One of the most important Cossack inventions was a very light and mobile boat called a chayka (translated: seagull). These military boats were an average of 20 metres long and 4 metres wide, and could transport 50-60 fully-armed Cossacks, as well as the food and water to sustain them! Sailing was accomplished either by oar or with the help of sails, and any about turns were made simply by rowing backwards. This in itself was a stroke of genius as other militaries would waste large amounts of time trying to get their own boats turned around. But perhaps the best part about this vessel was the fact that it was so light: it could easily be picked up and transported by hand.
Interestingly, turning this structure upside-down and tying stones to its outer perimeter, the chayka could also be transformed into one of the first submarine prototypes! In a crucial moment, the strings could be cut and the army would unexpectedly appear from the river bottom! This first example was upgraded throughout the years into the shape of a rugby ball with a vertical tube serving as the structure’s air supply. The captain used this small hole as a way to direct the boat, while those Cossacks sitting inside rowed to his command.
Another little piece of genius was the simple hollow reed. Using it the same way one would snorkel today, the reed allowed the Cossacks to move beneath the surface of the water silently. Outwitting their enemies was something the Cossacks not only enjoyed but were also very good at: no one on land ever suspected a thing!
While they did enjoy besting their enemy in the water, more often than not, battles took place on land. Here, the Cossacks were continuously coming up with new ways to win. First of all, our Ukrainian hordes were among the first to use mobile artillery. The story goes like this: Cossacks were on the road with their cannonry-carrying wagons. It started to rain, and one of the wagons got stuck in the mud. Suddenly, their enemies approached en masse. There was nowhere to go. In a flash, one soldier jumped up on the wagon and started shooting. None of the adversaries ever expected this shower of bullets, and afraid for their lives, they ran and hid. The story was told to Khmelnitsky who saw merit in this new discovery. Some historians even go as far as to say the Cossacks mastered the art of horse artillery 100 years before the rest of Europe!
Wagons in general, regardless of what they carried, served a hugely important role in defensive battle. Placing them in a circle with the shaft pointing out, it became an impenetrable fortress right in the middle of a field or steppe. Built in just minutes, this was an exclusively Ukrainian method of defence that worked both as shield, and keeping enemy cavalry from coming too close.
There is speculation that Cossacks were also the first to use trenches. Working quickly with a spade, the Sich could create up to three trench lines for army and horses to hide in. So shrewd was this tactic, various armies throughout the last two centuries have continued its use.
The Cossacks were also known to use something called a fire wheel. Tying rags covered in resin to the structure, it was lit and sent rolling down the hill. Enemies ran screaming, thinking it was some sort of punishment from God (so goes the story).
It’s been said torpedoes were also a Cossack creation. Fashioning the base structure out of a hollowed piece of wood, gun powder was sprinkled along the length of the tube meeting with a cartridge made of metal at its end. Lighting the powder sent a charge through the tube sending the torpedo straight into enemy territory, where it went BANG!
Another terrifying prototype was something called flying fire, or what we know today as a rocket. A capsule filled with pockets of gun powder was attached to either a spear or arbalest (crossbow). Lighting the capsule, it could be fired up to 200 metres away! The rocket would burst as many times as there were pockets in the cartridge. Horrified, various tales suggest their enemies thought the devil himself was on the side of the Cossacks.
One last story includes a Cossack who has become quite well-known. A long time ago, in the 17th century, the Austrian capital was attacked by a fierce Turkish army. The whole city was in a panic as famine and disease overtook the area. Having run from captivity under the Turks, there was a man living in Vienna at the time by the name of Yuriy Kulchytskiy. Not just any man, he was a Cossack who during his imprisonment came to learn the Turkish language. Brave and adventure-loving, he agreed to take a letter from the bank of the Austrian-occupied Danube to the other side where a mass army of Turks were waiting. Without going into any details of the battle that ensued, it’s enough to say Vienna was liberated because of the bravery of this young Cossack.
Indebted, the Austrian authorities were willing to give Kulchytskiy anything he wanted. Knowing the Turks had left behind sacks of coffee beans, a dark drink (as of yet unknown in the west) for which Kulchytskiy had acquired a taste during his incarceration, he asked that he could have them with permission to open one of the first ever coffee houses in Vienna. The bitter taste of the black coffee was not appreciated by the sophisticated European citizens, and so the Cossack experimented. Adding sugar and milk, the result was what is known today as Viennese Coffee.
So now you know the Cossacks were muscled and brawny defenders of the motherland who could outwit their enemies with some of the best inventions in military history. But they also had a softer side which included a taste for elite beverages. Ukraine sure does surprise!...