Monday, April 28, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Great Northern War: Swedish military organisation and victory at Narva 1700

In the Spring of 1700, Sweden faced a war on two fronts. In 1699, Denmark, Saxony and Russia had signed a secret military alliance. Their goal was to attack the Swedish Empire, break her dominance of the Baltic and carve up her territories. The victories against Denmark and Russia in 1700 allowed Sweden to regain the initiative and take to the offensive against her enemies. The Battle of Narva on the 20th November 1700 was a stunning success for the Swedish army and clearly demonstrated what a well organised state could achieve despite limited resources. Swedish forces, outnumbered four to one, fought and defeated a Russian force besieging the town of Narva. Revisionist historians have tried to explain the Russian defeat as that of a smaller modern force against a much larger, ill-trained backward rabble. They argue that the Russian army was almost medieval in equipment and organisation in comparison to the Swedes. Recent studies of the Russian military reforms of Peter the Great have now made this position untenable. The Russian troops facing Karl XII of Sweden were largely veterans of Russia’s recent campaign against the Turks. In addition, the Russian government employed no fewer than 560 foreign officers as instructors in modern military doctrine. Arguably, the Russian defeat was not so much the fault of an inadequate Russian military as it was the superior Swedish army fielded by Karl XII. Whilst there were a number of factors involved in the Swedish army’s victory, the crucial factors were its superior tactics, organisation and the development of the Caroline military system upon which Sweden based its defences.




Portrait of Karl XII in 1700. He wore the simple uniform of a soldier for the rest of his life.







Sweden’s role as a great power in Europe occurred almost by accident. Having intervened in the Thirty Years War, Sweden found itself as the principal arbitrator in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Having already expanded into the Baltic region in the 1620s, Sweden acquired yet more land through its participation in the war and was afterwards expected to maintain the balance of power in Central and Northern Europe. Unfortunately, her newly acquired territories put her into contact with hostile neighbours who saw Sweden as an obstacle to their own expansion. With only a small population of 1.5 million and few natural resources (apart from timber and iron ore) the country was not well suited to the role thrust upon it at Westphalia. Wars against Denmark and Saxony in the latter half of the seventeenth century soon made it apparent that reform would be needed if Sweden were to survive as a major power in Europe.

These reforms were pushed through in 1680 when Karl XII’s father, Karl XI organised a ‘reduction’ of the total land held by the nobles of Sweden. Karl was able to reclaim a third of the lands held by the aristocracy for the crown and thus bring in an addition 4 million riksdaler to the treasury. By 1697, the national debt had been reduced from 40 million riksdaler to 10 million. These savings and additional revenue freed up resources for the state to construct a standing army and adequate civil service. Karl XI and his advisors organised a system known as the ‘indelningsverk’. Each province in the Swedish Empire would now be responsible for maintaining a certain number of regiments fixed size. Farms were grouped together in parts called ‘rota’. Each rota was required to provide and equip one soldier. Maintenance of cavalry units was organised on a similar basis. One or more prosperous farms made up a ‘rusthåll’ which supplied one or more cavalrymen. The system also provided incentives for farmers to enter the agreement by granted special tax privileges. Soldiers supported by these farms were obliged to work as farm hands when not at war or in training.

By 1697 this system provided 11 cavalry regiments and 23 infantry. This meant Sweden could rely upon a trained force of 11,000 horse and 30,000 infantry. Money saved by the system paid for an additional 25,000 mercenaries to be hired for overseas garrison duty. The navy was also increased to a total of 53,000 tons. A new naval base was constructed at Karlskrona in the south of Sweden, thus providing the fleet with an ice-free port earlier in the year than would otherwise be possible in Stockholm. The system therefore allowed for a trained standing army to be available at relatively little cost to the state. The indelningsverk was so successful that it remained in place until 1901.

When war erupted in 1700 there were therefore a clear organised system in place for rapidly mobilising Sweden’s defences. When Karl XII gave orders to mobilise the army, troops marched to clearly designated assembly points throughout the Empire. This allowed Karl to react quickly against multiple enemies. The Russians besieging Narva had expected Karl to be preoccupied with dealing with Denmark. By July 1700, the Danes had already been defeated and a Swedish army was being organised to relieve Narva. By the 19th November, Karl had successfully managed to transport an army of 10,000 men across the Baltic, march overland and engage the Russian army. This in itself was a great achievement given the logistical and administration difficulties which faced most armies in the late seventeenth-early eighteenth centuries.

