It is an unfortunate fact that Poland often gets lambasted for losing wars and getting conquered, and there is no shortage of unfair jokes that portray Poles as dim-witted simpletons who can barely change a light bulb.
But this week, specifically on July 15, is an anniversary that helps the Poles prove those negative stereotypes wrong—it is the anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, which took place in 1410. You have probably never heard of this battle because the schools tend to focus mostly on the west, but it was the largest battle in medieval history—and Poland won.
First some background. In the 1200s and 1300s, there were three major groupings of people in Baltic Europe—the Catholic Poles, the pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, and the Catholic German knights, known as the Teutonic Order or Teutonic Knights.
The Teutonic Knights were a mobile fighting force whose goal was to conquer non-Christian peoples and forcefully convert them. In 1226, the Poles had given them land in northern Poland (near Chełmno) in exchange for help in fighting the pagan Prussians.
And fight the Prussians they did. In fact, the Order conquered the Prussians so thoroughly that it caused the tribe’s extinction. The Prussians of succeeding centuries were actually German and had nothing to do with the original people.
To Poland’s dismay, the Teutonic Knights hung around in order to “convert” the pagan Lithuanians after destroying the Prussians. They actually used conversion as a pretext to enrich themselves off the fat of the land. What is more, over the next century and a half they gradually began encroaching on Polish territory and massacring Poles. By this point, the Teutonic Knights had firmly established themselves in the region, having built Malbork castle, one of the largest castles ever built.
In 1385, Poland and Lithuania united into one kingdom called the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth to better protect themselves against the Teutonic Knights. Władysław Jagiełło was crowned king of Poland-Lithuania.
Though threatened by this new force, the knights continued their raids. Minor skirmishes were common on the border regions, but no decisive battles were fought. Finally, in 1410, the Teutonic Order and the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth declared a full scale war on each other, intending to finish the struggle once and for all.
The Order, supported by the papacy and Western Europe, mustered a force of 27,000 heavily-armed warriors, including many from France and England. In addition, they brought in 100 cannons to blast the Poles back to Krakow. Poland-Lithuania assembled a force of 39,000, composed of various eastern peoples including Czechs, Lithuanians, Russians and even some Mongol Tartars. Though more numerous, the Polish side lacked equipment and discipline.
As a result, the knights, led by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, were certain of victory, having brought thousands of human shackles in carts in order to take prisoners after the battle. They marched south to intercept the Polish army.
The Poles rendezvoused with the Lithuanians and the two marched north toward Malbork. Before the battle, the Polish army sang Bogurodzica (Mother of God), the oldest Polish hymn, asking for the Virgin Mary’s protection during the struggle.
Both giant armies met near the tiny village of Grunwald and the fighting commenced. The Lithuanians charged first with their light cavalry, but they were overcome and forced to retreat with several groups of Germans in pursuit. Meanwhile, the bulk of the Teutonic force engaged the Poles on their right flank, and it seemed like the Polish line would collapse at any moment. At one point, the Polish standard was even knocked down and the King nearly killed. A defeat here would likely have meant Poland’s demise, but the red and white held their ground.
After their initial retreat, the Lithuanians regrouped and returned to the battle. Now the tide turned. The Poles and Lithuanians managed to surround and destroy the Teutonic army, killing the Grand Master in the process. In all, the Teutonic Order lost 8,000 men, and 14,000 were captured. Poland-Lithuania lost 4,000-5,000 warriors and suffered 8,000 wounded.
In the coming months and years, the Teutonic Knights weakened considerably. The vast amount of resources expended to attack Poland crippled the knights economically, while eventual land concessions shrunk their territories. By 1525, the Teutonic Order had deteriorated so much that it became a fief of the Polish king.
Both Poland and Lithuania owe their existence to this victory 605 years ago. Although in succeeding centuries, Poles faced many difficult trials, the memory of their victory at Grunwald would regularly be channeled as a source of national pride and legitimization of their existence. Each year, the Poles recreate the battle during a large festival in July, drawing crowds of spectators. Though it is often romanticized, it truly was an event that ensured Poland’s survival to fight another day.
Check out this Polish TV spot commemorating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald in 2010.