Part II - Battle of Kosovo Field
Today in Military History: June 23, 1389
The dating of this battle is somewhat disputed. Under the old Julian calendar used by the Serbians in 1389, this fight took place on June 15, St. Vitus' Day. Modern Serbians celebrate this battle on June 28. However, when converting dates to their Gregorian calendar counterparts, the date for this battle is actually June 23.
One of the problems with profiling this particular conflict is the lack of contemporary reporting. The Serbians have several later chronicles about the battle, some of which read like historical revisionism. The Turks had the same problem, with the earliest description of the battle not being produced until years later. Surprisingly, there was even controversy over who actually won the battle.
Prelude to the Battle: Armies' Dispositions
"Field of Blackbirds" Today
Kosovo Field is a fairly flat plain between the Lab and Sitnica Rivers in southern Serbia several miles northwest of the town of Pristina (although the recently-declared "Republic of Kosovo" refuses to recognize Serbian rule). Bordered on both sides by mountain ranges, the plain was one of the main crossroads of the Balkans since ancient times, giving many an invading army north-south access to the peninsula.
The size and composition of the two armies is doubtful. The best estimates by modern historians put the Serbian coalition army at about 25,000 men, with the Turkish force comprising nearly 40,000. Both armies formed into the traditional right wing, center, and left wing, with each division comprising two distinct lines.
The Serbian right, commanded by provincial lord Vuk Branković, totaled around 5000 men. The front line was made up of the "mala vlastela." These were the Serbian minor nobility who were basically similar to the Turkish akincis, who were mounted horse archers wearing lamellar armor (small hardened leather pieces or metal plates held together with leather ties). The second line was infantrymen, using spears, axes, javelins, and bows (possibly also crossbows).
Prince Lazar commanded the Serbian center, which likely mustered 15,000 men altogether. The front line was composed of "veliki vlastela," greater nobles wearing lamellar armor and armed mainly with lances, maces and bows. The second line comprised more Serbian foot soldiers. Due to the size of the center, its formation was much wider than the two wings.
On the left flank – about 5000 men commanded by Vlatko Vuković of Bosnia – more minor noble horse-archers made up the front line. The second line of infantry was a smorgasbord of allied troops: Bosnian, Croatian, and Albanian infantry for certain. In addition, Vukovic had brought with him an artillery piece – a gift of the Venetians. There were also more cannon mentioned on the Serbian side but their number and placement are unknown.
The Turkish army took the defensive. Some chroniclers reported that the Turks dug a long ditch, fronted with sharpened stakes for protection. The right wing – about 18,500 men under the command of the sultan's son Bayezid – was arrayed in two lines. About 500 azab archers were positioned in front as skirmished. Behind them was a line of 10,000 azab and dismounted akincis. These men were variously armed with spears, sabers, perhaps some polearms, and bows. Behind them were the mounted contingent, approximately 8000 mixed vassal cavalry, mostly Serbs, Bulgarians, and Albanians.
Sultan Murad I (reigned 1362-1389)
The Ottoman center was commanded by Sultan Murad himself. This portion of the Turkish army was the professionals: 2500 janissaries in the front, armed with composite bows, yataghans, and axes. The second line consisted of 8500 horsemen. There were about 2500 akincis, backed up by 6000 sipahis, the sultan's household bodyguard cavalry. To the rear of the Turkish center was an unknown number of cannon, manned by specialist janissaries.
On the left flank – which contained about 10,500 men under the sultan's other son Yakub Celebi – there was a skirmish line of 500 azabs with bows. Behind them was the front line of 5000 more spear-wielding azab infantry. Bringing up the rear was a force of 5000 timariots, heavily armed and armored horsemen wielding lances and bows. There are also reports that the Turkish army had some mercenary units sprinkled throughout, including Greek horsemen and Genoese bowmen.
[Please note the differing dispositions of the two armies. The Serbian coalition led with their cavalry, and used their infantry as the base to maneuver around. By contrast, the Turks used their infantry to absorb their enemy's cavalry attacks, then allowed their horsemen to attack, outflank, and crush the attacking cavalry.
