Battle of Grunwald
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The Battle of Grunwald or First Battle of Tannenberg (German: Schlacht bei Tannenberg) was fought on 15 July 1410, during the Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War. The alliance of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, led respectively by King Jogaila (Władysław Jagiełło) and Grand Duke Vytautas (Witold), decisively defeated the German-Prussian Teutonic Knights, led by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen. Most of the Teutonic Knights' leadership were killed or taken prisoner. While defeated, the Teutonic Knights withstood the siege on their fortress in Marienburg ( Malbork) and suffered only minimal territorial losses at the Peace of Thorn (1411) ( Toruń). Territorial disputes continued until the Peace of Melno was concluded in 1422. However, the Knights never recovered their former power and the financial burden of war reparations caused internal conflicts and an economic downturn in their lands. The battle shifted the balance of power in Eastern Europe and marked the rise of the Polish–Lithuanian union as the dominant political and military force in the region.
The battle was one of the largest battles in Medieval Europe and is regarded as the most important victory in the history of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. It was surrounded by romantic legends and nationalistic propaganda, becoming a larger symbol of struggle against invaders and a source of national pride. During the 20th century, the battle was used in Nazi and Soviet propaganda campaigns. Only in recent decades have historians made progress towards a dispassionate, scholarly assessment of the battle reconciling the previous narratives, which differed widely by nation.
Lithuanian Crusade and Polish–Lithuanian union
In 1230, the Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order, moved to Chełmno Land and launched the Prussian Crusade against the pagan Prussian clans. With the name of Christ, the Teutonic Knights conducted an ethnic cleansing at the Teutonic takeover of Gdansk of 1308, during which some 10,000 natives were killed. With support from the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, the Teutons conquered and converted the Prussians by 1280s and shifted their attention to the pagan Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For about a hundred years the Knights raided Lithuanian lands, particularly Samogitia as it separated the Knights in Prussia from their branch in Livonia. While the border regions became an uninhabited wilderness, the Knights gained very little territory. The Lithuanians first gave up Samogitia during the Lithuanian Civil War (1381–1384) in the Treaty of Dubysa. The territory was used as a bargaining chip to ensure Teutonic support for one of the sides in the internal power struggle.
In 1385, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania agreed to marry reigning Queen Jadwiga of Poland in the Union of Kreva. Jogaila converted to Christianity and was crowned as the King of Poland, thus creating a personal union between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The official Lithuanian conversion to Christianity removed the religious rationale for the order's activities in the area. Its Grand Master, Conrad Zöllner von Rothenstein, supported by the Hungarian king Sigismund of Luxemburg, responded by publicly contesting the sincerity of Jogaila's conversion, bringing the charge to a papal court. The territorial disputes continued over Samogitia, which had been in Teutonic hands since the Peace of Raciąż of 1404. Poland also had territorial claims against the Knights in Dobrzyń Land and Danzig ( Gdańsk), but the two states had been largely at peace since the Treaty of Kalisz (1343). The conflict was also motivated by trade considerations: the Knights controlled the lower reaches of the three largest rivers ( Neman, Vistula and Daugava) in Poland and Lithuania.
War, truce, and preparations
In May 1409, an uprising in Teutonic-held Samogitia started. Lithuania supported the uprising and the Knights threatened to invade. Poland announced its support for the Lithuanian cause and threatened to invade Prussia in return. As Prussian troops evacuated Samogitia, Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen declared war on the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on 6 August 1409. The Knights hoped to defeat Poland and Lithuania separately and began by invading Greater Poland and Kuyavia, catching the Poles by surprise. The Knights burned the castle at Dobrin ( Dobrzyń nad Wisłą), captured Bobrowniki after a fourteen-day siege, conquered Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), and sacked several towns. The Poles organized counterattacks and recaptured Bydgoszcz. The Samogitians attacked Memel ( Klaipėda). However, neither side was ready for a full-scale war.
Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, agreed to mediate the dispute. A truce was signed on 8 October 1409; it was set to expire on 24 June 1410. Both sides used this time to prepare for war, gathering troops and engaging in diplomatic maneuvering. Both sides sent letters and envoys accusing each other of various wrongdoings and threats to Christendom. Wenceslaus, who received a gift of 60,000 florins from the Knights, declared that Samogitia rightfully belonged to the Knights and only Dobrzyń Land should be returned to Poland. The Knights also paid 300,000 ducats to Sigismund of Hungary, who had ambitions regarding the Principality of Moldavia, for mutual military assistance. Sigismund attempted to break the Polish–Lithuanian alliance by offering Vytautas a king's crown; Vytautas's acceptance would have violated the terms of the Ostrów Agreement and have created Polish-Lithuanian discord. At the same time, Vytautas managed to obtain a truce from the Livonian Order.
By December 1409, Jogaila and Vytautas had agreed on a common strategy: their armies would unite into a single massive force and march together towards Marienburg ( Malbork), capital of the Teutonic Knights. The Knights, who took a defensive position, did not expect a joint attack and were preparing for a dual invasion – by the Poles along the Vistula River towards Danzig ( Gdańsk), and by the Lithuanians along the Neman River towards Ragnit ( Neman). To counter this perceived threat, Ulrich von Jungingen concentrated his forces in Schwetz ( Świecie), a central location from where troops could respond to an invasion from any direction rather quickly. Sizable garrisons were left in the eastern castles of Ragnit, Rhein ( Ryn) near Lötzen ( Giżycko), and Memel ( Klaipėda). To keep their plans secret and mislead the Knights, Jogaila and Vytautas organised several raids into border territories, thus forcing the Knights to keep their troops in place.
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The precise number of soldiers involved has proven difficult to establish. None of the contemporary sources provided reliable troop counts. Jan Długosz provided the number of the banners, the principal unit of each cavalry: 51 for the Knights, 50 for the Poles, and 40 for the Lithuanians. However, it is unclear how many men were under each banner. According to Jan Długosz, seven out of 50 Polish regiments (banners) belonged to the Ruthenian (Ukrainian) lands of Lviv, Chełm (Kholm), Halych, Przemysl (Peremyshl), and three banners from Podillya. Under the 40 regimental banners from Lithuania only four of them were ethnic Lithuanian, while 28 belonged to the lands of modern Belarus and another eight - from Ukraine. The structure and number of infantry units ( pikemen, archers, crossbowmen) and artillery units is unknown. Estimates, often biased by political and nationalistic considerations, were produced by various historians. German historians tend to present lower numbers, while Polish historians tend to use higher estimates. The high-end estimates by Polish historian Stefan Kuczyński of 39,000 Polish–Lithuanian and 27,000 Teutonic men have been cited in western literature as "commonly accepted".
While less numerous, the Teutonic army had advantages in discipline, military training, and superior equipment. Their heavy cavalry was among the best in Europe. The Teutonic army was also equipped with bombards that could shoot lead and stone projectiles. Both forces were composed of troops from several states and lands, including numerous mercenaries; for example, Bohemian mercenaries fought on each side. The Knights also invited guest crusaders. Twenty-two different peoples, mostly Germanic, joined them. Teutonic recruits included soldiers from Westphalia, Frisia, Austria, Swabia, Stettin ( Szczecin). Two Hungarian nobles, Nicholas II Garay and Stibor of Stiboricz, brought 200 men for the Knights, but support from Sigismund of Hungary was disappointing.
