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Posted on Feb 21, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Tannenberg – The battle that decided the fate of Eastern Europe

By Joshua Gilbert

By the time the combined army arrived in Knight territory on July 8th the opposite bank was entrenched, it was Wladyslaw’s turn to be surprised. In War Council Wladyslaw and Witold knew they needed some way to get to Marienburg without crossing the river. They also knew that they needed someway to draw the Teutonic army camped on the other bank of the Drewenz. The discovery that the garrisons of the towns of Dzialdowo and Dabrowno were depleted fit both needs perfectly. The Polish-Lithuanian army moved off from the river and headed east, capturing the two towns on July 13th. The fires from the towns, which Wladyslaw had ordered burned to the ground, as well as the news that no soldier was left alive was enough to make the Knights move out. Wladyslaw had predicted this and the combined army had already begun to march. The Poles and Lithuanians led their foes to a field that lay between the three small towns of Grunwald (Tannenberg), Stebark, and Lodwigowo. Both armies formed lines for battle at dawn, July 15th, 1410.


The Army of the Union of Poland and Lithuania was a large force, assembled from every part of the Union and beyond. A major problem in calculating the exact numbers at the Battle of Tannenberg is that the primary sources of the battle all differ wildly on the numbers of both armies. The Polish-Lithuanian Army suffered the worst of it as the Western European authors inflated its size to sooth their wounded egos. A reliable estimate places the Polish forces as being composed of around 20,000 knights and their retainers (Polish law required every knight have some retainers with him in battle) and 4,000 infantry, as well as assorted allies. The Lithuanians are commonly believed to have brought 15,000 light cavalry, 3,000 Mongol horsemen, sixteen artillery pieces, and Russian allies from Smolensk.

They were deployed thus: On the far right of the line were the Mongols, followed by the Lithuanians, followed by the Smolensk banners (the smallest independent unit of an army of the time) acting as a connector to the rest of the army. In the center was the main banner of the Polish army, the Chamberlain of Krakow. On the left wing was the majority of the Polish cavalry. Behind the far left and center was the reserve force. The remainder of the Polish cavalry was stationed in the woods, forming an ambush force. The infantry was also stationed in the woods to be kept hidden. The King’s banner positioned itself in front of the woods.

The Army of the Order of Teutonic Knights was smaller then the opposing force, but very well trained. As with the Polish-Lithuanian Army the exact numbers for the army of the Teutonic Knights is hard to calculate due to the differing sources. A reliable estimate places the Teutonic army as having 20,000 cavalry, 6,000 infantry, 5,000 servants (probably German colonists and feudal levies), and 100 artillery pieces. They were deployed thus: In the center were the infantry, servants, and artillery. Behind them were the majority of the actual Teutonic Knights. Crusaders (both knights and foot soldiers) formed the right and left flanks of the army. Far behind the center were the reserve force of sixteen banners. In between the reserve and the center was the Hochmeister’s banner.

The greatest battle in Medieval history was about to begin. Even though by the time of sunrise both armies had formed up for battle, the lines did not close in for some time. The reason was that King Wladyslaw knew that the Teutonic Knights in their heavy armor would suffer in the hot sun. He wanted to wait until the sun had risen high the sky to begin, knowing that the heat would ruin the knight’s famous concentration. But Wladyslaw’s commanders, not to mention Witold, became impatient and wanted to attack as soon as possible. At around 8:30 that day two Knight champions rode up to the Union line, Wladyslaw and Witold rode up to meet them. The two champions gave the following speech:  "Lithuanians and Poles, Dukes Vytautas and Jagiello, if you are afraid to come out and fight our Grand Master sends you these additional swords. Also cowardly ones, if you feel you require more room for your maneuvers the Grand Master says he will now withdraw our troops one mile to aid you"

With that they flung two swords into the ground and rode off back to their line which withdrew one mile. Despite the enraged cries of his commanders and Witold, Wladyslaw calmly picked up a sword and said:  "I accept both your swords and your choice of battleground, but the outcome of this day I entrust to the will of God".

The Polish-Lithuanian commanders returned to their lines and waited. Finally at 9 AM Witold had lost all patience and, bellowing his battle cry, led the entire right wing towards the center line of the Knights. The massive artillery battery in front of the Teutonic line opened up on the Lithuanians, but was ineffective as the rainstorm of the previous day had ruined the gunpowder. Wladyslaw now knew there was no going back and he ordered the Polish advance to begin led by the Krakow and Vilnius banners. Meanwhile the Lithuanians had collided head on with the center and the infantry appeared close to breaking. Von Jungingen knew that if his center broke his army would break, so he sent the entire left wing under Marshal Frederick von Wallenrode to stem the tide in the center.

The heavily armed and armored crusaders easily outclassed the Lithuanians and Witold knew he had to do something to save his army from being wiped out. Having fought the Mongols of the Golden Horde and Timur Lenkh (Tamerlane) earlier in life, he suddenly saw the opportunity to put those tactics which had so humiliated him to use. Witold sounded a retreat and led his forces towards the marshes that were near the battleground, taking care to make it look as much as a disorderly rout as possible. The only units did not take part in this were the Smolensk banners and a few Lithuanians, which remained behind to keep the center from being outflanked. As Witold planned, many of  the crusaders immediately gave chase. At that same moment the Hochmeister ordered the front ranks of the Teutonic line to move forward and the engage the advancing Poles. As the Knights advanced they sung "Christ is estranden" (German: Christ is risen) which was answered by the Polish with "Bogurodzica" (Polish: Mother of God). The two opposing lines of knights collided together in a massive clash of armor and weapons that was heard for miles around.

A Teutonic Knight fights a Polish Knight at Tannenberg

[continued on next page]

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  1. Please respond to What are your sources? I’ve attempted to research as much as possible on this conflict and I find absolutely no source for the Lithuanian “fake” retreat and subsequent ambush. In fact, if you read Dlugosz, he states that the Teutonic Knights actually returned with captives after pursuing the retreating Lithuanians. And he makes no mention of the Lithanians returning at all. Please let me know how you researched this. Thanks.

  2. Not only is the research questionable, there are typos in the second paragraph. All of this may be acceptable for a blog, but not for a history publisher. Accordingly, I stopped reading.

    The painting’s cool, though.