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The Polish Autorament

The Polish army was organised along two fairly distinct models, and so can be divided into two sections: the 'Foreign Autorament' (contingent or 'enlistment') composed of troops raised along foreign lines, especially German; and the 'Polish Autorament', organised and dressed along more traditional and Eastern lines.

The organisation of the Polish Autorament was descended directly from the division of a mediaeval army into 'lances', 'banners', and 'battles'. In Poland poczet ('post'), chorągiew and pulk were the corresponding terms.

The smallest Polish unit was the 'post', derived from the mediaeval 'lance'. This comprised a towarzysz (comrade) and between one and 24 paholeks (retainers or followers), depending on the rank and wealth of the comrade. In the hussars in the earlier period about four retainers per comrade was the average, reducing by the battle of Vienna to only two; in the 'cossacks' the number was always smaller, originally around three but reducing to one. The light cavalry in the later 17th century had only one retainer, and moves were made from above to take even this away. The 'post' of the rotmistrz ('rotamaster') was considerably bigger than those of his comrades; many of his 'horses', by which the unit's pay was calculated, were in fact 'dead-pays', which meant the chorągiew was usually between five and ten per cent smaller than its official strength.

In addition to these each 'post' had a number of camp servants, often including wives and other women, whose duties were to look after the wagons and provisions.

The smallest tactical unit of the Polish Con¬tingent was the chorągiew (literally 'banner' or 'ensign', though for clarity sometimes translated here as 'troop' for cavalry, and 'company' for infantry). It was commonly known as a rota, though this term went out of use in the first half of the 17th century. Each chorągiew had at its head a rotmistrz (rotamaster), who was issued with a commission ('letter of array') to raise a fixed number of men under a single flag. He gathered together trusted comrades, who in turn brought with them their own 'lads'. He appointed from among the comrades his own porucznik (lieutenant) as his second-in-command, an ensign-bearer to carry the unit's flag, and usually a handful of drummers or pipers. A chorągiew could vary hugely in size, though this was usually a figure stated on the rotamaster's initial commission. Round figures were the most usual: in the hussars normally 100, 120, 150 or 200; for lighter cavalry from 60 to 150, though kings and000

Layout of a camp for an hussar 'banner', c. 1659. This has many interesting features, particularly the variation in the accom¬modation within the unit, from the huge quarters of the unit's two main officers, the rotamaster and lieutenant, down to the humbler ones of the junior 'comrades'. Each 'post' was a separate economic unit, with its own tents, wagons, stables, kitchen, bakery, and latrines, all of which are indicated on this drawing. Scale is in feet. From MS. of Budownictwo Woiennego ('Military Architecture') by Naronowicz-Naroński. (Warsaw Univ. Libr.) hetmens' personal 'banners' were often larger.

Anything between two and 40 'banners' (more usually between five and 12) were grouped together into a pulk. The pulk was not a permanent organisation and had no staff aside from the senior rotamaster in the command, known as the pulkownik. Tie pulk was much like the feudal 'battle', though it had adapted somewhat to warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries. In many ways it was analagous to a modern army division or corps, containing a variety of troop types and able to fight independently of die main body of the army if necessary. It was only in the later part of the 17th century in the Foreign Contingent that the words pulk and pulkownik took on their modern meanings of regiment and colonel.


Until the middle of the 17th century Polish cavalry was divided into two main classes: hussars, and 'cossacks'. It was not until the late 1640s that a separate class of 'light cavalry' is mentioned in accounts and rolls; before this date such units went under the general heading of 'cossacks'.

The categories were fairly broad; the 'cossack', for instance, could have a wide variety of dress, weapons and armour. Some armoured cossack 'banners' were equipped at least as well as, if not better than, the poorer units of hussars. There are frequent references, for example, to armoured cossacks wearing hussar-style szyszak helmets, and hussars in misiurka mail helmets, so the distinction between the categories must occasionally have been fairly blurred. Later in the 17th century there are numerous examples of units being converted from armoured cossacks into hussars, and occasionally even vice versa.

