Vlad the Impaler is almost always singled out among other medieval figures due to the legends surrounding his name. Made famous due to his visceral way of dealing with his enemies, he was nonetheless a significant political player in 15th century Europe. He fought and won battles against exceptional odds and used a variety of strategies to win. While it is easy to label him as a brute due to many myths, it is more rewarding to discover how he played his part as a leader and a military commander in one of the most tumultuous times in European history.
1. The Art of War
Vlad’s military experience began in his early years. He learned the basics of war at the court of his father, Vlad II Dracul. After his father took the throne of Wallachia, Vlad the Impaler continued his training at the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad II. Here, he and his younger brother, Radu, were taken as hostages to secure their father’s loyalty. Besides military training, Vlad the Imapler came in contact with people from other cultures, such as Germans and Hungarians, which gave him more insight and experience.
He’s gained more practical experience during his campaign for the throne of Wallachia. After the murder of his older brother and father in 1447, Vlad returned the next year accompanied by a unit of Ottoman cavalry. With their assistance, he took the throne, but for only two months. The local nobles, who did not support his claim and were hostile to the ottomans, quickly deposed him. From 1449 to 1451, he took refuge in Moldavia at the court of Bogdan II. Here, he gained strategical insight regarding his neighbors, Moldavia, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. This information would prove significant in the future campaigns he would fight.
2. The Campaigns of Vlad the Impaler
The essential campaign that characterized his rule was the campaign for the throne of Wallachia. As mentioned above, it began in 1448 and continued until he died in 1476. In 1456, John Hunyadi, preparing for his anti-ottoman campaign in Belgrade and he entrusted Vlad the Impaler with the command of an armed force to protect the mountain passes between Wallachia and Transylvania while he is away with the main army. Vlad used this opportunity to recover the throne again that same year.
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His success resulted in a civil war waged between him and the opposing nobles. He had to execute whole noble families to secure his rule and eliminate all pretenders. With the throne in his grip, he assisted his cousin, Stephen the Great, to gain the throne of Moldavia in 1457. After this, he fought skirmishes against other pretenders by raiding and pillaging villages and cities in Transylvania between 1457-1459.
His second rule was the longest, lasting until 1462 when Matthias I, the king of Hungary, imprisoned him on false accusations. He was held as a prisoner in Visegrad until 1474. He regained the throne but was killed fighting against the nobles in the same year.
Another campaign that made Vlad the Impaler famous was his role in the crusades against the Turks in the 15th century, named the later crusades. In 1459, after the transformation of Serbia into a pashalik, Pope Pius II organized a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. Vlad, aware of the ottoman threat towards Wallachia and his limited military strength, took advantage of this occasion and joined the pope’s campaign.
Between 1461-1462, he attacked several key Ottoman positions south of the Danube to weaken their defenses and stop their advance. This resulted in an invasion led by the sultan Mehmet II in June 1462, with the intention of transforming Wallachia into another pashalik. Outnumbered, Vlad the Impaler organized a night attack while the ottoman army was camping near Târgoviște. Though unsuccesfull in his initial attempt to kill the Sultan, Vlad’s strategy created enough chaos to stop his enemies’ advance.
3. Vlad the Impaler’s Strategy
The appropriate term to describe the 15th-century Wallachian strategy would be asymmetrical warfare. Vlad, and other Romanian leaders, were always up against an enemy who outnumbered them (ex. Ottoman empire, Poland). As a result, they had to adopt strategies that would nullify their numerical disadvantage. For example, they would adopt strategies that involved terrain advantages such as mountain passes, fog, marshlands, or surprise attacks. Open field encounters were usually avoided. In Vlad’s case, impalement was another strategy to break down the morale of the enemy
To understand how Vlad the Impaler would have used these strategies, we will go through the steps of a hypothetical asymmetrical battle. First, Vlad would have called back his troops since battle in the open field was avoided. Then, he would have have sent men to set fire to villages and nearby fields. The smoke and heat gravely slowed down the enemies’ march. To further weaken the enemy, Vlad’s men would have also left dead animals or corpses. Fountains were poisoned too, usually with animal carcasses.
Second, Vlad would have sent his light cavalry to harass the enemy from the flanks, day and night, causing further losses to the opposing army. Finally, the conflict would end in a direct encounter. There were three possible scenarios. In the first scenario, the Wallachian army chose the location. The second scenario involves a surprise attack. In the final scenario, the battle would take place on terrain unfavorable for the enemy.
4. The Structure of the Army
The main structure of the Wallachian army included cavalry, infantry, and artillery units. The voivode, in this case, Vlad, led the army and named the commanders. Since fields dominated the landscape of Wallachia, the main military unit was heavy cavalry and light cavalry.
The army included the Small Army (10,000-12,000 troops, comprised of nobles, their sons, and courtiers), and the Large Army (40,000 troops, mainly mercenaries). The bulk of the army was made up of the light cavalry, composed of locals or mercenaries.
The heavy cavalry and the infantry represented only a small percentage of the military due to the landscape and the small number of fortifications across Wallachia. The Wallachian army itself rarely used artillery weapons. They were used, however, by mercenaries.
5. The Weapons of Vlad the Impaler’s Army
The main source for information regarding the weaponry of Vlad’s army is from medieval church paintings, letters, and comparisons made with other neighboring countries. First, the heavy cavalry used similar equipment to other cavalry units in central and western Europe.
This included armor — such as helmets, plate armor, chain armor, or oriental armors, and weapons — such as lances, swords, maces, and shields. The presence of Ottoman and Hungarian equipment and the lack of workshops indicate that these weapons and armor were either bought or stolen during raid attacks.
Second, the infantry used a wide range of armor, from gambesons to chainmail. Weaponry, too, was diverse: lances, spears, halberds, bows, crossbows, shields, axes, and different types of swords. Finally, other types of equipment included tents, pavilions, artillery weapons, and tools used to signal and coordinate the army, such as trumpets and drums.