Approaching the Russian encampment outside the besieged Narva, Karl could see that that the Russians had built a fortified camp. They had constructed earthern walls nine feet high behind six foot wide ditches. One hundred and forty cannon were mounted along the walls, supported by 26,000 infantry. The Russians also fielded another two infantry regiments, two regiments of dragoons and some 5000 assorted cavalry. There were also reports of Russian reinforcements approaching the area. Outnumbered nearly four to one, the situation was critical. Having been on the march for nearly a month, the Swedish army was also desperately low on supplies. The last of the bread rations had been given out four days before.

On the 20th November, Karl decided to attack. He had been raised with the Swedish style of aggressive warfare. The infantry were equipped with the best flintlock muskets in Europe. Their bayonets had a superior mount system to the majority of versions and each infantryman carried a sword which Karl had personally designed. Swedish tactics could be summarised by the phrase ‘Gå på!’. Loosely translated, this means ‘Up and at ‘em’. Swedish infantry were trained to charge across a battlefield and bring their opponent into hand to hand combat as quickly as possible. Once they had reached to within thirty yards of the enemy, they would fire a devastating musket volley before finally settling the matter with bayonets and swords. These tactics were employed at the Battle of Narva.

With over a hundred cannon facing them, as well as thousands of infantry, the potential for failure for the Swedes was high. However, just as the Swedish infantry were approaching the Russian lines, a blizzard broke out and began to blow into the faces of the Russians, blinding them. Within fifteen minutes the infantry were inside the entrenchments and the Swedish cavalry had seen off the Russian horse. Many of the Russians attempted to flee across the bridge over the River Narva. Unfortunately for them, the bridge collapsed under the combined weight of thousands of men and horses. The surviving Russians retreated to their supply camp where hundreds of wagons were parked. By dawn they too had surrendered and Karl found himself with more prisoners than he had troops. Disarming them, he kept the officers and sent the rest of the defeated Russians home.


Portrait of the defeated Russian prisoners surrendering their arms with heads bowed to Karl XII




The logistical success in mobilising the Swedish army was the direct result of the well-organised plan and administration established by Karl XI. The success of the Swedish army at Narva should be put down to the aggressive tactics and discipline of its troops as well as exemplary leadership from their King, Karl XII. It was these factors, combined with a degree of luck that made Sweden’s victory at Narva possible.


If you are interested in reading more about Swedish military history have a look at these books.

Lars Ericson, Martin Hårdstet, Per Iko, Ingvar Sjöblom, Gunnar Asellius, Svenska Slagfält (Värname, 2004)

Gary Dean Peterson, The rise of an Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: warrior Kings of Sweden (Jefferson, 2007)

Paul Douglas Lockhart, Sweden in the seventeenth century (Hampshire, 2004)

Michael Roberts, The Swedish Imperial Experience 1560-1718 (Cambridge, 1979)

Herman Lindqvist, A History of Sweden (Värnamo, 2006)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War II: The Soviet counter-offensive of December 1941

The German invasion of the USSR in the summer of 1941 shattered the Red Army and drove deep into the Russian heartland. By October, the Wehrmacht had taken 2 million prisoners and destroyed thousands of enemy tanks and guns. Only 5% of the pre-invasion strength of Red army aviation in western Europe remained intact. On the 30th September the German high command launched Operation Typhoon, designed to take German forces all the way to Moscow. With winter approaching, it was crucial that the Wehrmacht capture Moscow and complete its campaign objectives. Field Marshal von Bock was given one and half million men to command as part of the offensive. He set the 7th November (the anniversary of the Russian revolution) as the date for the final surrounding of Moscow. Despite this apparently overwhelming strength, the sudden onset of winter and increased Russian resistance left the German army stranded 40 kilometres from the city. The Red army then launched a series of surprise counterattacks pushing the Germans back a hundred miles and saving Moscow. The traditional view of these events is that the sudden arrival of large numbers of reinforcements from Siberia turned the tide in favour of the Soviets. The reality was somewhat more complicated and involved a good deal more planning from the Soviet Stavka at this early stage of the Russian campaign than historians generally give credit for.

