Yellow Waters 1648

By Radosław Sikora

Translated by Rick Orli

©2002 radeslaw sikora, english text ©2005 richard j. orli

Polish Version at:


Battle of Yellow Waters (Żółte Wody), 1648

Including a Correction of the Common Misconception of the Role of the famous ‘Winged Hussars’ in that Famous Battle

Jerzy Hoffman’s movie " Fire and Sword " ("Ogniem i Mieczem" ) created a negative image of the famous hussars of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Unfortunately the film has had an enormous influence on common perception of the effectiveness of this elite cavalry. The director liberally interpreted historical facts; for example, he shows the hussars being defeated by mud at Yellow Waters.

I must explain that what Hoffman presented in his film has nothing in common with the true history. That can be understood to be natural enough because he (and the screenwriter) presented in 3 minutes a battle which lasted almost 3 weeks.  The presentation unfortunately missed the actual reasons for defeat, while showing the hussars in an entirely false light. After his brief depiction of the battle of Yellow Waters he went on to present a better picture of what actually occurred in the days in the civil war in the Ukraine.

Hoffman had obvious time constraints and other limitations, but that did not require presenting an essentially false vision of the battle. 

Translators note: 

The context of the battle is that the Cossacks were in rebellion.  As hinted below, the Cossacks, associated today with Russian Cavalry, were famous then as fine infantry. A certain small percentage of the best fighters were 'registered' as paid professional soldiers - the fact that such position were few caused both unemployment and resentment. Increased control by the regional (Voiviode) and Central government sparked more resentment and eventually Civil War.


Before the Battle

After gathering the Zapororasian Cossack and Tatar armies, Chmielnicki moved to the Sicz in late April 1648 (probable date 22 April). He led about 8,000 soldiers (supported by 3,000-4,000 Tatar allies).   About that time (21 April) the Polish armies also moved against Chmielnicki. The Poles were divided among three divisions or groups.

 1. Hetman Nicholas Potocki’s force had a strength of about 5,000 men, and remained to the rear. His immediate task was to accumulate mobilized forces as they arrived (‘private’ forces (raised by various magnates and nobles), that the hetman had requested).

2. Three thousand under the leadership of the Hetmań’s son - Stefan Potocki – a young man of 24.  This force consisted of 11 banners of cavalry (totaling about 1150 soldiers), and 2 banners of dragoons (200  soldiers), one company infantry in western-style kit, so-called ‘foreign autoraiment’ (140 men) and 1,500 registered Cossacks. This is the army that would, alone, fight for the Commonwealth at Yellow Water.

Here let me underline one fundamental thing. In the whole Polish army which fought at Yellow Water, only 1 banner is of  hussars (that is, about 120-150 men), so hardly 5 % of the army of the young Potocki. We can read in further action, that this hussar banner acquitted itself superbly.

3. The third group consisted of 4000 registered Cossacks, which marched against Chmielnicki. There was also a small unit of German dragoons. However, In contrast to Stefan Potocki’s group (which moved by land), the force followed the Dniepr River to their destination (Kamienny Zaton).  The Colonel who commanded this group ( Stanisław Michał Krzyczewski) was a friend of  Chmielnicki and assisted his escape to the Sicz in 1647.

It may be worth a brief digression to explain what is meant by “registered Cossack”, which constituted 3/4 of the forces the Poles sent against Chmielnicki ‘s Zaporasian Cossacks.  Registered Cossacks are defined as those in formal service as soldiers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth professional army.   The soldiers were subordinate only to their own commanders, the Polish Hetman, and the King. This was a group of professional soldiers, free men, independent*  from the local Polish and Ruthen nobility. By serving the State, the individual gained the status and rights of a military man, with substantial freedom and prestige – more so than peasants, which most Cossacks nominally were (from 1638). Therefore Cossacks eagerly " pushed through doors and windows" (as the saying goes), to fight as enrolled members of the registered Cossacks during the  time of the Chmielnicki uprising (and earlier).  The Cossack was, in the Ukraine particularly, a valuable military resource; including those who were simply allowed the right to bear arms and defend the frontier as militia, as well as those who were ‘registered’. They were excellent infantry, acquainted perfectly with the terrain; tough and brave. Not without reason does the term ‘Cossack’ today denote a characteristic of determined courageousness, bravado even to the point of recklessness. 

