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Pospolite Ruszenie (Levy of the Nobility)

The mobilisation of the nobility en masse to fight an external threat was a relic of feudalism. It survived in Poland, however, throughout the 17th century, though it was by this time a completely out-dated institution.

Hussar lance pennant, probably from 1680-1775, though this, pattern is likely to have been used earlier. It is made from silk, one half crimson, the other white. The Knight's Cross is sewn in reverse colours. Length 390 cm, width 79 cm, distance to fork 104 cm. There are nine original hussar pennants in the Polish Army Museum, two of this pattern, seven of the pattern on Plate F. (MWP, 665*)

There were two levels of Levy; the 'Small', for quelling localised disturbances, and the 'Grand', for situations that threatened the very existence of the state, and for which the king had to be personally in command. The state could reputedly assemble by this method forces of well over 100,000 men - though modern estimates, e.g. by Wimmer, put the Grand Levy of the Crown at closer to 40,000.

The Levy was organised into provincial units according to palatinate (województwo), land (ziemia) and district (powiat). The levy of each region was commanded by a high civil dignitary, usually the castellan, who assumed the rank of pulkwnik of the forces of his district. The nobility of the district were divided up into 'banners' of horse and foot, organised in the Polish manner; and commanded by a rotamaster, often a retired professional soldier appointed from the district's nobility. The exact ratio of foot to horse varied depending on the particular speciality of the district, the poorer nobility of, e.g., Mazowsze providing more infantry than a relative wealthy region such as Sandomierz. There was normally a preponderance of `cossack`-type units, these being the easiest to form with the resources available to the average nobleman. The nobility of each province were required to turn up for annual reviews, where in theory their equipment was checked and they were given training. In practice these events inevitably became little more than social and political get-togethers, with the real business being conveniently relegated to a minor rôle.

The fighting value of the Levy was rarely very high, particularly in the more peaceful western provinces of Poland, Wielkopolska and Malopolska. The Levies of Lithuania and Polish Russia were, however, of much higher quality the regular Tartar raids had shaped them into a solid fighting force that could be assembled quickly and to great effect.

The Levy suffered from appalling indiscipline: the proud and argumentative Polish noblemen were hard to command at the best of times, but gathered together in thousands they became almost totally unmanageable. They grumbled, questioned orders, and swore openly at officers, including the king. Assembling the Levy in one place was a feat in itself, and an operation that took several months. Once together the party began in earnest, with each noble bringing all his home comforts, all the food he would need, and an ample supply of alcohol.

Keeping the Levy together was another problem: panic broke out easily, and men were liable to ride off for home at the first hint of danger. The worst example occurred at Pilawice in 1648, during the Cossack wars, when rumours that a Tartar force was coming to assist the Cossacks caused the entire army to disintegrate overnight. As Hauteville noted in his Account of Poland:

Equipment of a pancerni cavalryman, second half of the 17th century. The Oriental appearance of the armour is most striking. Much of it was taken as war booty on campaigns in the East, though most of it was produced in Polish workshops. The kalkan round shield made of fig wood is of Turkish origin. The mail coat is made of fairly large rings, so allowing the colour of the undergarments to show through. However, this image of the pancerni is probably much overstylised by modern authorities, and on campaign men would have had a very much less Eastern appearance. The chief armament for much of the 17th century was the wheellock carbine, and as many pistols as could be comfortably tucked away on rider and horse. (MWP, photo: Miroslaw Ciunowicz)

'The disorder was so great and the flight so precipitate, that the Cossacks were for a whole day of opinion, that it was only a feint to draw them from their post; hut at last having detached some troops to observe the Enemy, they understood that their was not one soldier in the Polish camp.'

