By Periklis Deligiannis
Semi-cuirasses and helmets of Polish hussars of the mid-17th century (National Museum, Krakow). The armor in the background is accompanied by the renowned wing-construction.
In 1386 the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were united on the basis of a personal union under the Lithuanian Jagiellonian monarchs. Ladislaus (Russ. Vladislav) II Jagiello, the duke of Lithuania, married Hedwige, the queen of Poland. The royal couple joined their dominions forming a new strong Roman Catholic kingdom centered on Krakow, which included large Eastern European areas. The new state included Lithuania, modern Belarus, most of modern Poland and Ukraine and parts of modern Russia. The Jagiellonian borders were quite close to the Russian metropolises Moscow, Novgorod and Tver. In 1410 the Polish-Lithuanian forces crushed the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg), ensuring a territorial outlet to the Baltic sea for the binary kingdom. Simultaneously the Lithuanians regained Samogitia from the Teutonic Order. Soon afterwards, the princes of Moldavia and Wallachia became vassals of Ladislaus, thereby the Polish-Lithuanian power reached the Black Sea. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was ruled by a Sejm (parliament) of aristocrats and an elected monarch, who was elected by the Polish nobles among the Lithuanian dukes. In 1413 the Polish and Lithuanian nobles confirmed the Polish-Lithuanian union with a treaty.
The Catholic Commonwealth faced the threat of the Muslim Ottomans on its southern borders and of the Orthodox Russians in the East. Moreover, the majority of its people were of Russian origin (who later mostly evolved to the nations of the Ukrainians and Belarusians). At the same time, Poland-Lithuania followed an expansionist policy against the Germans with whom was bordering in the North and West. Ladislaus III, who was also king of Hungary, tried to stem the Turkish advance at Varna (Bulgaria) but he was defeated (November 1444) and the Commonwealth lost permanently the two Danubian principalities. In contrast, the Poles-Lithuanians achieved major victories over the Germans. In 1454 the former conquered some territories from the Teutonic Knights, thus starting the “Thirteen years’ war.” The war ended in 1466 with the Commonwealth being the winner which imposed its overlordship on the Teutonic Knights and won the districts of Pomerellen and Ermland, and the strategic port of Gdansk (Danzig). The Poles-Lithuanians managed to stop the German counter-attack and the Ottoman attack, but failed to achieve the same against the Russians. Since the mid-15th century, the aggressive Grand Duchy of Muscovy pressed hard Lithuania, managing to capture large areas with Russian population, including the major cities of Smolensk and Chernigov. In 1514 the Poles-Lithuanians overwhelmingly defeated the Muscovite army at the battle of Orsza (1514) and later regained Smolensk, Chernigov and other areas.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest states in the world with a population of approximately 10 million.
In 1569 the two members of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were joined constitutionally as well, enhancing the coherence of the state. In 1592 the binary Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania – actually a “monarchic republic” and essentially an oligarchy of the nobles of the two countries – had reached the climax of its power, dominating vast areas extending from the Baltic coast to the Russian metropolises of Smolensk and Chernigov, and the Crimean Khanate. The kingdom prospered possessing a vibrant economy and a small but powerful army which was based on the excellent cavalry of the hussars and the Cossacks.
The Cossacks, the free riders of the steppe, of Slavic and Tatar origin, are well known. But it was the Hussars who became the ‘spearhead’ of the Polish-Lithuanian army, constituting a body of heavy cavalry featuring high training, flexibility and fighting spirit.
The first corps of Commonwealth Hussars was founded around 1500, manned by Serb, Hungarian and Croatian mercenary horsemen, who were called usaria (possibly a Serbian or Latin term). These horsemen did not bear armor, carrying only lance, shield and sword. Due to their galloping speed they were used against the Tatars in southern Ukraine and Crimea who were ravaging the southern provinces of Poland-Lithuania. In 1506, the early hussars crashed the Tatars in a bloody battle. The Poles, who already had an excellent cavalry, were impressed by the hussar way of war. They compared it to the crude warfare of the Late medieval Western European knights which followed until then, and found out that the martial art of the hussars was appropriate for the Polish cavalry. For this reason, many Polish and Lithuanian nobles were reequipped as hussars. The Polish-Lithuanian army who crushed the Russians in 1514 included a significant proportion of hussars. In the years to come, the number of the latter increased rapidly. During the first half of the 16th century, the number of the Polish-Lithuanian knights was falling continuously in favor of the hussars, leading the latter to become the main weapon of the Commonwealth army.
