The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part I

Background

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.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part II

The Invasion of Prussia

The strategies of the two commanders contrasted greatly. The grand master divided his forces in the traditional manner between East and West Prussia, awaiting invasions at widely scattered points and relying on his scouts to determine the greatest threats, his intention being to concentrate his forces quickly wherever necessary to drive back the invaders. Jagiełło, however, planned to concentrate the Lithuanian and Polish armies into one huge body, an unusual tactic. Although adopted from time to time in the Hundred Years’ War, it was more common among the Mongols and Turks – enemies the Poles and Lithuanians had fought often. The Teutonic Knights did the same during their Reisen into Samogitia, but those had been much smaller armies.

In this phase of the campaign Jagiełło’s generalship was exemplary. As soon as he heard that Vytautas had crossed the Narew River he ordered his men to build a 450-metre pontoon bridge over the Vistula River. Within three days he had brought the main royal host to the east bank, then dismantled the bridge for future use. By 30 June his men had joined Vytautas. On 2 July the entire force began to move north. The king had thus far cleverly avoided the grand master’s efforts to block his way north and even kept his crossing of the Vistula a secret until the imperial peace envoys informed Jungingen. Even then the grand master failed to credit the report, so sure was he that the main attack would come on the west bank of the Vistula and be conducted by only the Polish forces.

When Jungingen obtained confirmation of the envoys’ story he hurriedly crossed the great river with his army and sought a place where he could intercept the enemy in the southern forest and lake region, before Lithuanian and Polish foragers could fan out among the rich villages of the settled areas in the river valleys. His plan was still purely defensive – to use his enemies’ numbers against them, anticipating that they would exhaust their food and fodder more swiftly than his own well-supplied forces. The foe had not yet trod Prussian ground.

The grand master had left 3,000 men under Heinrich von Plauen at Schwetz (Swiecie) on the Vistula, to protect West Prussia from a surprise invasion in case the Poles managed to elude him again and then strike downriver into the richest parts of Prussia before he could cross the river again. Plauen was a respected but minor officer, suitable for a responsible defensive post but not seen as a battlefield leader. Jungingen wanted to have his most valuable officers with him, to offer sound advice and provide examples of wisdom, courage, and chivalry. Jungingen was relatively young, and a bit hot-headed, but all his training advised him to err on the side of caution until battle was joined. Daring was a virtue in the face of the enemy, but not before.

Jagiełło, too, was a careful general. Throughout his entire career he had avoided risks. No story exists of his ever having put his life in danger or led horsemen in a wild charge against a formidable enemy. Yet neither was there the slightest hint of cowardice. Societal norms were changing. Everyone acknowledged the responsibility of the commander to remain alive; everyone accepted the fact that the commander should guide the fortunes of his army rather than seek fame in personal combat.

Consequently it was no surprise that the king’s advance toward enemy territory was slow. His caution was understandable. After all, he could not be certain that his ruse had worked; and he had great respect for Jungingen’s military skills. Without doubt, he worried that he would stumble into an ambush and give the crossbearers their greatest victory ever. He must have been half-relieved when his scouts reported that the crusaders had taken up a defensive position at a crossing of the Dzewa (Drewenz, Drweça) River. At least he knew where Jungingen was, waiting at the Masovian border. On the other hand, the news that the grand master’s position was very strong could not have been welcome.

So far each commander had moved cautiously toward the other. Jagiełło and Jungingen alike feared simple tactical errors, such as being caught by nightfall far from a suitable camping place, or having to pass through areas suitable for ambush or blockade; in addition, they had to provide protection for their transport, reserve horses, and herds of cattle. Although each commander was experienced in directing men in war, these armies were larger than either had brought into battle previously, and the larger the forces, the more danger there was of error, of misunderstanding orders, and of panic.

Judged by those criteria, both commanders deserve high marks for bringing their armies into striking distance of each other without having made serious blunders. Both armies were well-supplied, ready to fight, and confident of a good chance for victory; the officers all knew their opponents well, were familiar with the countryside and the weather, and in full command of the available technology. The resemblance of some formations to armed mobs was offset by martial traditions, individual unit drill, and widespread experience in local wars. Neither army was handicapped by dissensions in command, quarrels among units, unusual prevalence of illness, or excessive anxiety about the impending combat – these problems existed, but they were probably shared equally and were not serious enough to merit mention in contemporary accounts. In short, there were no excuses for failure.

For the Teutonic Knights, each commander, each officer, each knight was as ready for combat as could reasonably be expected. All that remained uncertain was how the battle would begin, how individuals would react, and how the affair would unfold – for those are unknowns always present in warfare. Though many individuals had participated in raids and sieges, few had personal experience in a pitched battle between large armies. Some crusaders may have gained sad experience at Nicopolis in 1396, and some of their opponents may have survived Vytautas’ 1399 disaster on the Vorskla in the Ukraine against the Tatars, but those would be the only ones who knew what to expect when tens of thousands of combatants came together for a few minutes of intense struggle. Only they knew first-hand that warfare on this scale was chaos beyond imagination, with commanders unable to contact more than a few units, with movement limited by the sheer numbers of men and animals on the field, with the senses overwhelmed by noise, smoke from fires and cannon, and dust stirred up by the horses, the body’s natural dehydration worsened by excitement-induced thirst, and exhaustion from stress and exertion. This led to an irrational eagerness for any escape from the tension – either flight or immersion in combat. Aside from that small number of experienced knights there was only the practice field and small-scale warfare in Samogitia, the campaign in Gotland, and the 1409 invasion of Poland. Those provided good military experience, but there had not been a set-piece combat between the Teutonic Knights and the Lithuanians for forty years, or between the Teutonic Knights and the Poles for almost eighty. Throughout all of Europe, in fact, there had been many campaigns, but few battles. For both veterans and neophytes there was consolation in storytelling, boasting, prayer, and drinking.

The Lithuanians were more experienced, but only in the more open warfare on the steppes and in the forests of Rus’. Riding small horses and wearing light Rus’ian armour, they were not well equipped for close combat with Western knights on large chargers, but they were equal to their enemy in pride and their confidence in their commander. Memory of Vytautas’ disaster on the Vorskla had been dimmed by subsequent victorious campaigns against Smolensk, Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow. Between 1406 and 1408 Vytautas had led armies against his son-in-law, Basil of Moscow, three times, once reaching the Kremlin and at last forcing him to accept a peace treaty that restored the 1399 frontiers. Vytautas’ strength was in his cavalry’s ability to go across country that defensive forces might consider impassable; his weakness was that lightly-equipped horsemen could not survive a charge by heavy warhorses bearing well-armoured knights – he counted on his Tatar scouts to prevent such an event happening by surprise.

