The history of the Winged Hussars begins in the year 1389. Serbian Prince Lazar has assembled his army on the plain of Kosovo in the Balkans to meet the invading Muslim Ottoman Army of Sultan Murad. Prince Lazar and his knights are on their knees taking Communion while squires hold their horses. It is June 15 and the weather is warm and sunny.
Historical accounts vary, but a few hours after taking the Sacraments that June day, Prince Lazar would be dead along with most of his army. Sultan Murad would also be killed and in revenge for his death, his sons rampaged among the captured Serbs beheading any nobles among them. The few hundred knights serving under Prince Lazar’s banner that survived this bloody day elected to leave Serbia rather than live as vassals under Ottoman rule, so they crossed Hungary into Poland. In their hearts would burn a fierce desire for revenge against the Ottomans who drove them from their own country. That revenge would come in a most spectacular way almost 300 years later, in the single biggest cavalry charge in history, a charge led by what came to be known as the Winged Hussars.
Arriving in Poland these countryless knights gave their allegiance to the Polish king, who was happy to add several hundred light cavalry to his army. The knights set themselves apart. They retained their Serbian heritage, customs, and way of fighting until death and ended up influencing the composition and makeup of the Polish army in a major way. By 1503, they had become Polish and formally established in the government.
From a light, unarmored cavalry they had evolved into Hussars. The word comes from “Usar” by which these knights were known in their native language.
A Killing Machine on a Horse
They adapted segmented armor, similar to the design employed by Roman Legions, that extended to their arms, thighs, and calves. They were armed with a sword fixed to their deep seat Turkish-style saddles, a saber, and two pistols. Some also carried light axes. Believe it or not, the pistols were not used to shoot enemies out of their saddles. These early handguns were hardly accurate, but the sound of a gunshot, especially hundreds of them in quick succession, often panicked the horses of the enemy which would flee from the field.
One would think that in the age of gun powder, horse cavalry like the Hussars would be slaughtered. That might have been the case if musketeers were trained properly, but they often weren’t. At 100 yards the average shooter might hit a man-sized target 40 percent of the time. The guns were prone to explode if overcharged with powder. Furthermore, the recoil of the 60-caliber ball was terrific and tended to kick the barrel up resulting in the shot going high. Inexperienced musketeers would close their eyes and turn their heads away from the exploding powder in the flash pan to avoid burns to their eyes and faces. Finally, the guns were cumbersome to reload, and a charging Hussar could cover 100 yards in less than 10 seconds. You might get off a single badly aimed shot with a 60 percent likelihood of missing, but then you would have to face that long lance with a very high likelihood of going right through you.
Unlike the heavy lances of medieval knights, a Hussar’s lance was light and hollow. It was split down the middle, hollowed out and glued back together, and wrapped tightly with thread. This allowed the lance to bend without shattering while making it very light at the same time. Also, rather than carry the lance in a notch in their body armor, the Hussars would fit the lance into a metal cap tied to the saddle with a pair of cotton ribbons. The ribbons were made to tear away at a certain exerted force. Anchoring the lance on the saddle rather than the body meant that a Hussar would not be unseated from his horse when the lance struck its target. It also meant that the lance thrust would have the momentum of a 1,000 lb horse behind it. The Hussar could use this lever-like arrangement to point the tip of the lance at a mass of infantry and then let it go just as it struck. The lance, then, would act as a skewer running through several men at once. There were stories of as many as six men getting impaled by a single Hussar lance. Once that lance was expended, spares were carried in carts in the rear. In a sense, the lance was a kind of handheld guided missile.
Finally, the Hussars had a very special horse breed that existed as a state secret in Poland. A cross between Polish stock and Arabian, this equine missile had incredible speed and stamina. It was so valuable that foals of very select lineages could be worth as much as an entire village. To be in possession of one without permission was a death sentence. It was also rumored that the rider would kill his mount rather than let it fall to the enemy.
In battle, the Hussars were known to paint their horses red as if covered in blood. These horses were also trained beyond the ordinary instinct of a horse to avoid running over or stepping on a man. These animals would charge directly into whatever was in front of them like a battering ram. Unlike traditional cavalry that charged up in slashing hit and run attacks, the horses of the Hussars would run you over, and then you would be trampled by the four to five ranks that followed the first wave. If you managed to survive that, the Hussars would wheel and return again, this time with their swords drawn.
As François Dalerac, the French courtier of Polish King Jan III Sobieski, wrote in 1699, “The hussars never halt, they ride their horses at full speed, breaking through everything that’s in front of them.”
The Winged Hussars’ Bloody Record
Thus armed and equipped the Winged Hussars amassed an incredible battle record spanning centuries.