Although it was difficult to get the Levy to take offensive action, they were generally quite effective in defence, where the constant practice with the sword - carried by every nobleman as part of his dress-could be of real value. They were, however, a 'one-shot weapon', and would depart for home once their supplies had run out, or after taking part in a single battle, feeling their obligations fulfilled whether it had been a victory or defeat. It is small wonder that contemporaries were bitingly sarcastic about the Levy, and advised that the institution be abolished entirely. The old veteran Pasek grum¬bled, 'I would rather pasture pigs than command the Levy in attack'.

Flags, Command Insignia and Field Signs


Flags in the part of the army raised along Polish lines still displayed many clearly mediaeval features. Polish heavy cavalry carried large standards long after they had been replaced in the West, for reasons of convenience, by smaller ones. In Poland the logic still ran that the larger the standard the more important the status of the unit carrying it. The number of 'tails' on the flag was also related to the importance of the flag: flags of the various powiaty (districts), at least in Lithuania, were 'single-tailed'; those of palatinates were two-tailed, while those of the State or Court were usually three- or occasionally four-tailed. There are signs, however, that the Polish Contingent began to opt for smaller Western-style flags by the middle of the 17th century.

The commonest symbol on Polish flags was the national emblem: a silver or white eagle on a red field. Frequently the eagle was replaced by a simple white cross. The eagle and the cross had been in use as national emblems for many centuries, the cross already appearing on shields in the time of Mieszko I (c. 963-992). It is likely that the ubiquitous white 'Knight's Cross' was simply a variant of the plain cross, and was worn as a national emblem. Lithuania used the Pogoń or 'Pursuit' emblem; a knight with raised sword on a charging horse in proper colours, bearing on his shield the white 'Gończa' double cross.

The misiurka or Eastern mail-helmet consisted of a metal disc to which was attached a mail curtain. The disc usually had a hook in the centre from which the helmet could be hung when not in use, either from the waist belt, the saddle, or in the soldier's home. It is usually forgotten that some form of padded head wear would have been worn underneath to absorb blows inflicted on the helmet: such padding makes the helmet sit much higher on the head than might be expected.

The heraldic badge of the troop commander was also a very common device. Poland used a very simple heraldic system based on a relatively small number of clan badges, or herby. These were generally of simple design, most being combinations of arrow and horseshoe shapes; their origins are still largely mysterious. In the 13th and 14th centuries members of the same clan (and therefore heraldic badge) often fought together in the same battle units. However, by the battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) in 1410, there were only two such clan units out of 50 'banners' taking part in the battle; and by the 16th century such military connections between bearers of the same clan badge had altogether vanished.

Figures of religious patrons were also commonly used on flags, particularly since most wars were at least partly motivated by religion. The Virgin Mary with Child, standing on a crescent moon with a sunburst background, was particularly favoured in Poland. Figures of various saints and angels, common particularly in the earlier period, were usually connected with local preferences in the area of recruitment.

Infantry colours in the Polish Autorament usually followed Imperial or Hungarian practices. Earlier in the period, colours were huge, thin silk flags, often over three metres in the fly. Devices were usually broad horizontal or vertical bands in differing colours, or crosses the St. Andrew's Cross or St. George's Cross stretching across the entire field. The Burgundian Raguly or 'ragged' cross was also used, in reference to the Vasa kings' membership of the Hapsburgs' Catholic Order of the Golden Fleece.

Pancerni 'cossack', last quarter of the 17th century, from a 19th-century copy by Lesser of a lost painting by Polish court painter Jerzy Szymonowicz-Siemiginowski (died 1711). Note the pistol holster, the method of fastening the mail helmet, the jagged tooth cut of the mail shirt, and the dzida (short lance). (MWP)

Insignia of Command

To identify their position in battle, hetmen carried special insignia. Hetman Jan Tarnowski in his Consilium Rationis Bellicae (1548) recommends that 'An insignium (znak) on a lance is to be carried beside the hetman, and not by any other'. At the end of the 16th century these insignia were simply personal flags carried on hussar-style lances, with a Hungarian cap attached at the lance head. Piotrowski, Bathory's secretary, describes a hetman's insignium used in the Pskov campaign of 1581, which had a red Hungarian cap with plume on the head of a lance, and below this a pennon with the inscription 'Fortitudo et Laus Mea Dominus'.

