Renaissance Armies: The Polish
An article by George Gush
Throughout the Renaissance period, Poland was the chief power of Eastern Europe, possessing not only vast territories stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from Pomerania in the West eastward almost to the Don, but also with remarkably effective armed forces. Unique in their organization, tactics, and appearance, combining the tactics and weapons of East and West with traditional Polish gallantry and dash, they successfully took on Muscovites, Cossacks, Tartars, Turks, Austrians, Germans, Danes, Swedes and Wallachians; even the great Gustavus Adolphus based most of his military reforms on the lessons he learned in warfare against the Poles.
Late 15th and 16th Century
In the late 15th Century the Polish army was raised, mainly through the nobility, only when urgently required. In the event of a major invasion, large numbers of additional gentry and town and peasant militia could be called out. The crack cavalry were Western-style knights in full plate armour, on armoured horses and equipped with the heavy medieval lance, supported by lighter lancers (mail and half-armour), and mounted crossbow and sword-and-shield men (half-armour). The poorer territory of Lithuania supplied mailed cavalry with spear and shield and Tartars with bows. Infantry were similar to medieval Western types, with many crossbow and pavise-men.
Stephen Bathory (1576-86) continued reorganization, introducing new infantry formations of peasants from Royal estates. As ruler of Transylvania he was also responsible for introducing Hungarian and probably Wallachian troops.
Reorganization included an effective administration and the permanent division of the army into "Rotas". These corresponded to the Western company, being officially of 100 infantry or 50 cavalry (later cavalry rotas, called "Standards" had up to 200 men). There was no larger permanent organization in this period.
Infantry rotas could be grouped into a regiment, but this was not a tactical unit and the rotas still acted independently. On the battlefield, cavalry rotas were formed into "Hufs" up to several thousand strong. These were tactical units, but rotas or groups of rotas could readily be detached, for example, to deal with enemy reinforcements. Each rota was commanded by a "Rotmistrz" and had a standard, and in the case of infantry a drummer (with a small drum at the waist, beaten with a single mallet) and a bagpiper.
75 percent of this army was cavalry. The fully plate-armoured lancers survived up to the 1580s, though abandoning horse-armour by the '50s, but beside them grew up a new type, the famous "Hussars" who were to be the elite of Poland's cavalry until the 18th Century. They were copied from the Serbian "Usars" hired in the early 16th Century, un-armoured cavalry with lance, saber and squarish Turkish shield, though the Polish-Lithuanian type established by mid-century wore mail and helmet. By the 1580s they had adopted a cuirass over the mail, and replaced the armoured knight. The dismounted hussar shown is of this period, and as well as his saber would carry a long straight sword or "Koncerz" (used against armoured opponents), long lance with pennon, warhammer (Nadziak), and possibly shield.
The most extraordinary feature of the hussars was the wing worn by some units. Made from a curved batten carrying eagle or vulture feathers, this could be attached to the rear of the saddle, or by cross-belts to the shoulders, making its wearers some of the most spectacular soldiers ever seen, especially with the pair of wings sometimes worn in the 17th Century. They are said to have made a rushing tornado-like noise in a charge, with similar psychological effects to the Stuka's scream, and also to have protected those who wore them against Tartar and Cossack lassos.
Mounted crossbowmen changed to the arquebus early in the 16th Century, and hussars would be supported by a few mounted arquebusiers similarly equipped.
Lesser gentry provided medium cavalry or "Pancerni" ("Iron-clads"see illustration). Additional weapons could include "Koncerz", or for Lithuanians a short lance, and some would replace bow and/or pistols with an arquebus. The shield was made of fig twigs bound together and covered with silk or leather.
Cossacks were hired from 1524 on, but it was Stephen Bathory who introduced, in 1571, the system of registering Cossacks (500 in his day) for regular service. Cossack standards seem to have been 320 strong.
Secondly, there were the Tartars illustrated, mostly settled in Lithuania; they could carry round shield and lariat as well as the weapons shown. Wallachians, armed like the Cossacks, were also used. All tended to wear light brown caftans, red trousers and black boots.
Infantry was mainly a support arm for the cavalry. Very early in the century plate armour and crossbows vanished, and the dress of the normal infantryman or "Drab" was standardized as shown. A rota of this period often formed in ten ranks of ten, the first being of NCOs with eight foot half-pikes, second and tenth armed with halberds or berdische poleaxes, the rest with arquebusses. Usual sidearm was a saber or light axe.
By the second half of the century mail had disappeared, and the infantry wore the uniform shown for a "Drabant". A long coat, slit to the waist at each side, was worn over a tunic and tight trousers. The front quarters were pulled up and tucked through the belt. A flat fur-trimmed hat replaced the helmet. Coat commonly light blue with red lining, trousers black, shoes black or brown.
