The Polish Army

Polish armies had to operate in all types of terrain and climates (baking plains in the south to freezing bogs and forests in the north, wilderness or city). The enemy varied from slow-moving pikemen and musketeers to nimble, swift-attacking horsemen and invariably the fighting was far from home and lacking in ancillary services. Polish military thinking was therefore based on the ideas of mobility, adaptability and self-sufficiency.

The old Hussite idea of forming a gigantic square, a mobile fortress quickly formed if caught out in the open, became standard practice in all operations against Tartars and Turks. The Poles also devised the idea of operating in divisions since this gave them all-important mobility and ability to live off the land (this was at a time when most European armies marched in a great mass). Another tradition was that of the deep cavalry raid sweeping ahead of the main army, sometimes covering a thousand miles in a great arc behind enemy lines. The crux of any battle was the cavalry charge, not a massed attack by heavy armour, but light cavalry supported by artillery, probing for weak points to be exploited by the heavy cavalry deployed in a chequerboard pattern so that the bringing down of one rank or section did not affect the others.

The Poles set great store by artillery and were years in advance of their enemies until the eighteenth century, using light cannon with accurate bombardment and mobility being the crucial factors. They also used rocketry to great effect (Siemienowicz published a treatise on multi-stage rocketry in 1650).

The infantry was lightly dressed without helmets or armour and armed with musket, short sword and hatchet. Only one man in eight carried a pike. In the 1550's a Polish regiment of 200 men could fire 150 shots in five minutes (contemporary Spanish brigades of 10,000 men could only deliver 750 in the same time). Polish infantry possessed ten times greater firepower on a man-to-man basis than standard European infantries.

The cavalry was the backbone of the Commonwealth's military power, outnumbering the infantry by three to one. The crossed Turkish and European breeds to produce horses with speed and endurance, and rode on eastern saddles in order to place less strain on the horse. Because of these factors they could cover tremendous distances (upto 120 kilometres a day) without killing their mounts. Their curved sabres were the finest cutting weapon ever in use in a European army and accounted for their endurance in battle.

The pride and glory of the cavalry, its mailed first, was the Husaria, the winged cavalry. Operating in regiments of about 300, the front rank carried an astonishing lance of up to twenty feet in length (thus outreaching infantry pikes and allowing the Husaria to cut straight through an enemy square). They also carried a sabre or rapier with a six - foot blade (another weapon which was unique to the Poles), as well as a pair of pistols, a short carbine, a bow and arrows and a variety of other weapons, the most lethal of which was the "czekan", a long steel hammer which could go through heads and helmets like butter.

The ultimate weapon of the Husaria was psychological. As well as wearing helmets, thick steel breastplates and shoulder and arm guards the Husaria also wore wings; great wooden arcs bristling with eagle feathers attached to the back of the saddle or the shoulders. Over their shoulders they wore the skin of a tiger or leopard as a cloak. Their harnesses, saddles and horse-cloths were embroidered and embellished with gold and gems and their long lances were painted with stripes like a stick of rock and decorated with a five-foot-long silk pennant which, along with the wings and jingling jewellery, made a frightful sound (described as "an evil hiss" by some) and sight during the charge. They even sometimes painted their horses red and white.

For over a century, the Husaria were the lords of the battlefield, delivering the decisive blow in many an important engagement; at Kircholm (1605) 4,000 Poles accounted for 14,000 Swedes, at Klushino (1610) 6,000 Poles (of only 200 were infantry) defeated 30,000 Muscovite and 5,000 German and Scottish mercenaries, at Gniew (1656) 5,500 Polish cavalry defeated 13,000 Swedes and outside Vienna (1683) the Husaria saved Europe from the, until then, unstoppable might of the Ottoman Empire.

After Vienna every lancer must be a Pole or dress like one, and since there were not enough Poles to go round armies were compelled to raise their own lancers dressed and equipped on the Polish model. Napoleon had his Polish lancers who rendered him good service, especially at Somo Sierra in Spain (when a squadron of 125 men cleared 9,000 entrenched infantry and four batteries in the space of seven minutes) and once again the Poles were able to inspire the rest of Europe. There have been few more gorgeously dressed soldiers in all the history of armies than the lancers of the nineteenth century. The lance cap was modelled on the Polish style and even called the "chapka" (hat). The short, double-breasted jacket of scarlet or blue was similarly known as a "ulanka" and German and Austrian lancers were called "uhlans". To the glittering uniforms, waving plumes, and splendidly caparisoned saddle-cloths there was also added the colour and flutter of the waving lance pennant.