Hussars or winged hussars (Husaria in Polish) were the elite heavy cavalry of the Polish Republic. Their distinctive feature is a pair of wings mounted on the back of the saddle, richly gilded armour, and equipment with an exotic pelt underneath.
With their distinctive wings and imposing regalia, this elite fighting unit became synonymous with the might and valour of Polish military tradition and, to this day, is a part of Polish history that is spoken of with pride alongside the likes of Wojtek the bear.
The Hussars of Poland were one of the most effective cavalry units in medieval military history.
The task of the horsemen during battle was to penetrate the enemy’s front line and break their array, allowing lighter formations of Polish cavalry to enter the fray.
The specificity of the armament, tactics, and training of the heavily armored-winged horsemen allowed the Republic to win several battles.
Heavy hussars fought against Russian, Swedish, and Turkish armies, most notably in the 1683 Battle of Vienna.
In this article, we will explore the historical background, origin, military tactics, decline, and enduring legacy of the Winged Hussars of Poland.
The Historical Roots of the Polish Hussar
To grasp the profound importance of Poland’s infamous cavalryman, it is imperative to delve into the historical context of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
This Commonwealth emerged as a formidable force during the late medieval era, uniting extensive territories across Central and Eastern Europe and the Crimean peninsula.
Its military prowess was further strengthened by integrating diverse ethnic groups as national army officers, resulting in a rich tapestry of military traditions and tactics.
One of the key players during the late 17th century was the Ottoman Empire, a formidable rival to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
As the Ottomans expanded their influence, the Commonwealth recognized the need to develop an elite cavalry force capable of withstanding their adversaries, defending Polish territory, and breaking enemy lines. Drawing inspiration from various sources, including the Hungarian and Serbian traditions, the Polish nobility sought to create a distinct and formidable fighting unit.
The Hussars owe their creation to the Serbs, who, after their defeat at Kosovo Field in 1389, sought to avenge themselves on the Turks in various battles.
The very beginning of the 16th century is considered to be the time of the birth of the Polish hussars, as the first known mention of four horsemen on Polish subsistence (pay) dates back to 1500. In 1503, the Sejm established the first ensigns of national authority, including the Hussars.
Hussar ensigns initially lacked protective armour for riders and horses. Thus began this mounted soldier’s more than two-hundred-year history, marked by numerous victories.
Key Battles and Triumphs of the Winged Hussar
The 1514 Battle of Orsha:
The first known battle using heavily armoured hussars dates back to 1514 and the Battle of Orsha. The Polish troops were divided into three ranks: the first was made up of artillery, infantry, and cavalry armed with lances, the second was Lithuanian light cavalry, and the king of Poland occupied the third with good court banners supported on the wings by 500 hussars.
Painting attributed to Hans Krell
The 1581 Battle of Mogilev
The Battle of Mogilev in 1581 showcased the immense worth of Polish mounted warriors who valiantly withstood the onslaught of Russian troops, despite being greatly outnumbered. On June 27, the Russian army attacked the outskirts of Mogilev, a former Polish city but present-day city located in Eastern Belarus.
The Polish forces, consisting of approximately 200 hussars and around 314 light cavalry, along with the city garrison of Mogilev, stood resolute in the face of adversity.
In contrast, the opposing Russian side boasted an overwhelming force of 30,000 to 40,000 Muscovites, Cossacks, and Tatars.
The city remained staunchly defended for an arduous seven-hour duration until much-needed reinforcements arrived. Ultimately, the Moscow forces were forced to retreat across the Dnieper River to the opposite bank. While the Polish ranks sustained injuries and significant losses in their horse cavalry, no soldier perished.
The 1588 Battle of Byczyna: A Struggle for the Polish Throne
In 1588, the Battle of Byczyna took place, fought between the armies of the pretender to the Polish throne (after the death of Stefan Batory), Austrian Archduke Maximilian III Habsburg, and the army of the Republic commanded by Grand Hetman of the Crown Jan Zamoyski, a supporter of Sigismund III Vasa during the 1587 election.
