Saturday, September 28

Battle of Mohi

Matthew Paris (Matthæus Parisiensis, Matthew the Parisian, c. 1200 – 1259) was a Benedictine monk, English chronicler, artist in illuminated manuscripts and cartographer, based at St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire in the UK. In 1239, he sounded a curious sort of alarm in his chronicles: there had been a glut in the supply of herrings at Yarmouth since the traditional buyers from the Eastern Baltic had failed to sail from their home ports in fear of the 'Tatars'.

While the sons of Tolui (Chingis Khan's youngest son) were consolidating in Khorasan and eyeing China, the sons of Jochi (the oldest son of Chingis' first wife Börte) under Batu were expanding Mongol rule to the west; the Golden Horde was being established to consolidate the Jochid ulus. In his wars against the Cumans, Rus, Bulgars, Magyars and Poles, Batu was aided by his grandfather's old noyan Subutai, now too fat to be able to ride a horse, but nonetheless carried to battle in an ox-cart.

Pushed west by the Mongols, 40,000 Cuman refugees sought asylum under Hungarian rule. King Béla IV of Hungary and Croatia saw an opportunity to curry favor with the Church, and granted the Cumans protection in return for the Cuman chieftain Köten accepting token Christianity over his tribe's Tengriism. The Mongols considered the Cumans as their slaves and saw this as a casus belli. The Hungarians were also accused of committing grave infringement against the yasa by capturing Mongol emissaries. Batu wrote King Béla an ultimatum:

I, the Qa'an, the representative of the Heavenly King, to whom he has given power over the Earth, to raise up those who submit to me and cast down those who resist - I wonder why, you, O king of Hungary, when I have now sent envoys to you on thirty occasions, you have sent none of them back to me; nor do you send me in return your own envoys or letter. I am aware you are a wealthy and powerful monarch, that you have under you many soldiers, and that you have sole rule over a great kingdom. Hence it is difficult for you to submit to me of your own volition; and yet it would be better for you, and healthier, were you to submit willingly. I have learnt, moreover, that you keep the Cumans, my slaves, under your protection, and so I order you do not keep them with you any longer and do not have me as an enemy on their account. For it is easier for them to escape than for you, since they are without houses and move about in tents, and so may perhaps be able to escape. But as for you, who dwell in houses and have fortresses and cities - how will you escape my grasp?

The Tatar threat of 1241 reached a Hungary that was in turmoil. Traditionally, the base of royal power had been in the vast estates of crown property. Béla's father Andrew II,  a second-son trying to usurp the throne from the lineage of the first-son, started to create his own power-base by gifting crown lands to his own partisans. Whole counties were donated; Andrew II said, "the best measure of royal generosity is measureless." The treasury was emptied out. After Béla IV inherited his father's throne, he began to clawback or confiscate Andrew’s donations; executed or expelled his advisors; denied the lords' right to personal hearings; and even had the chairs of the council chamber taken away in order to force everyone to stand in his presence. These actions caused great disaffection amongst his father's old retainers.

The newly arrived Cumans gave the king a better position (including increased prestige in the Church for converting them), but the nomadic Cumans seemed unable to live together with the settled Hungarians. There were riots; the Kuman chief, who had personally been granted protection by King Béla, was lynched. Betrayed, the Cumans started to leave Hungary to the south, pillaging on the way. In the meantime came rumors of 'Tatars' on the Eastern gates of the kingdom.

By now many nobles so hated the king that they declined to mobilize. Hardly anyone believed the Mongol attack was dangerous; it was considered a usual minor foray, one like that of the Cumans, that could be bought off. 

The 'Tatar' vanguard reached Pest on March 15th and began to pillage. Béla forbade his men to attack them as he felt he did not fully understand what was going on, and that the Hungarian army was still unprepared. Frederick Babenberg, the Duke of Austria and Styria, also arrived to help and immediately got the better of a minor raiding party. King Béla was thought to be a coward; after his heroic act, Duke Frederick believed the job was done and returned home. 

Finally, Béla decided to offer a battle with the 'Tatars', but they began a feigned retreat. This affirmed the opinion of the lords that the 'Tatars' were mere brigands and the king’s behavior was not caution but cowardice. The retreating Mongols reached the flooded river Sajó. 

The Hungarians still did not know that the main Mongol army had mobilized from farther east, and, covering an unheard-of 100 miles a day, had reached wooded terrain of the other side of Sajó. In the meanwhile, a second army under Baidar, Orda Khan and Kadan had just attacked Poland as a diversion to occupy any northern European forces which might come to Hungary's aid. In the Battle of Legnica (Liegnitz), again using feigned retreats to draw out their enemy, just 8,000 Mongols defeated 20,000 Polish two days before the Battle of Mohi. 

