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Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth coat of arms

The military of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth evolved from the merger of the armies of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania following the 1569 Union of Lublin, which formed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The army was commanded by the Hetmans of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The most unique formation of the army was the heavy cavalry in the form of the Polish winged hussars. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Navy never played a major role in the military structure, and ceased to exist in the mid-17th century.

Commonwealth forces were engaged in numerous conflicts in the south (against the Ottoman Empire), the east (against the Tsardom of Muscovy and later, the Russian Empire and the north (the Kingdom of Sweden); as well as internal conflicts (most notably, numerous Cossack uprisings). For the first century or so, the Commonwealth military was usually successful, but became less so from around the mid-17th century. Plagued by insufficient funds, it found itself increasingly hard-pressed to defend the country, and inferior in numbers to the growing armies of the Commonwealth's neighbors.

Following the end of the Commonwealth, the Polish military tradition would be continued by Napoleonic Polish Legions and the Army of the Duchy of Warsaw.


The Commonwealth was formed at the Union of Lublin of 1569 from the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The armies of those states differed from the organization common in the west of Europe, as according to Bardach, the mercenary formations (Polish: wojsko najemne), common there, never gained popularity in Poland.[1] Brzezinski, however, notes that foreign mercenaries did form a significant portion of the more elite infantry units, at least till the early 17th century.[2] In the 15th century Poland, several other formations formed the core of the military.[3] There was a small standing army, obrona potoczna ("continuous defense") about 1,500–3,000 strong, paid for by the king, and primarily stationed at the troubled south and eastern borders.[3][4] It was supplemented by two formations mobilized in case of war: the pospolite ruszenie (Polish levée en masse – feudal levy of mostly noble knights-landholders), and the wojsko zaciężne, recruited by the Polish commanders for the conflict (it differed from Western mercenary formations in that it was commanded by Polish officers, and dissolved after the conflict has ended).[3]

Several years before the Union of Lublin, the Polish obrona potoczna was reformed, as the Sejm (national parliament of Poland) legislated in 1562–1563 the creation of wojsko kwarciane (named after kwarta, the type of tax levied on the royal lands for the purpose of maintaining this formation).[3] This formation was also paid for by the king, and in the peace time, numbered about 3,500–4,000 men according to Bardach;[3] Brzezinski gives the range of 3,000–5,000.[4] It was composed mostly of the light cavalry units manned by nobility (szlachta) and commanded by hetmans.[3][5] Often, in wartime, the Sejm would legislate a temporary increase in the size of the wojsko kwarciane.[3]

Operational history

Battle of Klushino, one of the greatest victories of the Commonwealth

At its heyday, the Commonwealth comprised the territories of present-day Poland, and large parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia, and represented a major European power. It was engaged in the struggles along most of its borders, with only the Western border with the lands of the Holy Roman Empire being relatively peaceful. In its first decades, major conflicts included the Livonian campaign of Stephen Báthory, the interventions in Moldavia, the Danzig rebellion, and the War against Sigismund. Early 17th century saw a number of the Polish–Swedish Wars, the Polish–Ottoman Wars, and the Polish–Russian Wars (Dymitriads, the Smolensk War). The Commonwealth also suffered from a number of Cossacks uprisings, culminating in the devastating Chmielnicki Uprising of 1648. That period also saw some of the Commonwealth's most talented military commanders: Stanisław Żółkiewski (1547-1620), Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621), Stanisław Koniecpolski (1593-1646) and Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665).[6] The Commonwealth managed to hold its weight in most of those conflicts, and scored a number of major victories on all fronts, such as the battle of Kircholm, the battle of Klushino, and had briefly garrisoned Moscow. However, the Chmielnicki Uprising, together with the Russo-Polish War and the Swedish Deluge, all taking place around the same period of 1650s, proved devastating for the country, resulting in a loss of most of Ukraine to Russia in the Treaty of Andrusovo in 1667. In 1683 the Commonwealth scored its last major victory that resounded on the European scene, the relief of Vienna by king Jan III Sobieski.[7][8] During the 18th century, European powers (most frequently consisting of Russia, Sweden, Prussia and Saxony) fought several wars for the control of the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, particularly during the Great Northern War. By the end of the 18th century a series of internal conflicts and wars with foreign enemies (the War of the Bar Confederation) led to the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the partitioning of most of its dependent territories among other European powers. The final attempts to preserve independence of the Commonwealth, including the political reforms of the Great Sejm, eventually failed on the military front, with the Commonwealth defeats in the Polish–Russian War of 1792 and the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794, ultimately ending in Poland's final partition and the final dissolution of the remains of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.[9]


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Banner of the Polish–Lithuanian cavalry`s squadron.

