Introduction page Battles and campaigns 1450 to 1697 Army composition
main conflicts 1450-1697 Maps of Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth Army's development 1450-1697
 
 

Army Composition


Introduction

Hetman Commanders

Battle Tactics (17thC)

Army Sizes

'Cossack' Cavalry

Hussar Cavalry

 

The Hussars

A group of early hussar cavalry at the Battle of Orsza 1514These were the elite of the Polish army being a unique, highly trained, manoeuvrable, hard-hitting, heavy cavalry. The hussars used tactics of speed and manoeuvrability, especially in the charge which was carried out at a full gallop in tight, knee-to-knee formations.

The hussars predecessors appeared in Poland at around the turn of the 16th Century, they were Serbian and Hungarian mercenaries known as 'raclowice' or 'usaria' (usars). They wore no armour and were armed with lance, sabre and shield. Present at the battle of Kleck (1506) they showed their worth against the elusive tartars and because of their success, compared to the lumbering heavy knights, many Polish noblemen followed suite fighting like the usars. Their number slowly increased, at the battle of Orsza (1514) there were large numbers of lance armed light cavalry and 800 hussars formed a sizable part of the reserve.

Hussar cavalryman 1580During the first half of the 16th century they began to replace the knight as the main striking arm of the Polish field army and at the same time they began to wear armour. By the Livonian war (1557-70) there were twice as many hussars as knights. They were equiped with a mail coat, helmet, shield, lance and sabre, while a significant proportion wore breastplates.

However though they gained armour they did not become extra-heavy cavalry. It was King Stefan Batory who ensured they remained a fast heavy cavalry and did not get slowed down by excess weight. He also introduced a much higher level of training, as well as higher pay than the cossack cavalry and benefits for those serving for longer periods.

Hussar from circa 1600-25,  'paterns of costume' unknown artistIn Batory's time the hussars usually dressed in Hungarian style in Zupan (Joupane) coats (traditional nobleman's coats), long red trousers and short yellow boots. For decoration they wore wild animal skins, preferably tiger or leopard, but when these were in short supply wolf and lynx skins were worn or embroidered eastern style capes called 'kilimki'.

Hussar's arms, armour and equipment was highly specialised and well suited to their requirements. Arms and armour was provided by each hussar, except the lances which were provided by the king via the 'rotmistrz'. The men were individually well skilled in horsemanship and the use of their arms through a lifetime of practice and a major part of their training was to combine these individuals into a single unit. The large amount of training applied to the hussars made them expensive and slow to raise in times of war, so it meant that during peace time the small numbers of standing army forces were mainly hussars.

 

Armour
Husar armour 1630 Their armour
, after Batory's reorganisation, consisted of light zischage helmets, breast and back plates and arm protection, either mail sleeves or, later, pauldrons and forearm guards. The total weight of armour was light, being around 15kg, so allowing the horses to charge at full gallop speed. The armour was quite simple, covering only the most vulnerable parts of the body and not hindering the wearers' movement in melee. The breastplate was 5 to 7mm thick and was arquebus-shot proof. It seems that batches of armour were produced for entire units, often in Germany, although any decoration was added in Poland. The nobleman's arms and equipment was richly decorated, his retainers wore the same, but more simple armour, usually "Dutch pots" and cuirasses with no decoration and often blackened.

Saddles
A new type of saddle was also introduced successfully combining features of the old knights saddle and the Hungarian saddle. They had an oriental style but were deeper, to provide proper support to the rider's back, especially at the moment of lance impact.

Lance
Hussars - by Wojciech KossakTheir primary weapon was a 4 to 5 metre long hollow lance, which was some 1.5 metres longer than the old knights lances as well as being much lighter due to their hollow construction.This allowed a much longer reach, especially useful against pike and yet avoided being too cumbersome. It was made from two halves of fir wood hollowed out and glued together with a wooden ball near the midpoint protecting the hand. The lance was carried with the tail placed in a leather tube tied on a thong to the saddle. Due to their partial hollowness they were light and easy to manage,Palasz - broad sword but this meant that they were weaker than the old knights lance and typically the lance would break after impact, though not before fulfilling their required purpose. In fact later in the 17th century it was felt shameful if one did not break one's lance in the charge, as this would mean that you did not strike the enemy with enough force. The lance was employed against most enemies, especially pike men, however against the tartars pistols became preferred as they were more effective. Each lance had a 2 to 2.25 metre silk pennon, typically in two colours (red/white, blue/green or black/white seemed to be common. Each unit would have a standard pennon and its purpose was to frighten enemy horse. Koncerz - estoc

Once the lances were discarded and the hussar was in close melee he could chose from a selection of weapons. Against heavier opponents he would pick his 'palasz' (broadsword - see right) or 'koncerz' (estoc - see left), bothe carried below the saddle. The palasz was used early in our period, it was a heavy slashing sword most useful against heavily armoured opponents but as the use of armour declined it tended to give way to the preferred koncerz. The koncerz originated from a medieval sword and appeared at the end of the 15th century when it was about 1.3m long, quite heavy and badly weighted. By the late 16th century it had increased in length to a typical 1.60m overall (1.40m blade) and was much better designed. The koncerz was a stabbing sword, used more like a spear and it provided a rider with a very long reach. It had no cutting edge, just a sharp pointed end, being triangular or square in cross section.

