The destruction of the Golden Horde in the 15th Century by the Timurid Empire virtually swept from the map the last remnants of the Mongols’ conquest of northeastern Europe. All that remained was the Tartar Khanate of Crimea and a vast and deserted steppe that stretched from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the Urals in the east. Into this void stepped two powerful kingdoms, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Kingdom of Muscovy.
Where the frontiers of the two states met opposite the Crimean Tartars along the river basins of the Dnieper, Don, and Donetz, the Poles and Russians encouraged settlers to the area to provide a bulwark against the slaving raids of the Muslim Tartars and Ottoman Turks. The settlers were not an ethnic group but fiercely independent homesteaders, frontiersmen, and adventurers known as Cossacks. The Cossacks formed “Sichs” (literally “cuts”, either of land or the logs that formed their stockades and forts) and were expected to defend the area in exchange for land and fealty.
By the 17th century, the Zaporizhian Sich along the Dnieper River was a semi-autonomous part of the powerful Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, the Orthodox Cossacks begrudged their Catholic Polish and Ruthenian (Russified Lithuanians) overlords, then at the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation. Additionally, they despised the increasing number of Poles, Ruthenians, and especially Jews who were settling the Sich. The Cossacks felt that the Szlachta, the pervasive nobility of the Commonwealth, and the Jews, which unlike the rest of Europe were welcomed in the Commonwealth, had more rights than the Cossacks (They were correct). Finally, the Cossacks resented the Polonization of their own quasi-nobility, particularly those that converted to Catholicism. Whenever the situation demanded or the Cossacks showed signs of rebellion, the Polish king usually declared a war against their Muslim neighbors. The war kept the Cossacks busy, and the loot kept them appeased. The Cossacks loved the king because he showered them with privileges as a counterbalance against the nobility.
In 1647, King Wladyslaw IV Vasa, the Swedish king of the Commonwealth (the Commonwealth elected its king, usually a foreigner to keep him weak; it’s complicated) ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the Ottomans. However, the Sejm (the parliament of nobles) vetoed the idea and ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the growing power of Muscovy’s successor, the Tsardom of Russia. This sent the Cossacks into a rage. The Russians were coreligionists and used Cossacks themselves. More importantly, those Russians on the Steppe were poor and the Ottomans were rich. Moreover, piracy on the Black Sea, contemporary pirates in the Caribbean had nothing on Cossacks in the Black Sea, was infinitely more lucrative and enjoyable than marching around the cold and endless Steppe. The Cossacks were on the edge of revolt, they just needed a leader.
Enter Bohdan Khmelnitskiy, a respected Ruthenian noblemen and veteran of nearly countless wars against the Ottomans and Crimeans. In 1645, Khmelnitskiy had a land dispute with a powerful Polish magnate (the upper tier of the Szlachta). The magnate’s starost (like a county commissioner) Daniel Czaplinski raided and seized Khmelnitskiy’s land. Khmelnitskiy protested to the king, but the king couldn’t take on such a powerful magnate. So Khmelnitskiy stole Czaplinski’s wife and was arrested. In late 1647, he escaped and fled to the Zaporizhian Sich with his Registered Cossack regiment. (A “Registered Cossack” was a Cossack that was officially in the pay of the king or a magnate.) With the Sich on the brink of rebellion, the charismatic Khmelnitskiy pushed them over. On 25 January, 1648, Khmelnitskiy had the Commonwealth’s administration in the Sich killed. The next day, Bohdan Khmelnitskiy was elected Hetman (warlord) of the Zaporizhian Sich.
Cossack rebellions had been attempted before, but were always crushed by superior heavily armoured Polish cavalry. Unlike in Napoleonic times when Cossacks were known for their superior light cavalry, in the 17th century they constituted the light infantry par excellence. They were akin to tens of thousands of Robert’s Rangers roaming the Steppe. The Poles and Ruthenians always provided the cavalry. So when the Cossacks did revolt, they were always crushed by a massive charge of Husaria and Panzerini, against which they could not hope to stand. In a tribute to Khmelnitskiy’s charisma, he convinced the Sich to make an alliance with their archenemy, the Crimean Tartars, who could provide the cavalry necessary to defeat the Commonwealth. The Crimean Khan dispatched his best general, Tugur Bey, with 18,000 Tartar horsemen to assist the uprising.
Khmelnitskiy’s Uprising would bring fire and sword to the Steppe, and eventually to the Commonwealth itself. Hundreds of thousands of Ruthenian, Polish, Jewish, and Cossack peasants, burghers, and nobles were killed, or sold into slavery to pay for Tugur Bey’s cavalry. Sensing Commonwealth weakness, by 1655 all of its neighbors, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire invaded in what is now known in Polish history as “The Deluge”. In 1654, Khmelnitskiy ceded the Zaporizhian Sich to Russia in the Treaty of Pereyaslav for continued military support against the Commonwealth.
