Army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th Century

When I first visited London, in 1989, I attended a wargaming club in North London. I forget where. The club night featured a renaissance game with Polish Hussars dominating the table. I was captivated. Now, years later, I’m revisiting the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita). Poland was the biggest country in 17th Century Europe, nearly twice as big as the next biggest, France. Its army was powerful and combined elements of the east and west. The most distinctive component were the famous winged Hussars, but they also had good light cavalry, and western style pike and shot. And it was fighting the Poles where Gustavus Adolphus cut his teeth as a military commander. This post is about the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.


Parts of the Commonwealth Army

The army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had the usual split between cavalry, infantry, and artillery, but the army was categorised in other ways as well.

Components of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Army in the 17th Century

Components of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Army in the 17th Century

For one thing the commonwealth had the normal, for the period, split between nobles and commoners. However either 6-10% of the commonwealth population was noble compared to only 2% in the rest of Europe (Brzezinski, 1987, 2006). Many of the nobles were poor, as poor as the commoners they lived amongst. Many of these nobles joined the army as Hussars, pancerni cossacks, and officers. There was also the levy of nobility which, although numerous, was not of great quality. Commoners contributed to both the cavalry and the infantry.

The association of Poland and Lithuania started in 1386 with ascension of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vladislav Jagiello, to the Kingdom of Poland (Brzezinski, 1987). However, formal union waited until 1569. The Polish part of the commonwealth was called the ‘Crown’. The Polish and Lithuanian parts of the army had strong similarities but each also retained unique aspects. The Poles contributed about twice the number of men as the Lithuanians and were more western in orientation. Lithuania was more eastern in orientation, had a Tatar population, and called their armoured medium cavalry petyhorcy rather than the Polish pancerni; the petyhorcy retain lance after the pancerni temporarily abandoned it.

The next division was between the National section and Foreign section (cudzodziemski autorament) (Jasinski Dev 05). Wladyslaw IV officially called the two parts of the army National section and Foreign section in 1632-33, but the split existed before. Both sections included horse and foot. The National section had eastern dress and organisation. Their clothes were eastern style, whether Polish, Hungarian, Wallachian, Cossack, Tatar, or Turkish. Cossack and Tatar hairstyles were popular – think “punk” with cropped and shaved heads and mohawks. The Foreign section had western dress and organisation. Many Germans were recruited for the Foreign section, along with others, however, the vast majority of these troops were Polish. [The Polish word is autorament which I think is literally “enlistment” but “section” makes more sense to me.]

The commonwealth army included a lot of nationalities/ethnicities. Polish and Lithuanian, of course, but also Cossacks, Hungarians, Wallachians, Tatars, Circassians and Germans (Brzezinski, 1987, 1988, 2006). Cossacks contributed both cavalry and infantry. The Zaporozhian Cossacks of the Ukraine were now nominally Polish subjects and Stefan Batory instituted a register of those entitled to pay and obliged to serve – the Registered Cossacks. These were infantry and rose from an initial 500 to 8,000 in 1630. Lithuanian Tatars provided light cavalry. Wallachians were recruited by the ‘Crown’. The terms ‘Cossack’, ‘Wallachian’ and ‘Tatar’ all became terms used for styles of cavalry within the Commonwealth, regardless of the origin of the men. ‘Wallachian’ and ‘Tatar’ were styles of light cavalry. ‘Cossack’ was a term used for both armoured medium cavalry (pancerni) and light cavalry. Circassians, a tribe from the Caucasus, were appreciated as cavalry and one tribe gave their name (petyhorcy) to the armoured medium cavalry of Lithuania. Circassian, Cossack and Tatar were used interchangeably for cavalry units, e.g. the unit of the Polonised Tatar, Temruk was called all of these terms, perhaps because his unit included petyhorcy, Circassians, Cossacks and Tatars. Hungarians were recruited for both horse and foot. The Poles clearly appreciated the Hungarian infantry as the infantry of the National section were equipped in ‘Hungarian’ style. But the big impact of the Hungarians was the Hussars. The original Hussars were Hungarian but by the 17th Century all of them were Polish-Lithuanian. They retained the lance of and wings of the originals but added heavy armour. Germans, and other western Europeans, contributed troops for the Foreign section i.e. those dressed and trained in western fashions – Arquebusiers, Cuirassier, Reiters, Pike and Shot, and Dragoons. Over time native Polish-Lithuanians replace the Germans in the Foreign section.

