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Posted on Feb 21, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Tannenberg – The battle that decided the fate of Eastern Europe

By Joshua Gilbert

 t1.jpg
Grunwald, a painting by Wojciech Kossak

The battle of Tannenberg (also known as Grunwald or Zalgiris) was fought on July 15th, 1410 in what is now Poland. In this battle the combined forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Union fought against the army of the Order of Teutonic Knights. Tannenberg was the largest battle of the Middle Ages, and one of the most decisive in history.

The road to Tannenberg began with a conversion. The Order of Teutonic Knights was German crusading order that had been given a mission by the Pope himself to bring the Word of Christ to Eastern Europe. But the Knights often exceeded their mandate and began to become more focused on territorial ambitions then their original mission. By the 14th Century the Ordenstaat (German: Order State), as the Teutonic Knights referred to their lands, had become the greatest power in Eastern Europe. By that time Lithuania was the only remaining pagan power in Europe.

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In 1385 that all changed. Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania, announced he had accepted Christ and would be baptized as soon as possible, after that he planned to formalize a marriage agreement with Jadwiga, the pre-teen Monarch of Poland (Poland did not have Queens). At first the announcement was viewed with suspicion, a favorite political tactic of past Grand Dukes was to pretend to convert, become baptized, then go right back to their old ways. One particularly famous example, Jogaila’s own cousin Witold, was baptized five times between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But Jogaila meant this one. He was baptized and took the name Wladyslaw Jagiello in 1386, not long after he formalized the marriage agreement with the Polish nobility so that he would marry Jadwiga when she came of age, becoming King Wladyslaw II. One year later Wladyslaw began the construction of the first cathedral in Lithuania and mass conversions followed. However the Teutonic Knights still believed the whole thing to have been a giant attempt to fool them and the attacks on Lithuania continued.

Over the course of the next several years the Knights used the growing friction between Poland and Lithuania, even in Wladyslaw’s own family, to their advantage. The resulting problems this caused, coupled with the invasions of the Teutonic Knights, kept the Union in turmoil. This changed in 1401 when Wladyslaw gave up the rule of Lithuania to Witold. This caused the political climate to heat up and both the Knights and the Union expanded their domains. It seemed by now that a war between the superpowers of Eastern Europe was inevitable, all it would take was a single spark.

Previously in 1398 the Teutonic Knights had launched a massive invasion of Union territory, capturing among others, Zemaitijia, better known as Samogitia, the cradle of the Lithuanian identity. Neither the Poles nor the Lithuanians were prepared to fight the invaders at the time and they were forced to endure the humiliation in silence. By 1408 Witold, who had taken the loss especially hard, felt secure enough in power to instigate a revolt in Zemaitijia against Teutonic rule. When news of the revolt spread to King Wladyslaw he declared his support for rebels, Witold followed suite soon after. On August 14, 1409 Hochmeister (German: Grand Master) Ulrich von Jungingen of the Order of Teutonic Knights declared war on  the Polish-Lithuanian Union. The war was on.

With the Teutonic declaration of war, the fight that had been coming so long had finally arrived. The Knights launched a grand invasion of Greater Poland and Kuyavia, and many fortresses fell quickly to their advancing forces. The Poles fought back and repulsed the Knights, conquering Bydgoszcz (also known as Bromberg). These opening actions showed that neither side was really ready to wage a full scale war and the Hochmeister proposed a armistice to Wladyslaw and Witold. Both men had also noticed the woeful lack of preparation for the war and agreed to the Hochmeister’s terms. The truce was to last from October 8th, 1409 to June 24th, 1410. Upon the signing of the agreement Wladyslaw made this famous comment: "Next year we either conquer the Crossed Knights or we perish as a nation and individuals".

Following this both sides began send spies, messengers, and diplomats as they geared up for the titanic clash that all of Europe had been waiting for. Both sides sharpened their weapons, fitted new armor, and shod the horses. On the Polish-Lithuanian side Wladyslaw sent out riders to visit upon his vassals and allies. And they responded whole-heartedly to the call: The Mongols of Kiev vowed to send their cavalry after May, 1410, the Bohemians also promised to send support under Jan Sokol (interestingly Jan Zizka, the military genius of the Hussites a decade later was among the Bohemians), additional forces also came from the Prince of Moldavia. In December, 1409 Wladyslaw, Witold, and Jalal ad-Din, leader of the Mongol contingent, met together at Brzesc Litewsk to plan war strategy.

The main focus of the plan was to fight the Teutonic Knights on equal terms and crush them. From there they planned to march on to the fortress of Ordensburg Marienburg, the home castle of the Knights, believed to be impregnable. For their part the Knights also recruited foreign help, mostly in the form of foreign ‘crusaders’ coming to take part in the great war with the ‘pagans’. Among these foreign soldiers were French, English, Hungarians, Austrians, Bavarians, Thuringians, Bohemians, Luxembourgians, Flamands, Dutch, even Poles who did not like Wladyslaw II. Sigismund of Luxembourg, King of the Romans (the title held by someone elected as Holy Roman Emperor, but not yet crowned), promised support to the Knights but he was blocked by his brother Wenzel IV of Bohemia, who supported the Poles.

Around the second week of June, 1410 (exact date unknown) not long before the end of the truce the Hochmeister asked for an extension on the truce till July 2nd . Wladyslaw and Witold agreed to extension, as it would allow them to further prepare.  At last the date finally approached and lead by King Wladyslaw in personal command the combined army of the Union of Poland and Lithuania set out, crossing the Vistula on the expiration date, making for Marienburg. This had caught von Jungingen by surprise, he had expected the Polish and Lithuanians to attack in the direction of Memel and Samogitia and had deployed his army as such. But the Hochmeister was not going to let this defeat him, he withdrew his forces and deployed them along the banks of the Drewenz.

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2 Comments

  1. Please respond to sean21122@yahoo.com. What are your sources? I’ve attempted to research as much as possible on this conflict and I find absolutely no source for the Lithuanian “fake” retreat and subsequent ambush. In fact, if you read Dlugosz, he states that the Teutonic Knights actually returned with captives after pursuing the retreating Lithuanians. And he makes no mention of the Lithanians returning at all. Please let me know how you researched this. Thanks.

  2. Not only is the research questionable, there are typos in the second paragraph. All of this may be acceptable for a blog, but not for a history publisher. Accordingly, I stopped reading.

    The painting’s cool, though.

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