- James Houser
April 11, 1241 - Mongol invasion of Europe & Battle of Mohi
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
April 11, 1241. On the plains of Hungary, a vast swarm of men and horses appear, bent on a mission of global conquest. The King of Hungary, his nobles and his army stand ready to receive them but they have no idea what they are in for. The Mongol Empire has arrived in Medieval Europe, and there will be hell to pay.
In 1227, Genghiz Khan died, leaving the Mongol Empire in a state of flux. Perhaps the greatest military leader of all time and a master statesman to boot, he had conquered most of central Asia, northern China, and Iran, leaving an enormous and well-trained army along with a fabulously powerful and rich empire – and on one at its head. As was Mongol tradition, on the death of the familial patriarch, all the sons of the family returned home with their followers to their father’s homestead. There, they would pay homage to their fallen father – and figure out who was next in line.
This was not as easy as it might seem. Despite Genghiz’s…proclivities across much of Asia, he had also left behind several legitimate sons from his main wife Borte. Borte had been Genghiz’ childhood sweetheart, and during their adolescence he had rescued her from a brief captivity in the hands of another Mongol tribe. Some months later, she had given birth to a son – Jochi. Defying all Mongol custom and tradition, Genghiz had refuted all question of Jochi’s parentage and raised him as his own, but the lingering question of Jochi’s line remained.
Genghiz had several other sons of more certain parentage, mainly his next three children Chagatai, Ogedei, and Tolui. Chagatai always resented the eldest son Jochi, and the two had many bitter quarrels during their service in their father’s conquests. Genghiz could see the dispute coming a mile away, so he divided his lands between his four sons, with the agreement that one of them would become Supreme Khan over the others. Jochi received the farthest west portion of the lands, including the south of what is now Russia.
In 1222, at the meeting where this agreement would be formalized, Chagatai in a fit of pique raised the forbidden issue of Jochi’s legitimacy. Genghiz Khan was furious, but now that the issue was raised he could not quash it. Genghiz affirmed publicly that Jochi was without question his firstborn son, but now that the contention between the two brothers had come out into the open he could not trust either of them to keep the peace after he was gone. Genghiz selected his third son, the courteous and charismatic Ogedei, as his successor. Ogedei was a capable compromiser and diplomat. He was not a great general, but he knew where to find great generals, and could keep the Mongol Empire together after Genghiz was gone.
In 1229, the great “kurultai” – a political and military council of Mongol chiefs – was held at the Kherlen River in Mongolia, and all four of Genghiz’s sons attended. Jochi had died soon after his father, but Jochi’s son Batu attended to confirm his loyalty to Ogedei. Ogedei, now the Great Khan to replace Genghiz Khan, decided to continue his father’s policy of Mongol conquests across the world. First, though, China had to be dealt with.
By 1234, northern China was under Mongol control and the Great Khan’s eyes turned west. Controlling the Mongol war machine like a great octopus, extending his tentacles across the world, Ogedei directed his nephew Batu to assume control of his family lands to the west. His targets would first be the cities of medieval Russia, and then Europe – the rich land that the Mongols had heard about, fat and domesticated. Having subdued the great empires in China and Persia, the pitiful kingdoms of Europe would be no match for Mongol hordes.
To accomplish this task, Batu was given 130,000 Mongol soldiers. The Mongols were fierce horse archers, but the breadth of their conquests had given them wide expertise beyond simple nomad tactics. They now had professionally trained infantry, masterful siege engineers from China, and a communications system that allowed them to function as a medieval blitzkrieg.
To command these armies, Ogedei appointed Subutai, perhaps the greatest of Mongol generals. Subutai the Valiant, perhaps, or Subutai the Terrible to those in his path. Subutai had been Genghiz Khan’s top commander, and was a strategist of complexity and innovation not seen again until perhaps Napoleon. He routinely coordinated and synchronized armies of 100,000 men across hundreds of kilometers, his tactics in battle were decisive and fluid with use of firepower and maneuver, and was a master of siege warfare. Subutai was the evil genius par excellence, and was studied in later years by Erwin Rommel and George Patton.
Subutai’s strategies were used in full as the model for Soviet operations in World War II.
In 1237, Batu and Subutai overran Russia. They quickly devastated the principalities of Medieval Rus, taking the poorly fortified cities with exceptional energy. They destroyed and sacked Moscow and Kiev, along with the rest of the Russian towns that dared to resist. By 1240, the Mongols had thoroughly scoured Russia, leaving a trail of ruined cities and dead civilians behind them. They tried to capture all the Russian nobles, but a few escaped east into Europe, taking refuge at the court of King Bela IV of Hungary.