Then there is the question of who paid for the army. The King and great magnates paid for troops but there were also the levy and unpaid volunteers. The King had a Royal Guard and supported the ‘Quarter’ army, of 3-5,000 men, from his own treasury (Brzezinski, 1987). The ‘Quarter’ army was destroyed at the Battle of Batoh in 1652 and replaced by “the Computable army”. In emergency extra taxation could fund a large number of mercenaries. The King could call out the Levy of Nobles who were all cavalry (Brzezinski, 1987) and the Wybraniecka infantry levy. However, these troops were not sufficient and the commonwealth was reliant on the private armies of powerful magnates such as the Radziwill, Ostrogski and Zamoyski families (Jasinski Dev 03). Troops raised by the nobility wore their livery (Brzezinski, 1988) The army included some units of volunteers e.g. Lisowski’s Cossacks (Brzezinski, 1987). The volunteers were unpaid and relied on loot for compensation.


Cavalry

At the start of the 17th century cavalry dominated the Commonwealth army (Jasinski Dev 04). But the proportion of cavalry declined over the century.

The Commonwealth had three weights of cavalry, which in modern terms are called heavy, medium and light although in 17th Century Poland these categories were called Hussars, pancerni and light cavalry (Brzezinski, 1987). In the first part of the 17th Century the cavalry was divided into two categories: Hussars and ‘Cossacks’. The Hussars were the heavy cavalry, and their purpose was the charge and break the enemy (Brzezinski, 2006). Both medium and light cavalry could skirmish or fight in close combat, but the mediums, being armoured, were more inclined to close. The ‘Cossack’ category included both medium and light cavalry although by mid-century these had different names (pancerni, light cavalry). Many non-Cossacks were found in the ‘Cossack’ ranks. Petyhortsy were the Lithuanian equivalent of the pancerni cossacks, but inspired by Circassians. The Foreign section also provided medium cavalry, initially arquebusiers, then cuirassiers and the more lighted armoured Rajtars. The ‘foreign’ aspect of Foreign section was about their costumes, equipment and fighting methods, not where the men came from. Many Germans fought in the Foreign section, but over time most cavalrymen in the Foreign section were Polish-Lithuanian nationals. And by the end of the century the ‘foreign’ infantry were Polish nationals and dressed in Polish styles.

The proportions of heavy, medium and light cavalry changed over time (Brzezinski, 1987, 1988, 2006; Gush, 1975; Jasinski Dev 06). In the previous century Hussars made up 85% of the cavalry. But the numbers declined so in the second half of the 17th century the Hussars contributed only 5-20% of the cavalry. In 1655-62 the numbers of hussars fell to a mere 5-7% while the numbers of light cavalry grew to a rather “large proportion”. In 1674-96 light cavalry were fixed as a maximum of 20% of the cavalry, with pancerni at 60% and hussars the remaining 20%

Proportions of heavy, medium and light cavalry
Year Heavy
(Hussar)
Medium
(Pancerni Cossacks, Petyhortsy, Foreign cavalry)
Light
(Cossack, Tatar, Wallachian)
16th Century 85% ? ?
Early 17th Century
1655-62 5-7% ? Large proportion
1674-96 20% 60% 20%

Hussars

The Hussars were the main strike force (Brzezinski, 1987, 2006). They carried a lance, two swords (sabre and a long sword), and two pistols. Some also carried a carbine. The lance was their primary weapon and well supplied armies could issue replacements during a battle. Most Hussars were armoured but the poorer men were not.

Winged Hussar 1697 - Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Winged Hussar 1697 – Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Source: Dariusz caballeros: Winged Hussar companion – circa 1697

There was little uniformity in dress between rich Hussars and these men wore whatever they liked (Brzezinski, 1987, 2006). However, wealthy magnates would provide uniforms for the Hussar units they raised. The Hussars’s most distinctive feature were the “wings” but they also commonly wore animal furs (typically spotted cat skins but poorer men wore wolf skin). This was probably to both look impressive and intimidate the enemy. Contrary to popular belief the Hussar wings did not make a sound when the Hussars charged.