Poland brought mercenaries from Moravia and Bohemia. The Czechs produced two full banners, under the command of Jan Sokol of Lamberk. Serving among the Czechs was possibly Jan Žižka, future commander of the Hussite forces. Alexander the Good, ruler of Moldavia, commanded an expeditionary corp. Vytautas gathered troops from Lithuanian and Ruthenian (modern Belarus and Ukraine) lands. The Lithuanian army included three banners from Smolensk that since 1407 was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In Russian historiography that fact is portrayed as a participation of the armed forces of Russia in the battle. The Smolensk regiments were under the command of Jogaila's brother Lengvenis, while the contingent of Tatars of the Golden Horde was under the command of the exiled Khan Jalal ad-Din. The overall commander of the joint Polish–Lithuanian forces was King Jogaila; however, he did not directly participate in the battle. The Lithuanian units were commanded directly by Grand Duke Vytautas, who was second in command and helped design the grand strategy of the campaign. Vytautas actively participated in the battle, managing both Lithuanian and Polish units. Jan Długosz stated that the low-ranking Sword Bearer of the Crown Zyndram of Maszkowice commanded the Polish army, but that is highly doubtful. More likely Marshal of the Crown Zbigniew of Brzezie commanded the Polish troops in the field.
Course of the battle
March into Prussia
The first stage of the Grunwald campaign was the gathering all Polish–Lithuanian troops at Czerwinsk, a designated meeting point about 80 km (50 mi) from the Prussian border, where the joint army crossed the Vistula over a pontoon bridge. This maneuver, which required precision and intense coordination among multi-ethnic forces, was accomplished in about a week from 24 June to 30 June 1410. Polish soldiers from Greater Poland gathered in Poznań, and those from Lesser Poland in Wolbórz. On 24 June 1410, Jogaila and Czech mercenaries arrived in Wolbórz. Three days later, the Polish army was already at the meeting place. The Lithuanian army marched out from Vilnius on 3 June and joined up with the Ruthenian regiments in Hrodna. They arrived in Czerwinsk on the same day as the Poles crossed the river. After the crossing, Masovian troops under Siemowit IV and Janusz I joined the Polish–Lithuanian army. The massive force began its march north towards Marienburg ( Malbork), capital of Prussia, on 3 July. The Prussian border was crossed on 9 July.
The river crossing remained secret until Hungarian envoys, who were attempting to negotiate a peace, informed the Teutonic Grand Master. As soon as Ulrich von Jungingen grasped the Polish–Lithuanian intentions, he left 3,000 men at Schwetz ( Świecie) under Heinrich von Plauen and marched the main forces to organise a line of defence on the Drewenz River ( Drwęca) near Kauernik ( Kurzętnik). The river crossing was fortified with stockades. On 11 July, after meeting with his eight-member war council, Jogaila decided against crossing the river at such a strong defensible position. The army would instead bypass the river crossing by turning east, towards its sources, where no other major rivers separated his army from Marienburg. The march continued east towards Soldau ( Działdowo), although no attempt was made to capture the town. The Teutonic army followed the Drewenz River north, crossed it near Löbau ( Lubawa), and then moved east in parallel with the Polish–Lithuanian army. The latter ravaged the village of Gilgenburg ( Dąbrówno). Von Jungingen was so enraged by the atrocities that he swore to defeat the invaders in battle.
In the early morning of 15 July 1410, both armies met in an area covering approximately 4 km2 (1.5 sq mi) between the villages of Grunwald, Tannenberg ( Stębark) and Ludwigsdorf ( Łodwigowo). The armies formed opposing lines along a northeast–southwest axis. The Polish–Lithuanian army was positioned in front and east of Ludwigsdorf and Tannenberg. Polish heavy cavalry formed the left flank, Lithuanian light cavalry the right flank, while various mercenary troops made up the centre. Their men were organized in three lines of wedge-shaped formations about 20 men deep. The Teutonic forces concentrated their elite heavy cavalry, commanded by Grand Marshal Frederic von Wallenrode, against the Lithuanians. The Knights, who were the first to organize their army for the battle, hoped to provoke Poles or Lithuanians into attacking first. Their troops, wearing heavy armor, had to stand in scorching sun for several hours waiting for an attack. One chronicle suggested that they had dug pits that an attacking army would fall into. They also attempted to use field artillery, but a light rain dampened their powder and only two cannon shots were fired. As Jogaila delayed, Grand Master sent messengers with two swords to "assist Jogaila and Vytautas in battle". The swords were meant as an insult and provocation. Known as the Grunwald Swords, they became one of the national symbols of Poland.
