Monday, April 7, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Mongol Invasion of Europe: the battles of Liegnitz and the Sajo River


In the late 1230s Mongolian forces began a series of invasions which extended their empire to the frontiers of Christendom. In December 1237, an army led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu Khan attacked the city of Rizan, storming it after only a five-day siege. Having subdued much of western Russia by 1241, Batu Khan prepared a three-pronged attack against Poland, Hungary and Romania.

By the mid-thirteenth century the Mongol Empire covered a landmass stretching from China to the outskirts of Poland. Mongol military success had been a combination of mobility, tactics and the high quality of the Mongol warrior and mount. Mongol armies were based around a core group of light and heavy cavalry organised on the decimal system. The largest tactical formation was the ‘tuman’ consisting of 10,000 warriors. Three tumans usually constituted a Mongol army. The tuman was made up of ten regiments (‘minghans’) of 1,000 men. Each regiment contained ten squadrons ‘jagun’. The jagun was subdivided into ten troops called arbans. In comparison to western forces available at this time, the Mongol army was an extremely well organised fighting force. By dividing the army into smaller units, the Mongols gained tactical flexibility which allowed them to take full advantage of the speed of their horses, inflict devastating attacks and then disappear quickly into the grasslands. Time and time again, the Mongol system of warfare proved itself superior to that of its opponents.

The typical Mongol army was largely cavalry based, consisting of about 60 percent light cavalry and 40 percent heavy cavalry. Both units were crucial to Mongol strategy. Mongol light cavalry performed reconnaissance roles and acted as a screen for the heavy cavalry. These light horseman were armed with two composite bows, (one for long distance, the other for short), two or three javelins and a lasso. The heavy cavalry were equipped with a 12ft lance along with sabre for hand to hand combat.

It was this highly organised fighting force that prepared to conquer Europe in 1241. In Poland, the northern army under Batu’s lieutenants Baider and Kedan sacked and burned Krakow on Palm Sunday 1241. Ignoring Breslau, they converged on Liegtnitz, where Henry, duke of Silesia had assembled an impressive force to bar the way into the Holy Roman Empire. Henry’s forces consisted of military order contingents of Teutonic, Templar and Hospitaler knights. They were supported by Polish and German lay knights and thousands of infantry.


When the Mongols approached Henry’s forces at Liegnitz on the morning of the 9th April 1241 with a screen of light cavalry. Henry ordered his heavy cavalry to charge, only to have it beaten back by successive waves of Mongol arrows. Henry pushed forward the attack and ordered all his remaining cavalry forward. However, this time the Mongol light cavalry turned and took flight. The Europeans pursed them only to find that the Mongols had wheeled their far more agile horses round and resumed their arrow bombardment. The Christian knights lost their cohesion and began to be picked off by Mongol archery. In the meantime, other Mongol troops had started a fire, setting up a smoke screen between Henry’s infantry and the now-trapped cavalry. The Mongol heavy cavalry and horse archers emerged from the smoke and completely routed Henry’s infantry. Henry himself was killed trying to flee the battlefield.

After the battle, the Mongols cut off an ear from every fallen Christian warrior to make an accurate body count. Nine bags of ears were eventually sent to Batu as tribute.

Whilst the northern Mongol force pillaged Poland, Batu Khan’s central army moved across the Carpathian Mountains and into the Hungarian plain. The Hungarian king Bela IV had prepared for the invasion by collecting a huge army (by medieval standards) of 80,000 men. On the morning of the 10th April, the Mongols rode over the heath and crossed the only stone bridge over the Sajo River. The next day, Bela’s forces arrived and searched through the woods for signs of the Mongolian army. Finding nothing, they returned to guard the bridge whilst the remainder of the Hungarian army made its camp on the heath to the rear. During the night, Batu ordered Subutai to take 30,000 cavalry through the hills and quickly construct a wooden bridge across the Sajo beyond the sight of Bela’s forces. Batu intended to engage the Hungarian front, whilst Subutai secretly moved into position and attacked in the rear.

The battle itself began just before dawn on the 11th April when Batu ordered cavalry attacks against the stone bridge held by Bela’s men. The bottleneck of the bridge gave the Hungarians the strategic advantage and the Mongols were unable to break through. It was at that crucial moment that the Mongol flair for military innovation revealed itself. Batu solved the problem by bringing up seven light catapults and bombarded the far side of the bridge with incendiaries and grenades. Confused and stunned by the tactical use of artillery, the Hungarian forces panicked and withdrew from the bridge. Batu then used the catapults to lay down a form of ‘rolling barrage’ to screen his troops as they crossed the bridge. In desperation, Bela launched wave after wave of his heavy cavalry in a concerted attempt to break through the Mongol lines.

Just as it appeared that the Hungarians might succeed, Batu ordered his troops to stretch out into a half circle as if to surround the Christian troops. Suddenly Subotai arrived on the battlefield with his 30,000 fresh cavalry in a matching half-circle behind the defenders. Hungarian morale plummeted as they found themselves trapped on all sides. Those that managed to flee the battlefield were cut down by Mongol cavalry as they ran. By the evening, Christian dead littered thirty miles of road leading out of the battlefield. Conservative estimates place the number of Hungarian dead at 60,000.

Both the battles of Liegnitz and Sajo River illustrated the Mongol use of combined arms tactics, along with stealth, speed and surprise. Mongol discipline and the ability of commanders to manoeuvre large units during an engagement, contrasted deeply with the highly individualistic mode of warfare practised by western knights.

Over the months that followed the Mongols ravaged most of the lowland parts of the Hungary, reaching as far as the Dalmatian coast. The probable population loss has been estimated at 15-20%. Had the Mongols pressed on westwards beyond Hungary and Poland, it is unlikely that they would have encountered co-ordinated opposition. Contemporary annalists report panic as far away as Spain and the Netherlands. Given the relative ease with which the Mongols had smashed their way into Europe, it was almost miraculous that they did not continue their campaign of conquest into the rest of Europe.

There are of course possible explanations for the Mongol retreat. In December 1241 the Great Khan Ogodai died, prompting a succession crisis in the Mongol empire. By the summer of 1242, Mongol forces had withdrawn from Poland and Hungary. Batu’s attention now shifted eastwards to enable him to keep a watchful eye should one of his enemies be elected qaghan (Khan) of the Mongols. There were also sound logistical reasons for withdrawal. Mongol armies required a great deal of land for their large numbers of horses to graze upon. The Dalmatian coastlands were ill-adapted to Mongol cavalry operations. The chronicler Thomas of Spalato confirms this by expressly mentioning that the Mongol general Quadan took with him only a fraction of his contingent in view of the fact that the region afforded little grass in early March. Logistically, the Hungarian plain would have been inadequate to sustain the large occupying Mongol armies. They accordingly pulled back to the more spacious grasslands of the Pontic steppe.

Although the Mongols returned several times over the years that followed, Europe was largely spared the fate of Central Asia. Nevertheless, it is clear from the battles of Liegnitz and Sajo River that the Mongols possessed one of the finest fighting forces in the history of the world. It was therefore very fortunate for Christendom that the Mongols never again came so close to annihilating medieval Europe.


Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B Allfree, John Cairns Warfare in the Medieval World (Barnsley, 2007)

Malcolm Barber, The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320 (London, 2007)

Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West (Edinburgh, 2005)

Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War (Barnsley, 2007)

John H. Mundy, The High Middle Ages 1150-1309 (London 1998)

1 comment:

Robot Boy said...

Excellent synopsis. Just what I was looking for.