A Brief History
On June 28, 1651, and lasting through June 30, 1651, the Battle of Berestechko was fought in the area between what is now modern Poland, modern Belarus and the modern Ukraine, between the army of Poland and the upstart Ukrainian Cossacks and Tatars. Part of the Cossack Rebellion of 1648-1657, the battle was one of if not the largest land battle in Europe during the 17th Century.
The Poles took a sizable army to the field of battle, probably around 80,000 men, of which half were conscripted militia types called up to fight for the King. About 17,000 Polish cavalrymen took the field as did another 16,000 regular Polish army infantrymen. Led by King John II Casimir, the Poles faced an even larger army consisting of about 100,000 Cossacks with their numbers filled out with masses of peasant soldiers, along with perhaps 50,000 of their Crimean Tatar allies, and joined by a polyglot of Vlachs and Turks all allied against Poland. Outnumbered more than 2 to 1, things looked ominous for the Poles! Both armies were also accompanied by large numbers of non-combatants such as servants, footmen, and various working type people, and even family members of the fighting men.
The Ukrainians, notably the Ukrainian Cossacks (also known as Zaporozhian Cossacks), were at odds with the larger competing countries that tried to assert hegemony over the Ukraine, including the Imperial Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Crimean Khanate of Turkey. The Zaporozhian Cossacks consisted of various people that had escaped serfdom, virtual slavery, in and around the area of the Ukraine and surrounding countries. Crimean Tatars and other people unaffiliated with the larger ruling nations found common cause to resist oppression by foreign powers.
As the battle unfolded on the first day, the Polish cavalry prevailed, putting the Poles in an optimistic mood. On the second day of battle, the Poles again employed their cavalry while holding back their infantry and artillery units, wrongly believing their cavalry alone would win the battle. The rebels, led by the Tatar cavalry, was victorious on the second day of battle, sending the Polish cavalry into retreat back to their main camp, where the mass of Polish infantry and artillery prevented a rout. The Poles had learned their lesson, and on the third day of battle committed their entire army to the battle, facing the Tatars and driving them from the field. The Poles then attacked the Cossack fortified positions, positions that had wagons chained together to provide a balustrade against the Polish attack. With the Tatars fleeing the field, the Cossacks were left in their defensive positions to await the final Polish assault. The Poles planned to dam the local river in order to flood the Cossack positions, while many Cossack soldiers started to desert their army. The Poles observed a disorganized Cossack army in their defensive positions, due to a lack of effective communications and planning, but thinking that the wily Cossacks were pretending disorder in order to trap a rash Polish attack, the Poles delayed their final assault. Eventually, that final assault came, and Cossack defenses were breached, and the Cossack army was obliged to retreat across hastily constructed bridges across the river that had been built during the short siege. Many Cossacks managed to escape, and the Poles had their resounding victory.
While the Cossacks, Tatars and their allies had suffered as many as 30,000 killed, and the Poles had endured only around 700 killed, the Poles failed to consolidate their victory by pursuing and destroying the rest of the considerable Cossack army that had retreated. Apparently poor weather and reduced forage for the men and animals of the Polish army had discouraged the Polish King from keeping up the pressure on the Cossacks, leading him to take his army home to celebrate their victory.
By September of 1651, another major battle was fought, The Battle of Bila Tserkva, which again pitted a larger rebel force against a smaller Polish army. With the Poles experiencing rampant illness in their ranks and a stiff battle from the rebels, a temporary peace was negotiated, although the rebellion would continue 6 more years until 1657.
The Ukraine is the largest country by area completely within the Continent of Europe and has been an important land for European and Near Eastern history, with many cultures crossing over the area and contributing to the rich cultural heritage of the country. Unfortunately, many great powers have been less than kind to the Ukrainians, notably the Poles and their sometimes allies, the Lithuanians, and especially the Russians and later the Soviets. In fact, during the 1930’s, Soviet leader Josef Stalin masterminded one of the evilest genocides in history by purposely starving the Ukraine, a land that is often referred to as “Europe’s Breadbasket” due to the rich fields of grain there. The Soviet starvation, called the Holodomor by the Ukrainians, killed as many as 12 million Ukrainians, and almost assuredly at least 7 million, eclipsing the better known Nazi generated Holocaust of World War II. When the Ukraine finally got its independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russians shortchanged the Ukraine and left the new country economically and militarily weak. Today, Russia is taking abominable liberties with power and land grabs in the Ukraine, having seized the Crimea and annexed it back into Russia in 2014, and is instigating other parts of the Ukraine to become part of Russia. How this plays out, and the role of the United States and NATO in possibly preventing and correcting the actions of Russia remains to be seen.
(Note: This author is of Ukrainian and Polish descent. Na Zdrowie!)
Question for students (and subscribers): Are you familiar with the Ukraine and its history? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Plokhy, Serhii. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. Basic Books, 2017.
Stone, Daniel. The Polish-Lithuanian State, 1386-1795. University of Washington Press, 2001.
The featured image in this article, a painting by Władysław Witkowski of the Battle of Beresteczko, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.