Battle of Legnica

A Mongol army with 60,000 cavalrymen left Mongolia in 1236 and pushed westward under the leadership of Ogodei's nephew Batu, and defeated powerful European forces in Russia (1238) and Hungary (1241).The European expedition was to be a major Mongol effort, comparable in scope to the war against China. It was to become a catastrophe of monumental proportions for medieval East Europeans, who were confronted with devastating wars and serious social disruption. Nominal command was to be exercised by Batu, because this was the part of the world he had inherited from Genghis. The actual commander was the aging, but still brilliant, Subetei. He was probably the most gifted of all Mongol generals, after Genghis himself, and he had been one of the commanders of the momentous reconnaissance that had swept through southern Russia fifteen years earlier. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

"It wasn't a conscious decision to invade Europe," historian Morris Rossabi told National Geographic. "They didn't know exactly where they were heading." The Europeans knew virtually nothing about the Mongols until they arrived. Describing Central Asia, a 14th century European palace envoy to India wrote: “No such people do exist as nations, though there may be an individual monster here and there."

Europeans initially were more worried about the Muslims than they were about the Mongols. In the 13th century, when the Mongols were expanding their empire by leaps and bounds, Christian Europe launched five Crusades into the Holy Land. But as word of the Mongol exploits spread concern levels rose.

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, (1194-1250), who led the successful Sixth Crusade (1228-29) which captured Jerusalem, was worried the Mongols and Tartars would take over western Europe. Henry VIII of England was contacted for help and Pope Gregory IX proclaimed a new crusade, this time against the Mongols not the Muslims, but the crusade it never amounted to anything because of bad blood between the Pope and Frederick II, who was excommunicated twice.

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe:
Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives ; “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Mongols Advance Towards Europe

Ogodei Khan

Morris Rossabi wrote in Natural History: “Mobility and surprise characterized the military expeditions led by Genghis Khan and his commanders, and the horse was crucial for such tactics and strategy. Horses could, without exaggeration, be referred to as the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the thirteenth century. [Source: “All the Khan’s Horses” by Morris Rossabi, Natural History, October 1994 =|=]

“After his relatively easy conquest of Central Asia from 1219 to 1220, Genghis Khan had dispatched about 30,000 troops led by Jebe and Subedei, two of his ablest commanders, to conduct an exploratory foray to the west. After several skirmishes in Persia the advance forces reached southern Russia. In an initial engagement, the Mongols, appearing to retreat, lured a much larger detachment of Georgian cavalry on a chase. When the Mongols sensed that the Georgian horses were exhausted, they headed to where they kept reserve horses, quickly switched to them, and charged at the bedraggled, spread-out Georgians. Archers, who had been hiding with the reserve horses, backed up the cavalry—with a barrage of arrows as they routed the Georgians. =|=

“Continuing their exploration, the Mongol detachment crossed the Caucasus Mountains, a daunting expedition during which many men and horses perished. They wound up just north of the Black Sea on the southern Russian steppes, which offered rich pasturelands for their horses. After a brief respite, they first attacked Astrakhan to the east and then raided sites along the Dniester and Dnieper Rivers, inciting Russian retaliation in May of 1223 under Mstislav the Daring, who had a force of 80,000 men. Jebe and Subedei commanded no more than 20,000 troops and were outnumbered by a ratio of four to one. =|=

Feigned Withdrawal During Battle of Kalka River in Russia

Morris Rossabi wrote in Natural History: “The battle of the Kalka River, now renamed the Kalmyus River, in southern Russia is a good example of the kind of campaign Genghis Khan waged to gain territory and of the key role of horses. Knowing that an immediate, direct clash could be disastrous, the Mongols again used their tactic of feigned withdrawal. They retreated for more than a week, because they wanted to be certain that the opposing army continued to pursue them but was spaced out over a considerable distance. [Source: “All the Khan’s Horses” by Morris Rossabi, Natural History, October 1994 =|=]

“At the Kalka River, the Mongols finally took a stand, swerving around and positioning themselves in battle formation, with archers mounted on horses in the front. The Mongols’ retreat seems to have lulled the Russians into believing that the invaders from the East were in disarray. Without waiting for the remainder of his army to catch up and without devising a unified attack, Mstislav the Daring ordered the advance troops to charge immediately. This decision proved to be calamitous. Mongol archers on their well-trained steeds crisscrossed the Russian route of attack, shooting their arrows with great precision. The Russian line of troops was disrupted, and the soldiers scattered. =|=