At first the Soviet leadership refused to acknowledge the scale of the German offensive in October 1941. On the 5th October, a fighter pilot reported a column of German panzers a dozen miles in length not more than a hundred miles from Moscow. Two more pilots were sent on reconnaissance flights before the Stavka decided to take action. With Moscow itself now under threat a quarter of a million civilians marched out to dig anti-tank trenches (these scenes would be repeated in Berlin three and half years later as the Red Army approached). On the night of the 15th October, foreign embassies were told to prepare to leave for Kuybyshev on the Volga. A state of siege was declared on the 19th October and foot rioting, looting and drunkardness soon followed. Fear that the capital was about to be abandoned provoked thousands to try and get out, flooding the train stations. Stalin’s security chief Beria was forced to bring in several regiments of NKVD troops into the city to restore order. By late November, a force of 65,000 troops had been assembled to defend the city of Moscow proper. These units included people’s militia, destroyer detachments and two NKVD divisions. The city’s defences consisted of three defence lines. Within the city centre a complex system of barricades and defence belts were manned by internal security forces.

Operation Typhoon began well for the German army with its usual combination of rapid movement and encirclement of Russian troops. German forces had been advancing continuously for nearly four months. Many of the troops were exhausted and much of their equipment needed to be repaired or replaced. The resistance of the Red Army was also stiffening. Groups of Russian soldiers continued to fight despite being cut off and surrounded in pockets. However, it was the weather that played the crucial role in slowing down the German advance. By the middle of October the rain had turned dirt roads into mud and made progress in vehicles extremely slow in certain areas. German ration trucks could not get through in some places, so farm carts had to be commandeered from local agricultural communities. Despite these setbacks German troops managed to reach the outskirts of Moscow by the end of November. To the north of the city, they were close enough to be able to see the muzzle flashes through their binoculars of the anti-aircraft batteries protecting the Kremlin. This was to be the limit of their advance. Russian resistance as well as sheer exhaustion of the Wehrmacht had ground German forces to a halt. Many units were reduced to half strength. In a last ditch effort at the end of November, Field Marshal von Kluge sent a force up the road to Moscow. The incredible cold and furious resistance of Russian troops ended the German assault. German forces were pulled back slightly and fighting seemed to draw to a standstill. By the beginning of December, Field Marshal von Bock had to admit that the window of opportunity for taking Moscow had been and gone for 1941.

During October and November the Soviet high command (the ‘Stavka’), had thrown forces into new defensive lines in the hope of wearing down the German army. At the beginning of November, the Stavka began contemplating a major strategic counter-offensive operation. Its objectives would be threefold. Firstly to eliminate the exposed German salients on both sides of Moscow, secondly to force the front line back and thirdly to encircle and defeat the German army decisively. Intelligence reports from the Soviet agent Richard Sorge in Tokyo had confirmed that the Japanese would be attacking America in the Pacific, rather than join in the German attack on the USSR from the far east. This allowed Stalin to redeploy those divisions based in Siberia.

The Siberian divisions are often regarded as being the primary ‘reserve’ forces of the Red army available at this time. It is important not to over exaggerate the contribution of these forces in comparison to the overall numbers of new divisions the Soviets had managed to raise since the initial invasion in June. The Germans had calculated that the USSR could raise another 300 divisions. This was based on the assumption that two divisions could be made up per million people of the total population. This calculation proved disastrously incorrect. By December, twice that number had been raised. There were 285 rifle divisions, twelve reformed tank divisions, 88 cavalry divisions, 174 rifle and 193 tank brigades available to the Red Army by the 31st December 1941. After the disasters of the summer, the Soviets had moved 70 divisions from the interior Military Districts and raised an additional 194 divisions and 94 brigades. The total number of forces brought from the Far East was therefore only a relatively small force of only 27 divisions. Crucially however, the Siberian units were of far greater quality than the majority of the newly raised divisions of the Red army. The Siberian forces consisted of ski-troop battalions and were natural hunters and skilled shots (much like the Finns in the Winter war of 1940). With temperatures falling to –20C (-4F), their ability to fight in the snow and use it as tactical advantage would prove crucial in defeating the Germans.


Russian ski-troops during the counter-offensive







In addition, German forces were not prepared for a winter campaign. Their equipment began to freeze, jamming weapons and forcing troops to light fires underneath tanks and aircraft in order to defrost them for use. Their supply lines were now thousands of miles into Russia. For the first time since June, the Soviets had the advantage in men and equipment. 1,700 new T-34s were brought up by the Red army for the counter-offensive. The T-34 tanks had broad enough tanks to cope with the snow and ice and were more mobile compared to the German Panzer mark IV. Soviet Infantry were equipped with padded jackets and white camouflage suits. Unlike their German counterparts, Soviet infantry had been given cases to protect the metal parts of their machine guns and rifles from freezing in the cold.