The Polish forces had 3700 cavalry and 2300 infantry, while the army consisting of Austrians and Polish partisans numbered 6500 soldiers. The battle was short-lived. However, it became very bloody, quickly turning into a slaughter of fleeing Austrian soldiers.
The 1605 Battle of Kircholm: A Power Struggle with Sweden
The Battle of Kircholm in 1605 can be attributed to the escalating power struggle between Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Another factor was the Swedish throne struggle between Charles Suderman and Sigismund III Vasa.
The army of the Republic, numbering 3,750 soldiers (including 1,750 mounted soldiers) under the command of Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, beat a Swedish army three times as large, numbering 12,300 soldiers, commanded by Swedish King Charles IX.
Painting attributed to Wojciech Kossak
The battle was decided in 20 minutes by the devastating charge of Polish-Lithuanian cavalry.
The battle ended in the decisive victory of the Polish-Lithuanian forces and is remembered as one of the greatest triumphs of Commonwealth cavalry.
The 1610 Battle of Klushino: A Display of Cavalry Prowess
During the Battle of Klushino, the opposing forces were highly uneven, with 35,000 Russian and foreign troops facing off against just 6,800 Polish soldiers.
However, the cavalrymen once again proved their worth, with the 5,556-strong Hussars charging into battle multiple times to overcome their much larger foes.
Despite the odds, the Polish army emerged victorious, suffering 300 losses compared to the opposing side’s 8,000 casualties. This victory demonstrated the Poles’ ability to effectively combat the Eastern and Western styles of cavalry and Western infantry.
The 1683 Battle of Vienna: A Defining Moment for the Hussars, Poland & Europe
The most famous victory occurred in 1683, during the Battle of Vienna when King John III Sobieski set out to relieve the Austrian capital besieged by the Turks. The Polish numbered 27,000, including some 3,600 cavalrymen.
By contrast, Grand Vizier Mustafa’s army may have consisted of as many as 300,000 soldiers. Before the battle, some 33,000 allied Austrian and German troops were placed under the command of the Polish king.
Their task was to focus attention and engage the enemy while the Polish troops were looking for a suitable place to carry out the charge. After selecting a suitable area, Sobieski ordered the Polish infantry and artillery to clear the foreground of the overgrown vineyards. After more than 11 hours of preparation and uphill fighting, the plain was ready for the hussar attack.
The charge of the Polish cavalry, supported by Austrian and German cavalry, ended the battle in half an hour. The Turkish troops, in disarray, threw themselves into flight, which then finally put an end to the Muslim invasion of Europe.
The beginning of the 17th century was the time of the greatest victories of the hussars. Then, it earned the nickname of the world’s most dangerous ride. The outstanding commanders and their tactics made crushing victories over overwhelming enemy forces possible.
Battle Strategies of the Hussars: Blending East and West
The hussars’ prowess was derived from their skill in blending the typical strengths of Eastern cavalry- momentum and mobility- with the features unique to Western cavalry- compactness- and certain exclusive tactics.
Leveraging their momentum, they could overpower the Western infantry and cavalry.
At the same time, their agility enabled them to bravely emerge victorious against both heavy cavalry and infantry from the West and lighter eastern cavalry like the Turkish and Tartars too.
The hussars managed to maintain minimal losses during battle charges owing to their unique tactics, which were specific to the Polish cavalry.
Their charging lines were arranged in a relatively loose formation, with a distance of around 3 meters between each horse in a line, that would only tighten up as they approached the enemy- getting as close as “knee to knee” in some cases- at a distance of about 60 to 100 meters.
The possibility of striking a galloping horse was highly unlikely since, despite common perceptions, the opposing troops didn’t strive to target the enemy accurately but merely fired in their general direction.
During such a tense scenario, wherein overwhelming dread ensues upon witnessing the hussar regiments hurtling towards you, it was far more likely that a shot would go near a charging enemy rather than accurately hit them and take them out of the battle.
