Battle of Kirchholm 1605

The Battle of Kircholm, one of the major battles in the Polish-Swedish War, was fought on September 27, 1605, (or the 17th according to the Old calendar then in use in Protestant countries). The hussars launched a devastating charge against the enemy which ended the battle in the decisive victory of the Polish-Lithuanian forces. It is remembered and celebrated to this day as one of the greatest triumphs of the Polish Hussars.. The battle was decided in all of 20 minutes!

On the eve of battle Swedish forces and that of the Commonwealth assembled near the town of Kircholm (which is about 18km SE of current day Riga, Latvia). The Swedish forces under the command of Charles IX numbered 10,800 men and 11 cannons, and were reinforced by several thousand German and Dutch mercenaries, as well as a few hundred Scots, greatly outnumbering the Commonwealth forces.

The Polish-Lithuanian army, led by the Great Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, consisted approximately of 1,300 infantry, that is, 1,040 pikemen and 260 musketeers, in addition to 2,600 cavalry, and only 5 cannons. Incidentally, the Polish Crown refused to finance its army, the funds having been obtained from the personal fortune of Chodkiewicz.

Even with numerical superiority the Swedes were at a severe disadvantage. Their troops were less well-trained (though armed with pistols and carbines), had a poorer breed of horses, and were tired after having marched throughout the night in torrential rains.  Other the other hand, the Polish-Lithuanian forces were well-rested, confident that their cavalry was superbly trained and were heavily armed with lances.  Most came from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and about 200 from the Polish Crown, the remainder of which were either mercenaries or close personal allies of Chodkiewicz.  Among these forces were also a small number of Tatars and Polish-Lithuanian cossack horses used mostly for reconnaissance.

The Swedish soldiers were deployed in a checkboard formation in which infantry assembled into 7 or 8 widely spaced blocks, with intersecting fields of fire while the flanks were covered by Swedish and German cavalry, and cannons positioned ahead of the cavalry. In contrast, the Polish-Lithuanian forces were deployed in the traditional format: the left wing, commanded by Dabrowa, was significantly stronger, while the right wing under the leadership of Pawel Jan Sapieha consisted of a smaller number of Hussars while at the centre were 300 Hussars led by Chodkiewicz, as well as a powerful formation of reiters dispatched by the Duke of Courland. 

Despite the 1:3 disadvantage of Chodkiewicz forces, he used a feint to lure the Swedish forces from their high position. Thinking that the Commonwealth forces were retreating, the Swedish army was ordered to attack and began to give chase, spreading out their formations as they advanced. This is precisely what Chodkiewicz had planned and at the precise moment, the Commonwealth infantry launched a full-blown attack on the approaching enemy. At this point the Hussars assumed battle formations and charged on the Swedish left flank. At the same time about 300 Polish-Lithuanian Hussars charged the Swedish infantry in the centre  to prevent them from interfering with their cavalry action on both of their flanks. Chodkiewicz then ordered his left wing and all reserves to attack the opposing right flank of the enemy.

The Swedish reiters were driven back on both wings and the infantry in the centre was attacked from three sides simultaneously. The Swedish forces turned and ran off in a panic, their whole army having collapsed. It was at this point that the Swedes had suffered their heaviest casualties. Defeat was devastating and complete. Swedish forces had lost more than half, and perhaps as much as two-thirds of their men. Their largest number of losses occurred while retreating in the dense forests and marshes: 8,000 dead or wounded, and 500 captured. The Poles and Lithuanians were fierce warriors and spared few opponents. Commonwealth losses were only about 100 dead and 200 wounded, though the Hussars had lost many of their trained battle horses. That they suffered fewer casualties was largely due to the incredible speed of their victories, not to mention that their horses had also been a shield and protection to the riders.

The Swedish king henceforth abandoned the siege of Riga, relinquished his control of northern Latvia and Estonia, made a complete withdrawal and sailed back to Sweden across the Baltic Sea.  Irregardless, the Commonwealth was not capable of exploiting their victory to the fullest owing to the limited financial resources at hand. There was not enough money for military supplies, and for incidentals such as food and fodder for their horses, nor to replace the many horses killed in battle. As a result their military campaign faltered.  In 1611 a truce was signed, but by 1617 war broke out again and four years later Gustavus Adolphus, the new Swedish king, succeeded in retaking the city of Riga after a brief siege.

