Battle of the ice

Battle on the Ice
Part of Northern Crusades
Life of Alexander Nevsky
Date April 5, 1242
Location Lake Peipsi-Pihkva, between Estonia and Russia
Result Decisive Novgorod victory
Teutonic order dropped all territorial claims over Russian lands
Pskov Republic Bishopric of Dorpat
Commanders and leaders
Prince Alexander Nevsky
Grand Duke Andrey Yaroslavich
Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat
4,000–5,000 4,000
Casualties and losses
No exact figures Around 400 Germans killed, 20 of them were members of the Order. 50 were captured, 6 of them were members of the Order. In addition to that many more Danes and Estonians killed and captured.

The Battle on the Ice (Russian: Ледовое побоище, Ledovoye poboish'ye; German: Schlacht auf dem Eise; Estonian: Jäälahing; Latvian: Ledus kauja), also known as the Battle of Lake Peipus (German: Schlacht auf dem Peipussee; Russian: битва на Чудском озере, bitva na Chudskom ozere), was a battle between the Republic of Novgorod and the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights (whose army consisted mostly of Estonians) on April 5, 1242, at Lake Peipus. The battle is notable for having been fought largely on the frozen lake.

The battle was a significant defeat sustained by Roman Catholic crusaders during the Northern Crusades, which were directed against pagans and Eastern Orthodox Christians rather than Muslims in the Holy Land. The crusaders' defeat in the battle marked the end of their campaigns against the Orthodox Novgorod Republic and other Russian territories for the next century.


Hoping to exploit the Russians' weakness in the wake of the Mongol and Swedish invasions, the Teutonic Knights attacked the neighboring Novgorod Republic and occupied Pskov, Izborsk, and Koporye in the autumn of 1240. When they approached Novgorod itself, the local citizens recalled to the city 20-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky, whom they had banished to Pereslavl earlier that year. During the campaign of 1241, Alexander managed to retake Pskov and Koporye from the crusaders.

Details of the battle

In the spring of 1242, the Teutonic Knights defeated a detachment of Novgorodians about 20 km south of the fortress of Dorpat (Tartu). Led by Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat, the knights and their auxiliary troops of local Ugaunian Estonians then met with Alexander's forces by the narrow strait that connects the northern and southern parts of Lake Peipus (Lake Peipus proper with Lake Pskovskoe) on April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own choosing, retreated in an attempt to draw the often over-confident Crusaders onto the frozen lake.

The crusader forces likely numbered around 4,000 . Most of them were probably Estonians (Chudes). The Russians fielded around 5,000 men: Alexander and his brother Andrei's bodyguards (druzhina), totalling around 1,000, plus the militia of Novgorod.

According to contemporary Russian chronicles, after hours of hand-to-hand fighting, Alexander ordered the left and right wings of his archers to enter the battle. The knights by that time were exhausted from the constant struggle on the slippery surface of the frozen lake. The Crusaders started to retreat in disarray deeper onto the ice, and the appearance of the fresh Russian cavalry made them run for their lives. When the knights attempted to rally at the far side of the lake, the thin ice began to give way under the weight of their heavy armour, and many knights drowned.

In 1983, a revisionist view proposed by historian John I. L. Fennell argues that the battle was not as important, nor as large, as has sometimes been portrayed. Fennell claimed that most of the Teutonic Knights were by that time engaged elsewhere in the Baltic. He also states that the apparently low casualties suffered by the knights according to their own sources is indicative of the small magnitude of the encounter.[1]

Russian historian Alexander Uzhankov, who cited a number of authors and primary sources, suggested that Fennell distorted the picture by ignoring many historical facts and documents. In order to stress the importance of the battle, he cites two papal bulls of Gregory IX, promulgated in 1233 and 1237, which called for a crusade to protect Christianity in Finland against her neighbours. The first bull explicitly mentions Russia. The kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark and the Teutonic Order built up an alliance in June 1238, under the auspices of Danish king Valdemar II. They assembled the larger western cavalry force of their time. Another point mentioned by Uzhakov is the 1243 treaty between Novgorod and the Teutonic Order, where the knights abandoned all claims to Russian lands. Uzhakov also emphasizes, with respect to the scale of battle, that for each knight deployed on the field there were eight to 30 combatants, counting squires, archers and servants.[2]