During Bathory's Muscovite campaigns nearly a third of cavalry 'banners' were of mixed type, with a proportion of a different type of cavalry in the same rota: usually hussar units with an admixture of cossacks. In most units this usually only amounted to a few per cent of the total strength of the unit, though in a handful it reached half. By the 1590s such mixed units had disappeared.

Even within a homogenous unit there must have been great variation in dress worn by men of differing rank and wealth. Certainly hussar retainers would have been considerably less well equipped than their masters, and would have worn blackened armour and simple 'Pappenheimer' helmets, rather than the more elaborate items worn by 'comrades' and officers. In many instances they went entirely without armour several accounts specifically mention that the retainers of the Polish Contingent were continually in danger of being mistaken for Tartars.

Hussars (Husaria)

The Polish hussar was certainly one of the most spectacular soldiers of all time. Contemporaries marvelled at them, and were frequently provoked into long-winded eulogies. For example the Frenchman Dupont, who served in Sobieski's artillery, thought that the hussars, 'by their fine appearance, the beauty of their arms and horses, and by the wealth of their equipment, surpass infinitely what writers tell us of the Persians, Greeks and Ancient Romans and every thing that one can see in Europe and Asia.' Even the ever-critical Dalérac, the secretary to Sobieski s wife, remarked that the hussars were 'without a doubt, the most beautiful cavalry in Europe'.

Not all contemporaries were so easily impressed - one rather disgruntled Danziger in 1598 had quite a different opinion:

'I saw many Polish riders go by,
They had wings but couldn't fly.'
Not content with this he went on: 'The Poles carry long lances,
A short pennant thereon,
They might instead use a cowtail;
It costs not much and serves just as well.'

The hussar originated in Serbia towards the end of the 14th century. There are references to hussars in Poland in Treasury registers of 1500, though they were probably in Polish service before this date.

These early formations were foreign mercenaries, first known as Racowie from the term Rascia, 'Serbia', from the original centre of the Serbian state, Ras. The term 'hussar' probably originates not - as has been widely published - from any contrived connections with the Hungarian husz meaning 'twenty', but from gussar, a Slavonic word meaning 'bandit'. This gives us a fairly vivid idea of the nature of the early hussars - they were a light cavalry lighting in the style of hands of robbers. From surviving pictorial sources of the early hussars we can see that they were dressed in Hungarian fashion, frequently wearing the magierka (Hun¬garian cap), and at first no defensive armour. They fought in a supporting role for the cumbersome Western-style knights then predominant in Poland. As armoured knights were gradually phased out the hussars took their place, donning first ring-mail, helmets, and then plate armour.

The kapalin helmet is a distinctive off-shoot of the standard szyszak; Bochenski, one of the foremost of Polish armour expert, dates this type to the last quarter of the 16th century, though pictures from as late as 1647 seem to show it still in use, and helmets of similar style were popular in the West during the Thirty Years' War. Note in particular the heart-shaped screw keeping the nose-guard in place, and the plume-holder at the rear. A whole wagon-load of kapalin helmets was recovered from the Vistula earlier this century. (MWP, 305*)

The evolution of hussars in Poland and Hungary proceeded in parallel until the end of the 16th century. It was only in the 17th century that the Polish hussars began to differ significantly from the Hungarians, because the disastrous wars in Hungary prevented further development. While Polish hussars grew heavier, Hungarian hussars became lighter again; and it was from the latter that the hussar formations of the West developed. Even so, the typical dress of 19th-century hussars braided fur-lined dolmans and pelisses, fur busbies with cloth bags, and close fitting trousers are all features that can be traced to the basic dress worn by Polish hussars of the 16th and 17th centuries when not in full armour.

The many types of hussar armour are still difficult to date accurately. However, Bochenski has been able to classify such armour into several groups with similar characteristics, and date some items specifically in each group. It is usually possible to date most items to within about 30 years. (Of course, because an item is dated to an earlier period, this does not mean that it would not still have been worn later on though among the more fashion¬able elements of the nobility, who changed their appearance almost as frequently as today, this might not have been true.)

