General Subotai’s Mongols overran Europe in 1241—and taught the Red Army how to fight.
In 1221 a cavalry force of some 20,000 Mongols under Genghis Khan’s ablest general, Subotai, began a “reconnaissance” of the West. They swept through the Caucasus Mountains and destroyed a Georgian army over two major battles. Then, in the spring of 1223, Subotai’s armies reached Crimea and in a battle on the Kalka River defeated a Russian army, inflicting losses of 40,000 men, including six princes and 70 nobles. Subotai’s campaign represented history’s longest cavalry ride, covering 5,500 miles from Mongolia to Russia, during which he fought a dozen battles, often against superior numbers. Effective as it was, his army was nevertheless too small for out-and-out conquest. So the next time the Mongols headed west, in 1236, they did so in force.
The man who led these invasions, Subotai Bagatur (1175 –1248), or Subotai the Valiant, was one of history’s greatest generals, demonstrably the equal of Hannibal and Scipio in tactical brilliance and perhaps of Alexander and Caesar in strategy. He commanded armies whose size, scale and scope of operations surpassed most of those of the ancient world. Under his command, Mongol armies moved faster over longer distances than any armies had before. Without Subotai, there would have been no Mongol conquest of Korea, China, Persia and Russia. With his conquest of Hungary, he destroyed every European military force of consequence standing between the Mongols and Western Europe. Still almost unknown in the West for the strategist and tactical genius he was, Subotai inspired the modern military emphases on speed, maneuver, surprise, envelopment, deep battle and battles of annihilation.
On the eve of the 1236 Mongol invasion, Russia was a roadless country of isolated small, weak principalities in continuous turmoil from feudal wars and foreign invasions. The strategic key to conquering Russia was to defeat each principality quickly enough to prevent formation of a defensive coalition. Accordingly, Subotai first led the Mongol army northwest to break the power of the northern Russian princes. His columns stormed the principality of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow. In a matter of days, just before Christmas, Mongol horsemen entered the city and, characteristically, turned it into a slaughterhouse. The Mongols moved next to Kolomna, which suffered the same fate, and then on to Suzdal and Moscow.
Leaving Moscow in flames and with their mobility enhanced by now-frozen streams and rivers, the Mongols quickly covered the 100 miles to the important city of Vladimir. On Feb. 7, 1238, they attacked and burned the city. In response, Russian Grand Prince Yuri II assembled his armies on the Sita River to meet the Mongol threat, but hampered by deep snow, they could only wait and wonder where the Mongols were. At the end of February, the Russians sent out a reconnaissance force to locate the Mongols, only to discover they were surrounded by Subotai’s army, which now numbered some 200,000. On March 4, the Russian army fell quickly in the bloodstained snow, the grand prince himself killed and decapitated.
By April much of northern Russia lay in smoking ruins. In less than two months, 12 walled Russian cities had been destroyed, and Mongol advance units were only a hundred miles from Novgorod, then Russia’s wealthiest city. But Subotai, concerned about getting trapped by spring floods, ordered his army to pull back, and for the remainder of that year and the next, the Mongol army replenished itself on the steppe pastures of the Don River basin, preparing for its next campaign against Europe.
The Mongol advance resumed in late 1240, this time striking at the southern Russian principalities. By November, Mongol columns had reached the outskirts of Kiev, the center of the Orthodox faith and one of the great cities of Christianity, besieging it in early December. Despite its stone walls, Kiev fell quickly to Mongol bombardment and heavy cavalry. Subotai then put the city to the torch and massacred its people. The destruction was so great that a traveler passing by Kiev’s ruins six years later described just a few hundred huts on ground still littered with “countless skulls and bones of dead men.” The Mongol armies continued their advance against only token opposition and within three weeks reached the far Russian border. With resistance completely crushed, Subotai turned his attention to the West.
When Subotai began the next phase of his European campaign, in December 1240, his chosen target was the Hungarian twin-city capital of Buda and Pest on the Danube. As the Mongol army approached, Subotai anticipated that the army of Hungarian King Béla IV would emerge to do battle. If it did, Subotai would have an opportunity to destroy the last significant armed force between the Mongols and Central Europe. He divided his invasion force into four columns, each sent to cross the snow-filled passes of the Carpathian Mountains at different locations: Mongol general Baidar led the northernmost penetration; Batu Khan moved his troops through Galicia; Kuyuk’s columns swept through Moldavia and Transylvania to the south; and Subotai himself swept farthest south through the Mehedia Pass.
