"We saw it…. the hussars let loose their horses. God, what power! They ran through the smoke and the sound was like that of a thousand blacksmiths beating with a thousand hammers. We saw it…. Jesus Maria! The elite's lances bent forward like stalks of rye, driven by a great storm, bent on glory! The fire of the guns before them glitters! They rush on to the Swedes! They crash into the Swedish riters…. Overwhelm them! They crash into the second regiment - Overwhelmed! Resistance collapses, dissolves, they move forward as easily as if they were parading on a grand boulevard. They sliced without effort through the whole army already! Next target: the regiment of horse guards, where stands the Swede King Carol.
And the guard already wavers!
--Description from Potop "Deluge" Henry Sienkievich.
Polish armies had to operate in all types of terrain and climates (baking plains in the south to freezing bogs and forests in the north, wilderness or city). The enemy varied from slow-moving pikemen and musketeers to nimble, swift-attacking horsemen and invariably the fighting was far from home and lacking in ancillary services. Polish military thinking was therefore based on the ideas of mobility, adaptability and self-sufficiency.
The old Hussite idea of forming a gigantic square, a mobile fortress quickly formed if caught out in the open, became standard practice in all operations against Tartars and Turks. The Poles also devised the idea of operating in divisions since this gave them all-important mobility and ability to live off the land (this was at a time when most European armies marched in a great mass). Another tradition was that of the deep cavalry raid sweeping ahead of the main army, sometimes covering a thousand miles in a great arc behind enemy lines. The crux of any battle was the cavalry charge, not a massed attack by heavy armor, but light cavalry supported by artillery, probing for weak points to be exploited by the heavy cavalry deployed in a checkerboard pattern so that the bringing down of one rank or section did not affect the others.
The cavalry was the backbone of the Commonwealth's military power, outnumbering the infantry by three to one. They crossed Turkish and European breeds to produce horses with speed and endurance, and rode on eastern saddles in order to place less strain on the horse. Because of these factors they could cover tremendous distances (up to 120 kilometers a day) without killing their mounts. Their curved sabers were the finest cutting weapon ever in use in a European army and accounted for their endurance in battle.The pride and glory of the Polish Cavalry was the Husaria, the winged cavalry (or "winged horsemen"). These well trained and elite units served in the armies of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth from around the early 16th century to the early 18th century. The Husaria originated from the light cavalry. Operating in regiments of about 300, the front rank carried an astonishing lance of up to twenty feet in length (thus outreaching infantry pikes and allowing the Husaria to cut straight through an enemy). They also carried a saber or rapier with a six foot blade (another weapon which was unique to the Polish), as well as a pair of pistols, a short carbine, a bow and arrows and a variety of other weapons, the most lethal of which was the "czekan", a long steel hammer which could go through heads and helmets like butter.
The ultimate weapon of the Husaria was psychological. As well as wearing helmets, thick steel breastplates and shoulder and arm guards the Husaria also wore wings; great wooden arcs bristling with eagle feathers attached to the back of the saddle or the shoulders. Over their shoulders they wore the skin of a tiger or leopard as a cloak. Their harnesses, saddles and horse-cloths were embroidered and embellished with gold and gems and their long lances were painted with stripes like a stick of rock and decorated with a five-foot-long silk pennant which, along with the wings and jingling jewelry, made a frightful sound (described as "an evil hiss" by some) and sight during the charge. They even sometimes painted their horses red and white!
This light cavalry gained it's fame after a victorious battle at Orsza on September 8,1514, where 30,000 polish and Lithuanian troops, including the light cavalry, commanded by the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Konstanty Ostrogski defeated 80,000 Muscovite troops, and it even managed to take prisoner the commander, Y.P. Cheladin. But it was not until the year 1576 that the Polish king, Stefan Batory, decided to call into being the Husaria regiments, as independent cavalry units. And so it was announced on June 23, 1576 that the king acting on the advice of the Grand Council, established a new formation of the present army for the protection of the person and dignity of the king, which would be quick and mobile enough to take part in war expeditions or urgent cases of threat upon the state. According to the same document that established the Husaria, the Husaria was to have been a select cavalry unit made up of volunteers from all the provinces of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth. And so with this, the new Husaria unit was to begin it's service in the great army.
The new Husaria units were organized into regiments which were to be commanded by a captain who was not only responsible for the training of the troops, but also for the provision of great sturdy horses and Hungarian-style weaponry and equipment. The regiments were made up of companions (towarzysze), each of whom brought with him his own retainers (pocztowi), wagon trains and camp followers. The Husaria was large, and also quite expensive to keep, since so much was required to properly equip each unit. The first regiments of the Husaria were formed in 1576 by, among others, Andrzej Firlej, Marcin Kazanowski, Mikolaj Zebrzydowski, Jan Gniewosz, and Jan Lesniowski. Each regiment consisted of a hundred horses, plus the men they brought with them. The formation of the unit at any given time was done using drafting letters, which were sent to all the captains from the Royal Chancellory. Each captain had about two months from the date of the letter to rally the troops, and two weeks to move them to the camp.
