Toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the game changed. Though Enlightenment principles were celebrated in the salons of Europe, the aristocracy and their power structures were too entrenched to torment radical change. It took the revolt by Britain’s thirteen North American colonies, an ocean away from the Empire’s power base in England, to show that governance by Enlightenment ideals was possible. It also took a little over a decade of war and a failed experiment called the Articles of Confederation, before the disciples of the Enlightenment could look upon the countries of the world for a success story. The American Revolution, the adoption of the US Constitution, and the impending inclusion of amendments protecting individual rights sent shock waves throughout the world where small aristocracies still held most of the power. Just the idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the law was a radical notion that directly resulted in bloody revolution in many countries. America’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” not only inspired the “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” in France, but also the “For Our Freedom and Yours” of Poland. But whereas France’s revolution devolved into an internal bloodbath, Poland’s was relatively peaceful, at least internally.
In the late 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was ripe for constitutional revolution. The Commonwealth was the only country in Europe who already enjoyed “democracy of the nobility” where all nobles, no matter their wealth and status, were equal in the eyes of the law (if only in theory). Still, it was not beyond the realm of belief to take this concept to the next logical step and apply this equality under the law to all citizens. Furthermore, the super wealthy magnates, and their foreign backers, had sabotaged the political process to the Commonwealth’s detriment, through the abuse of the ”liberum veto”. The abuse was so obvious, and the corruption so blatant, that reform was obviously needed, and desperately desired by the rest of the szlachta (petty nobility), the burghers, merchants, peasants, and clergy. Finally, the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires sensed the weakness, and encroached on Polish territory — partitioning off pieces of the country in 1772. In the Commonwealth, rule by the super wealthy aristocracy and their elected King was obviously not working.
In 1784, after the end of the American Revolution, Continental Army general and godfather of the US Army Engineer Corps, Tadeusz Kościuszko, returned to his Polish homeland. His arrival sparked the action necessary for Commonwealth to pass the Constitution of 1791 — the “world’s second oldest constitution”, and a near mirror of the US Constitution with the Bill of Rights. (Though the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted in France in 1789, it was not a governing document; the new French Constitution wasn’t passed until September 1791). Unfortunately the autocratic and aristocratic Empires of Austria, Prussia, and Russia could not abide a nation of free men on their borders. They invaded, overwhelmed, and partitioned Poland a second time just a year later. Tadeusz Kościuszko led an uprising against Russia in 1794, and though initially successful, the country was again overwhelmed. The great empires of Eastern and Central Europe were tired of the rebellious Poles. The “Polish Question” needed a permanent answer.
On 24 October 1795, the foreign ministers of the three empires assembled in St Petersburg and formally dismembered the remains of the newly formed Commonwealth of Poland. There would be no Polish rump state as there had been for the previous two partitions. Poland was to be wiped from the map of Europe. They found that a Polish rump state served only to inspire revolution and give sanctuary to radicals. Finally, the subversive Polish culture was to be eradicated. The three foreign ministers abolished all Polish institutions, divided up the country, and declared the official suppression of Polish language and culture.
Poland would not exist as a state again until after the First World War, 123 years later.
In 1599, Charles IX Vasa of Sweden replaced his uncle the elected Polish-Lithuanian King Sigismund III on the Swedish throne in a civil war among the House of Vasa thus ending the short lived Polish-Lithuanian-Swedish Personal Union. Though the Polish and Lithuanian nobility had no desire to make good Sigismund claim to the Swedish throne, they did covet Swedish lands in Livonia and Estonia if only for increased access to ports on the Baltic Sea. To keep the Commonwealth occupied so it did not interfere with Imperial Russia consolidating power at the height of the Russian Time of Troubles, Tsar Boris Godunov financed the Swedes fighting against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russian gold allowed the much smaller, but highly centralized Swedish monarchy to field larger armies than the massive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s wartime finances relied on the generosity of the nobles unless the Polish Sejm (parliament), voted unanimously (the infamous Liberum Veto) for a new tax, which almost never happened. After initial success in the Polish-Swedish War of 1600, funds ran out and the Polish commander Jan Zamoyski fell ill, leading to his second, the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, to take command. But Zamoyski’s departure meant that the war in the eyes of the Sejm became a local matter. Chodkiewicz fought on paying for his army out of his own personal fortune.
Flush with Russian gold, Charles IX of Sweden invaded Estonia and Livonia in 1605 and erased the previous half-decade of Zamyski’s gains. That summer, Charles laid siege to Riga, the southernmost and largest port in Swedish Livonia on the Baltic Sea. Chodkiewicz gathered his army, including a contingent from the Duchy of Courland, and advanced to relieve Riga. Charles turned to meet the threat and the two armies met outside the village of Kircholm on the Dvina River (in Latvia today) on 27 September 1605.
Charles’ 11,000 strong army greatly outnumbered Chodkiewicz’ 3,600 men, and had nearly double the cannon, 11 to 6. The Swedish army deployed on the slopes of a steep hill in a checkerboard formation of alternating lines of offset infantry squares and cavalry blocks. This formation allowed the pistol and carbine armed Swedish reiters the space for a caracole, where one line of reiters gallops forward, fires, withdraws, then is replaced by the next line and so on, while allowing support from the infantry to the flanks. The formation also allowed the space for the cavalry lines to move to cover the army’s flanks from light cavalry attack, an almost inevitable Lithuanian tactic. Chodkiewicz cavalry heavy army deployed in the “Old Polish Order” with a significantly reinforced left flank. Most of Chodkiewicz’ cavalry were the famed Polish Winged Husaria, whose charges decided battles.
