Tools of War 2 – Pomeranian Chronicles
Even though a brave heart is a surer indicator of victory than “shiny weapons”, it is still important in warfare to gain every advantage possible, and reliable, versatile tools of war in skillful hands make an excellent job. Last time, we explored the use of spears, axes, swords and knives, bow and arrow, shields and armor among medieval Pomeranians. Now, let’s see what use they made of horses and which tactics they employed.
At first, horses were used mostly by the personal guard of the Prince (the title used for a non-christian king). With time, their use grew, as the number of horses in general, and the number of owned horses per person became one of the symbols of wealth and status, which, as we know, was an important factor in Pomeranian social relations (for example, wealthy men were able to have more wives).
Already in 10th century, Pomeranians are said to breed horses which are especially big and strong. On one hand, it is possible, as the nearby Polabians, which were the closest relatives of Pomeranians, were famous for their horses, sold all over this part of Europe. On the other hand, in 11th century, they weren’t using their horses that often, as we find out it in Polish chronicles by Boleslav Wrymouth describing the conquest of Pomerania. We read that Pomeranian cavalry would often leave their horses to add to the fighting spirit of their friends and to match the chances when fighting troops. As romantic as it sounds, it seems unlikely for a people who are said to be “born in the saddle” to leave their horses. Cavalry was most probably still not numerous and it was definitely light. In addition, it was rather impractical in the swampy Pomeranian terrain.
Again, in 12th century, Pomeranian cavalry is mentioned numerous times as a serious power, especially in battles against the Danes. Herbord actually quotes a Pomeranian saying connected to horses: “He is strong and powerful, and also wealthy: he must have [this and this amount of] horses”. Not only were people of that time comparatively short (approx. 150-160 cm), but archaeology tells us that horses were also much smaller than modern ones, reaching nearly 130 cm. Still, elite war-horses allowed cavalry to make a distance of over 300km in less than five days – a huge advantage in those days.
Pomeranians, same as other ancient Slavs, preferred guerrilla style warfare, operating in small commando groups and using spies instead of fighting big battles on the open field. The main reason for this was probably the terrain. In their wars with the Poles, the Pomeranians were practically the same in number. Their style of mainland fighting was enough to make the war with Poland last… 20 years – the time for a whole new generation. At the same time, that was not enough for them to stay totally independent. Even though Pomeranians were able to destroy whole fleets merely on their way to some destination on enemy land, and to paralyze trade on the whole Baltic sea with their pirate activity (the Baltic was sometimes referred to as Mare Rugianorum, from the name of the tribe of the most notorious Pomeranian pirates.), they were clearly less advanced in mainland military technology and tactics than the Poles. While the Poles could simply adjust themselves to the Pomeranian environment by taking off their heavy armor when needed, the Pomeranians did not have the option of putting on chainmail or plate armor when bigger battles would occur.
Sometimes, Pomeranians would form bigger groups, referred by Polish chroniclers as “Legions“. Each “Legia” was probably a few hundred people strong, and was differentiated from other types of units. Thus, there were Archer Legions, Trooper Legions and Cavalry Legions.
Pomeranians attacked Poland in small groups. It was was very hard to protect towns and villages from small, well-prepared bands who could attack silently and swiftly, and disappear into the forest with their loot moments later. One of the solutions the Poles came up with was construction of two “belts” of fortifications made from elevated ground, on the site of the natural “gate” to Pomerania, to the north-east of Bydgoszcz. Those elevations are there even now. Similar forms of defense were used in other places, like in Silesia, Lusatia, Russ or Denmark. In the case of the Polish-Pomeranian border, they didn’t prove to be of much use and after all, Boleslav Wrymouth had to partially disassemble those elevations to make himself a passage to Pomerania.
During sieges, Pomeranians were trying to win with brain over brawn. Gallus Anonymous describes a special instance when a Pomeranian spy by the name of Gniewomir managed to convince Polish soldiers defending one of the borderland strongholds to surrender, because, as he claimed, their king had been beaten by the Czechs and given over to the “Mutes” –Niemcy – which probably means the Saxons. Another time, Pomeranian troops were lifted by the ropes on the defense walls thanks to the help from inside. However, most of the battles still had to be waged in traditional ways.
Pomerania, similarly to Polabia, is a terrain full of rivers, lakes and marshes. Strategically placed strongholds on such territories are almost impossible to conquer in a straightforward attack. As a matter of fact, some strongholds were considered impossible to conquer. One of them was Szczecin, one of the oldest and most important towns of Pomerania. The Danes of the early Middle Ages had a saying, used for overly-pretentious persons: “remember that you are not protected by the walls of Szczecin”. Another Pomeranian stronghold that was never conquered was Nakło on the border with Poland. Polish chroniclers claim that their army was driven off by monsters that lurked on them during their nights under the walls of this fortress.
