What the grand master did not understand was the need to remain calm and rational. When scouts reported to him that the invaders had gone as far as Gilgenberg and had burned the city, inflicting indescribable outrages on the citizens, Jungingen’s temper flared. No more positional warfare – he would march on the foe by night and attack by surprise at dawn. When the grand master set his army in motion he was taking a risk that he could have avoided. The best-informed German chronicler, Posilge, described the recent movements of the two armies thus:
The grand master with his forces and the guests and mercenaries rode against the king to the border near Drewenz, near Kauernik, and the two armies camped opposite one another. Because the king of Poland did not dare cross the Drewenz, he went toward Gilgenberg and took that city and burned it, and they struck dead young and old and with the heathens committed so many murders as was unholy, dishonouring maidens, women, and churches, cutting off their breasts and torturing them, and driving them off to serfdom. Also the heathens committed great blasphemies on the sacraments; whenever they came into the churches they ground the host in their hands and threw it under their feet, and in that way committed their insults. Their great blasphemies and insults went to the hearts of the grand master, the whole order, and to all the knights and men-at-arms among the guests; and they rode with righteous indignation against the king from Lubov to Tannenberg, to the village in the district of Osterode, and came upon the king without warning, having come in great haste fifteen miles by daybreak on the 15th of July. And when they could see the enemy, they formed their ranks and held the enemy in sight for more than three hours. The king meanwhile sent the heathens out to skirmish, but the Poles were altogether unready. If they had attacked the king immediately they would have won honour and booty, but that, unfortunately, did not happen; they wanted to call him out to fight chivalrously with them. The marshal sent the king two unsheathed swords with the heralds.
Such were the movements of the two armies. Jungingen had managed to bring his forces against the Poles and Lithuanians without warning, a considerable feat for any era. Then he wasted his advantage, letting the sleepless soldiers stand in battle order without food or drink until the enemy was ready. After that, he had his men dig camouflaged pits to trap the charging Polish cavalry, then ordered a withdrawal from that line so that the royal forces in the woods could have room to deploy in two lines in the open field against him. As a result, not only were his pits now part of the Polish defensive line, but his powerful artillery was now stationed at a place where it was ineffective; moreover, his infantry was standing where it was difficult to provide proper support for the massed bodies of knights. Even considering that the grand master could hardly expect the Polish knights to charge unless they had room to line up their units, this was poor generalship. Jungingen’s troops were tired, wet from a morning shower, hungry, and undoubtedly becoming nervous. Moreover, the day was unusually warm, and the men were not accustomed to heat. Nevertheless, Jungingen had a good chance of prevailing if only he could persuade the king to commit his troops to battle first, allowing the experienced knights the opportunity for one of their long-practised counter-strokes. The grand master’s pride, arrogance, and rashness were partly balanced by his courage and skill in battle – and he had a large force behind him. The masses of knights in the huge formations masked the poor placement of his supporting troops and gave him confidence in a total victory.
The sight of the armies forming their lines of battle was something that no participant ever forgot: the grand master’s elite corps of white-clad knights around his large white banner with the black cross, the colourful flags of the castellans and bishops; Jagiełło’s crowned white eagle on a red field; the archbishop of Gniezno’s white cross on a red field; the castellan of Cracow’s crowned bear; the Polish marshal’s lion-head breathing fire against a blue background; the Lithuanians’ white knight (Vytis) on a white horse; and the geometric symbol for Vilnius. The serried ranks of the infantry and bowmen paraded into place, accompanied by music; the artillery was dragged to whatever slight rise might give the cannon a better field of fire. Messengers rode back and forth, ordering units to make small changes in their stations, and officers encouraged their men to stand valiantly and fight bravely.
