Tannenberg 1410

The Battle of Tannenberg was, like Zama or Waterloo, one of those
'High Noon' situations that occur every so often in history when
conflict reaches a crucial stage. It was fought in what is now
Poland and Lithuania. It's practical effect was to preserve
Eastern Europe from becoming a German colony. The significance
of this I leave for you to consider, in all its ramifications.

The Teutonic Order was founded in 1190 to care for German knights on
the Third Crusade. Like the Templars (originally French) and the
Hospitallers (originally English) it started purely as a nursing
mission. Frederick of Swabia, son of Barbarossa and in charge of the
German contingent on the Crusade, backed the idea and suggested that
the order be enlarged to contain four grades of member. Ritterbruder
(knights), Priesterbruder (chaplains), DienendeBruder (serving-men) and
Balbschwestern (Nursing nuns). The Order grew in importance rapidly.
In 1197, Henry Vl of Germany presented it with the monastry at Palermo,
which gave it a base; and in 1210, the Grand Master, Herman von Salza,
was invited to the council at Acre that discussed treaty terms with the
Moslems. Its real rise to temporal power started in 1226, when the Duke
of Masovia, the part of Poland adjacent to Prussia, asked the Order for
aid against the heathen Prussians who were continually carrying out
damaging border raids. Von Salza, still Grand Master and a superb
diplomat, obtained Kulm (or Chelmno) as a base and the right to retain
all lands 'converted', nominally under the suzerainty of the Duke of
Masovia. At the same time, he got Frederick II of Germany to back the
Order's retention of lands conquered and the Pope's permission to grant
crusading status to the Order's activities in Prussia. By skillful
fighting, treachery, aggression, diplomacy, and administration, the
Knights expanded rapidly until by 1283 they were in possession of the
lands between the Vistula and the Memel, together with Courland and a
large chunk of Livonia. The whole emphasis of the Order moved from
Middle East to North East Europe, and in 1309, it's headquarters were
moved from Venice to Mariennburg, Danzig (Gdansk) and Eastern Pomerania
being treacherously annexed shortly after. German settlers were brought
in in the wake of-the Knights (in 40 years 1,400 German villages were
established in Prussia alone) and the 'Drang nach Osten' looked for
other outlets. There were two: Poland, which was Christian, and
Lithuania, which became converted rapidly in an attempt to pre-empt the

The Pope, in fact, recognised the conversion of the Lithuanians (which
the Knights claimed was 'insincere') and also ratified a complicated
marriage tangle in Poland which resulted in the astute King Jagiello,
a Henry VII type figure, being confirmed on the throne and in the
overlordship of Lithuania, which was held by his cousin Witold.

Nevertheless, the Knights continued their pressure and the years 1400-10
saw an increasing antagonism and series of crises which erupted in 1410
to full scale war. This was clearly seen coming by both sides but there
can be no doubt that the Teutonic Order prepared for it the better,
gaining the support of the Kings of Bohemia and Hungary as well as
recruiting considerable numbers of volunteer 'crusaders'. Except for
size, the Order's army should have had every advantage. It's heavy
cavalry was, of course, it's backbone and was excellent; it was backed
up by mercenary archers, both Genoese cross and English long and these
in addition to an early investment in artillery, made their forces
flexible and able to defend and attack. The Poles had some well armed
and mounted knights but there were also quite a few peasants with rural
implements. The Lithuanians were mounted on smaller horses with no plate
armour and armed with bows, sabres and lassoos. They included a fair
number of Tartars, which was useful propaganda for the Knights. The
Polish discipline was good, that of the Lithuanians was weaker but
Witold held a considerable magnetism and seems to have been a
charismatic leader. The other factor in the Allies favour was the sheer
desperation, defeat would mean the occupation of Poland by the Order.