First Polish-Swedish War for Livonia, (1600–1611)

Long an area of contention among Sweden, Poland, and Russia, the Baltic became the locus of fighting yet again when Sweden invaded and occupied most of Estonia and Livonia in 1600. They were halted by the Poles at the fortress city of Riga, where Herman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621) launched a counterattack, driving the Swedes out of most of Livonia with victories at Dorpat (Tartu) and Revel (Tallinn), but failing to secure complete control over the disputed region.

Then, in 1604, Charles IX (1550-1611), the newly declared and ambitious Swedish king, landed a fresh army of 14,000 in Estonia and marched on Riga to try his fortunes against Chodkiewicz. The two armies met at the battle of Kirchholm, where the Poles mustered only some 3,500 men-although 2,500 of them were horsemen in Poland’s heavy cavalry, hailed as the best in Europe. They mounted a savage, reckless charge that swept the Swedes from the field and themselves forever into Polish history. They not only won the battle, they came very close to capturing Sweden’s warrior king himself, and Polish chroniclers would soon be claiming that the bodies of some 9,000 Swedish soldiers littered the abandoned battlefield. Afterward, the war fizzled, and continued only in sporadic fighting until ended by truce in 1611.

Polish-Lithuanian Forces

Polish-Lithuanian Constitutional development ground to a halt. The extreme libertarian position of the nobility was not redressed. The great Rokosz of 1606-9 ended in a stalemate. The King could do nothing to enlarge his powers. The problem of the succession was not resolved. Although Zamoyski failed to limit the succession to certain named candidates, so, too, did all subsequent attempts to arrange it vivente rege. The elections of 1632 and 1648 were unmemorable. The great officers of state were awarded lifelong tenure. Finance remained firmly in the purview of the nobility.

Some changes were made in military organization. Although the traditional use of massed cavalry brought some success, particularly at Kirchholm in 1605 and at Klushino in 1610, the prestige of the Swedish example led to important modifications designed to increase the army’s firepower. In 1618, the kwarta tax was doubled in order to support improved gunnery, which in 1637 was organized in a separate Corps of Artillery with its own General. The army was divided into two separate formations. One, the so-called ‘National Contingent’, included regiments of Hussars, Cossacks, and Tartars, and was drawn from private retinues and from the noble ‘comrades-in-arms’. The other, the Foreign Contingent, included the regiments of infantry, dragoons, and rajtars, and was freely recruited ‘by the drum’, that is, by colonels who paid and equipped the men themselves. The over-all size of the infantry was much increased, the traditional ‘Hungarian-style’ regiments armed with muskets and halberds being supplemented with new and larger ‘German’ regiments of musketeers and pikemen. In peacetime, the standing army made up of the Royal Guard, the Registered Cossacks, and the Kwarciane numbered some 12,000 men. In wartime, it could be quadrupled without difficulty. Much work was done on fortresses especially at Zamosc in the Italian style, at Danzig, Brody, and Wisnicz in the Dutch style, and at Kudak on the Dnieper by the French engineer, Beauplan. A school of theoretical writing flourished, associated with the names dell’Aqua, Freytag, and Siemienowicz. In Stanistaw Zolkiewski (1547-1620), Crown-Hetman from 1613, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621), Lithuanian Hetman from 1605, and Stanislaw Koniecpolski (1593-1646), Field Hetman of the Crown from 1618 and Grand Hetman from 1632, and Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665), the Republic saw its most brilliant generation of field commanders. The Royal Fleet, never of much significance, was liquidated in 1641.

Further reading: Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); O. Halecki (with additional material by A. Polonsky and Thaddeus V. Grommada), A History of Poland, new ed. (New York: Dorset Press, 1992); W. F. Reddaway, et al., eds., The Cambridge History of Poland, 2 vols. (reprint, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971).