Battle of Kosovo Field
The primary Turkish history on this battle, written over 120 years afterwards in 1512 by Mehmet Nesri, states the Serbian army spent the night before the battle in drunken revelry. When Prince Lazar suggested to his subordinates a possible night attack on the Turkish camp, he was overruled. Ottoman sultan Murad was said to have spent the night in his tent praying. Murad suggested placing a line of camels in front of his army, hoping to disconcert and frighten the enemy's horses. The Turkish commanders advised against it, saying that should the tactic not prove successful, the camels might run through his own army, throwing it into disarray.
The battle opened with an ineffective cannon barrage by the Serbs, with fell far short of the Turkish army. The Turks replied with a much more effective artillery attack, backed up with a long-range shower of arrows. In response, the entire Serbian coalition heavy cavalry surged forward, formed into v-shaped wedges. After negotiating the treacherous stakes, the Serbian cavalry impacted the Turkish front line. Though absorbing the initial charge of the Serbs, after considerable hard fighting, the Turkish left wing broke and retreated, exposing the flank of the Ottoman center.
Despite being hard-pressed, the Turkish center and right held firm. During this part of the battle, Bayezid's wing received a disproportionate number of casualties in the battle. However, he managed to send some Christian vassal cavalry formations to shore up the Turkish center. The initial charge of the Christian horsemen was finally exhausted after hard fighting.
At some point after the defeat of the Turkish left wing, one of the most controversial events of the battle occurred. Vuk Branković, commander of the Serb right wing, suddenly turned his horse around and retreated from the field, with most of his troops following after him. Serbian history styles him a traitor to his country, supposedly making a deal with the Turk beforehand to leave the battle. It is more likely that, being a practical man, he saw that the Serbs could not win the fight, and decided to save as many of his own soldiers as possible to continue ruling his little province (even if it would probably be under the thumb of the Turks).
The withdrawal of Branković's men gave the enemy a huge morale boost. Shortly afterwards, the Turkish cavalry, mainly the second-line timariots and sipahis, launched a massive counter-attack. This charge of these still-relatively fresh horsemen struck the Serbs like a thunderbolt. After the initial charge broke lances, the Turks began laying about them with swords, axes, and heavy maces. The played-out Serbian horsemen were ground down and annihilated. What Christian cavalry remained was finally forced to retreat, heading back to their infantry to attempt to regroup.
The victorious Turks then launched themselves at the Serbian infantry formations. After more hard fighting, the Turks were near to victory. One Serbian chronicle states that Prince Lazar was knocked off his horse at this point. In attempting to mount a replacement steed, many of his soldiers thought their ruler had been killed. The entire Serbian army's morale plummeted, all hope was lost, and the army almost to a man routed.
During the rout, Prince Lazar's horse stepped into a ditch, and he fell to the ground. Turkish soldiers saw this, made a beeline for him, and captured him. Also taken with the prince was one of his sons. They were quickly brought before Sultan Murad, identified, and summarily beheaded. This final act essentially ended the battle of Kosovo Field.
However, there is a footnote to the battle. It seemed that Sultan Murad also perished in this battle, but the exact circumstances are, again, hazy. One tale says that during the a group of 12 Serbian nobles managed to break through the Turkish center, enter the sultan's tent, and kill him. Another chronicle states that Murad was walking the battlefield alone, the day after the battle, surveying the damage his army had done to the Christians. However, hiding among the piles of corpses was a Serbian noble named Miloš Obilić, who rose up covered in blood and stabbed the sultan several times until he died. Thus, the commanders of both armies died.
No casualty figures are available for this fight; suffice it to say that both armies suffered at least 50-65 percent casualties, perhaps more. The Serbian army was almost entirely annihilated, with the exception of Vuk Branković's force. King Vlatko of Bosnia managed to survive, and returned to his domain. He even sent several letters to various European rulers, claiming a Christian victory.
Footnote #1: Shortly after receiving word of his father's death, Bayezid sent a message to his brother Yakub, saying their father had new orders for him. Then, in the tradition of Ottoman succession, Bayezid ordered the strangulation of his own brother, to tie up any possible loose end. He then ordered a retreat, to reorganize his army for further action.
Footnote #2: Despite the devastating casualties inflicted on the Serbs, it was not until 1459 that the last vestige of the Serbian nation was finally conquered by the Turks.
Footnote #3: The Battle of Kosovo came to be seen as a symbol of Serbian patriotism and desire for independence in the 19th century rise of nationalism under Ottoman rule. Its significance for Serbian nationalism returned to prominence during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo War when Slobodan Milošević invoked it during an important speech.