Jagiello and Witold determined to carry the fight to the enemy and in
July, 1410, crossed into Prussia. By the early hours of the 15th, the
two armies were converging on the villages of Tannenberg and Grunwald
(which is the name by which the Poles remember the battle), the Allies
from the southwest, the Order from the West. Numbers are of course
difficult to determine; a reasonable set of figures seems to be:

Allies            Teutonic Order
29,000 cavalry    21,000 cavalry
10,000 infantry   6,000 infantry

The night of July 14th, was particularly stormy; many Teutonic tents
were flattened and when at dawn, King Jagiello tried to hear Mass, it
proved impossible to erect the chapel tent. On Witold's advice, the army
moved from Dabrowne to the woods around Lake Lubien. It would appear
that few scouts covered the army's march, for the chapel was put up in
the shelter of the trees (in the position shown on the map) and it was
only while the King was walking to it that a knight galloped up,
reporting the enemy to be only a short distance off, more than a
squadron in strength. Hard on his heels came others, each with more
information, until it became obvious that the entire enemy force was
present and drawn up against the Poles in battle order. Only Jagiello's
vanguard was in any sort of order, and the position could have been
serious: a Teutonic attack did not, however, materialise, and Jagiello
refused to be dissuaded from his prayers.

Witold, considerably less pious, disposed his Lithuanians and Tartars to
the north of the Lake; the Polish commander, Zyndram, threw as many
squadrons as he could into line around the west and south of it.
Gradually, the allied forces settled down and by about 9am both sides
were drawn up, each waiting for the other to make the first move .

Three hours passed; and when noon came, there was still no sign of
either side attempting to break the impasse. (You can under stand this
when you look at the map). The Knights, knowing themselves to be less
strong in numbers, had decided on a defensive-offensive set-up. They
hoped that the Slavs would attack first, be halted by the obstacles,
infantry and artillery; and once halted could then be thrown back in
rout by a massive heavy cavalry counter-attack. The Poles, for their
part, did not wish to be drawn into attacking such a well-disposed
position. So the stalemate continued.

Shortly after noon, von Jungingen, the Grand Master of the Order decided
that the time had come to gall the Poles into attacking. He sent two of
his knights, under a flag of truce, to see Jagiello, one in the livery
of the Holy Roman Empire the other in that of the Duke of Stettin. Both
bore sheathless swords, and arrogantly presented them, asking if these
were sufficient arms for the Poles to come out from the woods and join
battle, and offering, if Jagiello wished, to withdraw so that he might
have more room to rnanouevre. The King could not ignore this challenge;
medieval chivalry would not allow otherwise. He accepted the swords
graciously, dismissed the two knights and gave the order for battle.

Singing the hymn 'Bogurodzica' (Mother of God), the Poles advanced in a
disciplined body, but on the right wing the Lithuanians swarmed forward,
swamping the infantry and artillery before them. They were halted by the
heavy cavalry of the Order. The greater part of the battle lines closed
and it was said that the sound of their joining could be heard for
miles. The battle field was a dense mass of armoured men, fighting
ferociously with no quarter being allowed. Both sides held their
positions for almost an hour, and then, like a slowly wheeling rugby
scrum, the lines began to swing. On the Polish right, the Lithuanians
had been held by the first line of knights (B on the map). Now von
Jungingen sent in the unit immediately behind (A) and the second line
unit on it's right (C). The Lithuanians wavered and then broke,
scattering as they fled; some did not halt until they regained the
safety of their own country.

The Knights pursued the fugitives closely (with units A,B & C) while one
unit swung round to the flank of the seriously threat ened Poles. The
immediate day was saved by the Smolensk squadrons which stood firm,
though one ceased to exist and it's banner was taken.Jagiello threw in
his reinforce ments (at F) and the front was stabilised once more.

Over on the Polish left wing, the Poles had had better success, possibly
because of the break in the Teutonic lines caused by the marsh and the
village of Lodwigowo. The Poles had sent unit E over to reinforce their
main body and had driven the Knights back to such an extent that the
units north of Lodwigowo had had to move North West to preserve the

It was on the Polish right that the crisis of the battle was to take
place, however. A shower of rain had laid the dust and given both sides
time to regroup. This was most useful to the Knights, whose units
engaged in the pursuit of the Lithuanians were now returning and, seeing
the retirement of their own right flank, threw themselves against the
Polish right. Jagiello used his last reserves (unit G ) and the
situation was again, just held. Von Jungingen, seeing that the crucial
time had come, took personal command of his reserve of sixteen squadrons
and led them round to the now wavering Polish right This scale of
reinforcement was certain to secure the day. Victory would go to the

This was the moment of truth. As the squadrons of the Order approached,
one of them broke away from the main body and wheeled towards the
hillock where Jagiello sat, the Royal Standard before him. A messenger
was sent to the nearest Polish unit, commanding them to fall back to
cover the King but there were literally no more reserves. The commander
refused to break off the fight and fall back, pointing out that if his
men turned their backs they would be defeated and the King would be in
still greater danger.

