poland

The best cavalry in history

Almost every European country boasts of its cavalry. The French are proud of the cuirassiers, the English of the Light Brigade, the Russians of the Cossacks, the Swedes of the Reiters, the Prussians of the Hussars of Death, and the Americans of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army. And yet none of these formations –apart from maybe the Napoleonic Chevau-légers also dependent on Poles – can hold a candle to Polish hussars.

The Polish horse, during the greatest development of the Republic and its excellent cavalry, was an ornament of its species. Weighing half a ton – neither too heavy nor too light – the animal was able to effortlessly hold an armed rider on its back, while maintaining unusual agility, speed and endurance.

Successive generations of knights bred this species carefully and expertly, especially in large borderland studs. They existed even during the war of 1792 with Russia, like the famous Mohort's stud farm immortalised on the picture of Juliusz Kossak, where Prince Józef Poniatowski chose horses for the national cavalry.

Sharing the same blood with the best Persian and Turkish combat horses, Spanish jennets, as well as the most beautiful in the world – Arabian horses, Polish horse became the object of admiration, desire and respect of foreigners. Swedish chief Arvid Wittenberg warned his soldiers: “Resist the attacks of Poles in the densest line, because otherwise you will not stand their attack immediately. Let none of you seek rescue in escape, for nothing is able to escape the extraordinary swiftness and endurance of Polish horses.”

Along with this horse, the Polish hussar became somewhat of a trademark of the Republic. Without these riders, whose glorious charges determined major battles with Moscow and Sweden, first and foremost, the defence of the south-eastern borderlands would not have been possible. Almost every year, and sometimes even a few times a year, we were raided by Nogais gangs, primitive Tartar robbers from the steppes of the Black Sea (the Buchach and the Ochakov hordes). Even more dangerous were the invasions of great mounted troops and the expeditions of the entire Crimean horde, armed and commanded better than the Nogais. Tartars murdered those that resisted, looted and taking people captive.

Hussars were successful from the beginning of the sixteenth century, when they were a light cavalry – after the Serbian and Hungarian Racowie – until the end of the seventeenth century, when as a heavy cavalry they would break the lines of the enemy in the decisive scuffle. At least since the wars of Batory, they formed a specific kind of Polish army, unique and extremely effective. The force of the charge, with the flutter of banners on the lances and wings above the shining armours, was perfectly complemented by other types of weapons, the excellent cooperation of which is emphasised by such eminent experts on the Old Polish art of war as Prof. Mirosław Nagielski from the University of Warsaw.

Let us recall what a blessing great leaders like Ostrogski, Tarnowski, Zamoyski, Radziwiłł “the Thunderbolt,” Chodkiewicz, Żółkiewski, Koniecpolski, Czarniecki, Lubomirski, Sobieski turned out to be. Let us also not forget the great weapons, combining the best designs from the East and from the West, as well as the ingenuity of native armourers. For instance the, lances, a few meters long, hollow and tightly bound so that they did not bend while, at the same time, light enough to be used properly. They were also balanced in such a way so that the centre of gravity was in the hand of the rider. It was a great weapon, as opposed to long poles – the unsuccessful Moscow imitation. Swords, pistols, koncerz, horseman's picks, armours, helmets were also excellent.

However, it was the courage, great training, and command of tactics by this cavalry that turned out to be decisive. Thanks to this, we defeated more numerous opponents and inflicting greater losses than those sustained. Contrary to the rooted stereotypes, hussars were also manoeuvrable, persistent in march and in multiple attacks and laborious defence.

Before we move to them, let us note a few other major battles involving the hussars. At the Battle of Obertyn (1531) Jan Tarnowski defeated the insolent ruler of Moldovans – “Petryła,” surprising the enemy with the blow of lance-armed knights armoured in steel, and lighter... hussars protecting them. During the war with Gdansk, which refused to accept the selection of Stefan Batory as the king of Poland, at the battle of Lubiszewo Tczewskie (1577), Jan Zborowski led one thousand infantrymen and 1,300 cavalrymen to defeat Gdansk troops numbering 10,000 – 12,000 soldiers and militiamen.

At Byczyna (1588), Jan Zamoyski with the charge of hussars of Marek Sobieski, the grandfather of later King Jan III, persuaded Archduke Maximilian III of Austria to abandon the idea of assuming the Polish throne reserved for Sigismund III Vaza. At Kokenhausen (1601), the elderly Krzysztof “the Thunderbolt” Radziwiłł crashed 4,000 Swedish cavalrymen and 900 infantrymen of Karl Karlsson Gyllenhielm. He, in turn, had 2,900 cavalrymen and 300 infantrymen. Stanisław Żółkiewski routed Swedes at Reval (1602).

At Martynów (1624), Koniecpolski killed a row of 10,000 mounted troops that had penetrated deep into the Crown’s territory. Koniecpolski also claimed – along with Jeremi Wiśniowiecki – another victory over the Tatars at Ochmatów (1644). Tuhaj-bej lost 4,000 members of the Tartar army during that battle. The most important victories of Jan Sobieski over the Moslems include Lesienice (also known as the Battle of Lviv, 1675). And finally Hodów – hussar Thermopylae (1694).

MACIEJ ROSALAK

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06.10.2016