The Armies Holy Roman Empire and Poland were anachronisms late 17th century


Imperial defenders Vienna, 1683


In southern Slavic languages, husar was a mounted knight. Polish hussaria (‘winged horsemen’) dominated Central and Eastern Europe battlefields throughout the century and were central to the relief of Vienna, 1683.

Until the mid-17th century, while the core of all Polish armies continued to be noble heavy cavalry and units of hussars. From the early 16th century, a force of 3,000 Polish cavalry and a few infantry served the “General Defense” (“Obrona Potoczna”) against Tatar raids into the south. This was not a true standing army, as its soldiers were part-timers who owed labor service to local lords or the king. From 1566-1652, it was known as the “Quarter Army” (“wojsko kwarciane”). Until 1648, Polish medium cavalry, regardless of origin or ethnicity, were known as “Cossack cavalry” (“jazda kozacka”). These units painted their horses with red dye, dressed in wildly irregular ways, and used many types of weapons. They liked sabers in preference to lances, but they also used bows and short spears. After 1648, they were known as “jazda pancerna,” or “Pancerna cavalry.” Polish hussars were modeled on Hungarian hussars, except that most Polish cavalrymen hailed from the szlachta, or higher nobility, and their retainers. Polish hussars comprised one “comrade” (“towarzysz”) and four retainers (“pacholeks”). This was reduced to two pacholeks in the late 17th century. Over time, Poland’s hussars grew heavier in horses and weapons and evolved into medium cavalry.

The predominance of cavalry in eastern European warfare spoke to greater requirements for mobility on the steppes and northeastern plains, especially compared to the confined and fortified frontier zones of France, the Rhineland, Italy, Hungary, or the Netherlands. Tension between cavalry and infantry was high in Polish armies. This reflected a unique strategic dilemma faced by the Commonwealth: the light cavalry it needed to deal with the Tatars in the south were mostly useless against Swedish or Russian infantry, artillery, and field fortifications in the north. Conversely, Polish infantry and artillery needed to fight Swedes and Russians were highly vulnerable when facing fast-moving Tatars and Cossacks.

Between 1500 and 1512 the empire was divided into ten military districts or circles, kreise – the Franconian, Swabian, Bavarian, Upper Rhenish, Electoral Rhenish, Westphalian, Lower Saxon, Upper Saxon, Austrian and Burgundian. When the emperor required a German army he summoned the Army of the Circles, which, according to an edict of the Diet of Worms in 1521, was fixed at a minimum of 4,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry, each circle making pro rata contributions in troops, money and equipment. This basic establishment of 24,000, known as the simplum, was revised upwards to 12,000 horse and 28,000 foot in 1681; when more troops were required, the simplum was doubled (duplum) or, more rarely, tripled (triplum). The duplum was invoked in 1683 when the Turks besieged Vienna and again in the winter of 1688-9 during the Devastation of the Palatinate. Some small states commuted their obligations into a money payment that was used to raise additional men from the larger polities. Being impermanent, the Army of the Circles was normally ill-trained, badly disciplined and indifferently commanded. Larger states donated their worst regular units because they were usually under some political obligation or mercenary treaty opposed to Imperial interests.

Poland’s vast territories stretched from the Baltic in the north to the borders of Hungary in the south and from Muscovy in the east to Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia in the west. Paradoxically, Polish society was substantially militarized, yet the state was unable to defend itself adequately against a ring of predatory neighbours. The principal difficulty was the size and political independence of the Polish nobility: by 1773, 12 per cent of Poles claimed noble status, and in the provinces of Podlasia and Mazovia there were more aristocrats than peasants. Not that there was much to distinguish one from the other: most nobles were as poor as peasants and sought protection by joining the private armies of the few rich magnates. The king could not compete, hence in Poland the ‘monopoly of violence’ remained with the nobility and did not migrate to the sovereign. Although royal rents financed a standing force, founded in 1564, the Sejm (the noble diet), fearful that – the elected monarch would institute military rule, ensured that he was starved of additional funds. Thus this ‘Crown Army’, rarely larger than 30,000 men and formally established at 24,000 in 1717, was confined to frontier defence and never grew sufficiently to enhance royal authority When John III Sobieski (1674-96) raised an army to help raise the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, his 25,000 troops were accumulated very slowly from amongst the feudal noble cavalry, foreign mercenaries, and the infantry of the Crown Armt. A feature of Polish armies was their preponderance of cavalry, recruited from the ubiquitous nobility, instead of cheaper and more flexible infantry. By the early eighteenth century the ratio was as high as four horsemen to each foot soldier, when most European armies enjoyed an inverse proportion.






Homer’s great epic – Siege of Troy







The chief source on the siege of Troy is Homer’s great epic, the Iliad. Its 24 chapters treat the last year of the siege; however, it was composed two or three centuries after the siege. Modern archaeological excavations have revealed a series of strata that identify a number of different cities built on the site. The one associated with the siege is the seventh stratum (from the bottom). It bears traces of a fire, and according to Homer, a great fire ended the siege. Scientific experts agree that the fire in the seventh stratum occurred in 1184 BCE. Homer tells us that the siege of Troy by the Mycenaeans (the mainland Greeks) went on for 10 years, hence the starting date of 1194 BCE.

The siege was undoubtedly motivated by economics. Located at the southern entrance to the Hellespont (present-day Dardanelles), Troy controlled the important trade between East and West, that is, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Along this route flowed such commodities as grain, precious metals, and timber to construct ships. Troy was allied with a number of other neighboring city-states, and the Mycenaeans saw this as a threat to their position in the Mediterranean. Homer tells us that the cause of the conflict was the rape of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, by Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. Helen fled to Troy with Paris, possibly taking part of Menelaus’s treasure. Another account has the Trojans turning an official visit to Sparta into a raid of revenge for something done to them by the Greeks.

In any case, according to Homer the city-states of Greece were outraged and provided both contingents of troops and 1,200 ships, which then came under the command of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the brother of Menelaus. Homer tells us that on the Greek side the greatest heroes of the fighting were Achilles, king of the Myrmidons of Thessaly, and Ulysses, king of Ithaca. On the Trojan side there were Hector, son of Priam, and Aeneas, son of Venus and Anchises.

Following an unsuccessful effort to take Troy by assault, the Greeks settled in for a siege, which apparently was not complete. The Trojans were able to communicate by land to the interior most of the time. Homer indicates that the ships were brought up on land, where they were protected by entrenchments. Quarreling between Agamemnon and Achilles served to divide the Greeks, allowing Hector and the Trojans to attack and destroy a number of the beached Greek ships. Following the deaths of a number of prominent figures on each side (including Hector and Achilles), the Greeks found themselves in desperate straits. Both sides, however, were exhausted by the long siege.

At this point Ulysses came up with the ruse of an enormous wooden horse. Left on the field, it contained Ulysses and a number of other Greek warriors. The remaining Greeks boarded their ships and sailed away. The Trojans, believing that the Greeks had given up, thought that the trophy had religious significance and brought it inside the city. At night Ulysses and his warriors climbed down out of the horse, signaled to the fleet offshore, and opened the city gates. The Trojans were taken by surprise, and the city was burned.

Some have suggested that the alleged Trojan horse that ended the siege was instead a great movable siege tower of wood covered by horse hides for the protection of those working it, which the Greeks set against the western, and weakest, part of the great wall that protected the fortress. Others believe that the wooden horse refers to some type of battering ram or to the image of a horse painted on one of the gates of the city, which was opened by a Trojan traitor. In any case, as a consequence of their victory, the Greeks secured control of the important trade through the Dardanelles and the Black Sea.