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Pancerni Cossacks

'Cossacks' were much cheaper to raise than hussars. They made up in the 1580s barely ten per cent of the cavalry, but by the 1680s this had increased to over 60 per cent.

For most of the period 'cossacks' were in fact raised from all corners of Poland, and shared only their name with the true or Zaporozhian Cossacks. The name does, however, originate from the Cossack peoples, and the earliest units were no doubt raised from true Cossacks.

In Lithuania this type of cavalry was known by the name of a Circassian people, the 'Petyhorcy' from the region of the 'Five Hills' (Piaty Hory) in the Caucasus. Starowolski in the 1620s also mentions a type of mail-armoured cavalry in use in Poland called 'Czemerysy'. These are something of a mystery still, though they are undoubtedly connected with a steppe people of this name; Dalérac identifies them with Tartars settled in the Polish Ukraine. In any event it is certain that this type of cavalry, particularly when clad in mail, owed a great deal to the steppe peoples living in the south-eastern regions of the Republic and beyond.

During the rebellions of the true (that is Zaporozhian) Cossacks from 1648 onward, in order to distinguish Polish 'cossack' formations from the rebels, their name was rather tactfully altered to panceni 'cossacks' or simply pancerni (literally 'mail-coated men').

The cossacks were always an extremely mobile arm mounted on light, but fast and enduring horses. Many units were completely unarmoured, though even the armoured variety could perform all the functions expected of light cavalry. They combined the elusiveness of the Tartars with the ability to provide concentrated fire on a given point in the enemy line in the manner of the Western 'caracole'. As well as providing flank cover and preparing the way for carefully co-ordinated assaults by the hussars, they could provide a useful charging cavalry, especially when armed with lances.

Breastplate ornaments on hussar armour were made of brass, and followed a small number of patterns. The so-called 'Knight's Cross' was the most common. Plaques bearing the Virgin Mary were probably related to the 'Order of the Immaculate Conception' which King Vladislav tried to initiate in 1634, but which failed because of opposition from the Seym. He did, however, succeed in forming a brotherhood connected with the order, to which many nobles in the hussars belonged; and it seems that many hussars wore such plaques until the brotherhood's disbandment in about 1674, a date which ties in well with the dating of hussar armour by other methods. From Skorkowski's armour, c. 1630. (MWF, 678*)

The Lisowski Cossacks

The founder of this famous band of volunteers was Aleksander Lisowski, 'a rebel and general no-gooder' as the Lithuanian Field Hetman Chodkiewicz called him. He actually died in 1616 before his cossacks had got up to most of their mischief, but in tribute to their old commander the name was kept on. They fought as an unofficial army lor the King of Poland, receiving no wages for their services, but being more than recompensed by a free hand in the gathering of booty. They served on secret missions to destabilise border areas of Muscovy, and so were one of the main cutting edges of Poland in the Muscovite 'Time of Troubles'. Their part in the Thirty Years' War, as clandestine aid from the King of Poland to the Holy Roman Emperor, brought them into the West, where they fought in Germany, Hungary, Italy, France and Holland. In an age of barbarous warfare they were singled out by Western commentators as something special, earning an impressive reputation for pillaging and general brigandry, which did not stop when they returned to Poland. Attempts were made to stamp out this plague of robbery every time the Lisowczyks came home: they were declared outlaws, and were executed without mercy when caught.

Lisowczyks were mainly made up of the cavalry known in Poland as 'cossacks', and composed initially of various Eastern peoples aside from Poles: Lithuanians, Tartars, Zaporozhian and even Don Cossacks. However, in Imperial service the bulk were Poles. As unpaid volunteers the Lisowczyks were less uniformly and more poorly equipped than the regular army. They were nicknamed (we hear from Debolecki, their chaplain) 'Leopold's flowers', after their variety of colourful dress. In Western service they must have picked up a great deal of Western equipment, for we hear that when they returned to Poland they were examined with a great deal of curiosity. They received standards from the Emperor, which were probably in the usual Imperial style. They were organised into 'banners', which all belonged to a single pulk ('battle'), commanded by a pulkownik democratic¬ally elected from among the rotarmasters. The pulkownik also had command over two 'banners' known as the Red and Black Rotas, though it is not clear exactly how these colour designations applied.

Light Cavalry

Initially these were provided by light-armed cossack and Tartar units raised within Poland; however, as cossacks became steadily heavier, increasing use was made of unarmoured cavalry raised abroad - particularly in Wallachia. In the last half of the 17th century the light cavalry was made up of units designated either 'Wallachian' or 'Tartar', though this was little more than a reference to their mode of dress and equipment, since a substantial proportion of the men were Poles who could not afford to enlist as pancerni. Many light cavalry units were mixed, containing a proportion of men equipped in each style. By the Vienna campaign these units were titled simply 'light cavalry' with no distinction between types, and numbered about 15 per cent of the cavalry. (Wallachians and Tartars will be dealt with in more detail in Part 2.)

