Polish cavalry

From Academic Kids

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Volunteer Representative Squadron of City of Poznań in uniforms of 15th Poznań Uhlans Regiment

Polish Cavalry (Polish kawaleria) can trace its origins back to the days of Medićval mounted knights. Poland had always been a country of flatlands and fields and this type of mounted force worked well in this environment. The knights and heavy horse cavalry gradually evolved into many different types of specialised mounted military formations, some of which heavily influenced western warfare and military science. This article details the evolution of Polish cavalry tactics, traditions and arms from the times of mounted knights and heavy winged hussars, through the times of light uhlans to mounted infantry equipped with ranged and męlée weapons.


Battle of Grunwald

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Czapka, a Polish cavalry late 18th century hat adopted by many cavalry units in Europe.

Until 14th century the Polish armed forces were composed mostly of mounted soldiers. Initially only a part of prince's drużyna had horses, but with time the vast plains of Poland made creation of strong mounted units a necessity. By the start of 15th century, the core of the Polish armies was formed by mounted knights called to arms by the kings. The basic tactical unit of the army was a banner (chorągiew), that is a group of approximately 50 men financed by a noble clan, a notable person or a land. The banner fought separately and included all the necessary detachments, including own kitchen, tabors and servants.

One of the finest examples of usage of the early Polish cavalry was the Battle of Grunwald of 1410. During the battle, the Polish heavy cavalry was used to break through Teutonic lines. In addition, the Polish forces were helped by Lithuanian light cavalry of Eastern origins and by Tartar skirmishers, who used mostly the hit-and-run tactics. During the battle, after initial clashes of the light cavalry, the Teutonic Order split its forces, which were then defeated by a heavy cavalry charge.

16th and 17th centuries

In 16th century the introduction of gunpowder and firearms made the medićval heavy cavalry obsolete. The standing army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was gradually converted to other, more modern forms of cavalry. Under eastern influence, the armament of the cavalrymen was lightened and their speed and mobility increased, which added to the successes of the Polish cavalry in numerous wars against Muscovy, Turkey and the Tartars. With time the heavy cavalry became a Polish speciality.

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Commonwealth Hussar, wings visible. Painting by Aleksander Orłowski

1503 saw the formation of a first hussar unit in Poland. Being far more manoeuvrable than the heavily armoured lancers previously employed, the hussars proved vital to the splendid Polish victories at Orsza (1514) and Obertyn (1531). By the reign of King Stefan Batory the hussars had replaced medieval-style lancers in the Polish army, and they now formed the bulk of the Polish cavalry.

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Commonwealth hussars charge

Over the course of the 1500s hussars had become heavier in character: they had abandoned wooden shields and adopted plate metal body armour. With the battle of Battle of Lubieszów in 1577 the 'Golden Age' of the husaria began. Until the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the Polish hussars fought countless actions against a variety of enemies, and rarely lost a battle. In the battles of Byczyna (1588), Kokenhausen (1601), Kłuszyn (1610), Gniew (1626), Chocim (1673) and Lwów (1675), the Polish hussars proved to be the decisive factor often against overwhelming odds. One of the most notable examples of such victories of the Polish hussars was the Battle of Kircholm of 1605, in which 3.000 hussars under Jan Karol Chodkiewicz managed to defeat 14.000 soldiers of Charles IX of Sweden - with negligeable losses.

As one of the very few units in the Polish standing army (most of other units were formed as levée en masse), the hussars were well-trained and well-equipped. Until 18th century they were considered the elite of Polish armed forces. Because of the fame and prestige that surrounded the hussars, many of them were accepted into nobility. Although by 18th century their importance was diminished by the introduction of modern infantry firearms and quick-firing artillery, the Polish hussars' tactics and armament remained almost unchanged.

Uhlan fighting a foot soldier
Uhlan fighting a foot soldier

In addition to the heavy hussar cavalry, the late 17th century saw the creation of yet another cavalry formation that influenced most European armies of the time: the uhlans. Initially a light cavalry formation formed by Polish Tatars (the very word ułan came from Tartar word oglan meaning a skilled warrior), the uhlan units were soon joined by other nationalities of Poland and in early 18th century the first uhlan regiment was formed by king Stanisław August. The uhlans were light cavalry armed with lances, sabres and pistols, which gave them enough power and at the same time adding to their versatility and manouevrability. In addition, the Polish uhlans, or ułani as they were called in their native tongue, introduced a new uniform style composed of a colourful jacket with a coloured panel in the front, dark trousers with colourful stripes on the sides and a high, pointed cap called czapka (often rendered chapka in English).