The mounted Polish forces were more numerous and better equipped for a pitched battle with the Germans, but they lacked confidence in their ability to stand up to the Teutonic Knights. The contemporary Polish historian Długosz complained about their unreliability, their lust for booty, and their tendency to panic. Most Polish knights – at least 75% – sacrificed armour for speed and endurance, but they were not as ‘oriental’ as the Lithuanians. In this they hardly differed from the majority of the order’s forces, light cavalry suitable to local conditions. Of the rest, many Polish knights wore plate armour and preferred the crossbow to the spear, just as did many of the Teutonic Knights’ heavy cavalry. The weakness lay in training and experience: many Polish knights were weekend warriors, landlords and young men; they were non-professionals who knew that they were up against the best trained and equipped troops in Christendom. Although some of them had served under the king previously, he seems to have drawn more troops from the north for this campaign than from the south; and it was the southern knights who had served with him in Galicia and Sandomir. Jagiełło could have called up more knights, but he could not have found room for them at the campsites, much less fed them. The masses of almost untrained peasant militia were much easier to manage; their noble lords could assume they would feed themselves and they could sleep outside no matter what the weather was. While the peasants’ usefulness in battle was small – at best they could divert the enemy for a short while, allowing the cavalry time to regroup or to retreat – they were good at pillaging the countryside, thereby helping feed the army, and the smoke of villages they set afire might confuse the enemy as to where the main strength of the royal host lay.

The size of Jagiełło’s and Vytautas’ armies must have created serious problems for the rear columns. By the time thousands of horses had ridden along the roads, the mud in low-lying places must have been positively liquid, making marching difficult and pulling carts almost impossible; moreover, the larger any body of men and the more exhausted they became the more likely they were to give in to inexplicable panic. Scouting reports were unreliable; there were too many woods, streams, and enemy patrols. Nevertheless, the king, no matter how exhausted, nervous, or unsure he and his military advisors might be, had to avoid giving any impression of indecisiveness or fear; he had to appear calm at all times. Jagiełło’s dour personality lent itself to this role. A non-drinker, he was sober at all times, and his demeanour was that of total self-control. His love of hunting had prepared him well for the hours on horseback and feeling at home in the deepest woods; he would have regarded the lightly inhabited forests of Dobrin and Płock as tame stuff indeed. Vytautas was the perfect foil; he was the energetic and inspirational leader who was everywhere at once, at home among warriors and disdainful of supposed hardships. No common soldier could complain that their commanders did not understand the warrior’s life or the dangers of the forest, or that they did not share the tribulations of life on the march.

This need to appear to be in command was itself a danger – any army on the march can be held up at a ford or a narrow place between lakes and swamps, even if no enemy is present. The commander has to give some order, any order, even if it’s only ‘sit down’, rather than seem to be unable to make a decision. Such circumstances, compounded by exhaustion, thirst, or anxiety, often resulted in hurriedly issued orders to attack or retreat that the men are unable to carry out effectively. In short, circumstances might limit the royal options to bad ones, and the perceived need for haste might cause the king to select the worst of those available. Jagiełło was certainly aware of all this, for he was an experienced campaigner. However, for many years his strength had lain in persuading his foes to retreat ahead of overwhelming numbers, or in besieging strongholds; his goal had always been to prepare the way for diplomacy. Now he was leading a gigantic army to a confrontation with a hitherto invincible foe, to fight, if the enemy commander so chose, a pitched battle in hostile territory.

Jagiełło seemed to have been checked at the Dzewa River before he could cross into Prussia. He was unwilling to attempt to force a crossing at the only nearby ford in the face of a strongly-entrenched enemy; he would not find it easy to move eastward and upstream – while the headwaters of the Dzewa presented no significant obstacle to his advance, the countryside there had once been thickly forested, and important remnants of the ancient wilderness still remained. Most importantly, although the Teutonic Knights had used the century of peace to establish many settlements in the rolling countryside, the roads connecting the villages were narrow and winding. There were too many hills and swamps for roads to proceed from point to point, and strangers could easily lose their sense of direction in the dense woods. The villagers were fleeing into fortified refuges or the forest. Although many of the inhabitants spoke Polish (immigrants not being subject to linguistic tests in those days), they were loyal to the Teutonic Order, and none wanted to fall into the hands of Vytautas’ flying squadrons – especially not the terrifying Tatars – which were trying to locate the defensive forces and find a way around them. Making peasants give information or serve as guides was part of warfare. Burning villages marked the progress of the scouting units. Though this could hardly have been seen easily by the two armies confronting one another at the ford, they might well have been aware of the rising columns of smoke.

However, terrorising the countryside, burning, and pillaging was a far cry from the battle tactics that the Poles had become accustomed to; the long era of peace had softened the sensibilities of these amateur warriors. Polish knights were soon complaining to Jagiełło about their allies’ behaviour – Tatars hauling women into their tents and then raping them repeatedly, killing peasants who spoke Polish, treating captives inhumanely – until the king finally ordered the prisoners released and admonished the steppe horsemen to avoid such cruel practices in the future. This restraint was not in his best interests – the king’s best hope for making Jungingen weaken his position was to wreak such destruction on nearby rural communities that the grand master would feel compelled to send troops to protect them. However, within a short time Jagiełło and Vytautas saw that Jungingen was too good a commander to disperse his forces at such a critical moment.

The king must have been frustrated, yet he was unwilling either to allow his campaign to end from empty bellies or send his men to be slaughtered on some obscure river bank. While it was not clear that he could move eastward through the woods and swamps and around the incredibly complicated system of lakes without being easily blocked by the grand master, then forced to fight at a disadvantage, that seemed his only hope. This was, after all, the grand master’s home ground, and surely the Teutonic Knights would have seen to the building of some roads. If so, however, why were they not using them now to harass the Polish rear?

Jungingen, for his part, does not seem to have worried about a Polish flanking manoeuvre. Teutonic Knights from nearby convents had hunted for recreation in these woods; hence they were familiar with every village, field, and forest; they knew well how the many long, narrow, twisting lakes would limit the options available to invading armies. Polish and Lithuanian scouts had been active for days, looking for paths through the surrounding woods, and they had yet to find one. The assurance of such local residents as had undoubtedly agreed to act as guides and scouts for the Teutonic Knights, that the roads were not suitable for the use of any large army, may have given Jungingen more confidence in his superior strategic position than was warranted.