Monsieur Dalerac was the secretary of King Jan Sobieski’s wife and despised everything Polish. However just after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, even he said the Husaria were, “without a doubt, the most beautiful cavalry in Europe”. Poland’s famed Husaria were also the most deadly. From 1570 to 1690, 120 years, the Husaria never lost a major battle. They were the shock troops of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and only the best equipped and best trained of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility could provide them and afford their equipment. The Husaria were equivalent of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard – their charge decided battles.
The Husaria were a product of the peculiar nature of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility. The “Szlachta” in the centuries up to and including the 17th were a unique curiosity and stood apart from the nobility of most countries in Europe. The nobility of England, France, Germany and the rest of Europe made up about 2% of the population; in the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian lands, the Szlachta made up about 10% of the population. They were known as the “petty gentry”, and filled the role of the middle class before there was even such a thing in Europe. In addition to the magnates and traditional nobility, the Szlachta were the small landowners in the towns and the property owners in the cities. And woe betide any who insinuated that the owner of a small manor who worked his land no different than the peasants beside him was in any way less of a man than the magnate of great estate whose hands didn’t know the scythe.
The Szlachta were inextricably and symbiotically linked to that other middle class, the Jewish merchants and businessmen, whom were welcomed with open arms in Polish and Lithuanian Kingdoms when they were persecuted and murdered elsewhere. Together they formed the threads from which the Polish and Lithuanian tapestry was woven. Though the Szlachta’s origins are shrouded in myth, they claimed to be descendants of the Sarmatian horsemen who banded together in the 5th century with the Slavic tribes in the Oder, Vistula, and Nieman river valleys to defend against the depredations of the Huns. Whether that is true or not is lost to history, but one fact of life remains unchallenged among those who lived on the Ukrainian Steppe or the eastern edge of the Northern European Plain during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance – to be a member of the Polish or Lithuanian nobility, one must go to war on a horse.
But not all of the Szlachta could afford the heavy and expensive panoply of the medieval knight, such as those that broke the Teutonic Knights at the battle of Grunewald in 1410. The lower nobles armed and armored themselves as best as they could afford, and formed a mass of light cavalry behind their richer and better equipped counterparts. By the end of the Renaissance, the “Pospolite ruszenie” or levee en mass of the Szlachta had been called so often to repel invaders that the nobles began to standardize equipment. They were known as “Kozacy” from the freewheeling mounted adventurers then beginning to populate the man made desert known as the Ukrainian Steppe, but out of necessity they armed themselves as that light cavalry from Poland’s interminable friend to the south, the Hungarian hussar.
The Hungarian nobility and cavalry paralleled the Polish and Lithuanian, and their wars with the Ottoman Turks in the 15th and early 16th century standardized the petty gentry’s equipment in the form of the hussar. The destruction of the Hungarian nobility by the Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 put the hussar on two separate tracks of development. In the West, the hussar became the lightly armed and unarmored cavalryman “par excellence”, exemplified by Frederick the Great’s Prussian light cavalry used for reconnaissance and raiding, or Napoleon’s well-dressed and dashing foragers, scouts, and wooers of ladies. But in the East during the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, firearms made the knights’ heavy armor obsolete, but the hussars of the Szalchta became better equipped. With the development of gunpowder and pikes in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th century, the charge of heavy knights became ineffective. However, in the freewheeling and open battles of Eastern Europe where arquebusier fire could be avoided and pike phalanxes out flanked, not so much.
By 1570, not all of the Szlachta could call themselves Husaria, but many could. Poles and Ruthenians who were different ethnically but equipped the same as unarmored Cossacks were all still known as “Kozacy”, and this term for light cavalry would continue well into the 19th century. Those Szlachta who could armour themselves in chainmail, still effective against the saber slashes of the Tartar and Turk of 16th century Eastern Europe, were known as “Panzerini”. The rich nobles who could afford the firearms, long lances, heavy horses, and the plate cuirasses patterned off their Sarmatian forbears were known as the Husaria.
By the time Stephen Bathory was elected King of Poland in the 1570s and definitely by the time the Poles captured Moscow in 1610, the Husaria formed the heavy shock cavalry of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The less well equipped Szlachta of the Kozacy and Panzerini performed the traditional cavalry roles while the Husaria existed for one reason and one reason only – to break an enemy formation on the field of battle.
