Battle of the Ice, 1242 animated battle map
Alexander Nevsky versus Hermann von Buxhövden: A Crusader army under Hermann attempts to charge through a Russian army under Nevsky. Will the impact of Hermann’s knights rout Nevsky’s militia in a single charge? Also known as the Battle of Lake Peipus. Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation. | Legend |
History, military history especially, is most concerned with what actually occurred and why in a given time and place. So while the account of Crusader knights falling through ice and drowning is almost certainly fiction, the fact that Russian chroniclers added this to their accounts and Soviet film maintained this myth is historically significant. To understand this battle’s place in Russian national discourse, one must understand why Sergei Eisenstein, director of the 1938 Soviet film Alexander Nevsky, chose to include the iconic image of the Teutonic Knights falling through the ice. Seton, an Eisenstein biographer, argues his inspiration for the scene was Milton’s Paradise Lost (1978: 381). Ostrowski explains that
Just as the "Chrystall wall of Heav’n … opening wide" and Satan’s army fell into "the bottomless pit" of "the wastful Deep," so too the Livonian knights fell through the ice into the "bottomless depths" of shallow Lake Chud. In other words, the "traditional interpretation" of the "battle on the ice" was most likely the result of Eisenstein’s cinematic interpretation of the Battle in Heaven from Milton’s Paradise Lost. (2006: 312)
The parallels tell us much about Russian national discourse’s deep and bitter representation of the foreign invader. It is clear why Soviet World War II propaganda evoked the image of Nevsky in the struggle repel the Western invader of the time, Nazi Germany in this case. It is also understandable how such representations and images sustain themselves over time, given the frequent invasions of Russian lands throughout history.
Hermann’s battle plan relied on the shock of his knights’ charge to break the average Russian soldier’s resolve to stay on the battlefield. Convincing the enemy that the battlefield is inhospitable is typically the main element to victory, rather than killing each enemy soldier so this tactic was not entirely fantastical. When the Russian line did not break at first contact, Hermann’s secondary plan may have been to kill Nevsky, again, not an unrealistic goal. Nevsky’s own plans doomed the Crusaders however. Nevsky’s early use of his horse-archers, which were not expected by the Crusaders, disrupted the Crusader attack (Nicolle, 1997: 80). Nevsky also utilized his superior numbers against superior quality by immediately hitting the flanks of the Crusader knights as they engaged the Russian center. Defeating quality with quantity requires as much skillful handling as defeating quantity with quality, which we often see in the great battles of history.
Numbers vary somewhat for this battle but agree that the Crusaders were greatly outnumbered. I have accepted Nicolle’s numbers (1997: 41, 90) although this is not one of his best works. His version of events differs from other sources, such as the placement of the Kazak horse-archers on the Russian side; he places them on the right wing whereas every other source places them on the left wing since they fired into the unarmoured right side of the Danish knights on the Crusader right wing (Dickie, 2006: 105; Jestice, 2007: 166).
If you are familiar with the Soviet film version of the battle, you may be surprised by the events depicted in this animation. In "Alexander Nevskii’s ‘Battle on the Ice’: The Creation of a Legend,” Ostrowski (2006) offers an informative explanation for how the battle’s accounts evolved over time, culminating in the fiction of knights breaking through the ice. The battle’s accounts are muddled with those of another battle on ice in 1016 (Ostrowski, 2006: 291). Although not mentioned, the Russian experience of falling through ice as a result of French cannon at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 may have also influenced Russian discourse.
– Jonathan Webb
Dickie, Iain. “Peipus, 1242.” In Battles of the Medieval World 1000-1500. London: Amber, 2006.
Jestice, Phyllis G. “Lake Peipus, 1242.” In Battles of the Crusades 1097-1444. London: Amber, 2007.
Nicolle, David. Lake Peipus 1242: Battle of the Ice. London: Osprey, 1997.
Ostrowski, Donald. "Alexander Nevskii’s ‘Battle on the Ice’: The Creation of a Legend.” Russian History 33 (2006): 289-312.
Seton, Marie. Sergei M. Eisenstein. London: Dennis Dobson, 1978.
Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. London: Greenhill, 2003.
Alexander Nevsky: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_nevsky.jpg
Crusader knights: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_148a_figure_1.htm
Crusader light infantry (Estonians): http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_148a_figure_1.htm
Russian light cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_129_figure_1.htm; http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_130_figure_1.htm
Russian light infantry: http://www.pressdat.com/mtw2/Novgorod/Spear_Militia.html; http://www.pressdat.com/mtw2/Novgorod/Archer_Militia.html
Tags: 1200s, Alexander Nevsky, attack from a defensive position, cavalry, Crusaders, Eastern Europe, envelopment of both flanks, Hermann von Buxhövden, horse-archer, knight, land, light infantry, Medieval Era, modern day Russia, Northern Crusades, penetration of the center, Russians, Season 9
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