This confidence was misplaced, however. When the Lithuanian scouts reported that they had found some roads leading toward Osterode that could be used – if the army moved before the Germans learned what was planned – the king and grand prince acted on the information quickly.

Jagiełło consulted with his inner council, then gave orders to prepare for a secret, swift march eastward and north around Jungingen’s fortified position. He assigned each unit its place in the order of march and instructed everyone to obey the two guides who knew the country. The royal trumpeter would give the signals in the morning; until then no one was to make any movement or noise that might betray his plans prematurely. Unless his army could get a start of many hours, the stratagem was hopeless. Meanwhile, he sent a herald to make another effort at a peaceful settlement of the matter. Quite likely this was a deceptive manoeuvre to persuade the grand master that the king was in a desperate situation, but it might also have been a pro forma means of persuading the peace commissioners that he was truly desirous of ending the war without further bloodshed. It is hard to imagine what terms Jungingen might have considered acceptable in this situation, but the grand master nevertheless called a meeting of his officers; with one exception, they preferred war to further negotiations.

Jagiełło’s actions may well have increased the grand master’s overconfidence in the superiority of his situation. Certainly, when Jungingen’s scouts saw the Polish camp empty, they assumed that the king was withdrawing. The Germans crossed the river on swiftly erected pontoon bridges and set out in pursuit, knowing that there is nothing easier to destroy than an army on the retreat. However, when the scouts saw that the Poles and Lithuanians were moving north-east in two columns, working their way in a wide arc around their flank, Jungingen had to reconsider his plans. If his men continued following the enemy units, they would not be able to stop Vytautas’ Tatars from torching countless villages; worse, they might find themselves trailing the enemy through deep forests or fall into an ambush at some ford with nothing but desolated lands and wilderness at their rear. Therefore the grand master changed the direction of his advance in order to get ahead of the enemy columns. In fact the speed at which Jungingen’s army moved almost caused it to overshoot the Polish and Lithuanian line of march. Meanwhile, the Polish scouts had completely lost contact with the Germans and were surprised when they found Jungingen once again blocking the roads north.

Jagiełło, in luring the German forces east, away from their strong fortresses in Culm, was moving his own army far from safe refuges, too; moreover, he had divided his forces, sending the Lithuanians east and north of the road used by the Poles. Should the grand master somehow attack his forces by surprise, especially before they could reunite, Jagiełło might suffer an irreversible disaster. Because many Poles still considered him a Lithuanian under the skin, Jagiełło was placing his crown at risk in seeking battle under such conditions. This was something that Ulrich von Jungingen surely understood – a victory over the Polish and Lithuanian armies could ruin his order’s ancient enemies now and forever.

The Battle of Tannenberg 1410 Part III

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 Combat

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.

BATTLE OF SLUYS 1340

“Battle of Sluys – 24 June, 1340. Naval battle between an English fleet, under King Edward lll and a French fleet under Hugues Quieret, Admiral of France” – Medieval naval battle – ship to ship conflict was acted upon by boarding the enemy vessel and going into melee by Peter Dennis

The first stages of the Hundred Years’ War were marked by an ongoing battle at sea between French and English privateers, pirates and merchants, each side hoping to profit and deny valuable supplies to the enemy. But already in 1338 Philip VI made use of a larger royal navy, mostly composed of galleys hired from Genoa. He launched several devastating raids against southern English ports, partly destroying several towns including Portsmouth, Southampton and Hastings. These raids effectively cut King Edward III’s lines of communication, including supplies, between his continental possessions and England, and also destroying and capturing a number of ships, including Edward III’s own great ships Cog Edward and Christopher: Philip and his advisors went on from there to organize a major invasion of England in 1339, only to have a storm scatter his fleet and spoil their plans.

From that point, France’s naval position rapidly went downhill. The Genoese mercenaries enjoyed a series of impressive successes, but started fighting among themselves after their own admiral, Ayton Doria, tried to cheat them out of their pay. The oarsmen mutinied, seized several of the galleys and headed for home, losing Philip VI two thirds of his battle fleet at one blow. By the end of 1339 the rest of the Italian oarsmen had been sent home. That left France with 22 royal galleys of its own, but an English raid on Boulogne early in 1340 burned 18 of these where they had been laid up for the winter.

Without this elite fighting force, the French seem to have lost confidence and in early 1340 decided on a defensive policy, blocking the English invasion fleet’s access to the Flemish coast where they intended to land safely, since Flanders was England’s ally. The French task could be accomplished with armed merchantmen, the ‘Great Army of the Sea’, as it was grandiosely named. It consisted of up to 200 ships, the largest grouping that could be found and therefore probably mostly cogs. The cost to equip them and hire crews was paid for with a heavy tax on Normandy.

In the meantime, an English invasion fleet was gathered. Made up of about 160 ships, most of them were privately owned and pressed into service to the crown. This fleet, commanded by Edward III in person, sailed for Flanders on 22 June 1340. They apparently did not expect to encounter the French fleet at the mouth of the River Zwyn two days later, the French determined to keep the English from landing upriver. At this stage, Edward had no choice but to go forwards. A retreat could easily have turned into a massacre, French ships able to cut off the English one by one as they spread out on the open sea, not to mention what a crushing blow a retreat would have been to King Edward’s honour.

Battle of Sluys, 1340

The Battle of Sluys began on 24 June 1340. The French decided on a battle strategy that suggests the French admirals, Hugh Quieret and Nicholas Behuchat, did not trust their ships’ fighting capabilities and above all feared the English slipping by and landing their army. So the French blocked the mouth of the river completely, chaining the ships together in three long lines across the shallow estuary, about 5km (3 miles) wide at its entrance.

Apparently the most experienced of the French ship commanders advised against remaining in such a confined space, without room to manoeuvre and with the wind blowing into the mouth of the river, but the admirals did not listen. The chronicler Froissart tells that the ships, fortified with wooden fighting platforms, looked like a row of castles. The French strategy suggests either extremely poor seamanship, lack of information about the English fleet coming against them or reckless over-confidence. Some historians have questioned whether the French could really have chained their ships together; this practice of ‘bridling’ was described by the historian Livy and maybe medieval chroniclers were again borrowing from the past instead of observing the present. For sailing ships in a confined space affected by the tide, such a tactic was insane. Indeed, the French ships soon found themselves in difficulty, drifting east and fouling each other. The ships appear to have been cast loose at this point, but the French found themselves in serious disorder just as the English began to attack, taking advantage of wind and tide and not starting their final approach until early afternoon when the sun would no longer be in their eyes. The French were trying to edge west again when the battle began, adding to the confusion.