Many Cossacks preferred a life on the sea. Their  rapacious expeditions to the Turkish coast of the Black Sea was on one hand a cause of their growing fame, and on the other a reason  for constant friction in Polish-Turkish relations (the restrictions the Commonwealth imposed on the Cossacks raiding  in the prior year created some of the dissatisfaction that led to the Chmielnicki rebellion).

Cossacks had been used mainly to fight the Tatars. As they perfectly knew the ground and had a personal interest in fighting them (many Cossacks lost families in times of Tatar invasions ), in that function they acquitted themselves superbly. Cossack as an integral part of Polish armies in numerous other actions, wars with Moscovy, and the Turks.  There was even a plan for using a Cossack fleet on the Baltic, to fight the Swedish fleet. The Cossacks did their job so well, that the Poles focused on their superb cavalry to complement the numerous and excellent Cossack infantry. Unfortunately, the sons of one fatherland, which they had always jointly defended, now turned their arms against each other.

The Campaign

Let us proceed to the events leading to the battle of Yellow Waters. The Polish army’s disposition was the first and root cause of its eventual defeat. Stefan Potocki’s force maintained a very fast pace at the march (200 km in the week), soon losing contact with the group following the Dniepr. In  that time this group led by Krzyczewski reached Kamienny Zaton and stopped. Events then occurred which can not be explained. Krzyczewski joined a small but elite unit (a few hundred strong) and set against a small fort at Tomakówka, built by Chmielnicki. The distance to Tomakówka totalled about 130km. It would be strange if the commander of an expedition abandoned his army under such circumstances and traveled such a great distance to gain a little fortress, which seemed to have little strategic value. It is very strange that he encountered neither on the way there nor back any hostile armies, which operated in that district. It is suspected that Krzyczewski planned a meeting with Chmielnicki, who Krzyczewski long ago freed. However it appears that the principles at least did not meet,  because on 29 April 1648 the armies Chmielnicki’s and Stefan Potocki’s forces made contact. The place was a small river or large stream called Yellow Waters, about 60km from Kamienic Zaton.

The Battle

Young Potocki faced an overwhelming enemy force (3,000 against 8,000) and entrenched himself in a fortified camp and sent a message to his father describing the situation. Fighting began  against a strong enemy that quickly grew stronger. Fighting was to last 3 weeks.

Hetman Potocki moved his army after hearing from his son on May 3.  The distance between them caused considerable delay in communications, which also contributed to the inability of the Hetman to help in time. Chmielnicki, after reaching Yellow Waters, left the majority of the army to face young Potocki ‘s force, and led the rest toward Krzyczewski at Kamienic Zaton.  The first betrayal of registered Cossacks occurred at around may 4. After a short standoff, Krzyczewski’s force joined Chmielnicki’s rebellion, killing all in their ranks who opposed.  They also massacred the unit of German dragoons, who remained faithful to the Commonwealth.

Thus Chmielnicki’s strength rose by almost 4000 soldiers. Because of the treason they themselves admitted, the deserters seemed to have lost their chance to future settlement with the Commonwealth, and so became even more determined.  Chmielnicki returned with his new army to Yellow Waters. This example had an effect. Soon, other registered Cossacks within Stefan Potocki’s force crossed over to Chmielnicki’s side, strengthening him with a further 1,500 soldiers

