The Middle Ages’ greatest war machine rolls westward out of Asia, as Eastern Europe faces the onslaught of the Mongol horde!

Genghis (or “Chinghis”) Khan was undoubtedly one of history’s greatest conquerors. After uniting the nomadic tribes north of the Great Wall, forging the “Mongol” nation, he created the most mobile army the world has ever seen. To this day, no armies have traveled further and faster (on average) than the Mongols. While the conquests of other nations are measured in miles, those of Genghis Khan and his successors must be calculated by lines of longitude and latitude; spanning the whole of Eurasia.

Though Genghis Khan died in 1227, the juggernaut he created rolled on under his sons and grandsons. In 1230, the Mongol general Chormaqan Noyan invaded Persia. Within a couple of short years, he had smashed all opposition. Operating out of Tabriz in Azerbaijan, he reduced Georgia and Armenia to client-status.

Mongol army on the marchThis control of the Caucuses region opened communications with another Mongol army, 130,000 strong, under the Mongol generalissimo, Subutai “the Invincible” and Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. This force of swift-moving horsemen was tasked with conquering Russia; a prelude to the conquest of eastern Europe. Eighteen years earlier, Subutai had conducted a “reconnaissance in force” into southern Russia; culminating in the defeat of the Russian princes at the Battle of the Kalka River.

In 1236 this Mongol army crossed the Volga River, and within a year had crushed the Volga Bulgars; and subdued (and incorporated) the Kipchak and Alani tribes north of the Caucasus, taking their forces into the Mongol army. Between 1237 and 1238, the Mongoltumans (divisions of 10,000 men) conquered the principalities of southern Russia. Of the great towns and cities only Smolensk,  Novgorod and Pskov survived sack and slaughter; the former because it submitted to the Mongols and agreed to pay tribute, the latter two because they were two far north, protected by forest and swamp. The nomadic Cumans of the Ukraine (part of the now-destroyed Kipchak Confederation) fled before the Mongol terror; finding refuge across the Carpathian Alps, in the Kingdom of Hungary.

Mongols storm Russian cityThe Mongols made great use of siege engines such as the trebuchet pictured here. These could be assembled and disassembled as needed, carried on pack animals while on march. As depicted below, they were powered by a team of men pulling ropes.

Russia subdued, the Mongols prepared in 1240-41 for their next thrust westward; this time following the Cumans into Hungary. Subutai planned a winter campaign: the Mongols preferred to invade in the dead of winter, when militia armies had disbanded back to their farms and villages; and the great rivers were frozen hard, presenting no barrier. The plains of Hungary were the main target; a place where, once subdued, the Mongols could pasture their vast pony herds. To cover their northern flank during the Hungarian operation, and prevent the Poles from coming to Hungary’s aid, Subutai and Batu sent a force of two tumans through Poland….

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  1. ritaroberts says:

    Great Post, you make these battles sound so exciting although, I don’t expect they were to the armies fighting in them. The Mongols were a formidable force to be reckoned with.

  2. Khannot says:

    Great post. Well-researched and dramatically written. However, it’s slightly inaccurate to say that the Mongols packed their siege equipment on horses. In fact, they usually had their engineers build the engines on site using materials available on site.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      First, thank you for the compliments; and I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.
      As for your main point, that’s not my understanding. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a force that moved so rapidly, and which was able to take strong places quickly (they took the castles/fortresses guarding the Carpathian passes in less than 30 day) relied on local materials to build engines on site. The cutting, shaping and fitting of timber takes time; and in some areas in which the Mongols operated (the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia, for instance) timber was in short supply.
      But if you have sources that contradict my understanding, please forward them to me.
      Thank you again, and I welcome your comments.


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