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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 11, 2020

Had you a bird’s eye view of the Eurasian steppe in 1236, you could have watched an unparalleled sight.  Perhaps more than 100,000 mounted warriors spread out in vast columns converging upon the Kama River, followed with nigh on one million horses, goats, and sheep at some distance behind; thousands of carts, some small enough to be pulled by a single ox, to those so large they required full teams of oxen. Mounted on these carts were spare weapons and arrows, specialists and engineers in siege technology and the tools they needed to build their fearsome machinery, and on the largest carts, royal Mongols gers, round felt tents to house the many princes leading the army. Their very movement changed the landscape, politically and ecologically. The nomadic Turkic peoples who inhabited the steppe fled before them; new roads were cut, others formed by the very passage of ten thousand horses stripping bare the grassland; to avoid lengthy detours in order to stay on schedule, rivers were blocked and diverted to accommodate the great carts. This was an army with one purpose: to conquer everything as far as the hooves of Mongol horses would take them. This was the Great Western Invasion, Mongol princes from across the dynasty collected and hurled as a great spear westwards, which in the coming years would land deep into Europe. I’m your host David, und this is…


    The Great Western Invasion is perhaps the most famous campaign of the Mongol Empire. It’s a campaign of big names and big personalities: Batu, Mongke, Guyuk and the great commander Subutai. It’s a story you likely know the broad strokes of already, the bloody conquest of the Russian principalities culminating in the famous battles of Liegnitz and Mohi. It’s generally presented as the master stroke of Subutai’s strategic genius,commonly said that the Mongols would have driven right to the shores of Britain if hadn’t been for the untimely death of Ogedai Khaan at the end of 1241, forcing them to withdraw to elect his successor.  It’s a great story and quite cinematic, but one which barely conveys any of the complexities of the great invasion, and one ripe with exaggerations and myths. Over the next episodes we’re going to try to change your view of the invasion, including as many of the intricacies and historiography of it as we can to provide a fuller understanding of the campaign, and a better, though more nuanced, respect for Mongol military success.


    Mongol knowledge of the west came through an offshoot of the invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire, when Jebe Noyan and Subutai Ba’atar led an army through the Caucasus and onto the steppe, where they fought with the nomadic Turkic Cuman-Qipchaq tribes, an army of the Rus’ principalities on the Kalka River, and the Volga Bulghars, the mercantile masters of the Volga River’s trade routes. We covered this in a previous episode, so check that out for the specifics. Though popularly portrayed as a reconnaissance in force, it was a hard fought campaign resulting in the death of Jebe Noyan and Mongol defeats or narrowly won victories. The defeats demanded Mongol retaliation, as did the loss of a top commander- it’s  easy to imagine Subutai personally wanting to avenge himself and his fallen friend, as Jebe may have been a mentor to him. The foes encountered in the west had shown themselves fierce fighters, and the Mongols left with an impression that overwhelming force was needed for further campaigning in the region. The Cuman-Qipchaqs, a loose confederation of Turkic tribes inhabiting the steppes from the borders of Hungary past the Caspian Sea, were a particular issue. Nomadic enemies, similar in lifestyle to the Mongols themselves, were perceived as their greatest threat. Not only could they more readily flee Mongol armies than any sedentary foe, thus continuing to be a threat, but they were likewise skilled horse archers. If united under a charismatic leader as Chinggis Khan had done with the Mongol tribes, the Cuman-Qipchaqs could directly challenge Mongolian hegemony in the steppe. In the Mongolian universalist ideology which developed at the end of Chinggis Khan’s life, everything beneath Eternal Blue Heaven was the Mongols to rule. The fact that these foes had fought the Mongols, at times even besting them, was a state of open rebellion that the Great Khan could not allow.


    Subutai had withdrawn from the western steppe over 1224, but that was not the final Mongol encounter in the west before the great invasion. Modern Kazakhstan was by then the ulus of Jochi, the territory granted to Chinggis Khan’s eldest son. As Jochi had died in 1225, the appanage was now headed by Jochi’s second son, Batu- this was the territorial beginnings of the later Golden Horde. From the Jochid ulus, the Mongols had a forward base to attack their foes within the Volga steppe. The closest foe was the Volga Bulghars, a distant Turkic relation to the Bulgarians who gave their name to the empires on the Danube in Southeastern Europe and the Balkans. Controlling the meeting point of the Volga and Kama Rivers, their influence extended to the Urals in the east, and to the borders of the Rus’ principalities in the west. Dominating the fur trade and other exports from the local Finno-Ugric population like the Mordvins and Bashkirs, Volga Bulgharia was a major trade centre, the stopping point between the Rus’ principalities and Khwarezmian Empire. At least, it had been until Chinggis Khan wiped the Khwarezmian Empire from the map. With extensive contacts in Khwarezm and the Qipchaq tribes of the region, the Volga Bulghars were well informed of the fall of Khwarezm and approach of Subutai in 1223, and defeated him on the Volga River that year. Despite this victory, they were not left in a great position. The most powerful Rus’ princely state, that of Vladimir-Sudzal’, was encroaching on Bulghar territory and competing for control over the Mordvins, making one of the Mordvin principalities their vassal. The Bulghars tried to appease the Rus’ through peace negotiations, hoping to focus their efforts for a Mongol return.


