The Origins of Hussar Cavalry

The term Hussar is most commonly known as the name of a certain type of light cavalry used primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it is also used for a few quite different forms of cavalry in completely different periods and regions. I got to questioning where the link between them can be found, and ultimately what the origins of both the word and the people behind it were. I found that Hussars in some form could possibly be traced as far back to the 10th or 11th centuries, but the 15th century being a more certain and defined beginning, and the more modern form going right up until the beginning of World War 1

To trace the origins of the Hussar, it is necessary to go back quite a long way. Even then it is impossible to be sure of the exact roots of this form of cavalry. It is likely that they were derived from elements found in the light horsemen of Eastern Europe and Anatolia. Since the time of the Crusades the Turks had become renowned for the skill of their light horsemen, armed with various light weapons such as the lance, sword and shield, and bow. They would work in co-ordination to harry and harass the enemy, darting in and around them, showering them with arrows shot from the saddle even when riding at speed, and forming and re-forming quickly. They moved constantly, never waiting to be charged. Sometimes they deceive the enemy by retreating to make them believe they had been defeated while really drawing them into a more vulnerable position; over-confident, tired and cut off. Retreating armies would particularly fear these horsemen as they would easily chase and attack them, and constantly bait the European heavy cavalry to chase them fruitlessly.

It is believed that influence was taken from warriors such as these Turks by Eastern European armies in order to combat them with their own versatile light cavalry. Many would go from this point to look at the Hussars of Hungary and then Poland, but those Hussars come some time later and aren’t necessarily directly influenced. The mid point between these is the light cavalry of Medieval Serbia, primarily those serving in the Byzantine Empire.

It is at this point where we can start to see the origins of the word Hussar. However there are a few ways the etymology could be interpreted. One possibility is that the Hungarian term huszár comes from the word for the Serbian light cavalry units named gusar, a word meaning ‘raider’, and later coming to be more associated with pirates than cavalry due to its root being the Latin cursarius, which is also the root for the English word ‘corsair’. Another theory of the term is offered by Byzantine scholars, who say that the term originated in Roman military practice with the cursarii (singular cursarius). 10th century Byzantine military manuals mention chonsarioi, who were light cavalry recruited in the Balkans, commonly being Serbs. However, even the theory of the Serbian word becoming the Hungarian word is disputed. A recent premise is that the word originates from the Hunnic language because the word huszár can be found in Uyghur, which is believed to be Hunnish, and Hungary has earlier roots in Magyar people, related to the Huns.

Whichever way the term came about, it is generally agreed that the origin of the first Hungarian Hussars came from Serbian light cavalry. At the end of the 14th century the Ottoman Empire had conquered Serbia, and there was an Ottoman military frontier with the Hungarian Kingdom. At this time there were a lot of migrating Serbs, and with them came the Serbian cavalry, crossing into southern Hungary to become mercenaries. It was previously believed that these mercenaries simply integrated into Hungarian cavalry entirely, but in reality they seem to have had a much more influential role in the methods employed by the Hungarian armies. Whereas Hungary had traditional light cavalry and mounted archers in its military ancestry, by the 11th century they had already been replaced by a more Western type of heavy cavalry. Since that time they had relied upon ancillary units of other people, initially of the Pechenegs, and then the Cumans, until eventually by this point at the end of the 14th/beginning of the 15th century they had Serbian mercenaries fill the role.

Hussar_on_sabre_scabbard_chape-1.jpg
Earliest known representation of a hussar engraved on a sabre scabbard chape from 1500.

As I said, these mercenaries went on to have a more significant role when compared with those before them. King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1458-90) is credited as the creator of the first Hussars, incorporating the Serbian mercenaries they already had, and presumably filling the ranks with Hungarian troops as time went on. The Hussars were commonly known as Rac, Raci or Racowie, literally meaning ‘Serbians’ at the time (derived from Rascia or Rassia, a name coined for Serbia in the 12th century, derived ultimately from the name of the original centre of the Serbian state, the fortress of Ras). Initially, they fought in small bands, but were reorganised into larger, trained formations during the reign of Corvinus. The first hussar regiments comprised the light cavalry of the Black Army of Hungary. Under Corvinus’ command, the hussars took part in the war against the Ottoman Empire in 1485 and proved successful against Ottoman cavalry as well as against the Bohemians and Poles. After the king’s death, in 1490, hussars remained the preferred form of cavalry in Hungary.

The Habsburg Empire hired Hungarian hussars as mercenaries themselves to serve against the Ottomans and on various battlefields throughout Western Europe. Other countries such as well as Poles and Lithuanians and even The Holy Roman Empire employed hussars around this time.