Napoleonic Era

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Battle of Somosierra, one of greatest successes of 19th century Polish cavalry

With the advent of the 19th century Poland was partitioned by her neighbours. However, the Polish army was not disbanded and instead most of it was simply drafted into the armies of the occupying countries. Thanks to that, the Polish cavalry traditions were retained. After the creation of Duchy of Warsaw, many Poles volunteered for the Polish cavalry units fighting in the Napoleonic Wars alongside the French army.

The new formation of uhlans proved to be not only fast and effective, but also very influential: during the Napoleonic Wars the uhlans of the Duchy of Warsaw were among the most effective cavalry units and by the end of that period most of European states copied both their tactics and their uniforms. Together with the French, the Polish cavalry took part in many of the most notable battles of the Napoleonic period, including the battles of Smolensk, Fuengirola, Raszyn, and many others. Also, the Polish cavalrymen were the first unit of the Napoleon's Grande Armee to enter Moscow's kremlin during the Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Finally, the Polish cavalry detachments were also present in Haiti, where they helped the French administration to quell a local rebellion. However, perhaps the most notable success of the Polish cavalry in that period (and certainly the best known) is the Battle of Somosierra, a part of the Peninsular War.

During his advance on Madrid, Napoleon was blocked on November 30, 1808, by 9,000 Spaniards under General San Juan in the valley of Somosierra in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Because of the rough and uneven terrain, the Spanish forces could not easily be outflanked. Their positions were well-fortified and guarded with artillery. Impatient to proceed towards Madrid, Napoleon ordered his Polish light cavalry escort of some 87 troops, led by Jan Kozietulski, to charge the Spaniards. Despite losing two thirds of their numbers, the Poles succeeded in forcing the defenders to abandon their position.

19th century

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Polish-Bolshevik War

After Poland regained her independence in 1918, there were already several Polish cavalry units existing. Some of them were created as parts of either Austro-Hungarian or German Armies while others were created in Russia and as part of the French-based Blue Army. Because of that, each cavalry unit in the reborn Polish Army used different uniforms, different equipment and different strategy. However, all of the units shared the same traditions and, despite all the differences, were able to cooperate on the battlefield.

In late January of 1919 the reorganisation of the Polish Army started. All previously-existent cavalry squadrons were pressed into 14 newly-formed cavalry regiments, which in turn were joined into six cavalry brigades after March 7, 1919. Later a seventh brigade was added and some of the brigades were joined into two semi-independent cavalry divisions.

The newly-recreated Polish Cavalry units were of modern type and were trained in both cavalry tactics and in trench warfare. After the Polish-Bolshevik War broke out, these were one of the very few combat-ready troops in Polish service. The lack of advanced military equipment on both sides of the front made the cavalry a decisive weapon in breaking the enemy lines and encircling the Russian units. In addition, smaller cavalry detachments (usually squadron-sized) were attached to every infantry brigade and served as reconaissance and support units. Also, the lack of sophisticated equipment made the traditional role of the cavalry once again important. The Polish cavalry units were equipped with sabres, lances and all types of armament that were typically used by the cavalry in previous centuries.

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During the war, the Polish cavalry brigades and divisions took part in most of the notable battles, including the famous Battle of Warsaw, in which they played a crucial role in surrounding the withdrawing Red Army, and in the Battle of the Niemen, in which the cavalry was vital in breaking the enemy lines near Grodno. However, the most important cavalry battle took place took place on August 31, 1920, near the village of Komarowo near Zamość. The battle was a complete disaster for the Russian 1st Cavalry Army which sustained heavy casualties and barely avoided being totally surrounded. After that battle, the 1st Cavalry Army's morale has collapsed and the army which was one the most feared of the Soviet troops was no longer considered an effective fighting force. Because of the numbers of forces involved, the Battle of Komarów is considered the greatest cavalry battle of the 20th century. Also it was the last battle fought mostly by cavalry units, in which traditional cavalry tactics were used and sabers and lances played a vital role. Because of that, it is sometimes referred to as "the greatest cavalry battle after 1813" and the last cavalry battle.

World War II

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Polish cavalry running through a bombed town during the Polish Defence War of 1939

At the outbreak of the Polish Defence War of 1939, the Polish cavalry units were organised in 11 cavalry brigades, each composed of 3 to 4 cavalry regiments with organic artillery, armoured unit and infantry battalion. Two additional brigades had recently been converted to motorized and armoured units, but they retained their cavalry traditions. In addition, every infantry division had a organic cavalry detachment used for reconaissance.