The Hungarians had no idea of the great deal of planning that underlay Subutai's strategy of finishing off the European armies in several parallel surprise blitzkrieg attacks, before they could realize what they were up against and join forces. At Mohi, a Ruthenian slave of the Tatars escaped to the Hungarians and warned them some Tatars were planning a night attack through the bridge across Sajó. The Hungarians still did not believe this would be much of anything, but the troops of prince Kálmán (the younger brother of king Béla) along with archbishop Ugrin Csák, a Master of the Knights Templar, left the camp to defend the unguarded bridge. They reached the bridge at midnight.  It is unlikely that the Mongols wanted to attack that very night (horse archers would have reason to avoid night battles), but they had probably wanted to cross the river in order to be able to attack the Hungarian camp the next day at dawn. When Kálmán and Ugrin arrived at Sajó bridge, they found some Tatars in the middle of crossing the river. The Hungarians successfully forced a melee and achieved a great victory at the bridge. When it was over the Hungarians left some soldiers to guard the bridge and returned to camp, unaware of the main Mongol army that was still out there. When they returned to the camp at 2 am, they celebrated the victory and went off to sleep.

The unexpected arrival of tipped-off Hungarians and their victory at Sajó bridge forced Subutai to modify his plans. Sejban was sent north to a ford to cross the river by stealth and attack the rear of the bridge-guarders. At 4 am this set of out-flankers began the crossing. Meanwhile, Subutai went south to build an emergency bridge. He was able to begin crossing at 9 am via this route. At dawn, Batu, with the help of seven stone throwing siege-engines, attacked the Hungarian guards on the main bridge. Due to the sudden arrival of Sejbán behind their backs, the Hungarians abandoned the bridge and retreated to their camp. The main Tatar forces under Batu then finished crossing the river at around 8 am.

When the fleeting Hungarians arrived at the camp, they awakened the others. Kálmán and Ugrin the Templar master again hurried out of camp to deal with the attackers. This time they realized that this was no minor raid but a calamity; thousand upon thousand of the Mongol forces were pouring across the river. A hard struggle ensued. Batu lost 30 of his bodyguards, only his personal action and bravery withheld the desperate Hungarian charges. At that moment, Subutai, who had been delayed by the emergency bridge-building, arrived and attacked the Hungarians’ back with flaming gunpowder arrows. 

Routed, the Hungarians tried to escape via a gap left open on purpose by the Mongols. (Fleeing soldiers can be killed more easily by driving burning naphtha arrows into their backs.) Archbishop Ugrin was killed along with the flower of Templary. Prince Kálmán and King Béla managed to escape, the wounds of Kálmán were serious. The Hungarians lost 10,000 men and were unable to field another army to contain the Tatars. 

In the aftermath of the invasion, Hungary lay in ruin. The Mongols discovered the royal seal on the body of Béla's chancellor, and used it to issue bogus decrees - that the villagers should stay home and pay tribute. The fortresses of the Hungarians were not yet stone, most were 'mud-pies'. Nearly half of the inhabited places were destroyed by the Mongols. A quarter of the population was lost.

On Christmas Day 1241 the Danube froze. The Mongols came across to the Austrian and Croatian sides. Béla, hunted down through Zagreb by the Mongols, found refuge in a small island off the Dalmatian coast. No help reached him from his neighbors; in fact when he had tried to flee to Austria, Duke Frederick Babenberg had lured him to a castle under guise of welcome, and extorted back an unpaid loan, for which the hapless Béla had been obliged to pawn three Hungarian counties; Frederick's men had then harassed these counties to the point of rebellion. If the Mongols had pressed on West, it is not clear they would have faced any greater organized resistance from Germanic princes than what Béla's Hungarians had presented them.

Meanwhile, in Dec 1241 Ögedei Khan died, perhaps poisoned by his sister Altatun. (Rashīd al-Dīn tells us she was later killed by Güyüg.) News of this came to Batu in the spring of 1242. Historians no longer feel strongly that the Mongol invasion of Europe was halted by Batu immediately leaving to attend succession confabulations in Mongolia and to try revert the succession from Güyüg to himself; though it is quite clear that at the peak of their drive into Europe the Mongols suddenly stopped, upped and left. It is also thought likely that the Mongols had exhausted the pasturage available in Hungary and retreated to the steppes for sake of grass for their horses.

Batu retired through Bosnia and Serbia. He sacked Kotor in Montenegro and Drisht in Albania; on his way back to Kazakhstan, he left behind, in the elegant words of Thomas of Spalato (Archdeacon of Split in Croatia) "nobody to piss against a wall."

(Below, we fly over the Kazakh steppe of Batu's Golden Horde.)


Anonymous Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

9:29 PM  

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