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Useful Notes: Poles with Poleaxes

For your freedom and ours.
Joachim Lelewel, referring to Polish armies in exile.

The Wojsko Polskie, military of Poland.

Historically, the geography and politics of Eastern Europe resulted in ways of warfare much different than in the West. In the earliest era of Polish history, the core of the military force consisted of the ruler's personal retainers, aided by footman levies, but over the course of several centuries this model was replaced by more typical feudal military. For some time, the Polish military didn't differ by much from their Western counterparts, but as Poland's attention turned eastward, so did change the ways of waging war. Most notable among Polish military quirks is the peculiar brand of Hussars, which traded being light cavalry for wings strapped to the back. From the late medieval to The Partitions Polish army was composed predominantly of cavalry that was usually formed of nobles and their retainers (and thus resembling medieval army model which became obsolete in Europe somewhere around mid-17th century). The noble cavalry wasn't the only tool of a Commonwealth general — due to the diversity of fighting styles preferred by its enemies, there was a need for variety, and his host could include commoner infantry, all manner of Western-style mercenaries, and Tatar or Cossack auxiliaries, and little known as it is, Poland had its artillery developed very well. Still, the general model resulted in very well-trained but unruly and poorly organized forces.

The loss of independence in the late XVIII Century (between 1795 and 1918 Poland was divided between Russia, Prussia/Germany and Austria/Austro-Hungarian Empire) didn't exactly turn Poles into pacifists, either. This period saw the infatuation with Sinister Scythe in several uprisings, and Poles (and with them, once more, the Polish cavalry which shone on many battlefields of the time) were amongst the most loyal allies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Poles also served across the world as exiles; Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko being two notable examples, serving in the Continental Army of the infant United States during The American Revolution. Pulaski is commemorated as "the father of American cavalry". Polish officers also served in the Austrian and Russian armies during the period of occupation.

After regaining independence in 1918, Polish Army faced the task to integrate organization, tactics and equipment from the three different armies. This proved quite a task, but after several years their army was well unified and organized, and it was more than able to resist a Bolshevik invasion - Stalin and Trotsky were humiliated in a Curb-Stomp Battle outside Warsaw in 1921. Contrary to popular belief, Polish pre-war army was not obsolete (on the contrary, it quickly adapted most modern technologies) but was underfunded and military industry was no match for the industry of other countries. Even then, Poland held out for nearly as long as France did. The whole "charging at tanks" story is Nazi propaganda - what actually happened was the tanks charged at the cavalry, after ambushing them before they got a chance to dismount and engage them with anti-tank rifles. While the Poles still used horses in war (as did the Germans), and still had mounted cavalry, the horses were, at best, used as a fast and cheap method of transport for squads who would then dismount and fight on foot. Mounted recon troops were also common. Indeed, horse mounted Polish troops scored some notable successes in Poland and abroad.

The Polish military were "The First to Fight" in World War IInote , playing a major role in the Battle of Britain and having their own version of La Résistance (counting as much as a million people, several hundred thousands at once at its peak and maintained a whole functioning government, complete with postal and tax services, in form of the Polish Underground State, functioning in secrecy right under the noses of the occupying Germans). The Polish state maintained the overall largest partisan movement in history, in fact (Tito's Balkan resistance was larger in absolute numbers past ~1943, though it didn't have the state infrastructure as developed). They also gave a great deal of Intelligence support having some of the best field agents in Europe, and cryptographers who were Good with Numbers (they actually broke the merchant version of the Enigma code and thus greatly contributed to the joint effort of breaking the military one). It is worth noting that a large part of the Polish La Résistance consisted of soldiers and officers (many of them veterans of the First World War) who decided not to surrender and continued to fight as partisans. Polish troops that had successfully withdrawn from occupied territory were later formed into many units fighting along the Allies, usually British. Among the best known are the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade (Market-Garden), 303 Squadron (the highest-scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain), the Polish Independent Highland Brigade (Narvik Campaign), the Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade (Siege of Tobruk), the 1st Armored Division (Falaise pocket) and the Polish II Corps (Italian Campaign). During WWII Poland lost nearly 17% of its pre-war population during the war and subsequent occupations (the second-highest casualty rate of WWII), and held out against the simultaneous invasions of Russia and Germany longer than France would in 1940.

During the communism years, the Soviet way of doing things was imposed on Warsaw Pact member Poland. Since the end of communism, Poland is now moving to NATO standards. It has just abolished conscription and is moving towards a post-modern volunteer force.

The Polish military still uses a lot of Soviet-built equipment (like MiG-29 and Su-22 planes, Mi-24 helicopters, BWP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, 2S1 howitzers, Kilo-class submarine and small arms) but is rapidly acquiring American and Eastern Europe stuff (like F-16 fighters, Kobben-class submarines, Leopard 2A4 tanks, C-130 Hercules transports, Spike ATG Ms), modernize its current equipment (for example PT-91 Twardy tanks and WR-40 Langusta MLRS which are upgrades of T-72 and BM-21) and have, builds and designs its own stuff (like W-3 Sokół and SW-4 Puszczyk helicopters, PZL-130 Orlik trainer aircrafts, light vehicles, trucks, artillery, assault and sniper rifles and more). In past, few years ago, Poland agreed to host part of the U.S. missile shield (a move that has angered Russia) but it ultimately ended with a failure. With the current situation in Ukraine, there is a possibility of resumption of talks on this topic.

