The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part I


Two conflicts formed the bookends, so to say, of the fourteenth century in Prussia. The first, which began in the first decade of the century, was the order’s acquisition of West Prussia, originally known as Pomerellia. This was a vital territory in several senses: its eastern border was the Vistula River, so that any hostile power possessing Pomerellia could interrupt the vital traffic up and down stream; its people and warriors were an important resource for the Prussian economy (especially the city of Danzig) and the order’s war machine; and French, Burgundian, and German crusaders were able to travel to Prussia safely via Brandenburg, Neumark, and Pomerellia whenever the preferred route across Great Poland was closed. The Polish kings and the Polish Church, however, viewed the acquisition of Pomerellia by war and purchase as nothing less than theft. As far as they were concerned, no matter what Pomerellia’s past or ethnic composition was, it was a Polish land, as the payment of Peter’s Pence to the pope proved – no German state paid this tax, but the Polish lands did; and the patriots missed no opportunity to bemoan the loss of this province.

The second conflict, which concluded at the very end of the century, was over Samogitia. The Teutonic Knights saw this territory partly as a land bridge to Livonia that would permit year-round communication with their northern possessions, and partly as the heart of pagan resistance to conversion. Lithuanian grand princes, whose authority was seldom recognised by the Samogitians, fought hard to retain it as a part of their national patrimony.

Surprisingly, the Teutonic Knights had managed to make peace both with Poland (the Peace of Kalish, 1343) and Lithuania (the Peace of Sallinwerder, 1398). Two Lithuanians, Jagiełło of Poland and Vytautas of Lithuania, even assisted in ending Samogitian resistance to the order in return for its aid in expeditions against Moscow and the Tatars.

This era of co-operation came to an end in 1409, after an insurrection in Samogitia. The Teutonic Knights had reasons to believe that Vytautas had encouraged the rebels, and that behind Vytautas was the sly hand of Jagiełło. Their usually cautious diplomacy, however, was now in the hands of a brash new grand master, Ulrich von Jungingen, who was not only relatively young but seemed to believe that his military order had lost sight of its original purpose – to fight pagans. By that he understood Samogitians and their allies, not distant Rus’ians, Tatars, pirates, or Turks. He saw the immediate enemies right at hand: Poland and Lithuania.

The grand master’s haughty demands that the Poles and Lithuanians cease providing aid to the Samogitian rebels provoked cries for war in both nations. But it was not yet clear that hotheads in Poland would move to action the more cautious mass of nobles and clergy who remained in awe of the Teutonic Knights’ military reputation.

The Changing Balance of Power

The membership of the Teutonic Knights, and especially the grand master’s council, were confident of their ability to intimidate Polish nobles, Lithuanian boyars, and the prelates of both nations, no matter that the patriotic ire of powerful groups had been raised by Grand Master Ulrich’s actions in 1409. They believed that the Polish and Lithuanian rulers had too many distractions to make common cause against them; moreover, they believed too that Vytautas and Jagiełło mistrusted one another too much to cooperate militarily – everyone knew the story of their feud’s origin and their many subsequent reconciliations and falling-outs – and their nobles and churchmen were, like their counterparts in the West, difficult to lead. Also, since Jagiełło and Vytautas had never yet tried to bring their armies into the heart of Prussia, it seemed unlikely that they would do more than launch attacks at widely separated points, probably in Samogitia and West Prussia, perhaps Culm. The grand master could meet these attacks by using local resources defensively against the less dangerous threats and concentrating his mobile forces against the main army, which would probably invade West Prussia.

In addition, everyone was aware that Jagiełło and Vytautas had a permanent problem to their east, where Tatars were always a danger, and to the south, where Sigismund could raise levies in his Hungarian, Bohemian, and Silesian lands and invade Poland at short notice. Lastly, almost every German knight believed that Polish nobles might be willing to fight in defence of their homeland but would be reluctant to approve raising troops for offensive warfare; it was axiomatic that the Polish prelates and knights would talk bravely but nevertheless refuse to approve funds for war or to authorise calling out the feudal levy. That miscalculation was founded on a well-proven rule, that the Poles had long mistrusted Jagiełło almost as much as did Vytautas and the Teutonic Order. However, time changes all things, and Jagiełło’s relationship with his subjects had changed over the decade he had been king; they had learned to trust him more; they had become accustomed to him. He may not have produced a son yet, but there was a daughter, significantly named Jadwiga for her mother, who would inherit the throne some day. The Poles were more confident now that Jagiełło was their king, not simply a Lithuanian prince out for the main chance.

