Battle of Tannenberg Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Tannenberg marked the declining dominance of the knights of the Teutonic Order along the Baltic coast, the consequent rise of Poland as the most powerful state in east central Europe, and the preeminence of Lithuania in eastern Europe.

Summary of Event

Since the thirteenth century, the knights of the Teutonic Teutonic Knights Order had led crusades against the pagans in Lithuania Lithuania and against schismatics (Orthodox Christians) in Russia. During much of this time, the Germans of the Teutonic Order had been allied with the Polish kings, who were advancing eastward to the south against the same combination of enemies. It had seemed that the Peace of Kalish (1343) Kalish, Peace of (1343) had brought an end to the conflicts over possession of Pomerellia (West Prussia). The conversion of the Lithuanian grand duke, Władysław II Jagiełło Władysław II Jagiełło , and his 1386 marriage to the Polish heiress, Jadwiga Jadwiga , ended the Polish need for an alliance with the Germans. Jadwiga’s death in 1399 removed the last voice for peace. Marriage as a political tool;Lithuania [kw]Battle of Tannenberg (July 15, 1410) [kw]Tannenberg, Battle of (July 15, 1410) Tannenberg, Battle of (1410) Poland;July 15, 1410: Battle of Tannenberg[3100] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 15, 1410: Battle of Tannenberg[3100] Władysław II Jagiełło Vytautas Ulrich von Jungingen

Nevertheless, war was not inevitable. The Teutonic Knights had once been allied with Jagiełło against Vytautas’ Vytautas father, and Vytautas had held him partly culpable for his murder. Twice Vytautas had been allied with the Teutonic Knights against Jagiełło. Each time Vytautas had rebelled, cleverly disguising his intent until he could do maximum damage to the Teutonic Order’s position in Samogitia Samogitia . Afterward, when Vytautas realized that he could seize Russia from the weakening hands of the Tatars, he made peace with the Teutonic Order, surrendering Samogitia at the Treaty of Sallinwerder Sallinwerder, Treaty of (1398) (1398) in return for military aid. Having similarly reconciled himself with Jagiełło, he could count on having Polish knights support his campaigns against Tatars, the grand duke of Moscow, and Novgorod the Great.

Samogitia was important to the Teutonic Knights as the land bridge to their possessions in Livonia. It was also home to the last pagans in Europe, doughty warriors who had refused to convert when the rest of the Lithuanians obeyed Jagiełło’s instructions to consider themselves henceforth Roman Catholics. Samogitia was also the homeland of Vytautas’s mother, and most of Vytautas’s boyars were unhappy that it was in foreign hands. In 1409, after an unusually cold winter and a very dry summer, the crops failed. Several thousand Samogitians fled to Vytautas. Grandmaster Ulrich von Jungingen Ulrich von Jungingen asked Vytautas to return the “serfs” according to treaty promises. Vytautas responded that they were not serfs and, therefore, he was allowing them to stay. Ulrich then ordered vessels carrying Polish grain to Lithuania be searched, and when weapons were allegedly found, supposedly destined for Samogitian rebels, he confiscated the cargos. Vytautas was furious. Soon thereafter a rebellion began in Samogitia, and Vytautas appeared with an army, supposedly in support of the Crusader order, but in actuality aiding the rebels. Grandmaster Ulrich then attacked Jagiełło, hoping to intimidate him into abandoning his support of Vytautas.

The grandmaster had good reason for confidence in his ability to challenge two great powers at once: Most of the border wilderness between Prussia and Poland’s northeast province, Masovia, was impassible for large armies. In addition, the Masovian dukes were not eager to become involved in the war. The Polish forces were on the west bank of the Vistula River and could not easily cross to join the Lithuanians. At the time, the armies of the Teutonic Order were considered invincible, and their border fortifications were the best in east central Europe. Finally, Sigismund Sigismund (king of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor) of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslas Wenceslas (king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) of Bohemia were expected to attack Poland’s southern and western frontiers, while the Livonian forces would ravage Lithuania.

Sigismund and Wenceslas had other problems to deal with, however, and the Livonians had signed a truce with Vytautas. The grandmaster prepared for war, anticipating an invasion of West Prussia. To Ulrich’s surprise, Vytautas marched into Masovia in June with eleven thousand men, while Jagiełło’s engineers built a pontoon bridge and transported his eighteen thousand to twenty-one thousand men across the Vistula. The grandmaster had to hurry to take his own twenty thousand men into East Prussia and cut off the invaders at the Dzewa (Drweça) River. Jagiełło then feigned a retreat and marched around the eastern flank of the Crusader forces through the Grunwald forest. Grandmaster Ulrich again cut off the invaders’s line of march, passing through Tannenberg before dawn on July 15 to confront the Poles and Lithuanians on a broad field at the edge of the forest.

