05/05 – The Battle on the Ice

A modern interpretation of Hermann’s knights charging across Lake Peipus. (SF Girl)

On this day in 1242, thousands of Crusading Knights faced off against the armed hordes of the Republic of Novgorod. No, this was not a televised figure-skating competition but a clash between the forces of Catholic Good™ and Orthodox Evil™. Seeking to expand the reach of the Holy Roman Church, Pope Honorius III had authorized an expeditionary force of knights to pacify the Baltic region and protect Finnish Christians. So, in the spring of 1242, roughly 2,600 knights of the Livonian Order – a branch of the Teutonic knights, a militant Christian order – and their Baltic allies began marching towards the Novgorod stronghold in modern-day Estonia. Fearing for their safety, Novgorod’s leaders called on Alexander Nevsky, a 20-year-old exiled prince, to defend them. Nevsky quickly gathered a ragtag force of some 5,000 fighters from the region and began marching to counter the Crusaders. Hoping to meet the invaders on his own terms, Nevsky maneuvered his forces into position on the Eastern shores of Lake Peipus, a massive, frozen expanse on the border between modern-day Russia and Estonia.

A map depicting what historians think the Battle on the Ice looked like. Note how the Crusaders committed their entire force in one spot, and were overwhelmed by well-coordinated flanking forces; compare this mistake to other historical military blunders. (The Map Archive)

Cocky from a recent victory over a small Novgorodian force near modern-day Tartu, Crusader leader Hermann of Dorpat caught sight of what looked like a small Novgorodian force across the icy, windswept surface of Lake Peipus. Ordering a hasty attack, Hermann sent his men hurtling across the thick ice towards Nevsky’s men. To the German knight’s surprise, however, Nevsky’s foot-soldiers moved forward and began savagely beating back the Crusader’s advancing cavalry. Soon, every heavily-armoured knight was swarmed; many of them were pulled from their horses and landed heavily on the ice, where they struggled to get up. The bloody melee wore on for nearly 2 hours, and Nevsky’s force held its ground despite the superior weaponry of the Crusaders. Suddenly, at Nevsky’s signal, Novgorodian cavalry units emerged onto the ice and began flanking Hermann’s exhausted men. Panicking, the knights began to run, slipping on the ice and getting cut down en masse by Nevsky’s men. According to legend, many of the knights fled far into the centre of the lake, where their heavy suits of armour broke through the ice.

A contemporary poster for Eisenstein’s 1938 film. Although Eisenstein is regarded as a masterful filmmaker, it’s important to note the political significance of his revisionist historical projects in the Soviet Union. Note the Nazi-esque design of the helmets on the poster. (Medieval Hollywood – Fordham University)

Humiliated and beaten, the Crusaders turned tail and fled the Baltics. With his victory, Nevsky had managed to secure the safety of the Novgorodian people from the Crusaders. For centuries after, the story of Nevsky’s victory developed into a nationalist myth similar to Agincourt for the British or Teutoburg forest for the Germans. Interestingly, the story was promoted heavily by Russia’s Soviet government during during the Stalinist 1930s. Sergei Eisenstein adapted the story into a movie, Alexander Nevsky (1938), which painted the invading Crusaders as Nazi-like aggressors complete with Swastikas and distinctive stahlhelm-like helmets. The film – which had been personally approved by Joseph Stalin – was banned when the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in the summer of 1939; when the Germans invaded Russia two years later, Alexander Nevsky was re-released.

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