By Slawek K. Grzechnik,
Name and Origins
There is no English equivalent for “hussaria”, Polish armored cavalry of the 16th and 17th centuries. This name should not be confused with that of the huzars, the light cavalry used in the 18th and 19th centuries by European armies. The name “husar” in the 14th century denoted a mounted knight in southern Slavic languages. As the Turkish empire expanded deeper into Southern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, many refugees found themselves in Hungary, where they were welcomed because of their experience in fighting against Turks. Troops of “husars” were then formed in Hungary. Thanks to their contact with the advanced military arts of the East, the “husar” troops fought as units capable of maneuvering on the battlefield. The technique was quite new in Europe at the time: a typical knights’ battle was a series of duels which commanders had very little influenced over once started.
Poland had very close ties with Hungary, and by the end of the 15th century the first hussar troops were created to serve as light cavalry. In a few generations they evolved into armored assault cavalry, which was unique in all of Europe, the pride of the Polish army until the end of the 17th century. The Polish warfare evolved differently than that of western Europeans, whose infantry was becoming much more important than cavalry. Several factors caused this unique evolution:
* Territory and distance.
Until the 17th century, the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was still expanding, reaching nearly 1million km2 (about 390,000 square miles). Distances were large compared to other parts of Europe and armies were required to move quickly, so cavalry became predominant.
* Diversity of enemies
Because of the location of the Commonwealth formed by the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it was the bridge between East and West. At the time of interest it had borders with:
– Russia in the Northeast. Russia was not yet a super power, but its strength was growing and clashes were escalating.
– Tartars in the Southeast, the remnants of Genghis Khan’s successors onslaught on Europe during the 13th century. They were a troublesome enemy who made yearly raids on the southern part of the state.
– Turkey in the South. Moslem Turkey was a super power of the time. In the 17th century, Turkey’s European holdings included Greece, all of the Balkans, today’s Romania, and Hungary, and it was close to conquering the Austrian Empire and other parts of Europe.
– Austrian Empire and German States in the West
– Sweden in the North. Sweden was then a very aggressive state, already occupying today’s Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Northern Germany, with aspirations of becoming the dominant Baltic power.
Each of the neighbors applied different military techniques, so Poland and Lithuania had to invent their own tactics to face each one.
* Great commanders
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Poland and Lithuania produced a succession of great commanders-in-chief which was without precedence in its history, and has not been eclipsed since. A chronological list of the names includes: Konstanty Ostrogski, Jan Tarnowski, Stefan Batory (King), Jan Zamoyski, Mikolaj Radziwil, Krzysztof Radziwil, Karol Chodkiewicz, Stanislaw Zolkiewski, Stanislaw Lubomirski, Stanislaw Koniecpolski, Jeremi Wisniowiecki, Stefan Czarniecki, and Jan Sobieski (King).
* Polish ideals of manhood during the Renaissance and early Baroque
Young men of nobility, besides acquiring an education, were expected to spend at least a few years in military service and later join the army when the need arose. From childhood, they were raised to be excellent horsemen and men-at-arms. Thus they were first-class military material.
Due to these factors, cavalry usually constituted 80% of Polish forces during most campaigns. Hussaria was assault cavalry, whose main task was breaching enemy formations with charges at top speed. Its role was similar to that of armored divisions used to break lines during WWII.
Armor, Armament and Wings
Hussaria was the cream of the Polish army and mainly, though not exclusively, nobility served in its ranks and files. Once in service, soldiers were paid, but they were responsible for equipping themselves and their squires at considerable cost. To start with, each soldier and his squires had to have good horses. The armor was light for speed and protected the arms and upper parts of the body. The armament consisted of 15-foot-long lances (the only equipment provided by the King), sabers, estocs (piercing rapiers), and pistols. Long firearms were recommended, but not required until the late 17th century. Many soldiers had bows, which (especially Tartar or Turkish bows) still had better range and were easier to use than early firearms.
The famous wings were not obligatory; however, many soldiers of hussaria used them. The wings were light wooden frames with rows of feathers and were attached to the back of the armor, sometimes to the saddle. Their purpose was not just decorative. During high-speed charges, the wings produced a buzzing sound which frightened enemy horses and disturbed enemy troops who saw winged horsemen charging at them. Also, the Tartars’ lasso, or “arkan”, was difficult to use against soldiers with wings protruding above their heads. Wings, though not universally used, were the distinctive feature of hussaria and became its symbol. Today, hussaria wings are present in emblems of the Polish Air Force and Armored Divisions.
Hussaria was considered to be heavy assault cavalry only by the Polish and Lithuanian army. The West did not have this type of cavalry, and hussaria was considered light by western standards of speed and tactics. The main task of hussaria during battle was to breach enemy formations. Polish commanders of the 16th and 17th centuries realized that the effectiveness of firearms was still very limited, so a charge by good horsemen had to endure at most one salvo before reaching the enemy with lances and sabers. This was sound reasoning, and hussaria won most battles they fought, in many cases against foes of far greater numbers. Victory by outnumbered forces is nothing special in the history of warfare provided that the troops used are well trained and bolstered with high morale. This was the case of hussaria for the span of nearly two centuries.
In the initial phases of a charge, hussaria loosened and tightened their formation a few times in order to diminish the effect of enemy fire. The charge was started at low speed and riders accelerated during its progress, reaching top speed just before the enemy. This not only preserved the horses’ strength, but also had psychological effects on the enemy who saw the preliminaries to the charge. Extremely long but light lances were used to break opponents’ formations, and were supposed to break during the clash. After the lances were gone, sabers and estocs were used.