From time to time, armies attacking Polabian and Pomeranian strongholds were so desperate that they were doing absolutely ridiculous things in hope of any success. For example, the Danes during siege of Dymin tried no less than to… change the current of the river!
One of the main tools used for sieges were wooden towers which allowed attackers to climb to the walls well protected. In the worst case, they could also be used for throwing or shooting at the defenders from a distance. This was often the case in Pomerania. Strongholds were built on lakes or rivers, and the defenders would burn all the bridges or even nearby forests so that their enemies would not be able to storm the walls so easily and make use of any materials useful for a siege nearby.
During nights, Pomeranians would send small commando parties to sabotage enemy equipment. Frequently attackers had to re-build their machines many times during a single siege of a stronghold. Fire was the essential tool for both sides during such struggles. Shooting flaming projectiles was one of the key methods for breaking the enemy. Aside from siege towers, other ways to get on the walls, more primitive but sometimes the only possible, were ropes with hooks attached, ladders or even something so rare and dangerous as spears. Spearmen would throw their spears into the walls, forming something strangely resembling a ladder, which would allow light armored soldiers to climb up.
Definitely the weakest part of any strongholds is always its gates. That is why, during important sieges (like in the case of Arkona), the gates would be covered from one or both sides with earth and heavy materials. From both Danish and Polish sources we know that both the Polabians and the Pomeranians were using scorched earth tactics quite frequently. If they could not hold some area, they would evacuate the whole region to the strongest stronghold and burn all villages and fortresses on the way, so that their enemies wouldn’t have any places to hide and no resources to acquire. After the war was over, all destroyed constructions were rebuilt.
Leaving their houses to be burned did not present a particular problem for the people. From Helmold we know that Slavic people were hiding all their valuable things in secret places underground, and their only worry was to get their families to safety in strongholds or secret “bases” in the forest. The houses would later be rebuilt by all the villagers mutually in a day or two per one house.
The dead were either buried in giant group graves that sometimes turned into mounds (like the “Ranian Mountain” under Lubeck), or they were left right where they fell. Entire fields of skeletons had remained untouched for decades, most notably the one next to Kolobrzeg. More important nobles of Kashubia were buried on battlefields in nameless kurgans as late as the 13th century.
One of the most successful methods of war was psychological terror, present among all people of that time. To make an enemy scared by cruelty, warriors had to become very creative. The things described by Christian chroniclers are graphic, but not extraordinary for those times. Western Slavs seem to be extremely cruel only on special occasions, such as anti-Christian uprisings. Chiseling away crosses on the foreheads of Christians so deeply that, after death from bleeding out, the cross remained engraved on their skulls. Opening the stomach, nailing the intestines to a tree and making the victim walk circles around it until everything fell out. Cutting off hands and feet and making the enemy run and more.
We must remember that the chronicles are not totally reliable sources, as they were usually written with an obvious political agenda. When fighting with Pomeranians, Polish chronicles always claim they are fighting against much bigger forces, Danish ones are so bold that in some battles “Pomeranians lost many thousands of soldiers while Danes lost … a few”. On the other hand, we cannot say that Christian chroniclers always lie. Archaeology does confirm some of their claims about pagan customs. We must add here that Danes and Saxons would destroy Slavic sanctuaries in the conquered lands, but Poles never did this. They gave Western Pomerania autonomy and were sending missionaries to convert them by peaceful means. Eastern Pomerania became an integral part of Poland, but the Western part was free and had only to pay tribute to the Polish king. We must also remember that Polish expansion was in big part caused by Pomeranian aggression on Polish territories, and had no religious motivation. Therefore, there aren’t any such extraordinary cruelties on either side in that conflict.
Some of the political methods used by Pomeranians and Polabians during conflicts are as much pragmatic as they are humorous. Niklot, Prince of the Reregi tribe, ironically offered Heinrich the Lion that he will become the official God for the Polabians. The Ranians, after a Danish attack on Arkona, took down the sculpture of Svetovid from the sanctuary and put a cross instead, only to put the sculpture back after the Danes left. The people of Szczecin, when confronted with the infamous Wendish Crusade, before the enemy even came to their shores, put a giant cross on the wall of their stronghold and sent their bishop to say to the attackers to get lost because they were Christian as hell.
This closes our article on the Tools of War of Pomeranians. For part 1, click here.
Naval aspects of Pomeranian warfare require a separate article.
How Did the Pomeranians Call Themselves? – Pomeranian Chronicles
Prince Racibor’s Conquest of Konungahela – Pomeranian Chronicles
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