The Battle of Grünwald

  By Rider, 20 December 2006; Revised
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The small Lithuanian duchy had changed during the rule of Gediminas at the 14th century into a centralized state, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At the height of its power, the duchy stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Yet Lithuania was only a small part of the entire duchy, smaller than 1/10, and most of the other lands were of Russian origin. The national language was Old Russian in which all laws and documents were written.

For the last one hundred and fifty years the German crusaders had been fighting the Lithuanians with varying luck. The Teutonic Order was gathering power and neither Lithuania nor Poland could do anything about it. Poland was not a very strong kingdom and needed an alliance for further survival. Such an alliance took place in 1385 when queen Jadwiga of Poland married Duke Jogaila of Lithuania, uniting the two kingdoms into the Union of Lithuania and Poland. By the treaties that made the Union possible, the Lithuanians were to convert to the Catholic faith. The Polish noblemen, however, started colonizing the Russian lands.

The German knights found a good pretext in the Union for advancing further eastwards (or southwards for the Baltic Germans). Yet the advance did not happen until 1410, when the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen, summoned his armies.

The Armies

The Teutonic army was of a decent size for the period, with the bulk of the force being the heavy cavalrymen of the Order. The Order had approximately 25,000 men on the fields around Tannenberg (or Grünwald) on the 15th of July of 1410. It was supported by troops from German cities in Northern Europe and by many secular knights (still mostly German-born) that supported the Order in its conquests and who benefited themselves from the battles. There might have been around 10,000 additional troops that served as infantry in support of the cavalry.

The Battle of Grunwald
The Battle of Grunwald
The Polish-Lithuanian troops should have numbered more than 30,000. A large number (around half) were made up of Tatars and Lithuanian light cavalry. Such units were not very good in direct battle against heavy knights but could be very useful on tactical assaults such as flanking or maneuvering around the enemy in which agility was essential. The Polish King was the commander of the armies but the Lithuanian troops were mostly commandeered by the Grand Duke Vytautas. There were also additional troops from Smolensk and other Russian cities. The Czech Jan Zizka did not command a unit although some sources have reported him to have done so. He is recorded to have been there at the battle, and it was likely there where he lost his first eye, but the 3000 Czech mercenaries were commanded by Jan Sokol of Lamberk, who was assisted by a man named Zbyslavek.

Both armies had forces of cavalry that were organized in units called banners. The banners were of various sizes, usually of 170-250 men.

The Battle

The battle was begun by the Lithuanian light cavalry who charged the left flank of the Order. The knights defeated the oncoming Lithuanians and counterattacked. The counterattack almost reached past the Union’s army but was stopped by other Lithuanian forces. Hour by hour the knights slaughtered the remaining Lithuanian forces who had remained to fight the Order and had not yet retreated. The Union’s right flank was soon enough totally destroyed and only the center remained in place.

While the Order had successfully attacked the Lithuanian flank, the center could not be so easily defeated. The center had the best soldiers of Poland and three banners from Smolensk. Russian chronicles attribute the victory entirely to the banners of Smolensk but in reality the Polish had also a large part in it. After many of the knights had tired, the Polish started advancing with the Smolensk’ banners yet staying put (one had been completely annihilated). The heavily armed Polish cavalry started to attack now with all forces. It broke through the front of the enemy once more and now a slaughter of the Germans occurred. The Lithuanians that had run earlier came back and enveloped the Germans completely.

After some hours the Order started retreating. The Poles were still strong enough to kill many of the retreating enemies. As a brave knight, the Grand Master, charged the enemy and was killed during the charge. He never saw the Order’s demise but surely could have anticipated it.

After the Battle of Grunwald, Painting by Alphonse Mucha
After the Battle of Grunwald, Painting by Alphonse Mucha


The defeat was with terrible consequences for the Order: it lost many of the experienced members along with the Grand Master; later on the stronghold of the Order was taken by Poles and Lithuanians. The Poles however understood that the Teutonic Order could be defeated and never allowed them to regain their power.