The Winged Hussars: Poland’s unique & deadly cavalry
Imagine heading out onto the battlefield back in the 17th century with your sword and shield in hand. Suddenly, you hear a rumbling in the distance as the sound of horses begins to draw near. As the dust clears, your eyes take in a huge band of what appear to be armored angels of death riding straight at you with huge lances.
Such was the experience of a large number of unfortunate soldiers who found themselves up against the Polish Hussars. This band of elite mounted warriors fought on behalf of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
By riding into battle wearing not only armor but also huge feathered wings, the hussars managed to become known as one of the most spectacular (not to mention deadly) shock cavalries in history.
The history and origins of the hussars
Who were the hussars and where exactly did they come from? The earliest mention of the winged warriors in Poland dates back to 1500, but most historians agree that they had been already been active in other countries for some time.
It’s widely believed that the first group of Polish hussars was made up of exiled Serbian warriors who the Polish military hired as mercenaries.
Some historians, such as Richard Brzezinski believe that the history of the hussars goes back even further. Brzezinski claims that evidence may trace the hussars back to the 10th century when Byzantine armies recruited mounted Serbian warriors known as “gusars” to serve in the Eastern Roman military.
Brzezinksi theorizes that the gusars eventually began migrating to Hungary and Poland after the Romans were conquered by the Ottoman Empire. It was in 1503, after the Sejm (Polish parliament) hired several of their units, that the first hussars would find a home in the Polish military.
The original “light hussars” most likely used lighter Balkan-style armor, shields, and weapons, at least until the Polish army began recruiting more cavalrymen to flesh out their ranks.
Soon, the original Serbian hussars were joined by recruits of Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian nationalities. As they began to adopt more durable armor, the hussars soon began replacing the traditional armored lancers of the Polish cavalry.
Their real glory days, however, began in 1576 when Stephen Bathory became King of Poland and later the Grand Duke of Lithuania.
Bathory’s reign and reforms
King Bathory re-equipped the hussars with heavy weapons and long lances, resulting in a new breed of “heavy hussars” that would eventually make up the bulk of the Polish cavalry. It was then that the “winged hussars” truly began to make their mark as on the world as a force to be reckoned with.
The hussars soon began recruiting members of the “szlachta,” which was a term used for members of the most elite and noble Polish and Lithuanian families. Luckily, back then, Poland had plenty of nobility to go around.
Most European countries at the time had a noble class made up of around one percent of their entire population. Poland’s elite class was composed of around 10 percent of the country’s people.
The 1570s to the 1770s would eventually mark a golden age when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would enjoy being regarded as one of the most powerful nations in Europe.
Winged Hussar’s Tactics
Among the most brilliantly creative tactics that the Winged Hussars utilized was…well, their wings. Before going into battle, the hussars would mount eagle, falcon, or vulture feathers to a pair of wooden frames, which they would then attach to either their armor or their saddles. What was the point of them? Shock value.
As crazy as it may sound, the hussar’s wings had a similar effect to cats who puff up their fur. Riding into battle sporting wings made the cavalry members look bigger, scarier, and fiercer from their enemy’s standpoint.
Combine a couple of wings with the leopard or lynx skin capes the hussars often wore, and you’ll see a pretty confusing and terrifying spectacle.
Among their other favorite battle tactics was the hussars’ notorious headlong charging style, which was designed to “crack open” their enemy’s units. While most European knights of the era would stick together in tightly packed formations, the hussars liked to have room to maneuver.
They changed the game by riding in with each warrior about six feet apart, providing them with room to pull off sudden changes in direction, as well as overlapping charge tactics.
Weaponry used by the Winged Hussars
As impressive as they may have looked, the hussars didn’t depend on looks alone to achieve victory on the battlefield. Each hussar was equipped with a kopia lance, which was made of thin, hollowed-out wood. While the lances were incredibly lightweight, they were usually crafted out of cheap wood, due to the fact that each was designed for a single use.
Not to worry, for after a hussar had put his lance to good use, he would then fall back on the use of his saber. He might be carrying one of several different kinds, ranging from a koncerz (which has a pointy end designed to pierce armor) to a pallash (which is more like a traditional broadsword).
When the evolution of firearms came along, the hussars begrudgingly added them to their arsenals but didn’t necessarily use them as replacements of their old weapons. After all, what’s scarier than a winged guy riding at you with a pistol? A winged guy riding at you with a pistol, a spear, a sword, and a war hammer!
Among the other assets that the hussars had to their advantage was the reputation they developed for being virtually unbeatable. Their renown was first sparked by the Battle of Lubiszew on April 17, 1577.
The hussars represented the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against the Danzig, a group of people who weren’t so keen to accept Stephen Batory as the new Commonwealth’s king. Despite being totally outnumbered, the Polish-Lithuanian army dealt the Danzig a crushing defeat.
The hussars also fought in the famous Battle of Vienna in 1683. When 150,000 Turks, along with the support of the Hungarian army, laid siege to the city, it appeared that all was probably lost.
Ultimately, however, a combined force led by John III Sobieski of Poland was able to defeat the Turks. Sobieski’s victory in Vienna marked the beginning of the end for the Turks when it came to the dominion of Eastern Europe.
Among the hussars’ most impressive yet often overlooked triumphs is the Battle of Hodow in 1694. Legend has it that the battle, which is sometimes referred to as the Polish Thermopylae, was fought between anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 Crimean Khanate and just 400 members of the Polish cavalry, among whom were plenty of hussars.
As the story goes, the hussars managed to break up their enemy’s lines by charging headfirst into them. Their commander, whose name was supposedly Konstanty Zahorowski, decided it was probably time to take a defensive route.
So he steered the Polish forces into a nearby village named Hodow and had them spend the night, turning it into a makeshift fortress. The next day, the hussars and their fellow cavalrymen spent six hours holding off a massive army, knowing that the odds in their favor were about 60 to 1.
By utilizing everything from their rifles to improvised weapons, the Polish cavalry achieved a remarkable victory. While thousands of Khanate lay dead after the battle was over, less than 100 Polish soldiers had fallen.
Due to these and many other battles, the word got around that the hussars could triumph over any enemy, whether they happened to be outnumbered or not. Due to their association with Poland’s golden age and their remarkable achievements in battle, their legend remains alive and well among today’s Polish citizenry.
The Winged Hussars formally disband
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and it was no different for Poland’s legendary fighting force. As the legend of the hussars spread throughout Europe, various ideas began to sprout up about how to defeat them.
One such anti-hussar invention was called the cheval de fries, or Frisian horse, which would prove devastating to the Polish cavalry.
The Frisian horse was basically a larger, wooden version of those road spikes that threaten to pop the tires of anyone who dares to drive over them. Unfortunately for the hussars, they were just as effective at making any attempt at a cavalry charge absolutely hopeless.
Many point to the Battle of Kilszów in 1702 as the beginning of the end of the hussars. After suffering a disheartening defeat due to the discovery of the Frisian horse and other new military technology, morale began to fade quickly among their ranks.
Though they weren’t officially disbanded until the 1770s, by that point they had more or less become obsolete as warriors and were being used more in a ceremonial capacity.
That said, some hussar units lived on in the form of armored regiments, ceremonial arguments, and light infantries in various countries such as the UK, Sweden, and France. Some German states also retained hussars as a mounted police force, complete with special uniforms, until the early 1900s.
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