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Apparently, the decisive blow at the 1683 Battle of Vienna was struck by Jan Sobieski, with only 3,000 "hussars" (cavalry). This seems a bit hard to believe, given that the Turkish army had about 100,000, while hussars were the second worst form of cavalry, above only Cossacks. Effectiveness of Cossack cavalry

But dragoons were supposedly twice as good as hussars, and cuirassers twice as good again as dragoons. So could Sobieski's "hussars" actually been better troops in one of the two other categories.

It's easier for me to imagine that the "equivalent" of 6,000 or even 12,000 hussars struck such a decisive blow. Could Sobieski's 3,000 cavalry been elite troops armed with pistols AND blade weapons, meaning that they were actually worth more than their stated number? If not, what would have enabled a relatively small number of troops to strike such a decisive blow?

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Not an expert on 17th century cavalry, but generally speaking, the decisiveness of a blow is not determined oly by the number of troops used. Momentum, and the ability to back up the initial shock by reserves count for much more than pure numbers. –  Felix Goldberg Mar 27 '13 at 6:23
From what I remember, the attach happened at night and was a surprise to the Ottoman army. You can do a lot when panic sets in the opposition. –  Sardathrion Mar 27 '13 at 8:03
@FelixGoldberg: Even taking your point, elite troops are much more likely than ordinary troops to generate "momentum and...initial shock." Ditto, if these troops had been "double armed" with pistols and lances or sabers. –  Tom Au Mar 27 '13 at 13:17
@TomAu - in 1683, pistols were... not exactly a great deal of usefulness to a cavalrymen. Especially in such a tactical situation (as opposed to caracole tactics used against formed infantry) –  DVK Mar 27 '13 at 17:08
Polish hussars are not the same as Russian hussars, entirely! Polish hussars are a kind of (super)heavy cavalry, while Russian hussars and hussars in other countries (hungary, germany etc) are a kind of lignt cavalry. –  Anixx Sep 17 at 23:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

"It is chivalry that has no equal in the world; without seeing it with your own eyes, its vigor and splendor is impossible to imagine." (Cosimo Brunetti, 1676)

The answer is both "yes", as it's completely different kind of hussars that the one mentioned in the question about effectiveness of Cossack cavalry, and "no", as there were around 20,000 horses in the charge, not 3000.

Polish winged hussars

Original hussars were light cavalry. But when prince of Transylvania, Stephen Bathory, became king of Poland in 1576, he completely reorganized these forces into elite, heavy units, that were much better trained and equipped, with unique tactics. They became famous as so called "winged cavalry". It will be easier to understand why, when you look at the picture below:

enter image description here Hetman's guard, painting by Wacław Pawliszak

There was a strong belief that the wings caused psychological effect on the enemy, frightening horses and riders. Surprisingly it's mentioned mainly by foreign, not Polish sources, what now leads historians to think that it was just a rumor.

What made husaria of Jan III Sobieski different than other heavy cavalry units of 17th century? A few facts:

Husaria used horses that were breed and trained specially to this aim. They were a mixture of Polish and Tatar blood horses, able to run very fast even under a heavy load. They were also recovering quickly. Thanks to these, and to a special kind of saddle, hussars and the horse could wear much heavier armor. They could also repeat the charge several times during the battle.

The tactic of husaria included a special kind of charge, which proved to be decisive in many battles won by Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By concentrating the formation at the last, crucial moment before crushing the enemy, it was able to completely break the enemy lines, while still being able to change formation or direction even a short time before crushing the opponent. By combining speed and mobility with advantages of strong formations, it was effective against both eastern and western armed forces. Apart from Vienna, other famous battles were Kircholm (1605 against Sweden) and Klushino (1610 against Russia).

As I've written, the charge could be repeated during the battle, going on and through the enemy line, until the enemy forces were finally broken. The main weapon was a lance, which varied in length depending on the enemy. Hussars also had a stabbing sword (koncerz), a sabre (szabla), pistol (or two), and often a carbine or arquebus (bandolet), and even a bow.