Batu threatened Bela to give up the refugees, sending a threatening message that “It is much easier for these men to escape than it is for you.” After nothing but negative responses (maybe Bela didn’t know who he was dealing with) Batu decided to invade Europe. He planned to reach what the Mongols called “the ultimate sea,” that is, the final limit of the Eurasian landmass – i.e., the Atlantic.
Subutai began to prepare for the great offensive. He sent spies as far into Europe as Germany and Italy to lay out the land for the attack. While Batu was technically in charge, Subutai actually planned and coordinated the campaign. They learned that King Bela was calling in his allies from Poland and Germany to help him confront the Mongols, and decided to strike and destroy their foes before they could join up together. The Mongols decided to invade central Europe in three groups. One army under a general named Baidar would ravage Poland and head off Bela’s reinforcements. The main army under Subutai and Batu would pass through the Carpathian Mountains and destroy the Hungarian force. The third would maintain contact between these two forces.
In 1241, Subutai started his medieval blitzkrieg. The Mongols struck out like a tidal wave into Eastern Europe, dividing off into their groups. As Baidar struck west towards Germany, Subutai and Batu turned south. King Bela was rallying his troops from all corners, including the Balkans, Austria, and northern Italy. He had set up multiple defensive lines, and believed he would have more time to gather troops before the Mongols arrived. He was wrong. Subutai crashed through the Verecke mountain pass in modern Ukraine, and his expert siege engineers destroyed the fortresses in the Carpathian Mountains that separate Ukraine from Hungary. The Mongols were HERE.
With the extreme rapidity of the Mongol approach, Bela had to fall back from his capital of Pest (the eastern half of modern Budapest) and watch his city be burned. By late March, the Mongols had destroyed multiple smaller Hungarian armies in the area, preventing them from reinforcing Bela, but all of a sudden began to retreat. Believing this meant weakness, the Hungarian King pursued. Bela had about 80,000 troops from all of medieval Europe, while Subutai faced him with only 30,000. They met on the field of Mohi, on April 11, 1241.
Bela expected his German reinforcements to arrive soon, but Subutai received word on the day of battle that on April 10, Baidar had met and annihilated the main German-Polish force at Legnica. His operational plan had worked: by keeping the enemy forces apart, the Mongols could divide and conquer, their favorite tactic. Now to beat the Hungarians.
The Mongols faced Bela across the Sajo River on April 11. Subutai fixed the Hungarian position on the main stone bridge between them, sending forces across to assault the European position. Bela concentrated his army across the bridge, laying down fire with his crossbowmen. First, Subutai brought up his stone-throwing siege engines to drive away the archers. In secret, though, he was building another bridge across the river to the south with his skilled Chinese engineers. Subutai led this force across the river in secret. When he attacked, the Hungarians panicked and retreated back to their camp.
The Hungarian camp was fortified: a circle of wagons much like a Wild West shootout. The Mongols surrounded their foe and put them under constant attack, but all of a sudden a gap appeared in the Mongol enclosure: a way out! Thousands of Hungarian troops poured through the gap trying to escape the encirclement, but it was one of Subutai’s favorite tricks. The gap went straight into a swamp, where Mongol archers picked them off at will.
Most of the Hungarian Army died at Mohi, and many Hungarian nobles died, including two archbishops. Hungary was open for the Mongol army to pillage and ravage, as was Poland. Subutai’s armies spread across the land, burning and destroying everything they encountered, killing and enslaving hundreds of thousands. It is estimated that 25% of Hungary’s population vanished in this brutal onslaught.
By 1242, the Mongols were masters of Eastern Europe, and Subutai was preparing plans to invade Germany and Italy. He wanted to depose this “wonder of the world” Frederick II, and this “Christ man” the Pope, as well as reach the wonderful cities of Rome, Aachen and Paris. His plans were suddenly disrupted when news came from Mongolia like a bolt from the blue: Ogedei Khan was dead. All the great Mongol lords had to return to Europe immediately to elect the new Khan. Batu had to put a pin in his plans for the conquest of Europe. Subutai, already aged and fading, would never return. Almost 70, he had fought his last great foreign campaign. More conquests awaited in China, but Subutai would never return to finish his glorious dream of conquering Europe.
Indeed, the Mongols never did come so far west again. Batu ended up in conflict with other members of his family over various Mongol territories and never launched another great campaign into the Western lands. The Mongol withdrawal in 1242 was the greatest stroke of luck the west ever had – they had escaped the great destruction of their civilization by a hair’s breadth. Ogedei Khan’s death saved medieval Europe from the apocalypse it so often dreamed of but never truly saw. There could have been no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no America.
History has rarely teetered so dangerously on the edge of a knife as it did after Legnica and Mohi in 1242.