Battle begins: Lithuanian attack and retreat
Vytautas, supported by a few Polish banners, started an assault on the left flank of the Teutonic forces. After more than an hour of heavy fighting, the Lithuanian light cavalry started a full retreat. Jan Długosz described this development as a complete annihilation of the entire Lithuanian army. According to Długosz, the Knights assumed that victory was theirs, broke their formation for a disorganized pursuit of the retreating Lithuanians, and gathered much loot before returning to the battlefield to face the Polish troops. He made no mention of the Lithuanians who later returned to the battlefield. Thus Długosz portrayed the battle as a single-handed Polish victory. This view contradicted Cronica conflictus and has been challenged by modern historians. Starting with an article by Vaclaw Lastowski in 1909, they proposed that the retreat was a planned strategic maneuver borrowed from the Golden Horde. A false retreat was used in the Battle of the Vorskla River of 1399, where the Lithuanian army was dealt a crushing defeat and Vytautas himself barely escaped alive. This theory gained wider acceptance after the discovery and publication of a German letter by Swedish historian Sven Ekdahl in 1963. The letter, written a couple years after the battle, cautions the new Grand Master to look out for false retreats of the kind that were used in the Great Battle. Stephen Turnbull asserted that the Lithuanian retreat did not quite fit the tried formula of a false retreat. Such a retreat was usually staged by one or two units (as opposed to almost an entire army) and was swiftly followed by a counterattack (whereas the Lithuanians returned late in the battle).
Battle continues: Polish–Teutonic fight
While the Lithuanians were retreating, heavy fighting broke out between Polish and Teutonic forces. Teutonic forces, commanded by Grand Komtur Kuno von Lichtenstein, concentrated on the Polish right flank. Six of von Walenrode's banners did not pursue the retreating Lithuanians, instead joining the attack on the right flank. A particularly valuable target was the royal banner of Kraków. It seemed that the Knights were gaining the upper hand, and at one point the royal standard-bearer Marcin of Wrocimowice lost the Kraków banner. However, it was soon recaptured and fighting continued. Jogaila deployed his reserves – the second line of his army. Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen then personally led 16 banners, almost a third of the original Teutonic strength, to the right Polish flank, and Jogaila deployed his last reserves, the third line of his army. The melee reached the Polish command and one Knight, identified as Lupold or Diepold of Kökeritz, charged directly against King Jogaila. Jogaila's secretary, Zbigniew Oleśnicki, saved the king's life, gaining royal favour and becoming one of the most influential people in Poland.
Battle ends: Teutonic Knights defeated
At that time, the reorganized Lithuanians returned to the battle, attacking von Jungingen from the rear. The Teutonic forces were by then becoming outnumbered by the mass of Polish knights and advancing Lithuanian cavalry. As von Jungingen attempted to break through the Lithuanian lines, he was killed. According to Cronica conflictus, Dobiesław of Oleśnica thrust a lance through the Grand Master's neck, while Długosz presented Mszczuj of Skrzynno as the killer. Surrounded and leaderless, the Teutonic Knights began to retreat. Part of the routed units retreated towards their camp. This move backfired when the camp followers turned against their masters and joined the manhunt. The knights attempted to build a wagon fort: the camp was surrounded by wagons serving as an improvised fortification. However, the defense was soon broken and the camp was ravaged. According to Cronica conflictus, more Knights died there than on the battlefield. The battle lasted for about ten hours.
