“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. Jezus Maria! The lances bent forward like stalks of rye driven by a great storm, bent on glory! They crash into the Swedish reiters…Overwhelming them! They sliced without effort through the whole army…”
This breathless account of a 17th century battle from Potop (“The Deluge”), by Henry Sienkievich 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 towarzysz (“comrades”) of the Polish Husaria were armored lancers, 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 writers have opined as to the reason for the great length of the 18-21 foot kopia; suggesting that it was to give the lancer greater reach in order to defeat the pike-armed infantry formations of the day. But its use in such an action is only apparent in one battle of the many the Husaria engaged in; and accounts differ as to wither or not on that occasion 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 (“nadziak”). 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 is controversial. Some writers suggested that the wings made a frightening noise when the Hussar was at a gallop. This is almost certainly apocryphal: modern reenactor Rik Fox of the Los Angles-Based Suligowski’s Regiment Husariareenactment group assures me that no such sound is apparent; or would be heard above the din of battle, in any case. Others have put forth the theory that the fluttering wings frightened enemy horses unaccustomed to the sight; which might cause the mounts of enemy cavalry charging against the Hussars to balk. This is more plausible: the fluttering lance pennants and feathers might indeed “spook” an enemy horse unaccustomed to the sight. It has also been suggested that the wing-frames may have acted to deflect Tartar lassos 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!
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