The Arsenal of the Hussar: Weapons and Protective Gear
The Hussars were at first a light cavalry. They wore kaftans, and their primary defensive weapon was a wooden “Turkish shield” with a characteristically elongated single horn. It wasn’t long before they began to use light armour and skirmishes.
The offensive weapon was the lance, 4.5 to 6.2 meters long.
The centre of gravity of the lance was shifted toward the back with a relatively heavy counterweight ball that also served as a shield for the soldier’s hands. This rear centre of gravity made it easier to manoeuvre the weapon.
The spearhead of the lance was reinforced with steel ‘whiskers’ or ‘feathers’, preventing the spearhead from being chopped off.
After Stefan Batory’s military reforms, the hussars became slightly heavier. They began to use half armour with the “breastplate” reinforced up to 8 mm in the centre and more massive neckerchiefs, including the capelin type.
Complementing the breastplate was the carapace and – for a short period only – the epaulettes. The round Turkish Kalkan replaced the oblong shield, which went out of use in the 17th century.
In the middle of the 16th century, the mounted soldiers were given a Koncerz (up to 160 cm long), used for stabbing, possibly tearing the chainmail, and used in battle after the lance was crushed.
Hussar horses: Breeding & Significance
The Hussars would not have been able to achieve their great victories without the right horses. They were bred domestically, and the basis of these breeds were Polish breeds derived from admittedly small but hardy breeders. The best horses were bred by introducing appropriate mixtures of eastern breeds (Turkish, Turkmen, Persian, etc.).
These were tall, hardy, and fast horses, which could, after a long march and carrying on their backs a rider weighing about 100 kg, enter the battle almost on the march and strike, breaking through enemy forces.
For example, in the Battle of Klushino, the riders charged ten times after marching all night and then pursued the fleeing enemy.
These horses were not cheap, as they cost at least 200 zlotys each, and each mounted soldier had to have several of them. In 1685, the cost of staging a hussar post was valued at 5100 zlotys, and at the time, it was an estate comparable to buying a village.
Giving or selling such a horse abroad was punishable by death.
While human losses during hussar charges were relatively small, horse losses throughout the campaigns were very high.
The war diaries of the 17th century show that horses fell from fatigue, food diseases, and colds while camped outdoors. Infections from wounds inflicted in battle were a huge problem.
The Iconic Wings of the Hussar: Purpose and Symbolism
The most identifiable part of the hussar is its wings, and a somewhat sensitive topic for some to discuss. – never let the truth get in the way of a good story!
Hussar wings were only cemented in our consciousness by 19th-century painters such as Jozef Brandt and Wojciech Kossak, as well as by our contemporary Polish GROM, who used this element of their armour in their symbolism.
Many of the hussar armours in museum collections that exist today were not equipped with wings until the 19th century, and thus difficulties arise in determining the actual use of wings.
Often the wings or wing (usually one was used) were attached to the rear hilt of the saddle. Wings were also common to be used only for displays and parades.
There are several theories to justify the use of wings; the best justified is the one that sees feathers or wings as an element of psychological warfare.
In fact, the wings could frighten the enemy’s horses, although not by their noise alone, which no one would hear in the heat of battle, but by their appearance.
The attachment of the wings also served as additional protection for the rider on horseback from saber cuts from behind and from being lassoed.
It should be noted that many elements of a rider’s equipment could affect the enemy’s psyche.
The pennants next to the rider’s feet were deceiving the eyes of the attacked enemy with their fluttering and flickering colors. French engineer Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplan, who stayed in Poland for many years, noted:
“On the tops of the flag fly pennants that are either red and white, blue and green or black and white. However, they always remain two-colored at 4 to 5 cubits (240-300 cm) long. This is probably designed to frighten the horses of enemies. As soon as the cavalrymen start to circle around the enemy, these banners arouse the fear of the enemy horses whose ranks they want to tear apart.”
