Pages Menu

Categories Menu

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

Tannenberg – The battle that decided the fate of Eastern Europe

By Joshua Gilbert

The fighting soon turned into a slogging match and stalemated. With neither side making any progress against the other at this point von Jungingen decided to commit what remained of his left wing to outflank the Polish line. With Witold still running to the marshes, the right flank of the Polish-Lithuanian army was basically gone, which would allow for an encirclement of the Polish line. But Witold had foreseen that possibility, which was why he left some men behind. Despite overwhelming odds, the men of the three banners of Smolensk and the Lithuanians left behind held off von Wallenrode’s attack and prevented the outflanking maneuver from being executed. In the Polish lines the Chamberlain of Krakow noticed what was happening and called for the second line of the Polish main force to come forward to stabilize the front ranks.


From his vantage point von Jungingen thought that the movements he saw were a sign of weakness and he personally lead the charge straight at the Chamberlain’s banner. The massive charge was too much for the Polish line to withstand and it broke, the standard of Krakow was captured and the Chamberlain himself wounded. But just as it seemed all was lost the second line of the Polish army arrived in a full charge, hitting the Teutonic line hard. The standard of Krakow was regained and the Chamberlain rescued. From his vantage point King Wladyslaw must have breathed a sigh of relief. Just in case, the king signaled for some of the reserves to commit to battle. This came just in time as more Teutonic Knights joined in the fray. For the time being the line had stabilized again.

At this point Witold and his Lithuanians reached the marshes, where the charade was dropped. Signaling for the Polish ambush force his cousin had placed in the nearby woods Witold charged the crusaders. Bogged down by their heavy armor the crusaders were not able to fight effectively and they were crushed by the combined Polish-Lithuanian force. As the stalemate in the center continued, Wladyslaw realized that now was the time to send in his infantry. Though badly armed and not armored the infantry were the trump card of the Union army, the large mass of so many peasants would unnerve the Teutonic Knights, and up lift his own army. So the infantry was given the order and they too joined the battle.

Meanwhile Witold and his Lithuanians had actually managed, in the confusion, to get behind the Teutonic lines. There he waited for the opportunity to charge in and help. At this point the Hochmeister, who had since returned to his command post, realized that there was a very real possibility he could lose the battle. But he had his own trump card, sixteen banners of fresh knights stood behind him. Leading them in person von Jungingen lead the reserve straight into the fray, determined to win or perish. Witold now saw his opportunity and he charged in to the battle. The Teutonic Knights were now effectively surrounded on all sides by the Polish and the Lithuanians, as well their allies. What happened next was a slaughter and as the remaining Knight forces were pressed on all sides and killed without mercy, von Jungingen was himself pulled off his horse and killed by peasants. When the Hochmeister went down the few remaining knights and their allies laid down arms and the Polish-Lithuanian army, led by Witold himself, sung Bogurodzica. The great battle of Tannenberg, the Middle Ages’ greatest clash of arms, had ended.

The death of Hochmeister von Jungingen, a painting by Jan Matejko

After the battle much happened. The defeat that had been inflicted upon the Order of Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg had been so complete and so crushing that it sent shockwaves throughout Europe, no one had even thought of the possibility that the Knights would be defeated and the reality of it was so shocking that it would not set in for some time. For the Polish-Lithuanian Union the victory marked the beginning of the Golden Age and the victorious cousins Wladyslaw and Witold would go down as heroes in the annals of their nations’ history, celebrated to this day. The Peace of Thorn signed in 1411 showed that despite the crushing victory the Polish and their allies were unable to make much territorial gains, though they did gain back the Dobrzyn Land and Zemaitijia. In conclusion the Battle of Tannenberg was one of the greatest battles of Medieval history, a decisive battle that decided the fate of Eastern Europe for centuries.

Visit Joshua Gilbert at his Website, J. Gilbert History Productions.

Pages: 1 2 3


  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.