Chodkiewicz could not attack such a strong position so he feigned a retreat and the impetuous Charles advanced to give chase. Moving downhill, the first line of infantry and the second line of cavalry moved out of support from their brethren behind them. Moreover, the unwieldy infantry blocks and squares became disorganized in the march to the bottom of the slope. Seizing the advantage, Chodkiewicz small army turned and attacked.
The Courland arquebusiers and reiters, and the Polish haiduks, tough land owning infantry armed however they came, usually with poleaxes and arquibuses, in the center fixed the first line of Swedish infantry. The husaria of the center and right charged the Swedish reiters in the second line whose caracole formations simply didn’t provide the mass necessary to stop the densely packed, lance tipped mailed fist of a Husaria charge. The defeated second line of cavalry retreated through the Swedish third line of infantry causing chaos, which was exploited by Chodkiewicz’ main assault: the charge of nearly 1000 Polish and Lithuanian Husaria massed on the Polish left.
The charge of the Polish left under the command of Tomasz Dąbrowa galloped through the right flank of the fixed or defeated first two Swedish lines. Their charge struck through the confusion of the Swedish infantry in the third line, and crashed into the reiters of the fourth line, overrunning the Swedish cannon in the process. The devastating charge left the destruction of the Swedish army in its wake. If the routing infantry and their cavalry brothers passing through them weren’t enough to convince the fourth line to take flight, the fluttering pennants, soaring wings, and phalanx of lowered lance tips charging forward at full tilt certainly did. The fourth line broke immediately. Charles attempted to salvage the situation with his cavalry reserve, but they were met head on by Chodkiewicz’ husaria reserve, and routed. The isolated infantry of the fixed Swedish first line were subsequently surrounded and massacred.
The greatest damage to the Swedish army was done in the pursuit, and Chodkiewicz’ Husaria, and the Duke of Courlands reiters savaged the Swedish army all the way back to Riga. The Poles and Lithuanians spared few Swedes or their mercenaries that day. At the cost of one hundred Polish killed and two hundred wounded, Charles lost nearly 8000. The siege of Riga was lifted, and Charles IX Vasa took ship back to Sweden.
The Battle of Kircholm was a triumph of the Husaria and one of the most lop sided victories of the Early Modern Era. Unfortunately the battle wasn’t decisive. Chodkiewicz was nearly bankrupt and could barely afford to maintain his estates, much less his army. The Commonwealth’s curiously libertarian nobility in the Sejm refused to allocate funds for Chodkiewicz to continue the reconquest of Livonia and Estonia. Without assistance from the rest of the Commonwealth, Chodkiewicz could not capitalize on his stunning victory at Kircholm. Nonetheless, Chodkiewicz fought subsequent Swedish incursions to a standstill until a truce was signed in 1610, ending the Polish-Swedish War of 1600.
During the Polish-Soviet War immediately following the First World War, Marshal Pilsudski stripped the Southern Front in the Ukraine of many Polish units to prepare for the upcoming Battle of Warsaw. In mid-August, 1920, the Communists of Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army broke through the front and threatened the Polish city of Lwów (now part of the Ukraine). The remaining Polish forces of the Southern Front streamed back to Lwów to hold the city.
On 18 August, 1920, 500 mounted Polish volunteers from Lwow under Captain Bolesław Zajączkowski were sent to reinforce the Polish soldiers that were withdrawing in the face of Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army, known simply as the “Konarmiya” or “Horse Army”. As they approached the village of Zadwórze, they received fire; the unit they were looking for was destroyed there the day before. The victorious Communists were the lead elements of the Red 6th Cavalry Division and were happy to see more Poles to kill before they resumed their advance.
Before the Communists could form, Zajączkowski ordered his men on line, and charged the village. They took the train station, but could not seize the entirety of the village. The village of Zadwórze became a vortex for the Red Cavalry, as the Communists committed more and more of the division to break the Polish resistance at the train station. Zajączkowski’s men fought off six successive cavalry charges from their stronghold in the station over the next six hours, while continuing to fight for the rest of the village. With dusk fast approaching and ammunition dangerously low, Zajączkowski ordered what remained his command to fall back to Lwów.
On the way out of the village, Zajączkowski’s men were strafed and bombed by three Communist airplanes, which broke up his formation. Zajączkowski gathered what men he could, and made a last stand in a lineman’s hut just on the outskirts of the village. In the dark, the Poles and Communists battled with bayonets, rifle butts, sabers, and fists. Just after midnight on 18 August, 1920, the hut was overrun, and the last of Polish defenders were dead, or had escaped. The seriously wounded Zajączkowski killed himself rather than be captured and endure the inevitable torture and execution at the hands of the Communists. Of the Zajączkowski’s original 500 men who attacked Zadwórze that morning, only 12 reached Lwów.
The 11 hour battle for Zadwórze consumed the entire 6th Cavalry Division, and held up the advance of the Konarmiya toward Lwów for more than a day. Zajączkowski’s stand gave time for the Polish defense of the city. Not only was Lwów saved, the Budyonny became fixed in front of the city, and could not extricate the Konarmiya quickly enough to ride northwest to affect the decisive Battle of Warsaw.
The Battle of Zadwórze was nicknamed “The Polish Thermopylae” after the Greek stand against the Persians 2400 years before.
