survivors of the battle returned to the west. Those that did blamed the Hungarians for the defeat, although the appalling behaviour of the French knights was in reality a major cause of the disaster. Fortunately for Europe, Bajazet was more concerned with his lands in Turkey, where he had established himself as ruler, before meeting his match in Timur, who defeated and captured him in 1402.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (10 October 2000), Battle of Nicopolis, 25 September 1396, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_nicopolis.html

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