The Middle Ages’ greatest war machine rolls westward out of Asia, as the knights of Europe face 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 and forging the “Mongol” nation, he created the most mobile army the world has ever seen. To this day no comparable force has 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 horde on the march

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, absorbing their horsemen into the Mongol army. Between 1237 and 1238 the Mongol tumans (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 too 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, and found temporary refuge across the Carpathian Alps in the Kingdom of Hungary.



 The Mongols made great use of siege engines such as the trebuchet pictured here. These could be assembled and disassembled as needed, and carried on pack animals while on march. As depicted below, they were powered by a team of men pulling ropes. Above: Mongols lay siege to Russian city. Russian towns with wooden walls were particularly vulnerable to bombardment by Mongol fire arrows and artillery-launched incendiary devices. 


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. This force was led by the imperial Mongol princes Kadan, Baidar, and Orda, all grandsons of Genghis Khan. (Because of the participation of so many young Mongol princes, the “new generation” of Mongol leadership, this European campaign came to be known in Mongol history as “the elder boys campaign”.)


The Mongol invasion of eastern Europe, 1237- 1242

Poland at this time was a land divided into territorial duchies. The most powerful of these Dukes was Henry “the Pious” of Silesia. His family, the Piast, would found a royal dynasty in the next century. But at the time of the Mongol invasion, each ducal army defended its own interests, and were always slow to unite against outside attackers. This division gave the relatively small Mongol force invading Poland the opportunity to defeat each ducal army “in detail“, destroying them one at a time before they could unite.

In February 1241, the Mongols launched the Polish campaign; advancing from recently-conquered Volodymyr-Volynskyi in northwestern Ukraine. By mid-February, they had sacked Lublin and Sandomierz. Splitting their forces, Orda’s forces devastated central Poland, before turning south towards Wroclaw. Baidar and Kadan ravaged the southern part of Poland, moving toward Chmielnik and Kraków.

On February 13 Kadan and Baidar’s force defeated a Polish army under Wlodzimierz, voivode of Kraków, in the Battle of Tursko. On 18 March they defeated another Polish army at Chmielnik. These defeats spread panic through the Polish lands, and the Mongols were able to seize Kraków when its defenders fled. The city was sacked and burned on March 24th.

Meanwhile, Duke Henry the Pious gathered his forces around Legnica (Liegnitz in German). Henry was also awaiting the arrival of a powerful ally, his brother-in-law King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia, who was marching to join him with a large army.

The Mongols detachments united at Wroclaw (Breslau), which they put under siege. The town was taken and burned, though the castle, defended by Duke Henry’s garrison, held out against Mongol assault.

However, when the Mongols learned of Henry’s build-up at Legnica, and the imminent arrival of the Bohemian reinforcements (the Mongols took great care to gather intelligence and establish effective spy nets within target countries), they decided to break off the siege and ride on Legnica and bring Henry to battle before his brother-in-law could join him. On April 9, 1241 the Mongols met Duke Henry’s forces at Legnica. It would be the climatic engagement of their Polish campaign.


Henry’s forces are estimated as high as 25,000 and as low as 2,000. Along with his own Polish forces Henry’s army included small contingents of French Knights Templars (500?) and Hospitallers as well as a force of the German crusading order, the Teutonic Knights, who held lands in northern Poland.

The Mongols created confusion and covered their movements during the battle with a smoke screen, produced by burning reeds. Their light cavalry horse archers (armed withthe powerful Mongol  composite bow) poured arrows into the Polish ranks, goading their never-patient knights into charging them. Feigning flight, the nimble Mongol horsemen drew the Polish cavalry far from its supporting infantry. The Mongols then turned, surrounded the pursuing knights as their heavy destriers tired. Raining arrows down on the knights and their retainers, they killed many of their horse, which, unlike the riders were not protected by armor. The now dismounted the Poles were  charged, in turn, by Mongol heavy cavalry, and most were slain.

Duke Henry, severely wounded in the armpit by an arrow, with just four retainers left to defend his person, was surrounded. His guards were cut down, and the Duke was pulled from his horse and decapitated.

The Mongols next advanced against the Polish infantry; which, comprised of feudal levies (and perhaps a detachment of sergeants of the Holy Orders), quickly broke after a brief resistance.

Duke Henry’s head was displayed on Mongol lance as the invaders advanced, ravaging the countryside. Hearing of his brother-in-laws death and defeat, the Bohemian king withdrew back into his own lands. Within days of Duke Henry’s defeat at Legnica, Subutai and Batu Khan engaged and defeated the main Hungarian army at Mohi.


The Mongols spent the summer subduing Hungary; and wintered there, planning the invasion of Italy in the spring. Fortunately for Europe and the future of Western Civilization, the unexpected death of the Great Khan Ögedei (third son of Genghis Khan) in December of 1241 stopped the Mongol advance; as the royal princes and their army had to return to Mongolia to attend the election of his predecessor. Though the Mongols withdrew from Poland and Hungary, Batu would establish a new Khanate in Russia, centered north of the Caspian and Black Seas: the Golden Horde . It would be many centuries before Russia would free itself from the “Mongol yoke”.

