"Winged" hussar of the second half of the 17th century. (Drawing by V. Vuksic).

Lithuanian History Highlights: Those Magnificent Men in Their Winged Armor

By K. Paul Žygas

Those Magnificent Men in Their Winged Armor

OF ALL THE ARMOR DISPLAYED IN THE ART ! Institute of Chicago, the “Half-armor for a hussar” invariably catches and holds the attention of every Lithuanian history buff. Worn by the crack hussar units of the Polish and Lithuanian cavalry, this type of armor was a well-known sight three to four centuries ago on the battlefields of eastern Europe. Allowing the hussars to attack with virtual impunity, the armor repeatedly proved its worth, notably during the defeats of the Swedes at Kokenhausen in 1601, the Russians at Klushino in 1610, the Cossacks at Beresteczko in 1651, the Turks at Chocim in 1621, at Kamienec Podolski in 1653, and at Vienna in 1683. This impressive list of victories invites us to take a closer look at the “winged” hussars — the shock-wave troops of one of the most formidable cavalries in 17th century Europe.

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Emissaries of Ivan the Terrible present King Stefan Batory the traditional bread and salt offering and humbly beg him for peace, while a “winged” hussar (upper right corner) looks on. (Detail of a painting by J. Matejko)

Let us begin by noting that the word hussar derives from the Hungarian huszar, which originally referred to an outlaw, a highwayman, or a freebooter. The term and its meaning was borrowed little changed from the Old Serbian husar or gusar, an adoption of the Old Italian corsaro, which, in turn, was a corruption of the Medieval Latin cursarius and cursus, meaning plunder. This Latin term was anglicized into corsair meaning a fast pirate ship or a pirate, and hussar in English now refers, not to an outlaw, but a horseman of the Hungarian light cavalry.

The history of the hussars as an identifiable military formation began in 1458 when Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, created special cavalry squadrons to safeguard the borders from Turkish incursions. The great magnates of Hungary supported the king’s efforts by providing one fully armed hussar for every twenty men that they sent into the army. The Hapsburgs continued and refined the practice during succeeding centuries by raising fast hussar units to patrol and defend Christendom ’s southeastern frontier from the Turks.

The hussars were introduced into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Hungary by Stefan Batory, Prince of Transylvania, when he became the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1576. Initially his bodyguards, the hussars soon entered the regular forces. Batory hoped to liberate Hungary and regain Lithuanian lands lost to Muscovy, but died in 1586 before fulfilling all of his plans. His achievements include regaining Livonia from Ivan the Terrible and the foundation of a Jesuit academy, eventually becoming the University of Vilnius.

When Batory assumed the throne, service in the Lithuanian cavalry had long been the established way of life for every bajoras, i.e. able-bodied males holding landed property. The Lithuanian Statute of 1529 spelled out their traditional duties in the section dealing with state defense. We note that when the call-to-arms was issued, every bajoras was obligated to report to his local superior officer, called a veliavininkas (flag-bearer), on a good horse, carrying armor, helmet, and shield, armed with a sword and a lance. In 1528 the Lithuanian army raised 19,844 men; in 1567 the head count reached 27,708.

The smallest homesteads sent individual bajorai; the largest estates sent entire companies. The wealthiest families, such as the Sapiega, Pacas, Radvila, Chodkevicius, had their own forces. Of the great magnate clans, only four were obligated to always be on guard, maintaining fortresses and personal armies. In 1601 the Polish-Lithuanian Sejm (Diet) stipulated that the Zamoyskis must have 200 armed men on permanent duty; the GonzagaMyszkowskis, 150 men. The Ostrogskis in Poland and the Radvila family in Lithuania, were each required to maintain an army of six thousand for the defense of the realm. Hussars were included in these numbers, but their exact part of the total is uncertain.

Breastplate of hussar armor with the Radvila coat of arms. Early 18th century (War Museum of Poland, Warsaw.)
Breastplate of hussar armor with the Radvila coat of arms. Early 18th century (War Museum of Poland, Warsaw.)

