The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
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Armor and Uniform




Hussar armor and recruiting posters

Winged Hussar memorial at the Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine, Doylestown, PA

Husaria: the Commonwealth's "Tanks"
Husaria: the Commonwealth's "Tanks"There was a huge sound of a collision then, like a toppling mountain, and then a vast ringing as if a thousand blacksmiths were beating on their anvils. We looked again and—dear God alive!—the Elector's men were all down and trampled like a wheat field scoured by a hurricane, and they… the husaria… were already far beyond them, with lance pennons flickering…

Next they struck the Swedes. One regiment of Reiters went down like grass before a scythe. Another went under. …They charged the Swedish infantry. They broke them. They shattered them. Everything fled before them, scattering like chaff! Everything was tumbling back, running and recoiling! The whole Swedish army split apart before them and they charged down that gaping avenue like an avalanche. Nothing could stop them! They cut through half of the enemy's battle line. And then they ran into the Swedish Horse Guards where Carolus [King Charles Gustav] and his staff were standing… And, I tell you, it was as if a windstorm had whirled in among those Guardsmen and carried them away…!

Henryk Sienkiewicz, The Deluge (Kuniczak translation), pp. 815-816

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was more than three centuries ahead of armored-warfare exponents like George S. Patton Jr., Erwin Rommel, and Heinz Guderian. It was two centuries ahead of the famous Russian marshal Aleksandr V. Suvorov in the development of mobile warfare and the advocacy of decisive shock battle.

The husaria (Hussars) were the Commonwealth's equivalent of tanks. This was not because of their armor (medieval knights were even more heavily-protected) but rather because of their tactics. Descriptions of Hussar engagements suggest that they sought to break through and overrun enemy units instead of engaging in melee (as is normally shown in cavalry engagements in movies). The "overrun attack" (a variant of Suvorov's "attack through") was later adopted by tank commanders. Another use of modern armor is to get into the enemy's rear areas and wreak havoc there. Per Adam Zamoyski's The Polish Way (p. 154), the Poles would often send cavalry in arcs of up to a thousand miles behind the enemy lines. (These were not necessarily Husaria; they could easily have been lighter-armed riders.)

Hussar weapons reinforce the conclusion that the attack through, as opposed to melee, was the principal tactic. The koncerz and pallasz (see below) lacked cutting edges and they were so long as to be unsuitable for epee-type fencing. They were instead used as secondary "lances" after the Hussar expended his long kopia. A Hussar would not have wanted to stop and use either of these weapons to fence with his opponent; he'd probably want to attempt to hit while passing at a full charge, which is how the attack through works. The Husaria did of course carry sabres (the szabla) that could be used in a melee.

Armor and Uniform
The Hussar's protection consisted of half-armor (helmet and cuirass) or three-quarter-armor (helmet, cuirass, upper leg armor, and some protection for the arms). Two unique elements of the Hussar uniform were a cape made from a leopard, wolf, or tiger fur, and a pair of wooden frames that held an impressive array of feathers. Their purpose was apparently to frighten enemy horses. One can speculate, for example, that horses would be instinctively terrified of the residual odor (if downwind) and the appearance of a wolf or leopard fur. The wings' appearance also was unusual and they were said to emit a terrifying hiss as the wind rushed through them. The Poles' own horses were, of course, accustomed to these things. The Poles also knew of lariat-wielding steppe horsemen and it was very difficult to get a lasso around the wings.