The English approached in three lines, with the largest ships to the front, including Edward III’s own flagship, the cog Thomas. Height was once again an advantage, and the English had the manpower to exploit it to its fullest – a large army of men-at-arms and archers intended for the land army. Although often forgotten by chivalry enthusiasts, it was this Battle at Sluys, rather than the more famous Crecy and Poitiers, that showed for the first time the devastating effectiveness of the English longbow. The French marines were for the most part crossbowmen. They were much slower than their English equivalents in those crucial moments as the ships closed, and besides were probably under strength, since the French had lost most of their Italian mercenary crossbowmen. The French did what they could to compensate, including lashing boats full of stones to their masts and posting men at the masthead to hurl the rocks on enemy heads. By that time, however, many crews would have been too thinned to fight effectively.

The fighting was hot. Edward III himself was shot through the thigh with a crossbow bolt, and fighting raged from about 3.00 PM until nearly 10.00 PM (with two ships continuing to fight until the next dawn). But the English seem to have massacred the first French line in fairly quick order, gradually working to the second line, which was so tightly clustered together that the ships could not manoeuvre. A large force of Flemings, mustered on the west bank, then fell on the third line from behind, besides killing any Frenchmen who managed to struggle to the shore. The result was a great English victory. No quarter was given, the English slaughtering the crews of captured ships. Between 16,000 and 18,000 French fighting men died that day. Among the dead were both admirals. Behuchat was killed in the fighting; Quieret was captured to be ransomed, but when it was discovered that he had commanded the French attacks against the southern English ports, Edward III ordered him hanged from the mast of his own ship. Not long after the victory, King Edward had his gold coinage redesigned to show himself enthroned on a ship.

1293: SEA-BATTLE IN THE CHANNEL

Twenty-one years after King Edward I’s accession, there arose a naval war between France and England. In 1286, Edward was the first who appointed a person to the office of Admiral of the English Seas, as we find William de Leybourne styled “Admiral de le Mer du dit Roy d’Angleterre,” at an ordinance made at Bruges concerning the conduct of the ships of England and Flanders in that year; and about the same time first mention is made of an admiral of France, named Florent de varenne, whose successor, Enguerrand, was “Admiral de la Flotte du Roi Philippe le Hardi,” yet never was the sea more infested by piracy than in 1293, the period referred to. The feeble execution of the laws had given licence to all kinds of men; and a general appetite for rapine, followed by revenge for it, seemed to infect the mariners and fighting merchant-traders of the time, and tempted them on the smallest provocation to seek redress by immediate and merciless retaliation on the aggressors.

It chanced that a Norman and an English vessel met near the coast of Bayonne (De Mezeray has it Guienne), and both having occasion for water, sent their boats ashore at the same time, and, as misfortune would have it, to the same spring, upon which there immediately ensued a quarrel for precedence. In the squabble a Norman drew his dagger and attempted to stab an English seaman, who grappling with him, hurled him to the ground. The Norman was said to have fallen on his own dagger; be that as it may, the man was slain, and from this petty scuffle between two obscure seamen about a cask of water, there grew a bloody war between two great nations, involving half of Europe in the quarrel. The mariners of the Norman ship laid their complaints before the King of France, who, without caring to inquire into the matter, bade them “take revenge, and trouble him no more about it.” Though more legal than usual in applying to the crown, they required but this hint to proceed to immediate outrage.

Meeting an English ship in the Channel, they boarded her, and hanging some of the crew, together with some dogs, from the yard-arms, in presence of their shipmates, bade them inform their countrymen that “vengeance was now taken for the blood of the Norman killed at Bayonne.”

This injury, accompanied by circumstances so insulting, was speedily resented by all the mariners of the Cinque Ports, who, without the empty formality of appealing to King Edward, retaliated by committing precisely the same barbarities on all French vessels without distinction; and the French in return preyed upon the ships of Edward’s subjects, Gascon as well as English: and soon armed piratical craft of all kinds swarmed in the Channel and Bay of Biscay in pursuit of each other, the sovereigns of both countries remaining perfectly indifferent the while. The English formed private associations with the Irish and Dutch seamen, the French with the Genoese and Flemings; and the animosities of these lawless spirits became more and more violent.

A fleet of 260 Norman vessels set sail to the south for wine, and in their passage seized all the English ships they met, and hanging or drowning the crews, made spoil of the cargoes, and arrived in triumph at St. Mahé, a port in Bretagne. Filled with fresh fury by this incident, the English ports fitted out a fleet of eighty sail, stronger and better manned, to take revenge. Depredations had now been carried to such a length, that at last the nations agreed on a certain day to decide the dispute with their whole naval strength, and a large empty ship was placed in the Channel midway between the coasts of England and France to mark the spot of the engagement.

On the 14th April, 1293, they met in close battle. Long and obstinate was the engagement, and no quarter was either asked for or given; in the end the French were totally routed, and the -greater part of their ships taken, sunk, or destroyed, and “the majority of their crews perished in the ocean.” It has been alleged that the loss of the French was 15,000 men. If so, it can only be accounted for by the circumstance that the returning Norman fleet was transporting a considerable body of troops from the south.

Matters were now looking serious; and French King Philip IV, enraged by a defeat so murderous and disgraceful, dispatched an envoy to London demanding reparation. He did more, for he cited Edward to appear in his Court of Parliament, as his liege man and vassal, being Duke of Guienne, and having done homage on his knees as such before Philip, at Paris, in 1274. The English king sent his brother; but Philip, dissatisfied with this equivocation, declared him contumacious, and seized his French possessions. On finding himself in something like the same absurd feudal snare he had prepared for the Scots, Edward was exasperated; the more so when he found France making preparations to invade England at a time when his hands were full with his northern neighbours: so, to anticipate any descents on the coast, besides three formidable fleets which were to protect it, he equipped a fourth consisting of above 330 ships, with a body of 7,000 men-at-arms and archers on board, under the command of the Earl of Lancaster, to recover his forfeited duchy of Guienne. He sailed to the mouth of the Garonne, took a town or two, and thence went to Bourdeaux and Bayonne, after the capture of which he died; but all this did not prevent a French fleet of 300 sail, under the command of Matthew de Montmorenci and John de Harcourt, assisted by Thomas de Tuberville, an English traitor, from landing at Dover, and reducing that town to ashes, ere the men of the country rose, and compelled the invaders fly to their ships with considerable loss.