According to the Novgorod First Chronicle,

Prince Alexander and all the men of Novgorod drew up their forces by the lake, at Uzmen, by the Raven's Rock; and the Germans and the Estonians rode at them, driving themselves like a wedge through their army. And there was a great slaughter of Germans and Estonians... they fought with them during the pursuit on the ice seven versts short of the Subol [north-western] shore. And there fell a countless number of Estonians, and 400 of the Germans, and they took fifty with their hands and they took them to Novgorod.[3]

According to the Livonian Order's Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, written in the late 1340s,

The [Russians] had many archers, and the battle began with their bold assault on the king's men [Danes]. The brothers' banners were soon flying in the midst of the archers, and swords were heard cutting helmets apart. Many from both sides fell dead on the grass. Then the Brothers' army was completely surrounded, for the Russians had so many troops that there were easily sixty men for every one German knight. The Brothers fought well enough, but they were nonetheless cut down. Some of those from Dorpat escaped from the battle, and it was their salvation that they fled. Twenty brothers lay dead and six were captured.[4]


The legacy of the battle, and its decisiveness, lies in the fact that it halted the eastward expansion of the Teutonic Order[5] and established a permanent border line through the Narva River and Lake Peipus dividing Eastern Orthodoxy from Western Catholicism.[6] The knights' defeat at the hands of Alexander's forces prevented the crusaders from retaking Pskov, the linchpin of their eastern crusade. The Novgorodians succeeded in defending Russian territory, and the German crusaders never mounted another serious challenge eastward. Alexander was canonised as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1574.

Popular culture

The event was glorified in Sergei Eisenstein's nationalistic historical drama film Alexander Nevsky, released in 1938. The movie, bearing propagandist allegories of the Teutonic Knights as Nazi Germans, with the Teutonic infantry wearing modified World War I German Stahlhelm helmets, has created a popular image of the battle often mistaken for the real events. Sergei Prokofiev turned his score for the film into a concert cantata of the same title, the longest movement of which is "The Battle on the Ice".

During World War II, the image of Alexander Nevsky became a national Russian symbol of the struggle against German occupation. Today, Russia has an Order of St. Alexander Nevsky, a medal given for outstanding bravery and excellent service to the country.

Heavy metal band Aria composed a song, "Ballad of an Ancient Russian Warrior", for their Hero of Asphalt album in 1987. The song describes the battle from a participant's point of view.

In a 2009 Russian-Canadian-Japanese WWII-related anime, First Squad, the Battle on the Ice plays a vital part in the plot.


Further reading

  • Military Heritage did a feature on the Battle of Lake Peipus and the holy Knights Templar and the monastic knighthood Hospitallers (Terry Gore, Military Heritage, August 2005, Volume 7, No. 1, pp. 28 to 33)), ISSN 1524-8666.
  • Basil Dmytryshyn, Medieval Russia 900–1700. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
  • John France, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000–1300. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • David Nicolle, Lake Peipus 1242. London: Osprey Publishing, 1996.
  • Donald Ostrowski, "Alexander Nevskii’s ‘Battle on the Ice’: The Creation of a Legend,” Russian History/Histoire Russe, 33 (2006): 289-312.
  • Terrence Wise, The Knights of Christ. London: Osprey Publishing, 1984.
  • Dittmar Dahlmann: Der russische Sieg über die „teutonischen Ritter“ auf dem Peipussee 1242. In: Gerd Krumeich, Susanne Brandt (ed.): Schlachtenmythen. Ereignis–Erzählung–Erinnerung. Böhlau, Köln/Wien 2003, ISBN 3-41208-703-3, pp. 63–75. (German)
  • Livländische Reimchronik. Mit Anmerkungen, Namenverzeichnis und Glossar. Ed. Leo Meyer. Paderborn 1876 (Reprint: Hildesheim 1963). (German)
  • Anti Selart. Livland und die Rus' im 13. Jahrhundert. Böhlau, Köln/Wien 2012, ISBN 978-3-41216-006-7. (German)
  • Kaldalu, Meelis; Toots, Timo, Looking for the Border Island. Tartu: Damtan Publishing, 2005. Contemporary journalistic narrative about an Estonian youth attempting to uncover the secret of the Ice Battle. Accessible at (password: ma_armastan_sind)

External links

  • Battle of the Ice animated battle map by Jonathan Webb

Coordinates: 58°41′N 27°29′E / 58.683°N 27.483°E / 58.683; 27.483

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