Poland, as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was not a peaceful place for much of the 17th century, with frequent clashes against all her neighbours which were, however, to a large extent successful apart from The Deluge (1655-60) from Sweden. Nevertheless the country was in a poor condition when one of its most successful commanders, Jan Sobieski (1629-1696), was elected to the throne (1674) on the back of a victory over the Ottomans. His rule was one of successful military campaigns and long periods of relative peace, when the country could recover, rebuild itself and reorganise the army. The reorganisation was partly based on the writings of Andrzej Maksymilian Fredro (1620-1679), who advocated a more Polish theme to the army, which caused a change in the look of the infantry. Jan III Sobieski’s impressive military reputation was to be cemented by his defeat of the Ottomans at the Siege of Vienna in 1683 (though with a mixed force, not just Poles), and today he is still seen as a hero by many in that country.
In the earlier part of the 17th century the Polish military had been raised by various means, and broadly divided into two parts – the ‘Polish Contingent’ and the ‘Foreign Contingent’. Military reforms around 1670 caused this division to disappear in terms of appearance, with all regular troops having a Polish (almost Hungarian) appearance, though the raising of such troops remained a complicated affair. This look consisted of a fur cap and a long-sleeved coat largely hidden by an outer coat called a kontuz. As the outer coat often had half-length sleeves, the inner coat sleeves were visible, as it is on some of these figures, but while part of the skirts would also be visible if the outer coat flaps were held back or tucked into the belt, no one here has this arrangement. The outer coats come in several styles, some having braiding on the chest, which varied at the time, but all here look good. Many of the men have an assortment of bags and purses about their person, all of which would seem reasonable.
Most of the men carry a sword, generally curved, which is fine, and a couple carry or hold an axe, which we understand to have been very common in the infantry and so perhaps should have been more widely seen here. Many are handling a matchlock musket, and two hold grenades, which unlike in the West were often used in open battle, to disrupt enemy cavalry for example. The first figure in the bottom row holds a pike (the blue strand you see above him), which is about right as numbers of pikemen were being reduced at this time, yet remained in many regiments. The penultimate figure in the same row seems to hold a partisan, which is a typical indication of rank, and the last figure has either an axe or a berdish over his shoulder. As a collection of weaponry everything here is fine and we felt in about the right sort of proportions.
While the accuracy may be very good, it is the look of these figures that really catches the eye, and not in a good way. The word ‘horrible’ certainly springs readily to mind when looking at these, with their clunky proportions, crude detail, finger-less or completely missing hands and faces which could curdle milk at fifty paces. You don’t really need us to tell you what you can already see in the photos, but we have to highlight some of the worst atrocities. Beginning with the pikeman at the start of our third row, it is hard to make out his arms because his right arm is very poorly defined, and his left is entirely missing below the elbow. The kneeling musketeer in the top row is remarkable for two main reasons, ignoring the really poor detail on his matchlock. First, the flash on this figure is monumental – we have never seen a figure so bathed in it. Second, he has for some reason been given no base. While he does stand without one, this means he is less stable, and a good deal lower, than his comrades, which looks ridiculous. Another exhibit in the hall of shame is the supposed officer in the bottom row holding the halberd, for this device is about 20mm (1.44 metres) in length to the very tip of the head, when the real thing would be between two and three metres, so this one looks like a child’s toy.
All the figures have some flash – in some cases quite a lot, even discounting the kneeling man, but in one area Mars have made an improvement. In the past, pikes were provided as a slab of plastic with lines engraved on it which you were somehow supposed to carve out into pikes. Happily that has gone, and instead we find several blue plastic strands of great length (about 12 cm) which are supposed to be the pikes. On the plus side, they are neatly rounded and nice and slender, but on the negative side, they have no features at all, so no pike head or butt – just a strand that you make of what you will. Polish pikes of the time were about 4.5 metres in length, so there is plenty of strand, though all you can do is glue it horizontally along the arm of the pikeman as there is no attempt to portray holding.
The poses are generally reasonable in design but mostly pretty flat in execution. The officer resting his miniature halberd on the side of his knee is odd (our picture makes it look better than it is because you assume the rest of the polearm is behind the man – it isn’t), but otherwise the choices are okay. One man stands out, and that is the second in our middle row, because you might think he wears what you would call traditional Ottoman Janissary dress, and so he does. Strange as it may seem, though the Ottomans were constant enemies of the Commonwealth, some Polish lords chose to cloth some of their personal troops in this way, and such troops would sometimes find themselves fighting in armies serving the king. His pose is very awkward – he is sort of running while resting his musket on the ground and holding aloft a sword which is touching his headdress. While his inclusion is perfectly reasonable given the subject, just one such pose does no more than represent such men in a diverse and generally un-uniform army.
Despite the flash, which can indicate the plastic is too hot when it is injected, the raised axe of the figure in row three has not been properly filled, making it look more like a stick. Finally a mystery; the last man, with axe across his shoulders, seems to have his outer coat shorter than the inner one, leaving an obvious visible strip at the bottom. However this is not repeated on the back, so now he looks like he is wearing an apron.
Although the box mentions the 17th century, the name of Sobieski confirms these are intended for its later years, and elements like the kontuz, which became fashionable around 1640, back that up. This means they are ideal for such conflicts as the Siege of Vienna, when 10,000 Polish infantry took part. It is recorded that because of the rush to mobilise forces, the king was embarrassed by the poor appearance of some of his infantry, and moved them mostly at night. Had he commanded these particular troops we think his embarrassment would have known no bounds, and he would have preferred to leave them behind altogether. Today history tends to remember the Polish Winged Hussars, and if these accurate but ugly figures represent an attempt to steal some of that profile for the infantry then the hussars have nothing to fear.