For honors’ sake, the upper strata of the Szlachta wanted to be at the forefront of battle and they armed and equipped themselves as such. Husaria had the heaviest warhorses in Europe, and Poland forbade their export for just that reason. Not wishing to change what was already good enough, Husaria were equipped with a Sarmatian style Roman breastplate and a composite German/Romano helmet, akin to a Spanish conquistadores’ with cheek and nose guard. Their arms consisted of a long 18ft lance topped with a pennant for identification, a straight long sword on the left of the saddle, an axe or war hammer on the right of the saddle, a sabre at the hip like any good noblemen, a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous musketeers, and a carbine for good measure.
But it was neither their arms nor armor that set the Polish Husaria apart. It was their accoutrements that garnered much attention. On his back, the Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. The exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles from which fluttered hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars.
The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice and usually fled – that is a historical fact.
On September 12th 1683, Poland’s King Jan Sobieski emerged from the Vienna Wood and his men fought their way through the Turkish lines to relieve the city which was about to fall to a Turkish siege. All morning and afternoon, his Panzerini and Kozacy pounded over the Turkish trenches until they came to the flat terrain that permitted a proper charge. That evening, 1,100 Polish Husaria charged the remaining 90,000 Turkish besiegers. The Husaria didn’t stop until they reached the Gates of Vienna and the Turks never threatened Central Europe again.
“Za wolność Waszą i naszą!”, “For your freedom and ours!”
The British grand strategy for subduing the troublesome New England colonies was to seize the Hudson River valley and cut them off from the middle and southern colonies. To this end, Gen. John Burgoyne attacked from Canada while Gen. William Howe was supposed to do the same from New York City. However, Howe unilaterally decided to sail his army into the northern Chesapeake and march on Philadelphia. On 9 September 1777, Howe’s British, Loyalists, and Hessians landed, and Washington planned to meet them at Chadd’s Ford along the Brandywine Creek.
Unfortunately for the Americans, a Philadelphia loyalist informed Howe of series of smaller fords on the East and West Brandywine Creek some miles to the north of Washington. On the morning of 11 September 1777, Howe marched the bulk of his army around Washington while he sent his Hessians to fix the Continental Army at Chadd’s Ford. Washington learned of the maneuver fairly early in the day, but didn’t act on it for several hours. He decided to go look for himself.For several hours, Washington conducted his own personal leader’s reconnaissance of the battlefield, accompanied only by the newest brigadier general in the Continental Army, Casimir Pulaski. Pulaski was a former colonel in the Bar Confederation, a Polish revolt against the Russians, who fled to America after the First Partition of Poland. Pulaski was by far and away the most experienced cavalryman in North America at the time, and about noon on 11 September 1777, Pulaski was showing Washington the finer points of mounted reconnaissance when they both were nearly killed.
Waiting in a copse of trees, was Maj Patrick Ferguson, a light infantry pioneer in the British Army. With him was a company of light infantry armed with breech loading marksman’s muskets specially designed by Ferguson himself. Washington and Pulaski rode to within thirty yards of Ferguson and his men. Ferguson ordered them killed but stopped his men after the duo turned their backs to them. Ferguson called to Washington and Pulaski, and they both rode off. Ferguson stated later that he alone could have put four rounds into each before they were out of range, but it was ungentlemanly to shoot the “well dressed hussar and his august companion in the back”. Ferguson never regretted his decision to spare the two.
By mid afternoon, Howe’s army appeared on the flank of the Continental Army, but Washington re-positioned. He sent Sullivan with three divisions to make a stand on a small hill topped by the Birmingham Meeting House. However, as Sullivan was conferring with the division commanders, the British emerged from the wood line and surprised Sullivan’s own division as it was forming. The line broke and the rest withdrew from the hill. Sullivan reformed at Dilworth, and as Washington confirmed he was facing the bulk of Howe’s army to the north, re-positioned Lafayette and his reserve under Greene. The Continentals stopped the British advance, and the fighting degenerated into a slug fest with American and British troops firing volleys point blank at each other, followed by bayonet charges. Nonetheless, the Continentals held.
At Chadd’s Ford, the Hessians also attempted to force the American position with little success. However, a British column from the north got lost in the forest attempting to flank Washington’s position at Dilworth, and appeared on the flanks of “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s defense of the ford. Though fiery and eccentric, Wayne was not stupid, and retreated. Washington recognized that he was now out maneuvered, and withdrew the army back to Philadelphia to fight another day. Greene and Lafayette provided a skillful rear guard.
