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By George Gush and Roman Olejniczak

Part 13: the Polish Army

THROUGHOUT OUR 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 remarkably effective armed forces.
    Unique in their organisation, 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.
    As yet a little-known subject for military modellers, the Polish forces present a wide variety of colourful types, while for the wargamer a Polish Renaissance army promises to be as effective as its real-life counterpart.

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.
    In the 16th Century a true standing army was created, its weapons, and equipment provided by the state; it was supported by German, Scottish, Hungarian, Czech and Dutch mercenaries, and in a large-scale conflict could be supplemented by masses of gentry and peasant militia raised on the old lines. Reorganisation 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 organisation in this period, though for battle a number of rotas could be grouped into a 'Huf' of anything up to several thousand men. Unlike companies, however, rotas were tactical units and those of the cavalry in particular retained their capacity for independent action even when incorporated in a 'Huf'; infantry rotas often operated independently.
    Each 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 (a Polish piper is illustrated in Kannik, Military Uniforms of the World in Color).
    Seventy-five per cent 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 'Husars' 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, unarmoured cavalry with lance, sabre 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 husar shown is of this period, and as well as his sabre 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 husars 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 crossbelts 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 lassoos.
    Mounted crossbowmen changed to the arquebus early in the 16th Century, and husars 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.
    Light cavalry consisted, firstly, of Cossacks. Those living West of the Dnieper were under Polish suzerainty and known as 'Loyal Cossacks' though actually somewhat addicted to rebellion. They wore fur hats, a long-sleeved caftan, baggy trousers and Polish boots and carried short lance, sabre, and bow or arquebus.
    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 standardised as shown. A rota of this period often formed in ten tanks of ten, the first being of NCOs with eight foot half-pikes, second and tenth armed with halberds or berdishe poleaxes, the rest with arquebusses. Usual sidearm was a sabre 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 body-guards (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 per cent half-pikes, 90 per cent firearms, but wore the dress illustrated, while 'German' infantry were armoured pikemen and unarmoured '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 could also be mobilised, with fur cap, fur-trimmed and hooded brown caftan worn (in winter) over creamy-white linen tunic and trousers and high boots.

The 17th Century

    Though the Polish state declined, the army actually improved. 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 berdishe axe doubling as musket-rest made a formidable armament.
    The aristocratic husar became still heavier and more ornate, with three-quarter plate armour and pistols, like the mounted figure shown.
    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.
    The Dragoons carried a musket, two pistols, axe and sabre, and remained primarily mounted infantry until the late 17th Century. Their plain, full-skirted tunic was red for most units, blue for a few, trousers black, boots tan, horse furniture plain leather. They were distinguished from their Western equivalents by their caps, of the Cossack style illustrated.
    By the second half of the 17th Century the Polish cavalry were 20 per cent Husars, 20 per cent light cavalry, 60 per cent Pancerni, Rajtars and Dragoons; earlier the proportions of husars and light cavalry would be higher.

Artillery

    At first relatively backward in this arm, Poland made great efforts to develop it, German and Dutch experts being brought in and arsenals set up, and 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 recognised as among the best in Europe.
    The Poles produced first class guns of standardised calibres, 3-pounders, and 6-pounder 'Octavs' being the chief field pieces, though there were 'Kartaunas' (Cannon) in 12, 24 and 48 pounder sizes for siege work.
    The artillery were not uniformed during our period.

The 'Tabor'

    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 the 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.

Tactics

    The usual formation for a Polish army the 'Horns' - is shown. The Poles usually started with a weak attack from one wing to fix the enemy's attention. Next the light cavalry began to envelope him, causing his forces to bunch together. The heavy hussars, in three ranks, then charged into the thick of them, the gap thus opened being exploited by the mediums, formed four-deep; finally the light cavalry took up the pursuit. However, their tactics were very variable, based on the flexibility conferred by their cavalry organisation and the almost unstoppable full-gallop charge of the heavy and medium cavalry.

Books

There is a near-total lack of useful material in English, though Saxtorph, Warriors and Weapons of Early Times has some coloured pictures of Poles based on a painting of circa 1630.