“After their attack, the archers turned the battlefield over to the Mongol heavy cavalry, which pummeled the already battered, disunited, and scattered Russians. Wearing an iron helmet, a shirt of raw silk, a coat of mail, and a cuirass, each Mongol in the heavy cavalry carried with him two bows, a dagger, a battle-ax, a twelve-foot lance, and a lasso as his principal weapons. Using lances, the detachment of heavy cavalry rapidly attacked and overwhelmed the Russian vanguard which had been cut off from the rest of their forces in the very beginning of the battle. =|=

“Rejoined by the mounted archers, the combined Mongol force mowed down the straggling remnants of the Russian forces. Without an escape route, most were killed, and the rest, including Mstislav the Daring, were captured. Rather than shed the blood of rival princes — one of Genghis Khan’s commands — Jebe and Subedei ordered the unfortunate commander and two other princes stretched out under boards and slowly suffocated as Mongols stood or sat upon the boards during the victory banquet. =|=

Battle of Kalka River

“The battle at the Kalka River resembled, with some slight deviations, the general plan of most of Genghis Khan’s campaigns. In less than two decades Genghis Khan had, with the support of powerful cavalry, laid the foundations for an empire that was to control and govern much of Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He died on a campaign in Central Asia, and his underlings decided to return his corpse to his native land. Any unfortunate individual who happened to encounter the funeral cortege was immediately killed because the Mongols wished to conceal the precise location of the burial site. At least forty horses were reputedly sacrificed at Genghis Khan’s tomb; his trusted steeds would be as important to him in the afterlife as they had been during his lifetime. “ =|=

Mongols Move Into Eastern Europe

The main objective of the European campaign was to conquer Hungary and destroy the Hungarian army. But to move on Hungary meant exposing the flanks of the Mongol forces to large armies in Poland and Transylvania. To achieve the object the Mongols employed the tactic of advancing on a broad front.

The Bulghars were defeated in 1236, and in December 1237 Subetei and Batu led an army of 600,000 across the frozen Volga River. The Mongols spread destruction and death through Russia. Moscow, Vladimir, and other northern Russian principalities were destroyed before summer 1238. Subetei then turned south to the steppe region around the Don, to allow his army to rest, to regain strength, and to prepare for new advances. Apparently his timetable was delayed for a year by a dispute between Batu and other royal princes commanding various hordes. Nonetheless, this additional time gave Subetei an opportunity to accumulate still further information about central and western Europe from his spies. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

After conquering Kiev and Chernigove in the Ukraine the Mongols took a year off to make new weapons, fatten up their horses and recruit new soldiers from the Turkic tribes on the western Asian steppe. As this was happening word was spreading throughout Europe of “Devil’s Horsemen” and a “Storm from the East” from “beyond the borders of civilization” bringing the first phase of the end of the world.

In Poland, the Mongols came against large forces garrisoned in Kraków and Legnica. Some 30,000 Mongol cavalrymen rode into Poland, where one vanguard feigned a retreat outside Kraków and slaughtered the Polish troops that came after them in pursuit. The defenseless city of Krakow was burned and pillaged on Palm Sunday.

Mongol Conquests in Eastern Europe

Henry II's head on a stick after the Battle of Legnica in Poland

In November 1240, after the rivers and marshes of what, in modern times, is the Ukraine had frozen enough to take the weight of cavalry, the Mongol army crossed the Dnieper River. On December 6, it conquered Kiev, the seat of the grand prince and the Metropolitan See of Rus'. Subetei continued westward, his army advancing, typically, on a broad front in three major columns.

To the north was the horde of Kaidu Khan, three tumen strong, protecting the right flank of the main body. Kaidu swept through Lithuania and Poland; on March 18 he destroyed the Polish army at Cracow. He detached a tumen to raid along the Baltic coast and with the remainder headed westward into Silesia. *

In February 1241, Batu spread his forces out along a 1,000 kilometer front that swept up everything that lay before it. When the main force of the Mongol army reached the Danube it halted and waited. After spies and scouts had located the armies on their flanks, the Mongols retreated on April 6, 1241. The next day the Hungarian army took off in pursuit.

