I found myself doing some research on the battle of Tannenberg 1410, a little while after its anniversary in 2010. I coursed a module on the Crusades as a university student and this is a topic I came across. Needless to say, I am not a military historian – but I thought this conflict in the Baltic, which is in essence one of the largest battles in medieval European history deserved some attention here in the blog. So today we will go for a flash back 605 years into the past to what currently is modern-day Poland.
This battle of Tannenberg, took place in a field between the adjoining villages of Grinwald and Tannenberg in 1410. As part of the later crusading movement, it has to be considered that the issue was not any more the reconquest of the Holy Land, but fighting the pagans across Europe, which was just as bad a threat to Christendom. The Teutonic Knights took it in their hands to dispatch justice in the name of God for this purpose. They targeted Lithuania because of various reasons. First of all, because most of the territory remained pagan, and the few people who were Christianised were Orthodox. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Order, in 1386 a marriage between the royal families of Poland and Lithuania took place which lead to an alliance between the Order’s neighbouring states, and the Lithuanian conversion to Christianity. Yes, in case you were not aware, the Teutonic Knights decided that the best way to fight the enemy was to install themselves by the enemy, so in the Baltic, surrounding themselves by pagans and enemies… It is not clear if the acts of the Order were truly based on the fear of this alliance, greed for the neighbouring lands of their estate, or was just something to add to their wish for crusade. So, they decided with their upper hand that this alliance was just a joke and a pretended conversion to the true faith, therefore they needed to monitor and be cautious of what could come of this Polish-Lithuanian conjunction. And things eventually kicked off when trouble arose in Samogitia.
Samogitia had always been a problematic area. The territory lay in western Lithuania, just between the Teutonic lands of Prussia and Livonia, and rebellion against the Order’s influence was something common. But that time the Teutonic Knights went too far. At the beginning of the 15th century, Lithuania suffered from famine, particularly in the Samogitian lands. Poland sent supplies to this area, but they were seized by the Order, because their spies had evidences to think that they were actually transporting weapons rather than food and that the Lithuanian Duke wanted the Samogitians to rebel and exterminate the Order. This would not be something that the Duke would take kindly, and in a way he did the Order a favour by declaring war against them – Although they put that on hold due to an armistice that would expire the 24th of June (1410). In addition, the Order decided to capture the Lithuanian ruler, as they thought the truce would not apply him…Obviously violating the truce agreement, much to the anger of both factions. The resolution to this situation is what the events of the 15th of July, in 1410, came to be at Tannenberg.
June was used basically for recruitment and war preparation, because of the armistice. The Polish troops would configure about 20000 of the soldiers that fought the war. The ‘Banner’, (family or district polish unit), was subdivided into between 50 to 120 ‘lances’ of 2 to 5 men, that will fight along mercenaries from Bohemia and Moravia. War-hammers, pikes and ‘war-flails’ were the foot soldiers weapons. Cavalry would be Lithuania’s contribution to the allied army, as well as some Tartar and Russian troops. The Teutonic lines would count with not so many knights, but secular members of the Order, Prussian, Bohemian and Italian mercenaries, as well as other fellow crusaders. Once the truce was over, the action began. The 1st of July the Lithuanian and Polish armies gathered at Czerwinsk while the Order advanced to the site of Kauernick. Little victories were achieved by the allied forces on the 9th at the assault of Lautenburg, and the 13th when Gildenburg was captured and raided. Finally, the two armies will meet at Tannenberg-Grunwald-Zalgiris. (…Not enough with one name for a battle…).
The morning of the 15th of July was very eventful. Hours before the battle, the leader of the combined Polish-Lithuanian armies, King Wladislaw Jagiello, was praying when he was interrupted, several times, to be informed that the enemy had reached the place and was prepared for battle. Once both armies were settled in the battle field, the Grand Master of the Order, Ulrich Von Jungingen, supposedly sent two swords to Jagiello and Vytautas (the Lithuanian Duke) to serve them in the battle, as they were destined to face each others during the battle. So, the fight started and the blood of both Christian crusaders and ‘miscreants-Saracens’ was spilt throughout the field. Apparently some controversial event stook place during the battle. There was a retreat of the Lithuanian ranks, which is still debated if it was due to panic or a Tartar strategy, to distract some of the Teutonic troops. Then, Jagiello was injured, but somehow saved by the Lithuanians, who came back and attacked the rear ranks of the Order. It seems that with this come back, the Teutonic troops were severely damaged, and in fact, Von Jungingen was killed, which lead to the demoralisation and escape of his knights. Thus, victory was proclaimed to the allied forces of Lithuania and Poland, and so they marched on to Marienburg (headquarters of the Order), which eventually would fall and with it, so would the Knights. In the process, Poland and Lithuania gained new territories which contributed to the assertion of their power in Central-Eastern Europe. Things got pretty ugly for the Order. They became subjugated to the will of German princess, as they failed miserably in their mission, and their status as crusading order was next to nothing.
However, what I think is really important is that the battle of Tannenberg has remained in the memory of these people ever since. And evidences of such a thing can be found through the 20th and 21st Centuries. During the First World War, in 1914, a battle was fought between the Germans and the Russians between the towns of Ortelsburg and Gildenburg. But it is known as the new battle of Tannenberg due to the use of German propaganda of the medieval battle, in order to re-establish their status and authority in this area. The Polish nationalism embraced the victory at Tannenberg so much that the in the area of Galicia, by 1910 there were around 60 towns and villages that had monuments commemorating the battle – most of them destroyed during the First and Second World Wars, and reconstructed during the 60s. Finally, the Bank of Lithuania had a very nice touch with the release of 3 commemorative coins, for the 600 anniversary of the battle. So perhaps the importance of Tannerberg 1410 goes beyond the new nation making and legitimisation in the Middle Ages. I remember asking myself: “was it actually that important?”. As a victory for the Polish-Lithuanian alliance, probably. As a crusade? Apart from a blatant failure, perhaps not so much. And this, of course, is if we even give it the benefit of the doubt in terms of crusading. After deep reflexion on the subject, it becomes evident that this was no crusade, but warmongering fuelled by the 15th centuries quarrels for power and self-assertion in Europe. Pretty much every European nation at the time had internal issues due to the still prolonged and devastating effect of the Black Death, as well as the worsening weather conditions probably due to the Little Ice Age. Once again, I am going to end in controversial terms and suggest that considering the events at Tannenberg as part of the crusading movement, is a narrowed academic way of judging the entire situation. I feel I never fully understood the importance of the conflict because I was studying it from the wrong perspective – I had no background in the socio-political-economic situations of the area, and I mostly had dealt with the Teutonic Knights as a crusader order, and not an identity of its own, with agendas to fulfill and acquisitions to obtain.