Despite the detailed description, Beauplan did not mention the use of wings. However, their use by hussars is mentioned by other 17th-century authors visiting the Republic, such as Sebastian Cefali in 1665 and Francois Paul D’Alerac in 1689, and most notably Charles Ogier in 1635:
“…it’s hard not to laugh at the sight of the long wings attached to their backs, from which, they believe, the enemy’s horses also get frightened and throw themselves into flight.”
The fact that the cavalrymen wore wings during the Battle of Vienna was confirmed by one of its participants, a hussar comrade, Szymon Franciszek Pulaski, who wrote:
“They had wings, consisting of a slat of wood, bolted to the waist, high above the top of the head, curved above the same head, of various colors together with feathers painted, imitating an olive or palm branch, which made a strangely beautiful sight, but all the banners did not use such laurel.”
In addition to ostrich feathers or eagle feathers, the visible adornment of the cavalrymen was the skins of wild animals.
They usually wore tiger or leopard skins as the outer garment of their armor, while pikemen wore wolf or bear skins to distinguish themselves.
The Hussars in Polish Society: Prestige and Perception
The Hussars, a cavalry regiment that included sons from the most prominent families in the country, were recognizable due to their traditional Polish clothing and weaponry.
They were a highly esteemed group during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, even having a specific type of horn known as “hussar delicos” that was only permitted by a special parliamentary decree.
The wealthy members of society, who were often , used their association with the Hussars to demonstrate their elite status.
However, in satirical literature from the era, the Hussars were depicted as troublemakers, alcoholics, and indulgent individuals.
This perception was fueled by resentment and jealousy towards the most notable members of the group.
Towards the end of the 17th century, there was an increasing trend for those with the distinguished title to return home to their rural estates, leaving only their mail and servants behind at camp.
The splendor with which the cavalrymen surrounded themselves was condemned on the one hand but admired on the other. Foreigners, who had not encountered this type of army at home, were invariably impressed by the sight of hussars.
The Decline of the Polish Hussars: From Glory to Obsolescence
The first symptoms of the decline of the hussars can be seen in the second half of the 17th century when their numbers declined sharply. The high costs associated with staging a hussar post always limited the mobilization base of the cavalryman to only the richest nobility, who could afford to buy expensive horses and necessary equipment.
As long as the Polish nobility did not have financial problems, the number of hussars in the Polish army was high.
At the peak of the Republic’s economic power (the beginning of the 17th century), the entire country could mobilize up to 8,000 hussars.
However, a series of devastating wars in the mid-17th century seriously weakened the Republic and impoverished its people. The economic decline of the middle nobility entailed a hussar crisis.
The desire to increase the number of mounted soldiers in the Polish army at all costs caused a decline in quality.
Many armored units were also reformed into hussar units to increase the number of hussars. This, in turn, reduced the quality of the horses and equipment used by the hussars.
Due to the general impoverishment of society, some soldiers began using cheaper raiding armor instead of the increasingly rare hussar armor. Raiding armor, although heavier than hussar armor, provided much weaker protection.
Another circumstance lowering the combat power of the elite horsemen was the moral changes that affected noble society at the dawn of the 18th century. Instead of the previously cultivated chivalric ethos, the nobility focused its activity on politics.
The old military exercises were abandoned, resulting in a sharp decline in hussar training.
Hussars eventually became a parade army, used only at military displays or funerals of chiefs, kings, and senators. It was also customary for a hussar in full armor to ride into a church and crush a lance against the coffin or tomb nobleman killed in battle.
For this reason, the cavalrymen were called “funeral troops” in the 18th century. Eventually, by a resolution of the Sejm of the Republic of April 11, 1775, the hussars were abolished as combatants, and the existing hussar and armored banners were transformed into brigades of national cavalry.
Despite their decline, the legacy of the Winged Hussars endured. They became a symbol of national pride and heroism in Poland and beyond. Their iconic imagery inspired art, literature, and music, immortalizing their memory as legendary warriors.
These fierce soldiers occupy a revered place in military history and European history, their names evoking awe and admiration. From their origins in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the largest cavalry charge on the battlefield, winged hussars proved the effectiveness of good military training.