By the time of the Commonwealth formation, there was little practical difference between the Polish and Lithuanian components; the Lithuanian component formed about a fourth to a third of the Commonwealth army.[10] The army of the Commonwealth was organized along several different models, with the primary division being that into two 'contingents' or 'enlistments' (or in Polish: autorament): national and foreign.[11][12][13] The name applied to types of formation, regulations and the officer cadres; the majority of regular recruits for both came from within the Commonwealth, particularly from the 1630s onward.[11][12][14] National units included the towarzysz cavalry (including the Polish hussars and lighter pancerni (Polish) and petyhorcy (Lithuanian) units) and some light cavalry units, with infantry being the distant second in reputation; whereas the foreign units were primarily centered around the infantry and artillery formations, with dragoons gaining prominence from the 1620s, and reiter cavalry soon afterward.[11][15][16]

The Polish–Lithuanian national contingent was organized in traditional formations dating back to the earlier medieval times, with chorągiew (banner) unit, commanded by a rotmistrz and composed of smaller poczet (lance) retinues, each composed of one towarzysz and a varying number of aides.[13] The size of a chorągiew could vary from as little as 60 to as many as 300 men.[13] Two or more choragwie (through rarely more than a dozen, and never more than about forty) formed a regiment (pułk) unit, a type of a unit similar to the medieval battle or modern division or corps. Its senior commander was known as pułkownik (colonel).[17] The foreign contingent was organized into regiments, often numbering around 500-1,000, and divided into companies.[2] King Jan III Sobieski made an attempt in the 1670s to replace the national-foreign contingent divisions with a single structure, dividing units into infantry, cavalry and dragoons, but it would take many decades before those reforms bore fruit.[14]

Formations and their evolution

One of the brigades of the Polish–Lithuanian cavalry.

After the creation of the Commonwealth, several new types of military units were introduced. First among these were the registered Cossacks, formed in 1578.[18] These were the troops made up of Cossacks, paid for their service and not subject to serfdom.[11] Their numbers varied from about 500 to many times that number, with the Treaty of Zboriv setting the record at 40,477. The Cossacks' refusal to submit to serfdom, and the Commonwealth's nobility attempts to force them into it led to much political wrangling with regard to the size of the Cossack register, and to numerous Cossack uprisings, particularly in the 17th century. These weakened the state, and eventually led to the Cossack subjugation and destruction by the Russian Empire.[11][18] In addition to the Cossack formations, another group that provided notable service to the Polish state were the Tatars, some of whom resided in Lithuania, and were Commonwealth subjects. Known as Lipka Tatars, they provided some light and medium cavalry units for the Lithuanian army.[19]

In the late 16th century, during the reign of Stefan Batory (1576–1586), a peasant-based levy formation, piechota wybranicka (lit. drafted or selected infantry, also known as piechota łanowa, lit. acreage infantry) was formed.[3][20][21] It was based on peasants from the royal estates only, who received a unit of land (łan) in exchange for their service.[3] The formation numbered about 2,300 and after early disappointments was never seen as of much military value.[3][21] It supplemented the few small units of haiduk infantry, which saw service in Poland primarily around late 16th and 17th centuries.[22] In 1655 a new infantry unit was created, the żołnierz dymowy (or żołnierz łanowy – lit. chimney or łan soldier, named again after the type of tax applied).[20][23] It required all lands, no matter whether owned by king, nobles or the Church, to provide peasant recruits, and applied a similar requirement to towns.[23]

Starting in 1613, the growing inefficiencies of the central government, as well as an increase in foreign threats, led to the creation of a local territorial defense force, known as żołnierz powiatowy (district's soldiers raised by the powiat regions).[3][20] The artillery formations, at first staffed by foreigners, were reformed in the 1630s, with a new tax levied to support them. This time also marked the introduction of the General of the Artillery post into the Commonwealth army.[24] In the mid-17th century, the numbers of wojsko zaciężne and kwarciane proved to be insufficient, which led to the creation of wojsko komputowe (named after komput, a document passed by the Sejm). Wojsko komputowe numbered (in 1649) 26,000. At the same time, wojsko kwarciane was disbanded, and kwarta directed towards the newly created artillery forces.[3] Brzezinski notes that wojsko kwarciane was dissolved in the aftermath of its defeat at the battle of Batoh in 1652.[4] In 1659, in aftermath of a series of wars, the reformed army numbered around 54,000-60,000; it would decline from that point onward, as the country, impoverished from those wars, would not be able to support such a number again.[25]