This changed attitude displayed itself in December 1409, when Nicholas Traba, a future archbishop of Gniezno, took part in the secret meeting of Jagiełło and Vytautas at Brest to make plans for war. Their subsequent diplomatic offensive won Duke Johan of Masovia as an ally, though not Duke Ziemowit IV, who remained neutral, nor the dukes of Pomerania, who became allies of the Teutonic Order. Most importantly, the people of Poland and Lithuania were prepared psychologically for the great conflict to come.

Even those few Germans who thought that Jagiełło might fight did not expect a great battle to come about as a result of the bluster, the embargo, or the grand master’s raid into Masovia and Great Poland. First of all, large battles were a rare phenomenon – the risks were too great and the financial rewards too few, especially when compared to the security of raiding lands defended only by half-armed peasants or demanding ransom from burghers. Secondly, except for sporadic conflicts such as that in 1409 there had been peace between Poland and Prussia for seven decades now, and since the Samogitian issue had been resolved in the Treaties of Sallinwerder (1398) and Racianz (1404), why should there be war with Lithuania? Few living Germans or Prussians could remember the last significant Polish or Lithuanian invasion. A border raid from Great Poland or on some less well-protected frontier area of East Prussia was likely, after which another truce would be signed. On the principal issue, Samogitia, surely the Lithuanians in 1410, like the Poles in 1409, would back down?

Similarly, it was unlikely that the grand master would invade Poland again. Once the Poles had reinforced their border fortresses the grand master could not expect another series of easy victories without considerable help from crusaders; and it was unlikely that large numbers of volunteers would come to Prussia to participate in the invasion of a Christian kingdom, though a good number of German and Bohemian mercenaries would travel east if financial incentives were added to the usual chivalric attractions. An invasion of Lithuania was completely out of the question; no grand master had ever sent a major force east unless he was certain that the Poles would refrain from raiding Prussia as soon as the garrisons rode into the wilderness – and such co-operation was very doubtful now. Lastly, the issues at stake did not seem to be of sufficient importance for any ruler to justify the risk of hazarding a pitched battle. That was the reason that, although the rival popes in Rome and Avignon and the rival emperors, Wenceslas of Bohemia and Ruprecht of the Palatinate, took some notice of the escalating tension throughout 1409 and 1410, their efforts at reconciliation were minimal; extraordinary measures did not seem merited for a distant conflict over inconsequential lands and personal vanities.

Western Europeans took little notice of Prussia because they had much more important concerns of their own to deal with – the Council of Pisa, which was supposed to end the Great Schism in the Church,31 but which seemed to be doing little more than complicate an already difficult situation; the continuing northward advance of the Turks, who were marching out of the Balkans into the Steiermark and Croatia to threaten the lands of the Cilly family (who were related by marriage to both King Jagiełło and King Sigismund of Hungary) and thus open the way across the Alpine mountain barriers into Austria and Italy; and the war between Burgundy and France, which occupied so many families that had once sent crusaders to Prussia. Yet a great battle did occur on 15 July 1410, on a field between the villages of Tannenberg and Grunwald (Grünfelde).

This battle at Tannenberg/Grunwald/Żalgris – as Germans, Poles, and Lithuanians respectively call it – has assumed a prominence that exaggerates its real significance. The history of north central Europe was not suddenly transformed by this one battle. Changes in the balance of power were well under way before the battle was fought, and those changes were so fundamental that one can hardly imagine a greatly different world today if the battle had not taken place. The kingdom of Poland was already on the rise, and the day of the military orders had passed. It is not likely that the Teutonic Knights could have maintained political or military equality with a nation as populous, creative, wealthy, and energetic as Poland; moreover, since Poland was a multi-ethnic state and this was the fifteenth century, not the twenty-first, there would have been few, if any, changes in the ethnic composition of Prussia had those lands come into the immediate possession of the Polish crown. Within a year of the great battle the Teutonic Knights were able to defend themselves again and expel the Poles and Lithuanians from their territories. Nevertheless, the battle was so costly to the order in men and material that subsequent grand masters were never again able to regain the power or prestige their predecessors had enjoyed. For the Teutonic Knights the road led downhill from that day on, until the Thirteen Years’ War (1453 – 66) brought complete disaster. Therefore, although the battle of Tannenberg may not be the decisive moment in the history of medieval Prussia, it was the start of a rapid and progressively steeper decline.

