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10 December, 2012  ▪  Serhiy Drozd

Cossack Battle of Cannae

The formidable talent of Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the helplessness of the Polish troops at the time led to an outstanding Cossack victory in the Battle of Batih

The catastrophic Battle of Berestechko and the Treaty of Bila Tserkva (1651) delivered a hard blow to the young Ukrainian Cossack state. It seemed that all the achievements of the national liberation war had been lost: Cossack autonomy and the Cossack register in the “Rus’ principality” were significantly reduced; the Bratslav and Chernihiv voievodships were again under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; and Polish landowners and nobility were allowed to return to their estates. All of them believed that the rebellious Ruthenians were again under control and that now they could compensate for all the losses incurred in three years of warfare.


Neither side was willing to comply with the conditions of the truce viewed as temporary by both Polish landlords and Cossack officers, who wanted to resume warfare and capture what they thought belonged to them.

Given this situation, Bohdan Khmelnytsky regrouped his Cossack forces, renewed his treaty with the Crimean khan and pushed for a union with Moldavia. To achieve this union, he wanted his son Tymish to marry the daughter of Moldovian Hospodar Vasile Lupu, Ruxandra. Hetman Marcin Kalinowski, the leader of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s Crown army, decided to foil this plan. In spring 1652, he ordered trenches dug in a field near Batih Hill under the pretext that they would secure the commonwealth from Horde and Cossack attacks. The real purpose was to block the road to Moldavia for Khmelnytsky’s son. Some Crown army units also arrived to the area and the ostensible purpose of the Polish troops quartered in Ukraine was a “knightly” mission: Kalinowski wanted to “protect” the beautiful Ruxandra from Tymish Khmelnytsky’s courtship and to discourage the Ruthenians from any further warfare against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Kalinowski announced his plan to defeat the Cossacks and Tatars separately, without letting them join their forces. But the sudden arrival of the Cossack and Tatar troops led by Tymish Khmelnytsky to the area caught the Polish command completely off-guard.


Kalinowsky had neither the authority or clout to control the army subordinated to him. It later turned out that only the German mercenaries remained loyal to him. In addition to the military, many civilians happened to be in the camp as several hundred noble families from Podillia stayed there on their way back to their estates in Bratslav voivodeship. This large group (up to 50,000 souls) was essentially uncontrollable and did not trust the Polish commander.

Meanwhile, Khmelnytsky closely watched the preparations and movements of the Polish forces and kept feeding them with false information about his own plans and moves. After he finalized the agreement with the Tatars and Turks about the future military campaign, he concentrated Cossack and small Tatar regiments in Right-Bank Ukraine, later uniting them with the core Cossack forces by the Dniester River. There Khmelnytsky was joined by the khan’s main army and the Nogai Khorde headed by Gazi Giray.

The Polish command chose a wide plain stretching along the right bank of the Southern Bug from Ladyzhyn to a hilly area as the site of the looming battle. The Polish camp was set up on Batih Hill, the highest point of the field. The Polish-constructed fortifications blocked the way from Chyhyryn to Moldavia. The only drawback on the terrain was that the plain and the camp itself were too large to maintain a line of defence.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky painstakingly examined the area where Kalinowski had stationed his troops and studied the morale of his soldiers. While still on his way to the site, he split his own forces according to a battle plan he had in mind. Judging by historical records, he had already decided to completely surround the stationary Polish army. He ordered his son Tymish to take 4,000-5,000 Cossacks and slowly move ahead along the right bank of the Bug, while Karach-Murza and his 5,000 Nogai men together with the Cossack cavalry were to approach the Polish camp along the left bank of the Bug. They were instructed to reach Batih field and wade across the river downstream.


When they were two to three miles away from Ladyzhyn, Khmelnytsky ordered his son to turn right and force a crossing over the Bug upstream from the town. Meanwhile, he sent Kalinowski a letter saying that Tymish was passing by the Polish camp with his army and recommending that the Poles allow him passage along the “Wallachian way” to avert an unnecessary battle. However, Kalinowski refused, thus making a military conflict inevitable.

The first hours of the two-day battle made it clear that Kalinowski and the Polish command had completely lost the initiative and failed to adequately protect the river crossings. As a result, on the night of 2 June 1652, the Cossack-Tatar troops tightly encircled the Polish camp on all sides and prepared for a decisive attack.

At dawn, the Cossack cavalry led by Tymish Khmelnytsky suddenly burst into the Polish camp which was still asleep. At this exact moment, the Tatars struck the Polish positions from Batih Hill. The Polish camp was in utter chaos and panic. Seeing the torrents of bullets and arrows coming at them from all directions, the Polish troops were completely demoralized and began to flee. Even the reinforcements from Kamianets-Podilsky, which was led by Kalinowski’s son Samuel and which arrived in the heat of the battle, failed to change the situation.

Old Hetman Kalinowski yelled at all his regiments, hoping to strike a chord in their hearts. But no-one was listening or cared about the presence of their military leader. The “people’s cavalry” rebelled and dispersed through the camp, taking along everything it could carry. According to Cossack chronicler Samiilo Velychko, Kalinowski’s hired soldiers shot nearly half of the Polish cavalry.

Witnessing the incredible self-destruction among the Poles, the Cossacks and Tatars attacked the enemy camp from all sides. The Poles were still “undressed and unable to make a military formation”. They fell into line sporadically, more in preparation for an escape than defence. Some threw themselves in the river, while others began to disperse and were struck by the Tatars and Nogais. The Poles completely lost their bearings in the dark and did not know who was attacking or from which direction. At this point, Kalinowski, who had been wounded twice, began to retreat together with 500 German mercenaries to the rear of the camp. He made his way to the forest where his company was encircled and completely destroyed.


The news about the crushing defeat of the Polish Crown army spread like wildfire, causing mass peasant riots against the nobility and landlords in Right-Bank Ukraine. Polish King John II Casimir issued a call to levée en masse in Piotrkow, a town between Cracow and Lublin.

Following his victory, Khmelnytsky dispatched Timysh with a retinue to Moldavia and moved his troops close to Kamianets. Lupu was informed that the Ukrainian hetman would not hesitate to make war on him if he cancelled the wedding. Under external pressure the old and crafty Moldavian chief was forced into an alliance with the Cossacks and gave his daughter in marriage to Tymish Khmelnytsky.

However, Khmelnytsky failed to capitalize on his victory when a sudden epidemic forced him to disband his army. Nevertheless, his contemporaries compared the Battle of Batih to the Battle of Cannae and likened the Ukrainian hetman to Hannibal. Khmelnytskys’s victory put an end to the Treaty of Bila Tserkva and won independence for the young Cossack state which was no longer bound by any formal treaty to the Polish king.


An echo of the Cossack victory in the Battle of Batih

An excerpt from a report by nobleman Dluzewski to Polish King John II Casimir: “On 2 June, around noon, Khmelnytsky himself attacked us, putting so many troops into battle that we were unable to stand our ground for even an hour. The Horde encircled on all sides and struck us with sabres, while the Cossacks completely captured our camp literally obliterating our army.”

From a report of the Cossack General Military Chancellery to Khilkov, a Muscovite voivode in Putyvl: “The Hetman with his troops routed the Poles. Kalinowski and his son were killed and the entire Crown army destroyed.”

An excerpt from an edict issued by John II Casimir on 2 June 1652 to call a sejm session in Warsaw on 15 August: “Our army was routed in Ukraine. Many a knight was killed, some in battle and others in pagan (Tatar) captivity. After that, countless peasant and Tatar hordes were put together by the enemy forces which abruptly put the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in danger.”

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