An unusual suit of mixed mail and scale, in the 'Sarmatian' style, perhaps designed for a pancerni officer. Late 17th or early 18th century. (Kornik Castle)

Hussar and 'pancerni' cossack in 1693, both armed with lances. The hussar has several remarkable features: the armour cuisses (thigh guards), the 'Gorgon' plaque worn on the shoulder, and the quartered lance pennant - this pattern appears most frequently on late 17th-century Polish battle painting, though it is more commonly two-tailed. It is interesting to note that the fanciful baroque representations of 17th-century soldiers actually began to influence the 'Sarmatian' style of armour worn in Poland. From an allegory to the triumph of Sobieski in a book by Jakub Kazimierz Haur. (National Library, Warsaw)


The native infantry were not at first very highly valued, and came a very poor second after the cavalry; the nobility generally regarded them with contempt. Starowolski, for example, wrote: 'We use them not so much for lighting but as labourers, building ramparts, digging ditches, erecting bridges, clearing roads for the guns and heavier000

Attachments for a pair of wing to the backplate of hussar armour. The wings, made from a line of feathers inserted into a brass-edged wooden frame, were mounted on brackets or hinges. The design of these brackets varied but they usually kept the wing rigidly in place. (MWP) wagons. If we desire to capture a town we hire Germans or Hungarians, who are much better trained than our men'.

Whether the nobility were simply afraid of arming the peasantry, from whom most of the infantry were recruited, is another consideration.

Of course, the huge distances that such troops would have to cover on foot in Poland made ii more efficient to concentrate on the cavalry arm rather than the infantry. We must, however, take account of the fact that nobles, in the tradition of mediaeval chivalry still prevalent in 17th-century Poland, regarded war as the domain of the nobility, and a sport that peasants were simply not fit to join in. Attempts were made to recruit units of infantry from the nobility, but this proved unpopular, and was discontinued. Yet the raw material for a solid infantry arm was in fact there all the time: it was simply the training that had been lacking. Foreigners were most impressed by the infantry later in the century. Ogier, a French diplomat, noted of them in 1635: 'Nowhere for certain in the world can you find people of more vigorous and strong appearance; they scare you just by their faces and manner of walking. Besides they all have heads marked by the Muscovites and Turks with terrible scars, and since their heads are shaved, these wounds are visible'.

Early Polish Infantry

The early Polish infantry was raised in a similar manner to the cavalry: the rotamaster selected 'comrades' who brought with them their followers. Units were raised of between 150 and 200 men. The unit was divided into tens, with dziesiętniks ('tenth-men') in command of each file. Pikeman or pavise-bearers stood in the front rank or two; behind them, men armed mainly with firearms. One flag was carried for approximately every 50 men in the unit, and the rota was often equipped with a few horses.

A roll of the rota, under Kasper Stuzinski, rotamaster of the castle of Kiev, 'for 200 draby (infantrymen)' dated October 1577, is one of the last records of the old Polish type of infantry, which had by this date mainly been replaced by haiduks. It contained 34 pikemen (kopijniks) and III arquebusiers, two drummers, and six flags. Each 'ten' was in fact of only seven or eight men, of which two were armed with pikeman's plate armour, helmet (przylbica), pike, and sword; the remainder had firearms, swords, and occasionally helmets as well. The 'pikemen' are unlikely to have fought in separate pike blocks; rather, they were immediate protection for the unarmoured arquebusiers. The rota also included four mounted men in mailshirts with rohatyna lances and bows1.

1AGAD: Ask 85, 62

Most hussar lances seem to have followed the same basic design throughout the period. They were usually about five metres long, made from two separate pieces hollowed out for lightness, and decoratively painted or covered in a pattern uniform for the entire troop. The handgrip, of polygonal section, had above it a flattened ball hand-guard. Note in particular the painted-on feathers. (PAN Library, Kórnik)


Haiduk derives from the Turkish haidud meaning 'marauder'. Haiduks came to Poland by way of Hungary, and were very quickly adopted as the standard model tor Polish infantry. The best haiduks were raised from the Carpathian Moun¬tains and states to the south of Poland. Con¬temporaries frequently remark on the large stature of haiduks, 'huge of body like giants', and on their reputation for rough living and general ferocity.

Polish haiduks were organised into rotas as in the old Polish infantry , but not raised along lines of the 'comrade' system. A rota numbered usually between ion and 200 men, divided into 'tens' as before, but now without any form of armour or helmets in the ranks. Haiduks were armed almost exclusively with firearms alone; 'tenth-men' now carried the darda, a staff weapon. (This seems to have been used mainly to assist with fire control rather than for combat.) On occasion 'tenth-men' were also issued with firearms.