(The Poles seem to have an obsession for the Greek Battle of Thermopylae. Zadwórze is one of at least six battles throughout Polish history known as “The Polish Thermopylae”)
The invasion of Poland in 1939 was not the walkover portrayed by German National Socialist propaganda, particularly in the air where the Polish air force was portrayed as destroyed on the ground. Poland’s small air force consisted of 400 obsolete planes, but number of flight hours made its pilots some of the best trained in world. The Luftwaffe suffered 900 planes shot down by the Poles before the German 5:1 superiority overwhelmed them. Towards the end of the campaign, thousands of pilots and ground crew escaped to Great Britain or France.
In August 1940, the RAF’s Air Marshal Dowding didn’t want to use the Polish squadrons because their lack of English language skills prevented their effective integration into his early warning system. So for the first 45 days of the Battle of Britain the Polish pilots, dozens of whom were aces and double aces, spent their time learning the proper English language procedures for coordinating with the Sector Control Centers and other fighters in the air.
However, on 30 August 1940 during a training flight over Kent, 303 Squadron RAF encountered a German bomber raid enroute to the airfield at Eastchurch, and one of the Polish pilots attacked. The pilot, a veteran of both the Polish and French campaigns, was frustrated with the RAF’s insistence on more training, and used the time honored tactic of not understanding the radio commands of his British instructor pilot. He shot down a German Bf110 and broke up the formation. Bowing to the inevitable, Dowding made 303 Squadron operational the next day.
303 Squadron was nicknamed the “Kosciuszko Squadron” after the Polish patriot and engineer who fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. 303 Squadron was formed on 28 July 1940 from pilots of the former 111 “Kosciuszko” and 112 “Warszawa” squadrons of the Polish Air Force. They were equipped with older Hawker Hurricane fighters, unlike many British squadrons which were equipped with far superior Supermarine Spitfires. Nonetheless, in the first seven days of September, 303 Squadron shot down 43 German planes for only six planes shot down and three pilot losses. The RAF refused to believe the numbers until the British sector commander came down to fly with them on 8 September. They scrambled four times, and shot down five more German planes without loss.
One victory that day was a Bf 109 that the Polish pilot chased over the tree tops. Out of ammunition, the Pole flew just above his target. The German pilot looked up, saw the fuselage of the Hurricane less than a meter from his canopy and instinctively dove away… straight into the ground. (The real life inspiration for Goose’s Polaroid scene in Top Gun? You know, “foreign relations”.) Impressed with their aggressiveness, dedication, technical and tactical expertise, and their “lust for contact”, the RAF never doubted the Poles of 303 Squadron again.
145 Polish pilots in five squadrons took part in the Battle of Britain, by far the largest contingent after the British. In early September, when the Germans had bombed Fighter Command’s airfields almost into submission, British Secretary of State for Air, Sr Archibald Sinclair noted, the RAF had “only 350 pilots to scramble, of which nearly 100 were Poles.”
The scarlet scarves of 303 Squadron would go on to shoot down 126 German planes in six weeks with the loss of only 13 pilots. This was the largest number of any of the 66 RAF fighter squadrons that fought in the Battle of Britain. Sgt Josef Frantisek, a Czech member of 303 Squadron who fought for the Poles after his country was given away by Neville Chamberlain in 1938, had the most kills of any pilot in the Battle of Britain with 18.
Pic notes: Note the cavalry czapka in the center of the 303 “Kosciuszko” Squadron emblem. The 13 stars around the outside of the red and white stripes was Kosciuszko’s heraldic device which he adopted after the American Revolution. (It was also a medal for gallantry in the Republic of Poland between 1919-1939). Also note the traditional Polish “war-scythes” on the emblem. “War-scythes” were made by uprighting normal scythe blades to make a form of fauchard. “Uprighting the scythe” was the traditional sign that the Poles were going to war. (You can’t harvest grain with an uprighted scythe; you can only harvest Germans, Russians, Swedes, Turks, and Communists.) The war-scythe is also a symbol for Polish independence, and “scythemen”, “Kosynierzy” in Polish, are roughly equivalent to “minutemen” in American culture. That was particularly appropriate during the Battle of Britain when the pilots had only a few minutes to get airborne to engage the Luftwaffe.
At the end of the First World War, three great empires collapsed in Eastern Europe: Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Imperial Russia. Out of that chaos, two states, of many, arose: the Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was born in the “Red” October Revolution of 1917 sparked by the initially successful then disastrous Brusilov campaign of 1916. By 1918, Russia was out of the war, and locked in its own brutal civil war between the Anti Bolshevik or “White” armies, and the Bolshevik Socialist i.e. Communist, “Red” armies. In 1919, Vladimir Lenin’s victorious Red Army invaded the newly independent Republic of Poland, formed from the pieces of the Central Powers at the end of World War One. Lenin’s intent was to spread the Communist International (COMINTERN) to a defeated Germany, which was ripe for Communist revolution.
The Polish-Soviet War was the last of an era, with the first glimpses of the next. Trenches, inexperienced peasant militias, armored trains, massed artillery barrages and vast sweeping maneuvers by hordes of lance and saber wielding cavalry coexisted with airplanes, tanks, armored cars, motorized infantry, and highly experienced professional soldiers. By mid-1920, the Red Army, under the brilliant 27 year old Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was poised for a final offensive to capture Warsaw. Warsaw’s fall would end the war and allow Tuchachevsky a clear path to Berlin. Standing in his way was the massively outnumbered remainder of the Polish Army under Marshal Josef Pilsudski.
The advancing Red Army had five million men, Pilsudski had but one million under arms.