To protect against surprise attacks from the north, Subotai dispatched a force of 30,000 men under Kaidu, grandson of Ögedai Khan (the third son of Genghis Khan), to engage European forces in Poland, Bohemia and Silesia. In March 1241, Kaidu’s army crushed the army of Polish King Boleslav V, entered Cracow on Palm Sunday and put the abandoned city (its inhabitants had fled to nearby forests) to the torch. Kaidu then crossed the Oder River, two of his columns heading for Breslau while another swung west through Lithuania, East Prussia and along the Baltic coast of Pomerania, killing, burning and looting as they went. Kaidu’s army bypassed Breslau’s stout stone fortifications and swept into Silesia. Mongol reconnaissance units then reported the first signs of organized resistance.
Henry II the Pious, Duke of Silesia, assembled an army at Liegnitz to save Christian Europe from the Mongol horde, while King Wenceslas of Bohemia marched north with an army of 50,000 men to join Henry. Kaidu, determined to prevent the two armies from linking up, moved rapidly toward Liegnitz to engage Henry’s army before Wenceslas could arrive. Henry was unsure when reinforcements would arrive and was concerned that unless he moved his army to open ground, he would be trapped in his city. About April 9, 1241 (historians disagree on the exact date), the two armies met on a wide plain—die Wahlstadt, or “Chosen Place”—a few miles south of Liegnitz.
The Duke of Silesia divided his army into four combat contingents, or battles. These battles were irregular in size and composition and commanded by officers assigned on the basis of birth and nobility rather than proven competence, as in Mongol armies. The first European contingent consisted of Henry, chosen troops from the knights of Poland and Silesia and some mercenaries. The famed Teutonic knights comprised the second battle under the command of their Landmeister, Poppo von Osterna; in their hauberks, covered by white mantles with black crosses on the front, and full-face helmets, these knights were the elite force of the European army. The third contingent was a group of Polish knights drawn from lesser nobility, and the fourth battle, probably infantry, is described in the chronicles as “an army of gold-digging peasants from Silesia”—presumably miners. Facing the Europeans across the open plain was the army of Kaidu Khan.
Details are sketchy regarding specific troop movements, so only a general picture of events can be reconstructed. Early in the battle, one of Henry’s cavalry brigades engaged the Mongol center in the usual hand-to-hand mounted combat. Mongol light cavalry quickly encircled the brigade, subjecting it to murderous arrow fire. The brigade held its ground for a short time, but with no other contingents coming to its aid, it broke free of the Mongol encirclement and fell back. Henry then committed the main body of his cavalry to a reinforcing attack against the Mongol center. Sulislav and Meshko of Opole mounted this charge by the second and third divisions. In the ensuing melee, the Mongol cavalry fell back and broke into a headlong retreat. Thinking Kaidu’s center had given way, Henry and his contingent, along with the rest of the Silesian cavalry, gave chase, only to ride into a Mongol trap. The feigned retreat was a proven Mongol tactic designed to separate the enemy cavalry from its infantry and disperse their tightly packed formations.
Fresh Mongol light cavalry suddenly ambushed the Silesians’ extended and disordered ranks, decimating the knights with volleys of arrows. Behind Henry’s entrapped squadrons, Mongol firepots obscured the battlefield with black smoke, further confusing the trapped cavalry and screening it from the infantry. Mongol heavy cavalry then surrounded the knights and shot them down at close range, while the light cavalry darted in and out of the smoke, peppering the infantry with arrows. Mongol archers shot the Europeans’ horses from under them, making the dismounted knights easy prey for the heavy cavalry, who ran them down with lance and saber. One such dismounted group of Knights Templar made a determined stand, only to be killed to a man.
In the slaughter that followed, almost the entire European army perished. Duke Henry was decapitated, his headless and naked body found on the battlefield by his wife, who identified Henry by the six toes on his left foot. The Mongols tallied the body count by cutting off the right ear of every dead enemy soldier. Nine sacks of victims’ ears were toted from the battlefield in Mongol war wagons. The grand master of the Templars wrote to King Louis IX of France, noting that no army of consequence stood between the Mongols and France. Europe lay defenseless.
The Battle of Liegnitz, while a catastrophe for the Europeans, was just one step in Subotai’s planned con- quest of Europe. His main Mongol army had already forced the Carpathian passes and marched swiftly into Hungary. After Liegnitz, Kaidu turned his army south to link up with the four columns of Subotai’s armies, which had forced their way through the Carpathians, overcome Hungarian defenses at the passes and were poised to destroy the Hungarians deployed on the banks of the Sajó River.