Though a defeat, the Battle of Brandywine Creek showed that the Continental Army was beginning to mature. For the first time, they fought the British regulars and Hessian professionals toe to toe on ground of British choosing and gave as well as they got. Furthermore, the Continental leadership showed that it too could execute complicated and demanding maneuvers, none more so than a withdrawl while in contact. The Continental Army was not a professional force by any means in 1777, but it began to act like one.
The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia a little over a week later. They would flee to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which would have the honor of being the country’s capital for a single day, 21 September 1777, and then on to York, PA.
Howe marched into Philadelphia on 28 September thinking he had just won the war. However, the seizure of the enemy’s capital as a means of victory is a distinctly Western European construct. In Europe, the capital was the center of a nation’s culture, industry, and state bureaucracy, without which a nation can no longer fight. In the late 18th century it was unthinkable for a Briton to continue a war if London fell, or Frenchman to continue if Paris fell. But the ideals laid out in in the Declaration of Independence, and later the U.S. Constitution, are not tied to a piece of terrain. If an American capital falls, it just moves to another spot. You can’t occupy an idea.
Howe might have won Philadelphia, but he lost the war.
Poland did not exist as a state since the Partition of 1795, during which the autocracies of Austria, Russia, and Prussia divided up the country amongst themselves. 122 years later, in 1917, the Great War presented an opportunity for a free and independent Poland carved from Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after their defeat, an opportunity fully embraced by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. To this end, Polish immigrant communities across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States sought volunteers and formed training camps for the inevitable call to arms. Local barracks were established, and recruiting began among the members of Polish fraternal organizations, the Falcons and Polish National Alliance, in coal and steel towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Officer training camps were created in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania and, after a secret deal with the Canadian government, Toronto. By March 1917, the Polish communities in the United States had over 12,000 men in training and prepared to fight for an independent Poland.
Just three weeks before the United States entered the war, Dr. Theophil Starzynski organized an “extra-ordinary” meeting of the leaders of the various Polish groups in America. Many traveled from across the country to attend. In a small hall on the corner of 18th and Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh on 3 April, 1917, Dr. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a renowned pianist and composer (and future Polish prime minister) who had recently emigrated to California, spoke to the packed assembly on the creation of a Polish Volunteer Army to fight in France. Within a week, thousands more volunteered. Unfortunately Dr Paderewski’s call was ill timed: The United States declared war on Germany just three days later.
The United States’ entry into the Great War on the 6th divided the Polish community in America – not for or against the war, but whether the men standing-by should volunteer for the rapidly expanding US Army, or wait for the formation of a Polish Army. Thousands joined the US Army rather than wait. The formal call for the formation of a Polish Army of expatriates and emigrants wouldn’t come from America as expected. The call for a Polish Army to fight for its independence came from a different source, France.
On 4 June 1917, Raymond Poincare, the President of France, (Not to be confused with Georg Clemenceau, the more famous Prime Minister of France) authorized the formation of a Polish Army to fight on the Western Front in exchange for France’s support for an independent Poland at the end of hostilities. France was in desperate need of men to fill the trenches and give respite to the exhausted and demoralized French soldiers who at that moment were mutinying in ever greater numbers. Tens of thousands of Poles from the Polish diaspora willing to fight were a godsend until America’s vast resources could arrive in force.
The first units in the Polish Army in France were formed from prisoners of war. As Poland had been occupied since 1795, many Poles fought in the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany and were subsequently captured by the Allies. Furthermore, the Poles (and many Russians) of the Russian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, which was consumed by mutiny at the time, volunteered for the new Polish army, if only to get away from the front. As word of the new formation spread, Poles across Europe deserted from the armies of the Central Powers or left their homes and made their way to France, most via Italy or through Sweden. From around the world the Polish diaspora responded, whether through the organized efforts of the Polish fraternal organizations in the United States, or through newspaper ads and formal announcements, then taking the long boat ride to Canada from their homes in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others. They in-processed and were given rudimentary training in a camp outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and they were subsequently organized for their trip in a convoy across the U-boat infested Atlantic to France. Over one hundred thousand Poles arrived in France to fight on the Western Front throughout 1917 and 1918.
The volunteers were sent to Camp le Ruchard outside Tours where they were trained by the French. They were issued old “Horizon Blue” French uniforms, and thereafter became known as “The Blue Army”. Further training camps opened as more volunteers arrived, including an officer cadet school, an NCO academy, and specialist training centers for logistics, artillery, engineering and signals. The Blue Army was integrated with the French Fourth Army, with Polish units partnered with French units as they formed and down to platoon level. Initially, their officers were French until suitable Polish replacements arrived, or could be found or trained. The first Polish regiment of the Blue Army went into combat alongside the French in January 1918, and the first division was formerly presented its colors by President Poincare in June. But the Blue Army itself still lacked cohesiveness, and more importantly, a Polish leader above the rank of colonel.