Pilsudski knew that his forces could not win in a protracted attritional fight: the Soviets were too many. Only a bold counterattack could disrupt the Bolshevik offensive. Pilsudski planned to make a stand along the Vistula River with Josef Haller’s “Blue Army” reinforced by almost the entire population of Warsaw. The “Blue Army” was named so because they were Poles whom fought for France in the First World War and wore old blue French uniforms. Among the Blue Army was a division of Polish-American volunteers recruited from recent immigrants to the United States. Pilsudski’s plan was for Haller to fix Tuchachevsky in front of Warsaw, as the Red cavalry to the north of the city inevitably took the path of least resistance and raced west on the North German Plain. General Wladyslaw Sikorski’s Fifth Army held the shoulder. Below the city to the south, Pilsudski secretly organized a 20,000 strong “Strike Force” under Gen Edward Smygly-Rydz, for the counterattack.
On 12 August 1920, Tuchachevsky arrogantly launched his armies directly at Warsaw. Despite bitter hand to hand fighting in the trenches against overwhelming odds, and much to the surprise of the French and British observers, Haller held the Wkra/Vistula River lines. The Soviet Cossacks and cavalry raced west as expected, which caused great panic, but they completely overextended themselves. Even worse for the Soviets, the Red cavalry victoriously galloped further away from the important battle in front of Warsaw.
On 14 August, Sikorski counterattacked north of city (in probably the first use of “blitzkrieg” style combined arms breakthrough tactics), cutting off the cavalry to the west and occupying Tuchachevsky’s reserves. Two days later, Pilsudski launched his coup d’eclat – Smigly-Rydz’s cavalry, tanks, and armored cars tore into the Soviet flank, as they were occupied fighting for the city and containing Sikorski. The Polish counterattack threw the Red Army into chaos. Unleashing his division commanders to operate independently in the breakout, the Poles tore deep into the Soviet rear areas. They captured the vital fortress city Brest-Litovsk, 70 miles behind the lines. In order to prevent the complete encirclement and destruction of the Red Army, Tuchachevsky ordered a general retreat. As the Communists withdrew, Pilsudski ordered a general offensive, but it was superfluous: Haller, Sikorski, and the population of Warsaw had already surged forward. The Communist retreat turned into a rout on 18 August.
The COMINTERN was stopped at the Polish border and the Red Army, with its commissars and secret police, wouldn’t advance that far west for another 25 years. The Miracle on the Vistula spared vulnerable western and central Europe, severely weakened by four years of the First World War, from Communism, an ideology so heinous that it is responsible for 150,000,000 deaths and untold suffering by billions.
Had the Poles failed at the gates of Warsaw in August of 1920, we would be living in a different, and darker, world today.
“For our freedom and yours” – The motto of Polish revolutionaries and unofficial motto of Poland
In early 15th century Eastern Europe, the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, better known as the Teutonic Knights, relentlessly expanded under the guise of “crusade” along the Baltic coast into the Christian Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The effort reached a high water mark on the field between the towns of Grunwald and Tannenburg on 15 July 1410. 39,000 Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Russians, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Tatars, and Wallachians faced 27,000 Teutonic Knights, their retainers, mercenaries, and crusading knights from across Europe, including England, France, and the German and Italian states. Although the Polish-Lithuanian troops were more numerous, only the knights of Poland and a few other small contingents were of the same standard of discipline, training, and armor as the Teutonic Knights.
The Knights formed for battle in the morning, but were forced to stand in the hot sun all day because King Wladyslaw Jagiello, the commander of the Allied army, had his men wait in the trees as he heard three masses in spiritual preparation for the battle. The battle finally began in the afternoon when both sides were on the field. The weary and parched Teutonic Knights under Grand Commissar Kuno Von Lichtenstein, on the Knights’ left, charged the fresh Lithuanian and Tatar light cavalry under Lithuanian Grand Duke Witold on the Polish right… and promptly routed them. The Knights assumed they won the battle and began pursuit. The heavy warhorses of the Knights, however, couldn’t catch the lighter but faster horses. Most of the pursuing knights never returned and thus missed the real fighting. They couldn’t help defeat the much more heavily armed Poles. Despite the collapse of the Polish and Lithuanian right, no breakthrough was had: three companies from Smolensk fought to the death and heroically prevented the remaining Knights from getting behind the Polish lines.
The main battle was between the Teutonic right under Grand Master Ulrich Von Junginenen (pictured above in Jan Matejko’s painting, in the large white cape) and the Polish left wing under King Wladyslaw Jagiello (in the painting, the king is in the silver armor on the hill on the right) and his tactical commander Zyndram of Maszkowice (the bearded knight next to Ulrich in the picture who lead from the front in the Western tradition).
Unlike the Grand Master, who charged with his knights, the King directed the battle from a hilltop in the eastern tradition. After the initial thundering clash by both sides in which they crashed into each other at full speed, the battle stalemated into a churning meat grinding mass, which favored the more heavily armored and trained Teutonic Knights. The melee included one of the most famous knights of the age: Jan Zizka, a Czech mercenary who would become famous as a battle lord during the Hussite rebellion of 1414 (in the scale armor above the Royal Banner about to kill a German knight).
The Battle of Grunwald was not only one of the largest of the Middle Ages, it was also the last of the true knightly battles. It was the last battle where might made right. Strength of arm, whether wielding sword, axe, spear, hammer, or mailed fist, won the day — Not technology, but intestinal fortitude. Archers? Mere splotches on the ground where they were trampled underfoot. Cannon? Noisemakers abandoned after the merest hint of a mounted warrior. Amazingly brilliant tactics? Defeat is more crushing if you look your foe in the eye and rip out his soul. For hours, the battle was a swirling melee. As the shadows became long in the early evening, the Teutonic Knights managed to bring down the Royal Banner of Poland by knocking over Marcin of Wrocimowice (holding the banner in the picture above) which was the traditional medieval sign of victory. But for the Allies, this was a fight for national survival, and chivalric ritual would not interfere with military efficacy, so they fought on.
