top of page

Men of Forlorn Hope

Updated: Mar 21

Rembrandt - De Poolse ruiter, c.1655

The Lisowczyks - were a formation of Polish light cavalry with the character of a mercenary army living off loot. Formed in 1607 as a confederation of soldiers under the command of Aleksander Józef Lisowski. His name is the origin of the name of the whole formation, which continued to exist after Lisowski's death. The troops served the Commonwealth but received no pay, subsisting solely on loot. They raided enemy towns and villages and brutally looted, destroyed or burned them. Showing no mercy to churches and monasteries. Their atrocities on the population inspired fear and hatred. In the Czech, long after the dissolution of the formation, mothers frightened their children with Lisowszczyks, portraying them as the worst evil ever to walk the earth. The end of the existence of Lisowczyks is rather difficult to determine, for they gradually faded away and from the mid-20s of the XVII century, they lost their distinctiveness.

In terms of organisation, the Lisowczyks were formed alike the Polish cavalry of the period. They constituted banners of between 100 and 400 soldiers. The banners comprised comrades (bannisters) and soldiers (privates). Additional banners were established by the loose assembly of servants who, despite their status from time to time took part in battles. However, the Lisowczyks, unlike the Polish cavalry, elected their own commanders - the colonels.

They were the quickest fighting force in Europe, next to the Tartars. In a daytime, they could travel up to 160 kilometres, a distance four times greater than the fastest troops of their era.

Their primary task was to insure the march of armies. They were also to carry out raids and ravage the enemy's territory, terrorising its population. The Lisowszczyks would disrupt the enemy's communication and logistical lines. They were to constantly harass enemy forces and give them no respite. They would seize food from the enemy. They also carried out intelligence activities - observing the enemy's movements, and taking prisoners to gain information about the enemy.

The banners of the Lisowszczyks were organised for the duration of a specific expedition, usually for several months. They fought in Russia, Austria (as soldiers of the Emperor), Poland, Germany and France, among others. They specialised in long-distance raids - as far as the White Sea - and rapid strikes, for which the Lisowszczyks were well prepared, as a highly mobile army.

Alexander Lisowski trained as a soldier at the end of the 16th century in the service of the Moldavian Hospodar Mikhail Valiant, where he learned the Tartar warfare art, guerrilla warfare and quick, unexpected forays into enemy territory.

In 1607, he made an offer of military service to the self-proclaimed Tsar Dmitry (known in history as False Dmitry I). He started it by forming a detachment of the Don Cossacks and fighting at their head. He defeated the troops of Tsar Vasili IV Shuisky and captured Kolomna. The fame of the invincible Lisowskis spread rapidly.

However, in 1608, Lisovsky suffered a defeat at Niedźwiedzi Brod and withdrew to the Tsar's self-proclaimed camp in Tushin. His next assignment from Dmitry was to seize the Troitsk-Sergiev monastery. However, the siege dragged on, so Lisowski brutally plundered the Suzdal and Vladimir territories, as well as Povolzhye.

When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth entered the war against Russia in 1609, the Lisowszczyks left the service of Dmitry and returned to the country. Lisowski, however, was outlawed. While it was in force, he pillaged the Russian borderland. He ravaged until 1611 when Polish King Sigismund III removed the imposed banishment and appointed him to serve in the army.

Hetman Jan Chodkiewicz accepted Lisowski into the army but announced that he would receive no pay. He was, however, allowed to loot the enemy's country. So Lisowski was in his element.

Lisowski recruited men to serve under his orders who were willing to fight sacrificially, but at the price of decent loot. They were to burn villages in enemy territory, destroy towns, loot whatever they could, take prisoners and ruthlessly kill. His men came from Poland, Lithuania, the Cossacks, Germany, Bohemia, Silesia and even the Tartars and were a model for Polish cavalry.

In 1614, the Lisowczyczyks went to the relief of Smolensk, besieged by the Russians, where they broke through the lines of the Russian army by combat and delivered supplies of food and weapons to the city. Shortly afterwards, they moved deeper into Russia. However, they were not always successful and suffered defeat there by Prince Pozharsky, although Lisowski managed to lead a part of the troop out of trouble.

In 1615, Lisowski - already with the rank of colonel - formed a new detachment of several hundred men and again ventured deep into Russia. He does what he always did - burning, murdering and looting. According to some accounts, Lisowski's men reached the White Sea in 1615. In 1616, the Colonel died - either poisoned or murdered. His ruthless comrades, after returning from Russia to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, did not cease to engage in looting expeditions, but already in their own country.

Finally, in spite of the war-time merits, their banners were disbanded in 1624 mainly due to their disobedience and wildness bordering on hostile plunder activity; by no means were they better than the Tartars, who at the time were considered to be savagely cruel.

The entire formation was subjected to infamy. They were hunted down and killed with no quarter; the mere suspicion of belonging to the Lisowsczyks was enough to be killed. Many of them, fearing to return to their country, joined the ranks of foreign armies and fought on all fronts of Europe. Eventually, the formation was dissolved by a resolution of the 1625 Sejm, which stated that anyone liable to banishment for robbery and murder may join the regular army. Subsequently, the former Lisowsczyks largely transferred to the state regular army earning their pay.

The memory of their war expeditions survived longer than the memory of their plunder, murder and rape. Their notorious battle tactics used long after the disappearance of the formations, also became their testament. Over time, a myth was created about their extraordinary courage and prowess, but for decades, horror stories were also told about the Lisowszczyks appearing like ghosts sowing death and destruction wherever they happened to arrive.

Shooting a bow - painting. Józef Brandt, 1885

If you are interested in a particular historical period and would like to read about it in our magazine, or would like to suggest an interesting character or event, please send your suggestions to We also look forward to your essays on historical/archaeological topics, reviews of publications of the above nature or biographies, as well as polemics with our authors.

31 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page