The hussars, the most prestigious troops in the cavalry, became the service units of choice for the middle and high bajorai, the country’s warrior class. Wages were a third higher for the elite hussars. Moreover, on completing the six-year stint of duty, the retired hussar could aspire to important positions in the civil service. Advancement in the state apparatus was quickest for those who had served in the front lines. Understandably, there was no shortage of volunteers from the Lithuanian cavalry, which provided the hussar units with a steady stream of well-trained lancers.

The hussars could be useful even off the battlefield. Take, for instance, the simmering feud between the Radvila and the Chodkevicius families, which in 1599 almost exploded into a bloody civil war. To show that they meant business, the Radvila faction occupied the streets of Vilnius with an army of several thousand, led by a hundred hussars. Not at all intimidated, the Chodkevicius side responded by aiming two dozen cannons towards the Radvila mansion a few blocks away. Fortunately for everyone involved, the matter was peacefully resolved in court.

Wars became deadlier than ever in the 17th century and required skilled, well-armed, and experienced soldiers. Most countries created perm anent standing armies. Poland and Lithuania, however, resorted to mercenaries. In 1650-52, for instance, the Lithuanian army sought to hire fifteen thousand professional soldiers; in 1654, the budget allocated funds for eighteen thousand. Mercenaries responded from Germany, Holland, Sweden, Hungary, even Scotland and Wallachia (modern Romania). Hired individually, or as a full artillery battery, or as a score of infantry or pikemen, they brought the army to its full strength and did better against other professional soldiers.

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Hussar helmet of Nuremberg workmanship, belonging to the Tiškevičius family, 16th century

Bajorai continued to fill the ranks of the Lithuanian cavalry, which generally numbered ten to twelve thousand lancers, plus their attendants and servants. Troop call-up registers of the mid-17th century reveal how many men each part of the country was expected to raise. Žemaitija (Samogitia) had to provide one hussar for every fifty households, thereby sending three “flags” of these units, i.e. about three hundred hussars. The smaller Ukmerge region, by contrast, was to send only forty two hussars. Not enough for a complete unit, these men would join another “flag,” say that from Upyte, with its one hundred forty two hussars.

The well-equipped hussars were a breed apart. They typically travelled towards the war zone with one or more retainers and with enough supplies for several months. Each hussar needed at least one baggage wagon in the army’s supply train for his personal belongings and military gear. On the march, the hussars were slow and cumbersome, but on the battlefield, they were “as swift as the wind.”

Stefan Batory made the hussars a very mobile and highly-disciplined, light cavalry force. He discarded the earlier heavy helmets, wooden shields, and large saddles, replacing this equipment with light helmets and light half-armor worn over mail shirts. At first, the helmet was an iron hat with moveable ear flaps and a neck guard. Then it came to resemble a metal baseball cap, augmented, like the example on the opposite page, with a descending, protective nasal. In either shape, these iron helmets were invulnerable to pistol shot.

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Karacena or scale armor of a Lithuanian hussar captain. Note the gilded brass Vytis on the chestplate. Late 17th century. (War Museum of Poland, Warsaw.)

The cuirass, protecting the upper body to just below the midriff, was the largest and most important piece of hussar armor. Its breastplate guarded the chest from cuts and thrusts as it was made thick enough to withstand musket balls shot from twenty paces. The backplate could withstand pistol balls shot at point blank range. The entire cuirass was fairly light, rarely exceeding 33 lbs. The breastplate frequently featured moveable scales at the abdomen level. Flexible scale armor, or karacena, was introduced during the last half of the 17th century. It was made from overlapping steel scales, attached to the leather jacket underneath. The armor of the Lithuanian hussar captain illustrates the general type. As a finishing touch, the hussar would cloak one shoulder with the pelt of a bear, tiger, or a leopard.