Sensing the Knights were finally committed, King Wladyslaw launched his coup de d’eclat: a three pronged attack that decided the battle. First, he sent most of personal bodyguard charging into the mass to fix the Knights. This charge was made by the crème of Polish knighthood, fresh and eager for battle after watching their comrades fight for hours. This august host included the greatest knight of the early 15th century – the folk hero Zawisza Czarny — Zawisza the Black Zawisza was a knight so renowned for his honor, loyalty, and reliability, 600 years later the Polish Boy Scouts’ motto is still “Rely on him as on Zawisza”. (He is pictured just above Jan Zizka with black hair and black armor couching a lance).
Once the Knights were fixed by the new attack, the King unleashed a hammer blow into the flank of the Teutonic host: 3000 unarmored Polish peasants armed with scythes, axes, and clubs, whom hid in the woods for most of the battle. They were fiercely anti-German and had suffered the worst under the decades of Teutonic raids and “conversion”. The peasants gave no quarter, and although a single knight could fight off six or seven peasants, they couldn’t do the same for ten or twelve.
As devastating as the charges by Wladyslaw’s personal guard and the mass of furious peasants were, the real killing blow came most decisively from Duke Witold who returned to the battle in spectacular fashion after rallying most of the Lithuanians from the routed right wing (Witold is featured prominently above clad in red holding the sword aloft).
The painting “The Battle of Grunwald” by Jan Matejko depicts the moment of the three charges that broke the Teutonic Knights. It more specifically depicts the death of Grand Master Ulrich to a Polish peasant’s spear (pictured next to Ulrich). According to legend, Ulrich’s last words were, “Damn these flies!” The 10,000 manacles the Teutonic Knights brought to use on the Allies that night were used on themselves instead. The Teutonic Knights never recovered from the defeat and the Union of Poland and Lithuania became the super power of Eastern Europe for the next 300 years.
The late 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During this time, the Commonwealth was a “republic of nobles” with the gentry, known as the “Szlachta”, able to vote for their king. The nobility and gentry of the Commonwealth differed from many other nations in Europe with the Szlachta making up about 10% of the population, the upper and most of the middle classes, compared to 2%, or just the upper classes, across the rest of Europe. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the elected king of the Commonwealth was Sigismund III Waza, from the Swedish royal house of Vasa. The Commonwealth throne was just a step to attaining his true objective, regaining the Swedish throne. In 1605, Sigismund III saw his chance to increase the Commonwealth’s power at the expense of his troubled neighbor, Muscovy. Sigismund planned to incorporate it into the Commonwealth with Poland and Lithuania, or at least place his son on Muscovy’s throne. The might of the three most powerful nations in Eastern Europe would be enough to seize the Swedish crown, turning the Baltic into a Commonwealth lake under Wasa rule.
With the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1589, Muscovy entered the Time of Troubles, specifically the “Dmitriad” or the time of the three false Dimitris who vied against Boris Godunov and Vasili IV Shuysky for the title of Tsar of all Russians. The Time of Troubles greatly weakened Muscovy. In 1609, Sigismund just finished putting down a nobles’ rebellion, and with his power consolidated, he made no attempt to hide his next target – Moscow. Sigismund III invaded Muscovy after the weakened Vasili IV made an alliance with Sweden to oppose the inevitable Commonwealth invasion.
In September, 1609, Sigismund III invested the Muscovite fortress at Smolensk with the help of Russian boyars supporting Dmitry II. But Smolensk, the gateway to Moscow, was well defended, well-armed, and well supplied. The siege continued all winter. In the spring of 1610, Vasili IV dispatched an army under his younger brother Dmitry Shuysky and Swedish general Jacob De la Gardie.
Shuysky commanded about 48,000 Russian troops and 11 cannon, supported by De la Gardie’s 5,000 Flemish, French, German, Spanish, Scottish, and Swedish mercenaries. Sigismund sent 12,000 Commonwealth troops, including 5500 of the famed Polish winged Husaria, under Hetman (warlord) Stanisław Żółkiewski to intercept them. Żółkiewski’s scouts found Shuysky’s 8,000 strong advanced guard at the villages of Tsaryovo and Zaymishche. The Muscovites fortified the town to secure their lines of communication against raids by the Commonwealth’s cavalry heavy army. Żółkiewski attacked and trapped the Muscovites in the fort. Żółkiewski left 6,000 men, which included most of his infantry and some cavalry, to isolate the Muscovites. On the evening of 2 July under the cover of a heavy rain, Żółkiewski slipped away with the bulk of his cavalry, his cannon, and some supporting infantry. Confident in the power of the Husaria, he silently galloped off to strike the overwhelming numbers of the Muscovite main body while they were strung out on the march.
The next night, Polish scouts spotted their adversaries in two fortified camps about five miles from the town of Kłuszyn, one for Shuysky’s Russian troops and a separate for De la Gardie’s mercenaries. Żółkiewski sent a spy with a letter to the mercenary camp offering them better pay to switch sides. Taking advantage of the bad weather, Żółkiewski attempted to sneak his army around the Russian camp to strike at them the next morning from behind when they resumed the march.
