David Nicolle, Lake Peipus 1242, Battle of the Ice. London: Reed International Books, 1996. [Osprey Military Campaign Series, 46] Paperback. Illustrations, Maps. 96 pp.
The one battle in Eastern Europe that every American medievalist knows is this, the Battle on the Ice, thanks to Eisenstein's brilliant 1938 propaganda film, Alexander Nevsky. Surprisingly, the only good study of this contest of eastern and western armies has been in Friedrich Benninghoven's Der Orden der Schwertbrüder (1965), which concentrated on the political and organizational problems of the crusading force. English-language authors, with good reason, have shied away from the difficult medieval Russian and German texts, none of which allow more than partial insights into the complicated politics of the era: the Emperor feuding with the Pope, the Archbishop of Riga and the Bishop of Dorpat quarreling with the Order of Swordbrothers till the latter is practically destroyed by the Lithuanians at Saule in 1238, the surviving Swordbrothers resisting their forced incorporation into the Teutonic Knights, the King of Denmark demanding the return of Estonia, while the German knights in Estonia seeking out new lands to conquer; the native peoples of Livonia, having suffered terrible defeat at the hands of encroaching crusaders and devastating invasions by Russians and Lithuanians, are required to serve in the crusader armies; the Russians of Novgorod, eyes foremost on the Mongol threat to the southeast, look over their shoulder to see Swedes, Germans, and Lithuanians advancing on them.
Nicolle handles this complexity masterfully. But, more importantly, there is not page without a good map or illustration. Color illustrations on good, slick paper, personal photographs of the sites, well-chosen medieval pictures, birds' eye maps of the battlefield, and excellent modern paintings make for a visually attractive and informative publication..
Nicolle starts with the political situation and the commanders, moves to the opposing forces and plans, describes the campaign and the battle, and then analyzes the consequences. Quite properly, he concludes that the battle's reputation is greater than its significance. The importance of the confrontation of the two relatively small armies at the eastern bank of Lake Peipus was strictly local. Although the German crusaders were thrown back, then distracted by native revolts, this was a temporary setback; however, most future efforts at expansion were to the south, against peoples who still remained pagan, occasionally in alliance with Russian princes. Lord Novgorod the Great, as the northern Russian mercantile center termed itself, made no efforts to follow up the victory, but instead welcomed German and Scandinavian merchants to trade their grain and cloth for Russian furs and wax; Alexander Nevsky became a willing vassal of the Khan.
Footnotes are completely lacking, but quotes are attributed. This semi-scholarly approach is consistent with the wishes of the intended audience: wargamers. The final four pages are suggestions for wargaming the Battle of the Ice. For non-wargamers, that is not important. This is a fine book that stands on its own.
Nicolle makes no criticism of the armchair historian. Until recently, one could not wander around Lake Peipus, studying the terrain and taking pictures, as he did in March 1993. Clearly, he has done his on site research carefully, with some informative results. For example, the German warhorses breaking through the ice would probably have done so in the shallows near the beach where the battle was largely fought, while wind-driven ice packs gave protection to the Russian flanks. His theoretical studies lead him to conclude that Alexander's horse archers would have fought on the right flank, attacking the knights on their shield side, rather than the more vulnerable sword side; these, as the Russian chronicles suggest, were decisive in the battle, delivering a mortal blow to the western forces once they had become entangled in the larger Novgorodian infantry forces. All that is lacking is the enhanced CD of Prokoviev's score, which is available with a CD-ROM program (Alexander Nevsky) compatible for Macintosh and Windows computers BMG Classics (09026-68642-2).
Interesting, the only mention of Eisenstein's film is on the back cover's advertising blurb.