There is the song from Skyforger album “Kauja pie Saules” (1998) called “Kauja Garozas silā/Battle at Garoza forest“. This battle occurred in 1287, in the nowadays Latvia territory, in Zemgale/Semigallia.
Not long ago (March of 2012) there was a special remembrance event held in Joniškis (Lithuania), so I decided to write about this battle.
Situation before the battle
The things were looking really bad for Semigallian pagans at that time – all surrounding tribes (Kurshi, Latgallians, Livs and Estonians) except Lithuanians, were already converted and subdued by invaded Crusaders. Their local built Livonian military Order and bishopric of Riga now finally had time and resources to attend all their attention on Zemgale and its still free pagan people.
After a few tries crusaders conquered Tērvete – the main stronghold and centre of Semigallians. That way they occupied some part of Zemgale and started to build own castles in strategically important places.
A note about Tērvete: actually inhabitants of Tērvete castle, when they saw that there is no hope to drive off attackers who built the stone castle on across the hill, they burned down Tērvete and went away to other castles like Rakte.
At that time the greatest Semigallian warchief Nameiks (Nameisis) already has left to Lithuania in a hope from there to fight back Livonian and Teutonic Orders, in union with Lithuanians.
Nonetheless Semigallians, who still stayed at their homeland, held their heads high and had great fighting spirit!
In the beginning of 1287 they dared to attack the heart of Crusader invasion in Livonia (nowadays Latvia and Estonia territory) – main city Riga. While they didn’t besiege or capture the actual city, they did a great damage in suburbs with surprising night attack.
Soon after, in March, they did the same at gates of another city Ikšķile (Üxküll) – burned down suburbs and killed local christians.
While Livonian Order had great respect and fear from Semigallian warriors (they even were afraid to fight back them at Riga’s walls), now they took it as great offense and prepared for counterattack.
At that time when Semigallians attacked Ikšķile city, the ceremonial Chapter was about to happen in Riga, dedicated to freshly arrived ambassador from Great Master of Teutonic Order – Volmar von Bernhausen and his new recruited knights. All local highest military ranks were presented there.
When they got news about Semigallian attack, Willekin von Endorf (Wilhelmus von Surborch), the Master of Livonian Order, saw it as an opportunity to show his high guest how he handles things here and how good his men are on battlefield.
He had very strong forces at his hands, where from 450 Order soldiers 40 were heavy armed knights – this was highest percentage in all times of heavy knights Livonian Order has gathered in a single battle. Also they took unknown numbers of locals and Riga forces with them.
Master Willekin and ambassador Volmar himself joined campaign as well!
I need to add here, that at those times it was common to Livonian Order ‘s army to have light infantry and local militia people as main forces and only few heavy knights were on the battlefield. Of course those knights were highest ranks in Order, though their numbers were thin.
Semigallians, after looting Ikšķile, were on their way back home and made a night camp in some forest. Order forces intensely pursued them and made their night camp not far from Semigallians, by the bank of river.
In the next morning (26th March) Semigallian scouts reported their leader about close enemy. Semigallians sent all their loot off to home, unsaddled horses and marched against Willekin’s army. Soon Order scouts also reported of approaching enemy.
German chronicles calls the place where the battle occurred – “Grose”, only local place which can be identified with that name is Garoza/Garoze – village with same name still exists in Latvia.
In the beginning of battle Semigallians attacked ambassador Volmar and his men. Volmar was the only knight that day that fought on horseback. Semigallians performed a retreat maneuver and when encouraged Volmar went for second attack, he was first who have been killed. Many of his men fell along with him.
When Semigallians saw that most of crusaders were fighting on feet, they ordered small group to sneak around and steal their horses which were left on pasture.
Semigallian warchief then sent the rest of his troops to encircle crusaders to attack from all sides.
Livonian Order army was always good at defending/besieging castles, but many times they were weak and defeated by pagans on open fields. They had bad field organization, poor maneuvering and heavy knights always fought individually. Pagans got used to tactic, when they first kill the horse and then finish off the fallen knight.
Anyway battle was fierce, but devastating for Order. In the end Semigallians killed Master Willekin, ambassador Volmar and 33 heavy knights – 6 knights were wounded and captured. Unknown numbers of light infantry and local militiamen were killed or captured and only a few escaped back home alive.
Great loses were also in ranks of Semigallians – even their unknown leader fell that day.
After the battle Semigallians sacrificed one knight to pagan gods – they burned him alive. Another one were executed on place and the rest 4 were taken to Zemgale as prisoners (later they were freed).
This was the great victory for Semigallian pagan people in times when they were almost overtaken by crusaders and their Livonian Order. For Order itself it was a catastrophe. Great Mater was called to arrive in Riga; reinforcements were needed as soon as possible to keep Order alive.
Well, unfortunately the future for victorious Semigallians was dark…