One cannot ignore the role contemporary values played in this contest. The grand master wasted his advantages by not attacking promptly, then delaying longer in order to send the chivalric challenge for battle – two swords. The king was meanwhile purportedly hearing masses, ignoring the requests by his commanders for instructions. Jagiełło had displayed excellent generalship in bringing his forces into the field, even considering the slowness of his advance after slipping away from the ford so cleverly; now he, too, seemed to let events run their course without his direction. Perhaps the king was using the religious services to delay the beginning of the battle, knowing that the German knights and horses would tire from wearing heavy armour; perhaps he was waiting for reinforcements; and perhaps he was paralysed by exhaustion and indecision. Historians’ arguments about this point will never be fully resolved. Perhaps genuine piety persuaded him that time spent in prayer was the most important activity he could undertake at that moment. Conventional religious practices were generally considered more important than cool-headed strategic or tactical decisions. ‘God’s will be done.’ His opponent, Jungingen, took time for prayer too. The German troops began singing their anthem, Christ ist erstanden (Christ is Risen). Meanwhile, the Polish and Lithuanian troops chanted their battle-song, Bogu rodzica dzewica (Virgin Mother of God).
The knights with the two swords arrogantly presented them for the king’s use and Vytautas’, challenging them to come and fight. The king responded calmly, dismissed the heralds, then gave the signal for the battle to begin. While the Poles advanced in reasonably disciplined order, singing their anthem, the Lithuanians charged wildly and scattered the lightly armed units opposite them. Then the contending forces hammered away at one another for about an hour. Beyond this, there is little agreement in the various accounts. Apparently the Poles did not commit their major units, because the Germans remained on the defensive, awaiting an opportunity to charge ruthlessly into the rear of some retreating formation or gap in the lines.
The battle of Tannenberg is still being refought by historians today. Although the outline of the combat is very clear, German, Polish, and Lithuanian historians are not in agreement about the various actions which occurred during the battle, or even where the fighting took place on the broad field. The memorial chapel and mass graves have been located by archaeologists, but since some of those might indicate the slaughtered prisoners and wounded who perished over the following few days, there is no agreement even as to where the armies lined up. This much is agreed upon: the visiting crusaders were stationed on the left opposite the Lithuanians, presumably because they would be more motivated to fight against Tatar pagans than Polish Christians, but perhaps just because that was the most convenient posting; the Teutonic Knights held the centre and right of the line, opposite the Poles and their mercenaries.
The most important description of the battle is that of Jan Długosz, the Polish court historian. It is brief and tends to glorify the Polish contribution to the victory at the expense of the Lithuanian. In sum, he wrote that one wing of the ‘crossbearers’ defeated the horsemen under Vytautas after fierce fighting. Although Vytautas and the Smolensk regiments remained on the field, the Tatars fled, followed by many Lithuanians and Rus’ians. The German crusaders, seeing the wild flight of the enemy, assumed they had won a victory and left their positions to pursue them. This left a gap in the order’s lines. The Poles, meanwhile, had been holding their own against the Teutonic Knights. Now, seeing their opportunity, they pressed harder, and came in through the gap created on the left when the crusaders broke ranks to pursue the Tatars; soon the Polish knights had put the main battle force of the Teutonic Knights in great difficulty.
This generally accepted understanding of the battle has been modified significantly by a recently discovered letter written in 1413 by a well-informed noble or mercenary captain. Its finger-wagging admonition to keep the ranks of the knights firmly in hand supports an alternate version of the combat given by less well-known chroniclers, that a small number of crusaders attached to the Teutonic Knights had fallen for a tactical ruse by the Lithuanians, a feigned retreat that led pursuers into a trap sprung by Polish knights waiting on the flank. The Lithuanians and Poles then drove into the disordered lines and rolled up the crusader formation.