Winged hussars in Battle of Vienna

I've got a tendency of depicting this battle with colorful details, legends and anecdotes which are sometimes more or less fake (as it's typical to tourist guides), but I'll try to stick to the facts.

The charge of winged hussars started at 6 pm, while the battle started in the morning. Different historians counts the overall number of cavalry that took part in it as more or less 20000 of horses, what makes the charge of John III Sobieski the biggest cavalry charge in history. This way the mentioned 3000 were only the heaviest, frontal part of the charge, which was supported by other Polish, Austrian and Bavarian cavalry forces under the command of Polish king.

As for Polish cavalry that was stopped in difficult terrain, mentioned by Drux, it's surely connected with the charge of Zwierzchowski and his 200 hussars, that were sent by Sobieski to probe enemy lines and check for possible traps. During the charge it was stopped by the ditch or trench, before it could continue and return to the king with heavy losses. Thanks to them main forces avoided the obstacle.

The attack lasted for half an hour, after which Ottoman army went into panic and run away from the battlefield.

Turkish point of view

Let's look how Turkish chroniclers were describing this event in 17th century. For them it was a holy war and there was a belief that no "European heathen dogs" could beat warriors of Allah in the field. This way they focused on searching for the reasons of defeat among themselves.

In his works, Silahdar Findiklili Mehmed Aga, counted a few of such reasons:

  • hordes of civilians, who started the panic (merchants and others going all the way from Ottoman Empire to Vienna because of the possible income, e.g. slaves)
  • fatigue after a few weeks of fighting in Austria and all day battle at Vienna
  • exhausted horses which, according to the chronicler, didn't eat anything nutritious for prior two months, while the best Ottoman forces were cavalry
  • indiscipline and too big belief that the victory will come without any problems, based on previous battles against Austrians during the campaign
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Hmm ... I'm missing sources for the middle section re Winged hussars in Battle of Vienna. From what I've seen it's uncontested that Sobieski brought in a relief army without which Vienna would have been lost within a few days and as supreme military leader of the coalition forces he deserves clear merit for ending the siege. But whether he and the hussars turned the battle around may still be a different matter. (Apart from merits on the Christian side, it appears that the Turks had left their back undefended, which also was an important ingredient in how history was made that day.) –  Drux Mar 28 '13 at 6:17
I'm not the expert historian, I can provide only Polish sources for that, and they will be always treated as "Polish sources". For Poland it wasn't the first time when winged cavalry did something like that, because in 17th century they were like tanks against infantry, while the heavy cavalry in Western Europe was not as effective anymore and stopped serving as main forces. The difference between them and the rest of cavalry at the battlefield was enormous. Of course it finished in 18 century, with the age of guns. –  Darek Wędrychowski Mar 28 '13 at 11:39
Also the question is not if 3000 of hussars defeated Ottoman Empire, but what kind of forces they were. That's why I focus on that in my answer, while adding the Ottoman point of view as a trivia. –  Darek Wędrychowski Mar 28 '13 at 13:30
I shall read two books by British historians about the battle (as I had already planned to do for some time) and report new findings here. The older one contains the observation "As it happened, for the last time in John Sobieski's lifetime his physique was equal to a grand occasion. He was fifty-one years old in 1683, though already ailing too often, and far too fat," so I guess they could lean either way regarding the (sub-)question of what main ingredient may have determined the battle's outcome –  Drux Mar 28 '13 at 19:50
From what I know, British books dedicated to the battle cover the battle very shortly, speaking much more about all the context of it, with past and future happenings. John Stoye's "The Siege of Vienna" contains seven pages of the battle's description and Polish history lovers recommend it as a nice one. What's interesting, "Polish Medieval Armies" from Osprey series has awful reputation in Poland, even if it was half-written by a Pole. –  Darek Wędrychowski Mar 28 '13 at 20:34

Polish hussars are not the same as Russian hussars, entirely! Polish winged hussars are a kind of (super)heavy cavalry, while Russian hussars and hussars in other countries (Hungary, Germany etc) are a kind of lignt cavalry.

So your premise is wrong.

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