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Self-Defense Tip #41 — Think like a commander — My favorite battle

This article will acquaint you with one of the best examples of a cunning commander in action. Study this lesson from history to learn to look at situations from a commander’s viewpoint. In this article, and in those that will follow it, you will find ideas and principles of tactics that apply in all types of encounters. Your ultimate goal is to develop the mind-set of a cool commander as opposed to a rash brawler. Absorb the general principles, and with the right mind-set, particular applications relevant to your personal self-defense will occur to you—when needed.

Now, today’s example:

Grunwald, 1410

My favorite example of a well-conducted battle is the Battle of Grunwald (1410), also called the first Battle of Tannenberg. It was fought between the Teutonic Order plus other Western Crusaders on one side and the joint forces of Poland and Lithuania on the other side.

The Teutonic Order was settled on the northern border of Poland, first as an implant helpful in fighting pagan Prussians, but then, as it grew, it turned against its host.

In this battle the Crusaders were commanded by Ulrich von Jungingen, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. The joint forces of Poland and Lithuania were commanded by Lithuanian Wladyslaw Jagiello (Yogaila), king of Poland. It is my favorite battle because it shows how a skilled commander, Jagiello, used psychological tricks, weather, lay of the land, and specific strengths of his various units to his best advantage.

Even before Jagiello’s army entered the land controlled by the Teutonic Order and marched toward its capital, Malbork, he ordered diversionary actions (border incidents) well west of Malbork, to convince the Teutonic Order that he planned to attack from there.

The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order took the bait and assembled his main force close to the Order’s western border. In the meantime Jagiello marched his force well to the east; met with Lithuanian, Ruthenian, and Tatar allies, and from the meeting point went north, toward Malbork. The Grand Master got the news, and he moved his army over the Vistula River to meet Jagiello’s forces, but the Teutonic knights had to hurry … and that makes people tired.

The Teutonic knights set up defenses of fords on the river flowing between Malbork and Jagiello’s forces. Jagiello decided against crossing the river in his enemy’s presence and simply marched along it toward its sources.

Eventually, the Teutonic knights blocked Jagiello’s path near the village of Grunwald.

Now the part I like the most—the setup.

The battle was fought on the 15th of July—a hot, sunny day.

Grand Master Takes the High Ground
On the eve of the battle, the Grand Master set his camp behind a hill, east of the village of Grunwald, and prepared the battlefield (dug ditches, set up cannons, and so on). At dawn he positioned his army on top of the hill, very suitable for a charge of his main weapon—heavy-armored cavalry. The field was sloping toward a lake surrounded by woods. There were some bushes growing on that field—enough to cover ditches designed to stop charges of Jagiello’s heavy cavalry. Also, cannons were positioned in front of the main force of the Teutonic Order to shoot at Jagiello’s heavy cavalry, which would fall into those ditches. So, the position of the Teutonic knights seemed excellent—on top of a hill, well defended from cavalry charges, and ready to steamroll enemies downhill—or so it seemed….

Jagiello Takes the Low Ground
At dawn Jagiello’s forces move toward the enemy. After getting his scouts’ reports on the position of the Teutonic knights, Jagiello orders his forces to set camps along the far side of the lake and streams feeding into it: Polish forces at the south end of the lake, Lithuanian and Ruthenian at the other side of the lake, and Tatars farther north, behind streams and marshes.

Grand Master Jabs
As soon as Jagiello’s forces set their camps, the Grand Master sends two banners (about 500 knights plus their squires and armour-bearers) to reconnoitre and possibly draw Jagiello’s forces deep into terrain controlled by the Teutonic knights.

Jagiello Counter-Jabs
Jagiello doesn’t take the bait and sends out only a few banners, with the task of repelling those two Teutonic knights’ banners and checking the enemy’s positions. At the same time Jagiello orders the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vytautas, to prepare his forces (Lithuanians, Ruthenians, and Tatars) for the battle.

Jagiello Gets Holier Than the Pope
After issuing orders, Jagiello attends two full Holy Masses (each 90 minutes long). Teutonic knights and other Crusaders can see and perhaps even hear the Latin liturgy.

The Holy Masses show that Jagiello is no pagan and so undermine the resolve of guest Crusaders. Witnessing the Masses plants a doubt in the minds of these guest Crusaders—will they earn Heaven for fighting here? To his forces the celebration tells that all is under control, the king is in no hurry, and God is on their side.

Grand Master All Ready to Go
In the meantime the Teutonic knights, their Western guests, and the soldiers, all in steel suits, stand on top of a hill, in hot mid-July sun, while Jagiello’s people in steel suits stay in the shade of the woods, near the lake.

Jagiello Positions His Forces According to Their Strengths and Weaknesses
On the left wing, Jagiello positions the Polish heavy cavalry on a low hill with dry, firm ground in front and behind them; on the right wing lighter Lithuanian and Ruthenian cavalry with wooded marshes behind them (light cavalry can deal with marshy ground better than the heavy cavalry); and at the far end of the right wing the lightest cavalry—Tatars of Jelal ed-Din.

Jagiello Waits
Jagiello deliberately delays the battle—after arraying his forces, he knights several young squires. The ceremonies (also very religious) take their time but his forces stand at the edge of the woods, facing northwest, while forces of the Order face southeast—into the sun.

Grand Master Baits
The impatient (and hot) Grand Master sends heralds to Jagiello to shame him into attack. As an insult, they deliver two swords—one for him and one for Vytautas—saying that apparently they lack arms since they hide their forces in the woods and are afraid to come out and fight on the open field. The heralds also say that the Grand Master is willing to draw his forces back a little to make more room for Jagiello’s men.

