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Northern Crusades: Battle of the Ice

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Battle of the Ice - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of the Ice (Lake Peipus) was fought April 5, 1242, during the Northern Crusades (12th-13th Centuries).

Armies & Commanders

Crusaders

  • Hermann of Dorpat
  • 1,000-4,000 men

    Russians

  • Prince Alexander Nevsky
  • Prince Andrey II Yaroslavich
  • 5,000-6,000 men

  • Battle of the Ice - Background:

    In the thirteenth century, the papacy sought to force the Orthodox Christians around the Baltic to accept papal supremacy. While earlier military efforts to this end had failed, a new attempt to create a church state in the Baltic was mounted in the 1230s. Preaching a crusade in the late 1230s, William of Modena organized a western coalition to invade the Russian state of Novgorod. This papal move to attack the Russians was in line with Swedish and Danish desires to expand eastward and both nations began providing troops as did the Teutonic Knights.

    A trading power within the region, Novgorod, like most of Russia, had recently come under attack from the Mongols. Though technically remaining independent, it accepted Mongol overlordship in 1237. Aware of this, the westerners saw the Mongols as a providing a distraction to Novgorod thus making it an opportune time to attack. In the spring of 1240, Swedish forces began driving into Finland. Alarmed, Novgorod recalled Prince Alexander, who had recently been banished, to lead their forces. Mounting a campaign against the Swedes, he defeated them at the Battle of the Neva and earned the honorary title "Nevsky."

    Campaign in the South:

    Though the Crusaders were defeated in Finland, they had better luck to the south. Here a mixed force of Livonian Order knights, Danes, Estonians, Russians, and Teutonic Knights succeeded in capturing Pskov, Izborsk, and Koporye in the fall of 1240. Sent to this front, Alexander campaigned in 1241 and retook the lands east of the Neva River and in March 1242 liberated Pskov. Seeking to inflict punishment on the Crusaders, he mounted a large raid west late in the month. Completing this, he began retreating east. Rallying Crusader forces in the area, Hermann, Bishop of Dorpat, followed in pursuit.

    The Battle of the Ice:

    Though possessing a smaller force, Hermann's troops were better equipped than their Russian adversaries. With his pursuers gaining, Alexander began moving across the frozen surface of Lake Peipus on April 5. Crossing at a narrow point in the lake, he sought a strong defensive position and found one on the eastern shore at Raven Rock where the ground was broken and fronted by ice ridges. Turning, Alexander formed his army with the infantry in the center and his cavalry on the flanks. Arriving on the western shore, the Crusader army formed into a wedge with its heavy cavalry in the lead and on the flanks.

    Moving across the ice, the Crusaders charged at the Russian position. Their advance was slowed as they struggled with the terrain and took casualties from Alexander's archers. As the two armies clashed, hand-to-hand fighting ensued. With the battle raging, Alexander ordered his cavalry and horse archers to assail the Crusader's flanks. Swarming forward, they began inflicting losses and effectively surrounded Hermann's army. With the battle turning, many of the Crusaders began fighting their way back across the lake.

    While myths pertaining to the battle detail Crusaders falling through the ice, this most likely did not happen in large numbers. With the enemy retreating, Alexander only allowed a limited pursuit as far as the western shore of the lake. Defeated, the Crusaders were forced to flee west.

    Aftermath of the Battle of the Ice:

    While Russian losses in the fighting are not known with any certainty, it is estimated that Crusader casualties were around 400 with an additional 50 captured. In the wake of the battle, Alexander offered generous peace terms which were quickly accepted by Hermann and his allies. The defeats at Neva and Lake Peipus effectively ended western attempts to subjugate Novgorod. A largely minor engagement, the Battle of the Ice later became the centerpiece of Russian anti-western ideology. This legend was furthered by Sergei Eisenstein's nationalistic 1938 film Alexander Nevsky.

    The legend and iconography of the Battle of the Ice was again invoked for propaganda purposes during World War II as it chronicled the defense of Russia against Germanic invaders.

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