To encourage enlistment, and to make the service in the Husaria attractive, the troops were offered a 1/3 higher pay than any other unit within the army, along with great privileges and great opportunities, such as the promise of offices, dignities in land, given after six years of service, and much more. Under the second elected Polish king, King Stefan Batory, the Husaria made up about 85 percent of the Polish and Lithuanian cavalry forces, and was an exclusively national army of volunteers, unlike the other divisions for the armed forces, where even foreign mercenaries served. The Husaria was also regarded as the most elaborate and most decorative unit of the army. This was so because of the great armor and other clothing that the Husaria wore. The armor had great wings attached to it, and animal skins were usually thrown and worn over the shoulder. The weapons were decorative, and the saddle as well as the trappings were all made of highly priced materials and decorated with precious stones and other signs of wealth. During the period in which the Husaria reigned, the baroque period, the ideal of male beauty was a winged horsemen clad in armor, with and animal skin thrown over his shoulders. Nothing compared to the sight of a Husaria regiment battle array, and service was regarded as the highest distinction and honor. Many of the sons of the highest born nobility were enlisted within the Husaria. Only those who demonstrated great fighting skill and great equestrian skill were accepted into service.
For over a century, the Husaria were the lords of the battlefield, delivering the decisive blow in many an important engagement. At Kircholm (1605) 4,000 Poles accounted for 14,000 Swedes. At Klushino (1610) 6,000 Poles (of only 200 were infantry) defeated 30,000 Muscovite and 5,000 German and Scottish mercenaries. At Gniew (1656) 5,500 Polish cavalry defeated 13,000 Swedes, and outside Vienna (1683) the Husaria saved Europe from the (until then) unstoppable might of the Ottoman Empire.
After Vienna every lancer must be a Pole or dress like one, and since there were not enough Poles to go around, armies were compelled to raise their own lancers dressed and equipped on the Polish model. Napoleon had his Polish lancers who rendered him good service, especially at Somo Sierra in Spain (when a squadron of 125 men cleared 9,000 entrenched infantry and four batteries in the space of seven minutes) and once again the Poles were able to inspire the rest of Europe. There have been few more gorgeously dressed soldiers in all the history of armies than the lancers of the nineteenth century. The lance cap was modeled on the Polish style and even called the "chapka" (hat). The short, double-breasted jacket of scarlet or blue was similarly known as a "ulanka" and German and Austrian lancers were called "uhlans". To the glittering uniforms, waving plumes, and splendidly caparisoned saddle-cloths there was also added the color and flutter of the waving lance pennant.
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.
Zischagge - The zischagge or helmet was the head piece worn by the Hussars. It featured a semi-circular shape with a nose guard, two side protectors, and a long neck guard attached to the back. Sometimes the zischagge included a small tip or type of metal mohawk on the top, or perhaps a small piece to which feathers were attached. This made the helmet an excellent guard for the Hussar's head against any dangers that might have occurred in battle. As mentioned before, the look of the zischagge depend on the Hussar. If he was rich and/or preferred more elaborate decorations he would have the helmet feature elaborate designs and decorations.
This armor, circa 1630a.d., belonged to Stanislaw Skorkowski, who was the secretary of King Ladislaus IV. This fine piece of armor shows great detail of the various parts of the armor of a Hussar. The semi circular zischagge with a broad nosepiece, a thick metal breastplate with five lames, backstraps, and pauldrons with eight lames.
The history of the polish saber is very long and has its beginnings in the early 16th Century. The polish saber is essentially the combination of two different sabers. An eastern type saber was combined with a Hungarian saber to form one of the best, if not the best, white weapons in the world.
World War II
On September 1st., 1939, 1.8 million German troops invaded Poland on three fronts; East Prussia in the north, Germany in the west and Slovakia in the south. They had 2600 tanks against the Polish 180, and over 2000 aircraft against the Polish 420. Their "Blitzkrieg" tactics, coupled with their bombing of defenseless towns and refugees, had never been seen before and, at first, caught the Poles off-guard.
There are many "myths" that surround the September Campaign; the fictional Polish cavalry charges against German tanks (actually reported by the Italian press and used as propaganda by the Germans), the alleged destruction of the Polish Air Force on the ground, or claims that Polish armor failed to achieve any success against the invaders. In reality, and despite the fact that Poland was only just beginning to modernize her armed forces and had been forced (by Britain and France) to delay mobilization (which they claimed might be interpreted as aggressive behavior) so that, at the time of invasion, only about one-third of her total potential manpower was mobilized, Polish forces ensured that the September campaign was no "walk-over".
Winged Hussar memorial at Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Doylestown, PA
More great Polish Cavalry websites:
Members of the Czarniecki Division, a 17th century reenactment group based in New England portraying Polish winged hussars and other types of Polish cavalry of the 17th century.
"THE LAND OF THE WINGED HORSEMEN"/"SULIGOWSKI'S REGIMENT", 1st U.S ( First ) Polish Winged Hussar
(officially recognized). The creators of the current American Husaria 'movement' & first re-enactors representation of this portrayal, in U.S. History, and are attempting to 'redress the imbalance in the lack of historical representation of Renaissance/Baroque-Era Poland, specifically the Polish Winged Hussars'.