“We saw it…. the hussars let loose their horses. God, what power! They ran through the smoke and the sound was like that of a thousand blacksmiths beating with a thousand hammers. We saw it…Jezus Maria! The elite’s lances bent forward like stalks of rye, driven by a great storm, bent on glory! The fire of the guns before them glitters! They rush on to the Swedes! They crash into the Swedish reiters (cavalry)…. Overwhelming them! They crash into the second regiment – Overwhelmed! Resistance collapses, dissolves, they move forward as easily as if they were parading on a grand boulevard. They sliced without effort through the whole army…” from Potop (“The Deluge”), by Henry Sienkievich
This breathless account of a 17th century battle captures well the furious charge of the famed Polish “Winged Hussars”. For roughly a century (1576-1683) they were the premiere cavalry in Europe (if not the world). In battle-after-battle, their crushing charge dealt the coup-de-grace to every enemy they faced. While suffering the occasional (even crushing) defeat, their century-long record of success is unsurpassed in the annals of cavalry warfare.
The Husaria towarzysz (“comrades”) were armored horsemen, their primary weapon the very long (and light) kopia. This differed from the standard lance of the Medieval knights in that it was hollow, thus allowing greater length without commensurate weight. Many have opined as to the reason for the great length of the 18-21 foot kopia was to give the lancer greater reach in order to defeat infantry pike formations. But such action is only apparent in one battle of the many the Husaria engaged in; and accounts differ as to wither or not the enemy square was broken by flank or frontal attack.
As backup weapon, the Hussar carried a variety of weapons: sabre, long sword, mace and even war-hammer! Pistols, musketoons, and even composite bows could be carried as well.
The most famous piece of a Hussar’s equipment was his wings.
These varied over the heyday of the Husaria, from mere wings painted on or hanging from the Hussars shield; to two large “skoklosters”, hooped wooden frames onto which eagle feathers were attached. These latter were mounted on the Hussars back, or the back of his saddle.
The purpose of the wings in controversial. Some writers noted that they made a frightening noise when the Hussar was at a gallop. Others that the wings fluttering had the effect of frightening enemy horses unaccustomed to the sight, causing enemy cavalry charges against a formation of Hussars to falter. It has also been suggested that the wing-frames may have acted to deflect Tartar lasso or enemy sabre cuts.
All that we know for sure is that they lent the Hussars a unique and spectacular appearance.
Though for a time the strongest state in Eastern Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was beset by a plethora of enemies. Though its Hussars could tip the scales and win battles, these were a relatively small, elite force; never exceeding 3,000 armored lancers. Despite such battlefield successes as they enjoyed, the far-flung kingdom was beset on all sides by aggressive neighbors. Ultimately Poland was for time overrun and on the verge of collapse (the “Deluge”, 1648-1667).
But Poland reemerged, and in 1683 under its heroic king, Jan Sobieski, the Hussars enjoyed their most celebrated success; riding forth to save Europe one last time from the tide of Islam!
Since its imergence in the early 7th century, Islam had been battering at the gates of “Christendom”. The early surge of Muslim invasion overran much of the Christian Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire, taking Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. Crossing into Spain, the Muslim Moors destroyed the Visigoth Kingdom, establishing first an Emirate and later a break-away Caliphate, centered on Cordoba.
This first onrush of the Muslim tide was stopped in the east at the Anatolian mountains by successive Byzantine soldier-Emperors. In the west, Muslim conquest was stopped by the Frankish hero, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”), deep in France at the Battle of Tours (732 AD).
After fighting off Christian Europe’s attempt to regain the lost territories of Syria and Palestine (the “Holy Land”) during the period known as the “Crusades”; Islam was once again on the march into Europe. From the 14th century onward, under the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey, the borders of Islam had advanced steadily into Eastern Europe.
An outgrowth of a militant “Ghazi” state on the frontiers of the fading Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman state was the dominant Muslim power in the world from the 15th century onward. Its Sultans, adopting for themselves the titles of “Defender of the Faithful” and “Sword of Islam”; saw their mission as one of pushing the militant frontiers of Islam deep into the Christian lands of Europe.
