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A Gamechanger for Eastern Europe

battle of grunwald

 

In the Summer of 1410, a massive army commanded by the Knights of the Teutonic Order attempting to conquer the armies of the Polish-Lithuanian union would meet their match on the fields of Prussia as the cruel winds of fortune would determine the future of Eastern Europe.

 

Under the command of King Władysław II Jagiełło, the Polish-Lithuanian union was, against expectations, about to change the balance of power in Europe and shift the course of history. Read on to learn more about the Battle of Grunwald, one of the largest medieval battles.

 

Background to the Battle of Grunwald

branches of the teutonic order
Branches of the Teutonic Order throughout Europe, via Militär Wissen

 

In the 13th century, the Teutonic Order moved into the Baltics to crusade against the pagans in Eastern Europe. For a century, they raided the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, causing as much havoc and strife as possible.

 

In 1385, however, the Teutonic Order lost the pretext for their actions when their enemies converted to Christianity. Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania married Jadwiga of Poland and converted, uniting the two realms.

 

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Central to the conflict continuing, however, was the political motivation surrounding the lands of Samogitia. After the Lithuanian Civil War (1381–1384), the territory was ceded to the Teutonic Order in the Treaty of Dubysa. This was extremely important since the territory in the hands of the Lithuanians separated the Teutonic lands with a salient that formed a massive buffer between the Teutonic regions of Livonia and Prussia. The transition to Teutonic hands was, however, anything but smooth. The Samogitians resented being ruled by the Teutons and rose up against their masters. Conflict between the Teutons and their new subjects continued until 1409, when the second Samogitian uprising would spark a wider conflict.

 

the teutonic order lands
Lands of the Teutonic Order with the Kingdom of Poland on its southwestern border and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on its southeastern border, via Militär Wissen

 

The Samogitians sent letters to the royal courts all over Europe, requesting assistance. Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania and King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland kept a watchful eye on the developments, waiting for any opportunity to gain from the situation against the Teutonic Order, which two years prior had come under the control of the militant Ulrich von Jungingen.

 

The uprising was supported by Grand Duke Vytautas, who sent aid to the Samogitians. After intercepting some of this aid, the Teutonic Order threatened to invade Lithuania. In response, Poland announced its support for Lithuania and threatened to invade Teutonic lands. On August 6, 1409, Ulrich von Jungingen declared war on both realms. He hoped to destroy the armies of Lithuania and Poland separately and began with an invasion of northern Polish lands, which caught the Poles completely off guard.

 

The initial invasion was a relatively small foray. It was met with success for the Teutonic Order as they burned the castle at Dobrin and captured the towns of Bobrowniki and Bydgoszcz. The Poles, however, counter-attacked and were met success as well, recapturing Bydgoszcz, while the Samogitians attacked Memel. The Holy Roman Empire intervened and brokered a truce, but war was inevitable. The Teutonic Order, Poland, and Lithuania began amassing sizable forces for the inevitable clash.

 

ulrich von jungingen
Ulrich von Jungingen, via Wielka Historia

 

The Teutons paid for support from the Holy Roman Empire and bribed King Sigismund of Hungary to invade Moldavia, to which he laid claim but was held by the Poles. The Teutonic army was raised mainly by hiring mercenaries from across the Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, and Hungary to augment the powerful core of Teutonic Knights.

 

The Polish-Lithuanian union also raised an enormous army, mainly from within their borders, but supported by mercenaries from Bohemia and Moravia. Joining them were troops from Moldavia under the command of Voivode Alexander, who brought with him a sizable contingent of Tatars.

 

The Teutons had expected the Polish and the Lithuanians to each launch their own invasion, and Ulrich von Jungingen had planned to deal with each, but when the two armies converged and joined forces, he realized that in order to defeat a force so large, they would have to take up defensive positions near their capital of Marienburg and respond according to the movements of the Polish-Lithuanian army.

 

The Meeting of the Forces

grand duke vytautas
Grand Duke Vytautas of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, via Prabook

 

The Polish-Lithuanian plan was to go straight for the Teutonic capital of Marienburg. Opposing them was not just the Teutonic army but the Drewenz River, which the Teutons had fortified. So the Polish-Lithuanian host marched north-eastwards along the banks of the river towards its source where the crossing would be easier. On the opposite bank, the Teutonic army followed the river as well before crossing it at Löbau and moving closer to the enemy army, marching in parallel. The Polish-Lithuanian forces passed several villages but made no attempt to capture them.