The Teutonic Knights attributed the defeat to treason on the part of Nikolaus von Renys (Mikołaj of Ryńsk), commander of the Culm ( Chełmno) banner, and he was beheaded without a trial. He was the founder and leader of the Lizard Union, a group of Knights sympathetic to Poland. According to the Knights, von Renys lowered his banner, which was taken as a signal of surrender and led to the panicked retreat. The legend that the Knights were "stabbed in the back" was echoed in the post-World War I stab-in-the-back legend and preoccupied German historiography of the battle until 1945.
Casualties and captives
The defeat of the Teutonic Knights was resounding. About 8,000 Teuton soldiers were killed and an additional 14,000 were taken captive. According to Teutonic payroll records, only 1,427 men reported back to Marienburg to claim their pay. Of 1,200 men sent from Danzig, only 300 returned. According to different sources, some 200 or 400 brothers of the Order were killed, including much of the Teutonic leadership – Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, Grand Marshal Friedrich von Wallenrode, Grand Komtur Kuno von Lichtenstein, Grand Treasurer Thomas von Merheim, Marshal of Supply Forces Albrecht von Schwartzburg, and ten of the komturs. Markward von Salzbach, Komtur of Brandenburg ( Ushakovo), and Heinrich Schaumburg, voigt of Sambia, were executed by order of Vytautas after the battle. The bodies of von Jungingen and other high-ranking officials were transported to Marienburg Castle for burial on 19 July. The bodies of lower-ranking Teutonic officials and twelve Polish knights were buried at the church in Tannenberg. The rest of the dead were buried in several mass graves. The highest-ranking Teutonic official to escape the battle was Werner von Tettinger, Komtur of Elbing ( Elbląg).
Polish and Lithuanian forces took several thousand captives. Among these were Dukes Konrad VII of Oels ( Oleśnica) and Casimir V of Pomerania. Most of the commoners and mercenaries were released shortly after the battle on condition that they report to Kraków on 11 November 1410. Only those who were expected to pay ransom were kept. Considerable ransoms were recorded; for example, the mercenary Holbracht von Loym had to pay sixty times the number of 150 Prague groschen, amounting to more than 30 kilograms of silver.
Further campaign and peace
After the battle, the Polish and Lithuanian forces and the troops of King Alexander the Good of Moldavia, delayed their attack on the Teutonic capital in Marienburg ( Malbork), remaining on the battlefield for three days and then marching an average of only about 15 km (9.3 mi) per day. The main forces did not reach heavily fortified Marienburg until 26 July. This delay gave Heinrich von Plauen enough time to organize a defense. Jogaila also sent his troops to other Teutonic fortresses, which often surrendered without resistance, including the major cities of Danzig ( Gdańsk), Thorn ( Toruń), and Elbing ( Elbląg). Only eight castles remained in Teutonic hands. The besiegers of Marienburg expected a speedy capitulation and were not prepared for a long-term siege, suffering from lack of ammunition, low morale, and an epidemic of dysentery. The Knights appealed to their allies for help, and Sigismund of Hungary, Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, and the Livonian Order promised financial aid and reinforcements.
The siege of Marienburg was lifted on 19 September. The Polish–Lithuanian forces left garrisons in the fortresses they had taken, and returned home. However, the Knights quickly recaptured most of the castles. By the end of October, only four Teutonic castles along the border remained in Polish hands. Jogaila raised a fresh army and dealt another defeat to the Knights in the Battle of Koronowo on 10 October 1410. Following other brief engagements, both sides agreed to negotiate.
