Throughout the history of combat, there are only a few examples of military formations that were as effective as the famous winged hussars. This elite of the Polish cavalry was ruling the battlefields from the 16th to the 18th century. It had remained unbeaten for 125 years, even against enemies with crushing numerical superiority.
They were unique not just for their abilities, high morale and killer weapons, but also because of how frightening, proud and beautiful they looked on the field of battle. Lets take a precise look at what it is that made the winged hussars such legendary warrios.
Weapons and armor
The most dangerous weapon of the Hussar was undoubtedly his lance. A long weapon, reaching anywhere from 5 to 7 meters in length, was an incredibly destructive and effective weapon used for charges – a Lithuanian Hussar once killed six musketeers in one thrust. The size of the hussar’s lance gave the rider the advantage of coverage over the pikemen, who would use the 3-meter pikes; enabling the Poles to reach them first. After crushing the lance, the riders reached for the long sword called “koncerz” that was not used for fencing, but instead for pushing opponents. This sword was generally good at eliminating armored adversaries; giving the hussars a total advantage over the enemy. When there was a need for fencing, they used a Hussar saber. Today, the hussar saber is considered to be a world-class achievement which Wojciech Zabłocki (Polish fencer, world champion and Olympic medalist) has dubbed “the best fighting sword in human history”.
The hussar’s torso was protected by a breastplate typically 3-4 mm thick on the front and up to 1 mm thick on the sides. Each of such breastplates had to pass a so-called “fire test” – before the first use it had to withstand a close shot from the gun. Initially, the backplates were used as back protection, but in the later period of the Hussars’ existence, they were abandoned and changed to leather belts dragged on their backs. Animal leathers (leopard’s or tiger’s) were also used, which were not only menacing and prideful, but also able to effectively protect the warrior from back cuts.
The armor was complemented by a helmet with a moving nose shield and a cushion protecting the forearms. The whole kit was able to weigh anywhere from 14-15 kg (up to 33 pounds); still less than the equipment of a modern soldier on the battlefield.
Unfortunately, the hussars never used the characteristic double wings attached to the armor. Instead, some of them used a straight, one wing attachment on the saddle’s bow into which the eagles or the vulture’s feathers were inserted. Although there is a theory about the protective properties of such wings (for example, against Tatar’s rider’s lasso), Polish husaria likely used them for ornamental purposes only.
The exhibition of the entire hussar fellowship, which included the equipment of the hussar and his asisstants, was an extremely expensive endeavor – it was the equivalent of buying an entire village. Of all of this, the hussar horse was always the most valuable, because the combat potential of the rider and the entire unit was determined by the strength and endurance of the horse.
The horses of husaria were recruited from the eastern races, such as Turkmenistan or Persia. These breeds, despite being small, stood out with enormous endurance and speed. They had to have an intense training routine, which aimed to shape their condition, obedience and courage on the battlefield. One of the components of the workout was, for example, turning exercises – the horse had to accelerate 25 meters, turn around quickly, run 25 meters, turn again, etc. In addition to endurance, it had to have the ability to maneuver quickly within a squad. The price of one steed was up to 200 polish złotys at the time, which is 60 kg (over 132 pounds) of silver! The theft of such a horse abroad was punishable by death in the Commonwealth.
Hussars often put the good of their horses above their own – when the army lacked food they often preferred to feed them instead of themselves. Sadly, these horses often paid the highest price for Poland’s freedom. While a Hussars’ mortality rate was on average 3-5% in most battles, the horses reached 30%. Most riders had to have several mounts at once.
It is worth mentioning that among the enemies of the Commonwealth, a myth would circulate stating that the hussars had immortal horses. This was due to the ability of the horse to keep driving forward towards the enemy despite being severely wounded in the front torso. The result of such a phenomenon was due to muscle memory and physiology. The horse was still pumping blood through the arteries and could sustain movement for a few seconds, completing its primary task of demoliting and dispersing the defenses of the enemy.
Hussar morale and iron discipline
Husaria’s strength was not only the devastating charge, armament and armor, but above all the high morale and the insatiable courage of the warriors serving in this elite formation.
In 1694, during the Polish-Turkish war in the Battle of Hodow, 400 Hussars and medium cavalrymen (Polish: jazda pancerna) were forced to resist 10,000 Tatars (some sources even speak of 40,000 enemies). Since the opponent was too numerous to burden them, the riders took refuge between the buildings of the surrounding village and, after leaving the horses, began defending. The impact lasted 5-6 hours; when the Poles ran out of ammunition, they fired at their opponents by putting their own arrows into pistols. In all, the Tatars suffered heavy losses, with the losses among the Polish defenders averaging around 30 killed (another 30 killed after the battle). This example reflects the knightly spirit in which the Polish riders were raised into. Honor, bravery, and sacrafice for the homeland were valued the most amongst the Polish Husaria. They would often say: “Let the sky fall and we will hold it up with our lances”.
The hussar banner (usually 200 riders) was most often commanded by a lieutenant who issued orders using a high-pitched pipe. The charge went as follows:
- The banner is set in two rows, about 350-400 meters facing the opponent. The distance between the riders was about 4 meters.