Illustrations


Polish infantry officer, 17th Century. Officers usually dressed quite differently from the men, and often carried a mace. Hat brown, red plume. Cloak blue, yellow facings. Tunic buff, undergarment and pouch yellow. Trousers buff and brown. Stockings grey, shoes yellow.

a 'drab' of the early 16th Century, still wearing mail shirt and visored infantry helmet. The halberd shown could be replaced by a long-shafted berdische axe, or the soldier could carry an arquebus. b Polish infantryman from Drabant end of the 16th and early 17th, Century. The plume probably indicates an NCO. NCOs would usually replace the arquebus with a half-pike with tassels below the head. c Hungarian-style Polish infantryman of the 17th Century dressed in the style called 'Haiduk'. d musketeer of the 17th Century. Note the three-foot long axe which was used as a musket rest. The figure could also have a fur cap with turned-up brim. e cap as worn by cossacks and dragoons.
a Pancerni standard. Colours: gold wreath and eagle on deep red field.






b dragoon standard. Colours: top light blue, bottom black, with cross in reversed colours (ie black on blue).






c cossack standard. Colours. top white, bottom bright red, cross and crescent yellow.
e Tartar horse tail standard; Tail any colour formed into a bun, held by gold net and topped with a gold or silver crescent.





d [Lithuanian] Tarter flag. Colours: yellow edging and bars on deep red field.

Top the last type of 'Karacena' or heavy hussar's armour used at the end of the 17th Century, Bottom 'lobster' Italian style half-armour of the type called 'Anima' and used by heavy hussars in the 16th Century.

Polish Royal Standard 16th-17th Century. Colours: top and bottom stripes very deep crimson. Middle stripe white. The crown, scroll around the shield, and jewelled chain, gold outlined black. Coat of arms: the whole shield bright red. Polish eagles white or silver. Lithuanian 'pursuit' emblems, golden rider holding a light blue shield on a white horse. Small shield in the centre: three white feathers on light blue shield. The ornamental ropes are light blue terminating in golden tassels. The jewels on the crown and the chain are alternately deep red and deep blue. The half(sic) of the standard is bright red striped in gold with a gold point. Size of the standard approximately eight feet high and nine feet wide.


All drawings by Roman Olejniczak


a 17th Century hussar. Armour could be inlaid with brass. The feathers are real, the wooden wing 'struts' gilt. Lance pennon red and white. Cloak could be panther, tiger, lynx or wolf skin. Coat red, brown or deep blue. Boots red or yellow. Basic colour of saddle cloth wine red. Scabbards red, green or black. Silver or gilt fittings. b 16th Century hussar. A single wing would be fixed to the rear of the saddle, and would have black feathers on a red strut. Figure's plume black. Cloak red with white decorations. Coat and saddle cloth probably red, trousers black, boots yellow. This figure has a breast plate over mail, but could have mail only. An officer would have a fur-trimmed cap, panther or lion skin cloak, and carry a gilt mace. Both would have horse furniture and weapons as figure 'a', but the horse would have a feather plume on its head.




a Lithuanian Tartar, 16th-17th Century. Could have a cap with large turned-up fur brim. b 17th Century Pancerni cavalryman. Harness etc yellow, red, green or blue with gilt or silver studs and fittings. Trappings usually same shade with red, silver or gilt fringes. An officer would carry a gilt mace and might wear a fur trimmed cap with a long trailing point.


Wagons of the Tabor showing protective mantlets and frames for attaching these together.


a heavy dragoon standard. Colours: green wreath and 'S' on white silk.
b-d heavy hussar lance pennants (uniform for each 'rota' or 'standard').
b 16th Century, chevrons blue and red starting with blue at haft.
c 17th Century. Top white, bottom red, cross and swallow tails in reverse order.
d 17th Century. Top yellow, bottom white, swallow tails reversed.

A Polish Royal Guard halberd, 17th Century.

Previous: Part 12: The Scots
Next: Part 14 - Spanish infantry

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See also The Battle of Orsha (Orsza), 1514. Painted c.1524-1530.