On the 5th December, General Koniev attacked the outer edge of the German north salient. Four armies commanded by Zhukov and Rokossovsky were hurled against the inner side of the salient. To the south of Moscow, German forces were attacked from different directions. The offensive centred on a sector from Kalin, 170 kilometres north of Moscow to Yelets, 350 kilometres in the south. The total frontage extended to 1,000 kilometres. Red army cavalry divisions ranged deep behind German lines, attacking supply depots. German forces were driven back as far as a hundred miles in some places. For the first time, Wehrmacht forces found themselves trapped in pockets as Hitler refused to order a retreat. By mid December, Soviet forces had recaptured Tula, Ryazan, Rostov, Kalin and Smolensk, Orlov and Kursk. Moscow had been saved and the Germans had suffered their first land defeat since the war had begun in 1939. Although the Germans managed to re-establish a stable line and the Soviets had failed to capitalise on their success, it was the first signs that the Red army would become the first class fighting force that would go on to take Berlin in 1945.


Ian Kershaw, Fateful choices: ten choices that changed the world 1940-1941 (London, 2007)

Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (London, 2007)

Antony Beever, Stalingrad (London, 1998)

Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: a new history (London, 2001)

Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (Phoenix, 2000)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Military History and Warfare: 55 days at Peking: the Seige of the Foreign Legations

During the summer of 1900 full-scale warfare erupted in China triggered by the emergence of the Boxer movement as a force of popular resistance against the encroaching foreign powers. The ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’, as they called themselves, began to emerge in the northwest Shandong province in 1898. They drew their name and their martial rites from a variety of secret society and self-defence units that had spread from the southern Shandong during the previous years. Some Boxers believed they were invulnerable to swords and bullets in combat and they drew upon spirits and protectors from popular myths and folk beliefs. They aimed to rid China of all foreign influence and as such were responsible for the murder of Christian missionaries, Chinese converts as well as the destruction of Western owned property.

By May 1900, groups of Boxers were appearing on the streets of Peking. On the last day of the month an international force of 365 marines reached Peking with troops from the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy, France and Japan. Two weeks later the Boxers entered the city, destroying most of the foreign-owned buildings that were not within the protective zone of the foreign legations. The city’s Roman Catholic Church was burnt to the ground and Chinese Christians living near it were murdered. By June the threat to foreigners was so series that Britain sent a force of 2000 men under Admiral Seymour to protect the legations in Peking. However, the Boxers cut the Tianjin-Peking railway line and forced Seymour to withdraw. In retaliation the Western powers seized the coastal Degu forts.

Intent on frightening the representatives of the foreign powers in Peking into submission, the Chinese government sent word that a Boxer force of 80,000 men would attack the legations on the 27th June. The legation ministers were informed on the 19th that all foreigners were to leave to leave the city by 4:00 pm the next day as their safety could no longer be guaranteed. On the 20th June the German minister, Baron von Kettler was assassinated in the street. His murder convinced the other ministers that staying in the capital was safer than heading south in open country with limited protection. At 4:00 pm the Chinese opened fire on the Legation Quarter marking the opening shots of a siege that was to last for the next 55 days.

Despite being heavy outnumbered, the foreign nationals in the legations quickly drew up plans for the defence of their compound. 8000 bushels of new wheat recently brought from Human were found in a shop on the corner of legation street. The ministers elected the British Minister to take overall command of the available legation forces. Sir Claude Macdonald had started his career as a solder serving in Khartoum before eventually becoming a diplomat. His military background made him the natural choice for leadership of the legations. However, the forces available to him were limited. From the end of May 1900 until the 14th August, the garrison consisted of little more than 400 marine guards. There were 82 officers and men from Britain, 81 from Russia, 35 from Austria-Hungary, 48 Frenchman, 51 Germans, 53 Americans, 29 Italians and 25 Japanese. In addition, the North Cathedral (the ‘Peitang’) was protected by small force of 42 French and Italian marines along with 13 French fathers, 20 sisters and 3,200 Chinese converts. A group of civilian volunteers, calling themselves ‘Thornhill’s Roughs’ also served on the barricades.

Apart from rifles and personal firearms, the only major weaponry available was an Austrian Maxim gun, a British Nordenfelt gun, a 1-pdr quick-firing gun supplied by the Italian contingent and an American colt machine gun. On the 7th July an 1860 vintage British 3 inch calibre smoothbore gun was discovered in an old junk shop. The Italians provided a 1-pdr mount and the Russians supplied some shrapnel and common shell for ammunition that had initially been discarded down a well. The shells were recovered, dried and used as ammunition throughout the battle. Two American marines volunteered to fire the gun.