Polish Hussars were a big part of the history of the hussars, and are possibly the center of the biggest changes in the line of development that hussars went through. The Polish hussars were transformed into heavier cavalry over time. They abandoned wooden shields and adopted plate armour. When Stefan Bathory, a Transylvanian-Hungarian prince, was elected king of Poland in 1576, he reorganised the Polish-Lithuanian hussars of his Royal Guard along Hungarian lines, making them a heavy formation, equipped with a long lance as their main weapon. By the reign of King Stefan Bathory, the hussars had replaced medieval Western style lancers in the Polish–Lithuanian army, and they now formed the bulk of the Polish cavalry. By the 1590s, most Polish–Lithuanian hussar units had been reformed along the same model. Due to Hungarian and Polish hussars being similar at this time, the Polish heavy hussars came with their own style, the Polish winged hussars. The people of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth recognized the winged hussars as husarskie anioły (hussar angels). The heavy hussars of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were still far more maneuverable than the heavily armoured lancers they had previously employed. These hussars proved vital to many Polish victories, significantly the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The Polish Winged Hussars proved to be the decisive factor in many battles, and often against overwhelming odds. Until the 18th century, they were considered some of the most elite cavalry in the world. Now being elite heavy cavalry, adorned in the most expensive armour and comprising mostly of nobles, hussars at this time were now a  long way from the ‘raiders’ they had originated from.

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Example of Polish Winged Hussar armour. The Wings in this configuration are considered to be ceremonial, but they may have worn a single simpler wing on the back into battle.

Hussars outside the Polish Kingdom followed a different line of development, one which would soon become the norm. During the early decades of the 17th century, hussars in Hungary ceased to wear metal body armour; and by 1640, most were light cavalry again. It was hussars of this ‘light’ pattern, rather than the Polish heavy hussar, that were later to be copied across Europe. These light hussars were ideal for reconnaissance and raiding, and in battle they were used in such light cavalry roles as harassing enemy skirmishers, overrunning artillery positions, and pursuing fleeing troops, more in line with the traditional uses of hussars and their roots in the past. They were no longer armed with lances but now were armed with a curved sabre, one or two pistols carried in holsters at the front of the saddle and usually a carbine.

This model of hussar was copied all over the world, and eventually every major country had hussar regiments in their army. Bavaria raised its first hussar regiment in 1688 and a second one in about 1700. Prussia followed suit in 1721 when Frederick the Great used hussar units extensively during the War of the Austrian Succession.France established a number of hussar regiments from 1692 onward, recruiting originally from Hungary and Germany, then subsequently from German-speaking frontier regions within France itself. Russia relied on its native Cossacks to provide irregular light cavalry until 1741 when they formed their own hussars. Sweden had hussars from about 1756 and Denmark introduced them in 1762. Britain converted a number of light dragoon regiments to hussars in 1806–1807.

Hussars played a prominent role in many conflicts around the world, including the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, The Romanian Independence War of 1877, The Argentine Revolution in 1810, and many more up until the early 20th century. On the eve of World War I, there were still hussar regiments in the British (including Canadian), French, Spanish, German, Russian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Romanian and Austro-Hungarian armies. In most respects, they had now become regular light cavalry, recruited solely from their own countries and trained and equipped along the same lines as other classes of cavalry. But Hussars were still notable for their colourful and elaborate parade uniforms.

A defining feature of Hussars from around 1700 onwards was their distinctive appearance. Their colourful uniforms were inspired by the prevailing Hungarian fashions of the day. The main features of this uniform were the dolman, a short jacket with heavy horizontal gold braid on the breast and sleeves, and a matching pelisse which was a second over- jacket worn with one sleeve on and the other slung over the shoulder. European hussars traditionally wore long moustaches (but no beards) and long hair. the British hussars were the only moustachioed troops in the British Army, leading to them being taunted as being ‘foreigners’ at times.

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Example of an 18th century hussar uniform.

Hussars had a reputation for being the dashing, if unruly, adventurers of the army. The traditional image of the hussar is of a reckless, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, womanising, moustachioed swashbuckler. General Lasalle, a typical showoff hussar officer, epitomized this attitude, the most famous quote of his is: “Any hussar who is not dead by the age of thirty is a blackguard.” He died at the Battle of Wagram at the age of 34. Less romantically, 18th century hussars were also known (and feared) for their poor treatment of local civilians. In addition to commandeering local food stocks for the army, hussars were known to also use the opportunity for personal looting and pillaging, unwittingly living up to the name of their origins.

After horse cavalry became obsolete, hussar units were generally converted to armoured units, though retaining their traditional titles. Hussar regiments still exist today and horses are sometimes used for ceremonial purposes.

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4 thoughts on “The Origins of Hussar Cavalry

  1. My Father, b.1869 , Derbyshire, England, was a member of 13th Hussars for 11 years. He served with them in South Africa, presumably against the Boers. Your article is fascinating, and explains so many things I never knew about my Father, particularly his being almost fanatical about dress and appearance and his great expertise with horses (and later also camels in WW One). He went to live in Australia and his riding and shooting skills were later employed as a musterer gunner in World War One, in which he was wounded numerous times and bore the scars. He was invalided out of the Australian Army in 1918. He had put his age back by 4 years to enlist. Musterer gunners had to be light in weight and had to drive a horse-drawn vehicle and also shoot. His name was John Graham and he had a brother named Horace Shapland Graham, last heard of at Sidcup, Kent, early 1900s. Maybe Horace was a Hussar, too.

    1. Eunice thank you so much for the comment that is such a wonderful story thanks a lot for sharing it with us. Sounds like your father had a very interesting life experience. If you find any more info we would love to hear about it because the more local histories is something we cannot always access, but they are so valuable to understand the whole picture!

      Thanks a lot again and happy new year!

      1. Thank you, Lillian. I am now in touch with a historical society in Kent re my Father’s family, particularly brother, Horace Shapland Graham. Your interest gives me heart to investigate further. Eunice

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