When the first charge was not successful, hussaria withdrew and charged again. There were battles in which the same troops charged 10 times and later helped pursue the enemy. This was possible only with highly trained units that could withdraw and regroup in an orderly manner.
Except in a few cases, casualties suffered by hussaria were very low, and this was the best proof of their worth, as well as proof of the talent of Polish commanders of the time.
The list of major battles won by Polish and Lithuanian armies using hussaria is given in the appendix. A short description of the famous battle of Vienna follows.
Battle of Vienna, Sep 12, 1683
This battle is classified by historians as one of the most decisive battles of the world. The Turkish Empire was then at the peak of its power and occupied most of southeastern Europe. A powerful Turkish army of 110,000 led by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa laid siege to Vienna in August 1683. The Turks’ seizure of the city would mean the fall of the Austrian Empire, leaving the middle of Europe open to Turkish invasion, and would probably have changed the course of history of Christendom and European civilization.
Part of the Austrian army defended the city. The rest, though bolstered by German troops, were unable to face the Turks on their own, so awaited the coming of the Polish army. Polish relations with Austria and Germans were not very friendly, but the King of Poland, Jan III Sobieski, understood very well that the fall of Vienna would be disastrous for his country and the rest of Europe. In the spring of 1683, a pact of mutual aid against Turkish attack was signed between the Polish King and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I of Austria.
The Polish army of 27,000 soldiers, half of which was cavalry including 3,300 hussars, was assembled in the second half of August, and because of the gravity of the situation the King marched south, not waiting for the Lithuanians. Near Vienna, Polish forces were joined by Austrian and German troops, and the allied army totaled about 75,000 soldiers. According to the pact, the Polish King became the commander-in-chief. His military genius and victories over past 20 years were all too well known. During the council of war on Sep 3, the King devised a battle plan for the allied forces.
On Sep 12, the army approached Vienna and took positions against the Turks besieging the city. A small hussaria unit was sent to charge enemy lines to examine the terrain and explore the possibility of an all-out assault. The result was positive, and in spite of the late afternoon start, the King decided to attack with all allied cavalry to prevent the Turks from preparing stronger defenses. Polish hussaria attacked in the center and on the right wing and took the Turkish camp, together with the palace-like tents of Kara Mustafa and an enormous booty. The Austrians and Germans charged on the left and also broke enemy lines. The Turkish army was completely defeated. The war lasted a few more months, but from that day on, the Turkish Empire was on retreat in southeast Europe.
Turkish standards and other trophies were sent to the Pope in Rome and victory was celebrated with solemn masses all over Europe.
Legend has it that the habit of drinking coffee was spread in Europe after the battle. This is only partially true and may be the case for only Vienna and its famous coffee. In Poland, coffee became popular 10 years earlier after the second battle of Khotin in 1673. In southern Europe, coffee was known prior to the battle.
In 1690 one of the constellations was named “Scutum Sobieskii” (Sobieski’s Shield) to commemorate the battle.
[May I add: Polish children are still brought up to revere ‘Winged Hussars’ and ‘Angels’ equally!]
Appendix: Battles won with Hussaria
Here is a list of major battles won by Polish and Lithuanian forces in the 16th and 17th centuries, some won solely by cavalry. Where the army was led by Lithuanian commanders, a note is made.
* 1514 – Orsza, against Russia. Pictures of this battle show hussaria already equipped with wings. Commander Konstanty Ostrogski of Lithuania
* 1531 – Obertyn, against Moldavia. Commander Jan Tarnowski
* 1579-1581 – three succesful wars against Russia with cavalry raids. Commanders King Stefan Batory, Jan Zamoyski, Mikolaj, and Krzysztof Radziwil of Lithuania. During Stefan Batory’s reign King’s Regulations were issued giving hussaria its final shape
* 1588 –Byczyna, against domestic rebels and Austrian troops. Commander Jan Zamoyski
* 1595 – Solonica, against Ukrainian rebels. Commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski
* 1605 – Kircholm, pure cavalry battle against Swedes. Commander Karol Chodkiewicz of Lithuania
* 1610 – Kluszyn, pure cavalry battle against Russians. Commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski. The battle in which some hussaria units attacked ten times
* 1621 – defense of trenches near Khotin against Turkish army. Together with other troops, hussaria were used in and outside the trenches. Commanders Karol Chodkiewicz of Lithuania and Stanislaw Lubomirski
* 1629 – Trzciana, pure cavalry battle against Swedes. Commander Stanislaw Koniecpolski
* 1637 – Kumejki, against Ukrainian rebels. Commander Mikolaj Potocki
* 1644 – Ochmatow against Tatars, Commanders Stanislaw Koniecpolski and Jeremi Wisniowiecki
* 1649 – defense of trenches of Zbarazh against Ukrainian rebels and Tatars. As in Khotin, hussaria were used with other troops in and outside the trenches. Commander Jeremi Wisniowiecki
* 1651 – Beresteczko against Ukrainian rebels and Tartars. Commanders King Jan Kazimierz and Jeremi Wisniowiecki
* 1656 – battle of Warsaw against Swedes. An incredible charge of hussaria led by Aleksander Polubinski of Lithuania saved the Polish-Lithuanian army despite their losing the battle
* 1660s – battles against Swedes and rebelling Ukrainians. Commander Stefan Czarniecki
* late 1660s – numerous battles against Tartars and Turks. Commander Jan Sobieski
* 1673 – Khotin again. This time besieging an entrenched Turkish army. Hussaria were used
* for the final assault once breaches in the trenches were done. Commander Jan Sobieski was crowned King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania next year.
* 1683 – relief of Vienna besieged by Turkish army. One of the battles that decided the fate of Europe. Commander Jan III Sobieski King of Poland
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