Black Sabre - HussarSabre
The sabre was however the favourite weapon of the hussars and was worn by all noblemen. There were initially two type of sabres, Hungarian and Polish sabres. Though there was also the 'karabela' sabres which were a more delicate decorative sabre used for ceremonial or everyday usage, but not for war. Later in the 17th Century there appeared a special hussar sabre developing from the Polish-Hungarian sabres. The hussar sabre (see left) was very versatile with a 82-87cm long blade and double edged towards the point. It provided a very efficient ratio of effort to cutting ability.

Other weapons
Pistols were carried and were widespread in the cavalry from as early as Batory's reign. However they had a small role to play and were never used in the charge when lance or sabre were preferred.

Other less widespread weapons include shields, whose use disappeared at the start of the 17th century and small numbers of bows and arquebuses or muskets were also carried. A popular weapon for the nobility were the war hammers or axes - nadziak, obuch and czekan, while the rotmistrz and other commanders would carry maces (buzdygan).

Wings
Younger Hussar armour from the 2nd half of the 17th Century - showing detail of wingsThe hussars are of course famous for their legendary wings, though these were not always worn. Feathers were probably worn since the origins of the formation, at first like the dellis they wore them on their shields and helmets. In a short while they were wearing wings, unknown elsewhere, consisting of feathers fixed to a wooden frame one or a pair being either fixed to the saddle or the backplate. Most treasured were eagle feathers, although ostrich feathers were also worn, either in natural colours or dyed.

Various proposals have been put forward for the reasons for their use; from them making a rushing sound in the charge, hardly likely above the general din of battle, or to stop tartar lassoes carting nobles off for a ransom. Most probably, combined with the wild animal skins and lance pennons, their effect was psychological. By increasing the size and magnificence of the horse and rider they made them look more fearsome.

Tactics
The unique part of the hussars was their battle field tactics which gave the Polish army a powerful striking force, superior to all other European cavalry for over a century. The hussars charged in 3 to 4 ranks (only two ranks in the second half of the 17th century) depending on terrain and numbers, the rear rank could be detached to deal with flank attacks. They normally travelled in open order, for ease of movement and manoeuvring, but during the charge, when the last phase was reached they would compact their frontage until they were as close together as was practical and were moving at the horses full gallop speed (knee-to-knee charge). husars from the 'Constantina' 'Stockholm' Roll - click for detailThis not only gave them a powerful crushing strength but also minimised losses from enemy firepower. The hussar's armour was relatively light in comparison to the heavy cavalry of the West and this allowed them to charge as the horses maximum speed, while Western heavy cavalry depended more on the actual weight of their troops rather than speed. This also allowed the hussars to move form standing to charge speed relatively quickly. It was this quick change of speed and or direction and their ease of movement that led to much of their success, originally against the Tartars and later against Muscovite, Turkish and Western armies. In fact Gustavus Adolphus was forced to order his carocoling heavy cavalry to charge as the Poles did.

So most of the battles in the late 16th and early 17th century were arranged in such a way as to allow the hussars to deliver the crushing blow (Lubieszow 1577, Byczyna 1588, Kokenhausen 1601, Bialy Kamien 1604, Kircholm 1605, Kluszyn 1610, Trzciana 1629) and they still played a major role in Poland's battles up until the late 17th century (Smolensk 1633, Beresteczko 1651, Chocim 1673, Vienna 1683). It was only in 1626 at Gniew that the hussars were first defeated on a major battlefield when they met Gustavus Adolphus and his improved firepower infantry for the first time.

Here are some contemporary views of the hussars:-

Starowolski wrote - "usars are those (cavalry) who wear metal kaftans, that is body armour, helmets and forearm protection, long lances seven and a half elbows long, sabres on their left side, a rapier or koncerz under their left leg near the saddle and at the front one or two pistols ... on their armour they wear lynx, tiger and bear skins and on their own and horses' heads wear feathers."

Polish Hussar mid 17th CenturyCharles Ogier (1635) wrote - "never have I seen a more peculiar sight than this. Polish nobility all on beautiful chargers, in superb shining armour, with panther, lion and tigers skins thrown over their shoulders, having long lances held up by cords hanging from the saddle, on the end of which, beneath the point, were silk pennons which fluttered in the air and confused the enemy's eyes. This was all very brilliant, but it was hard not to laugh at the sight of the tall wings fixed to their backs, from which, as they say, enemy horses are frightened and escape from ... at their side they wear sabres and near the saddle pistols, maces, hammers, axes and swords. In battle only the first one or two ranks can use the lance, for the others it is almost useless so they choose other weapons."

Dalerac wrote - " Usars are the most beautiful cavalry in Europe, in terms of men, splendid horses, brilliance of dress and bravery of arms ... this cavalry sits on the best horses in the country ... The hussars never retreat, releasing their horses into full gallop charges and carrying all before them."

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