Battle of Orsha

Battle of Orsha
Part of the fourth Russian-Lithuanian War (1512-1522)

Battle of Orsha
DateSeptember 8, 1514
LocationOrsha, Grand Duchy of Lithuania
ResultPolish-Lithuanian victory
Combatants
Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Kingdom of PolandGrand Duchy of Moscow
Commanders
Konstanty OstrogskiIvan Chelyadnin
Strength
30,000 men45,000 men (disputed)
300 cannon
Casualties
Unknown30,000 killed, 3,000 prisoners (disputed)


The Battle of Orsha took place September 8, 1514, between the forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland (less than 30,000 troops), under the command of Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski, and the army of Grand Duchy of Moscow under Konyushy (конюший, "Tsar's Equerry") Ivan Chelyadnin (Иван Челяднин) and Kniaz (Prince) Mikhail Golitsa (Михаил Голицын). The Battle of Orsha was part of a long chain of the Russo-Lithuanian Wars conducted by Russian rulers striving to gather all the Old Ruthenian lands under their rule.

The much smaller army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland defeated the Russian forces, capturing their camp and commander.

Eve of battle

At the end of 1512, Grand Duchy of Moscow began a new war for the Ruthenian lands of present-day Belarus and Ukraine that were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Albrecht I Hohenzollern von Brandenburg-Ansbach, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order rebelled and refused to give a vassal pledge to Sigismund I the Old. Albert I was supported by Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor.[1]

The fortress of Smolensk was then the easternmost outpost of the Grand Duchy and one of the most important strongholds guarding it from the east. It repelled several Russian attacks, but in July 1514 a Russian army of 45,000 men and 300 guns besieged and finally captured it. (Some historians claim that the size of Russian's army has been overstated: see "Disputed data," below.)

Spurred on by this initial success, the Grand Prince of Moscow Vasili III ordered his forces farther into Belarus, occupying the towns of Krichev, Mstislavl and Dubrovno.

Meanwhile King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund the Old gathered some 35,000 troops for war with the eastern neighbor. This army was inferior in numbers, but comprised mostly well-trained cavalry. The forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland placed under the command of Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski included: Marching into Belarus, King Sigismund secured the town of Barysau with a 4,000-5,000[1] - strong force, while the main forces, around 30,000, moved on to face the Russians.[1] At the end of August, several skirmishes took place at 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 two bridges on the Dnepr, 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 September 7, it began preparations for a final battle with the Russians. Hetman Konstanty Ostrogski placed most of his 16,000 horses from 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 reserves comprising Lithuanian and Polish cavalry.

Battle

Enlarge picture
Russian campaign against the Lithuanians (1903).
On September 8, 1514, shortly after dawn, Ivan Chelyadnin gave the order to attack. The Russian forces attempted to outflank the Lithuanians and Poles by attacking the flanks, manned by Polish 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 cavalry, which until then had been kept in reserve.

The Lithuanian light horse attacked the overstretched center of the Russian lines in an attempt to split them. At the crucial moment the horse of the Grand Duchy seemed to waver, then went into retreat. The Russians pursued with all their cavalry reserves. The Lithuanian horse, after retreating for several minutes, chased by the Russians, suddenly turned to the sides. The Russian horse now found themselves confronted by artillery concealed in the forest. From both sides, Polish 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 kilometers.

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[1]. According to accounts in Polish chronicles, at the Battle of Orsha 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 cannon.

Aftermath

Upset at word of the massive defeat, Moscow Grand Prince Vasili III allegedly remarked that "the prisoners [were] as useful as the dead" and betrayed them by refusing to negotiate their return. The Battle of Orsha was one of the biggest battles of 16th-century Europe. Ostrogski's forces continued their pursuit of the routed Russian army and retook most of the previously captured strongholds, including Mstislavl and Krychev, and advancement of Russians was stopped for four years[1]. However, the Lithuanian and Polish forces were too exhausted to besiege Smolensk before winter. Also 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.

Impressed by the scope of the Lithuanian and Polish victory, Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, started peace negotiations with Jagiellons in Vienna. On 22 July, 1515, final agreements on peace were made and a broad coalition against Lithuania and Poland ceased[1].

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 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was forced to cede to Grand Duchy of Moscow about a quarter of its Ruthenian possessions, including Smolensk. The latter city was not retaken from Russia until almost a century later, in 1611. After the peace agreement of 1522, Grand Duchy of Lithuania one more time tried to attack Russia, but major military conflicts were settled for around 40 years.[1]

Disputed data

Due to the spectacular proportions of the defeat, information about the Battle of Orsha was suppressed in Russian chronicles. Even reputable historians of the Russian Empire such as Sergey Solovyov rely on non-Russian sources. On the other hand, King Sigismund I of Poland sought to gain as much political advantage as possible from his victory. Hence the figures quoted regarding the sizes of the respective forces, and the numbers of casualties and prisoners taken, are questioned by some modern historians.

Immediately after the victory, the Polish-Lithuanian state started to exploit the fact for its propaganda in Europe, aimed at improving the image of Poland-Lithuania abroad, seriously undermined after huge territorial losses in the wake of the Battle of Vedrosha. 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".[2] Wishing to capitalize on the popular anti-Turkish hysteria, a Hungarian observer present at the battle "inaugurated a new era in anti-Russian propaganda"[3] by proclaiming in his broadsheet that many Muscovites suffered for their Roman Catholicism at the hands of a cruel and tyrannical Orthodox monarch.[4]

In particular, the size of the Russian army (80,000) is thought to have been seriously exaggerated. Even Ivan the Terrible, who commanded a larger territory than his father, could never muster more than 40,000 troops, 20% of whom were newly-conquered Tatars and Finns. As a consequence, the number of killed (30,000) is also questioned.

Indirect evidence of exaggeration may be that King Sigismund wrote Pope Leo X and other European rulers 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.

Modern times

The battle is regarded as one of the symbols of Belarusian national revival by Belarusian nationalists, but its significance is being suppressed by the Belarusian authorities. In September of 2005, by order of president of Belarus Aleksander Lukashenka, four members of Belarusian National Front opposition were sentenced to almost 4 millions roubles (roughly 1500 Euro) fine each for celebration of the 491st anniversary of the battle.

References

1. ^ (Lithuanian) Tomas Baranauskas. Oršos mūšis – didžiausia Lietuvos karinė pergalė prieš Rusiją (Battle of Orsha - biggest military victory of Lithuania against Russia). 08 September, 2006
2. ^ Marshall T. Poe. A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1478-1748. Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8014-3798-9. Page 21.
3. ^ Ibid.
4. ^ Jacob Piso. Epistola Pisonis ad Ioannem Coritium, de conflictu Polonorum et Lituanorum cum Moscovites. In Ianus Damianus, Iani Damiani Senensis ad Leonem X. Pont. Max. de expeditione in Turcas Egegia. Basel: Ioannes Frobenius, 1515.
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Orsha (Belarusian: О́рша, Russian: О́рша, Polish: Orsza
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Grand Duchy of Moscow (Russian: Великое княжество Московское
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Konstanty Ostrogski (c. 1460 – August 10 1530), also known under his Ruthenian name Konstantin Ivanovich Ostrozhsky and modern Belarusian transliteration Kanstancin Astrožski
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Chelyadnins (Челяднины) is an old Russian boyar family of Radsha and St Varlaam lineage via Akinfovs (Акинфовы), extinct in 16th century.
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Grand Duchy of Moscow (Russian: Великое княжество Московское
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