In contrast with its traditional role in armed conflicts of the past (even in the Polish-Bolshevik War), the cavalry was no longer seen as able to break through enemy lines. Instead, it was used as a mobile reserve of the Polish armies and was using mostly infantry tactics: the soldiers dismounted before the battle and fought as a standard (yet fast) infantry. Technically speaking, in 1939 Poland had 11 brigades of mounted infantry and no units of cavalry as such.

Although the cavalrymen retained their sabres, after 1937 the lance was dropped and it was issued to cavalrymen as a weapon of choice only. Instead, the cavalry units were equipped with modern armament, including 75mm guns, tankettes, 37mm AT guns, 40mm AA guns, anti-tank rifles and other pieces of modern weaponry.

During the campaign, the brigades were distributed among the Polish armies and served as mobile reserves. In this role, the Polish cavalry proved itself a successful measure in filling the gaps in the front and covering the withdrawal of friendly units. Polish cavalry units took part in most of the battles of 1939 and on several occasions proved to be the elite of the Polish Army.

After Septeber Camaign Polish Army on Western Front continiues tradition of pre-war uhlan's regiments giving their names to armoured units, while Army on Eastern Front used cavalry as mobile infantry till end of war.

After war

Combat cavalry units existed in the Polish Army until January 27, 1947, when the 1st Warsaw Cavalry Division was disbanded. Last Polish cavalry unit, the Representative Squadron of the President of Poland, was disbanded in July of 1948. However, after several years of gathering funds, a group of enthusiasts formed in 2000 the Representative Squadron of Cavalry of the Polish Army. The unit got under auspice of the army, which thus returned to its cavalry tradition. The squadron is present at most official anniversary celebrations in Warsaw, as well as other towns of Poland. In other places people are forming paramilitary groups that continues, often with help of army, traditions of local cavalry units. Good example of societes like this is Volunteer Representative Squadron of City of Poznań which is tribute to 15th Poznań Uhlans Regiment.

Combat traditions of Polish cavalry are continuated by armoured (Kawaleria Pancerna) and aeromobile (Kawaleria Powietrzna) units of Polish Land Forces.

Cavalry charges and Nazi propaganda

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18th Pomeranian Uhlans Regiment

Apart from countless battles and skirmishes in which the Polish cavalry units used the infantry tactics, there were 16 confirmed cavalry charges during the 1939 war. Contrary to common belief, most of them were successful.

The first of them, and perhaps the best known, happened on September 1, 1939, during the Battle of Krojanty. During the action elements of the Polish 18th Uhlans Regiment met a large group of German infantry resting in a woods near the village of Krojanty. Colonel Mastalerz decided to take the enemy by surprise and immediately ordered a cavalry charge, a tactic the Polish cavalry rarely used as their main weapon.

The charge was successful and the German infantry unit was dispersed with heavy casualties and the Poles occupied the woods. Moreover, the German advance was stopped for enough time to allow the withdrawal of Polish 1st Rifle battalion and National Defence battalion Czersk from the area of Chojnice. However, the sounds of the battle notified the crews of the APCs stationed nearby and soon the Polish unit were under heavy machine gun fire. The Poles withdrew with the loss of 29 men killed and 50 wounded (as compared with 800 German losses).

The same day the German war correspondents were brought to the battlefield together with two journalists from Italy. They were shown the battlefield, the corpses of Polish cavalrymen and their horses, as well as German tanks that arrived to the place after the battle. One of the Italian correspondents sent home an article, in which he described the bravery and heroism of Polish soldiers, who charged German tanks with their sabres and lances. Although such a charge did not happen and there were no tanks used during the combat, the myth was used by German propaganda during the war. After the end of World War II it was still used by Soviet propaganda as an example of stupidity of Polish commanders and authorities, who allegedly did not prepare their country for the war and instead wasted the blood of their soldiers.