De la Gardie got wind of the letter and ended any conspiracy to switch sides en masse, but the letter’s damage was already done. The mercenaries’ military efficacy was greatly diminished by the prospect of greater pay in the service of what was thought to be a superior Commonwealth force. They fragmented on national lines: some switched sides, some refused to fight, some fought half heartedly, while others honored their contracts fully.
Żółkiewski’s hussars were spotted strung out on a narrow and muddy trail attempting to infiltrate behind the Russian camps. With his movement uncovered and unable to immediately attack, Żółkiewski consolidated his army opposite Shuysky’s camps. He rested his men who had been on the march for almost 48 hours straight, and cleared some obstacles from the future battlefield.
Formed in the dark, both armies faced each other as the sun rose on 4 July 1610. 30,000 of Shuysky’s Russians occupied their center and left, with De la Gardi’s foreign mercenaries on the right. They frantically reinforced fence lines and dug redoubts as Żółkiewski’s 5,500 Husaria supported by 1000 Cossacks on their left cantered forward. The masses of Russians in the redoubts and behind the fence lines were enough to prevent an outright charge by the Husaria, who resorted to the caracole tactic to break the lines, albeit one specifically suited to the Husaria.
In a traditional caracole, the dense mass of riders moved forward slowly. At pistol range the front rank discharged their firearms, and then made way for the next rank to do the same while they went to the rear and reloaded. Thus the cavalry formation either moved forward or backwards slowly by rank while maintaining continuous fire. A Husaria caracole differed and was more akin to the ancient Cantabrian Circle. The Husaria would leave their lances behind and charge forward. At pistol range they’d quickly turn and fire their brace, and then continue to move out of the way. They moved to the rear as the next unit followed up. The movement never stopped and the circle flowed seamlessly. Once at the back end of the circle, they’d pull their carbines and repeat the process. Once the carbine circle was completed, the Husaria charged with their lances, with the hope that the firearms broke up the dense formations, leaving them vulnerable to their terrible charge. As their lances shattered on the Russians, if no break out immediately occurred they’d then turn, and pull their sabers. The momentum of the charge carried them back out of the enemy formation. The Husaria would then retire to reload their pistols and carbines, and begin the maneuver again. The Husaria caracole required immense discipline and exquisite horsemanship just to maintain the timing. At any given moment there were at least four groups of Husaria in the caracole: one moving forward, one charging, firing, or fighting, one retiring, and one reloading. Some Husaria completed this maneuver 8-10 times over the course of the day.
The reinforced hedges and fence lines blunted the worst of the Husaria charges, but the continuous Polish caracoles gave the impression that the Commonwealth’s numbers were much greater than they were. For next five hours, the Husaria caracoles smashed against the Russian defenses of the center and left, while the Cossacks fixed the reluctant mercenaries on Shuysky’s right. The Husaria’s discipline, armor, and firepower were offset by the greater Russian numbers.
The turning point of the battle was a counterattack by Russian reiters (Muscovite boyars equipped as German or Swedish riders) in the center. Sensing the Husaria’s charges diminishing, Shuysky ordered his still fresh reiters forward against the exhausted Poles. The reiters began their own traditional caracole with their pistols, in front of the beleaguered, but still solid, Russian defensive lines. The Poles rushed at the chance to fight the Russian riders. The Husaria abandoned their caracole and charged the exposed Russian reiters with their lances and sabers. The Russians quickly broke in the melee. The routing Muscovite reiters did what the Husaria could not, break the Russian lines. As the defeated reiters pushed their way back through the Russian defenses, the Husaria victoriously followed, and Shuysky’s center collapsed.
Seeing the Russian center break, De la Gardi withdrew back to his fortified camp with men guarding his flank in the woods at the edge of the battlefield. Shuysky and his shattered center withdrew to the Russian camp, while the left held strong. However the timely arrival of the Commonwealth cannon and infantry, which had marched all night after being left behind by the cavalry, were deployed against the remaining Russian lines. (In the haste to form the battle lines in the predawn darkness, Shuysky left his 11 cannon in his camp.) The Commonwealth infantry and cannon broke the Russian left, and the Husaria followed them back to the Russian camp. The Russians routed through the camp and prevented Shuysky from rallying his troops. They abandoned their fortified camp. The exhausted Cossacks and Husaria could not pursue far though, and many looted Shuysky’s extravagant camp and its wagon loads of valuables.
Żółkiewski’s army could not take the remaining mercenary camp with force. De la Gardi’s mercenaries had a much higher ratio of harquebusiers and much better training than the Stuysky’s Russians. Żółkiewski’s men were exhausted and disorganized. So under a flag of truce, he offered the mercenaries the same deal as before, and many switched sides. The remainder were given free passage out of the country on their word never to take up arms against the Commonwealth again.
Żółkiewski took the captured banners and prisoners back to the fort at Tsaryovo and Zaymishche which prompted its defenders to surrender. The Commonwealth victory at Kłuszyn did not however convince Smolensk to surrender. While Sigismund III maintained the siege at Smolensk, his son Wladyslaw IV Wasa advanced on Moscow with the Żółkiewski’s reinforced army. On 3 August they arrived at the gates of Moscow to find that the Russian boyars overthrew Tsar Vasili IV Shuysky. For the next three weeks, the boyars negotiated with Prince Wladyslaw IV and Hetman Żółkiewski.
In return for electing Wladyslaw the new Tsar, the boyars demanded that Muscovite territory remain intact and the Commonwealth would respect Russian social and political institutions, e.g. the rights of the boyars and the Orthodox faith. And finally, as Tsar of “The Third Rome”, Wladyslaw would have to accept the Orthodox faith.
