Battle of Obertyn 1531 AD
The Beginning of the Campaign
In 1529/30 Moldavian troops, in the name of the
Ottoman Sultan Suliman, invaded the Polish side of the Pokutia. The Pokutia
was an area of land that stretched either side of the river Puht (modem day
Prut) and stretched as far north as the River Dniester. The Polish King Zygmunt
Stary' s initial action was a diplomatic foray. Zygmunt I dispatched an envoy
to the Ottoman Court of Suliman the Magnificent to gain clarification on where
the Sultan stood on the actions of his Moldavian vassals.
Suliman the Magnificent had not given his Moldavian vassals his permission to launch such an assault on the Polish lands and his answer to Zygmunt's envoy reflected this. The answer was a master of compromise, it reflected the Sultan's anger at his vassals but also enforced his obligations to them. The Sultan had no objection to the Poles reclaiming the Pokutia, if necessary by force. However the Polish army was on no account to enter Moldavian territory (excepting the disputed Pokutia) and if they did so they would be in a state of war with the Ottoman Empire. The limitations placed on any Polish campaign by the Ottoman Sultan's pronouncement put Zygmunt I in a very difficult position. Zygmunt, however. made a inspired choice of General to lead the campaign. He picked the Crown Hetman of Hired Soldiers Jan Tarnowski. To bolster the standing army, The Obrona Potoczna (the Polish defence force), the Polish Parliament voted a tax levy on their serfs to raise additional mercenary troops. Jan Tarnowski began the campaign with 4,800 cavalry, 1,200 infantry, 12 cannon and a Tabor wagon train of unknown size. Tarnowski set up his base of operations in the town of Obertyn, just North of the Dniester river and the Pokutia. Tarnowski's plan of campaign was in two distinct phases.
Phase One. 3rd-5th June 1531
A thousand strong cavalry force was sent into the Pokutia -to clear it of all Moldavian garrisons. Once this was achieved Tarnowski pulled his cavalry back to Obertyn and placed a single infantry garrison in the town of Gvozdzots. The town of Gvozdzots was a few kilometres South of Obertyn and just inside the Pokutia. The infantry garrison was 100 strong and commanded by an experienced officer called Vwodek (possibly a Czech mercenary).
Phase Two 6th June-18th July
The Moldavian Hospodar Raresh (sources also refer to him as Hospodar Petrylo) responded to the ousting of his garrisons by sending 6,000 men into the Pokutia. This force proceeded to besiege the Polish at Gvozdzots. Tarnowski waited until it was clear that the Moldavians were not going to reinforce their besieging army before he moved against them. The entire Polish army crossed the Dniester river on 18th July and engaged the Moldavian army. The Moldavian army was routed and the remnants fled over the Moldavian border where the Polish were unable to pursue. Tarnowski's plan of campaign so far had been a success. Knowing that the Moldavians had the advantage of a secure border and a superior tactical mobility, (see Moldavian pages) Tarnowski used the garrison of Gvodzots as a lure to pin the enemy to a specific place where he wanted to give battle and could prevent their immediate retreat. Tarnowski then began the final phase of his campaign to lure the main Moldavian army across the border.
The Final Phase of the Campaign 18th-21st
Tarnowski and the army remained in the Pokutia where they regrouped and made themselves very visible to Moldavian scouts. This had the desired effect on Hospodar Raresh, who, upon hearing that the Polish force only amounted to some 6,000 men, advanced into the Pokutia with his main army. The Moldavian army was some 20,000 cavalry, 50 cannon and an unknown number of infantry. Tarnowski fell back before the Moldavian advance but left his infantry garrison in Gvodzots. Early on 21st July Tarnowski reached his predetermined battle site some two kilometres North of Obertyn. On a ridge of high ground Tarnowski used his Tabor battle wagons to build a fortified camp. Part of the North and East sections of the camp were protected by a thick forest. Tarnowski placed his artillery in the three comers of the camp notprotected by the forest. Part of the infantry were placed in the wagons but the majoritywas held in the centre of the camp as a reserve. The cavalry deployed in the camp in a formation known as the Old Polish Order (see Polish tactics). The Moldavian Vanguard of half the cavalry reached Obertyn as night fell on 21st July and the main army reached there on the dawn of the following day.
The Battle 22nd July
The battle began with Moldavian advance units attempting to rustle Polish horses grazing outside the Tabor. These were beaten back and the horses taken inside the defences. The Moldavian army then deployed around the Tabor without interference from the Polish. The battle falls into three main phases.
Tarnowski's Plan of Battle
Tarnowski's aim was to cut the Moldavian retreat to Obertyn and thus the route to Moldavia itself. If he could cut off the road to Obertyn the river Chemiava and its swamps effectively meant that the Moldavians could only retreat further into Polish territory. Tarnowski's plan was to get the Moldavians to concentrate their forces on their left flank away from the road.
Initial Phase of the Battle
Raresh sent light cavalry units through the forest in an attempt to hit the protected side of the Tabor. Tarnowski countered by sending infantry into the forest which beat back the cavalry. Moldavian artillery then began a bombardment of the Tabor. Due to the rise of the slope the artillery was forced to deploy quite a distance from the Tabor. This was to compensate for the cannons limited angle of elevation. The bombardment lasted some five hours but was very ineffective as most of the rounds over shot the Tabor. The return fire from the Polish artillery severely damaged several of the Moldavian cannon.
Tarnowski committed a third of his cavalry force (the Valny) to engagements around the rear gate of the Tabor. The Valny began a series of attacks on the Moldavian left using a checker board format. The first line would launch its attack and then, break off whilst the second line engaged. The first line would then reorganise, rearm with spare lances, later on in the battle change mounts for fresh horses and then replace the second line in combat. The process would then repeat itself. By this method the Poles inflicted heavy casualties on the Moldavian Left.
Raresh moved his centre over to help his beleaguered left flank but kept his right flank on the road to Obertyn to secure his retreat route. Tarnowski then pulled the Valny back into the Tabor and at the same time launched the remaining two thirds of his cavalry out of the front gate and into the Moldavian Right. It is possible that the Moldavian right did not wait to be engaged but rather fled before contact. Certainly the Polish cavalry were able to sweep rapidly around to their right and hit the Moldavian centre/left before they could reorganise to counter this new threat. In charging the Moldavian Centre the Polish cavalry bypassed the Moldavian artillery positions and in doing so suffered their most serious casualties of the battle. They were, to use a navy term, raked as they rode past. Polish infantry were dispatched from the Tabor to silence the guns, which they duly succeeded in doing. At the same time the Polish Valny re-emerged from the Tabor and attacked the Moldavians from the other direction. The Moldavian army broke under the pressure and fled the battlefield.
The Results of the Battle
The Moldavians lost approximately 7,000 cavalry killed, 1,000 prisoners taken and the loss of their entire artillery train of 50 guns. The Polish losses were 256 killed. These were lost mainly during the Valny' s attacks on the Left and by the Moldavian artillery fire on the main body of Polish cavalry. The Polish regained the Pokutia and the Moldavians tacitly agreed a peace. The Moldavians would try again in 1538 but would again be beaten back. The Hospodar of Moldavia was eventually removed from office by the Ottoman Sultan who used the phrase 'he had disturbed the Portes best friend, the King of Poland.'
Copyright © 2002 Matthew Haywood
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