Jungingen, seeing the disaster unfolding, should probably have sounded the retreat. Nothing of the kind entered his mind, however. His hot blood raging, he gathered together all the knights he could into a wedge formation and charged directly for a slight height where he supposed the king would be found; certainly, he could see the royal banner flying there and a large number of heavily-armed knights. Jungingen did not lack the courage to stake everything on this one charge – he knew that the warhorses would be too exhausted to bear his men from the field if the attack failed. Perhaps he hoped that his charge, coming at a somewhat unexpected angle, would find the Polish forces insufficiently disciplined to change their formation quickly enough to meet him. He was wrong. Vytautas, seen at the centre of Matjeko’s painting, had seemingly been everywhere at once on his wing of the battlefield, performing fantastic and courageous feats; he now hurried over to the royal position with his men, perhaps to urge the king to reinforce the main battle lines with his reserves. In any case, Jungingen’s advance fell just short of the royal bodyguard. In vain, he yelled ‘Retreat!’ Surrounded and exhausted, Jungingen perished with a multitude of his best men. The rest of the cavalry, seeing him fall, fled in disorder. Panic quickly spread through the German ranks. The light cavalry from Culm seem to have led the flight. The Polish knights, once they had destroyed the main battle force, turned on the disordered surviving units as they tried to escape down the narrow roads and chewed them up one after another. The rearmost German knights were hindered in their terrified flight by the tangled units ahead of them. Unable to get past the masses of men, horses, and wagons, unable to fight effectively against an enemy coming up from behind, all they could do was to try to surrender or die fighting against hopeless odds. The crusaders on the victorious left wing came back booty-laden only to fall into the hands of those who held the battlefield. This was Długosz’s account of the battle; it quickly became the accepted story. Even the Germans agreed with Długosz, perhaps because he credited the Teutonic Knights with at least a partial victory, a rout of the pagan wing of the great army.
Polish historians emphasise royal generalship. They describe Jagiełło’s determination to participate in the combat personally, how the royal banner was brought to earth at one point, and how the king was saved from injury only by the last-moment intervention of Zbigniew Oleśnicki, the royal secretary, when a knight from Meissen, Luppold von Köckritz, charged directly for him. Mythology did not hesitate to turn this incident into a personal combat between Jagiełło and Jungingen. In short, according to Polish patriotic scholarship, Polish intelligence, courage, gallantry, and self-sacrifice had won the day.
Lithuanian historians disagree sharply with this interpretation of events. They insist that Vytautas’ men had made a tactical retreat, one common to warfare on the steppe, a ruse that tricked the crusaders from Germany into breaking ranks and dashing into an ambush. They regard the presence of Vytautas and the units from Smolensk fighting in the ranks of the victors during the decisive period of combat as proof that the main Lithuanian forces did not run away, but only lured the Germans into disordering their forces so badly that the way was open for the Polish attack. Credit for the victory should go to the grand prince, who inspired the tactics, who exhausted horse after horse in his relentless direction of the cavalry units, first on the right wing, then at the height of the fighting in the centre, when he brought the reinforcements that repelled Jungingen’s charge; not to his rival, Jagiełło, who was practically useless during the entire combat, unable to give commands or to inspire by personal example.
Modern scholars, despite new archaeological information and newly discovered archival material, have not come to complete agreement as to what transpired. Everyone agrees that Jungingen made mistakes in bringing his army onto the field of battle; everyone agrees that Jungingen and Vytautas were brave warriors who risked their lives in desperate combat; almost everyone agrees that Jagiełło, for one reason or another, chose to remain where everyone could see him, by his tent on the hill, and that the decisive moment of battle was when the crusaders’ attack on that position failed. All but the Lithuanians are practically unanimous in agreeing that a feigned retreat by an entire army was difficult and risky, although it was a common tactic for small units everywhere in Europe; also, if the retreat was a ruse, why was there no ambush of the pursuing forces? Or was there? More likely, the flight of the Lithuanian wing of the army was not planned. Jagiełło was, if anything, a cautious commander, and he would have understood that the retreat of an entire wing of his army would have been a disaster if the victorious crusaders had maintained discipline and charged with their full force into the gap left by the fleeing horsemen, then smashed into the flank of the royal forces. On the other hand, the forest at the rear of the Polish line, which would have hindered a retreat, may have shielded the central Polish battle formation from view or from an effective attack from the flank or rear. Because everyone agrees that the Teutonic Knights’ defeat resulted from the ill-disciplined pursuit of the Lithuanian forces, the dispute about the motivation of the Lithuanian units cannot be resolved to universal satisfaction: either there was a strategic retreat on the part of a significant fraction of Vytautas’ forces or those Lithuanians, Rus’ians, and Tatars had been driven from the field in defeat.