From the outset of the battle, a major consideration was the difficulty of defending the large perimeter of the foreign compounds with the limited resources available. It was therefore decided to move all civilians (apart from the defenders of the Peitang Cathedral) into the British Legation, which was the largest and commanded a good field of fire for the defenders. The British compound consisted of 3 acres and normally housed around 60 people. It became the central redoubt of the defence with loopholes, sandbagged emplacements on the walls and a barricade at the gateway with space for 900 combatants and civilians, along with sheep, horses and other animals that were gradually slaughtered as the food supply began to shrink. To improve the field of fire, Chinese houses around the Legation were burnt, along with the Belgian, Austrian, Dutch and Italian Legations which were deemed indefensible. For the first ten days following the start of the siege the Foreign Legation compound and Peitang Cathedral faced constant attacks from Boxer fanatics, whilst the Chinese government and its army stood on the sidelines.

The walls of the Tarter City presented a constant problem for the besieged as it directly overlooked the Legation quarter and offered the Chinese an excellent sniping position. On June 23rd, American marines charged along part of the wall clearing the enemy almost as far as the burnt-out Ch’ien Men gate. The next day, the Americans started to construct a barricade but were forced to retreat. German defenders were also pushed back on the 1st July, but a precarious position on the wall was held. The defenders managed to maintain their positions between the Chien Men and Hatu Men gates throughout the siege.

As the fighting continued it quickly became clear that the Imperial Army had now been committed to support the Boxers. A heavy bombardment continuously rained down on the Legation quarter, where living conditions began to grow steadily worse. ‘Bomb proofs’ were constructed as shelter from the incoming shelling. However, on the 14th July, the Chinese attached a sheet of paper to a bridge announcing in large letters by telescope that they had received orders to protect the foreign ministers. The Chinese had called a truce at the very moment that they could have taken the Legation Quarter. The garrison was losing men and ammunition at an alarming rate. It is likely that the Chinese were aware of the increasingly difficult situation inside in the foreign compound. Aware of the recent success of the allied relief forces on the coast, the Chinese decided to make friendly overtures. A small supply of melons, vegetables and other food was sent into the allied quarter. The truce allowed the besieged to replenish their food supplies and husband their remaining strength. More fruit was sent in on the 25th July by order of the Empress Dowager.

During the truce period the Chinese continued to build fortifications, including a six-foot barricade over a bridge at the foot of the Imperial City wall just north of the British Legation. The Chinese also continued mining operations in an attempt to undermine the foreign defences. On the 29th July fighting re-erupted as the Chinese attempted a final effort to break the morale of the defenders. Fortunately for the besieged, a letter arrived on the 2nd August from Lieutenant-Colonel J.S. Mallory of the 41st US infantry stating that a combined allied relief column of 10,000 men was on its way to Peking.

During the latter part of the siege, the intensity of the fighting varied depending upon different parts of the perimeter. Those manning the Fu and opposite the Mongol Market, or on the West part of the wall held by the French were subject to steady Chinese rifle and artillery fire. By contrast, the German sector on the eastern part of the seemed to be much quieter. It was only during the final days of the siege that Chinese attacks became as intense as they had been in early July. On the 13th August the Chinese launched six separate attacks on the western part of the compound. The attacks were repulsed with the help of the Nordenfelt and Maxim guns. On the 14th August, Indian troops from the British army finally entered Peking. They were the first units of the allied relief expedition to arrive. American, Russian, Japanese and Italians troops all arrived on the 14th lifting the siege. The French were delayed by a day as a result of increased Chinese resistance.

The besieged in the Legation quarter had sustained a robust defence during the 55 days since July. Thanks in part to the well constructed barricades and defences, casualties had been surprisingly low. The civilian volunteers had lost 67 killed or died from wounds and 167 wounded. The eight nation marine force had lost four officers and 40 men killed with nine officers and 136 men wounded. This represents roughly a third of the serviceman available at the beginning of the siege. Of the 42 Italian and French sailors who had helped to defend the Cathedral, six Italians and four Frenchman (along with their officer) were killed as well as a one officer and 11 men wounded.

Martin Gilbert, History of the Twentieth Century (London, 2001)

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York, 1999)

J.A.G. Roberts, A History of China (Harvard, 1999)

Peter Harrington, Peking 1900: Boxer Rebellion (Oxford, 2001)

Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution 1895 – 1949 (Abingdon, 2005)

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)