In 1453, the Turks captured Constantinople, the decaying capital of ancient Byzantine. In the following decades, the Turks battled their way into Serbia, Wallachia, and Bosnia. In 1526 the Turks conquered the Kingdom of Hungry, following the (for the Christians) disastrous Battle of Mohács.
In 1529, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent” marched into the heart of Europe; attempting to capture the city of Vienna, capital of the Hapsburg-led Holy Roman Empire. This first Siege of Vienna ended in failure for the Turks; temporarily halting their advance.
The central Balkans became the frontier between Christian and Muslim for the next century-and-a-half; in a desultory war of raid and counter raid. Then, in 1683, the Turks were back, again laying siege to the Hapsburg capital, Vienna.
Europe may have looked ripe for conquest to the Sultans and their viziers in Constantinople (later Istanbul). The Protestant Reformation had given rise to the Wars of Religion in France; and the devastating 30 Years War in Germany (which killed an estimated 25%-40% of the population). Though the Peace of Westphalia had brought active hostilities to a close, the Protestant and Catholic states were still deeply divided.
Europe was not only divided along religious lines, but along national lines as well. Poland was not the only nation beset by troublesome neighbors. The Hapsburg rulers of Austria were under pressure from the expansionist policies of the French “Sun King“, Louis XIV; who was pushing the borders of France into Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland. This threat to their German possessions had Hapsburg Austria fixated on their western borders.
Against this backdrop, the Turks prepared for a renewed thrust into central Europe. Carefull preparation over many years, building up supply depots, repairing roads, and the massing of troops came to fruition in 1683. A massive Turkish army (estimated by various sources as between 150,000 and 300,000 strong), led by the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, marched north from Adrianople on April 2, 1683. Their goal: the conquest of Vienna!
By mid-July, the Turks were before the city. The second siege of Vienna began.
From July 14, when the Turks began bombarding the city with 300 guns, till mid-September the siege went on. Though the garrison was small (only some 2,000 troops, augmented by civilian militia) and the defenses incomplete; the city held out desperately. Much of the battle was conducted underground, where Turkish miners, tunneling under the defenses and attempting to plant explosives, were met by Austrian counter-mines. Fierce battles took place above and below ground; with the defenders slowly losing ground.
The Turks swarm forward into a breach in the defensives, while Austrian defenders stand firmly against them!
By September, the city was in desperate straits, and its fall was imminent. The century-and-a-half long goal of the Ottoman Sultans, to seize Vienna and use it as a spring-board for Muslim expansion into the heart of Europe, seemed within their grasp.
Fortunately for Vienna and Christian Europe, the Muslim tide was about to break upon a rock; a Polish rock!
In early September, a relief force was coming to the city’s aid. This coalition force consisted of 47,000 troops from Austrian and Holy Roman Empire (Germans) led by Charles Duke of Lorraine; and a Polish army some 37,000 strong, led by King Jan Sobieski. The cream of this force was the Husaria, 3,000 strong.
On September 1o, the coalition army formed made its way through the Wienerwald, the series of forested hills ringing Vienna to the south and west. Their destination was the Kahlenberg ridge overlooking the Vienna plain, where lay the Turkish camp. It was incredibly rough going; the terrain cut by ravines and valleys, vineyards and stone walls. slowly the allied contingents pushed through. Fortunately for the allies and for the city, the Turks did little to oppose their advance; as Kara Mustafa concentrated on capturing the city before the relief force could arrive. This failure to oppose the allies in the difficult terrain of the Wienerwald was to prove a fatal error.
On the morning of September 12, the allies had obtained their goal; and were poised to attack onto the plain. Still, there were villages, hills, and orchards between them and their target, the Turkish army. It would take most of the day to push through into the relatively flat plains where the Polish cavalry could charge with effect.
