In early 15th century Eastern Europe, the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, better known as the Teutonic Knights, relentlessly expanded under the guise of “crusade” along the Baltic coast into the Christian Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The effort reached a high water mark on the field between the towns of Grunwald and Tannenburg on 15 July 1410. 39,000 Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Russians, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Tatars, and Wallachians faced 27,000 Teutonic Knights, their retainers, mercenaries, and crusading knights from across Europe, including England, France, and the German and Italian states. Although the Polish-Lithuanian troops were more numerous, only the knights of Poland and a few other small contingents were of the same standard of discipline, training, and armor as the Teutonic Knights.
The Knights formed for battle in the morning, but were forced to stand in the hot sun all day because King Wladyslaw Jagiello, the commander of the Allied army, had his men wait in the trees as he heard three masses in spiritual preparation for the battle. The battle finally began in the afternoon when both sides were on the field. The weary and parched Teutonic Knights under Grand Commissar Kuno Von Lichtenstein, on the Knights’ left, charged the fresh Lithuanian and Tatar light cavalry under Lithuanian Grand Duke Witold on the Polish right… and promptly routed them. The Knights assumed they won the battle and began pursuit. The heavy warhorses of the Knights, however, couldn’t catch the lighter but faster horses. Most of the pursuing knights never returned and thus missed the real fighting. They couldn’t help defeat the much more heavily armed Poles. Despite the collapse of the Polish and Lithuanian right, no breakthrough was had: three companies from Smolensk fought to the death and heroically prevented the remaining Knights from getting behind the Polish lines.
The main battle was between the Teutonic right under Grand Master Ulrich Von Junginenen (pictured above in Jan Matejko’s painting, in the large white cape) and the Polish left wing under King Wladyslaw Jagiello (in the painting, the king is in the silver armor on the hill on the right) and his tactical commander Zyndram of Maszkowice (the bearded knight next to Ulrich in the picture).
Unlike the Grand Master and Zyndram, who charged with their knights in the Western tradition, the King directed the battle from a hilltop in the Eastern tradition. After the initial thundering clash in which both sides crashed into each other at full speed, the battle stalemated into a churning meat grinding mass, a situation that favored the more heavily armored and trained Teutonic Knights. The melee included one of the most famous knights of the age: Jan Zizka, a Czech mercenary who would become famous as a battle lord during the Hussite rebellion of 1414 (in the scale armor above the Royal Banner about to kill a German knight).
The Battle of Grunwald was not only one of the largest of the Middle Ages, it was also the last of the true knightly battles. It was the last battle where might made right. Strength of arm, whether wielding sword, axe, spear, hammer, or mailed fist, won the day — Not technology, but intestinal fortitude. Archers? Mere splotches on the ground where they were trampled underfoot. Cannon? Noisemakers abandoned after the merest hint of a mounted warrior. Amazingly brilliant tactics? Defeat is more crushing if you look your foe in the eye and rip out his soul. For hours, the battle was a swirling melee. As the shadows became long in the early evening, the Teutonic Knights managed to bring down the Royal Banner of Poland by knocking over Marcin of Wrocimowice (holding the banner in the picture above) which was the traditional medieval sign of victory. But for the Allies, this was a fight for national survival, and chivalric ritual would not interfere with military efficacy, so they fought on.
Sensing the Knights were finally committed, King Wladyslaw launched his coup de d’eclat: a three pronged attack that decided the battle. First, he sent most of personal bodyguard charging into the mass to fix the Knights. This charge was made by the crème of Polish knighthood, fresh and eager for battle after watching their comrades fight for hours. This august host included the greatest knight of the early 15th century – the folk hero Zawisza Czarny — Zawisza the Black Zawisza was a knight so renowned for his honor, loyalty, and reliability, 600 years later the Polish Boy Scouts’ motto is still “Rely on him as on Zawisza”. (He is pictured just above Jan Zizka with black hair and black armor couching a lance).
Once the Knights were fixed by the new attack, the King unleashed a hammer blow into the flank of the Teutonic host: 3000 unarmored Polish peasants armed with scythes, axes, and clubs, whom hid in the woods for most of the battle. They were fiercely anti-German and had suffered the worst under the decades of Teutonic raids and “conversion”. The peasants gave no quarter, and although a single knight could fight off six or seven peasants, they couldn’t do the same for ten or twelve.
As devastating as the charges by Wladyslaw’s personal guard and the mass of furious peasants were, the real killing blow came most decisively from Duke Witold who returned to the battle in spectacular fashion after rallying most of the Lithuanians from the routed right wing (Witold is featured prominently above clad in red holding the sword aloft).
The painting “The Battle of Grunwald” by Jan Matejko depicts the moment of the three charges that broke the Teutonic Knights. It more specifically depicts the death of Grand Master Ulrich to a Polish peasant’s spear (pictured next to Ulrich). According to legend, Ulrich’s last words were, “Damn these flies!” The 10,000 manacles the Teutonic Knights brought to use on the Allies that night were used on themselves instead. The Teutonic Knights never recovered from the defeat and the Union of Poland and Lithuania became the super power of Eastern Europe for the next 300 years.