Subotai’s southern columns raided the outlying districts of Buda and Pest to divert King Béla’s attention from the larger force marching on the two cities. Béla took the bait and sent a small force under the Palatine Héderváry to block the Mongols’ southern advance. They were easily brushed aside.
Béla called a war council in Buda, 200 miles behind the lines of battle, to discuss how to stop the Mongol advance. While the council was in session, Béla received word that the advance guard of the Mongol army had already reached the banks of the Danube just outside Pest. As Béla debated a course of action, the other Mongol columns arrived at their assembly points a few miles north of the city. The king believed that the swollen Danube and the city’s strong fortifications were sufficient to stop the Mongols until he could assemble his army. He did not think it strange that Subotai made no effort to ford the river or lay siege to the city. By the first few days of April, Béla had assembled an army of nearly 100,000 men and marched east to repel the Mongol invaders.
As Béla’s army advanced, the Mongols withdrew before it. This slow pursuit went on for nine days. On the morning of the 10th day, Subotai crossed the stone bridge over the Sajó River and encamped a few miles beyond it, leaving only a token force to guard the bridge. Subotai was tempting Béla to cross so the Mongols could back the Hungarian forces into the swift waters of the swollen river. Béla refused to take the bait and halted. Prior to assuming defensive positions, Béla drove the Mongol detachment from the bridge and established a small bridgehead on the east bank to protect against a Mongol counterattack. The main body of Béla’s army remained on the west bank and encamped for the night. On the opposite bank, the Mongol army gathered on a battlefield Subotai had chosen. The stage was set for the decisive battle of the Hungarian campaign.
Chroniclers of the Battle of the Sajó River record that Béla’s army was perhaps 100,000 strong. Comprising numerous contingents of armored knights, Béla’s army also included horse archers familiar with Mongol tactics. But news of the disaster at Liegnitz and rumors of the Mongol rape of the countryside had shattered the army’s morale. Furthermore, the Hungarian king was unpopular with his knights, many of whom thought him too great a friend of the church; two of Béla’s most able and trusted commanders, Hugolin of Kolocza and Matthias of Gran, were archbishops. Béla’s disposition of forces on the west bank also left much to be desired: Although the Sajó is fordable in a few places, Béla guarded only the stone bridge. His camp was dense and too close to the river, occupying a very narrow front. Batu is said to have pointed out Béla’s mistake to his generals. “They are crowded together,” Batu said, “like a herd of cattle in narrow stalls, with no room to move about.” The final flaw in Béla’s position was that he did not use his light cavalry or horse archers to conduct reconnaissance along the river, leaving his flanks exposed.
Just before daylight, Batu attacked the Hungarian bridgehead, subjecting its defenders to the 13th century equivalent of an artillery bombardment. The Mongols had brought up seven siege engines and hammered the bridgehead with firebombs and noisemakers. Their intent was to focus Hungarians’ attention on the point of attack. Stupefied by the bombardment, the defenders were quickly overrun by Mongol cavalry. Mongol artillery then targeted the far bank, and the cavalry crossed the bridge under cover of a rolling barrage. Although surprised by the attack, Hungarian commanders rallied their troops and engaged the force crossing the bridge, forcing the Mongols to give ground.
But suddenly, it became clear the Mongol assault of the stone bridge was just a diversion. In spring, the rivers of Hungary run swift in full flood, posing significant obstacles even for modern combat engineers. But the audacious Subotai had found a way to cross the Sajó. Some miles downstream from the bridge, a small peninsula ringed in swampland protruded into the river. Though it seemed unsuitable for a crossing of any sizeable force, Subotai had used the cover of night to move three full toumans, 30,000 men, across the river and along the narrow peninsula to the west bank. Once across, he assembled his force, turned north and mounted an attack while the main Hungarian force was concentrated opposite the bridge.
Subotai’s army rolled into the Hungarian army’s flank, nearly shattering it in a single blow. To their credit, the Hungarians did not panic but withdrew to their camp. The Mongols moved up their siege engines and for several hours bombarded the Hungarians with stones, arrows and burning naphtha. Batu increased the pressure on the bridge, and Subotai ordered two columns to encircle the Hungarian camp. The crafty old general deliberately left a gap between the arms of the pincer, and the Hungarians looked to it as a possible avenue to safety. At first only a few horsemen braved the gap, but soon a stream of soldiers was pouring through. The Mongols did nothing to stop them. As the Hungarian defense collapsed, more and more soldiers pressed into the gap. Discipline broke down, and many flung aside their weapons.
