The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.
Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.
Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.
The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.
However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.
In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.
On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.
At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.
On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.
That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.
In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.
When the Germans conquered Poland in late 1939, they rounded up everyone “with Jewish blood” and forcibly moved them into walled off ghettos. In the Polish city of Warsaw, 400,000 Polish Jews and other National Socialist undesirables were packed into an area of only 1.3 square miles. In the autumn of 1942, Nazi Germany began “liquidating” these ghettos by rounding up a set daily quota of the inhabitants and sending them to the gas chambers. In Warsaw that number was as high as 5,000 a day to the Death Camp at Treblinka.
At first, the Jewish leaders thought that those collected were just being transferred to labor camps and didn’t fight the arbitrary detentions. But eventually the truth became known. By 1943, less than 100,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw Ghetto, many of whom were in hiding. In response, Jewish resistance groups formed with support from the Polish Home Army and eventually fought back against the quota detentions in January. The surprisingly fierce and widespread resistance caused the Germans to stop the deportations until sufficient strength could be gathered to crush them.
On 19 April 1943, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resumed. 2,000 SS troops backed up by tanks and 5,000 policemen arrogantly marched into the seemingly quiet and deserted streets. On a pre-arranged signal Jewish ambushes were sprung on the unsuspecting Nazi’s. The initial German assaults were repulsed by the fierce Jewish defenders. They were armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades, small arms, and the fanatical resistance of people who have nothing left to lose. Defeat meant immediate execution, and for their families, hiding in homemade bunkers around the Ghetto, a cattle car to Treblinka. That afternoon, the resistance raised the red and white Polish flag and the blue and white flag of the ZZW (the largest Jewish group in the Ghetto) over Muranowski Square. Embolden by this show of defiance, other Polish resistance groups came to the aid of the Jews by attacking the Germans in other areas of Warsaw and smuggling supplies into the Ghetto. However, the approximately 1,000 Jewish defenders were under no illusions that they could save themselves. Their only hope was that the news of the uprising would make its way to the outside world, and expose the National Socialists for what they really were.
The Germans continued to attack and the battle in Warsaw raged for the next 11 days. The uprising was a great embarrassment to National Socialism: for the Germans to be stymied by “untermensch” or “sub-humans” was contrary to all of their racial propaganda. Hitler authorized the subjugation of the Ghetto his highest priority and flooded Warsaw with additional troops and supplies. With practically unlimited support, it was only a matter of time before the Germans overcame the resistance. Nevertheless, the Germans had to resort to using poison gas and burning down the entire Ghetto before they declared victory in May. The German commander, Juergen Stroop, marked the end of the operation with a small twisted ceremony in which the highlight was his personal pressing the detonator button demolishing the Great Synagogue of Warsaw.
Stroop reported killing “about 13,000” and capturing 56,065 Jews at the end of the operation to “cleanse” the Ghetto. 7,000 were immediately sent to Treblinka and gassed over the next few days. Because Treblinka could not “process” so many prisoners so fast, the remainder were sent to other camps in the General Government (Germany’s official name for Poland, since the word “Poland” was outlawed.), primarily the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp inside the city of Lublin. Those not immediately gassed were eventually murdered when the Nazi’s liquidated that camp in November.
The outside world ignored the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, despite a frustrated Jewish member of the Polish Government-in-Exile committing suicide over the British unwillingness to do anything concrete to help the defenders. However, the Uprising was a great inspiration to the Polish Home Army and led directly to the general Warsaw Uprising a year later. The Polish Home Army managed to rescue about 400 Jews from the Ghetto, and several hundred more continued to hide in the rubble, sometimes for weeks, until they could escape.
After the war the survivors would form the Lohamei HaGeta’ot kibbutz (literally “Ghetto Fighters” in Yiddish) in northern Israel.
The first year of President Ronald Reagan’s first term was dominated by the economy and domestic politics. Even in 1982, he only gave one important foreign policy speech at Westminster to the British House of Commons. For several years, the Soviet Union had moved more SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles into Eastern Europe. Reagan and NATO leaders wanted to counter this with a “dual-track” policy of arms control negotiation and deployment of US Pershing II missiles to Europe. However, the Soviets stonewalled the negotiations, and encouraged a “freeze” of nuclear weapons in Europe, which of course they could violate much more easily. Reagan’s domestic opposition, and European anti-nuclear parties supported the freeze as a step toward “de-nuclearizing” Europe.
In early 1983, the “freezniks” were making inroads into a core element of Reagan’s base: religious leaders. Several prominent religious organizations had already publically come out in support of the freeze, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Synagogue Council of America. On 8 March 1983, Reagan made a speech in Orlando, Florida at a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals to clarify the stakes of the Cold War in Europe.
The televised speech was 32 minutes long, but it was one large 72 word sentence, toward the end of the speech, that sent shockwaves throughout the world:
“So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation to blithely declare yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
For the first time in the Cold War, an American leader had the courage to use the word “evil” in a public forum to describe the totalitarian nature of world Communism. Up to this point in Reagan’s presidency, speech censers excised the word, which was originally supposed to appear in the Westminster speech, or removed it at behest of Reagan’s domestic opposition as a “sign of respect” for the Soviet Union.
The New York Times derided the speech as “primitive and dangerous”, but the “Evil Empire Speech” galvanized dissidents in Communist countries. Millions of people around the world that suffered under Communism and state socialism felt that finally someone understood their travails. In Poland, the Solidarity Movement was reeling under the Communist marshal law, and Lech Walesa credited the speech as breathing new life into the movement. The speech broke the tradition of “détente” with the Soviet Union and cemented the Sino-Soviet split. The crusade to end Communism led by Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II had begun, and would hasten the end of the Soviet Union by decades.
No one in 1983 would have predicted, even in their wildest fever dreams, that the Soviet Union would fall just seven later.
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”.