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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 13 July 2023

Dracula's Wars

 This is James Waterson's take on Vlad the Impaler and the wars in the Balkans during and after his lifetime. I must have missed this when it was published in 2016 and only noticed it when he was one of the experts in the recent Netflix series. 

The author gives us a broad history of the period, with Vlad popping into the story regularly. I'm unsure if that is deliberate or just because he thought the sources are a bit thin for an entire book. He starts with a lengthy overview of the period dominated by Ottoman expansion into the Balkans. Vlad's father, Vlad II Dracul, who ruled between 1408 and 1418, starts the story properly, and that is on page 78. Hunyadi was the primary opponent of the Ottomans during this period, and his wars are also covered.

Vlad spent his early years as a hostage in the Ottoman court and was released on his father's death. Alliances during this period were flexible and local lords focused on protecting their own interests. As Waterson puts it, 'Higher politics and ideologies were largely forgotten'. Vlad's first reign maintained good relations with the Ottomans, who had lent him an army. The second battle of Kosovo strengthened Ottoman rule, but Hunyadi still had the resources to support Vladislav II's power grab when Vlad refused to meet him. 

It was back to Edirne for Vlad, but he quickly found his way back to the region via Moldavia. The death of Hunyadi and his son Matthias coming to the Hungarian throne gave Vlad another opportunity. However, he didn't always pick the winning side in internal strife. Even family ties were not sacrosanct, with Vlad fighting against his half-brother, the wonderfully named Vlad the Monk.

His second reign came in 1456 with Hungarian backing. He violently put down Saxon revolts in Transylvania and then fought his most famous war against the Ottomans. Afterwards, the Boyars abandoned him, and the Hungarians betrayed him despite taking papal cash for the war. This allowed his brother Radu to grab the throne. The 15th-century Balkans was a rollercoaster ride! He was back with another army but probably died in a skirmish in 1477.

Waterson is not a big fan of Vlad's. He doesn't buy the nationalist revisionism, which was popular in the 19th century and even under communism. He favourably quotes the poet Ion Bogdan's view that 'he was a man with a diseased mind who killed and tortured for sadistic pleasure.' Even the softer defence that he was a man of his time is dismissed. The book ends with the usual look at how he is remembered, Bram Stoker and all.

Given that ruling anywhere in the 15th-century Balkans was a tough gig, I have always taken a somewhat more sympathetic view. However, you have to accept that even by the standards of the period, Vlad was more ruthless than most. It is a great period for wargamers, and there was an excellent WAB supplement on these wars written by John Bianchi in 2006. I helped a bit with this, and we provided some figures for the eye candy. The 2004 GDWS display game The Real Dracula was based on Vlad's most famous battle, the Night Attack.

This probably won't be my go-to book on Vlad the Impaler. There are more focused studies. However, it is a decent overview of the Balkans in the 15th century.

Every Vlad army has to have a camp impalement! 15mm from Essex, if I remember correctly.


  1. I also have a DBA army for Vlad (I bought mine painted via eBay a good few years ago). My army is the old Donnington Miniatures - now from Ancient & Modern.
    I suspect your impaled guy may be from Donnington. I also vaguely recall someone else did a Vlad range too. MY Miniatures? I can’t see ‘em listed on their website though.

    1. I think you are right, Donnington rings a bell. Sadly, my 15mm medieval armies haven't seen the tabletop for a while.