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Self-Defense Tip #44 — Think like a commander — How discipline and practice win battles

Lack of discipline kills, and so does the lack of practice. Disciplined practice and practiced discipline can turn a seeming disaster into victory. The battle of Varna (November 10, 1444 A.D.) is a vivid example for all these truths.

Hungarians and their allies (20,000) faced the Turkish army (60,000) on the plain between hills and lake Varna. The Hungarian forces were led by Wladyslaw III (grandson of Wladyslaw Jagiello), 21-year-old king of Poland and Hungary, with actual command in the hand of Janos Hunyadi, an experienced warrior called Accursed Johnny by the Turks.

The Turks were commanded by sultan Murad II, with Karadja pasha of Anatolia in charge of the left wing and Daud pasha of Rumelia in charge of the right wing. Both wings consisted of cavalry, both irregulars and regulars, and the center consisted of a huge square of Janissary infantry in front of which was light cavalry.

The Hungarian forces were mostly cavalry, both light and heavy, with a few light pieces of artillery kept behind lines of the cavalry, together with the supply train.

Hunyadi commanded the left wing, bishop Jan Dominic the right wing, and Wladyslaw III the center. The center consisted of two banners of heavy cavalry, which were to serve as a tactical reserve and to deliver the decisive strike. (One banner = about 250 knights plus their squires.)

Initially the battle went well for the Hungarians and their allies—even though it was no picnic.

Turkish irregulars (light cavalry) of their left wing attempted to outflank the Hungarian right wing, but got beaten back. In their pursuit of the Turks, the Hungarian right wing opened itself to an attack from Turkish regular cavalry. Under that attack, the Hungarian right wing ran and exposed the supply train and the rear of the king’s forces. At this moment, Hungarian and Polish heavy cavalry in the center did its job—it destroyed the Turkish regulars and killed their commander, Karadja pasha. In the meantime the Turkish right wing, to save the situation, attacked Hunyadi’s left wing. After intense fighting, Hunyadi’s cavalry repelled the attack, went on counterattack, and smashed the cavalry of Daud pasha.

The only intact Turkish force was the huge square of Janissaries, with sultan Murad II in its middle, praying aloud and considering retreat.

But before Hunyadi’s cavalry could return from chasing Daud pasha’s forces and prepare for the difficult attack on the defensive square of Janissaries, king Wladyslaw III got excited. He threw his heavy cavalry in a head-on charge against the Janissaries. Disciplined Janissaries did what they practiced—opened up and then closed in. The king’s cavalry went like a wedge into the mass of Janissaries—and never came out. The king, like others who went in with him, was killed. Only Hunyadi’s commanding skill prevented the battle from turning into a total slaughter of remaining Hungarian forces by regrouped Turkish cavalry commanded by Daud pasha.

The Lesson

  • Do not get entangled with someone who is just about to leave anyway…. The Janissaries could not pursue the cavalry, they could only hold their ground or retreat orderly.
  • The king’s lack of discipline turned a sure victory into a major defeat.
  • The Janissaries’ disciplined practice for dealing with a cavalry charge (and any other unpleasantries) turned a defeat into victory.
  • It takes discipline to practice systematically and a lot of practice to act in a disciplined way.
  • When the enemy begins to fall into disarray, don’t rush; wait until you see the enemy retreating without order. Yes, it applies to single combat too.
  • When things are going your way, don’t rush; let the enemy disorganize himself.
  • When you have a choice, act when you are good and ready—not before.

Self-defense tip from Thomas Kurz, co-author of Basic Instincts of Self-Defense and author of Science of Sports Training, Stretching Scientifically, and Flexibility Express.

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One Response to Self-Defense Tip #44 — Think like a commander — How discipline and practice win battles

  1. Yair Sagiv says:

    I loved reading your “Think like a commander” series.
    You seem to know the history well, and the tips can be applied to modern times.


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