Beginning of the 16th Century
In the late 15th Century the
composition of the Polish army began to alter. Due to the destruction
of the Teutonic state as a major military force in the Thirteen
Years War, and Poland's increasingly close ties with Lithuania,
the Polish army became more and more involved in warfare in the
open territories of the East. The heavily armoured knights, so common
in Prussia, were too cumbersome and slow against the elusive cavalries
of the East and began to discard the horse-bard but their numbers
still dwindled as a new type of cavalry grew prominent, called racowie.
were light cavalry armed with lance and shield with Serbo-Hungarian
origins. They found success against the Tatars using tactics of
speed and maneuverability and a powerful, knee-to-knee, full gallop
charge. As they began to oust the knight from his premier position
in the army they also started to wear armour and were later to become
the famed hussars (husaria). The knights and supporting archers
also began to adopt certain eastern techniques.
Another major change in the army was due to
the improvement of firearm technology, the arquebus quickly replaced
the crossbow in both the infantry and cavalry. The introduction
of long barrelled cannons had a shattering effect on enemy fortifications
during the last Teutonic war. Even with the heavy preponderance
of cavalry the Polish commanders appreciated the importance of firepower
relatively early and the use of infantry and artillery in support
of the cavalry became widespread.
old Polish battle formation was adapted as shown in Fig.2 and this
type of formation was typically used up until the early 17th Century.
Though there were no constraints were imposed on commanders to keep
to this system and it was used with great flexibility, being adapted
to suit the needs at the time.
A typical Polish infantry rota of the early
16th Century normally stood in ten ranks, the first rank composed
of heavily armoured shield men, followed by two ranks of spearmen
(one rank consisting of dziesietnik's or "tenth men" who were in
charge of their column of men and were similar to the nobleman in
charge of his poczet. The next six ranks were arquebusiers (or,
earlier on, crossbow men) and then a final rank of spearmen. Obviously
they could not fire by the counter march system; they fired by ranks
and ranks in front would crouch to avoid being shot. It appears
that the infantry units were not uniformly organised and the above
example is only a guide to what they should have been like; wide
differences in the composition of infantry units occurred. Rota
units varied from under 50 to over a thousand, but most were between
100 and 200 men.
The infantry and artillery's role was to weaken
the enemy and prepare the way for the cavalry and also to disorganise
enemy attacks. Though the infantry would follow the cavalry to join
the melee, battles were still decided by heavy cavalry charges and
infantry numbers were around 10-25% of the army.
An important aspect of Polish Eastern warfare
was the use of the tabor, an armoured wagon train. It was basically
a movable fortress of wagons used to protect the encamped Polish
army in areas where natural obstacles and man-made fortifications
were few. Hetman Tarnowski used the tabor repeatedly in victories
against overwhelming odds and he is credited with modifying the
Hussite tabor to suit Polish requirements.
In 1526 the obrona
potoczna received an established financial grant and
in 1563 it was replaced by a small standing army of around 4,000
troops, mostly cavalry, and financed by a quarter tax on the income
of Royal Estates. The cavalry continued to be the main striking
force of the army with the hussars gaining prominence over the knights
and also becoming much heavier. In the First Northern War there
were two hussars to every knight and supporting the heavy cavalry
were medium and light cavalry called Cossacks, who were mainly arquebus
or bow armed. The decline of the knights continued and by 1576 they
formed only 7% of the cavalry.
The army was in need of a serious reorganisation,
especially the infantry, which had become a hotchpotch of troop
types and included mounted men.