The Husars were the deciding factor at battles of Byczyna (1588), Kokenhausen (1601), Kluszyn (1610), Gniew (1626), Chocim (1673) and Lwów (1675) (Wikipedia: Polish Cavalry). Often against overwhelming odds. At the Battle of Kircholm (1605), 3,000 Lithuanian hussars defeated 11,000 soldiers of Charles IX of Sweden – with negligible loss.

Cossacks

‘Cossacks’ were the majority cavalry type through much of the 17th century (Brzezinski, 1987). The original ‘Cossacks’ were probably genuine Cossacks however in the 17th Century the term ‘Cossack’ covered a wide range of cavalrymen from all parts of the Commonwealth (Brzezinski, 1987; Jasinski Comp 05). The category included both armoured units (medium cavalry) and unarmoured light cavalry. I use the term pancerni for the armoured cossacks during the entire century however, it took the Cossack rebellion in 1648 for the Poles to officially split the ‘Cossack’ category into ‘pancerni‘ and ‘light cavalry’ to avoid confusion with the opposing Zaporozhian Cossacks.

Cossack comprised only 10% of the cavalry in 1580 but had reached 80% by 1680 (Brzezinski, 1987). The main reason is they were considerably cheaper than Hussars.

Pancerni and Petyhortsy

The polish for “armoured cossacks” is kozacy pancerni, hence pancerni (Wikipedia: Towarzysz pancerny). They were named after their chainmail armour (“pancerz”). The pancerni cossacks were medium cavalry of the 16th to 18th century (Wikipedia: Polish Cavalry). Most pancerni were recruited from the middle or lower classes of the Polish nobility. They wore a mailcoat and mail helmet or hood were mounted on lighter horses and in the main armed with bows and arquebuses, as well as a selection of shields, war hammers, pistols and/or lances (Jasinski Dev 04).

Pancerni Cossack 1 - Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Pancerni Cossack 1 – Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Cossack cavalry, both pancerni and cossack light cavalry, favoured arquebus over lance (Brzezinski, 1987). In 1673 some pancerni units received a 1.8-2.0m long lance. By 1676 most cossack units had them. [Jasinski Dev 06 says “all” units and mentioned the longer 2.5-3.5 lance.]

Pancerni Cossack 2 - Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Pancerni Cossack 2 – Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Lithuanians called the same category of cavalry petyhorcy, named from the Circassian people of the Caucuses (Brzezinski, 1987). The Lithuanian petyhorcy retained a 2.5m long lance throughout the period (Brzezinski, 1987).

Light Cavalry

The light cavalry were used for reconnaissance, pursuit and harassment (Jasinski Dev 06). Initially the light cavalry were part of the ‘Cossack’ category and were recruited from Cossacks and Tatars living within the Commonwealth (Brzezinski, 1987). Lithuania had a big population of Tatars and Poland had both lowland and Zaporozhian Cossacks.

As the number of pancerni increased the Commonwealth looked to outsiders to fill the gap in the light cavalry (Brzezinski, 1987). Wallachians were popular. By the middle of the 17th Century two types of light cavalry existed: Wallachian and Tatar. This split reflected their style of dress and equipment rather than ethnicity. In fact the distinction was not a hard line, and many units had both Wallachians and Tatars. By the 1683 Vienna campaign the distinction had disappeared into a general “light cavalry” category. By that time the light cavalry formed 15% of the cavalry.

Cossacks were armed with a short lance, sabre and bow or arquebus (Gush, 1975). Similarly for Wallachians. Tatars had a javelin, sabre, small shield, bow and lariat. My impression is that cossacks either carried an arquebus or a lance/bow combination, and the arquebus was preferred through much of the century, but I need to find the reference again.

Noble levy

Only when really desperate would the noble levy be called up (Brzezinski, 1987). With the nobles comprising up to 10% of the population, the noble levy was theoretically quite big. Despite being nobles and cavalry, they were not considered good quality troops. As one Polish officer remarked “I would rather heard swine than command the Levy in attack” (Brzezinski, 1987, p. 33).The men, being noble, were equipped like pancerni cossacks (Brzezinski, 2006).

Levy of the Nobility - Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Levy of the Nobility – Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

‘German’ cavalry

Poland had a history of recruiting western cavalry, particularly Germans (Brzezinski, 1988; Gush, 1975). The foreign horse followed German styles, hence ‘German’ cavalry. Initially these were either arquebusiers (bandolier reiter) or cuirassiers.

