October 31, 2022 5 min read
In the 15th Century, the world was a completely different place. The borders of European countries looked nothing like they do today. Then already Christian Poland and its neighbouring Lithuania, ruled by King Władysław II Jagiełło was having major troubles with Teutonic Knights, to put it simply.
Now this may sound strange as both sides of the conflict were Christian, so let’s go into the background of the battle.
Teutonic Knights belonged to the Teutonic Order or The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem. It was a military, Catholic religious order, founded in the beginning of the 12th Century in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Its purpose was to protect the Christians in the Holy Land as well as the Baltics. In the beginning of the 19th Century, they became a religious order only and are active even today, awarding honorary knighthoods.
In the 13th Century, Teutonic Knights came to Chełmno Land (today’s central Poland) and began fighting against the pagan Prussian clans. This was known as the Prussian Crusade. About fifty years later, their mission was complete and Prussians were now converted. Then, Teutonic Knights shifted their focus onto the pagan Grand Duchy of Lithuania and began fighting for parts of its territory.
In 1385, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania married the Queen of Poland, Jadwiga. Jogaila converted to Christianity and became the King of Poland, known as Władysław II Jagiełło. Unfortunately, this was not enough to protect his land from the upcoming war.
When it comes to war, especially in those difficult times, the difference of religion served as a good excuse for a fight over territory which brought in good business. And so the conflict kept getting stronger.
The Teutonic order held control over Lithuanian Samogitia. In May 1409 an uprising started, supported by both Poland and Lithuania. Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen then declared war on both of them. The Knights went on to invade Poland and conflict grew stronger and stronger with each of their moves.
Finally, a truce was signed on 8 October, with an expiration date on 24 June 1410. Instead of finding a common language, both sides used this time to prepare for war. In 1410, the capital of the Teutonic Knights was the town of Malbork. Polish-Lithuanian forces and their allies decided to put all focus into conquering it.
The exact number of men taking part in the Battle of Grunwald is not known. It varies and depends on those telling the history.
The biggest number told was that of 39 thousand on the Polish-Lithuanian side and 27 thousand on the Teutonic side. Although the Teutonic Knights had less men, they had far more military training and had a greater discipline. Both sides consisted of men from different parts of Europe, paid to take part in the battle. For example, Polish-Lithuanian side was joined by three Russianbanners from Smolens, as well as Tatars.
Although King Władysław II Jagiełło commanded the Polish-Lithuanian force, he didn’t participate in the battle itself. Grand Duke Vytautas, the second in command, commanded the Lithuanian units.
After difficult but successful coordination of the gathering of all the troops, the Polish-Lithuanian side of the conflict crossed the Prussian border on 9 July 1410. On 15 July 1410, both armies were found opposing each other in an area covering about 1.5 square miles, between three villages (Grunwald, Tannenberg and Ludwigsdorf).
The Polish-Lithuanian army was east of Ludwigsdorf and Tannenberg. Polish heavy cavalry took the left flank. Lithuaninan light cavalry covered the right flank. Other troops took up the center.
The Teutonic forces, with their heavy cavalry, stood opposite of them. As the Polish King delayed the attack, the Grand Master sent messengers with two swords as a sign of provocation. And so Vytautas began the battle.
After an hour of fierce fighting, Lithuanians retreated, only to come back again. As this was going on, Polish and Teutonic forces began fighting. At one point, the Grand Master got into the battle himself and lost his life on the field. One of the Knights managed to reach the Polish command and attack the Polish King, whose secretary saved his life.
The Teutonic Knights finally found themselves surrounded and outnumbered and had to flee the field.
The battle was said to have lasted for about ten hours, with somewhere between 8000 and 16000 dead. Polish-Lithuanian forces took a few thousand captives and moved on to take command over a few of the Teutonic fortresses - leaving Marlbork out at this point.
In 1411, Poland, Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights signed the Peace of Thorn, ending the war. The 27th Grand Master of Teutonic Knights was now Heinrich von Plauen. The Polish-Lithuanian side didn’t take over Teutonic territories. But, the Teutonic Knights were obliged to pay up to the winners of the war, and could not cope with the financial burden.
The Battle of Grunwald or Bitwa pod Grunwaldem as it is known, remains one of the largest battles that took place in Eastern Europe. Its history is taught in schools, and its course was an inspiration for numerous artists. It inspired also other acts, like the Nazi and the Soviet propaganda.
The Battle of Tannenberg (which is also the name for The Battle of Grunwald in German), was fought at the beginning of World War I. In August 1914, German forces fought the Soviet forces. It didn’t take place on the exact same spot as The Battle of Grunwald, but was fought nearby and held the note of vengeance for the defeated Teutonic Knights. The battle was led by Paul von Hindenburg, who was the one to appoint Adolf Hitler the Chancellor of Germany.
Going back to the arts, it is important to mention the famous painting by Jan Matejko, depicting the battle, from 1878. Displayed in the National Museum in Warsaw, it shows the death of the Grand Master. It is a large painting, 168 inches by 389 inches, holding a special spot in the Museum as one of the painter’s most famous works.
If you would like to know more about The Battle of Grunwald, there is a famous film depicting it, from the 1960, called the Black Cross or Krzyżacy. It was directed by Alexander Ford, a filmmaker born in what was then the Russian Empire.
If you’re ever in Poland and find you have some free time on your hands, do pay a visit to the site of the Battle of Grunwald. It will be an interesting experience to see the enormous grounds with your own eyes. You can also pay a visit to the little Museum of The Battle of Grunwald.
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