Poland made quite a fuss over the Bush administration's idea of an anti-missile shield. The Polish reasoning was that American forces on Polish soil would ensure that the Americans would be more likely to move in case anybody threatens Poland (similar to how American forces stationed in South Korea would be forced to respond to a North Korean attack). Seeing what happened to Poland throughout the 20th century, it's at least understandable.

Since its entry to NATO in 1999, the Polish Army participated in numerous peacekeeping, humanitarian, police, training and observational missions in Europe, Afraica and Asia, especially in Iraq (where the Polish elite commando unit, GROM, did a nice job at securing Iraqi oil rigs early during the war) and still serve in Afghanistan in the province of Ghazni.

The Cub Scout salute originates from the Polish one.

Some minor facts:

  • In case you're curious: Poles weren't exactly known for their use of poleaxes ("Poles with polearms" would be more appropriate title), but they had their share of them. They were used mostly by the commoner infantry, often Russian-style as support for their muskets.
  • The "Charging Tanks on Horseback" thing has a true core; there actually was a little skirmish in which Polish Lancers charged German recon infantrymen before being dispersed by armoured cars (not tanks). Not only was this skirmish a "success" in a way (it achieved what it should - delaying the German advance), but also was the legend of tank-charging cavalry invented by Polish propagandists, of all people - to raise the own population's morale. Also, there were anti-tank cavalry units, usually used to ambush the armored vehicles in rough terrain, where horses provided better mobility (the cavalry men used anti-tank rifles while dismounted, of course).
  • The winged hussars are commonly depicted with two huge wings on their backs, curving above their heads. In reality, the little actual evidence that survived all the wars suggests that they had a single straight wing, presumably mounted on the saddle. The common image most likely comes from the later times, when hussars were no longer used on the battlefield, and with the hamtastic culture of the time (and Nostalgia Filter), they devolved into a parade unit. Still, the leopard skins were a real thing, but surprisingly - they were typical for regular hussars; officers wore wolf pelts instead.

Poland's military in fiction:

  • Whenever someone has to charge tanks on horseback.
    • Andrzej Wajda's 1959 film Lotna helped to reinforce this image, even though the scene was meant to be symbolic.
  • Winged hussars tend to appear in period pieces and similar stories, perhaps at least in part due to their general badassitude and eye-candyness.
  • Polish airmen appear in Battle of Britain. Lots of them.
  • UN peacekeeper with Polish distinctions is seen for a second or two in action flick Peacemaker.
  • They appear in A Bridge Too Far aiding the main protagonists. Watch to witness Gene Hackman speaking Polish. Hackman plays General Sosabowski, the commander of a Polish paratroop brigade, who is depicted as the Only Sane Man in Allied staff.
    • His whole text in Polish is "Ciągnij sznur!" - "Pull the rope". Very, very badly accented and pronounced, to the point where it's a running gag in Poland.
  • And they get a whole campaign in Call of Duty 3.
  • The hero of The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was a Polish military cartographer turned spy.
  • The Polish lancers of Napoleon's Imperial Guard can be seen in Sergey Bondarchuk's movie Waterloo out of all proportion to their actual numbers and importance in the 1815 campaign (the countercharge against the British dragoons charge that broke the Scots Greys was actually done by French line lancers). Still, they were a badass elite unit, especially famous for their death-or-glory charge at Somosierra in 1808.
  • A new war with Sweden (Gustavus Adolphus tried to invade Poland once before, in the 1620's) features heavily in the 1635 volumes of the 1632 series. Notably the Polish army is the only major military power in the series able to effectively fight off the Swedish king and his American allies (albeit aided by the weather).
  • Leo Frankowski's Cross-Time Engineer saga features a Polish Air Force officer from 1990 transported back through time to the 13th Century, where he decides that it's time for backwards Poland to conquer the world.
  • Introduction to GearKrieg game features Polish cavalry fighting invading Germans in September 1939 while playing with charging tanks with lances fallacy.
  • The LWP is a playable Warsaw Pact country in both Wargame: European Escalation and AirLand Battle.
  • The Polish are one of the factions in Mount & Blade's expansion Of Fire and Sword, with the winged hussars themselves being the best heavy cavalry in the entire game. We're talking about guys who can get shot in the face with a flintlock musket without stopping their charge.
  • Sabaton have become rather popular in Poland after producing a few songs about their armed forces:
    • 40:1, which is about the heroic resistance put up by the Polish forces against the German invasion in 1939.
    • Aces In Exile, which specifically mentions the 303rd Squadron, a Polish squadron that fought in the Battle of Britain.
    • Uprising, which is about the Warsaw Uprising.
  • The Kislevite Winged Lancers of the Warhammer world are a fantasy counterpart to the Polish Winged Lancers of the later Middle Ages, complete with the feathered wings on their saddles..
  • Now that Poland is a playable faction in the PC expansion Civilization V Brave New World, Poland's special unit is the Winged Hussar.

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alternative title(s): Poles With Poleaxes
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