Armament consisted of the szabla, a curved Polish sabre that Zamoyski (p. 155) describes as "the finest cutting instrument ever in use in a European army." It originated in the East and was modified by the Hungarians, who also were known for their superb cavalry. The Poles then made further improvements during the sixteenth century. Each Hussar also carried a pair of wheellock pistols and possibly a bow. Far from being a primitive weapon in comparison to contemporary firearms, the bow was a high-skill weapon whose rate of fire was much higher than that of any musket. Armies used muskets instead of bows because it took years of training to create, for example, the kind of archers who won the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. You could, on the other hand, go into a low-class tavern, recruit what the Duke of Wellington called "the scum of the earth" for a shilling a day, and turn them into passable musketeers in a few weeks. The Husaria also used three weapons of uniquely Commonwealth origin:
  • The front rank of a hussar Banner (squadron) wielded the kopia, an 18-20 foot lance that could outreach infantry pikes. Its hollow cross section made it light enough to carry and use effectively. It often broke with a solid hit, but not usually before piercing its target's armor and body. It was fairly expensive and, although the szlachta who became Hussars were expected to provide their own equipment, the government paid for the lances.
  • The secondary koncerz and pallasz were straight armor-piercing swords with sabre grips. The koncerz was about 4 feet long and the pallasz was as tall as a man. This suggests that they were used like lances for an "attack through" as opposed to fencing with opponents in a melee.
The Husaria also used the czekan (or obuch), a long steel hammer with a back spike "which could go through heads and helmets like butter."

Medieval knights in full armor could not move very quickly, especially since the giant draft horses they rode (e.g. Percheron, Clydesdale breeds) also wore armor. The Husaria wore up to three-quarter armor but they could charge at a full gallop. The Polish horse was bred for speed and endurance, and Zamoyski (p. 155) writes that Polish cavalry could travel 120 kilometers per day without killing the horses. (He does not say, however, if these were light cavalry or Husaria.) The Poles also adopted the Eastern saddle, which was easier on the horse. Furthermore, I read somewhere (I am still looking for a reference) that the Poles invented the posting or rising trot, which is more comfortable for both horse and rider than the more dignified sitting trot.

  • hussar (husaria): armored horse cavalry
  • koncerz: a straight armor-piercing sword with a sabre grip, about four feet long (see pallasz). Used as a short lance after the kopia was broken in combat.
  • kopia: an 18-20 foot lance with a hollow-cross section for lightness. It was capable of outreaching infantry pikes.
  • pallasz: a straight armor-piercing sword with a sabre grip, about six feet long (see koncerz)
  • pocztowi: retainers (of a Hussar banner)
  • pulk: regiment pulkownik = colonel
  • rotmistrz: captain of cavalry (similar to Rittmeister)
  • Sejm (Seym): the Parliament
  • szabla: the curved Polish sabre
  • szlachta: the gentry who enjoyed voting rights and incurred military obligations. Addressed as Pan (male) or Panna (female).
  • towarzysze: comrades or companions (of a Hussar banner)

From the Polish Museum of America in Chicago:
Hussar winged cuirass and helmet
Recruiting posters of the First and Second World Wars respectively, by Wladislaw T. Benda

Reproductions of these posters are unfortunately not available but the Polish Museum of America sells a very nice Art Deco winged hussar print, suitable for framing, for only $10.00.

Left: Winged Hussar memorial at the Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Doylestown, PA. The shrine has an excellent bookstore and many of Henryk Sienkiewicz's books can be purchased there at very reasonable prices. I bought The Deluge (Kuniczak translation), On the Field of Glory, and The Teutonic Knights there, along with Anna Wasilowska's Husaria: The Winged Horsemen.
Right: Inscription on the memorial: "For Our Freedom and Yours."
"Katyn, 1940. This committee unanimously finds, beyond any question of reasonable doubt, that the Soviet NKVD (People's Commisariat of Internal Affairs) committed the mass murders of the Polish officers and intellectual leaders in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia."
The Soviets attempted to blame the Katyn massacre on the Nazis. My father had a book, These Are the Russians, that was apparently written during the Second World War when "Uncle Joe" Stalin was an ally of the United States. I recall a chapter about Soviet pathologists "unearthing" the mass grave at Katyn and examining the Polish bodies; the crime was of course blamed on the Germans. Another chapter describes horrible atrocities by the Finns, whose country the Soviets had actually invaded.

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