 

On July 15, the armies met and turned to face each other on an open field covering approximately four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) between the villages of Grunwald, Tannenberg, and Ludwigsdorf. Facing westwards, the Polish-Lithuanian forces lined up. Polish heavy cavalry formed the left flank, while the right flank comprised Lithuanian light cavalry led by Vytautas. The center consisted mostly of mercenaries. The entire army was organized into three lines, with groups all along them forming wedge formations. Władysław II Jagiełło took up position with his guards directly behind the center.

 

The Teutons put their elite heavy cavalry, under the command of Grand Marshal Frederic von Wallenrode, on the left flank, directly opposite the Lithuanian light cavalry. Behind them were several cannons and groups of archers. On the Teutonic right flank was comparatively weaker cavalry backed by infantry.

 

There are many wildly different claims of the size of the forces, but it seems likely both armies had in the range of between 11,000 and 39,000 soldiers, with the Polish-Lithuanian forces outnumbering the Teutons by about 3 to 2.

 

The Battle 

grunwald wojciech kossak
Battle of Grunwald 1410 by Wojciech Kossak, 1931, via Period Prints

 

Both forces stared each other down for a while, assessing the situation and waiting for the other to make the first move. The Teutons brought their cannon forward and peppered the battleground, but their shots fell short. A light rain started falling, putting an end to the bombardment. Nevertheless, it had the desired effect, and the first line of Lithuanian light cavalry moved forward to engage.

 

After enduring a hail of arrows, the Lithuanians quickly closed the gap and engaged the elite Teutonic knights. The initial clash pushed the Teutons back, upon which the second line of Lithuanian cavalry was brought in. The Teutons, too, reinforced the line and slowly regained the initiative. This prompted the Lithuanians to send in their third line of light cavalry. Meanwhile, on the Polish-Lithuanian left, the Polish heavy cavalry charged the Teutonic right wing and center.

 

battle of grunwald painting
The Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko, 1878, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Lithuanian right flank began to succumb to the elite experience and discipline of their Teutonic foes and was pushed back. The Lithuanian light cavalry broke and fled, with the Teutonic knights in pursuit.

 

Upon seeing this disaster, the Polish heavy cavalry also took a blow to their morale and fell back. Things looked grim for the Polish forces, but the Order from Smolensk positioned on the Polish right managed to check the Teutonic advance and prevented them from completing a flanking maneuver, thereby saving the Polish right flank.

 

after the battle of grunwald
After the Battle of Grunwald by Alphonse Mucha, 1924, from the National Gallery Prague, via kalab.nl

 

The fighting was desperate and fierce. The Krakow Banner, one of the most important in Poland, was briefly captured by the Teutons before being recaptured in a counterattack. The Teutons then committed their reserves and swung north around their left flank to surround the Polish right flank. A detachment went straight for King Władysław, but the monarch survived the melee. Meanwhile, the Polish right flank was surrounded and was crumbling fast. Victory looked assured for the Teutonic Order, but at around 1 PM, the battle would swing completely against the Teutons.

 

The Lithuanian light cavalry arrived back on the field. It is unknown whether their retreat had been feigned or if they had rallied. Either way, they smashed into the rear of the Teutonic Order’s left, and it was the Teutonic knights who now found themselves completely surrounded.

 

Ulrich von Jubingen was killed in the fierce fighting as his comrades struggled against the mighty onslaught from all sides. The day was lost, and the Teutons fled the field, however, of those caught in the ring, very few managed to escape. The Battle of Grunwald was over, and the Teutonic Order had lost hundreds of brother knights, the elite core of their forces.

 

The Aftermath of the Battle of Grunwald

re enactment grunwald
In modern times, the Battle of Grunwald is reenacted each year and draws huge crowds, from PAP/Tomasz Waszczuk, via TVP World

 

Casualties of the Battle of Grunwald are unknown, but they were likely extremely high, likely several thousand on each side. The Polish-Lithuanian army continued its campaign, besieging Marienburg, but was unable to take the city. The Teutons were again defeated several months later at Koronowo, and the Peace of Thorn was signed, in which Samogitia would go to the Lithuanians, and the Polish castles taken by the Teutons were returned to Poland.

 

king wladyslaw jagiello
Statue of King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland in Central Park, New York, via Secrets of Manhattan

 

The Battle of Grunwald is seen today as a source of historical pride among Poles and Lithuanians. For the Germans, who were represented by the Teutonic Order, the battle, which they called the Battle of Tannenberg, was a slight on their militaristic pride for many centuries. In 1914, the German army decisively defeated the Russian army near the site of Grunwald and named the victory the Battle of Tannenberg in a show of revenge and spite. The Russian Empire at this time included the lands of Poland as well as Lithuania.

 

The Teutonic Order would never recover from the defeat at Grunwald.

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