Kara Mustafa could no longer ignore the coming relief force. Leaving troops to continue the assault on the city, he deployed the bulk of his army in line facing the allies advancing from the Kahlenberg ridge.
All day long the allied infantry, supported by artillery hauled at great pains through the forested Wienerwald, slogged forward through the broken terrain. Lorraine and his sub-commanders found themselves fighting countless minor skirmishes over every farmhouse and vineyard, as the allied forces inched forward.
On the allied right, Sobieski and the Polish forces were the last to arrive in position, having the furthest to travel and very tough terrain to traverse. Finally, at 1 PM the Poles were in position atop the Kahlenberg. The advance was led by infantry as they pushed through broken terrain, clearing away Turkish skirmishers and brushing off periodic attacks. At 2 PM, the Polish Royal Army came in-line with the rest of the struggling allies. A great cheer rose from the Imperial troops, greeting the Poles’ arrival.
By 4PM the Polish advance had reached the flat ground necessary for a successful charge. Now the Hussars moved to the front, through the intervals in the infantry line. Their feathered wings and bright lance pennants fluttering in the breeze, they were by all accounts a splendid and impressive sight.
First a few companies were detailed to probe the enemy’s center, where they succeeded in disordering the Turkish first line. As the Poles withdrew, the Ottoman commander on the Turkish left must have thought the Poles were now vulnerable to counter-attack; and ordered the Ottoman cavalry on that wing to attack Sobieski’s horsemen.
Clearing a last line of vineyards, the Hussars now began a charge in mass. With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj“, the password of the day on their lips, and their king at their head, the Poles advanced at a canter. The Imperial infantry to their left paused in their own attack to take in the awe-inspiring sight. At 50 paces, with the order “Zlozcie kopie” (“lower lances!”) the Hussars broke into full gallop, lances lowering like “stalks of rye in the wind”. Into the oncoming Turkish cavalry, Sipahis and akinci, they tore!
A witness to the charge wrote:
“No sooner does a Hussar lower his lance than a Turk is impaled on its spike; disordering and terrifying the foe. That blow cannot be avoided or deflected…Oft transfixing two persons at a time. Others flee in eager haste… Like flies in a frenzy!”
Scattering the Turkish outriders, Sobieski now ordered the Hussars to charge home against the center of the Turkish camp. With an audible crash and shattering of lances they smashed home into the Janissaries. The Turkish line recoiled, and after receiving still another charge from the far-right squadrons of Polish horse crumbled. Soon the entire Turkish line was fleeing headlong in a disorderly mob from the pursuing Hussars.
The siege was over, and Vienna was saved. The Turkish drive into central Europe ended in defeat; and in the coming years the Imperial forces, led by the brilliant Prince Eugene of Savoy would drive the Turks out of Hungary entirely.
But the laurels that autumn day in 1683 belonged to Jan Sobieski and the Polish “Winged Hussars” he led. This was their last hurrah, a glorious final charge that helped to save the West from Muslim domination. But advances in fire-arms and artillery, as well as the expense of maintaining them would soon make the Hussars obsolete.
As writers of the day noted, the Hussar was a specialist, good for only one thing: to charge spectacularly in battle and break the enemy. They were no good at the sundry other common-place duties necessary for cavalry on campaign. Their place would be taken by cheaper, more versatile dragoons and light cavalry. But as one military observer of the day noted:
“Like the heavy artillery, most of the time they are but a burden on the baggage train.” But like the heavy artillery, when used for which they are designed, nothing is better! “Good for only one day of battle? Yes, but what a day of decision!”
For a more hyperbolic view of the Winged Hussars, go to Badass of the Week’s take:
“…it’s time that the Polish cavalry – and particularly the Winged Hussars – get appropriately recognized as one of the most eye-skeweringly hardcore
associations of asskickers ever assembled. These daring, brave,
unabashedly-feathered badasses crushed throats up and down Europe for two centuries, annihilating battle-tested armies three times their size with nothing more than a huge-ass lance, an awesome set of ultra-cool wings, and a gym bag full of iron-plated armor ballsacks.”