The war against pagan Lithuania

The war against pagan Lithuania has been described as a war of attrition, but this gives little idea of how it was conducted. Since it lasted for more than a hundred years, during which both combatants grew, steadily richer and more powerful, neither the Order nor the heathen can be said to have achieved the aim of a war of attrition. There was some kind of fighting almost every year from 1283 to 1406, vast expenditure of labour and money, and a continuous record of atrocities and devastation: both war-machines were effective enough to conserve an economically viable homeland, but ineffective enough to leave the enemy’s resources undestroyed.

To explain this paradox, it is necessary to look at the geography of the region. At this period, most of it was covered by a dense deciduous forest, reaching from the Baltic coast to the Beresina, and from the Pripet marshes to the Dvina. In the middle of this area, on the upper Niemen, Viliya, and upper Dvina, the Lithuanians and their Russian tributaries had cleared enough land to support sizable populations; but this still left a belt of uncleared land, almost 100 miles wide, between them and the Order’s settled zones in Prussia and Livonia. Within this belt, the going was very tough: not only trees, undergrowth and the thickets left as hege or barriers all round Samogitia, but also marsh, bog, lake and the innumerable tributaries of the great rivers, presented problems of logistics and transport which medieval armies were ill equipped to solve. There survives a compilation of routes between Prussia and Lithuania (Die Littauischen Wegeberichte, made 1384-1402) which gives a clear picture of the difficulties. For example, if you had got to Betygala, near the upper Dubysa, which flows into the Niemen from Samogitia, and you wanted to proceed to Vandziogala, north of Kaunas, twenty-one miles as the crow flies, thirty-five by modern by-roads, the following route (twenty seven miles) was offered: first there was a damerow, or patch of scrubland, with a track; then a great wood where you had to clear your way (rumen); then there was a heath; then another wood, ‘the length of a crossbow shot, and there you have to clear your way too’; then a heath; then another wood (more trail-blazing for over three miles). That was on the edge of the true Wiltnisse: the route from the Prussian lowlands to the upper Niemen crossed the middle of it. One way which was found by a native Prussian scout was described in a letter that was copied into the Wegeberichte, and dated from lnsterburg (Chernyakhovsk) on the Pregolya. It begins,

Dear Lord Marshal,

Take notice in your wisdom that by God’s grace Gedutte and his company have got back in safety and have completed everything yousent us to carry out and have marked the w. ay so far as 4! miles this side of the Niemen, along a route that crosses the Niemen and leads straight into the country.

They had travelled a distance of less than seventy miles as the crow flies, in nine stages, each marked by a ‘night-camp’ at the end of a day’s journey; and these were experienced rangers, carrying out a mission as quickly as possible. They reported that they had ‘found a lot of peoples and a lot of houses in the waste’, and alternative routes listed in the Wegeberichte suggest that there was no lack of ‘good and secret’ tracks, if only people knew where they were; but nothing like a public road that could be used by armies and merchants. Knights who left the track, or failed to travel in parties, were sure to be killed or die of starvation; armies were constantly getting lost or failing to make contact with the enemy. A good day’s journey through the Wiltnisse was about twelve miles; it took a week to get from Kaunas to Vilnius (fifty-five miles apart as the crow flies), four days from Merkine to Trakai (forty-three miles), six days from Trakai to Traby (fifty-two miles). Only the Niemen and the Dvina provided sure methods of bulk transport through these forest zones, and both rivers were often used in support of military operations- for bringing up supplies, bricks, siege-machines, horses, reinforcements- but there were still problems. The upper Dvina is a fairly rapid river in places, running between steep banks, and therefore river-borne armies had a hard pull upstream: only once did the Livonians get to Polotsk by water. The southern tributaries that flowed from Lithuania were short and shallow. The Niemen is remarkably placid and winding. So extravagant were its meanders that it was said in the fifteenth century that boatmen could spend a day going round one of these bends and light their evening fire by walking a short distance over to the embers left in yesterday’s camp. Progress this slow would not matter when there was a castle to be built, or when, as before 1283, the enemy was only a few miles away, but it became a severe handicap when a campaign had to be fought a long way up – or downriver; and weather conditions made speed essential. Both Prussians and Lithuanians kept prams and longboats on the Niemen, and sometimes they raided and fought in them; they were essential for keeping the Order’s castles above Tilsit (Sovetsk) supplied; but it was not practicable to float large invasion forces to the mouth or headwaters of the river within the ‘real time’ available to summer campaigners. Short cuts were sometimes found: thus in 1376 the commander of Balga had six-man boats built on the banks of the Niemen when he got there by the overland route, and in 1393 the marshal carried his boats thirty-six miles on waggons. But these stratagems were only ways of cutting down a marginal difference between two very slow and cumbersome ways of travelling. On the whole, the mounted expedition guided by expert woodsmen (Leitzlute) remained the only effective way of getting into enemy territory where there were tracks; while, where there were none, one could only go on toot.

