Polish Husaria Knights: The Cavalry of the Winged Hussars
You probably heard of the Roman Legion, one of the most forceful armies that ever existed. But did you know that there was a formation that could compete with their image? They were called Winged Hussars, and belonged to the cavalry of knights of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which operated from the 16th to the 18th century. Winged Hussars were a type of a military formation whose reputation, in their days of glory, preceded them and brought fear to their enemy, especially since they were known to lose hardly any battles. Although they were underestimated at first, they proved they could take on any opponent, even when greatly outnumbered.
1500 is marked as the beginning of the existence of Husaria, because that’s when the earliest documented mentions date to, but its origins are speculated to come from a group of Serbian warriors, coming to Polish territories after the Kosovo Battle in the 14th Century. Those Serbian warriors wanted to keep fighting Ottoman forces and so they joined in the Polish army. At the time, Poland was fighting off Tatars, and in later days will come in conflict with the Ottoman Empire, during the wars which navigated the division of part of the territory in the European continent. The name Hussars is based on the first similarity to the Hungarian Hussars, an army of light cavalry brigades formed by the Hungarian King Mathias Corvinus; as such additions were thought to be expendable. If you research the history of other European armies you will most likely come across different mentions of Hussars, like the ones in Russia during the 17th Century, or Romania in the 19th Century, or even fighting against the Soviet Union in the Hungarian army. Polish Hussars, in their time, proved to be anything but expendable, as they brought respect wherever they appeared with their overall image and battle tactics.
The history tells us that in 1503, Polish parliament formed the first official units of Hussars. It the beginning, their role was not as important, but in the middle of the 16th Century, they replaced paid forces of armoured lancers riding armoured horses in the Polish Obrona Potoczna cavalry on the southern frontier. Soon, they became the elite branch of cavalry and stayed so up until 1776, when their tradition got passed by a parliamentary decree on to the Uhlans, another type of Polish light cavalry, which was a consequence of the invasion of Poland called the first partition, and soon before the Commonwealth ceased to exist.
The fact that Hussars came to be recruited from the members of the Polish nobility proves just how elite they were. Once a recruiter became a Hussar, he could go on and raise his own lance (warrior) and become a Companion, but he was the once to provide the horse for him – the armour came at the Polish King’s expense. A few lances together then formed a kopia. A few kopia together then formed a new Hussar company or a banner, and it went on and on – usually a banner consisted of 30 to 60 kopia. Each banner also had one kopia with musicians and trumpeters.
As for their equipment, Polish lancers were heavily armoured, but it is said that their armour was quite light, which helped them be even faster on their horses. They were carrying a stabbing sword, a sabre, a set of pistols, a carbine and even a war hammer or a light axe. They used a lighter saddle similar to the ones the Ottomans used, which allowed them to carry more things with them. Hussar horses were also greatly trained to be able to run fast under a heavy load, and even be able to manoeuvre. They were so appreciated that there even was a death penalty for selling a Husaria horse to someone who did not belong to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
During the time of their rise, Hussars got rebranded as they began carrying a long lance as their main weapon. Heavy Hussar units became known as Husaria. The name Winged Hussars comes from their uniform, as they began carrying wings – a wooden frame carrying large feathers, coming from swans or eagles. The legend says they became wearing them because they made a loud noise that made it look like there were more of them than they actually were, or to shield the man behind them from enemy arrows. Their image became so recognisable it began appearing on their shields. Hussar battle tactic, called the charge, starting from a loose formation running towards the enemy with all their might, and densing up before the contact, became synonymous with their image.
Hussars took part in numerous battles over their two hundred years old tradition. Sources say that the Battle of Lubieszow, which took place in 1577, marks the beginning of the Golden age of Hussars. Hussars were sent to break down a two-year long rebellion of Gdansk citizens, refusing to accept the election of Stefan Batory as the King of the Commonwealth. The Gdansk army was far greater in numbers, but Hussar cavalry units, under the command of Jan Zaborowski, proved to be mightier in their skill, and they defeated the enemy.
In the Battle of Byczyna of the Polish Succession war, Hussars and their opponents were roughly equal in forces. In 1601, Hussars fought in the Battle of Kokenhausen against the Swedish army. Hussars lost 200 of their men, while the Swedes counted 2000 dead. In 1605, Hussars met with Swedes again in the Battle of Kircholm. The husaria cavalry had 3500 men against the 12000 of the Swedish army. This didn’t prevent them from winning again, after a combat session which is said to have lasted for only twenty minutes.
What followed was a decisive Battle of Kluszyn in 1610 in the Polish-Muscovite War, where Hussars helped the Commonwealth win over Russians in a battle where they were outnumbered 5 to 1, and secured their status as an elite force.
The Battle of Chocim in 1621 was fought with 45000 Hussars against 150000 men of Ottoman Imperial army. The Battle of Martynow in 1624 was fought with 5000 men on the Commonwealth side against Tatar forces of a little less than 15000 men, and was remembered as the biggest Polish victory over Tatars in the 17th Century.
The Battle of Beresteczko in 1651 was fought between Ukranian Cossacks of 200000 men and Polish Hussars that counted about 80000, marking a Cossacks rebellion after a two-year long period of truce and being one of the largest European battles of the 17th Century.
The Battle of Lwow in 1675, fought against the Ottoman Empire, was won by Hussars which counted 6000 men against 20000 of the enemies.
The Battle of Vienna in 1683 was probably one of the most known battles of the time, in the war against the Turks that lasted till 1699 and pushed the territories of their empire back. The battle was fought with joined forces of the Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire, against the Ottoman Empire. The battle is known for having one of the biggest known cavalry charges in history, with 90000 men on one side, and 140000 on the side of Ottoman Empire.
The Battle of Parkany in 1683, was fought against the Ottoman Empire, in two stages, under the command of the famous Jan III Sobieski. Although in the first stage the Polish troops got defeated, the second stage, supported by Austrian forces, secured a win.
Although Polish Hussars ceased to exist, an interesting event took place the evening of September 1, in 1939, when German went on to attack Poland and thus started World War II. It is said that, in the village of Krojanty in the Pomeranian region, Polish cavalry charged German tanks. Germans fired machine guns at the soldiers and made the Poles retreat. This attack successfully delayed the Germans long enough for the Polish troops to withdraw to safely. Reporters that came to the site soon after and saw dead bodies of horses and cavalry, said that Polish attacked the Nazi with lances and arrows, which led to a German Nazi propaganda against Polish forces, supported by reports of general Heinz Guderian, claiming that they were primitive in their battle tactics, attacking tanks with a cavalry charge, and thus creating a myth not based on real facts.
All of this proves that the image of Polish Hussars holds an unforgettable mark on the history of Europe.