Unknown painter under influence of Lucas Cranach the Elder, known as “The Master of the Battle of Orsha”
The Battle of Orsha took place September 8, 1514, between the forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland (less than 30,000 troops), under the command of Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski, and the army of Muscovy under Konyushy (конюший, “Tsar’s Equerry”) Ivan Chelyadnin (Иван Челяднин) and Kniaz (Prince) Mikhail Golitsa (Михаил Голица).
The Battle of Orsha was part of a long chain of wars conducted by Russian tsars striving to gather all the Old Ruthenian lands under their rule .The much smaller army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland defeated the Muscovite forces, capturing their camp and commander.
Battle of Orsza, by an unknown painter under influence of Lucas Cranach the Elder, known as “The master of the Battle of Orsza”.Oil on wood, probably after 1524 or even 1530. According to the specialists, the author must’ve taken part in the battle himself. The painting is currently on exposition in the National Museum in Warsaw.
At the end of 1512, Muscovy began a new war for the Ruthenian lands of present-day Belarus and Ukraine that were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The fortress of Smolensk was then the easternmost outpost of the Grand Duchy and one of the most important strongholds guarding it from the east. It repelled several Muscovite attacks, but in July 1514 a Muscovite army of 80,000 men and 300 guns besieged and finally captured it. (Some historians claim that the size of Muscovy’s army has been overstated: see “Disputed data,” below.)
Spurred on by this initial success, the Grand Prince of Muscovy Vasili III ordered his forces farther into Belarus, occupying the towns of Krychau, Mscislau and Dubrouna.
Meanwhile Poland’s King Sigismund the Old gathered some 35,000 troops for war with the eastern neighbor. This army was inferior in numbers, but comprised mostly well-trained cavalry. The forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland placed under the command of Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski included:
16,000 horse of the Grand Duchy,
14,000 Polish cavalry (light and heavy), 3,000 mercenary infantry,
2,500 volunteers, mostly from Bohemia.
Marching into Belarus, King Sigismund secured the town of Barysau with a 4,000-strong force, while the main forces moved on to face the Muscovites. At the end of August, several skirmishes took place at crossings of the Berezina, Bobr and Druts Rivers, but the Muscovite army avoided a major confrontation.
Suffering negligible losses, the Muscovites advanced to the area between Orsha and Dubrouna on the River Krapiuna, where they set up camp. Ivan Chelyadnin, confident that the Lithuanian-Polish forces would have to cross one of two bridges on the Dnepr, split his own forces to guard those crossings. However, Ostrogski’s army crossed the river farther north via two pontoon bridges. On the night of September 7, it began preparations for a final battle with the Muscovites. Hetman Ostrogski placed most of his 16,000 Lithuanian (Litvin) horse in the center, while most of the Polish infantry and the auxiliary troops manned the flanks. The Bohemian and Silesian infantry were deployed in the center of the line, in front of reserves comprising Lithuanian and Polish cavalry.
On September 8, 1514, shortly after dawn, Ivan Chelyadnin gave the order to attack. The Muscovite forces attempted to outflank the Lithuanians and Poles by attacking the flanks, manned by Polish troops. One of the pincers of the attack was commanded by Chelyadnin personally, while the other was led by Prince Bulgakov-Golitsa. The initial attack failed, and the Muscovites withdrew toward their starting positions. Chelyadnin was still confident that the almost 3:1 odds in his favor would give him the victory. However, preoccupied with his own wing of the Muscovite forces, he lost track of the other sectors and failed to coordinate a defense against the counterattack by the Lithuanian cavalry, which until then had been kept in reserve.
The Lithuanian light horse attacked the overstretched center of the Muscovite lines in an attempt to split them. At the crucial moment the horse of the Grand Duchy seemed to waver, then went into retreat. The Muscovites pursued with all their cavalry reserves. The Lithuanian horse, after retreating for several minutes, chased by the Muscovites, suddenly turned to the sides. The Muscovite horse now found themselves confronted by artillery concealed in the forest. From both sides, Polish forces appeared and proceeded to surround the Muscovites. Ivan Chelyadnin sounded retreat, which soon became somewhat panicky. The Muscovite forces were pursued by the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for five kilometers.
The Muscovite defeat is often attributed to repeated failures by Ivan Chelyadnin and Golitsa to coordinate their operations.
According to accounts in Polish chronicles, at the Battle of Orsha 30,000 Muscovites were killed and an additional 3,000 were taken captive, including Ivan Chelyadnin and eight other commanders. The forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland seized the Muscovite camp and all 300 cannon.
Upset at word of the massive defeat, Muscovite Grand Prince Vasili III allegedly remarked that “the prisoners [were] as useful as the dead” and declined to negotiate their return. The Battle of Orsha was one of the biggest battles of 16th-century Europe. Ostrogski’s forces continued their pursuit of the routed Muscovite army and retook most of the previously captured strongholds. However, the Lithuanian and Polish forces were too exhausted to besiege Smolensk before winter. Also Ostrogski did not reach the gates of Smolensk until late September, giving Vasili III enough time to prepare defense.
In December 1514, Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski triumphantly entered Vilnius. To commemorate the victory, two Orthodox churches were erected: the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Church of Saint Nicholas, which remain among the most impressive examples of Orthodox Church architecture in Lithuania.
Despite its assumed greatness the Battle of Orsha didn’t entail essential political consequences, which awakes doubts about the traditional interpretation of its course and number of casualties (see: disputed data). It obviously could not compensate the strategical results of the preceding Battle of Vedrosha. The war between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Muscovy lasted until 1520. In 1522 a peace was signed, under the terms of which the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was forced to cede to Muscovy about a quarter of its Ruthenian possessions, including Smolensk. The latter city was not retaken from Russia until almost a century later, in 1611.
Due to the spectacular proportions of the defeat, information about the Battle of Orsha was suppressed in Muscovite chronicles. Even reputable historians of the Russian Empire such as Sergey Solovyov rely on non-Russian sources. On the other hand, King Sigismund I of Poland sought to gain as much political advantage as possible from his victory. Hence the figures quoted regarding the sizes of the respective forces, and the numbers of casualties and prisoners taken, are questioned by some modern historians.
In particular, the size of the Muscovite army (80,000) is thought to have been seriously exaggerated. Even Ivan the Terrible, who commanded a larger territory than his father, could never muster more than 40,000 troops, 20% of whom were newly-conquered Tatars and Finns. As a consequence, the number of killed (30,000) is also questioned.
Indirect evidence of exaggeration may be that King Sigismund wrote Pope Leo X and other European rulers that his army had killed 30,000 Muscovites and taken prisoner 46 commanders and 1,500 nobles. Extant Polish and Lithuanian documents, however, list all captured nobles by name, only 611 men in all.