At the Battle of Kircholm in 1605, 3,500 Polish troops including Hussars, defeated 11,000 Swedes. The Poles lost fewer than 100 men, including 13 Hussars. The Swedes lost between 6,000 to 9,000.
At the Battle of Klushino in 1610, 5.000 Winged Hussars crushed a Russian-Swedish army of 35.000 soldiers.
In 1621, 45,000 Poles were besieged by 170,000 Turks. The Poles were in their trenches riding it out, but not the Hussars. They repeatedly hit Turkish units. When just 600 Winged Hussars tilted their lances against 10,000 advancing Turks, they cut right through the Turkish line. The Turks fled in terror back to their camp in a stampede.
In 1694, the Hussars gave Poland its own version of the Battle of Thermopylae when just 400 Hussars stood in the path of the advance of 40,000 Crimean Tartars.
Finally, during the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Polish King John III Sobieski, led an army of 70,000 to break the Ottoman siege. Facing an army of some 150,000, Sobieski flanked the Ottomans by approaching from the West and trapped them between his army and the city. The infantry fought each other for nearly 12 hours until Sobieski could get his 20,000 cavalry, including an incredible 3,000 Winged Hussars, into positions in the woods. When they emerged from the trees at a walk in the late afternoon, the Polish and allied infantry is said to have roared and cheered at the sight of them.
What followed was the largest cavalry charge in history. Twenty thousand Polish and allied cavalry against 20,000 Ottoman cavalry. Once again, the Winged Hussars scattered the Turkish cavalry and then rolled over the Turkish infantry trampling them underfoot. They finally charged right at the headquarters of the Ottoman vizier who fled for his life. After three hours, the months-long siege of Vienna was ended, and some 15,000 dead Ottomans littered the field for miles.
The long-dead Serbian Usars driven from Serbia by the Turks in 1389 had their final revenge.
Death Comes on a Horse
Imagine the scene: You are a conscripted foot soldier of the Ottoman Sultan. Your profession is not of arms: you are a farmer, or a cooper or a shoemaker called up in a time of conflict. You have some familiarity with sword and shield, though you cannot afford to own weapons like these let alone armor. Your practice has been with wooden swords. Now you have been issued a sword, a shield, a helmet, and a quilted smock perhaps covered in leather to afford you some protection from blows and arrows. These are not the fine weapons of a nobleman, but mass-produced weapons of low quality, a great deal of it captured from the enemy as well. You are standing on the field with other peasant soldiers, enduring a long miserable siege. Now, you are being attacked by the Austrian and Polish infantry from the West and you have been fighting them for hours without decisive victory by either side. Their own peasant foot soldiers are as tired, hungry, and miserable as you are.
Then off to your left, you see thousands of horsemen bearing very long lances with banners five feet long streaming from them as they emerge from the woods. These cavalry are not a rabble: they ride in loose formation very precisely at least five rows deep. To their left and right are the ordinary cavalry with sword and shield you have seen before, but in the center of this mass is something different. They are in polished armor which glints and glitters in the sun. They do not shout or swear oaths as scared men about to enter battle often do; they are silent as they form up. Their lances and fluttering banners point at the sky. Framing the image of the men in their saddles you can see what looks like wings with white feathers fluttering and then you know: It’s the Winged Hussars, the Angels of Death on red-painted horses that appear drenched in blood.
The enemy infantry, tens of thousands of them, give a great roaring cheer.
As you nervously tighten your grip on your shield you watch them calmly take an angle on the flank of your army with a sense of wonder mixed with dread. These are the nobles of the Polish crown, born and bred for war. They are lifelong volunteers who have outfitted themselves at great expense. A single one of their horses might be worth more than your entire village is. They are not conscripts or hirelings; these Hussars are a highly regarded social caste within the Polish state.
War is their only profession.
Their lances tilt forward and the Winged Hussars begin to approach at the walk, holding their formations loose as they advance from 1,000 feet away. Then the walk becomes a canter and the horses pick up speed. They seem almost on a parade, and you can feel a faint trembling of the ground beneath your feet as 12,000 hooves tap at the ground. Then, at 700 feet, the canter becomes a gallop. The horses are moving nearly 30 miles an hour. The ground shakes beneath you, and a great rumbling sound approaches. But there is something else. The banners on the end of their lances, thousands of them, begin to snap loudly in the cold air. The sound is deafening and terrifying. Now the loose formation has closed tightly in a masterful display of discipline and horsemanship.
The men to your left and right begin to waiver and jostle. Unlike your own army’s sword-armed heavy cavalry that fights in loose formation swinging from their saddles and then darting away, these are a wall of 16 feet lances pushed by more than 1,500 tons of charging horses.
The men around you have heard the stories: up to six men impaled by each lance. Your officer brandishes his sword calling for your men to hold formation and not break, but men start to push themselves back from the thundering hooves and long lances approaching.