Gradually, under Turkish influence, a very stylised insignium evolved: the buńczuk. The basic form of this is shown on Plate G2, though the exact design varied considerably, decoration usually being a combination of winglets made from real ostrich or crane leathers, horse-tails dyed in bright colours, and coloured ribbons of silk or linen. Only two original buńczuks survive, though there are many descriptions, and depictions on con¬temporary paintings.

The other chief distinguishing marks of com¬mand were maces and batons. The bulawa mace was the symbol of the hetman. Ceremonial models were usually spherical, onion- or pear-shaped, the surface being gilded or silvered, and encrusted with stones and jewels. Models for use in the field were somewhat less ornate. It became common by the 18th century to refer to the hetman's office itself as the bulawa.

The buzdygan mace was usually reserved for rotamasters. It was usually 'feathered', the head consisting of six or seven vanes arranged symmetric¬ally around a central shaft. The shape of each vane varied; some were triangular, some leaf-like, some V-shaped, others even 'eagle-shaped'.

By the end of the period maces were falling out of combat use; Dalérac mentions that they were no longer used during the Vienna campaign, appear¬ing only in portraits and commemorative battle paintings. But not all the evidence supports his view. Rubinkowski in his Fanina (1739) describes a curious party-piece that Sobieski apparently per¬formed before the Allied commanders at Vienna. After mounting his horse he threw his bulawa into the air with his left hand, then quickly wheeled round and caught it in his right hand - 'this in the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor, all the princes, generals and other officers, much to their amusement'.

Field signs

Field signs were vital to distinguish Poles in battle against enemies who were often dressed very similarly, particularly the Turks, Cossacks and Tartars. At Vienna many authorities note that twists of straw were worn to identify the Poles. Later on, in the Wallachian campaigns, Dalérac mentions that the Poles tied white handkerchiefs around their left arms so that newly arrived troops from Brandenburg could tell the Poles from the Tartars.

Fragment of a 'letter of nobility' awarded to Bernard Krzysztof Bernatowicz in 1676, showing a pancerni 'cossack' armed with an odd-looking lance decorated with striped pattern. This is perhaps either the rohatyna or dzida reintroduced into the Crown pancerni at approximately this time. It is interesting to note that the army was almost the only means of social advancement in Poland, the pancerni providing the easiest prospects - perhaps this is a portrait? (AGAD, perg 6154, Warsaw)

Koniuszny (Equerry) Gamocki (equerry was a civil title), wearing typical equipment of a pancerni officer, during the tournament held in Sweden to honour the accession of Karl XI in 1672. Gamocki was one of the few Poles taking part in this event, the other 'Poles' being dressed-up Swedes. After a print in Certamen Equestre, usually credited to Georg Christoph Eimmart. (MWP)

In the occasional civil wars there was often confusion because the antagonists wore identical clothes. At the battle of Mątwy (1666), during the disastrous Lubomirski Rebellion, the rebels were wearing a kerchief tied on the left arm, but Pasek mentions that even these were of little value: 'We rode into each other's midst, knowing not who was who; before attacking anyone you first asked: "Whose army are you in?" "Whose are you in?" If the adversary's then: "Let's fight!" "Go to the Devil!"'

The Poles frequently sang religious songs to stir up their courage: again, a passage from Pasek just before crossing the Polish border en route for Denmark in 1658: 'The whole army began to sing O Gloriosa Domina! in the Polish way. While the horses in all the regiments snorted so ferociously that our spirits rose...' Odlanicki describes a battle against the Muscovites in 1660: 'The order was given for us to attack in the name of the Lord, accompanied by the playing of various military music, singing O Gloriosa!, calling Our Lady for assistance, with our hearts high, after the chaplain's benediction, we advanced...'

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