- Riders slowly passed the first 50-60 meters. Lances were lifted up.
- During next 150 meters Hussars increased their speed to trot.
- 150 meters in front of the opponent, the lances were lowered to combat position and the trot went into a gallop. Two Hussar ranks merged into one and a rider’s rider’s compartment was established with minimum distance between the riders. Mostly then, the first salvo of the enemy followed, with virtually no effect.
- At 50-60 m before the enemy line, the horses were running galop (the maximum speed was 60km / h – approx. 40 miles/h). With a loud cry “Mother of God!”, or “Jesus Mary!” The Winged Hussars hammered into the ranks of the enemy.
Usually, the attack caused complete destruction of the opponent’s forces, and no military formation of that period was able to effectively resist the Polish Hussar charge. For this reason, some armies did not even try to confront them face to face. An example of this is the Polish-Swedish Battle of Gniew (Battle of the Vase), when Swedish King Gustav Adolf simply did not want to fight the Husaria in open territory and ordered the troops to stay in their trenches. It is said that one of the Hussars in the front of the Polish formation went forward and shouted in the direction of the opponent saying: “If you are not a motherfucker then go out into the field!” – Unfortunately, that did not work.
Adaptation tactics to the opponent
Winged Hussars have always modified their combat tactics based on the opponent with which they were to measure up to. For example, when fighting the Tatars, they often left their lances behind and were more likely to use firearms – Tatars were a fast-paced, but poorly armored cavalry, so they were prone to fire pistols. On the other hand, when the Hussars fought with the Swedish army (which comprised mostly of infantry), the lances were their primary weapon. This would allow the Polish riders to use the maximum power of their destructive charge.
As you may have guessed, other countries have also tried to create their own formations that would mimic the style of the Polish Hussars. Outside of the common roots of the Polish and Hungarian Hussars – which differed in only one area and that was that the Poles created heavy cavalry – Winged Hussars – and the Hungarians made light cavalry formations, the Huzars.
The Russians were one of the first to try to create their own formation of the cavalry following the invincible Husaria. The wings themselves were not enough, and they made a few mistakes while training and arming these soldiers; Among other things, it was forgotten that the lances had to be empty inside, which made them too heavy and totally useless during the battle. The Poles were also heard of in France and King Louis XIV wanted to see Polish horsemen at his court. When they arrived in France, the king gave them a “combat” test by ordering the Poles to dance on their horses backs. Of course this didn’t go over so well as this was not a battle they were suited for.
Polish Hussars’ greatest victories
- Battle of Cutrea de Arges (25.11.1600) – Polish army of 1,450, including 950 Hussars, defeated more than 7,000 soldiers of Wallachia.
- Battle of Kircholm (27.09.1605) – Army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the number of 3,750 men (1750 Hussars), under the command of the Field Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz completely destroyed the Swedish army of King Charles IX three times total. During this battle, the hussars charged several times into the enemy infantry and cavalry. Under Kircholm, the Swedes lost 90% of the infantry that participated in the battle.
- Battle of Kłuszyn (04.07.1610) – The crushing victory of the Polish army in the strength of 6800 people (including about 5600 Hussars) commanded by the hetman of the Polish crown Stanislaw Żółkiewski against 35 000 Russians and hired foreigners. The size of the enemy made some hussar banners have to charge the enemy even 8-10 times. The battle opened the way for Poles to Moscow, where Polish prince Władysław became the tsar.
- Battle of Chocim (07.09.1621) – During this battle over 600 Polish-Lithuanian riders (520-560 Hussars) under the command of Lithuanian hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz smashed 10,000 Turkish troops and infantry. Desperate defense of Chocim ended the Polish-Turkish war and became the foundation of a peace treaty for the Crown.
- Battle of Kutyszcze village (26.09.1660) – Two incomplete Hussar banners of the Polish forces operating in Ukraine, caught up with Russian retreating Ukainian army under Vasyl Szeremietiew. 140 Polish horsemen devastated 3500 cavalry and Cossack infantry, gaining an enemy stock. In this encounter Hussars did not suffer any losses. Even with with the Russians counting 25: 1.
- Battle of Vienna (12.09.1683) – Hussars’s charge of Polish king Jan III Sobieski broke the siege of Vienna and forced the Turkish army to retreat. In this battle and also under the Parkans, the power of the Ottomans was broken and the threat posed by Islam to Christian Europe was removed. When the Husaria attacked, descending from a steep slope into the army of the vizier, allied with the Poles, the German and Austrian troops held their offensive to watch the powerful and beautiful charge of the Poles.
- Battle of Hodów (11.06.1694) – Battle also known as Polish Thermopylae. A clash where 400 hussars and medium cavalrymen successfully repelled the attack of about 40,000 Tatars and forced the enemy to retreat.
Below the video from the reconstruction of the Husaria charge to the positions of the Swedish musketeers. Please pay attention to the great replica of the armor and weapons of the riders, including the famous wings.
Many thanks to Mariusz Kozik for permission to use his graphics in this article.