The “wings,” attached to the rider’s saddle or to the backplate of his cuirass, distinguished Polish and Lithuanian hussars from their European counterparts. Made from wooden laths about four feet in length, the “wings” could be a single, slender shaft or come as a pair. The shafts could be straight or curve forward into a graceful, protective arc. Their back ridge was lined with feathers, usually from cranes, falcons, eagles, or swans, sometimes from ostrich plumes. The origin of the “wings” remains obscure, although it is known that in the 16th century riders in many parts of southeastern Europe, notably Serbia and Turkey, applied decorative feathers to their helmets and shields.
Besides the armor, a hussar’s baggage included a small arsenal of arms intended for a wide variety of opponents and battle conditions. In 1576 Stefan Batory introduced the light, Hungarian sabre, its curving blade widening at the tip. He also inaugurated the use of wheel-lock pistols, pocketed into the saddle holsters. The hussars remained ambivalent about these newfangled contraptions, and well into the 1650s they continued to ride into battle with curved, compound bows of the eastern type. Unlike the unreliable pistols, bows could be loaded while riding, could be fired more rapidly, and were more accurate at longer distances.

By the mid-1650s the saber had acquired a closed hilt and a straightened blade, whose length and weight gave it a very high ratio of cutting power for the effort expended. The hussar also carried a rapier, a stiff, slender sword designed for thrusting and piercing. Finally, there was the long war hammer, a steel weapon favored for its skull-cracking and armor-smashing properties. Although muskets were known much earlier, they became obligatory hussar gear only in the 1690s.

The lance remained the hussars’ pre-eminent weapon. From sixteen to twenty feet in length, it was intended to outreach the enemy’s pikes. To attack the pikemen, the hussars closed ranks into a dense formation of a hundred or more riders, bristling with extended lances. Boot to boot and knee to knee during an assault, no room remained between the hussars. Sweeping and cutting arm movements were impossible. The lances’ metal spearheads penetrated a pikeman’s breastplate on the initial attack. Lances could be used only once because the light wooden shaft splintered on impact. When the enemy’s formation was broken, the supporting arsenal of sabres, rapiers, war-hammers, and pistols came into play.

he armies of Poland and Lithuania had learned from the East and the West, especially Germans, Swedes, Muscovites, Tartars, Cossacks, and Turks. Over the centuries, all of them had been fought. As each opponent conducted war in their own way, a large repertoire of strategies and tactics was observed, acquired, and refined. For example, the medieval Teutonic Knights taught the Poles and the Lithuanians the value of tight formations and massed attacks as well as the need for rigorous training and discipline. The warriors of the steppes taught the importance of speed, ambushes, and sudden attacks. Add to this the military science of Jan Tarnowski and the artillery wizardry of Kazimieras Semenavicius. It is no exaggeration to say that the experienced Polish and Lithuanian armies were steeped in military know-how.

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In 1999 Lithuania issued a postage stamp (above left) featuring a 17th century karacena scale armor of a Lithuanian hussar. The armor is part of the arms and armor collection at the Vytautas the Great War Museum in Kaunas. The King’s Hussar Regiment (above right) parades at the wedding procession of King Sigismund III Vasa (1587-1632) and Archduchess Constance of Austria. (Detail of the Stockholm Roll by Balthazar Gebhard, 1606.)

The King of Poland, simultaneously the Grand Duke of Lithuania, was the supreme commander of two distinct forces. The armies of Poland and Lithuania were separate, completely independent entities. Polish troops could not enter Lithuania without permission. Likewise for the Lithuanian army crossing into Poland. Each force was led by its own Hetman, a name derived from the German Hauptmann. The Grand Hetman, not obliged to be at the front, was responsible for the army’s overall administration, training, and supplies in times of peace and war. The Field Hetman, as the name implies, was responsible for determining battle tactics and the conduct of the troops in the field. Both countries maintained their separate military structures until 1795.