The climate placed further restrictions on such expeditions. Then as now, the region was liable to heavy rains and heavy snowfalls, and, since there were no roads, the effect of either was to make movement impossible. Sheer cold made it impossible for the Order to invade Lithuania in the winter of 1322-3; the common soldiers fell dead on the march, and many of the fruit-trees that had been planted in Livonia and Prussia never recovered. In February 1376 the snow was so deep that a Livonian expedition had to ride out in single file, and that March the Lithuanians lost a thousand horses from hardship. In other years, as in 1387, the snow lay so thick that no one attempted to get through. But a ‘weak winter’ was even worse: unless the ground froze – 120 days of frost is the modern average-it would not support men or horses, and there could be no fighting. The rain swelled the rivers and soaked the soil. When the snow melted, and the ice broke up on the rivers (any time during March and April), communications were again impossible, and autumn rainfall could be intolerably heavy. However eager the enemies were to fight each other, they were always apt to be kept apart by the weather. Thus in 1394 Duke Philip of Burgundy wrote to the grand master asking whether there would be a reysa the following year, and Conrad von Jungingen had to write back,

we cannot offer any consolation or certain hope in a matter of this kind to the glorious lord himself, or to any man living, because it is impossible to provide a truthful forecast of future contingencies, especially since on our expeditions we are obliged to go across great waters and vast solitudes by dangerous ways … on account of which they frequently depend on God’s will and disposition, and also on the weather.

There were only two sets of weather conditions which would allow serious campaigning, and neither could be expected to last for more than two months at the outside. One was a ‘hard’ or ‘good’ winter: not too cold for a man to relieve himself in the open air, or too snowy for riding, but just sharp enough to congeal the bogs, harden the ground and freeze over the rivers. As in 1364, for example: ‘This year winter was hard, and it lasted three months, so that we had several good reysen … .’ The other set of favourable conditions was provided by a hot sun and drying winds, so that land and water transport could be used in combination. This could happen any time from April to October, or not at all, and was unlikely to last for more than a month. In both cases, a sudden change in the weather could prove disastrous. Floods in summer or thawing ice in winter could trap an army without hope of relief, as when King Wladyslaw III of Poland was caught between two swollen lakes on the frontier of Chelmno in August 1332, or when the thawing of the Strawen made it impossible for the fleeing Lithuanians to escape from Marshal von Kniprode in February 1348. The effect of these risks was to confine all large-scale operations to areas along the Niemen and Dvina, where there were tried and tested escape routes, and where warfare took the form of siege and castle-building. It was also prudent, when more ambitious invasions were attempted, to split up the invading army into detachments so as to reduce the chances of disaster. This was grasped from an early date by the Order, which had fewer men to lose.

Different weathers and seasons imposed different types of campaign on the belligerents. The winter-reysa had to be a rapid foray of some 200 – 2000 men, carrying both rations and fodder at the back of their saddles; the object was to loot, devastate and depopulate a given area as quickly as possible. On reaching enemy territory, they would put up simple cabins, or maia, to store their provisions and plunder, then spread out and do all the damage they could without taking or building forts, or spending long enough to invite a serious counter-attack. After each day’s plunder they would return to headquarters and camp for the night, moving on the next day. A good winter-reysa had to arrive without warning, and retire before the enemy could mobilise or the weather changed. Hermann of Wartberg records one such success in 1378: the Livonians went into Lithuania in February, stayed there for nine suwalky (overnight camps) and came back with 531 head of cattle and 723 horses. Meanwhile the Prussians also had una bona reisa, according to Wigand of Marburg, and returned with a 100 prisoners. There were usually two winter-reysen, one in December, one in January or February, leaving a gap for the Christmas festivities, when the seven hour day left too little time for raiding. This, at any rate, was the custom of the Teutonic Knights, who appear to have campaigned in winter more regularly than the Lithuanians, perhaps because their bases were nearer the Baltic coast and less snow-bound than the Lithuanian heart lands. The Lithuanians did make great winter incursions, notably in 1322-3, when the cold was too great for the Order to attack Lithuania, and in 11356, 1370 and 1382 under Kenstutis, but for the most part they seem to have calculated that their frontier garrisons were likely to do more harm to the raiders than they would inflict on the Order by going out themselves. Like Nicholas I, they put their trust in generals Janvier and Fevrier.