Wladyslaw IV agreed. On 27 August 1610, he was elected Tsar of all Russians. On 3 September, Tsar and Grand Prince Vladislav Zigimontovych of all Russia triumphantly entered Moscow at the head of Hetman Stanislaw Żółkiewski’s Husaria and occupied the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, the Wasa dynasty in Muscovy was short lived. Wladyslaw sent his father the agreement, and Sigismund rejected it outright, despite it securing Muscovy’s support for the Commonwealth. Sigismund wanted to Catholicize Muscovy, which the Russian boyars would never agree to. Furthermore, he refused to abandon the siege of Smolensk. Smolensk had been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had only been lost to Muscovy in the last century. It was the key to any advance on Moscow. With Smolensk in Commonwealth hands under Lithuanian control, the heartland of Muscovy would be open to invasion at any time, and Muscovite politics easy to influence. Moscow would be at the Poles’ and Lithuanians’ mercy. The permanent loss of Smolensk would keep the notoriously finicky Russians in line, and secure Muscovy for the upcoming campaign for the Swedish throne. However, Sigismund didn’t understand that the boyars understood this also. They would never stop fighting while Smolensk was in foreign hands.
Sigismund’s rejection of Wladyslaw’s agreement infuriated the Russian boyars, and turned them against the Commonwealth. Smolensk fell in 1611, but the boyars refused to sign a peace treaty. Tsar Wladyslaw IV and his army were unwelcome foreigners whose control extended little beyond Moscow and the Kremlin. In late 1611 Tsar Wladyslaw departed Moscow never to return, and the Commonwealth troops were trapped in the Kremlin. After a brutal siege in which there were reports of cannibalism among the Commonwealth’s troops, the Russians retook the Kremlin in November of 1612. In 1613, the boyars chose Shuysky’s 16 year old cousin, Mikhail Romanov, as the new Tsar. Tsar Mikhail Romanov ended the Time of Troubles and the Romanov Dynasty ruled Imperial Russia for the next 300 years, until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Wladyslaw IV would eventually be elected, as had his father, king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He would reign for the next 38 years through what remained of the Commonwealth’s Golden Age, until The Deluge began in 1648. He was one of Europe’s most beloved and successful rulers, though as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and not as Tsar of all Russians.
Ever since the Red Army arrived on Polish soil in 1944, the Soviets raped, looted, and murdered their way across the country. The largest Polish underground resistance movement, the Home Army, turned from fighting German socialists to fighting Russian socialists. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Churchill made the same mistake Chamberlain did seven years previously and trusted a dictator. Stalin broke every pledge he made at Yalta, including allowing free elections in Poland, and power sharing between the American, French and British backed Polish Government-in-Exile and the Soviet puppets, the Polish Communists. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, arrested any Pole even tangentially associated with the Polish Government-in-Exile or the Home Army. The detainees were placed in repurposed Nazi camps. Those that survived the torture, starvation, neglect, and interrogations at these camps were packed into cattle cars and sent east to the gulags, where most were never heard from again.
NKVD Special Camp No.10 near the town of Rembertów outside Warsaw was a former German labor camp for Soviet POWs. In May 1945, No. 10 was the final stop in Poland before prisoners and detainees disappeared into the Siberian wilderness. Since the camp was visible from the town of Rembertów, the guards ordered the prisoners around in rudimentary German to disguise from the townspeople that the prisoners were Poles. The ruse didn’t work, and the townspeople worked with the Home Army to free the prisoners. Many of the prisoners were high ranking Home Army and Exile leaders, and the next scheduled transport was 25 May.
Disguised as Polish Communist Army soldiers, Home Army soldiers under Captain Walenty “Młot” (The Hammer) Suda reconnoitered the camp. The raid to free the prisoners was tasked to Lieutenant Edward “Wichura” (The Gale) Wasilewski and his reinforced platoon of 44 heavily armed fighters.
On the night of Saturday 20 May 1945, the townspeople of Rembertów along with some prisoner’s relatives brought the guards some booze, and threw a party in the town for the camp commandant. With most of the guards and camp administration drunk, Suda executed a textbook raid on Special Camp No. 10 with security, breach, and assault groups. The raid was a complete surprise. The only casualties were three Home Army wounded, and 40 prisoners killed when they were caught in a field trying to escape into the woods. In less than 25 minutes, 100 sick and wounded prisoners were spirited away in two trucks, while somewhere between 800 and 1400 Polish prisoners escaped through Suda’s breach.
The Raid on Rembertów escalated the Polish resistance to the Soviets to an all-out civil war between Polish Communists and the Soviet Union and the “Cursed Soldiers” of the Home Army and the Polish people. Prison raids were a favorite tactic. For the next 18 months, 150,000 Home Army and resistance partisans fought two million Red Army soldiers, 50,000 NKVD agents, and 30,000 Polish communist militia. The Poles fought on alone without any support from their former allies in the West. The last of the Cursed Soldiers were killed or deported by October, 1946.
On 8 April 2005, four million people packed into Rome, St Peter’s Square, and the Vatican to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the greatest Roman Catholic Pope of the modern age. His funeral is the single largest gathering in the history of Christendom. It was attended by over 90 heads of state, and in a historical anomaly, was attended by the spiritual leaders of 14 of the world’s largest religions, including Islam, Judaism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the various Protestant denominations. It was the first time the Archbishop of Canterbury attended Catholic Mass since the 16th Century, and the first time the Patriarch attended a papal funeral since the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches a thousand years before.