Wladyslaw IV formally created the “Foreign section” in 1632 (Jasinski Dev 05). Though this section was called foreign the vast majority of the troops were Polish. The Foreign cavalry now included arquebusiers, cuirassiers and lighter cavalry called rajtaria, similar to the Swedish ‘light’ cavalry. The word rajtar is Polish for reiter and was used to cover Western style, pistol armed charging cavalry.


Infantry

The infantry were divided into three types: Polish-Hungarian, Foreign section, and dragoons (Jasinski Dev 06). Technically the dragoons were part of the Foreign section.

Infantry contributed 50-60% of the army and was weighted towards the Foreign section (Jasinski Dev 06). [I’m not clear whether Cossacks are included in these percentages, but suspect they are not.]

Proportions of Infantry Types
Year Foreign Polish Dragoons Notes
1633 65% 20% 15% All mercenaries
1634 58% 22% 20% At Kamieniec, large number of private troops
1635 77% 11% 12% Against the Swedes in Pomeria
1648 9% 17% 74% Peacetime force (not including guard)
1649 55% 8% 37% During campaign
1650 56% 10% 35% Peacetime force
1651 66% 11% 23% During campaign
1652 60% 18% 22% At Batoh
1655 57% 15% 28% Before the Swedish invasion
1656 56% 14% 30% During campaign
1659 54% 5% 40% Maximum size of the army
1663 70% 5% 25%  
1667 73% 5% 22% Peacetime force
1673 59% 3% 38% During campaign
1676 73% 4% 23% After re-organisation
1677 68% 7% 25% Peacetime force
1683 73% 3% 24% Wartime force
1685 74% 4% 22% After reorganisation
1690 71% 5% 24% After reduction of the army
1698 75% 5% 20% During campaign

Source:- Historia Piechoty Polskiej Do Roku 1864, by Jan Wimmer (rounded to whole percentages)
(Cited in Jasinski Dev 06)

Polish-Hungarian Infantry

Initially the infantry of the National section were ‘Polish-Hungarian’ i.e. mostly Poles dressed in Hungarian style.

There were two types of Polish-Hungarian foot: haiduks and wybraniecka. Haiduks where initially Hungarian-style arquebusiers used to support artillery in the battle line and attack fortifications. The wybraniecka (“selected”) were conscripts.

The Polish infantry started this period 90% arquebusiers and 10% spearmen (Brzezinski, 1987; Jasinski Dev 03). The spearmen were basically NCOs, wore a different uniform, and used their spear to help with fire control rather than for close combat.

Haiduks

The word Haiduk is from the Turkish word haidud meaning marauder (Brzezinski, 1987). Haiduks were a Hungarian style of infantry and the Poles preferred recruit men from the south over natives. They wore a cloudy blue uniform, lined in red or white (the 10th man would were a contrasting uniform e.g. red lined with green). Over the 17th century the Haiduks were gradually replaced by Foreign pike and shot infantry. By 1665 there were few haiduks in the army.

Wybraniecka levy

The wybraniecka (“selected”) conscripts were also armed and dressed in Hungarian style like the Haiduks (Brzezinski, 1987). They had to supply their own weapons, arquebus, sabre and axe, and uniform to a specified colour (Jasinski Dev 03). However, they were so unenthusiastic and ineffective as to be mainly used as pioneers. By 1633 the Commonwealth didn’t even bother with uniforms for the wybraniecka. The Wybraniecka infantry levy was supplemented by the Lanowe (acreage) and Dymowe (chimney) levies. There were recruited in a different way but were similar troops.

Registered Cossack infantry

Zaporozhian Cossacks were recruited as infantry, especially in the south where their numbers reached 40,000 (Jasinski Dev 03). They were considered hardy and ferocious, and particularly effective in defence. They were equipped like the Polish-Hungarian infantry (Jasinski Dev 06).

Janissaries

Janissaries were added to the army in the 1680’s and 90’s (Jasinski Dev 06). These were Polish infantry but inspired by the Ottoman Janissaries. They wore janissary style dress and were armed with musket and sword. The Polish janissaries were used as guard troops.

Foreign section infantry

‘German’ infantry

Germans were popular as infantry and in the 17th Century provided pike and shot infantry (Brzezinski, 1987). Over time the proportion of Poles increased in the ranks and eventually ‘foreign’ infantry were almost all native.