Jagiello Keeps His Cool
Jagiello takes the swords and says that he has enough weapons, but he will have use for those swords too.

At the same time, forward units of the Teutonic Order indeed move back. (The main units keep their positions, behind artillery and archers.)

Now, the actual battle.

Jagiello Tests
Jagiello orders the Lithuanian light cavalry and Tatars to take out the artillery and archers and then retreat. The light riders, fast and agile, avoid some ditches and quickly get out of those they fall into, revealing locations of those traps to observing commanders, the rush the Order’s guns, which still manage two salvos. The light cavalry slaughter the gunners and the archers protecting them, and rush back to their original positions.

Teutonic Knights Take the Bait
In response, heavy cavalry of the Teutonic Order counterattacks, following the Lithuanian and Tatar light cavalry. This gets the Order’s cavalry out from its advantageous position, from behind ditches.

Finally, two forces clash along the whole front. After an hour, the right wing of the Order begins to slowly yield to Polish knights while the left wing of the Order, fighting lighter-armed Lithuanian and Ruthenian units, pushes forward. Eventually, when the Grand Master sends in reinforcements, most Lithuanians and Ruthenians begin to retreat and then run, as planned, toward the marshes. Such a retreat through terrain that slows down the pursuers is a tactic Jagiello and Vytautas learned from the Tatars.

Jagiello’s strong left wing is in danger of being outflanked by those reinforcements, but three banners of Ruthenians from Smolensk commanded by Jagiello’s brother Lingven (Simeon Olgierdovich), which stood at the joint between Polish forces and the Lithuanian and Ruthenian forces, stop the Order’s maneuver. They do it at a great cost—one Smolensk banner is cut down completely. Jagiello sends the Polish reserve to the rescue, and the outflanking force is repelled.

The left wing of the Order follows the running Lithuanians and Ruthenians and goes as far as the camps of the Lithuanian-Ruthenian forces and the Tatars. The Teutonic knights get busy plundering the camps, and then laden with loot, unhurriedly return to the battlefield.

In the meantime, from regrouped Lithuanians and Ruthenians and a part of the Polish reserve, Jagiello forms a strong strike group to meet the returning left wing of the Order (those returning with the loot). The group does its job, slaughtering most of the returning Teutonic knights. As this is going on, Jagiello sends another part of the Polish reserve deep behind the Order’s right wing.

Upon seeing that the returning left wing of the Order is “well taken care of,” Jagiello orders the “care takers” to join in the encircling of the Order’s right wing.

Grand Master’s Last-Ditch Effort
The Grand Master assembles his remaining reserves and the survivors of the Order’s left wing, altogether 16 banners of heavy cavalry, and leads them personally in an attempt to outflank Jagiello’s right wing. This attempt is stopped by Jagiello’s bodyguard banner (Pogon), the last Polish reserves, and the strike group returning after destroying the left wing of the Order.

The Grand Master’s reserves are encircled.

The Finale
The battle ends with Jagiello’s forces encircling two groups of Teutonic knights, most of whom die there. Those who escape to the camp and set up defenses, are cut down there by Polish infantry and heavy cavalry, while any stragglers are hunted by light cavalry.

Total: Piles of unnamed dead on both sides. Teutonic order lost all commanders present at the battle (that is, most of its high command, including the Grand Master) and the majority of its forces. Jagiello lost one Smolensk banner and twelve (12) prominent Polish knights.

The Lesson

  • Know yourself and know your enemy; but at the very least know yourself.
    Jagiello didn’t know how the Crusaders prepared the battlefield—but he knew not to throw his main weapon, the heavy cavalry, into the unknown. He also knew how fast his light cavalry could move and that it could rush the Crusaders’ artillery before the gunners could reload and aim at them again—so his first move was to send the light cavalry to check the field and take out the guns.
  • Know how the terrain affects your weapons and your enemy’s weapons.
    Heavy cavalry needs solid, smooth, and dry ground, free of obstacles (trees, bushes, stones). It gets bogged down on marshes and can’t charge into dense tree stands. Light cavalry can’t take a head-on charge of heavy cavalry, but it can ride over a marsh and can easily outmaneuver heavy cavalry.
  • Know how the weather affects your weapons and your enemy’s weapons.
    The Crusaders took position on the top of a hill, on open ground, so their heavy cavalry could charge downhill. Jagiello knew that steel suits get very uncomfortable (think heat stroke) in hot summer sun. So he put his steel-suited people in the shade of the woods, near a lake, even though that was downhill from the Crusaders’ position. His forces were protected from the heat and from the Crusaders’ charges by the trees of the woods, and from the Crusaders’ artillery by the distance.
  • Know how to undermine the morale of your enemy.
    The Crusaders claimed they were fighting pagans, and this is how they recruited guest knights from Western Europe. So Jagiello, in their sight, ordered two full masses end-to-end. That’s three hours’ worth of solemn worship, showing at least to the guest Crusaders that the Teutonic knights lied to them, while the hot July sun fried them.


  • Use all resources and take all advantages of terrain, weather, psychology, tactics, and knowledge of your enemy’s weapons, tactics, and customs.
  • Use the terrain—you have to know the lay of the land.
  • Use the weather—you have to know how it affects your enemy.
  • Use psychological weapons—undermine the morale of your enemy.
  • Use your weapons wisely—according to their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Keep reserves.

Self-defense tip from Thomas Kurz, co-author of Basic Instincts of Self-Defense and author of Science of Sports Training, Stretching Scientifically, and Flexibility Express.

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