Battle of Orsha
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (September 2011)|
|Battle of Orsha|
|Part of the fourth Muscovite–Lithuanian War (1512–1522)|
Battle of Orsha
|Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Kingdom of Poland||Grand Duchy of Moscow|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Konstanty Ostrogski||Ivan Chelyadnin (POW)|
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown||Disputed data when it comes to dead and wounded, at least 5,000 captured|
The Battle of Orsha was fought on 8 September 1514, between the allied forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, under the command of Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski; and the army of the Grand Duchy of Moscow under Konyushy Ivan Chelyadnin and Kniaz Mikhail Golitsin. The Battle of Orsha was part of a long series of Muscovite–Lithuanian Wars conducted by Russian rulers striving to gather all the former Kievan Rus' lands under their rule.
According to Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii by Sigismund von Herberstein, the primary source for information on the battle, the much smaller army of Poland–Lithuania (under 30,000 men) defeated a force of 80,000 Russian soldiers, capturing their camp and commander. These numbers and proportions have been disputed by modern historians.
Eve of battle
At the end of 1512, the Grand Duchy of Moscow began a new war for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania's Ruthenian lands in present-day Belarus and Ukraine. Albrecht I, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, rebelled and refused to give a vassal pledge to Sigismund I the Old of Poland-Lithuania, as required by the Second Peace of Thorn (1466). Albrecht I was supported by Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor.
The fortress of Smolensk was then the easternmost outpost of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and one of the most important strongholds guarding it from the east. It repelled several Russian attacks, but in July 1514 a Russian army besieged and finally captured it. Spurred on by this initial success, the Grand Prince of Moscow Vasili III ordered his forces farther into present-day Belarus, occupying the towns of Krichev, Mstislavl and Dubrovna.
Meanwhile Sigismund the Old gathered some 35,000 troops for war with his eastern neighbor. This army was inferior in numbers, but consisted mostly of well-trained cavalry. The forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland placed under the command of Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski included 16,000 Lithuania cavalry, 14,000 Polish cavalry (light and heavy), 3,000 Polish mercenary infantry, and 2,500 volunteers, mostly from Bohemia. Sigismund left 4,000–5,000 men in the town of Barysau, while the main force, around 30,000 strong, moved on to face the Russians. At the end of August, several skirmishes took place at the crossings of the Berezina, Bobr and Drut Rivers, but the Russian army avoided a major confrontation.
Suffering negligible losses, the Russians advanced to the area between Orsha and Dubrovno on the Krapivna River, where they set up camp. Ivan Chelyadnin, confident that the Lithuanian-Polish forces would have to cross one of the two bridges on the Dnieper River, split his own forces to guard those crossings. However, Ostrogski's army crossed the river farther north via two pontoon bridges. On the night of 7 September, the Polish-Lithuanian army began preparations for a final battle with the Russians. Hetman Konstantyn Ostrogski placed most of his 16,000 horses from the Grand Duchy in the center, while most of the Polish infantry and the auxiliary troops manned the flanks. The Bohemian and Silesian infantry were deployed in the center of the line, in front of the reserves comprising Lithuanian and Polish cavalry.
The size of the Russian army
The size of the Russian army remains an unsolved question. Narrative Polish-Lithuanian sources generally give large numbers. King Sigismund wrote to Pope Leo X about a "horde of Muscovites" which consisted of 80,000 men. Sigismund also claimed that his army had killed 30,000 Russians and taken prisoner 46 commanders and 1,500 nobles. Extant Polish and Lithuanian documents, however, list all captured nobles by name; only 611 men in all. The Polish historian Bohun considers it improvident to rely on what he terms "propaganda data" given by Sigismund. Gembarowicz (another Polish researcher) is of the opinion that the Russian army was about 40,000 strong. It also remains unclear why - if the figure of 70,000–80,000 men is to be trusted - King Sigismund (who knew about this superiority of the Russian army from Mikhail Glinsky's letters) kept a personal guard of about 5,000 men (about 15% of his army) in reserve, without sending them into the battle. The Russian chronicles (Novgorodian and Sophian codexes) claim a Polish-Lithuanian numerical superiority.