Born Karol Wojtyla outside of Krakow, Poland, he was the son of a Polish Army noncommissioned officer and attended university in Krakow where he studied history and languages until German National Socialists closed it down in 1939. By 1941, his entire family was killed by the Germans, but Wojkyla survived by taking jobs in factories that got him exempted from the random detention and execution of Polish civilians. He spent his free time studying at an underground seminary while protecting and hiding Polish Jews from the Nazis.
After the war, Wojtyla was ordained a priest and spent the next 30 years in the difficult position of an outspoken Roman Catholic in a country dominated by Communism. His unpretentious demeanor and wise counsel earned him the nickname “Uncle” which his parishioners and peers used until he was elected Pope in 1978, when he took the name John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, and one of the youngest and healthiest. He had a worldly view that contrasted greatly with previous popes. Pope John Paul II spoke eight languages fluently and was the most widely traveled pope in history. He spent much energy repairing relations with the other world religions and was the first Pope ever to pray in a mosque. Pope John Paul II was not against contraception for health reasons i.e. to prevent the spread of HIV, and routinely affirmed Catholicism’s stance that evolution and creationism are not mutually exclusive. He publicly apologized for many of Roman Catholicism’s historical sins, and the first ever papal email was sent apologizing for the church sex abuse scandals.
Despite this, Pope John Paul II was hated throughout much of the world due to his staunch and outspoken nature against totalitarianism. He specifically decried Apartheid in South Africa, the Mafia in southern Italy, Latin and South American dictators, Socialist Liberation Theology, and was the one of the few world leaders with the courage to call the fighting in Rwanda what it was: genocide. He was a consistent opponent of war in general, but more importantly, Pope John Paul II was the world’s moral leader against Socialism and Communism. Pope John Paul II routinely spoke on socialism’s corruption of the soul, destruction of the basic building block of society — the family, and that life is too complicated for simple and radical secular “one size fits all” solutions. For this he was despised by socialists and communists around the globe.
He survived numerous attempts at humiliation and two assassination attempts, one of which was bankrolled by the KGB, due to his voracious anti-communism. His homilies and sermons on the evils of Communism gave hope to hundreds of millions of oppressed people around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. Most historians agree with Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom said that without Pope John Paul II there would have been no Solidarity, and without Solidarity there would not have been the Fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall in 1989.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and died in the Vatican on 2 April 200
In September 1939, the joint invasion of Poland by National Socialist Germany and its defacto ally Soviet Russia, defeated the Polish Army in 36 days. (Not too bad considering the much better equipped, more numerous, and better positioned French and British armies only lasted 45 days) Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers, sailors, and civilians fled to Western Allied countries but millions did not. The Soviet authorities emptied the jails, put the communist political prisoners in charge, and encouraged the rest to seek revenge. Because the Soviets disarmed the populace, “axe murder” became the most common cause of death in eastern Poland for the next three months.
In formal agreement with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939, Poland was to be erased from history. Stalin’s stated and declared aim was the final destruction of Polish culture. On 10 February 1940, the Soviet Union began the forced exile and ethnic cleansing of Poles in Soviet occupied eastern Poland (Western Belorussia and western Ukraine today). That night, the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) and Red Army burst into the homes of 139,794 middle and upper class ethnic Poles. (That number is straight from the Soviet archive, the actual number was probably much higher) Service in the pre-war Polish state was deemed a “crime against the revolution”. Captured Polish officers and soldiers were soon joined by thousands of government workers, land owners, school teachers, university professors, scientists, Polish Jews, factory managers, writers and publishers, business owners, and priests and clergy, including their extended families. Anyone they could find who could provide any leadership or resistance to the Soviet socialist march westward was targeted. Most were given 15 minutes to pack and herded onto trains for the long cold journey to gulags in Siberia and Kazahkstan where they were to be worked to death on collective farms or starved. Thousands of Polish women were raped and many more Polish citizens were immediately executed at the whims of their occupiers. Soviet journalists and teachers celebrated, proclaiming, “Poland had fallen and would never rise again.”
Mass graves of Poles from the Soviet pogroms of early 1940 were found all over eastern Poland and western Russia, the 22,000 dead found in Katyn Forest by German troops in 1943 being the most famous. Most survivors arrived in Siberia in April when the temperatures were still well below zero and were forced to build their camps with what they had, with no shelter or winter clothing and little food provided. Tens of thousands more perished enroute to and during the construction of the camps. Many Poles were sent to the same camps the kulaks were murdered in the decade before.
2.2 million Poles were deported east by the Soviet Union in the 21 months between the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The vast majority were never seen again. Only about 200,000 survivors returned to Poland after the war. The returnees were mostly soldiers and their camp followers from the Polish Armored Division and Polish II Corps, who fought with the Western Allies in North Africa, Italy, and France; the ZPP (Soviet based Polish Communists), and the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies, Soviet creations later in the war comprised of Polish soldiers led by Russian officers.
The two million Poles killed by the Soviets are not included in the usual figure of six million Poles killed during Second World War, or 22% reduction in the Polish population. The official six million figure was compiled by the Soviet backed Polish government in 1947 and included the three million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the German occupation, and three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust. The 1947 estimate did not include the Poles killed by the Soviets because the areas occupied by the Soviets from Sept 1939-June 1941 were never returned to Poland after the war and were given to Soviet Belorussia and Soviet Ukraine. The two million Poles killed in the “Forgotten Holocaust” by the Soviets were included in the Belorussian and Ukrainian wartime death tolls to hide the fact that they weren’t killed by German socialists but by Russian socialists.
“Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder should be required reading for humanity.