And the thunder grows louder. A wall of lances coming at more than 30 miles per hour approaches.
You turn to run as well, afraid to look back as the Hussars cross the last 100 feet to reach your lines.
There is a great crashing sound like rocks rolling down a hill. The sudden screams of men and shrieking horses are ear-splitting.
You drop your sword and shield and run for your life as the ground shakes beneath your feet. Then the hot breath of a charging horse is on your neck.
Now blackness and a sensation of floating come as the sound of the thundering hooves begins to fade along with the screams and crashing of horses into bodies.
You are face down in the field which is veiled by a settling dust cloud. You try to catch your breath. Trying to breathe hurts terribly. Attempting to raise yourself you feel stuck to the ground and somehow unable to raise your body. Fearing the worst, you probe between the ground and your belly with your fingers, until you feel the shaft of the lance that has passed through you and pinned you to the earth. It is wet and sticky with what you know is your own blood.
The sound of voices makes you turn your head and you see a line of Polish infantry trotting along, bringing up the rear of the charge. Here and there one of them stops to inspect one of your crushed and broken comrades and slip a dagger into him several times.
One of them is now approaching you where you lay. He looks right into your eyes. His bearded face is framed by a half-smile, and he has his dagger out for you.
The Sunset of the Winged Hussars
The Polish Winged Hussars remained the most feared cavalry formation in Europe for 250 years. They could not be stopped by pikes, arrows, other cavalry, or even early firearms. What did bring the crushing victories of the famed and feared Hussars to an end required the re-equipping and retraining of entire armies.
The seeds of the end of the Winged Hussars were planted almost 80 years before their history-making charge at Vienna.
King Augustus Adolphus of Sweden knew his country had suffered many defeats at the hands of the Poles and the Wing Hussars. He built an army and adopted tactics to specifically defeat the charge of the Polish cavalry. Adolphus refused to fight in the open on ground favorable to cavalry. Instead, he dug emplacements behind spike-filled ditches for his entire army to fight behind. His army traded its older arquebuses for modern matchlock muskets that fired faster and were more accurate. He also doubled the number of pikemen in his army to defend against cavalry attacks. Further, his infantry employed something called the Frisian horse or the caltrop. It was a four-spiked iron contraption that could be thrown out onto the open ground. No matter which side it landed on, it would project an ugly, rusty, upward-facing spike that a horse could step on resulting in a fallen horse and a thrown rider.
Between 1626 and 1629, during a Swedish invasion of Poland, King Adolphus handed defeat after defeat to the Polish army by fighting this new kind of war with a new kind of army at places like Riga, Wallhof, Mewe, Dirschau, and Gorzno.
While these reformed tactics stopped the attacks of the Hussars and actually demoralized them and the Polish Army along with them, the constant need for elaborate fortified positions to fight from sacrificed mobility for an invading army on the march. So, the Swedes marched slow. And when their slow-burning matches, needed to light their muskets would become extinguished, the Hussars would attack.
For several years these two armies made war on each other. The Swedes were moving slowly, trying to fight set-piece battles from dug-in fortifications, whereas the Poles, using their superior mobility, attacked Swedish supplies and reinforcements on the march. Gone was the great and crushing charge and a decisive victory in a battle of a few hours. It had now been replaced with a grueling war of attrition.
Finally, in 1629, the Swedes were decisively defeated by the Poles at the Battle of Honigfelde. The charges of the Winged Hussars on the open ground pushed the Swedes into repeated headlong retreats from town to town until nightfall. The next day the Swedes withdrew entirely before the Hussars could get into the saddle again.
While the Poles had finally defeated the Swedes, the news of the Swedes’ successes in beating the Winged Hussars spread far and wide. Soon, other armies were adopting the anti-cavalry tactics and weapons of the Swedes to thwart cavalry attacks and especially attacks by the Hussars. Unfortunately for the Turks at Vienna, the way to beat them had not reached their ears by 1683. The enormous expense of training and equipping thousands of Winged Hussars could be justified when they were winning stunning victory after victory. However, the Angel of Obsolescence is a close cousin of the Angle of Death and it had put its boney hand on the shoulder of the Hussars.
The Winged Hussars were disbanded by the Polish government in 1776. A remnant remained for ceremonial purposes and state funerals prompting the public to refer to them disparagingly as “Funeral Soldiers.”
While the Winged Hussars in their thousands no longer shake the ground with their charges and cause leaves to fall from the trees, their legendary exploits live on today in the minds of people all over the world. They have been the inspiration of songs, books, movies, and have been featured in military simulations video games. They have even returned to Poland in the form of re-enactors wearing elaborate and historically accurate uniforms like living ghosts of the past glories of the Empire of Poland and Lithuania.