The Polish Hussars or Towarzysz husarski, were the main type of cavalry of the first Polish Army, later also introduced into the Army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, between the 16th and 18th centuries. When this cavalry type was first introduced by the Serbian mercenary horsemen around the year 1500, they served as light cavalry banners; by the second half of the XVI century hussars had been transformed into heavy cavalry. Until the reforms of 1770s the husaria banners or companies were considered the elite of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth cavalry.
Origins and usage outside Poland
The word hussar derives from the Serbian Gusar and later Hungarian Huszár. Exiled Serbian warriors introduced hussar horsemen – light cavalry armed with hollowed lance, Balkan-type shield, and saber – in Hungary following the Ottoman conquest of Serbia in the late 15th century.
The Hussars of Poland originated in the late 15th century of Serbian warriors that had left Ottoman Serbia, beginning in the 14th century
The Hungarian Kingdom hussar banners (units) were organized into a strong, highly-trained and motivated formation during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. Under his command the various hussar banners took part in the wars against the House of Habsburg, Bohemia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire (in 1485) and proved successful against the Turkish cavalry as well as Bohemians, Germans, Austrians, and Poles. In the Kingdom of Hungary various peoples (Serbs, Croats, Wallachians, Hungarians) made changes to the hussar armament and thus introduced armor in terms of helmets, mail, gorgets making hussars much heavier cavalry than when they first started around 1500. It was the combination of ‘Hungarian’ influence and changes within the Polish cavalry (obrona potoczna) serving in present day Ukrainian provinces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that led to the development of armor-clad hussars by the early 1560s. Hungarian prince, Polish King and Lithuanian Grand Duke Stephen Bathory reorganized first, the Polish cavalry banners (containing both hussars and other cavalry types) and later the Grand Duchy of Lithuania cavalry banners, thus created the typical Commonwealth hussar banners, starting in 1574. Kingdom of Hungary – lance-armed and clad-in-armor hussar companies existed first in the Hungarian armies (and her vassal states of Wallachian, Moldavian princes) later in the Habsburg armies until early 17th century. The Hungarian, Wallachian and Moldavian hussars gradually abandoned armor and heavy lances during the course of wars and pillages of the later 17th century, reinventing themselves as the scrimmage, reconnaissance and pillage horsemen becoming in fact the light cavalry, in type similar to Croats in Habsburg service. Later in the 18th century, when the Rákóczy’s uprising failed in Hungary, many noble hussars with their retainers fled to other Central and Western European countries and became the core of similar light cavalry formations created there, for instance, the 1st French Hussar Regiment created and trained by count Miklós Bercsényi. Also Prussian army during the wars of Frederick the Great started using Hungarian-type hussar regiments extensively, starting with the War of the Austrian Succession.
While light hussars of the 15th century were adopted by some European armies after King Mathias Corvinus hussars, to provide them with light and expendable cavalry units, the most spectacular were the heavy hussars that developed first in the Kingdom of Hungary and later in the Kingdom of Poland and later, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 1569 after the Union of Lublin.
In 1500, the Polish Treasury books make their first references to hussars, still light cavalry, largely foreign mercenaries, from the Serbian state of Raška (Рашка) and were called Racowie (‘of Serbia’). “They came from the Serbian state of Ras.” Initially the first hussar units in the Kingdom of Poland were formed by the Sejm (Polish parliament) in 1503, which hired three banners of Hungarian mercenaries. Quickly recruitment also began among Polish citizens. Being far more expendable than the heavily armoured lancers of the Renaissance, the Polish-Serbian-Hungarian hussars played a fairly minor role in the Polish Crown victories during the early 16th century, exemplified by the victories at Orsza (1514) and Obertyn (1531). During the so-called ‘transition period’ of the mid-1500s heavier armed hussars largely replaced typical 16th century armored lancers riding armored horses, in the Polish ‘Obrona Potoczna’ cavalry forces serving on the southern frontier.
In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
The true winged Polish-Lithuanian type hussar came with the reforms of the king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania Stephen Bathory in the 1570s. Later lead by the king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania and saver of Europe Jan III Sobieski. The hussars were the leading or even elite branch of cavalry in the Polish-Lithuanian army from the 1570s until 1776, when their duties and traditions were passed on to the Uhlans by a parliamentary decree. Most hussars were recruited from the wealthier Polish and Lithuanian nobility (szlachta). Each ‘towarzysz’ (Polish for ‘comrade’) of hussars raised his own poczet or lance/retinue. Several retinues were combined to form a hussar banner or company (Chorągiew husarska).