Modern reenactment of a charge by Polish-Lithuanian ‘winged’ hussars. Note the construction of the wings on their back.
The hussars gradually began to wear armor, evolving to a fast semi-armored cavalry, which did not bear the heavy and unnecessary armor of the knights (that would greatly reduce the speed of their galloping). In addition to the shield, now they had helmet and mail armor and some were protected additionally with chest-plates. By 1600 the whole armor consisted of light metal plates (of the chest, back, limbs etc.). The construction of wings on their back was the most characteristic element of their military costume, although not always brought to the battle. The wing-construction was brought in battle for the sake of psychological warfare: the ripple and the noise of the long feathers made the hussar cavalry charge more frightening. The cloak of the hussars (apart from their trousers and the boots) came from evolution of the corresponding cloak of the Hungarian, Serbian and Croatian nobility. They were also wearing, especially as an official uniform and sometimes in battle, skins of wild animals hanging around their shoulders. The tiger and leopard skins were mostly preferred; however because of the difficulty of their supply from the tropical countries, because of the Ottoman territories in the South, many hussars were wearing furs of wolf, bear or lynx.
The great Polish king Stephan Bathory (1576-1586) had systematically worked to improve the effectiveness of the hussars, perfecting their training and setting regulations on the limits of their effective protection with armor, in order for them not to lose speed during their operations and charge. Bathory also increased the salaries of the hussars at a higher level than those of the Cossacks (who were by then the better paid cavalry of the army) and introduced additional fees (bonus) for those who served in the Commonwealth army for longer than anticipated. Already since the First Livonian War (1557-1570) the hussars were twice as many as the knights. By the end of the 16th century, the latter had disappeared. In terms of ethnic origin, most hussars were Poles, followed in number by the Lithuanians and less by men of other nationalities, mostly Proto-Ukrainians, Proto-Belarusians and Hungarians. During peacetime, the small standing army of Poland-Lithuania consisted mainly of hussars.
The tactics of the hussars were of high level, making the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry the best European cavalry starting in the early 16th century until about 1626, according to the view of many scholars. The speed and power of the Polish hussars’ charge and their ability to execute difficult maneuvers, allowed them to crush many Tatar, Ottoman, Russian, German and Swedish armies during the 120 years of their flourishing. Normally the hussars lined up on three or four lines of battle depending on their number or the geophysical characteristics of the battlefield. The last line was usually used to prevent envelopment maneuvers by the enemy. After the mid-17th century, the hussars were lined up in two lines. During their onslaught on the enemy, as they were approaching to collide with him, they were thickening their ranks as much as possible into “knee by knee” formations, and increased their speed of galloping in order to achieve the maximum blow on the opponent. Their light armor, compared to the armor of the earlier Western-type knights, was providing them the advantages of high-speed gallop, rapid change of direction, executing difficult maneuvers, and also rapid acceleration of galloping over a short time because their horses were not strained by the weight of the metal. Moreover, the older Western knights were more interested in their protection with heavy armor, than in the speed of their charge.
When the hussars were campaigning or taking battle order, they were moving freely (not in formations). Their decay begins in 1626 because of their defeat by the Swede gunners of Gustav Adolph. The great Swedish king could not find any other answer to the hussar charges except the use of powerful firearms against them. On the other hand, Gustav Adolph was ordering his heavy cavalrymen to imitate the onslaught of the Polish-Lithuanian hussars.
(1) THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF POLAND TO 1696, Cambridge University Press 1950.
(2) Fedorowicz J.K. (editor): A REPUBLIC OF NOBLES: STUDIES IN POLISH HISTORY TO 1864, University of Western Ontario, Cambridge University Press 1982.
(3) Brzezinski Rich. & McBride Angus: POLISH ARMIES 1569-1696 (1) and (2), Oxford 2000.