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 8 by W. Laird Clowes

In 1294, large English fleets were assembled in the Narrow Seas, one in the North Sea, being under Sir John de Botetort, one in the Channel, being under Sir William de Leybourne, and one, in the Irish Sea, being under a knight named Ormond. [206] On June 26th, the barons of England were ordered to be at Portsmouth by September 1st, to accompany the king to Gascony; and in July Edward himself was at Portsmouth. Meanwhile, wood was hewn for the equipment of above two hundred ships to carry horses; the keepers of all the ports were directed to suffer no man, ship, boat or vessel to quit the kingdom; and John Baliol, King of Scots, who had done homage to Edward in 1292, was enjoined not to allow any ships or men to leave his country for abroad.

The army destined for Gascony consisted of twenty thousand foot soldiers, with five hundred men-at-arms. It sailed from Portmouth on August 1st, but, off the Cornish coast, was dispersed by bad weather and driven into Plymouth, whence it did not sail again until the beginning of October. Entering the Gironde, the fleet appeared about the 28th of the month in the Dordogne before Castilion, which place surrendered at once. Thence the expedition proceeded up the Garonne to St. Macaire, which submitted on the 31st. On the following day the ships anchored off Bourg. On November 8th they were off Blaye, whence they sailed to Bordeaux, where they remained for two days. Failing to reduce it, they again mounted the Garonne to Lieux, where the horses were landed after having been seventeen weeks and some days embarked.

The main expedition was followed by the Earls of Lancaster and Lincoln with reinforcements, probably conveyed in vessels which the Cinque Ports had been ordered to send to Portsmouth by September 8th; but this division did not sail until the spring of 1295. In the interval, in October, 1294, certain goods belonging to

French subjects were directed to be seized and sold and the proceeds paid into the Exchequer.

Sir Henry de Turberville has been mentioned as having played a gallant part in the defeat of the French at the Battle of the South Foreland in 1217. A relative of his took less honourable share in the naval history of the reign of Edward I. This knight, Sir Thomas de Turberville, had been made prisoner by Philip IV.; and, eager to advance himself, no matter at what cost, turned traitor. He suggested in 1295 that Philip should fit out a large fleet and crowd the vessels with troops; and that, in the meantime, he himself should go to England, report that he had made his escape, and endeavour to obtain from his sovereign a command at sea, or the custody of the ports, or both. He would then, on seeing the approach of the French, deliver up his trust, the agreed signal that his plot had been successful being his own banner hoisted above that of the king. Philip accepted the offer, promised Turberville large rewards, and kept two of the traitor’s sons as hostages.

Turberville reached England, but, though kindly received, failed to obtain the wished-for command. Philip, on his part, collected more than three hundred ships from Marseilles, Genoa and other places, and sent them to cruise off the English coasts, in waiting for the expected signal. Not seeing it the commanders grew impatient, and dispatched five of their best galleys to reconnoitre more closely. One of these landed at Hythe. To induce the intruders to advance inland, the king’s forces retired before them, and then, suddenly turning, fell upon them and killed them all to the number of two hundred and forty, afterwards taking and burning the galley. The other four galleys rejoined their main body, which was far too formidable to be attacked by such ships as were at the disposal of the English commanders on the spot. Turberville’s treachery was still unsuspected in England; but the assemblage of Philip’s large fleet could not but be known; and, with a view to resisting invasion, letters were dispatched on August 28th and 30th to the Bishop of London and other prelates and priors instructing them to take the necessary measures in case the enemy landed; and on September 28th the sheriffs were informed that danger was apprehended from the machinations of certain foreign ecclesiastics residing near the sea-board, and recommending their immediate removal inland.

But, before this, a descent had actually been made. On August 1st the French fleet had appeared off Dover, and had suddenly landed about fifteen thousand men, who had seized the town and burnt great part of it. The people had fled, but recovering their courage, and being reinforced, had attacked the invaders so vigorously as to kill five thousand of them and to put the rest to flight. Some had escaped to the ships, others had taken refuge in the fields, where they had been afterwards found and massacred. Thirty seamen had maintained themselves in the cloisters of the abbey until night, when they had got away in two boats, only. however, to be followed in the morning by two large craft and sunk. In the whole affray but fourteen Englishmen had lost their lives.

The repulse at Dover and the non-appearance of Turberville’s signal disheartened the French, who returned to their ports and dispersed; yet Turberville’s treason was still undiscovered and might have gone unpunished but for the suspicions of a clerk, who delivered to Edward a letter which led to the conspiracy being laid bare, and to the culprit’s execution.

The retirement of the French opened the Channel to the operations of English cruisers. The ships of the Cinque Ports captured fifteen Spanish vessels full of merchandise, bound for Damme, and brought them into Sandwich; and some Yarmouth ships landed a force at Cherbourg, fired the town, robbed an abbey, and carried off an old priest.

LINCOLN, 20 May 1217

William Marshal’s victory prevented a foreign prince from ruling England, but Lincoln’s citizens had little cause for celebration.

Perviously the French were unable to capture Lincoln Castle, governed by the formidable Nichola de la Haye.

The rebels invited the king of France to take the throne of England; instead Philip II’s son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216. In the same year Nichola prevented another siege by paying off a rebel army, led by Gilbert de Gant, who had occupied the city of Lincoln.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nichola de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right.

Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill.

King John died at Newark on 19th October 1216.

BATTLE MAP: 1. Position of the former West Gate, where William Marshal entered the city 2. Lincoln’s North Gate, which was assaulted by the Earl of Chester 3. The Cathedral, which was looted by Henry III’s forces 4. Castle Square, where the French were held up by Marshal’s crossbowmen and where the main battle action took place 5. The lower town, where the French and the rebels were chased south. The town was ransacked by Marshal’s troops, giving the battle the name `the Battle of Lincoln Fair.

While most people have heard of Hastings, Crécy, Agincourt and Bosworth, few have heard of the Battle of Lincoln, and even fewer know that had it not been for that battle, England might well have been ruled by a King Louis the First.

Towards the end of King John’s reign, the barons of England rebelled at what they saw as his arbitrary and vindictive rule. In June 1215, John temporarily appeased them by agreeing to what would later be called Magna Carta, a document addressing the perceived abuses of his reign. But when Magna Carta was withdrawn less than three months later, many English barons concluded that there was no doing business with John and invited Louis, the son of Philip Augustus of France, to replace him as the king of England.

Louis duly invaded, and with the support of the rebel barons, he overran much of southeast England and East Anglia, although the castles at Windsor and Dover stubbornly held out against him. Then, in October 1216, John did what has been described as the best thing he ever did for his country. He died. Much of the baronial support for Louis had been motivated by a hatred of John, and now that he was no longer on the scene, many barons switched sides in favour of his successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, especially when his advisors re-issued Magna Carta. Even so, Louis didn’t abandon his attempts to conquer England, and while half his army continued to besiege Dover Castle, he sent the rest north to capture Lincoln.