Over the course of the 16th century, hussars in Hungary had become heavier in character: they had abandoned wooden shields and adopted plate metal body armour. When Stefan Batory, a Transylvanian-Hungarian prince, was elected king of Poland and later was accepted as a Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1576 he reorganized the hussars of his Royal Guard along Hungarian lines, making them a heavy formation, equipped with a long lance as their main weapon. By the reign of Batory (1576–1586) the hussars had replaced medieval-style lancers in the Polish Crown and Grand Duchy of Lithuania armies, and they now formed the bulk of the Polish and Lithuanian cavalry. By the 1590s most Polish-Lithuanian hussar units had been reformed along the same ‘heavy’ Hungarian model. These ‘heavy’ Commonwealth hussars were known in Poland as husaria.
With the Battle of Lubiszew in 1577 the ‘Golden Age’ of the husaria began. Between then and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the hussars fought many actions against several enemies, most of which they won.
In the battles of Lubiszew in 1577, Byczyna (1588), Kokenhausen (1601), Kircholm (1605), Kłuszyn (1610), Chocim (1621), Martynów (1624), Trzciana (1629), Ochmatów (1644), Beresteczko (1651), Połonka (1660), Cudnów (1660), Chocim (1673), and Lwów (1675), Vienna (1683), Párkány (1683) the Polish-Lithuanian hussars proved to be the decisive factor often against overwhelming odds. For instance, in the Battle of Kluszyn during the Polish-Muscovite War the Russians outnumbered the Commonwealth army 5 to 1, yet were heavily defeated. During the Khmelnytsky Uprising (Battle of Zhovti Vody, 1648), polish army of 1500 and containing less than 200 hussars defended against 11000 man strong army of Khmelnytsky due to heroic defence work of the hussars.
The role of the hussar changed over time, towards a reconnaissance and advanced scout capacity, but if anything their uniforms became more elaborate as their armour and heavier weapons were abandoned. In the 18th century, as infantry firearms became more effective, heavy cavalry with its tactics of charging into and breaking infantry units became increasingly obsolete and hussars transformed from an elite fighting unit to a parade one.
Polish Winged Hussars
Hetman`s guard – Wacław Pawliszak
“Instead of ostrich feathers, the husaria men wore wodden arcs attached to their armour at the back and raising over their heads. These arcs, together with bristling feathers sticking out of them, were dyed in various colours in imitation of laurel branches or palm leaves, and were a strangely beautiful sight to behold…” – Jędrzej Kitowicz (1728-1804).
The hussars were famous for their huge ‘wings’, a wooden frame carrying eagle, ostrich, swan or goose feathers. In the 16th century characteristic painted wings or winged claws began to appear on cavalry shields. Wings were originally attached to the saddle and later to the back.
The most common theory is that the hussars wore the wings because they made a loud, clattering noise which made it seem like the cavalry was much larger than in reality and frightened the enemy’s horses. Others possibilities included that the wings were made to defend the backs of the men against swords and lassos, or that they were worn to make their own horses deaf to the wooden noise makers used by the Ottoman and the Crimean Tatars.
Some historians suggest that the tradition of wearing wings came from Ottoman “akinci” raiders who worked as a light cavalry in the Ottoman army. Hussars, in a sense, were a European answer to Ottoman cavalry tactics and original Hungarian hussars imitated Ottoman raiders’ in equipment and in fighting tactics. While doing so, they also imitated their appearance. The Turkish tradition of wearing eagle wings came from Central Asian Turkish shamanistic traditions: it was believed their horses would go faster if bearing wings (a form of sympathetic magic). Some historians also speculate that it was for intimidating enemies with their strange look (a form of psychological warfare). Images of Ottoman raiders who wore ox horns, eagle wings and leopard fur can be found in 14th,15th and 16th century Ottoman miniatures and engravings made by European artists who visited Ottoman Empire.
The hussars represented the heavy cavalry of the Commonwealth. The Towarzysz husarski or Companion commanded his own poczet (kopia) consisted of several (from 2 to 5) similarly armed retainers and other servants (czeladnicy) caring for his horses, food, supplies, repairs, fodder and often taking part in battle. His ‘lance’ in turn was part of a larger unit known as a banner. Each banner had between 30 to 60 or more “kopia.” The commander, by his contract obligation, was called “rotmistrz” (rotameister), while the commander-in-fact was often “porucznik” (lieutenant). There was also one “chorąży” (ensign) who carried the banner’s flag (“znak” or “chorągiew”) and could command the banner in case of “porucznik” lack of capacity. Each banner had one “rotmistrz” kopia that was larger than the other lances of each banner, and included trumpeters, and musicians (kettle drummers, more trumpeters etc.). There were other towarzysze with duties (of keeping order, helping with maneuvers) within the banner during the battle, and their functions are rather poorly understood.