The sommer-reysa was usually a bigger affair, when the masters of Prussia and Livonia mobilised all their resources for a full hervart (offensive expedition), and the grand-prince set out with a karias (large army) of boyars, castellans and their levies. It was usually intended to secure new ground by destroying an enemy fort or building a new one in enemy territory, but it always involved devastation, plunder and harassment as well, and was sometimes preceded by smaller incursions intended to ‘soften up’ and impoverish the area round the fort marked out for attack. The Order’s marshal appears to have collected reports on the enemy’s state of readiness, and to have made his plans accordingly; thus in the Wegeberichte there is information about places forty miles to the east of Grodno (Dubitshki, Vasilishki, Zheludok and Volkovisk), which ‘lie thirty-six, forty-five and fifty-four miles apart from each other, and are full of arable estates, and they report that no armed force has yet been to that part of the country.’ And, when von Kniprode went to besiege Kaunas in 1362, he was acting on the reports of a reconnaissance made the previous year.

Since there was always a wilderness to cross, the summer campaigners had to carry their food with them, as in winter, and in 1365 von Kniprode insisted on a full month’s supply for every man. However, they could expect to find grass for their horses on the march, and the routes marked by the leitzlute went through places where there was ‘good water and fodder’. Even if no forts were taken, there would always be hauls of people and animals; as in 1376, when Kenstutis returned from the Pregolya with fifty mares and sixty stallions from the stud farm at lnsterburg and 900 prisoners, and in 1378, when the commander of Ragnit carried off forty waggon-loads of spoil from Samogitia. However, the quest for plunder could sometimes go too far. In September 1314, Marshal Henry of Prussia pushed over 100 miles east of Grodno to Novogrudok, leaving his loaves and packhorses at maia along the return route, and discovered that the castellan of Grodno, Gediminas’s brother David, had swooped on them before he could reach them; his troops had to eat their own horses, and any herbs and roots they could find, on the way back to Prussia, and many died of starvation.

It was always safer to raid lands adjacent to the Dvina and the Niemen, within reach of river-boats, castles and bailey-bridges, and it was here that most of the fighting took place. Each side was trying to hold (in the case of the Dvina) or gain (in the case of the Niemen) a stretch of river that could be fortified and garrisoned so as to serve as a reliable entry into enemy country beyond the wilderness. This meant lavishing more and more resources on territory that had little intrinsic value and could not be properly settled or cleared for as long as hostilities lasted. Raids into fertile country, if successful, did something to replenish the supplies of men and material that were constantly being reduced by sieges and castle-building along the rivers and frontiers, but for most of the fourteenth century this served to prolong, rather than conclude, the fighting. It was only after von Kniprode had managed to win control of the Niemen up to the confluence at Kaunas that one side gained a definite advantage, and could begin continuous raiding with a view to winning and holding the homelands of the other; and even then the advantage was to some extent counterbalanced by the introduction of cannon. The process took so long- ninety-three years to advance from Ragnit to Kaunas, a distance of seventy-five miles as the crow flies- because the armies were wearing themselves out on the terrain, rather than annihilating each other, and were constantly drawing strength from expanding economies a long way behind the front.

The destructiveness of the raids is hard to assess, because estimates always come from chroniclers or advocates interested in blackening the enemy and emphasising the achievements of their own side. When the Order’s own annalist Wigand of Marburg records of a reysa in 1364 (which included English crusaders) that it attacked an unprepared territory, which they devastated inhumanly, it seems fair to conclude that the peasant population suffered more than usual. But those who lived in areas liable to attacks would naturally become skilled at hiding and escaping, and it was usually more profitable to take them prisoner, and drive them home over the wilderness, than simply to massacre them. It was the garrisons of outlying castles that were most likely to be killed to the last man, but, after King john of Bohemia had insisted on sparing the 6ooo Samogitians who surrendered in Medewage in 1329, this kind of slaughter became less common. No count was kept by the Order of the peasants killed on its reysen, however, and it can only be assumed that the death-toll was sufficiently high to deter settlers from the wilderness and balance losses inflicted by the Lithuanians. These lose nothing in the telling. According to the Order’s sources, the great raids of Prince David of Grodno in 1322-3 were responsible for the death or capture of 4000 in Estonia, 20,000 in Dobrzyn (of whom 8000 – 10,000 were killed) and 2000 in Mazovia. Kenstutis was supposed to have carried off over 2000 in 1352, 500 in 1353, 900 in 1376 – figures which are not incredible, even if they are unlikely to be accurate. On the whole, it seems that captivity was a much more likely fate than death for a peasant caught by invaders, simply because he was worth more alive than dead. Nevertheless, the Order was quite prepared to massacre as a way of bringing about political submission, as had been proved during the conquest of the Prussians, and again in the 1390s during the war for Samogitia. The lives of prisoners might very easily be sacrificed on the march. Thus in 1311 Commander Gebhard von Mansfeld slaughtered all his captives and cattle to prevent their falling into the hands of a Lithuanian army, and in 1377 the commander of Balga murdered 200 prisoners because it was too much trouble to take them back through an unexpected thaw – unlike the hundred horses and thousand steers with them. It would be wrong to deduce that this war was more inhumane than others fought at the same time in France and Spain; but the fact that the displacement of civilian populations was part of the strategy of both sides made it more likely that the innocent would die.


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