At the time, Lincoln was one of the largest and most important cities in the country. Perched on the top of a steep hill, it was surrounded by stone walls and defended by a powerful castle. The castle had two fortified mounds and two main gates, one leading into the city and the square opposite Lincoln’s cathedral, and the other westward into the countryside. In 1217, the castle’s constable was a woman in her 60s, Nichola de la Haye.

Although the castle would prove a tough nut to crack, the city itself wasn’t prepared to resist a full-scale attack and quickly surrendered to the forces of Louis, who arrived in March under the command of the young Comte du Perche and Saer de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester and a leader of the baronial rebellion. But, with the redoubtable Nichola in command, the castle held out even though the French brought up siege engines – probably trebuchets – to bombard its walls.

William Marshal, the regent of England and commander of the forces loyal to Henry III, was determined not to let such an important stronghold fall into the hands of Louis. He gathered together a relief force, which assembled at Newark before heading for Lincoln. They realised that although the main road entered the city from the south, an approach from that direction was highly undesirable. Before they could get to the castle, they would have to fight their way through the town and up a precipitous road that even today is known as `Steep Hill’. So they marched on Lincoln via Torksey, approaching the city from the north-west on Saturday 20 May.

Perche and his men saw them coming and, according to one chronicler, a small reconnaissance force of English rebels went out to check out the approaching threat. They reported back that William Marshal’s army was not a particularly large one, and argued that the best course of action was to leave the city and take them on in the open fields, where their own superior numbers could prove decisive. The chronicler says that Perche was unconvinced and sent out a second reconnaissance force, this time made up of French knights. At the time, a quick way of estimating the strength of an enemy army was to count the banners of its knights, but this account claims that the French were unaware of the fact that each English knight carried two banners and therefore concluded that Marshal’s army was twice as strong as it actually was. Whether this actually happened isn’t known Perche’s English troops would have put them right – but in any event, the French decided to remain behind the safety of the city walls, thus handing the initiative over to Marshal.

Meanwhile, Marshal’s men were arguing about who should have the honour of leading the assault, with the powerful Earl of Chester threatening to go home if it wasn’t him. In fact, it didn’t really matter – for Marshal’s plan was to mount a series of simultaneous attacks from a variety of directions. While the Earl of Chester led the assault on the city’s North Gate, drawing the French in that direction, Marshal himself attacked the West Gate. It was said that he was so keen to join the battle that as he was beginning to move his column, a page had to remind him that he had forgotten to put his helmet on. Meanwhile, 300 crossbowmen under Falkes de Breauté, one of Henry III’s most loyal and ruthless commanders, slipped into the castle through a postern gate that opened outside the city walls. They took up position on the castle walls and poured down a deadly shower of crossbow bolts onto the French below them. Marshal and the Earl of Chester both broke into the city and soon Lincoln’s cramped streets were filled with a mass of struggling men. One contemporary described the scene:

“Had you been there you would have seen great blows dealt, heard helmets clanging. seen lances fly in splinters in the air, saddles vacated by riders. great blows delivered by swords and maces on helmets and on arms, and seen knives and daggers drawn for stabbing horses.”

The turning point came when Breauté led the castle’s garrison out of its East Gate and joined in the fray. Initially, they were driven back and Breauté was temporarily taken prisoner before being rescued, but their intervention probably tipped the scales in favour of Marshal, and when the Comte du Perche was killed by a lance thrust through the eye-slit of his helmet, the French lost heart. They were steadily driven back down Lincoln’s steep main street until they reached the gate at the south end of the city, which was so narrow that few could escape. While we have no idea of what happened to their ordinary soldiers – the chroniclers at the time simply weren’t interested in them – many of the knights in the French and rebel army were taken prisoner.

The battle was won but the destruction and bloodshed wasn’t yet over. The victorious English considered that the city had surrendered rather too quickly to the French and, suspecting it of collaboration, meted out a savage punishment. The entire city was thoroughly sacked. Even the cathedral (whose clergy had been excommunicated by the Papal Legate accompanying the English army) was pillaged. As the panic-stricken residents tried to save themselves and their property from Marshal’s marauding soldiers, tragedy struck. According to the chronicler Roger of Wendover:

“Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river for, to avoid shameful offence (ie rape), they took to small boats with their children, their female servants, and household property. the boats were overloaded, and the women not knowing how to manage the boats, all perished.”

As Marshal’s victorious troops left Lincoln, they were so laden with booty and plunder that it looked to onlookers as though they had been on some enormous shopping expedition, with the result that the battle gained its unlikely nickname – Lincoln Fair.

THE MAN WHO WAS NEARLY KING

Prince Louis was the son of Philip Augustus, King of France and Richard the Lionheart’s partner (and rival) during the Third Crusade. He was born in 1187 and in 1200 he married Blanche of Castile, a granddaughter of Henry II. At a time when you didn’t necessarily have to be next in line in order to take the throne, Louis, who did have royal blood after all, seemed an ideal replacement for the tyrannical John. To the English barons who asked him to be their king Louis was all the things John wasn’t – brave, pious, trustworthy and a man who kept his word. After landing in England he was proclaimed king in London, and within months about two thirds of the barons and more than half of the country were under his control. After the failure of his bid to rule England, Louis returned to France where he succeeded to the throne as Louis VIII in 1223 and promptly conquered large amounts of the remaining English territory in the country.

Tamerlane and the Golden Horde

TAMERLANE (1336–1405). Turkic chieftain and conqueror. He was not Mongol, but sought to trace Mongol connections through his wife’s ancestors. His English name is a corruption of the Persian Timür-i Leng, “lame Timür.” Tamerlane is important not only for his conquests, but for his role in definitively ending the Mongol era in Turkistanian history, and for his attack on the Golden Horde in 1395–1396, which began with the Battle of the Terek River, in which the army of Toqtamysh was decisively defeated, and ended with the destruction of much of the sedentary base of the Golden Horde along the lower Volga, including Sarai.

In 1401 the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was in the city of Damascus, then under siege by the mighty Tamerlane. Eager to meet the famous conqueror of the day, he was lowered from the walls in a basket and received in Tamerlane’s camp. There he had a series of conversations with a ruler he described (in his autobiography) as ‘one of the greatest and mightiest of kings . . . addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and does not know’. Ibn Khaldun may have seen in Tamerlane the saviour of the Arab–Muslim civilization for whose survival he feared. But four years later Tamerlane died on the road to China, whose conquest he had planned.