The Peace of Thorn was signed in February 1411. Under its terms, the Knights ceded the Dobrin Land ( Dobrzyń Land) to Poland and agreed to resign their claims to Samogitia during the lifetimes of Jogaila and Vytautas, although another two wars — the Hunger War of 1414 and the Gollub War of 1422 — would be waged before the Treaty of Melno permanently resolved the territorial disputes. The Poles and Lithuanians were unable to translate the military victory into territorial or diplomatic gains. However, the Peace of Thorn imposed a heavy financial burden on the Knights from which they never recovered. They had to pay an indemnity in silver, estimated at ten times the annual income of the King of England, in four annual installments. To meet these payments, the Knights borrowed heavily, confiscated gold and silver from churches, and increased taxes. Two major Prussian cities, Danzig ( Gdańsk) and Thorn ( Toruń), revolted against the tax increases. The defeat at Grunwald left the Teutonic Knights with few forces to defend their remaining territories. Since Samogitia became officially christened, as both Poland and Lithuania were for a long time, the Knights had difficulties recruiting new volunteer crusaders. The Grand Masters then needed to rely on mercenary troops, which proved an expensive drain on their already depleted budget. The internal conflicts, economic decline, and tax increases led to unrest and the foundation of the Prussian Confederation, or Alliance against Lordship, in 1441. This in turn led to a series of conflicts that culminated in the Thirteen Years' War (1454).
Poland, Lithuania and Belarus
The Battle of Grunwald is regarded as one of the most important battles in Polish and Lithuanian history. In the history of Ukraine the battle is better associated with Vytautas the Great who stood as the leader of Eastern Orthodox community at that time. In Lithuania, the victory is synonymous with the grand duchy's political and military peak. It was a source of national pride during the age of Romantic nationalism and inspired resistance to the Germanization and Russification policies of the German and Russian Empires. The Knights were portrayed as bloodthirsty invaders and Grunwald as a just victory achieved by a small oppressed nation.
In 1910, to mark the 500th anniversary of the battle, a monument by Antoni Wiwulski was unveiled in Kraków during a three-day celebration, attended by some 150,000 people. About 60 other towns and villages in Galicia also erected Grunwald monuments for the anniversary.
About the same time, Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote the novel The Knights of the Cross (Polish: Krzyżacy), prominently featuring the battle in one of the chapters. In 1960, Polish filmmaker Aleksander Ford used the book as the basis for his film, Knights of the Teutonic Order. A museum, monuments, and memorials were constructed at the battlefield in 1960. The battle has lent its name to military decorations ( Cross of Grunwald), sport teams ( BC Žalgiris, FK Žalgiris, Grunwald Poznań), and various organizations.
An annual battle reenactment takes place on 15 July. A pageant was held in 2010 reenacting the event and commemorating the battle's 600th anniversary. It attracted 200,000 spectators who watched 2,200 participants playing the role of knights in a reenactment of the battle. An additional 3,800 participants played peasants and camp followers. The pageant's organisers believe that the event has become the largest reenactment of medieval combat in Europe.
Germany and Russia
The Germans generally saw the Knights as heroic and noble men who brought Christianity and civilization to the east. In August 1914, during World War I, Germany won a battle against Russia near the site. When the Germans realized its propaganda potential, they named the 1914 battle the Battle of Tannenberg, despite having actually taken place much closer to Allenstein, and framed it as revenge for the Polish–Lithuanian victory 504 years earlier. Nazi Germany later exploited the sentiment by portraying their Lebensraum policies as a continuation of the Knights' historical mission.
Due to the participation of the three Smolensk regiments in the battle, Russians saw the battle as a Polish–Lithuanian–Russian coalition against invading Germans. Chronicler Jan Długosz praised the Smolensk banners, who fought bravely and were the only banners from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania not to retreat. In Soviet historiography, the Battle of Grunwald was styled as a racial struggle between Slavs and Germans. The Teutonic Knights were portrayed as the medieval forerunners of Hitler's armies, while the battle itself was seen as the medieval counterpart to the Battle of Stalingrad.
In William Urban's summary, almost all accounts of the battle made before the 1960s were more influenced by romantic legends and nationalistic propaganda than by fact. Historians have since made progress towards dispassionate scholarship and reconciliation of the various national accounts of the battle.