For much of the century the foreign infantry dressed in western European styles. But around 1670 they switched to Polish-Hungarian uniforms and the Polish musketeers adopted the berdish axe (Jasinski Dev 06).

Dragoons

The dragoon, though riding on horse, in the old manner fights on foot

Karwicki, 1710, cited in Brzezinski (1988, p. 9)

The first dragoons were raised in 1618 ((Brzezinski, 1988). Technically the dragoons were part of the Foreign section (??). They wore a western uniform with a cossack style cap. They carried a short musket, two pistols, axe and sabre (Gush, 1975). Many cossacks fought as mounted infantry so Ukrainian cossacks comprised the majority of the dragoons. They scouted, foraged, constructed camps and were the general dogsbodies of the army.

Dragoons - Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Dragoons – Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Source: Dariusz caballeros: Sketches in the Old Poland tradition


Tabor War Wagons

Polish armies had a lot of wagons (Brzezinski, 1988). When speed was essential the cavalry and dragoons travelled without wagons, but generally the army moved with the baggage train. This slowed the army but also provided the ability to form a mobile fortress. Most wagons were not adopted for this purpose but wooden screens could be added. Gush (1975) says both wagons and horses were protected and has an illustration showing this. On the move up to 40 wagons could be hitched together. Gush the horses where spread through the wagon column, with a team of two horses for every two wagons and a team of four horse for every fourth wagon, however, his illustration shows horse between each wagon. War wagons were used to protect both flanks from an enemy superior in cavalry (e.g. Tatars) or to break the enemy front. In the later case the wagons were packed with infantry and driven full-tilt at the enemy centre with cavalry on the flanks.

Polish Tabor (Gush, 1975)

Polish Tabor (Gush, 1975)


Artillery

The commonwealth started the century with effective artillery but Wladyslaw IV invested heavily (1632-36) and brought the artillery up to western standards (Brzezinski, 1988). The artillery was split into ‘Lithuanian’ and ‘Crown’. By 1654 the Poles had over 600 artillery pieces. In the 1650s small battalion guns were added to the infantry, in Swedish style, but this disappeared in the ‘Deluge’ (1655-1660). Sobieski found himself fighting a fluid style of warfare so used less artillery than previously. He took only 28 light guns to Vienna (1683) – these were two-, three- and four-pounders. The artillerymen were issued uniforms although these could be either Haiduk or western in style depending on the period.


References

Brzezinski, R. (1987). Polish Armies 1569-1696 (1) [Men-at-Arms 184]. Osprey.

Brzezinski, R. (1988). Polish Armies 1569-1696 (2) [Men-at-Arms 188]. Osprey.

Brzezinski, R. (2006). Polish Winged Hussar 1576-1775 [Warrior 94]. Osprey.

Gush, G. (1975). The Polish. Renaissance Armies 1480-1650, p. 61-67. Patrick Stephens.

Jasinski: Polish Renaissance Warfare 1450 to 1699

Wikipedia: Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

5 comments to Army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th Century

  • Excellent, especially the first graphic!

  • Larry Kochan

    Great work cowboy. I’m in the midst of doing my Polish infantry. Just as an aside, I’m figuring out my Ottoman inf..Janissary’s of course , but the bulk of the foot were rabble, superior rabble, but rabble none the less. I’m thinking +1 modifier for Morale? Or +1 D6 in Melee. What say Yea?

    • Steven Thomas

      As I understand it the majority of Ottoman infantry at this time had fire arms. Personally, I’d go for Rabble (who can’t shoot and will run pretty quick) and/or Shot Inferior (who can shoot and are still likely to run).

      My current thinking on Janissaries of this period are they are Shot Ordinary. Quantity undermined quality by this time.

      • Larry Kochan

        I’m looking at the following for the Ottomans Skirmishers 2R and if so armed fire with 1D6 at 2T. Shot stands 3R at 3T for bows 4T for firearms.. The rabble 2R,no fire unless a firing skir. unit is attached, as above and if the rabble is deemed to be Mo’ Betta”rabble +1D6 if charging and in melee. All other inf 3R +1D6 Melee first round hitting on 5,6.

      • Larry Kochan

        PS Nothing is cut in stone. These are just ramblings. Hope to get the Poles and Turks on the table some time next week

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