The Polish-Lithuanian hussars’ primary battle tactic was the charge. They carried the charge to, and through the enemy. The charge started at a slow pace and in a relatively loose formation. The formation gradually gathered pace and closed ranks while approaching the enemy, and reached its highest pace and closest formation immediately before engagement. They tended to repeat the charge several times until the enemy formation broke (they had supply wagons with spare lances). The tactic of a charge by heavily armoured hussars and horses was usually decisive for nearly two centuries. The hussars fought with a long lance, a koncerz (stabbing sword), a szabla (sabre), 1 or 2 pistols, and often with a carbine or arquebus, known in Polish as a bandolet. In addition, there was no West European stigma attached to the use of a bow and arrows, but the more English-like view was held (the English continued to hold archers in high esteem.) It is possible that the projectile weapons were used to weaken the enemy’s infantry squares and to create a domino effect. The lighter Turkish-style saddle allowed for more armour to be used by both the horses and the warriors. Moreover, the horses were bred to run very fast with a heavy load and to recover quickly. These were created by mixing old Polish horses blood with eastern horses, usually from Tatar tribes. As a result, a horse could walk hundreds of kilometres loaded with over 100 kilograms (warrior plus armor and weaponry) and instantly charge. Also, hussar horses were very quick and manoeuvrable. This made hussars able to fight with any cavalry or infantry force from western heavy kissaiers to quick tatars.
Armour & Weaponry
The hussars towarzysz were required to provide the arms and armour for themselves and their retainers, except for the lance which was provided by the King. Each lance’s horses also came at each towarzysz husarski expense. Winged hussars during their heyday, 1574–1705, carried the following arms and armour:
The kopia lance was the main offensive weapon of the hussar. The lances were based on the Balkan and finally Hungarian lances except the Polish lances could have been longer and, like their predecessors from the Balkans and Western Europe, they were hollowed, with two halves glued together and painted, and even often richly gilded. They were commonly made from fir-wood, with the lance point being made from forged steel. They had a gałka large wooden ball which served as the handle guard. The hussar’s lance usually ranged from 4.5 to 6.20 meters in length. A large ‘silk’/taffeta proporzec pennon was attached to the kopia below the point. There was another type of lance was used, known as demi-lance or kopijka, that could have been 3-3,5 meter long and used against the Tatars and Turks of the later 17th century wars.
The Towarzysz husarski carried underneath his left thigh an Eastern-in-origin koncerz estoc (up to 1,5 meter in length) and often under his right thigh a palasz (a type of broadsword). The szabla sabre was carried on the left side, and several types of sabres were known to winged hussars, including the famous szabla husarska.
Winged hussars carried also other weapons, such as “nadziak” type of war hammers and battleaxes. Towarzysz husarski carried one or two wheellock (later flintlock) pistols in the saddle holsters, while retainers also might have carried a pistol or light wheellock arquebus or carbine; from the 1680s a carbine for retainers was mandatory.
Individual hussar towarzysz may possibly have carried a Tatar or Turkish reflex bow with arrows in a quiver, especially after the mid-17th century when many ‘pancerny’ companions became hussars, and some sources of the late 17th century point to existence of bows amongst the hussar companions. During the first half of the 18th century hussar companion carried when in his a non-military attire a bow in a bowcase to denote his military status. Yet bow in a bow case was carried by all cavalry officers of the National Army until the 1770s reforms, including Uhlan units in the Saxon service.
At the height of their prowess, 1576-1653 hussar armor consisted of a szyszak Oriental Turkic-in-origin helmet later developed into Polish variety with hemispherical skull, comb like Western morion ‘cheekpieces’ with a heart-shaped cut in the middle, neck guard of several plates secured by sliding rivets, and adjustable nasal terminating in a leaf-shaped visor. Shishak and kettle hat helmets for lower rank (retainers) were often blackened as well was their armor. A cuirass (breast plate), back plate, gorget, shoulder guards and of the Great Steppe, Western vambraces with iron glove and later during the 1630s the Persian origin karwasz vambrace that was a forearm protection. Towarzysz also could wear tasset hip, cuisse thigh and poleyn knee protection, underneath a thigh length coat of mail or specially padded coat with mail sleeves. Retainers usually wore less expensive and older armor, often painted black, and after 1670s might have no cuirass, according to some sources. Karacena Sarmatian armor (of iron scales riveted to a leather support), might have consisted of scale helmet, cuirass, gorget, legs and shoulder protection, became popular during the reign of king Jan Sobieski, but perhaps due to costs and weight remained popular mostly with the winged hussar commanding officers. Their armor was light, usually around 15 kg, allowing them to be relatively quick and for their horses to gallop at full speed for long periods. Albeit during the 1670s onwards chain-mail was used when fighting the Tatars in the southern part of the republic. Towarzysz usually wore a leopard (sometimes tiger, jaguar, lion) pelt over his left shoulder, or as often depicted in the surviving Podhorce Castle paintings he had the exotic pelt underneath his saddle or wrapped around his hips. Whereas wolf, brown bear and lynx pelts were reserved for leaders and veterans (starszyzna).