Another element of the Commonwealth army consisted of various private armies fielded by the most powerful magnates. In time of peace these consisted of usually small regiments of a few hundred men, but at their extreme they could number up to 10,000, including cavalry and artillery.[26][27] In some instances the magnate contribution could surpass that of the main Commonwealth army on the frontlines, although often the magnates preferred to save their troops, as they were not compensated for the state for their contributions.[27] The troops were paid for and equipped by the richest of the noble families, such as the Opaliński, Lubomirski, Potocki, Ossoliński, Zamoyski, Koniecpolski, Sieniawski, Żółkiewski, Sapieha, Chodkiewicz, Pac and Radziwiłł families. This was one of the reasons why the magnates played a major role in Polish politics, and on occasion, allowed them to engage in bloody civil wars (such as the Lithuanian Civil War in 1700) amongst themselves.[26][27]

Similarly, occasional forces of town guard and militia were fielded by some cities. The most impressive town guard and accompanying fortifications belonged to the port of Gdańsk (Danzig), which in 1646 boasted 12 infantry companies of 6,000 men total.[28] There was also a small royal guard regiment, paid for directly by the king.[20] In peace time, the royal guard numbered around 1,200, but would often be expanded during time of war. The royal force included a hussar banner, reiter cavalry element, and an infantry unit, based upon the "foreign" model.[29] Finally, there were also some irregular militia or mercenary troops which received no official pay but operated with the permission of the government and were allowed to retain their loot; most notable of these were the Lisowczycy mercenary group which operated in the first half of the 17th century.[30]

Both the state and the magnates supported the construction and renovations of several fortifications (such as the Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle).[20][26]

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Command structure

The army of the Commonwealth was commanded by king, under who served four hetmans: two Grand Hetmans (the Grand Crown Hetman and Grand Lithuanian Hetman) and two Field Hetmans (the Field Crown Hetman and Field Lithuanian Hetman).[5][13] The office of a hetman appeared in the late 15th century as a consequence of the introduction of the wojsko zaciężne, and a need for a more professional army commanders than the king could usually provide. By 1530s the hetman system has evolved into that of regular offices that would exist both in Poland and Lithuania for the next three centuries. From 1581 it became officially a lifelong appointment.[5] Hetmans had the right to summary justice in the field. Grand Crown Hetman had the right to maintain his representatives in the Ottoman Empire, which allowed him to influence Poland–Ottoman relations and also laid groundwork for the first Polish intelligence services.[5] Hetman deputy was known as regimentarz and could replace a hetman on a temporary basis.[5]


The Commonwealth Navy was small and played a relatively minor role in the history of the Commonwealth. Despite having access to the Baltic Sea, neither Poland nor Lithuania had any significant navy throughout their histories. In the 16th century, as Poland and Lithuania became involved in conflicts in Livonia, Polish king Zygmunt August supported the operations of privateers, but that met with opposition of the Poland's primary port, Gdańsk (Danzig), which saw them as a threat to its trade operations Baltic grain trade. This led to the development of a privateer port in Puck. At the turn of the century, Poland became ruled by the House of Vasa, and was involved in a series of wars with Sweden (see also dominium maris baltici). Vasa kings attempted to create a proper fleet, and Władysław IV Waza built a dedicated port for the royal navy (Władysławowo), but their attempts met with repeated failures, due to lack of funds in the royal treasury (seeing little need for the fleet, Polish nobility refused to raise taxes for its construction, and Gdańsk continued its opposition to the idea of a royal fleet). Although Władysław bought 12 ships, they were sold between 1641 and 1643, marking the end of the Commonwealth Navy.[23]

Logistics and tactics

Due to lack of centralized logistical system, the Polish armies were encumbered by large baggage trains. To some degree, this was turned into an advantage with the development of the tabor – military horse-drawn wagons, usually carrying army supplies. The wagon use for defensive formations was perfected by the Cossacks, and to a smaller extent used by other Commonwealth units.[31]

The Commonwealth army relied on cavalry, which the nobility saw as a much more respectable type of a troop than the infantry.[22][32] The Polish cavalry was seen as an elite unit in Europe, and the fame of Polish hussars has spread, particularly following their victories in the Polish-Swedish wars of the 1600s–1620s.[32] Despite the reforms of the 17th century, it lost much of its military significance in the 18th century; the primary reason for this was a lack of sufficient funding.[22][23]