Other cavalry charges of 1939 were as follows:

  1. Battle of Mokra - September 1 - 19th Volhynian Uhlans Regiment took by surprise the elements of German 4th Panzer Division, which retreated in panic. During the charge lances were used.
  2. Battle of Janów - September 1 - 11th Polish Legions' Uhlans Regiment on a recce mission encountered a similar unit of German cavalry. Lieut. Kossakowski ordered a cavalry charge, but the enemy did not accept the battle and after a short clash the Germans withdrew towards their positions.
  3. Borowa Góra - September 2 - 1st squadron of the 19th Volhynian Uhlans Regiment encountered a squadron of German cavalry in the village of Borowa. A charge was ordered, but the Germans withdrew.
  4. Osuchowo - September 11 - 1st squadron of the 20th Uhlans Regiment charging through the lines of German infantry in order to avoid encirclement. Negligeable losses on both sides, the Poles broke through.
  5. Kałuszyn - September 12 - 4th squadron of the 11th Polish Legions Uhlans Regiment charged overnight at the German positions in the town of Kałuszyn. Despite the fact that the charge was an effect of a mistake (the Polish infantry commander issued a wrong order which was understood as a charge order while the cavalry was meant to simply move forward), it was a success. With heavy casualties on both sides, the town was retaken in the early morning.
  6. Mińsk Mazowiecki - September 13 - 1st squadron of the 2nd Grochów Uhlans Regiment charged German infantry positions, but was repelled by German MG fire and artillery.
  7. Maliszewo - September 13 - 1st squadron of the 27th Uhlans Regiment was engaged in heavy fighting in the vicinity of the village of Maliszewo. After the Germans were beaten and started to retreat towards the village, the Poles charged, took the village and large number of German prisoners of war.
  8. Brochowo - September 15 - elements of the 17th Greater Polish Uhlans Regiment charged towards the German positions to impose fear on the German infantry. However, soon before reaching the range of enemy weapons, the uhlans dismounted and continued their attack as infantry. The assault was successful.
  9. Dembowskie - September 16 - a platoon from the 4th squadron of the 17th Greater Polish Uhlans Regiment charged towards a small German outpost located around a foresters' hut. The charge did not succeed since... the Germans welcomed the Polish uhlans with their hands up and there were no casualties.
  10. Battle of Wólka Węglowa - September 19 - Most of the 14th Jazłowiec Uhlans Regiment (without MGs and AT platoon) was ordered to probe the German forces near the town of Wólka Węglowa. After joined by elements of 9th Lesser Polish Uhlans Regiment, the group was ordered to charge through the German lines to open the way towards Warsaw and Modlin for the rest of Polish forces withdrawing from the Battle of Bzura. The Poles charged through German artillery barrage and took the German infantry completely passive. Polish losses were high (205 killed and wounded), the German remain unknown, but the Polish unit broke through and was the first to reach Warsaw after the Battle of Bzura.
  11. Łomianki - September 19 - recce squad of 6th Mounted Artillery Detachment charged through the German lines in the town of Łomianki and paved the way for the rest of the unit to Warsaw.
  12. Battle of Kamionka Strumiłowa - September 21 - 3rd squadron of the 1st Mounted Detachment (improvised) charged through German infantry preparing to assault the Polish positions. The preparations were paralysed and the Germans withdrew.
  13. Krasnobród - September 23 - 1st squadron of the 25th Greater Polish Uhlans Regiment charged towards the town of Krasnobród. With heavy casualties, the uhlans reached the hill on top of which the town was located. A unit of German organic cavalry from the 8th Infantry Division counter-charged from the hill, but was repelled and the Poles captured the town and took the HQ of the division, together with its commander.
  14. Husynne - September 24 - reserve squadron of the 14th Jazłowiec Uhlans Regiment (some 500 sabres), reinforced with an improvised cavalry unit of the police and some remnants of divisional organic cavalry, was ordered to break through the Soviet infantry surrounding the Polish positions in the village of Husynne. The charge was lead by the mounted Police, and the Soviet forces withdrew in panic. However, soon the attack was stopped by a strong Soviet tank unit. Casualties similar on both sides.
  15. Morańce - September 26 - 27th Uhlans Regiment charged twice a German infantry battalion fortified in the village of Morańce. Both charges were repelled with heavy casualties (Poles lost 20 KIA and ca. 50 WIA, German losses remain unknown), but after the second charge the Germans sent an envoy with a white flag and, after a short chat with the Polish commander of the Nowogródek Cavalry Brigade, the Germans withdrew.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The weakness of the Polish cavalry were:

  • Damaged machinery can be fixed relatively fast. However, it is a much longer process with a horse, and one cannot revive a horse.
  • Some number of soldiers, instead of fighting, most likely took care of horses during the battle. A probable figure would be up to 5% of the fighting force. Such a position was called a "koniowodny".

The strengths of the Polish cavalry were:

  • Poland did not have enough infrastructure to support gasoline distribution. One of the foreseen enemies was Soviet Union and the horse cavalry with its independence from gasoline became an asset to the Polish forces.
  • Many conscripts had more experience with horses than vehicles, and needed less training to fight.

See also


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