On April 9, 1241, at Liegnitz (Legnica, in Poland), the more disciplined Mongol army decisively defeated a numerically superior combined European army in a bitterly contested battle. At the battle of Liegnitz, the Mongols annihilated an army of 30,000 Poles and Germans. On April 10, 800 kilometers away the Transylvanian army was defeated at Hermannstadt. On April 11, the Mongols turned and routed the pursuing Hungarians.

Even the Teutonic knights were no match for the Mongol cavalry. A detachment of Teutonic knights, led by Duke Henry fell victim to a trap in which knights in heavy chain-mail armor pursued a groups of Mongols past a smoke screen and were slaughtered by quick-moving Mongol cavalrymen wielding maces and lances.

In Hungary, at the Battle of Mohi, the Mongols faced 100,000 troops commanded by King Béla. Mongol scouts and spies in Hungary reported that the walls of Buda and Pest were too formidable for a siege and that an open field battle would score an easier victory. Again Mongol soldiers retreated. The pursuing Hungarians met the Mongols 135 miles northeast of cities on the Mohi (Muhi) plain.

Mongols in Hungary

Meanwhile, a horde of three tumen under Kadan, another son of Ogedei, protected the southern flank and advanced through Transylvania, into the Danube Valley, and into Hungary. In mid-April Kadan and Kaidu joined the main body--under Batu--in central Hungary. Batu led the central force across the Carpathian Mountains in early April 1241, lured the army of King Bela IV of Hungary into battle at the Sajo River on April 11, and annihilated it. The Mongols then seized Pest, and they spent the rest of the year consolidating their control of Hungary east of the Danube River. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Mongols in Hungary

At one point the Hungarians had the upper hand in the fight but broke their ranks and were defeated when a wing of Mongol cavalry led by Batu got behind them and surrounded them. Then, the battle became like a Mongol hunting party in which animals were encircled and slaughtered as the surrounding circle grew smaller and smaller and the hunters picked off their prey. Those that fled were chased for 48 kilometers. Bela escaped but 60,000 members of his army were killed. On the road from the Danube “corpses were strew :like stones in a quarry.” The Mongols went on to sack Buda and Pest.

Describing the defeat of the Hungarians, Persian chronicler Rashid Ad-Din wrote: "The Mongols, like a brave lion falling upon its prey, pursued them, smiting and slaying." In the battle the Mongol pioneered the “rolling barrage” tactic in which a force advanced over a bridge while explosives were launched over their heads by forces behind them to keep enemy forces on other side of the bridge from firing on the Mongol force crossing the bridge. The Mongols, according to Rashid Ad-Din used smoke bombs and explosives to push back the Hungarians “to the accompaniment of thunderous noise and flashes of fire.”

There is memorial in the Hungarian town of Mohi, where 60,000 were slaughtered by the Mongols in 1241. At the fortress-like monastery in Pannonhalma (110 miles west of Budapest), monks protecting their holy relics fought off Mongols attackers by hurling missiles at their Mongol attackers. Surprised by the resistance, the Mongols withdrew.

Ogodei's Death End and the Mongol Invasion of Europe

In 1240, the Mongols sent reconnaissance to Vienna and Venice. The Mongols then drove into Austria and were positioned not far from Vienna. Only news of Ogodie's death that reaches the invading force in December, 1241 kept the Mongols from storming the gates of Vienna. According to Mongol custom, all the sons of a dead leader needed to return to Mongolia to choose a new leader.

Battle of Mohi in Hungary

Late in 1241, the Mongols were ready to move again. In December the army crossed the frozen Danube. Scouting parties raided into northern Italy toward Venice and Treviso, and up the Danube toward Vienna. But suddenly the advance halted. Word had come, by way of the incredibly swift Mongol messenger service, that Ogedei had died on December 11. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The yasaq explicitly provided that after the death of the ruler all offspring of the house of Genghis Khan, wherever they might be, must return to Mongolia to take part in the election of the new khan. From the outskirts of Vienna and Venice, the tumen countermarched, never to reappear. They moved through Dalmatia and Serbia, then eastward where they virtually destroyed the kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria before crossing the lower Danube. They evacuated Hungary for lack of sufficient pasture and moved into the south Russian steppe. Advances into India also ceased.*

Ogedie's death was fortunate for Europe. At the time of Batu's offensive into east Europe, western Europe was divided by rivalries between the Pope and Frederick II. The conflict stymied efforts to mount a unified response to the Mongol invasion.

Historians believe the Mongols could have penetrated much deeper into Europe had their advance continued. Batu retired to southern Russia where he established his own capital of Sarai on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea. .