In the final analysis, Tannenberg was important because it was a highly dramatic event that lent itself to endless retelling, and, rightly or wrongly, the fortunes of entire peoples could be easily related to it.

Political Manoeuvring

Not even the participants had anticipated anything like the battle that did occur. Although there had been bad feelings between the grand masters and the Lithuanian cousins for decades, the military conflict that began in August 1409 was not beyond a compromise settlement. There was international pressure applied by the popes individually to arrange just such a compromise peace, so that Christendom could stand united in its efforts to restore unity in the Church and drive back the Turks from the borders of Austria and Hungary, or at least stem their raids to collect slaves and booty.

Foremost of the secular rulers seeking to forestall the conflict was Wenceslas of Bohemia. Though widely repudiated as Holy Roman emperor by his German subjects, he sent representatives in 1409 to mediate the quarrel. They brought Ulrich von Jungingen and King Jagiełło together on 4 October for five days of talks that resulted in a truce until St John’s Day (24 June) the following year. This sign of reconciliation made many hope that further compromises could be reached. The most important article in the truce agreement authorised Wenceslas to propose fair terms for a permanent peace settlement. His proposal was to be presented before Lent, a date that allowed additional negotiations to take place before the truce expired. The critical months, however, were those before Lent, when Ulrich von Jungingen and Jagiełło each sought to sway the notoriously fickle monarch in his own favour.

The grand master had a short history of the Samogitian crusade prepared, a document that depicted the Lithuanians as undependable turncoats who had violated their promises to the Poles in 1386 and to the Germans in 1398; moreover, it claimed that those Lithuanians who were indeed Christians were, in fact, members of the heretic Russian Orthodox faith, and that the Samogitians were complete pagans who had not allowed a single baptism in the past five years. Not relying on letters alone, the grand master sent an imposing delegation to Hungary. Those representatives signed an alliance with King Sigismund in December and agreed to pay him 40,000 Gulden for his assistance. Sigismund, in turn, honoured his guests by asking them to be godfathers to his newly born daughter, Elisabeth. From Hungary the delegates went to Bohemia to present final arguments before Wenceslas rendered his decision on 8 February 1410.

The core of the Bohemian peace proposal was to return to the status quo ante bellum. Those were hardly terms likely to please Vytautas and Jagiełło, especially since the Lithuanian complaints were ignored and the Poles were admonished to abstain from any and all aid to the Samogitian ‘non-Christians’. Wenceslas warned that he would attack whichever party refused to honour the treaty he proposed – a conventional threat without much substance to it. The Teutonic Knights had won a total victory, right down to confirmation of their right to possess West Prussia and the Neumark. In fact it was too thorough a victory, too one-sided. There was never any possibility of persuading the king of Poland to accept the mediator’s terms.

The time for the order’s celebration was short. Polish diplomats remained in Prague for a month, arguing vainly that the terms of the peace treaty were unfair, until Wenceslas finally lost his temper and threatened to make war on Poland himself. The Poles departed, certain that war with the Teutonic Knights, at least, would follow; perhaps there would be a gigantic conflict with all their western neighbours as well. Jagiełło, who read Wenceslas’ personality more accurately, was less intimidated: he rejected all proposals for further negotiations, and when Wenceslas summoned him to a conference in Breslau in May, he left the emperor and the Teutonic Knights waiting in vain for Polish representatives, who had already announced that they would not come

