"Piles of corpses, piles of bodies, and a river of blood flowed!" – The Battle of Grunwald in 1410

15 July 1410, in Mazovia, 70 miles south of Gdansk and Kaliningrad, the Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War climaxed in one of the greatest and consequential engagements of the Middle Ages, the Battle of Grunwald.

"You will tremble at my voice: Grunwald, swords, King Jagiełło! Armors were hacked while wind blew and howled; piles of corpses, piles of bodies, and a river of blood flowed!" (Stanisław Wyspiański, Wesele / The Wedding)

Jan Matjeko’s epic painting “The Battle of Grunwald” from 1878

There were crusades led against Constantinople, against Albigensians, Bogomils and Hussites, against pagan Wends, Finns and Balts, against enemies of the Papacy and one even against the Prussians, in 1234. After the Teutonic Knights got off the wrong foot as the unloved last-born of the great Military Orders founded in the Holy Land like the Knights Templar and Hospitaller and a first failed attempt of founding an order-state in Transylvania in 1225, they approached the task in the Baltics during the episode of the Northern Crusades known as “Preußenfahrt” with Teutonic precision. A hundred years later, the State of the Teutonic Order stretched along the coast of the Baltic Sea from Gdansk to the shores of Lake Peipus and the River Narva, some 100 miles west of modern St Petersburg, and was arguably the best organised, most profitable and advanced body politic in Northern Europe, rivalling the Italian City States. At the cost, though, of the subdued and forcibly baptised local peoples and the neighbours, prominently what was left of the principalities of Kiev and the Rus, the Lithuanian Princes and the King of aspiring Poland. Annexing their prosperous territories, converting them, just in case, to Catholic Christianity, cutting them off from trade and, in general, lording it over everyone and everything they got their hands on with their know-it-all and holier-than-thou attitude, the Teutonic Knights were not exactly popular in Northeastern Europe. And their military setbacks, against the invading Mongols at Legnica in 1241 and against Alexander Nevsky’s Novgorodians on the Ice of Lake Peipus a year later proved that they were not invincible. However, even the alliance of Lithuania and Poland could not seriously challenge the Order for 150 years. But the Teutonic Knights’ time had finally come, when King Władysław II Jagiełło and Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithunia finally managed to mobilise their followers en masse over the Order’s latest incursion into Dobrzyń Land northeast of the River Vistula in 1409.

Wojciech Kossak (1856 - 1942): "The Battle of Grunwald" (1931)

Surprised by the Teutonic Knights’ quick advance into the disputed territory over a new-fangled pontoon bridge across the Vistula, the allies began too late to assemble their army and it took them almost a year to gather their troops, but in June 1410 they were ready to lead their host, probably 40,000 strong against Grandmaster Ulrich von Jungingen’s 27,000. The order fielded 400 true Teutonic Knights, the rest were secular local lords and mercenaries from the Holy Roman Empire against the allied multi-ethnic army of Lithuanian and Polish knights, Tatar light cavalry and mercenaries and levies from the Baltics down to Moravia, Ruthenia and Bohemia. The leaders of both sides sought to fight it out once and for all and on a hot summer day they met in the woody hills of Mazovia between Grünfelden, Grunwald, and Tannenberg, Stębark, and this time, the Knights advanced just too fast, their artillery couldn’t cope with the fast Eastern horsemen already harassing their left flank, the heavily armoured Teutonic knights and men-at-arms were exhausted when they reached the Polish lines while Władysław took his time and the Lithuanians allegedly fled. On the right wing, a knightly battle evolved, indecisive at first, then the Polish banner fell into the hands of Grand Commander Kuno of Lichtenstein, the Teutonics already sang their victory hymn "Christ ist erstanden" (Christ is risen), a quick foray led by the Polish knight Zawisza Czarny brought it back, Ulrich von Jungingen personally led the counterstroke with his body guards and the knights of the Lizard Union, the latter left him in lurch, the Poles put up a stiff resistance with the help of heavy Bohemian infantry, Ulrich was slain in battle and the allies rolled up their enemies’ lines and the Battle of Grunwald was over. 8,000 of the Order’s men were dead, almost all of the Teutonic Knights among them, and up to 14,000 were captured. It was a dead blow to the Order’s State and they would never recover from it.

Alphonse Mucha, "Slavic Epic - After the Battle of Grunwald: The Solidarity of the Northern Slavs" (1924)

“The battle turned into carnage and pursuit. Those who refused to surrender, died. There had been many battles and engagements in those times across the world, but none of those alive remembered a devastation so terrible. At the great king's feet fell not only the Teutonic Order, but all of Germany, whose foremost knights supported the Teutonic avant-garde that was biting deeper and deeper into the Slavic flesh. Out of seven hundred "white cloaks" leading this Germanic deluge, only fifteen survived. More than forty thousand bodies lay in eternal sleep in this blood-soaked field”, Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote in his novel “Krzyżacy“, Crusaders, 600 years later. The State of the Teutonic Order would exist for another fifty years until one of Ulrich von Jungingen’s successors had to swear fealty to the King of Poland in 1466 after the Second Peace of Thorn. Poland-Lithuania was to become a major power in Eastern Europe for the next 250 years, while the battle of 1410 itself marked a turning point in history that was milked by all successors of the involved parties in the conflict, especially in the 19th and 20th century to augment their propaganda.

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