Tamerlane (sometimes Timur, or Timurlenk, ‘Timur the Lame’ – hence his European name) was a phenomenon who became a legend. He was born, probably in the 1330s, into a lesser clan of the Turkic-Mongol tribal confederation the Chagatai, one of the four great divisions into which the Mongol empire of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan had been split up at his death, in 1227. By 1370 he had made himself master of the Chagatai. Between 1380 and 1390 he embarked upon the conquest of Iran, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Armenia and Georgia. In 1390 he invaded the Russian lands, returning a few years later to wreck the capital of the Golden Horde, the Mongol regime in modern South Russia. In 1398 he led a vast plundering raid into North India, crushing its Muslim rulers and demolishing Delhi. Then in 1400 he returned to the Middle East to capture Aleppo and Damascus (Ibn Khaldun escaped its massacre), before defeating and capturing the Ottoman sultan Bayazet at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. It was only after that that he turned east on his final and abortive campaign.

The Army

Tamerlane’s original army was a hodgepodge of leftover Chaghatayid units: clans (Barulas, Jalayir, etc.), local soldiery created a century earlier under the Mongol census (called qa’uchin, old units), independent KESHIG (guards) tümens (nominally 10,000) that had outlived their khan, and the Qara’unas, an old TAMMACHI garrison. Tamerlane did not disperse these traditional units but controlled them by changing their leadership, removing major cities such as Bukhara from their control, and eventually recruiting new armies outside the Chaghatay Khanate, especially local units from the defunct Mongol IL-KHANATE. Foreign troops and craftsmen-Indians, Persians, Arabs both settled and bedouin, and Turks- were deported and settled around Samarqand and Bukhara. By 1400 his own companions commanded about 13 tümens, while his sons commanded at least nine. Tamerlane ‘s sons’ tümens were assembled from troops of all origins. The core of Tamerlane ‘s army was its Inner Asian cavalry, but he also valued Tajik (Iranian) infantry units. In an inscription he claims to have attacked Toqtamish in 1391 with 20 tümens, a statement that at the usual 40 percent nominal strength is plausible.

Attack on the Golden Horde

The subjugation of Khorasan and Mazandaran, completed by 1384, led to the first of his expeditionary campaigns against western Iran and the Caucasus in 1386-87.

Toqtamish’s father was a descendants of Toqa-Temür, one of the “princes of the left hand,” or the BLUE HORDE, in modern Kazakhstan, and his mother was of the QONGGIRAD clan from near KHORAZM. At the time the Blue Horde was ruled by Urus Khan (d. 1377) and his sons, whose seat was at Sighnaq (near modern Chiili). By allying with the Chaghatayid conqueror Tamerlane, Toqtamish succeeded after many reverses in taking control of the Blue Horde (spring 1377). Later, local chronicles speak of Toqtamish as defending four tribes (el)-Shirin, Baarin, Arghun, and Qipchaq-from the tyranny of Urus Khan. Once enthroned in Sighnaq, Toqtamish led his four tribes west to defeat Emir Mamaq (Mamay) of the Qiyat clan (1380) and reestablish GOLDEN HORDE rule over Russia by sacking Moscow (1382).

Eventually, Toqtamish turned against his old patron, Tamerlane, to pursue the Golden Horde’s old territorial claims in Azerbaijan (1385 and 1387), Khorazm, and the Syr Dar’ya region down to Bukhara (1388). Tamerlane responded with a massive punitive expedition into Kazakhstan, which finally cornered and defeated Toqtamish’s army near Orenburg (June 1391). Tamerlane also wooed away Emir Edigü, leader of the Manghit (MANGGHUD) clan, from Toqtamish’s camp. After rebuilding his power in the west, Toqtamish again invaded Azerbaijan (1394); Tamerlane crushed his army again on the Terek (March 15, 1395) and sacked Saray and Astrakhan.

By now Tamerlane’s chief rival was a one-time protegé, TOQTAMISH, ruler first of the BLUE HORDE and then of the reunified GOLDEN HORDE in the northern steppe. First sacking Urganch (1287), the capital of Toqtamish’s allied country, Khorazm, Timur launched a “five-year campaign” (1392-96) against Baghdad’s Jalayir dynasty as well as against western Iranian, Turkmen, and Georgian powers, culminating in the sack of Toqtamish’s capital, New Saray, on the Volga and crippling Toqtamish’s power.

Timur marched through the Darband Gates, a narrow pass between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains. On 15th April 1395 the armies of Timur and Toqtamish met near the river Terek, a strategic point where so many battles had been fought. Timur himself took part until, as the Zafarnama put it, ‘his arrows were all spent, his spear broken, but his sword he still brandished’. This time Timur’s victory was complete.

Terek River, 22 April 1395

Abandoning his fortified camp on the banks of the Terek on bearing of Tamerlane’s approach during a second campaign against him, Tokhtamysh Khan shadowed the Timurid army until, on 14 April, they finally encamped facing one another. On the 22nd Tamerlane arranged his forces for battle in 7 divisions, himself commanding the reserve of 27 binliks, and commenced his attack under the cover of showers of arrows. Then, bearing of an advance against his left wing, he led the reserve to its support and repelled the attack but pursued the enemy too far so that, thus disorganised, be in turn was repulsed and driven back. Disaster was averted by a mere 50 of his men who dismounted, knelt on one knee and laid down a withering barrage of arrows to bold back their pursuers while 3 Timurid officers and their men seized 3 of Tokhtamysh’s wagons and drew them up as a barricade behind which Tamerlane managed to rally his reserve. The advance guard of his left wing bad meanwhile broken through between the attacking enemy divisions, while his son Mohammed Sultan brought up strong reinforcements, positioning them on Tamerlane’s left so that Tokhtamysb’s advancing right wing was finally forced to take flight.

The Timurid right wing having meanwhile been surrounded, its commander ordered Ibis men to dismount and crouch behind their shields, under the cover of which they were repeatedly attacked with lance and sword by Tokhtamysb’s troops. They were finally rescued from these dire straits by the division under Jibansha Behadur which, attacking from both flanks, obliged the enemy left flank to fall back and then drove it from the field. Finally the centres of both armies joined battle, Tokhtamysb’s giving way after a hard fight, upon which the khan and his noyons quit the field. The Timurid pursuit was close and bloody, most of those they captured being hanged.

Aftermath

The shattered remnants of Toqtamish’s army and of his Russian vassals were pursued as far as Yelets, not far from the Principality of Moscow. There Timur turned back not, as the terrified Muscovites believed, because of the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary and still less through fear of Moscow’s military might, but because he had no interest in conquering the poor and backward Russian principalities.