As the column of defeated, fleeing knights spread out, Subotai sprang his trap. Mounted on fresh horses, Mongol detachments suddenly appeared on both sides of the straggling column. Subotai had planned to catch the enemy on open ground, and his cavalry units did just that, hunting down the exhausted Hungarians and burning villages in which they took refuge. The butchery lasted for two days. When it was over, bodies littered the road to Pest “like stones in a quarry.” The Mongols slaughtered between 50,000 and 70,000 Hungarian soldiers. Emperor Frederick II wrote of the losses that day, “Fere extinguitur militia totius regni Hungariae” (“The entire army of Hungary has been destroyed”).
With that victory, the Mongols controlled all of Eastern Europe from the Dnieper to the Oder Rivers and from the Baltic Sea to the Danube. In four months they had overwhelmed armies totaling five times their own strength. Subotai then consolidated his hold on Hungary and ravaged the country from end to end. One estimate placed Hungary’s total losses at 50 percent of its population. As soon as the Danube froze, Subotai’s columns crossed the river and continued west. Mongol spearheads crossed the Julian Alps into northern Italy, and reconnaissance columns moved through the Danube valley and approached the walls of Vienna. The sovereigns of Europe, paralyzed with fear, waited helplessly for the arrival of the barbarians.
The Mongols were preparing to attack Vienna when a messenger arrived with the news that Ögedai Khan had died. Mongol law required all royal offspring to return to the capital in Karakorum to take part in the election of a new khan. Subotai’s army had three royal princes with it. The Mongol columns turned east and began the long march back to Mongolia. Their route took them through Dalmatia and Serbia and across northern Bulgaria. They laid waste to these lands before vanishing across the lower Danube, never to return to Europe. In Russia, the Mongols established their own state, the Golden Horde of Batu Khan, and ruled the country for nearly three centuries.
Subotai was 68 when he returned from the long campaign against Russia and Hungary. He died at age 73, but his tactical and strategic legacy lived on. The first modern military historian to write an analysis of Mongol tactics was Russian Lt. Gen. Mikhail I. Ivanin (1801–1874), who as a young officer in Central Asia fought against the Uzbeks, who practiced Mongol tactics in the same area under conditions similar to Genghis Khan’s Turkestan campaign. In 1846 Ivanin published The Art of War of the Mongols and the Central Asian People. The book became a standard text for students at the Imperial Military Academy and remained required reading in Soviet military schools up through World War II.
In 1924 Mikhail Frunze, the deputy people’s commissar for Military and Naval Affairs, introduced the concept of “deep battle,” which mandates widespread seizure of the offensive by conducting long-range attacks against enemy troop concentrations, road junctions, communications, cities and supply depots, thus paralyzing his ability to concentrate in force and forcing him to react rather than act. This is, of course, the Mongol strategic theory of war. The Russian emphasis on surprise, maneuver over long distances, maintaining the offensive and striking the enemy in depth at multiple points has its origins in the Mongol experience, as does the Russian reliance on mobility, maneuver, encirclement and annihilation of the enemy wherever he can be brought to battle.
Frunze’s colleague Mikhail Tukhachevsky, chief of staff of the Red Army from 1925 until 1937, gave the Mongol method of war further expression in Soviet operational doctrine and equipment. Tukhachevsky modernized the Soviet army, with emphasis upon speed, mobility and offensive operations across great distances. It was Tukhachevsky who initiated the Soviet doctrinal emphasis on tanks, mirroring the role played by Mongol horsemen, and who emphasized preparatory fire against enemy formations, adapting the Mongol practice of using light cavalry archers to soften up tight formations of European and Chinese knights before shattering them with the shock of a heavy cavalry charge.
By 1937 the Russians had—in a doctrinal and tactical sense—essentially reinvented the Mongol army with modern equipment. The Red Army was the largest and most mechanized army in the world, and its commanders were better trained in the operational control of large units over great distances than those of any officer corps in the West. Frunze and Tukhachevsky, both students of Ivanin’s analysis of the Mongol campaigns, had reconfigured the Russian army in the image of the armies of Genghis Khan and Subotai.
For further reading, Richard A. Gabriel suggests his book Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.