“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 whether 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: saber, 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 Husaria reenactment 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, causing 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 advancing tide of Islam!
THE SIEGE OF VIENNA, 1683
Since its emergence in the early 7th century, the warriors of 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 Sultanate 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 frontiers of Islam deep into the Christian lands of Europe.
The Turks captured Constantinople, the decaying capital of ancient Byzantium, in 1453. In the following decades, the Turks battled their way into Serbia, Wallachia, and Bosnia. In 1526 their Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, conquered the Kingdom of Hungry following the (for the Christians) disastrous Battle of Mohács.
In 1529, Suleiman pushed into the heart of Europe, attempting to capture 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 thereafter 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 wasn’t 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. This brilliant and aggressive monarch was fast making France the greatest power in Europe, pushing the borders of France into Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland at the expense of the Empire. This threat from France had Hapsburg Austria fixated on their western borders.
Against this backdrop, the Turks prepared for a renewed thrust into central Europe. Careful 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 capture of the Hapsburg capital.
By mid-July, the Turks were before the city. The second siege of Vienna began.
From July 14 through mid-September the Turks bombarded the city with 300 guns. Though the garrison was small (only some 2,000 troops, augmented by civilian militia) and the defenses incomplete, the city stubbornly refused to surrender. 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 struggles took place below and above the fortifications, with the defenders slowly losing ground.
The Turks swarm forward into a breach in the defenses, while Austrian defenders stand firmly against them!
By September the city was in desperate straits, and its fall imminent. For the Turks the long-sought goal of capturing Vienna and using it as a spring-board for 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 Polish rock!
In early September, a relief force was coming to the city’s aid. This coalition army consisted of 47,000 German troops from Austria and the Holy Roman Empire led by Charles Duke of Lorraine; and a Polish army of some 37,000 led by King Jan Sobieski, the cream of which was the 3,000 strong Husaria.
On September 10, the coalition army made its way through the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), 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, the sound of the Turkish guns bombarding Vienna growing ever closer. 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 allies 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 Poles 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.
The allied lines advanced. By 4 pm the Hussars had reached the flat ground necessary for a successful charge. Now they 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.
As their rearmost squadrons cleared a last line of vineyards, the Hussars began a charge in mass. With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj“, the password of the day on their lips, and with their king at their head, the Hussars 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, their lances lowering like “stalks of rye in the wind”. Into the oncoming Turkish cavalry, Sipahis and akinci alike, 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 cavalry Sobieski now ordered the Hussars to charge home against the center of the Ottoman camp. At 6 pm, in coordination with the Imperial forces under Charles, Sobieski led the largest cavalry charges in history: some 20,000 German and Polish riders. At their head, the Polish king leading the way, were the 3,000 strong Hussars.
With a deafening crash and shattering of lances they smashed home into the Janissary infantry defending the camp. 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. They left behind on the plain some 8,000-15,000 dead, with another 5,000 captured.
Three hours after it had begun, the battle was over. The Turks were in full flight, and the allies entered Vienna in triumph. Afterwards Sobieski paraphrased Julius Caesar, saying “Veni, vidi, Deus vicit” (“I came, I saw, God conquered”).
September 12, 1683 was the day that saved Europe. The siege was over, Vienna succored. In celebration, the bakers of Vienna made tiny pastries shaped like the crescents on Turkish banners. Their fellow bakers all over Europe soon copied: thus the croissant was born. The Turkish drive into central Europe was turned back 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.
The laurels that autumn day in 1683 belonged to Jan Sobieski and the Polish “Winged Hussars”. 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 put to the use 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.”
For an excellent biography of the heroic Jan Sobieski, read Miltiades Varvounis‘ Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.