Contact Between the Mongols and Europe

The first known European to travel from Europe to China on the Silk Road Asia was John of Pian de Carpine (1180?-1252), a Franciscan friar and former companion of Saint Francis of Assisi, who was dispatched by Pope Innocent IV in 1245 to go to Mongolia to on mission of setting up diplomatic ties with the Mongols and converting the Great Guyuk Khan to Christianity. Carpine traveled to Asia 28 years before Marco Polo. Their mission at the time was comparable to sending a man to the moon and bringing them back alive.

Friar John attended Guyuk’s enthronement were granted an audience with the Great Khan. They delivered the message from the Pope in which he expressed his wish for Christians and Mongols to be friends but insisted that the Mongols must embrace Christianity and repent for murdering of Christians in Hungary and Poland. The Great Khan was not moved. His reply delivered in a note carry back to Europe by the friars read: "Come, Great Pope...and pay homage to us."

Friar William of Rubruck was an emissary sent by the king of France to deliver a message to the Great Khan Monke and help win the release of a group of German Catholics who had been kidnapped by the Mongols. He went first to Sarai, the court of Batu, before crossing the Altai to reach Karakoram. He debated religion with the Mongols and met a French jeweler and an Englishman named Basil. During his meeting with the Khan, the Khan was so drunk he could barely speak. Some think Rubruck returned to Europe with secret for gunpowder.

Route of William of Rudruck, See articles under Silk Road Explorers for more on him

In 1253 Monke told Rubruck, "We Mongols believe that there is only one God, by whom we live and by whom we die, and for whom we have an upright heart...But as God gives us the different fingers of the hand, so he gives to men diverse ways. God give you the Scriptures and Christians keep them not. You do not find...that one should find fault with another, do you?...God diviners, we do what they tell us, and we live in peace."

Journey of Friar John of Pian de Carpine

Friar John and his Polish companion, Friar Benedict, He went first to the ruins of Kiev and then the Mongol summer camp at Sira Ordu, covering the final 3,000 miles to Karakorum in 106 days.

The most difficult part of the journey for the friar and his Polish companion, Friar Benedict, came in the Altai mountains where, he wrote: "I was ill to the point of death; but I had myself carried along in a cart in the intense cold through the deep snow, so as not to interfere with the affairs of Christendom."

They also had a hard time in the Gobi Desert. The Mongols, he wrote, "told us that if we took into Mongolia the horses which we had, they would all die, for the snows were deep, and they did not know how to dig out the grass from under the snow like Mongol horses, nor could anything else be found (on the way) for them to eat, for the Tartars had neither straw nor hay nor fodder. So, on their advise, we decided to leave our horses there."

When the two Friars arrived in Karakoram, two thousand Mongol chiefs had arrived to enthrone their new emperor, Guyuk Khan. Friar John wrote: "They asked us if we wished to make any presents; but we had already used up nearly everything we ha;, so we had nothing to give them at all.

Marco Polo's Route, See articles under Silk Road Explorers for more on him

Given up for dead, John made it back to Europe two and half years after beginning their journey. Other friars followed in their footsteps in the following years but they too had little success in converting the Great Khan to Christianity. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Rabban Sauma

Between 1275 and 1288, around the same time Marco Polo made his journey, a Mongol Christian monk named Rabban Sauma traveled west from China to Europe. Described as a reverse March Polo, he originally intended to stop at Jerusalem but continued on to Constantinople and then Rome. He met the Philip the Fair, the king of France, and Edward I, the king of England.

Sauma trekked more than 7,000 miles on the Silk Road. He wrote diaries of his adventurers that have survived. His life and adventures ate describe don the book "Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West" by Morris Rossabi, a professor at the City University of New York.

Born in Beijing, Sauma was a cleric in the Nestorian Church. His goal was seek help form Europe to drive the Muslims out of areas where Nestorians lived. Samua wrote that crossing the Taklamakan Desert was “a toilsome and fatiguing journey that took two months. It took him four years to reach the Middle East, where he lingered for a while and another three year to reach Rome from Jerusalem. He said Italy “resembled a paradise; its winter was not cold; and its summer not hot.” In the end he was unable to win support for his cause and headed back east and died in Baghdad in 1294.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic: Genghis Khan: December, 1996; After Genghis Khan: February 1997; National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin; "History of Arab People" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991) and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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