From the standpoint of observers at a distance of almost six centuries, the important fact is that the grand master’s lines were left in disarray, a situation that the Polish and Lithuanian units led by Vytautas exploited. Those scholars who put faith in the possibility of a ruse tend to inquire how many Tatars were in Vytautas’ levy, as if only steppe warriors could perform such a manoeuvre. Unfortunately, no contemporary source gives us more information about numbers than did Długosz, and not all scholars agree even upon the composition of the Polish and Lithuanian armies. But no matter. The Tatar contingent was not large, and it does not seem to have done any harm to its pursuers. Nor does it matter – the result was the same: the disruption of the German lines on the left wing led to a subsequent victory in the centre by the Polish forces. The Lithuanians had hitherto borne the brunt of the fighting, as the casualty figures substantiate, and they were still contributing significant pressure on the foe’s disintegrating lines.
The grand master must have considered ordering a retreat and rejected it; Jungingen’s decision to gamble everything on a massive charge at the royal tent might have been the best choice available. A chaotic retreat through the forest might have led to as complete a defeat as the army in fact suffered; and surely there would have been criticism that the grand master had missed his best chance to obtain a total victory over an enemy who was equally exhausted, certainly somewhat disorganised, and perhaps ready to collapse. Already thousands of Poles and Lithuanians had fallen in combat; some units had broken, and others were wavering. Had, by chance or skill, an arrow, spear, or sword brought down the king or great prince, the day would have belonged to Jungingen.
The total losses were almost beyond contemporary calculation: the oldest and also the lowest estimate was that 8,000 men died on each side. For the Teutonic Knights that meant that at least half the armed men perished. Thousands more became prisoners. Most of the order’s troops taken captive were put to the sword; only secular knights and officers were held for ransom. The dazed survivors gathered later, exhausted, wounded, and often without equipment, in the nearest cities and castles.
Jagiełło and Vytautas, for their part, were in no position to hurry with their armies into Prussia. Even though victorious, their losses had been heavy. The troops were fatigued; the horses were exhausted. The Lithuanians had fought for many hours, and the Poles had suffered, too, from the lack of sleep and drink, the tension of waiting, and the draining excitement of pitched battle. When the Germans fled, the Poles and Lithuanians had followed them for ten miles, cutting down those they overtook, and driving others into the swamps and forests to perish. When the victorious horsemen returned to camp they needed rest. Those with the most stamina went in search of booty, returning much later as exhausted as those who had been unable to move a foot from the battlefield. Meanwhile, the foot soldiers had been busy on the battlefield, gathering weapons, money, jewellery, and clothing, finishing off the wounded, slaughtering the lower-class prisoners, and burying the dead in mass graves. The Poles and Lithuanians needed a short pause to rest and to celebrate, possibly to pray, and to care for wounded and fallen comrades. Tatars and irregular troops rushed ahead to rob, rape, kill, and burn, starting panics that would hinder the organisation of regional defence.
There was no further effective resistance. The Teutonic Knights had lost so many castellans and advocates, so many knights, and so many militia units, that defences could not be manned. Those who survived had taken refuge wherever they could, often far from their assigned posts. The highest-ranking leaders had fallen almost to a man: the grand master, the marshal, the grand commander, the treasurer, and 200 knights. Marquard von Salzbach, the order’s expert on Lithuanian affairs and a former friend of Vytautas, was apparently taken prisoner by Jagiełło’s men, then beheaded by the grand prince. He had refused to be properly humble and submissive. Arrogant and proud to the end, unrepentant about having taunted Vytautas about his mother’s virtue, he and his companions had anticipated being treated in a manner befitting their status; nevertheless, when their fate was clear there is no indication that their courage flagged. They had understood from the beginning that there was no good in being Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ former friends.