The Raising of Armies

The armies began to gather. When ready, Jagiełło summoned Vytautas to join him in Masovia. Until recently that had required a journey through a dense, swampy wilderness. However, thanks to the opening of the trade route along the Narew River it was now possible for Vytautas to bring his men to the desired location near Płock without undue difficulties. The bulk of the royal forces remained on the western bank of the Vistula, but Jagiełło sent Polish knights to the other bank to hold the fords for Vytautas, and more troops were coming in daily. By mid-June the king had at his disposal a force of more than 30,000 cavalry and infantry (18,000 Polish knights and squires, with a few thousand foot soldiers; some Bohemian and Moravian mercenaries; 11,000 Lithuanian, Rus’ian, and Tatar cavalry, a formidable contingent from Moldavia led by its prince, Alexander the Good, and some Samogitians).

Grand Master Ulrich had raised a huge force too, perhaps 20,000 strong. Since Jungingen had allowed the Livonian master to conclude a truce with Vytautas, however, none of those excellent knights were able to join him; in any case, the northern knights were not enthusiastic about the war, and although the Livonian master sent word to Vytautas immediately that the truce would expire at the end of the grace period, he would not send troops to Prussia or attack Lithuania’s vulnerable northern lands until that time had passed. Moreover, since Jungingen could raise only about 10,000 cavalry in Prussia the rest of his warriors were ‘pilgrims’ and mercenaries. Sigismund had sent two prominent nobles with 200 knights, and Wenceslas had allowed the grand master to hire a large number of his famed Bohemian warriors.

The numbers for both armies are very inexact, with estimates varying from half the totals given above to almost astronomical figures. In all cases, however, the proportion of troops in the armies remained about the same: three to two in favour of the Polish king and the Lithuanian grand prince. But the grand master had a compensating advantage in equipment and organisation, and especially in having nearby fortresses for supplies and refuge; and since, as far as he knew, the enemy forces had not yet joined, he believed that he could fight them one at a time. A few of Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ commanders had served together in earlier campaigns, some against the Tatars, some against the crusaders; nevertheless, their army was composed of troops so diverse that maintaining cohesion would be difficult. Jungingen had a larger number of disciplined knights who were accustomed to fighting as units, but he also had levies of secular knights and crusaders who were prey to fits of enthusiasm and panic; he was also fighting on the defensive, better able to fall back on prepared positions and more informed about roads, tracks, and what obstacles were passable. The odds were fairly nearly equal.

An order chronicler, an anonymous contemporary continuing the earlier work by Johann von Posilge, described the preliminaries of the battle in vivid detail, thereby giving useful insights into the attitude the crusaders held toward their opponents:

[King Jagiełło] gathered the Tatars, Russians, Lithuanians, and Samogitians against Christendom . . . So the king met with the non-Christians and with Vytautas, who came through Masovia to aid him, and with the duchess . . . [T]here was so large an army that it is impossible to describe, and it crossed from Płock toward the land of Prussia. At Thorn were the important counts of Gora and Stiborzie, whom the king of Hungary had sent especially to Prussia to negotiate the issues and controversies between the order and Poland; but they could do nothing about the matter and finally departed from the king, who followed his evil and divisive will to injure Christendom. He was not satisfied with the evil men of the pagans and Poles, but he had hired many mercenaries from Bohemia, Moravia, and all kinds of knights and men-at-arms, who against all honour and goodness and honesty went with heathendom against the Christians to ravage the lands of Prussia.

One hardly expects a balanced judgement from chroniclers, but the accusations of hiring mercenaries certainly strikes the modern reader as odd, since the Teutonic Knights were doing the same thing. Men of the Middle Ages, like many today, hated passionately, often acted impulsively, and reasoned irrationally. Yet they were capable of behaving very logically too. The leaders of the armies soon gave proof that they were men of their era, acting as they did alternately with cool reason and hot temper. Reason predominated at the outset of the campaign.

The Hungarian count palatine and the voivode of Transylvania mentioned in the passage above returned south hurriedly to collect troops on the southern border of Poland. Their threat was unconvincing, however; consequently they had no effect on the campaign at all. Sigismund, as was his wont, had promised more than he was willing to deliver; he did nothing beyond allowing the grand master to hire mercenaries, though he was in northern Hungary at the time and could have raised a large force quickly.

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