The Field Hetmen generally used the hussars as a specialized attack force for a battle’s second phase. The light cavalry would initiate proceedings by first probing the enemy positions, attempting to draw them out, provoking the foe into a premature response. Once the location and strength of the enemy troops became known, the hussars would make their galloping charge. Complicated maneuvers were avoided. Attacks were direct and frontal: a shock wave of a hundred or more riders charging as a densely packed, virtually solid unit. Dragoons and the light cavalry would follow in succeeding waves. If the survivors regrouped, the hussars would charge again. If the enemy was routed, light lancers could pursue the stragglers for several days thereafter. Attrition and harassment could reduce enemy armies as well as any massed encounter.

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Fighting men of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, 17th century. The “winged” hussar is armed with lance and war hammer. (From Cossacks – Warrior Riders of the Steppes by M. A. Groushko.)

Against the Tartars and Cossacks, however, these tactics were generally useless. For one thing, they did not use pikemen. For another, their cavalries avoided massive set piece engagements. When assaulted, they would draw back, sometimes dispersing, sometimes only feigning a retreat. Ail too often, the withdrawal had been planned beforehand and led to devastating counter-attacks and ambushes. Tartars’ horses were faster and more maneuverable than those of the hussars. Thus, a Tartar could literally ride circles around an isolated hussar who had unwittingly left his formation. It may have been impossible to shoot a cuirassed hussar out of the saddle, but entirely practicable to unseat one with a lasso, especially for a Tartar adept at lassoing wild horses and ponies. However, if the hussar had “wings” projecting into the air above his head, they would entangle the lasso and prevent the hussar from being pulled to the ground. It is thus argued that the hussars’ “wings” were not purely decorative; in certain situations they were an invaluable, protective counter-measure.

On and off the battlefield, the “winged” hussars presented an unforgettable sight. When dignitaries of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth travelled abroad in the 17th century, they often included the “winged” hussars in their retinues. Sketches survive of these splendid embassies in Paris, Vienna, and Rome. The hussars remained a crack fighting force into the early years of the 18th century, but their earlier successes led to complacency. As the century wore on, the armies of Poland and Lithuania became increasingly outmoded and ineffective. The “winged” hussars became an honor guard, b rought out to heighten the pomp and circumstance of royal entrances, regal weddings, enthronements. Seen ever more frequently as ceremonial attendants and escorts at funeral corteges, they eventually came to be regarded as funeral troops.
The glory days of the “winged” hussars may have gone forever but they were not forgotten. Napoleon, a keen student of military history, recognized their martial valor and tactical importance. Although he would not revive these specialized attack forces in their old form, he did draw upon the illustrious military tradition, deeply ingrained into the social fabric of Poland and Lithuania.

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Ceremonial entry into Vienna of Field Hetman Casimir Radvila, 1679. A unit of “winged” hussars is part of the long cortege. (Detail of engraving by Stefano della Bella.)

Arriving in Vilnius at the end of June, 1812, Napoleon lost little time in creating a provisional government and re-establishing the Army of Lithuania, eventually raising about fifteen thousand men. To this figure we should add the twelve thousand Lithuanians who crossed the border between 1806 and 1809 to join the Duchy of Warsaw’s army. These numbers are altogether astonishing because all this time the Russians had been requisitioning horses and conscripting recruits for the armies of the czar. The Lithuanian infantry and cavalry units created by Napoleon were initially under his direct command and did not receive orders from the Polish general staff.

Of the innumerable formations in Napoleon’s Grand Armee we should take note of the prestigious Imperial Guard and its three, exclusive lancer regiments. Polish uhlans filled the 1st Regiment; Dutch “Red Lancers,” the 2nd Regiment. The 3rd Light Lancer Regiment of the Imperial Guard was Lithuanian. A token from the Grand Duchy’s distinguished military legacy, the creation of this elite unit demonstrated Napoleon’s high regard for the Lithuanian cavalry of old, spearheaded for two centuries by those magnificent “winged” hussars.