While the King's standard was furled and his household knights fanned
out, one of the Teutonic knights detached himself from the squadron and
lowering his lance, charged straight for Jagiello. The Polish King
prepared to meet him, but almost within striking distance, the king's
secretary, Zbigniw of Olesnica, caught him in the side with the
splintered half of a lance he had broken in the fighting, and tumbled
the Teuton from his horse. As he lay, winded Jagiello smashed his
bascinet, so that the Knight's face was exposed, and before any further
action could be taken, the infantry had fallen on the Knight, killing
him and stripping the corpse of his white tabard, golden belt and fine

This encounter was disastrous, not only for the Knight concerned but for
the whole Teutonic army. Von Jungingen's counter offensive had drawn up
and halted to watch the outcome of the duel: the Poles had used the time
it bought them to re-deploy and the Knights now found that they had lost
the surprise. The initiative was completely taken from them by the
arrival of a strong force of Lithuanians in their rear. Witold had
reformed the better elements of his force and these now attacked the
Knights from behind with added ferocity. Just as the Knights wavered,
the commander of the squadron from which the lone challenger had come
stood in his stirrups and bellowed 'Herum! Herum!'

The Teutonic morale had suddenly cracked, but it was too late for an
orderly withdrawal The Poles had broken the line between the
Lodwigow--Tannenberg road and the stream and the Knights were now in two
units, each surrounded by the enemy. They resisted with spirit, but with
no room for manouevre. Some fought their way out in small batches--the
majority fell, including von Jungingen himself, the Grand Marshall, the
Grand Preceptor, the Treasurer and most of the leading figures. Among
those captured were Prinz Conrad of Silesia and Prinz Casimir of

By about 6pm the remnants of the Order's army were in full flight, the
camp being left to the camp-followers. The Poles took a great deal of
plunder there, as well as finding grim reminders of their fate, had they
lost the day. (In addition to prison carts for notable captives, there
were quantities of torches and arrows and javelins soaked in resin,
grease and tar for disposing of the lower orders). The Polish soldiers
began to drink wine they had looted, but such was Jagiello's control
that he was able to stop them and get them to continue the pursuit. By
nightfall, the fields were strewn for miles with dying men. There is
even more dispute over the casualties suffered than there is over the
numbers involved; certainly they were heavy on both sides. There is no
doubt, however, that the Teutonic army which fought at Tannenberg had
ceased to exist.

In the campaign that followed, Jagiello failed to follow up his success
as quickly as he might have, and the remaining strongholds of the Order
were able to hold out until the Polish army went home in the Autumn. In
the winter of negotiation, the Knights again proved themselves to be
better courters of 'world opinion' than the Slavs and con sequently
Jagiello had to content himself with gains less extensive than the
victory of Tannenberg might have led him to expect.

Nevertheless, the Treaty of Torun signed in February 1411, saw the Order
paying a three year war indemnity and handing over Samogitia to
Lithuania. Jagiello's son, Casimir IV, presided over the Peace of Torun
in 1466 by which time the Order ceased to be independent and the Grand
Master became a Polish vassal.

I think it must be rather difficult for us placid Anglo-Saxons to
appreciate the extent to which other countries are stirred by old
defeats. l used to think that the Irish were daft enough harping on
about the Battle of the Boyne, until I went to College in North Wales
and was constantly exhorted to 'Remember 1284' by the Nationalists. (For
those of you who can't quite recall 1284, among the things that happened
that year was the death--stabbed in the back while drinking (by the
English of course)--of the last Prince of Wales). Anyway, Tannenberg
seems to have galled the Germans in much the same way. Ludendorff
revealed in 1919 that he chose the name for his 1914 victory over the
Russians quite deliberately although other place names would have done
better, just to level the score.

An immense monument shaped as a Teutonic castle was erected on the site
of the first battle, andi it was here that Hindenburg's ashes were laid
in 1934. The final levelling was done in 1939, when one of the first
acts of the German forces entering Cracow was to destroy the monument
Paderwski has erected in 1910, melting the bronzes for guns and
smoothing the ground so that no trace of it remained.

Martin Davis