Infantry NCOs retained their half-pikes, the rest having arquebus or musket; halberds were now largely used by bodyguards; (Royal Guard wore red coat with yellow lining and gold trim, gold-embroidered sash, light blue trousers and cuffs, yellow shoes.)
Hungarian like Polish infantry had ten percent half-pikes, 90 percent firearms, but wore the dress illustrated, while German infantry were armoured pikemen and un-armoured "shot" in morions, employing larger formations and Western tactics. (In the 17th Century at least, the bulk of these "Foreign" troops were actually Polish.)
Variously-armed peasant infantry would also be mobilized, and they would wear a fur cap, fur-trimmed and hooded caftan worn (in winter) over creamy-white linen tunic and trousers and high boots.
The 17th Century
Though the Polish state declined, the army remained very formidable. All the late 16th Century types remained in service. The infantry, who increased in recruitment and importance, would be replacing the arquebus with the musket, and by mid-century the Polish infantry were adopting the new dress shown, still usually light blue, with red collar, frogging, sash and trousers and black boots. The two-handed berdische axe doubling as musket-rest made a formidable armament.
The aristocratic hussar became still heavier and more ornate, with three-quarter plate armour and pistols, like the mounted figure shown.
Cossacks were employed in increasing numbers. By 1625 Poland had six regiments, each 1,000 strong. In the mid-17th Century the registered Cossacks wore white coats.
Three new cavalry types introduced at this time illustrate the Poles' readiness to adopt what was best from their enemies.
Mounted arquebusiers in foreign style were added to the heavy cavalry. They wore helmet and cuirass and carried an arquebus, a pair of pistols, and a rapier.
The "Rajtar" was a new medium cavalryman, mainly depending on missile power and armed with a sword and two pistols. He was dressed plainly, in the style of his Swedish prototypes, with broad-brimmed felt hat, wide white collar, buff coat, red trousers and wide knee-boots, with plain leather horse-furniture.
By the second half of the 17th Century the Polish cavalry were 20 percent hussars, 20 percent light cavalry, 60 percent Pancerni, Rajtars, and Dragoons; earlier the proportions of hussars and light cavalry would be higher.
At first relatively backward in this arm, Poland made great efforts to develop the artillery. German and Dutch experts were brought in and arsenals were set up. By the end of the 16th Century it was quite effective. In the 17th Century it was greatly increased and by the second half of the century recognized as among the best in Europe.
The Poles produced first-class guns of standardized caliber, 3 pounder, and 6 pounder "Octavs" were used to support infantry and "Kartaunas" (cannon) of 12, 24, and even 48-pounder sizes were apparently used in the field also. For siege work there were even larger "Kolyubrynas" and mortars up to 125 pounders.
Gunners were not actually uniformed but would usually be dressed in a simpler version of the clothing shown for a "Drabant", probably in blue.
Officers of artillery were mainly European mercenaries who would wear their own style of dress, with plumed broad-brimmed hats and so on
The baggage train or "Tabor" was an important part of the army. The Poles adapted from the Czechs and Cossacks a train specially designed for tactical use. It was particularly important in Eastern territories, where there were few towns or fortified places. Both wagons and horses were protected by thick wooden mantlets, and the wagons were adapted to be pushed as well as pulled. They could be hitched together, and on the move up to 40 wagons formed a continuous train, a team of two horses being hitched to every second wagon, and one of four to every fourth one. Chief battle use was as a fortified base. The wagons, linked up in double lines, formed an oblong, often with artillery at the corners. The short sides of the oblong were of a single row, with teams still harnessed up, thus they could be suddenly opened for a surprise sortie by the Polish cavalry, a very successful tactic, as, for example at Obertyn (1530) where the Poles beat over three times their number of Wallachians.
In emergency, the tabor could even be used in the attack. To escape a surprise by stronger forces, the wagons, packed with infantry, were formed into several small columns and driven full-tilt at the enemy centre, the cavalry riding on the flanks and exploiting the break-through. This actually worked on more than one occasion, though at the cost of losing the slower-moving artillery.
The usual formation for a Polish armythe "Horns"is shown. The heavy cavalry Hufs were drawn up three ranks deep, the mediums four. Less experienced troops among the latter were kept in the "Black Huf". The rear hufs were spaced a good distance behind the front ones to allow for maneuver.
The Poles usually started with a weak attack from one wing to fix the enemy's attention. Next the light cavalry began to envelop him, causing his forces to bunch together. The heavy hussars then charged into the thick of them, the gap thus opened being exploited by the mediums; finally the light cavalry took up the pursuit. However, their tactics were varied, based on the flexibility conferred by their cavalry organization and the almost unstoppable full-gallop charge of the heavy and medium cavalry.
About the Author
George Gush was educated at Tonbridge School, Kent, and won an Open Scholarship in History to Christ Church, Oxford, and has pursued a teaching career ever since graduation.
Article contents originally © Copyright George Gush and Patrick Stephens, Ltd 1975, 1982 and reproduced here with permission.