Ulrich did not exploit the advantage of surprise. He apparently wanted to fight a defensive battle, holding his heavy cavalry in reserve for the moment that his light cavalry and infantry drove their opponents back, then charging into the rear of the retreating forces. Yet Jagiełło delayed deploying his forces. He remained in his tent, hearing Mass after Mass. After a while, the grandmaster pulled his forces back somewhat so that his enemies would have space to line up their forces. This strategy had the disadvantage of placing the order’s excellent artillery in a poor location and abandoning the obstacles the infantry had erected to protect their position. Meanwhile, his troops had nothing to eat or drink. As the morning wore on, the grandmaster sent two swords to the king, challenging him to come out and fight. At that Jagiełło ordered the attack.

Vytautas’s Lithuanians, Russians, and Tatars swept down on the Crusader lines; the Poles advanced singing their anthem. After a desperate struggle, most of Vytautas’s cavalry fled the field, pursued by elated, undisciplined Crusaders from Germany. Vytautas, however, remained on the field, exhausting horse after horse in directing the fighting. Polish units, meanwhile, noticed the gap the Crusaders had left in their lines. Charging into that gap, the Poles began to roll up the German position. Grandmaster Ulrich, instead of ordering a retreat (perhaps because he did not think he could extract his forces successfully), collected every knight he could into a column and charged directly toward Jagiełło’s great banner. The attack had a good chance of success, and one knight almost struck down the king before he himself was unhorsed. When Ulrich’s banner went down, however, the advance stalled. The order to retreat could not be obeyed. Ulrich, most of his officers, and most of his knights were surrounded and killed; a few were taken prisoner.

Panic set in among the German forces, a panic that became worse when they realized that even abandoning weapons and armor could not speed their flight through the forest significantly. The pursuers cut down the slowest, stopping only to loot the dead, steal the belongings of the prisoners before murdering them, and protect those they considered sufficiently wealthy to ransom.

About eight thousand soldiers had fallen in each army. Jagiełło ordered a search for the grandmaster’s body, the collection of weapons, the burial of the dead in mass graves, and care for the wounded. His army, though victorious, was too exhausted to move for three days. Vytautas, more active and a better leader, sent his Tatars to burn and loot throughout East Prussia.

When Jagiełło did move north, he was met by delegations of clerics, towns, and secular knights, all eager to obtain favorable terms of surrender. He expected that the entire country would come under his sway. He did not reckon on the unusual initiative of a minor officer of the Teutonic Order, Heinrich von Plauen Heinrich von Plauen , who took his small force directly to Marienburg, the greatest fortress in Prussia, where grandmasters had entertained the thousands of Crusaders who used to come annually to earn knighthood, to witness the elaborate chivalric spectacles and, if sufficiently prominent, to sit at the Table Round. In three days, he made Marienburg defensible, so that all Jagiełło could do was sit outside the walls, without siege guns or a sufficient supply of food. When disease began to break out among Vytautas’s troops, Jagiełło ordered a retreat. Heinrich von Plauen followed, recapturing the towns and castles one by one easily because the king could not leave behind a large occupation force. Such was the disadvantage of the king having to rely on a feudal levy and foreign allies.

Significance

Although Jagiełło did not occupy Prussia, he had struck a deadly blow at the order, destroying the flower of its fighting machine, its most experienced leaders, and its reputation for invincibility. The Treaty of Thorn Thorn, Treaty of (1411) (1411) imposed a crushing indemnity on the Teutonic Order that ultimately drained its resources beyond recovery. Poland was henceforth the dominant power in the region.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. New ed. New York: Penguin, 1997. The best of the general surveys that set the Battle of Tannenberg in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Norman. God’s Playground: A History of Poland in Two Volumes. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. A lively account with no controversial opinions repressed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Geoffrey Charles. Tannenberg: 1410-1914. London: Hamilton, 1970. Succinct standard interpretation of two major battles at this site by a military historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jasienica, Pawel. Jagiellonian Poland. Miami, Fla.: American Institute of Polish Culture, 1978. Polish interpretation of the battle that gives credit for victory to Jagiełło.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koncius, Joseph. Vytautas the Great, Grand Duke of Lithuania. Miami, Fla.: Franklin Press, 1964. Lithuanian interpretation of the battle that gives credit to Vytautas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longworth, Philip. The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. This comprehensive history begins with the twentieth century and moves backward in time in each successive chapter. The Jagiellons are discussed in the chapter on the cultural and religious tensions of 1352-1526.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lukowski, Jerzy, and Hubert Zawadski. A Concise History of Poland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A general introduction to Polish history. Includes a chapter on Jagiellonian Poland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2003. A complete history of the order, detailing the knights’s campaigns, individual battles, and their struggle to maintain themselves as a power to be reckoned with. Includes a dramatic account of the Battle of Tannenberg.

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