Some contemporaries believed that Tannenberg was a disaster to the crusading cause comparable to Nicopolis, but most simply marvelled at the huge losses in men, horses, and equipment. As the continuation of Posilge’s chronicle said: ‘The army, both cavalry and infantry, was routed completely, losing lives, goods, and honour, and the number slain was beyond numbering. May God have pity on them.’
That the defeat was so total and so final was hard for contemporaries to grasp. The news spread to courts where old men remembered the exploits of their youth in Lithuania – in Germany and France the disaster could hardly be believed; to bishops and burghers in Livonia, who were not sure whether to rejoice or mourn; to wives and families in Poland and Lithuania, who both exulted in their rulers’ exploits and gave thanks for the safety of husbands, brothers, and friends; to neighbouring rulers who may have hoped for another outcome of the war, one in which perhaps all the armies would have gone down in defeat together. Everyone demanded more information, and especially an explanation of how the Teutonic Knights could have suffered such an unexpected disaster. The responses were varied. The Teutonic Knights talked about treason, the numbers of the enemy host, and unfortunate tactics; the Poles were satisfied with courage, skill at arms, good generalship, and God’s favour.
The propagandists of the order worked hard to persuade contemporaries that the disaster was not as bad as it appeared, that it was the work of the devil through his agents, the pagans and schismatics – and most of all, that it was the fault of the Saracens. Moreover, they argued that now more than ever crusaders were needed in Prussia to continue God’s work. The Polish propagandists laboured, too, to present their interpretation of events, but they did not have the long-term contacts which had been developed in many crusading Reisen. Their praise of Jagiełło and his knights tended to awaken more sympathy for the hard-pressed order than was good for Polish interests. After the first impact of the news was absorbed by the European courts, after the first months of difficulty had passed, interpretations favoured by the order tended to prevail.
The modern reader, looking back on almost six centuries of events that dwarf the battle of Tannenberg without driving it from the public mind, hardly knows how to understand the negative attitudes toward the Teutonic Knights. Comparisons to Wilhelmine Germany of 1914 and to Hitler are unworthy of comment, though Germans of those generations thought of their acts as deeds of national revenge for the battle in 1410. In the context of twentieth-century events one is tempted to say that contemporaries of Tannenberg were right, that there is a divine justice operating in the world. In concluding that the Teutonic Knights had paid the price for having lived by the sword and swaggered in a world of pride, contemporaries found that Biblical admonitions came easily to mind: Tannenberg was God’s punishment for the Teutonic Order’s outrageous conduct. Pride had risen too high – Jungingen personified his order’s universally acknowledged tendency to arrogance and anger – and a fall had to follow.
The deficiencies of this method of justifying past events (Weltgeschichte als Weltgericht) should be obvious: if victory in battle reflects God’s will, then the Tatar domination of the steppe and the harassment of Polish and Lithuanian borderlands is also a reflection of divine justice; God punishes kings by sacrificing many thousands of innocent lives. Good Old Testament theology, but hard to fit into a New Testament framework. It is best that we do not tarry long in either the shadowy realm of pop psychology or dark religious nationalism, but move back into the somewhat better-lit world of chronicles and correspondence.
Conflicting views of modern historians about the battle of Tannenberg and its aftermath make for interesting if confused reading. One could summarise them roughly by saying that until the 1960s each interpretation reflected national interests more than fact. Since then, historians have become both more polite and less certain of their inability to err. Archaeology is beginning to shed light on the battlefield, giving promise that problems left by the literary sources may be more fully resolved. Political issues in Germany and Poland that seemed to depend on every imaginable historical justification have disappeared with the political parties that sponsored them, so that at last a quiet discussion about the past is possible. Most importantly, since the fall of Communism German and Polish historians have come to respect each other sufficiently to give real attention to one another’s ideas. There is, indeed, reason to hope that some day we may come to a better and more general agreement as to what really happened at Tannenberg and what it really signified.