After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia in March, 1918, the Polish Legions of the Austrian and German armies in the Ukraine were interred alongside Polish troops of the Russian Army to prevent them from joining their comrades in France. Nevertheless, many Polish soldiers and officers escaped in the confusion that was endemic to Eastern Europe with the fall of the Imperial Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution. In the summer of 1918, the former commander of Austria’s 2nd Polish Legion, Brigadier General Josef Haller Von Hallerburg, made his way to Moscow, then Murmansk, and eventually France. On 4 October, 1918, the Polish National Committee, the newly recognized Polish government in exile, offered Haller command of the Blue Army. Gen Haller accepted command of a force which had grown to eight modern divisions, including a training division, seven squadrons of airplanes, and a tank regiment, nearly 110,000 men and women in total. The Blue Army fought on the Western Front until the armistice ending the Great War was signed in November.
In March, 1919, the Blue Army, now known as Haller’s Army, boarded trains for the newly independent Poland, where they were directly incorporated into the fledgling Polish Army then fighting to establish the borders of the Second Polish Republic. The regiments of Haller’s Army were the only formally trained units in Poland at the time. When the Red Army invaded in early 1920 to spread Bolshevism to a weakened Germany and France, Haller’s men, still in their trademark horizon blue uniforms, held the gates of Warsaw along with the population of the city against an overwhelming mass of Soviet soldiers. They bought Marshal Pilsudski just enough time to counterattack and break the Soviets in what is now commonly known as, “The Miracle on the Vistula”, thus saving Europe’s neck from the iron boot of Communism, at least for a few years.
After the Polish-Soviet War, Marshal Pilsudski, the defacto leader of the Second Polish Republic saw the members of the Polish National Committee as his main political rivals, and hastened the disbandment of the Blue Army, whom he thought were more loyal to the PNC than him. In 1920, the Polish government began making arrangements for Blue Army volunteers who wished to return home. A camp was set up outside Warsaw that organized travel, though the funding for such had to come from their home countries. Many languished in this camp for more than a year. Furthermore, the volunteers who wished to return were not formally discharged and therefore not recognized as veterans in Poland or in their home countries. These issues caused much bitterness, particularly with those from the Americas and Australia who traveled thousands of miles to fight for a country that no longer needed them and were now stuck in Eastern Europe. This break with the country of their forebears would manifest itself almost two decades later, when another call to fight for Poland came in 1939, this time against Communist Russia and National Socialist Germany. The volunteers from the Polish diaspora didn’t respond to Poland’s plea. There would be no second Blue Army to fight in 1939. However, to their everlasting credit, the Polish diaspora did loyally respond in great numbers to the calls to arms from their adopted homelands during the Second World War.
After the Partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Warsaw was occupied by Imperial Russia. In 1829, the new Russian Czar, Nicolas I, outlawed the Polish Constitution, and arrested the members of the Polish Sejm (parliament) leaving no pretenses of any self-rule in Congress Poland (established after Napoleon’s defeat at the Congress of Vienna in 1815). Later that year, Nicolas outlawed Polish culture and the Polish language. When Polish culture was forbidden, gifted Polish pianist Frederick Chopin left Warsaw for Paris. Enroute he visited his friend Franz Liszt in Stuttgart.
Both Liszt and Chopin taught piano to the petty aristocracies of the German States. They did so through the use of “etudes” or short compositions meant to teach technique. Until then, etudes were rote and painful pieces meant strictly as lessons. But the early industrial revolution updated the piano in the form of precision casting, high quality piano wire, and a metal frame to sustain a more powerful and broader sound. Chopin started writing etudes for this new modern piano. Like Beethoven and Mozart before him, Chopin was incapable of composing something uninteresting, and the etudes of his unfinished Opus 10 were celebrated as masterpieces in their own right.
In November 1831 Nicolas began forced conversions of the Roman Catholic Polish population to Eastern Orthodoxy. Warsaw revolted. The revolution was only put down after a massed and sustained bombardment that flattened the city, followed by an assault by several large Russian armies.
Shortly thereafter, Chopin learned of the uprising and subsequent massacre, and he was furious and distraught. As his father was a prominent revolutionary, he couldn’t return. So he got drunk with Liszt and continued on as before. He still had one more etude to compose for his Opus 10, and it involved a lesson on the sweeping use of the left hand while playing notes in rapid succession.
On 17 December 1831, Frederic Chopin published what would become one the most popular piano pieces in history, Etude no 12, Opus 10 in C minor, “On the Bombardment of Warsaw”, or more simply, “Revolutionary”.