What made the Mongols so devastatingly effective?

Several factors.

First, they were a professional, highly organized  “modern” army at at time in history when most armies in the world were comprised of militia and commanded by royal amateurs. They were divided into tumans (or toumans) of 10,000 riders, then further subdivided utilizing the decimal system all the way down to squads of 10 men. Though famous for their light cavalry horse archers, as much as 40% of a Mongol army might be heavy cavalry lancers; giving the Mongols a balance of shock-and-missile troops.

These combat formations were supported by a corps of engineers and a medical corps,  recruited from the more educated and urbane subjects of the empire (particularly the Chinese and Persians). The whole was commanded by a general staff provided by the royal family of the Khans, and their trusted lieutenants. Under Genghis Khan and his immediate successors the veteran Mongol army and its officers were as accomplished at making war as any army in history. Genghis Khan himself and his chief subordinate, Subutai, must be ranked among history’s greatest captains of war. They trained their successors well, and the Mongol armies continued the traditions of professionalism and excellence into the next century.


Modern Mongol reenactors

As already mentioned, the second factor contributing to Mongol success was their unparalleled mobility. An all-cavalry army, they were not slowed by infantry or a cumbersome train of baggage carts. Even their siege equipment was broken-down and carried on pack animals. Every Mongol rider led a string of ponies, so that he could switch mounts frequently, thus keeping the animals from fatiguing. (This multitude of mounts helped create the myth of monstrous-sized Mongol armies the very “hordes of Magog”. Their numbers on the battlefield were often obscured by dust, or a deliberate smoke-screen. So enemies attempting to count their numbers were fooled by the prints of so many horses into greatly inflating their numbers.) Practically born in the saddle, a Mongol warrior could ride for weeks on end if necessary; dismounting briefly only to relieve themselves.

The third factor was the tactics and weapons of the Mongol soldiers. The mix of light cavalry horse-archers (armed with a powerful composite bow) with heavy cavalry lancers was not unique to the Mongols: every Eurasian steppe nomad army from the ancient Scythians onward were much the same. But as historian John Keegan has noted, it was perhaps the most effective tactical system till the perfection of European musketry and field artillery in the 18th century. Against a heavier foe, the horse archers could maintain their range and weaken the enemy with long-distance archery. Only when an enemy was sufficiently “softened-up” by archery were the lance-armed heavy horse  unleashed to finish them at close-quarters. As seen at Legnica, they were also adept at the tactic of feigning flight, only to draw an impetuous foe into a prepared ambush.

Mongol light cavalryman

Fourth, the Mongols (unlike similar armies of steppe nomads who periodically menaced the settled peoples of Europe and Asia) were skilled at besieging walled places. They could quickly assemble their artillery, dismantled and carried on pack animals, and begin battering walls. When necessary, the Mongols would erect a ramp leading up to the top of the enemy’s battlements. When ready, they would unleash the terrible “endless storm“: day-and-night, working in relays without let, Mongol warriors would assault the enemy position with sword and spear. Often prisoners captured from the local countryside were herded in front of the Mongol attackers, these human shields dampening the defender’s fire, forcing them to kill their own countrymen or give way.

Finally, it was the nature of the Mongols themselves that gave them an advantage. They were an incredibly tough, hardy people. Raised in a harsh environment (the Siberian steppes) they were thoroughly inured to hardship. The Mongols were also disciplined soldiers: the Yasa (the Mongol code of laws established by Genghis Khan) made fleeing in the face of the enemy, or disobeying the orders of a superior officer a capital offense. Even the squad members of a coward could be executed for that single man’s dereliction of duty.

For all their virtues as soldiers, the Mongols were also utterly savage and without remorse. They took brutality and callous disregard for life to a level not seen since the Roman Republic. Resistance or rebellion was met with wholesale slaughter. Terror was a weapon employed to great effect, and such was their reputation that strong places surrendered rather than face the inevitable destruction met out to those who resisted. Once in power, they tolerated not the slightest disobedience, and rebellion was punished with extermination.

In the end, they created a vast empire stretching from the Dnieper River to the Pacific Ocean. However, in their wake they left nothing more lasting or of value than (literally) pyramids of the skulls of their victims.



For further reading:
The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe//


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  1. ritaroberts says:

    This is one of my favourite armies Barry. And they still have not found Ghengis Khans tomb.. Great post ,beautiful illustrations and exciting to read. I usually come back twice to read your exciting posts. Thank you.

  2. A very timely lesson from history!

  3. This is such an excellent account of Mongol history! I am glad to have discovered such an educational blog.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you,Perry. If you peruse the archives, I have dozens of similar articles about various military history topics. Enjoy!

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