Chmielniki now had about 15,000 men (5,500 registered Cossacks added to his 8000 original force)  and also many Cossacks and peasants who were attracted to the rebel banners. Potocki now had fewer than 1,500 soldiers.  Even 200 dragoons raised from the local peasantry deserted before the last phase of the battle.  S.Potocki’s situation now no doubt seemed doomed. He was against an over 10 -fold numerical superiority, and could no longer count on relief from his father after 13 May.  After many days of heroic defense, repeatedly repulsing the powerful attacks of Chmielnicki’s army, he tried a strategy of delay and tried to negotiate conditions for granting safe passage for the army.  Chmielnicki, as a condition of safe passage, required turning over the whole of the artillery into the hands of the Cossacks. It is not certain if this condition was accepted, but negotiations ended soon in fiasco, and Chmielnicki imprisoned the deputies and ended the parley. The last assault against the fortified camp of Polish troops occurred on 15 may. The Poles again held off the attack, but they were already at the end of their strength. So, they tried a desperate action. Late in the evening, while using the cover of darkness, they attempted an attack to penetrate the dense and deep lines of the Cossack army. The attack succeeded, and they broke through the investing force.  Covered by the tabor wagon train, at the quick march they moved toward Krylow a fortified town. Success was short-lived.  On the following day, 16 May, a Tatar force intercepted the Poles on the march (near Kniażne Bajraki) and attacked the tabor wagon train. Though on the verge of physical and psychological exhaustion, they stood the first assault. Succeeding attacks, however, burst though the wall created by the tabor wagon line.  The surviving Poles attempted to flee, and resistance ended.

Stefan Potocki died from his wounds ( 3 days later) and practically the whole Polish army perished.   Nicholas Potocki learned the news about the treason of Krzyczewski on 12 May, and he suspended his march to try to relieve the siege.  He was then about 100km from his son.

The defeat of the  Polish army at Yellow Waters can be traced to the leadership which divided the army into 3 individual groups. This made treason easier, in addition to the traditional weakness.  Despite that the Polish armies fought with great heroism against a far stronger Cossack-tatar army. The Husaria were in particular the backbone of the defense, despite their small numbers

Hoffman had obvious time constraints and other limitations, but that did not require presenting an essentially false vision of the battle.  He seems to be motivated by “political correctness’.   There is no historical record of the hussars drowning in floods of mud, but there is a record of the registered Cossack’s acts of betrayal.  The effect of this distortion is to sully the reputation of not just the hussars, but also the reputation of  the Polish Army and indeed all who fought and sacrificed.    

Translators note: 

It could be considered that Hoffman combined some events from later battles, such as Korsun, into the Yellow Waters segment, but the film rather explicitly identifies the supposed battle.  

I asked Mr Sikora to further explain why this was important.  He replied: "...If there existed today one State, a Commonwealth of both, certainly nobody would mind such things. However,  today there is a Poland and a Ukraine . Both States artificially divide their own history. And if today somebody writes about "Cossacks, which deserted the army of the Crown and joined Chmielnicki", it is a common (if bogus) interpretation among both Poles and Ukrainians that this is the same thing as: ‘Ukrainians which deserted the army of the Poles and joined the Ukrainians”.  Hoffman wanted to avoid artificially highlighting conflicts between the two nations, so instead of Cossacks' treason he showed hussars beaten by excess dirt. He did it in order to not be in the position of Poles casting odium at Ukrainians. The motive is cleanly political. And therefore, as is now fairly well accepted, modern political propriety played a role in presentation of the battles.

Did Hoffman do good? My take is, that his intentions were the best (because I guess nobody in Poland or Ukraine wants to aggravate our mutual relationships, which are today really excellent), only he did it in an unfortunate way. If he did not want to show the treason of the registered Cossacks, he could have glossed over the battle of Yellow Waters, and he could have filmed just the battle of Korsun where he had nothing to hide (and which came to much the same end). The Film would be thereby better because it would at least conform with historical facts."

The power of the movie to set the agenda can be seen from the observation that there is now an English version of the story of Yellow Waters on the internet, but not of the battle of Korsun, which was a much larger and in many ways a far more important and decisive battle.  Yellow Waters really represents an attempt at a quick-response Police action that stumbled into a major civil war; without exceptional luck and leadership, the expedition was doomed from the start.  By Korsun, both sides knew the situation. - Rick Orli


Na płonącej Ukrainie" Władysław Andrzej Serczyk
"Historia Ukrainy do końca XVIII wieku" Natalia Jakowenko

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How the Hussars Fought - Tactics

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Independent of the nobles, unlike the men in private units or those of the Province ( Voivode) units or in regular "computovnyunits in service to the Crown.