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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Thursday, 16 September 2021

Slovenian Borderlands

When we think of Balkan borderlands, the Military border between the Habsburgs and Ottomans in modern-day Croatia (Militärgrenze) comes to mind. That was formally established in 1553. However, there was an earlier border area in modern-day Slovenia. Not to be confused with the later (1776) Slavonian Military Frontier, mostly in eastern Croatia and northern Serbia.


In the later Middle Ages, Slovenia was sparsely populated, reflecting the mountainous and wooded terrain. The population of the modern capital Ljubljana numbered no more than 5000 by the early sixteenth century. Despite its limited economic value, it was strategically important to the Holy Roman Empire (Habsburg dominated by the end of the 13th century), giving them access to the sea and acting as a buffer against the Kingdom of Hungary to the east and, more importantly, the Ottoman Empire to the south.


Militarily this led to the development of several hundred castles, many more than could be justified by the region's economy. Even today, you can see castle ruins and remains on the top of steep hills in the country. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, feudal families, such as the Dukes of Spanheim, the Counts of Gorizia, the Counts of Celje, led the consolidation of lands in the region. Troops from the area also served as mercenaries in Italy, which led to a transition from feudal levies to professional retinues of men-at-arms and mounted crossbowmen. Slovenian troops were present at the Siege of Zadar (1346) and Nicopolis (1396). Ambitious counts like Ulrich II attempted to carve out an independent kingdom but were forced to accept Habsburg suzerainty by 1500. 

Celje Castle (Boris Maric, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The leading opponent of Habsburg rule was the Counts of Celje. The rise of this family from central Slovenia began in the later 14th century, and they became one of the most powerful families in the Balkans. They were related by marriage with rulers of Bosnia as well as Polish and Hungarian kings. In 1396 Count Hermann II of Celje saved the Hungarian king (later Holy Roman Emperor) Sigismund of Luxemburg at the Battle of Nicopolis. A strong bond was strengthened when Sigismund married Hermann's daughter Barbara, and in 1446 they were elevated to Dukes. A dispute with the Habsburg Duke Frederick V led to a prolonged conflict that devastated the region between 1436 and 1443. Frederick captured Celje and gained all their possessions after a deal with the widow of the last Duke.


From 1469 the Slovenian lands were subjected to constant raiding by Ottoman forces based in Bosnia, even though they were away from the main Ottoman invasion route. As many as 200,000 local inhabitants had been killed or taken into captivity by the early sixteenth century, not helped by conflicts with Venice and Hungary. The ruling elites essentially held out in the mountain castles while the peasants built stone walls around churches. Maximilian I initiated reforms that included armouries throughout his provinces. Inventory records from the early sixteenth century indicate that Slovenian territory had sufficient crossbows and polearms to equip a force of at least 10,000 men. This was impressively large for the period, given the small population. There were few original military formations with the South German model adopted throughout the Habsburg Eastern Alps, albeit with some Italian influence and lighter armour suited for border warfare. They were also an early adopter of firearms and later Swiss pike formations and Lansknechts.


On the other side of the hill, the Ottomans began to consolidate their Empire during this period. After capturing Constantinople, the Ottomans turned their attention to Bosnia, where the locals engaged in civil war. The Serbian vassal state was supported in their claim for Srebrenica, and the Ottomans stepped up their attacks on Bosnia, establishing Vrhbosna (Sarajevo) as their main base. A major invasion in 1463 captured key Bosnian fortresses, and the Bosnian king capitulated with some Bosnian nobles entering Ottoman service.


These conquests meant the Ottomans began to take fortifications more seriously, if only as a base for offensive operations. The extraordinary growth of the Empire had been achieved without the large scale use of fortifications. Even the famous ones cutting off the Straits were not followed up. They demolished some Byzantine fortresses in the Balkans but strengthened some on their northern frontier. In particular, on the Danube at Silistria, Nikopol and Vidin. Coastal fortifications were also more likely to be maintained than the more fluid land border. The forts on the Slovenian frontier were typically earth and timber palankas rather than stone castles.


Raiding was undertaken mainly by Akinci (raiders), the light cavalry who could be the Muslim gazis of the early Ottoman period or later recruits. As with many borderlands, small scale warfare continued even during periods of official peace. They were less interested in capturing fortresses than booty and slaves. This was a way of life that would continue even when the military frontier became more settled. 


For the wargamer, this period offers plenty of opportunities to play skirmish or small battle games. Saga and Lion Rampant rules are particularly suitable. Scenarios with local Slavonian forces defending a village against Ottoman raiders or even counter-attacks on the Ottomans escorting their booty back to the border.


There is a more detailed article on this subject at Balkan Military History.

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