The 'wings' of the Polish hussars, perhaps their most characteristic feature, seem to be closely linked with their origins in Serbia, and were certainly in use outside Poland, though they did not develop into such elaborate forms. The delis or 'hot-heads' of the Turkish army, famous for their display of wings and feathers in the most bizarre of fashions, were in fact mainly Serbians and not Turks at all; there is even a good deal of evidence to suggest that delis served in the Polish army as well.

The function of the wings has been (and will probably always be) a source of speculation and curiosity. Theories have included their being a defence against sword-cuts, or against lassoes; a souvenir worn only by veterans of wars against the Turks; or an attempt to make the wearers look like angels! Aside from the obvious motive, of simply wanting to look splendid, by far the most likely answer now appears to be that they were used as a device for scaring the enemy, especially the enemy's horses not by any whistling sounds that they are alleged to have made, but by sheer visual impact. The wearing of wings is linked so closely with the wearing of furs that it would seem that the furs, wings and fluttering pennants were, in fact, all part of the same device.

Raising hussars was exorbitantly expensive, most of the cost being due to the extraordinary cost of the horses, often worth between five and ten times the annual salary of an hussar. Polish horses were unquestionably among the finest in Europe, and laws were passed to prevent their export, as their military value was fully appreciated.

Polish hussar on a woodcut tilled Wizerunek Zolnierza Polskiego ('Likeness of a Polish Sodier') from the book Pobudka zacnym synom Korony Polskiej do Sluzhy Wojennej... ('Call to arms of worthy sons of the Polish Crown to Military Service...'), by Wojciech Rakowski, 1620: a forerunner of the modern recruiting poster.

It is still difficult to say exactly what hussars wore in the field. Certainly, in civilian life, hussars - who came from the most fashionable and peacockish sections of society would not begrudge spending vast fortunes on their dress and equipment. As Grammont mentions in 1664: 'There is such rivalry among them, that they all try to surpass each other in the beauty of their arms'. There was con¬sequently very little uniformity in a hussar unit: men wore whatever colours they liked, and dressed as splendidly as they could afford.

The main weapon of the hussars was the lance, used in conjunction with two swords: a sabre (szabla) worn from a waist belt on the left side, and a long sword, either a pallasz or a koncerz, carried on the horse, usually under the left side of the saddle. The importance of firearms among the hussars has been much underestimated they were required to carry a pair of pistols in saddle holsters certainly as early as 1576, and they occasionally carried carbines as well.

In Bathory's day hussars were by far the most numerous type of cavalry, representing about 85 per cent of all the army's cavalry. The proportion gradually decreased, so that in the second half of the 17th century they numbered variously between 1,000 and 4,000 horses or between five and 20 per cent of the cavalry.

Most hussar units were commanded by high state dignitaries; voivodes, officers of the crown, hetmen, even bishops had their own 'banners'. Such units were rarely commanded in person by these dignitaries, their functions being delegated to lieutenants.

Though hussar 'banners' invariably took their titles from their commanders' name, and so changed with every change of commander, many units had traditions stretching back over many decades. At Vienna, for instance, Prince Jacob's 'banner' had previously belonged to King Michael Wiśniowiecki, and before that to King John Casimir. Sobieski's Royal 'banner' had previously been commanded by Jerzy Lubomirski, famed in the wars against Sweden and Muscovy, and in the Lubomirski Rebellion.

Each 'banner' had its own pennant design and colours. At Vienna the colours of the most famous units were as follows:

Sobieski ... Crimson and blue

Prince Jacob ... Yellow and red

Prince Alexander ... Black and yellow

Grand Marshal, Lubomirski ... Red and white

Voivode of Cracow, Potocki ... Black and yellow

Hussar armour, c. 1630, recovered together with a mail shirt from the grave of King Vladislav's secretary Stanislaw Skórkowski. The suit is of the 'older' type, and consists of breast and backplates, gorget, shoulder- and arm-guards, and helmet all in matching style with decoration in brass. The helmet has a simple hemispherical skull. Note the openwork heart on the helmet's ear flap-heart emblems are typical for Polish hussars, and also occur on Polish Highlanders' brooches. (MWP, 678*)

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