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The Battle on The Ice
By Rider, 18 August 2006; Revised 30 August 2006
Category: Medieval Europe: Military History
The Battle on the Ice was fought between German Crusaders and the Novgorodian Militia defending their territories. The Germans, allied with the Danish, marched towards Novgorod, but were forced into battle on the ice of Lake Peipus. Thus we get the name 'Jäälahing' in Estonian, literally meaning "Battle of the Ice", although in English it is usually known as the Battle on the Ice or the Battle on Lake Peipus (Peipsi).
The German knights had started colonizing Estonian territories from 1208. Riga was founded in 1201, the Livonian Brethern of Swords one year later in 1202. The Order fought the native Estonians and Latvians for three decades until they were finally and utterly defeated in the Battle of Saule (1236). After that battle the remnants of the Brethern joined the Livonian Order which became a great landowner in the Balticum, along with the Bishops of Tartu (Dorpat) and Saare-Lääne (Ösel-Wiek). The Order specialized in fighting and all Bishops (including the Archbishop of Riga) had many knights under arms. The Danish viceroy, ruling in Northern Estonia (the Duchy of Estonia) had also a force of Danish and German knights but the Duchy was mostly German in population, although formally ruled by the Danish King.
The conquest of Estonian nations (Muistne Vabadusvõitlus) began formally in 1208 and lasted until 1227 when the last fort of the natives on the small island of Muhu was conquered by the Germans. The Rus warriors from Pskov and Novgorod defended Tartu in 1224, along with Estonians. The Germans had to bring catapults, a moving siege tower and had to build
Other people were ahead of the Germans in invading the east, such as the Swedes who launched an invasion towards Novgorod in 1240. This invading forces led by Jarl Birger landed near the River Neva. Opposing them, the Rus forces gathered at the Church of Sofia in Novgorod, then were joined by many peasants. The two forces were almost numerically equal although the Rus have claimed to have been outnumbered. The Novgorodians, led by Aleksandr (Alexander) Jaroslavich, suddenly attacked the Swedish camp and managed to drive the Swedish knights' wings back. When the wings were driven back, the center fell and retreated. The Swedes escaped as Novgorodians took even the tent of jarl Birger. After the Battle at Neva, Aleksandr Jaroslavich was called as Aleksandr Nevski (meaning 'of Neva').
Two years later, the Germans gathered a large force to conquer Novgorod. They called the Danish to help and also recruited native Estonian troops (mostly infantrymen). The Germans tricked the defenders of Pskov to surrender and then took the city. Aleksandr Nevski quickly counter-attacked and recaptured Pskov with his guards in a daring charge.
The Germans were the instigators of their campaign and made up the commanders of the army. The commanders included the Livonian Order’s Master Andreas von Welwen. The Danish contignents were led by Princes Knut and Abel. Both Bishopries also gave some men for the army. The main part of the German army were the heavy knights of the Livonian Order, of the Danes and of other German states. These knights were very well trained but were also heavy and so a bit unfit for fighting on ice. The size of the army is disputable but it was probably about the same size as the Novgorodian army.
Aleksandr’s army was made up of the druzhina (personal bodyguard), some units of boyars (noblemen) and the Novgorodian militia (infantry, mostly archers).
Aleksandr was clever and ordered a scout unit to be sent to the Germans. The scout was ambushed by the Germans and was completely annhiliated but Aleksandr now knew the location of the German army. When the Germans started crossing the Lake Peipus, the Rus army was waiting for them. The Germans lined up into the traditional battle formation of Northern European Crusades: a wedge, with the heaviest cavalry leading it and heavy cavalry units protecting the sides and infantry in the center.
Aleksandr lined the Novgorodians up into three battalions: one in the center and one on both sides. The druzhina and some of the heavy cavalry units were left in ambush position. Archers covered the entire position of Novgorodians.
On the morning of April 5, 1242, as the sun rose, the German battlecry arose and the wedge moved forward. The knights intruded deep into the Russian lines and defeated most of the archers. The Germans breached the center battalion. Although the Germans considered their victory at hand, they had fallen into a trap: the Novgorodian main forces attacked the German wedge from all sides and surrounded it from its' left and right. The druzhina and the heavy cavalry of Novgorodians assaulted the rear of the Germans.
The Germans started retreating after a great many of them were killed. Still the Livonian Order’s Master was trying to order a last desperate measure of counter-attack. He called for all German knights and tried to regroup them. Unfortunately, all his efforts were without success and many knights started retreating. One of the retreating groups reached the other shore of Lake Peipus and ran into friendly territories. Another one, which was in a very unfortunate situation ran north. But there a terrible doom was awaiting them. There were such fountains of hot water that made even a thick ice very thin. Many Brothers of the Livonian Order found their wet graves there.
The Battle on the Ice was important in many ways. First, a lot of the Germans were crushed which made them afraid of Novgorodians. The Germans made immediate peace with Novgorod and the peace lasted for a long time. Secondly, the border between Catholic and Orthodox religions was now made clear. Last but not least, with this battle Aleksandr Nevski made his name. Even the Mongols gave recognition to him. Aleksandr now could make Novgorod an even larger state amongst the many in Russia.
Note: I have used the Russian form of the name Alexander (Aleksandr) in this text.
’21 maailmakuulsat väejuhti’ Ragna Malm; Tallinn: Odamees, 2003