It may seem strange that an army so full of cavalry rarely used the pike - even Western mercenaries in Polish service were usually equipped with firearms alone. The reason for this was that the role of infantry was strictly defined as fire support for the cavalry strike forte, or for defending or attacking obstacles. They were rarely called upon to fight hand-to-hand in the open field. Their vulnerability to attack by cavalry was countered by the Polish cavalry, whose usual immense superiority over the enemy cavalry allowed them also to act as a shield for the infantry. However, haiduks were quite able to hold their own in combat with Western pike-and-shot formations, as they demonstrated on several occasions - the most notable being the battle of Lubirszów (1577), where Bathory's haiduk guard was largely responsible for the rout of six large mercenary German knecht companies.

After the Swedish Wars of the late 1620s it is clear that contact with Gustavus's much-improved infantry, in several incidents where the Poles came off worse, led to a recognition of the value of mixed pike/shot formations; and measures were taken to reorganise the Polish infantry along Western lines. So began the decline of the haiduk; and by 1665 Cefali was able to say that haiduks had mostly fallen out of use. By Sobieski's reign only a handful of units remained in the service of the king, hetmen, and the wealthier magnates, as ceremonial or bodyguard companies. By the 18th century haiduks had degenerated into little more than noblemen's table-servants and doormen.

Wybraniecka infantry

This translates as 'draughted' infantry rather than the more literal 'selected', which has overtones of excellence: an elite formation this most definitely was not. The Wybraniecka infantry were established on the basis of an act of the Seym and a decree issued by King Bathory in 1578, on the pattern of similar peasant levies in his Transylvanian home. One peasant infantryman with full equipment and uniform was to be raised for each 20 Polish acres (lan) of all royal estates. The uniform, which was to be provided by the men themselves, was in the standard Hungarian haiduk pattern and no different from that of the regulars, in the standard colour of 'cloudy' blue.

Bathory had hoped to raise 15,000 men by this conscription, but the lack of commitment from reluctant farmers and village officials meant that the most he ever got was about 2,000. These men did play a useful part in Bathory's Muscovite campaigns, even carrying out several moderately successful storming operations; but it was clear from the start that they were unwilling fighters. Plagued by an appalling desertion rate, they were increas¬ingly given fewer combat duties. An instruction issued by King Vladislav in 1633 gave specific instructions for them to be equipped with entrenching tools, and not to bother at all with firearms or uniform: this leaves little doubt as to how highly they were valued. They were still being raised during the Vienna campaign, but were now distributed among the regular units rather than in separate units.

The Lithuanian Army

The Lithuanian army differed little in its dress and organisation from the Polish. It was commanded by its own Grand Hetman and Field Hetman, who occasionally took command of the Crown army as did Lithuanian Field Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz at Chocim in 1621.

According to the Komput the Lithuanian army was between a third and half the size of the Polish one; when plans were made to raise a Crown army of 36,000 men, as at Vienna, the Lithuanians were usually railed upon for only 12,000.

Pennants occurred in various design throughout the period, and were either single or double-tailed and made of silk. Length seems to have varied from about 1.5 to 4 metres. They were invariably (except perhaps in the Royal Troop) uniform for the whole troop.

The only major difference in the Lithuanian army was that pancerni or armoured 'cossacks' were known instead as Petyhorcy. Their equipment was slightly different, too; they were armed with rohatyna lances rather than the firearms normal for the Polish pancerni before 1676. It is quite probable that these units were more markedly Eastern in appearance than the Poles.

In many ways the Lithuanian army was more Polish than the Polish army. The foreign Contingent in it was always considerably smaller; and while the Polish generals and nobles talked in a mixture of Latin and Polish, and occasionally dressed in Western fashion, the Lithuanian nobility cultivated the Polish language and traditions to distinguish themselves from their own peasantry, who spoke mainly Ruthenian.

The Lithuanians were, if anything, even wilder than the Poles. They were renowned for their looting, largely due to the fact that they often went without pay for years at a time. During the Vienna campaign Dalérac noted that 'the Lithuanians have such a bad reputation for pillage and disorder on the march, that the Imperial Commissaries begged the King of Poland to divert this plague away from their country, and to have their army pass through by the Mountains of Hungary'.

The Lithuanian army contained a large pro¬portion of Tartars, and so their tactics were based on the use of fewer rigid formations of troops. The pictures made by the Swede, Dahlberg, during the Swedish invasion of Poland in 1655-60 show the Lithuanian army drawn up in a huge circular fan, with apparently no solid formations. Though this is no doubt an exaggeration, other battle accounts do seem to suggest that the Lithuanians fought in very much looser and less formal formations than the Poles, particularly in later years.

There was a great deal of rivalry and distrust between the Poles and Lithuanians; Pasek, for example, calls the Lithuanians 'beet-caters' in a slighting reference to their staple diet.

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