The Russian historian A. Lobin tried to calculate the size of the Russian army at Orsha based on the mobilisation capacities of the towns which had to send townspeople for military service. It is known that except for Boyar sons of the sovereign's regiment, the army consisted of people from at least 14 towns: Novgorod, Pskov, Velikie Luki, Kostroma, Murom, Borovsk, Tver, Volok, Roslavl, Vyazma, Pereyaslavl, Kolomna, Yaroslavl and Starodub. Based on figures from the well-documented Polotsk campaign of 1563, the author gives the following estimates: 400–500 Tatars, 200 boyar sons of the sovereign's regiment, 3,000 Novgorodian and Pskovians, and about 3,600 representatives of other towns, altogether about 7,200 noblemen. Once servants are included, the overall size of the Russian army could be 13,000-15,000 men. Considering the losses during the campaign, the level of desertion which is documented in the sources and the number of soldiers left as a garrison in Smolensk; the number of Russian troops present at Orsha could have been as low as about 12,000 men.
On 8 September 1514, shortly after dawn, Ivan Chelyadnin gave the order to attack. The Russian forces attempted to outflank the Lithuanians and Poles by attacking their flanks, which were manned by Polish, Lithuanian light hussar and Tartar troops. One of the pincers of the attack was commanded by Chelyadnin personally, while the other was led by Prince Bulgakov-Golitsa. The initial attack failed, and the Russians withdrew toward their starting positions. Chelyadnin was still confident that the almost 3:1 odds in his favor would give him the victory. However, preoccupied with his own wing of the Russian forces, he lost track of the other sectors and failed to coordinate a defense against the counterattack by the Lithuanian light and Polish heavy cavalry, which until then had been kept in reserve.
The Lithuanian and Polish light horse and Tartars attacked the overstretched center of the Russian lines in an attempt to split them. At the crucial moment the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry seemed to waver, then went into retreat. The Russians pursued with all their cavalry reserves. The Lithuanian Tartars and Polish cavalry, after retreating for several minutes under chase from the Russians, suddenly turned to the sides. The Russian cavalry now found themselves confronted by artillery concealed in the forest. From both sides, Polish and Lithuanian forces appeared and proceeded to surround the Russians. Ivan Chelyadnin sounded retreat, which soon became somewhat panicky. The Russian forces were pursued by the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for five kilometres.
The Russian defeat is often attributed to repeated failures by Ivan Chelyadnin and Golitsa to coordinate their operations.
Sigismund von Herberstein reported that 40,000 Russians were killed. According to accounts in Polish chronicles, 30,000 Russians were killed and an additional 3,000 were taken captive, including Ivan Chelyadnin and eight other commanders. The forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland seized the Russian camp and all 300 cannons. Upset at word of the massive defeat, Grand Prince Vasili III allegedly remarked that "the prisoners [were] as useful as the dead".
Ostrogski's forces continued their pursuit of the routed Russian army and retook most of the previously captured strongholds, including Mstislavl and Krychev, and the advancement of the Russians was stopped for four years. However, the Lithuanian and Polish forces were too exhausted to besiege Smolensk before the winter. This meant that Ostrogski did not reach the gates of Smolensk until late September, giving Vasili III enough time to prepare defense.
In December 1514, Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski triumphantly entered Vilnius. To commemorate the victory, two Orthodox churches were erected: the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Church of Saint Nicholas, which remain among the most impressive examples of Orthodox Church architecture in Lithuania. Immediately after the victory, the Polish–Lithuanian state started to exploit the battle for its propaganda aimed at other nations in Europe, with the intent of improving the image of Poland-Lithuania abroad. Several panegyrical accounts of the battle were sent to Rome. "The Polish message was similar to Bomhover's: the Muscovites are not Christians; they are cruel and barbaric; they are Asians and not Europeans; they are in league with Turks and the Tatars to destroy Christendom".
Impressed by the scope of the Lithuanian and Polish victory, Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, started peace negotiations with the Jagiellons in Vienna. On 22 July 1515, final agreements for peace were made and the broad coalition against Lithuania and Poland ceased.
The war between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Grand Duchy of Moscow lasted until 1520. In 1522 a peace was signed, under the terms of which Lithuania was forced to cede to Moscow about a quarter of its possessions within the lands of the former Kievan Rus', including Smolensk. The latter city was not retaken until almost a century later, in 1611. After the peace agreement of 1522, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania tried to attack Russia one more time, but major military conflicts were settled for around 40 years.
The battle is regarded by Belarusians as a symbol of national revival, but its significance is being suppressed by state authorities. In September 2005, by order of President Alexander Lukashenko, four members of the Belarusian National Front opposition were each fined almost 4 million rubles (roughly €1,500) for celebrating the 491st anniversary of the battle.
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