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the undoubted savagery of his predatory conquests, Tamerlane was a transitional figure in Eurasian history. His conquests were an echo of the great Mongol empire forged by Genghis Khan and his sons. That empire had extended from modern Iran to China, and as far north as Moscow. It had encouraged a remarkable movement of people, trade and ideas around the waist of Eurasia, along the great grassy corridor of steppe, and Mongol rule may have served as the catalyst for commercial and intellectual change in an age of general economic expansion. The Mongols even permitted the visits of West European emissaries hoping to build an anti-Muslim alliance and win Christian converts. But by the early fourteenth century the effort to preserve a grand imperial confederation had all but collapsed. The internecine wars between the ‘Ilkhanate’ rulers in Iran, the Golden Horde and the Chagatai, and the fall of the Yuan in China (by 1368), marked the end of the Mongol experiment in Eurasian empire.

Tamerlane’s conquests were partly an effort to retrieve this lost empire. But his methods were different. Much of his warfare seemed mainly designed to wreck any rivals for control of the great trunk road of Eurasian commerce, on whose profits his empire was built. Also, his power was pivoted more on command of the ‘sown’ than on mastery of the steppe: his armies were made up not just of mounted bowmen (the classic Mongol formula), but of infantry, artillery, heavy cavalry and even an elephant corps. His system of rule was a form of absolutism, in which the loyalty of his tribal followers was balanced against the devotion of his urban and agrarian subjects. Tamerlane claimed also to be the ‘Shadow of God’ (among his many titles), wreaking vengeance upon the betrayers and backsliders of the Islamic faith. Into his chosen imperial capital at Samarkand, close to his birthplace, he poured the booty of his conquests, and there he fashioned the architectural monuments that proclaimed the splendour of his reign. The ‘Timurid’ model was to have a lasting influence upon the idea of empire across the whole breadth of Middle Eurasia.

But, despite his ferocity, his military genius and his shrewd adaptation of tribal politics to his imperial purpose, Tamerlane’s system fell apart at his death. As he himself may have grasped intuitively, it was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe and build a Eurasian empire on the old foundations of Mongol military power. The Ottomans, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in northern India, and above all China were too resilient to be swept away by his lightning campaigns. Indeed Tamerlane’s death marked in several ways the end of a long phase in global history. His empire was the last real attempt to challenge the partition of Eurasia between the states of the Far West, Islamic Middle Eurasia and Confucian East Asia. Secondly, his political experiments and ultimate failure revealed that power had begun to shift back decisively from the nomad empires to the settled states. Thirdly, the collateral damage that Tamerlane inflicted on Middle Eurasia, and the disproportionate influence that tribal societies continued to wield there, helped (if only gradually) to tilt the Old World’s balance in favour of the Far East and Far West, at the expense of the centre. Lastly, his passing coincided with the first signs of a change in the existing pattern of long-distance trade, the East–West route that he had fought to control. Within a few decades of his death, the idea of a world empire ruled from Samarkand had become fantastic. The discovery of the sea as a global commons offering maritime access to every part of the world transformed the economics and geopolitics of empire. It was to take three centuries before that new world order became plainly visible. But after Tamerlane no world-conqueror arose to dominate Eurasia, and Tamerlane’s Eurasia no longer encompassed almost all the known world.

Waging Gentlemanly War

The Battle of Kawanakajima was an annual event fought between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Both daimyo would ensure the battle ended in a draw.

Depiction of the legendary personal conflict between Kenshin and Shingen at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima.

Two of the early Sengoku Jidai’s most colourful daimyo were Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. They represented the last of the gentlemen warriors, who conducted their warfare according to the honourable traditions of old. Every year for five years in a row the armies of Kenshin and Shingen met in the same place on the plain of Kawanakajima to do battle. Sometimes, when one army had gained the upper hand it would withdraw as a sign of respect for the opposition. When Shingen’s salt supply was cut off by Kenshin’s ally, the Hojo clan, Kenshin sent Shingen a supply of salt from his own stock, commenting that he `fought with swords, not salt.’

The first half of the fifteenth century in Japan saw sporadic rebellions taking place, all of which were quelled successfully until 1467, when a quarrel between two samurai houses developed into a military and political disaster. The resulting Onin War was fought largely around the capital and even in the streets of Kyoto itself, which was soon reduced to a smoking wasteland. The shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Yoshimitsu’s grandson, who was totally unable to prevent a slide into anarchy. Instead Yoshimasa contented himself with artistic pursuits, and was one of the early devotees of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in an attempt to emulate his illustrious ancestor. His cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before.

With such a vacuum at the heart of Japanese politics, many samurai took the opportunity to develop their own local autonomy in a way that had not been seen for centuries. It was as if the powerful landowners of the Nara period had been reborn, and throughout Japan there was a scramble for territory. Some ancient families disappeared altogether to be replaced by men who had once fought for them and achieved local power through war, intrigue, marriage, or murder. Other ancient lines prospered, and found themselves having to share Japan with upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru (foot soldiers) but who now owned a considerable amount of territory, which they defended using wooden castles and loyal followers. These lords called themselves daimyo (great names), and led lives that were constantly being challenged by neighbors. Literally scores of battles took place, leading to the century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (the period of Warring States), by analogy with a similar turbulent period in ancient China.

A good example of the trend was to be found in north-central Japan where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families were located. They were at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, were princes in their own provinces, and led thousands of fanatically loyal samurai. Takeda Shingen is customarily credited with being the finest leader of mounted samurai in Sengoku Japan. At Uedahara in 1548 and at Mikata ga Hara in 1572, the Takeda cavalry rode down disorganized infantry missile units. But for cavalry charges to succeed, the old samurai tradition of singling out a worthy opponent for a challenge to single combat had to wait until the enemy line was broken, so group operations became the norm.

The Takeda and Uesugi fought each other five times at a place called Kawanakajima (“the island within the river”), a battlefield that marked the border between their territories. Not only were the armies the same, the same two commanders led them at each battle. In addition to this intriguing notion of five battles on one battlefield, Kawanakajima has also become the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash of samurai arms.

In its more extreme form, this view even denies the possibility that anyone actually got hurt at the Kawanakajima battles, which are seen only as a series of “friendly fixtures” characterized by posturing and pomp. In this scenario the Kawanakajima conflicts may be dismissed as mock warfare. During some of the encounters, admittedly, the two armies disengaged before committing themselves fully to a fight to the death, but the wounds and the dead bodies were real enough, and the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561 produced many casualties on both sides.

The Battle of Kawanakajima