Problems and reforms

With the growing influence of foreign powers in the Commonwealth, the Russian-dominated Silent Sejm of 1717 declared that the size of the Commonwealth Army should be 24,200 (18,000 from Poland and 6,200 for Lithuania). Due to insufficient taxation, the military was often not paid properly, which led to a relatively small army size; in mid-18th century, the Commonwealth had funds to field an army of around 24,000, whereas the Commonwealth's neighbors' armies were often up to 12 times larger: the Imperial Russian Army numbered 300,000; the Prussian Army and Imperial Austrian Army, 150,000,[23] and a few decades later, the Commonwealth could field an army of about 16,000, with Prussian and Austrian armies rising to 200,000.[33] The stated size of the Commonwealth army was further exaggerated, as some money was lost due to corruption. The first half of the 18th century, following the 1717 Sejm, marks the nadir of the Commonwealth army, as it lacked funds and training, and was primarily used for ceremonial purposes.[23] The only constructive reform of that time was the introduction of a stable (if grossly insufficient) budget for the military.[23] Furthermore, the unpaid units of the army were known for mutinying and forming confederations, occupying the Commonwealth's own lands until such a time that they were paid properly or pillaged enough to satisfy themselves.[1][11][22]

The trend reversed itself following the election of the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, in 1765 and the introduction of the new governing body, Permanent Council, in 1775. Its Military Department attempted to modernize the army, and increase its size (although even the target number of 30,000 was never achieved).[34] A major military reform came with the passing of the Constitution of May 3, 1791, which stated that the Army was to be built up to 100,000 men.[35] (The exact number would be settled on only on 22 May 1792, at 25,654 cavalry and 72,910 infantry).[36] A new conscription law was introduced, affecting all lands (royal, noble and Church-owned). With the days of the Commonwealth numbered, the Constitution was never fully implemented in practice, although the new Military Commission saw the Army expanded to 65,000 before the Polish defeat in the War in Defense of the Constitution.[35] After the Commonwealth defeat in that war and the rescinding of the Constitution, the Army was reduced to about 36,000. In 1794 Russians demanded a further downsizing of the army to 15,000. This plan was one of the sparks that led to the Army's (and Commonwealth's) final conflict, the Kościuszko Uprising.[37]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Bardach et al. (1987), p. 229.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Brzezinski (1988), p. 6.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Bardach et al. (1987), pp. 229–230.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Brzezinski (1987), p. 10.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Bardach et al. (1987), pp. 227–228.
  6. Davies (2005a), p.336
  7. Brzezinski (1987), pp. 8–10.
  8. Davies (2005b), p.11–14.
  9. Davies (2005b), p.14–16.
  10. Brzezinski (1987), p. 22.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Bardach et al. (1987), pp. 230–231.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Brzezinski (1987), p. 4.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Brzezinski (1987), p. 12.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Brzezinski (1988), p. 7.
  15. Brzezinski (1987), p. 17.
  16. Brzezinski (1988), pp. 7–9.
  17. Brzezinski (1987), p. 13.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Brzezinski (1988), pp. 18–19.
  19. Brzezinski (1988), p. 16.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 Brzezinski (1987), p. 11.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Brzezinski (1987), pp. 21–22.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Brzezinski (1987), pp. 20–21.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 23.6 Bardach et al. (1987), p. 231.
  24. Brzezinski (1988), p. 9.
  25. Podhorodecki (1998), p. 193
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Bardach et al. (1987), pp. 231–232.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Brzezinski (1988), pp. 12–13.
  28. Brzezinski (1988), pp. 13–14.
  29. Brzezinski (1988), pp. 10–12.
  30. Brzezinski (1987), pp. 11–12.
  31. Brzezinski (1988), pp. 19–20.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Brzezinski (1988), pp. 20–21.
  33. Bauer (1991), p. 9.
  34. Bardach et al. (1987), p 299.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Bardach et al. (1987), p. 317.
  36. Jadwiga Nadzieja (1988). Od Jakobina do księcia namiestnika. Wydawnictwo "Śląsk". p. 34. ISBN 978-83-216-0682-8. 
  37. Jadwiga Nadzieja (1988). Od Jakobina do księcia namiestnika. Wydawnictwo "Śląsk". p. 55. ISBN 978-83-216-0682-8. 


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