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Ulrich von Jungingen versus Wladislaw Jagiello and Vytautas Didysis: A Teutonic army under Jungingen provokes a Polish-Lithuanian army under Jagiello and Vytautas to attack its prepared position. Will Jungingen’s knightly counter-attack sweep Jagiello and Vytautas from the field? Also known as the Battle of Tannenberg.
I am always wary of commentators grouping and connecting battles to larger strands of history without proper appreciation of the diverse contexts. The most common example is the way in which any battle featuring Christians and Muslims on opposing sides becomes merely an episode in a great religious struggle, culminating in the present-day War on Terror. However, the Battle of Grunwald resonates with more modern conflicts because it never stopped. The German “Drive to the East,” its resistance by a fragile, sometimes coerced Slavic union, and the struggle of smaller nations such as Lithuania and Poland in the face of great power struggles, have all been recurring from themes from the 13th to the 20th centuries. The Battle of Grunwald is a significant, oft-referenced episode in this strand of history. In 1910, a statue of Jagiello was erected in Krakow to commemorate the victory for all Slavic nations. In 1914, the Germans named their victory over the Russians in East Prussia as the Battle of Tannenberg, despite it being only one of many contested towns during the battle. The Germans went further when, after conquering Poland in 1939, one of their first acts was to destroy the aforementioned statue of Jagiello. There are few battles which have consistently occupied the discourses of all factions involved so consistently.
The Polish-Lithuanian victory was disastrous for the Teutonic Knights, eventually leading to the Order’s eviction from Prussia. However spectacular the Polish-Lithuanian victory, Jagiello and Vytautas failed to exploit it properly and completely crush the Order in one campaign by swiftly moving on Marienburg. Instead, Plauen and his detachment arrived first, avoiding complete annihilation.
Tactically, the failings mainly belong to the Teutonic Knights. Things could not be said to have gone according to plan for the Poles-Lithuanians, seeing as half the army panicked and retreated. However, such an unexpected event was mitigated successful by both Jagiello and Vytautas. For Jagiello’s part, he maintained sizeable reserves from the outset, committing them at critical junctures to save his right flank and hasten the destruction of the Teutonic right. For Vytautas’ part, he did not give up on the battle and tirelessly rallied his men following a poor start. Many battles have been lost when a commander loses his will and thus his wits, but Vytautas lost neither and returned to hit the Teutonic left in rear, reflecting a good showing of himself and his men.
While Jungingen did not show himself to be completely inept as some battles reflect on the commander, he committed a number of fatal mistakes. His plan was to force the enemy to attack his prepared position and then counterattack with his knights, a classic defensive-offensive maneuver. It was not an overly sound plan as Delbruck points out, comparing its failure to the success of a similar plan carried out by the Ottomans at Nicopolis only a few years earlier; the Teutonic army did not have sufficient numbers or quality of troops for the task (Delbruck, 1982/1921: 526). It certainly did not help that Jungingen was short 3,000 troops and their able commander, Plauen, and that he lacked infantry in any way comparable to the Ottomans’ Janissaries; the Poles-Lithuanians in no way fully committed themselves to overcoming the Teutonic defensive position, which folded almost immediately.
The plan was further hampered by poor execution: the Teutonic counterattack swept the Lithuanians from the field but was slow to fully engage the Poles with the sizeable Teutonic reserve slow to receive the order and then get into position to charge. The Teutonic reserve had hardly been committed when the Lithuanians returned to decide the battle. Had Jungingen ordered his reserve to swiftly move as soon as he saw the Lithuanians retreat from his excellent vantage point, he might have destroyed the Polish contingent and/or killed Jagiello, as he almost did, before they returned. Jungingen’s other mistake was a more common one: failure to adapt the plan to changing circumstances. The Teutonic army was positioned in battle order before the Polish-Lithuanian army, having arrived earlier. Had Jungingen ordered a sudden attack as his subordinates urged, like any commanders of knights do, the Polish-Lithuanian army may have been swept from the field before the battle really began (Evans, 1970: 39).
Instead, Jungingen stuck to his plan.
Numbers are highly debated for this battle. As usual, I have gone with the low-moderate estimates which still provide detail and explanation for what comprises the numbers given. Delbruck’s estimate of 11,000 Teutons versus 16,500 Poles-Lithuanians (1982/1921: 523) are the lowest figures given and are plausible, but I have opted for the more common, slightly higher estimate given by Evans (1970: 37). Teutonic casualties are universally given as 32,000 even when the author’s estimate of troops present is lower than this, a mathematical impossibility. This casualty count likely includes Teutonic civilians not directly involved in the battle. I have thus simply taken my estimate of Teutonic troops present (27,000) and subtracted the servants trained for war, 5,000 according to Haywood (2002), which likely accounts for the numbers discrepancy.The Lithuanian “retreat” is the most controversial aspect of this battle. It seems that the idea that it was a planned feigned retreat originates solely in Lithuanian accounts and is not very convincing. As Turnbull points out, this account is unlikely because the maneuver was carried out by the whole army, not a few units as in the Mongol tradition, and the counterattack came very late in the afternoon, almost too late even (2003: 48-49). I lean towards Evans’ interpretation, wherein the Tatar contingent executes a feigned retreat which the Lithuanians perceive to be rout in the chaos of battle (1970: 41); this seems plausible and helps explain how Lithuanian accounts may have gotten this idea.
– Jonathan Webb
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
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