Post-classical history

Tannenberg, Battle of (1410)

A major battle between the Teutonic Order in Prussia and the united armies of Lithuania and Poland during the Great War of 1409-1411.

During a period of truce (8 October 1409-4 July 1410) both sides prepared for a new conflict, and peace-keeping efforts by the kings of Hungary and Bohemia proved futile. Wladyslaw II Jagiello (Lith. Jogaila), king of Poland, and his cousin Vytautas, grand duke of Lithuania, devised an exceptional strategy to join forces in northern Poland in June 1410 and then march through Prussia toward Marienburg (mod. Malbork, Poland), the seat of Ulrich von Jungingen, grand master of the order.

On 15 July 1410 the Polish-Lithuanian army was engaged in battle by the Teutonic Knights in fields around the villages of Tannenberg (mod. Stçbark), Grünfelde (mod. Grunwald), and Ludwigsdorf (mod. bodwigowo) in the commandery of Osterode (mod. Ostrôda). It is impossible to determine how many soldiers were involved, but the order may have had 12,000-15,000 men at its disposal, including 3,700 mercenaries mainly from Silesia and smaller detachments from the duchies of Pomerania-Stettin and Oels (Silesia), as well as some knightly pilgrims from western Europe. The Lithuanian and Polish troops were considerably superior in numbers and included Russians, Tatars, Moldavians, and mercenaries, mainly from Bohemia.

The marches and dispositions of the armies and the exact site or sites of the battlefield(s) are still disputed. Tannenberg was the last village the order’s army passed through, hence the battle’s German name. The Poles refer to the battle of Grunwald, indicating that Polish forces marched up and fought near Grünfelde. The Lithuanian name is Žalgiris, a translation of the name Grunwald.

The battle began late in the morning, Wladyslaw and Vytautas waiting until the sun dazzled the enemy. Then Vytautas charged the order’s left flank. The order’s warriors seemed to have won, as part of the Lithuanian army withdrew after heavy fighting, harried by an undisciplined pursuit. This was, however, only a feigned flight, which caused the knights’ formation to become disordered, whereupon strong Polish forces attacked from the side and broke the order’s left flank; this was one of the battle’s decisive moments. The order’s right flank was at that time involved in fighting other Polish forces, and so when fortune seemed to favor the enemy, Ulrich von Jungingen attacked the Polish center with his third division, consisting of heavy cavalry and until then held in reserve. Three times he and his men rode the Kehre (that is, passing through the enemy lines and turning back again), but they were outnumbered, and most were killed or taken prisoner, and a general flight ensued. At sunset the order’s wagon laager was taken by storm.

According to Polish sources, casualties were especially high among the Lithuanians and the order’s army, whereas ethnic Polish losses were rather low. The Teutonic Order suffered the loss of its grand master, all its higher officers, more than 200 knight brethren, and thousands of other men. Over the next three days the defeated army’s colors were collected from the battlefield and taken to the Polish and Lithuanian capitals. A peace treaty was concluded at Thorn (mod. Torun) on 1 February 1411.

This decisive defeat ended the eastward expansion of the Teutonic Order, and Prussia lost its position as the most powerful country in east central Europe to Lithuania and Poland. Because of its symbolic character, the victory has always played an important role in the political and cultural life of these two nations.

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