Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Legendary Winged Hussars of Poland

Winged Hussar of Poland
Poland was a kingdom with a powerful cavalry force. Its neighbors knew the strengths and the prowess of its mighty cavalry. In 1638, during the Siege of Vienna, a Polish King march to Vienna. With him was an army with cavalry that stroke fear and spectacle with a display of creativity within their uniforms. The Winged Hussars of Poland became the icon of Poland’s military might.

The Polish army was a cauldron of different influences. Situated in the middle of Eastern Europe, Poland became influenced by the East and West. Its army was based on the military traditions of the Mongolians, Byzantines, Russians, Slavs, and Western Europeans. The most influential aspects that the Polish Army received was the reliance on horses – cavalry. The Mongols were famous for their Blitzkrieg in horse tactics. Byzantines had the Catapracht. Eventually, Poland developed a large cavalry force. Its cavalry outnumbered foot soldiers by 3 to 1. The Polish adopted cavalry units known as Hussars. Brought by ideas from Hungary and other Slavic kingdoms, Hussars were heavily armed fast moving cavalry units that moved in the battlefield. Poland created a large force made of Hussars and made the Kingdom a player in military affairs.

Stefan Bathory
During the 1570’s, a Transylvanian Prince named Stefan Bathory became King of Poland. Eventually, the idea of hussars arrived in Poland with the new King. As he assumed the Kingship of the Poles, he began to build up the military strength of the Kingdom. He standardized the equipment and the uniforms of the army. Some Serbs who served as hussars in the Polish Army had an insignia of eagle’s wings in their shield. Bathory knew the tradition as well. In the process of standardizing the cavalry, he decided that the shield must go but the wings be placed in saddles in the back of cavalry men. His thought that it would inspire fear to the enemy and moral boost to his soldiers. 

To be part of the Winged Hussars was prestigious and expensive. The duty of charging the enemy straight ahead was a glorious moment for any winged hussars. Most especially, they needed to prove that they were not just a display with their wings, but a formidable fighting unit that enemies of Poland would fear. But becoming part of the Winged Hussars was not cheap. The state did not provided most of the weapons, horses, and armors.  Hence, many if not all Winged Hussars came from the nobility. A noble needed to provide his own horse. Their horses must be a result of cross breading large Western European horses to the strong and winter resistant horses of Russia. He provided his own armor – a cuirass – and also a helmet called zischagge. He also had to have money to buy his weapons: a saber that cut through the armors of infantry called estoc, or a sword called pallasz, two pistols, and a long war hammer called the czekan. Most importantly, they provided themselves with their own wings. The iconic wings were made of a wooden canopy, initially laid in the saddle and later in the back of the armor that stand up and created an arc just about few inches from the tip of the helmet. It feathers of eagle or raven, or crane were then added. For some affluent Winged Hussars, gold were added. Because they provided their own armor, they were given the freedom to add blemishes to their war dress. Some hussars put animal skins in their back. Thus, some Hussars had skins of tiger, leopard, or wolf in their shoulders and colorful plums in their helmets. The only weapon provided by the state were the sixteen foot lance with a steel tip known as a kopia. 
Winged Hussar entering Krakow
Winged Hussars added streamers just before the tip of the lance to bring a psychological shock to the enemy. During charges, the swing of the wings with the waving streamers made swooshing sounds that insight fear in the enemy.

From the time of King Stefan Bathory, winged Hussars fought numerous battles. They fought against rebellions. They won victories against the Russians, Germans, Moldavians, and even the Swedes. But beginning the 1620’s, the strength of the Winged Hussars and the Polish cavalry force itself began to wane. With the dawn of more powerful weapons and tactics, the invisibility of the winged Hussars began to wane. Nevertheless, it maintained its formidability against other enemies, like the Russian and the Turks.

Jan Sobieski in the Siege of Vienna
In 1683, the last of the famous battle participated by the Winged Hussars was the Siege of Vienna. Ottoman Turks attempted once again to capture the Hapsburg capital of Vienna and open Europe to their invasion. Polish King Jan III Sobieski decided to interfere and relieve Vienna. He and 2,000 Winged Hussars made a quick journey to help Vienna. It was a relief for the citizens of Vienna when the spectacle image of the Winged Hussars became visible. The arrival of the Polish Army helped to break the Ottoman siege of the city.

After the 1683 Siege of Vienna, the Winged Hussars began to lose its significance in the battlefield. With new rifles that were powerful, cavalry began to lose its dominance in the battlefield. By the 18th century, the Winged Hussar simply disappeared along with the Polish Kingdom that it served. And since then, the images of the Winged Hussars remained in the museums and stories of their exploits in history.

See also:

Brzezinski, R. Polish Winged Hussar, 1576 - 1775. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

Jarymowycz, R. J. Cavalry: From Hoof to Track. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Peterson, G. Warrior Kings of Sweden: The Rise of an Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007.

Scott, R. B. & N. Gaukroger. Clash of Empires: Eastern Europe, 1494 - 1698. Oxford: Osprey, 2011.

Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man. New York: DK Publishing, 2007.

Wheatcroft, A. The Enemy at the Gate: Hapsburg, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe. New York: Basic Books, 2008.


  1. A lot of mistakes in this article... But I liked it.
    Main mistake: it were not the rifles that ended the hussars. It was an extremely expensive formation (for ex the value of a hussars hors was equal to 20 canons), and our economy - due to several wars one after another - just could not afford it. Riles was not a problem

  2. P.M. Kunitsky Hussar of the Hussars my heritage