By Radosław Sikora
Translated by Rick Orli
©2002 radeslaw sikora, english text ©2005 richard j. orliPolish Version at: http://www.jest.art.pl/zoltewody.html
Battle of Yellow Waters (Żółte Wody),
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Unfortunately, the sons
of one fatherland, which they had always jointly defended, now turned their arms
against each other.
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.
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.
. Fighting was to last 3 weeks.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Hoffman do good? My take is, that his intentions were the best (because
I guess nobody in
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
"Historia Ukrainy do końca XVIII wieku" Natalia Jakowenko
Battle of Kircholm, 1605
Battle of Berest, 1653
Battle of Warsaw, 1656
How the Hussars Fought - Tactics
of the nobles, unlike the men in private units
or those of the Province ( Voivode) units or in regular "computovny"
units in service to the Crown.