It proved fruitless. In 1229 with Ogedai’s ascension came the second Mongol attack, in which Mongol forces seized the steppe from the Ural River to the Volga, overrunning the Bulghars’ border guards.  This attack was led by the commanders Koketei and Sonitei, though it’s commonly suggested that this Sonitei may have been a misspelling of Subutai in the source. If it was Subutai, he was soon recalled to aid Ogedai and Tolui in the final conquest of the Jin Dynasty. The 1229 attack caused a great displacement of tribes, fleeing deeping into Bulghar territory to escape the Mongols. Another attack came in 1232, spending the winter in Bulghar country but were unable to move onto their capital. 


Relatively smaller armies had undertaken these two offensives; with significant forces dispatched under Chormaqun to finalize conquests in Iran and accompanying Ogedai, Tolui and Subutai to destroy the Jin, as we have covered in our previous episodes, major resources were unavailable to attack Bulghar. Victory over the Jurchen Jin in 1234 changed this, freeing up troops to divert elsewhere. Most of the Mongol army and its auxiliaries were pulled back within weeks of the final victory over the Jin, though some forces remained on the border due to an attack from the Song Dynasty. Despite Song attacks, Ogedai ordered only minor offensives against them for the time being; the west had to be dealt with. 


In 1235 a great quriltai was held in Mongolia to which the available princes of the dynasty were invited. In classic Ogedai fashion upon their gathering an entire month was spent in feasting, drinking and celebrating; gifts and loot were handed out from the treasury; the laws and ordinances of Chinggis Khan were read out again. After this imperial bender, it was time to get to business.  Ogedai’s son Qochu was ordered to hold the frontier with the Song Dynasty, while the rest of the available forces were to be taken west. The Mongol leadership was under the impression that the western end of the continent was home to fierce foes. Ogedai’s only surviving full brother, Chagatai, had been collecting information for him. In the Secret History of the Mongols, Chagatai gave this warning to Ogedai: 


“The enemy people beyond consist of many states, and there, at the end of the world, they are hard people. They are people who, when they become angry, would rather die by their own swords. I am told they have sharp swords.”


    Chagatai's idea was that this should be a unified effort with all branches of the dynasty -that is, from the lines of Chinggis Khan’s four sons with Borte- contributing troops. This was agreed to. While the western campaign is sometimes depicted as a side show, the sources inform us that the chief figures of the third generation of Chinggisids were present. A number of Jochi’s numerous children, especially his most important sons Orda, Batu, Shiban and Tangqut, were to be present. From Chagatai’s line were Buri and Baidar, Buri his grandson via Moetugen, Chagatai’s beloved favourite who had died in the Khwarezmian campaign. Ogedai’s own sons Guyuk and Qadan represented him, and from the line of the late Tolui was his eldest, Mongke, and Mongke’s half-brother Bojek. If some of these names sound familiar to you, it's because these were among the most prominent Chinggisids of the next decades: Batu, founder of the Golden Horde, with Guyuk and Mongke to be Great Khans in the years after Ogedai. Kolgen, a son of Chinggis Khan from a secondary wife accompanied them, as did the most famous of all Mongol generals, Subutai. While Batu was the lead prince and it was ostensibly his territory they were expanding, Subutai was to hold overall command. Ogedai wished to lead this army himself, but was talked out of it by the assembly- it was deemed too dangerous an expedition, and  Ogedai’s health may have already declined past being fit for such a trek.


    Each of these princes brought the troops attached to their households and appanages, resulting in a massive and diverse army. Common estimates range from 100,000-150,000 men- largely Mongolian and Turkic horse archers, but with an important contingent of Chinese siege engineers. Representatives of other conquered peoples joined them- Tanguts, Uighurs, Khitan, Jurchen, already conquered Qipchaqs and perhaps even Central Asian Iranians. A mainly cavalry army,  speed, maneuverability and overwhelming firepower was its strength, taking advantage of the seemingly unlimited grassland and pasture of the great Eurasian steppe.  We know at one point in the quriltai it was considered to send a vast army of Chinese along with them, but this idea was talked down: Yelu Chucai declared they were unfit to the climate and long march.


    A moment must be given to what the strategic goals were. The Qipchaq and Bulghars were obviously targets, with the Rus’ to be punished for allying with them. In general, the western steppe was to be conquered, but beyond that? It’s often said the famous European component of the invasion was an afterthought, little more than a raid, but there is some suggestion that Hungary was a definite target right from the beginning. Most Mongol imperial sources discuss Hungary, or rather, their garbled name representing the Kingdom, as a target from the outset. In the 1220s the Hungarian King, Bela IV, who we will meet in our next episodes, had declared himself King of the Cumans. The Hungarian Kingdom wanted to expand its control over and convert the neighbouring Cumans to Christianity. It’s possible rumour made it down the steppes that the Hungarian King was not the Cuman King in name only, but the actual lord of the Cuman tribes in fact. For the Mongols, who saw the Cuman-Qipchaqs as enemies, this made their “king” a major foe. As they moved west they likely gained more accurate information on him, but in distant Mongolia it was hard to correct that. Beyond that, we have statements from the likes of Friar Julian, who will be introduced below, stating in 1236 that the Mongols intended on attacking Rome. So the army, representing the four branches of the Chinggisid dynasty, had a goal to essentially conquer everything westwards, specifically intending on Europe as a part of this. 


    After the quriltai, the princes returned to their ordus, [or-doos] to assemble their forces: the various armies marched separately, setting out in spring 1236 to unite on the Kama River on the edge of Volga Bulghar territory. 


    We are provided an absolutely fascinating perspective from an Hungarian Dominican friar who traveled through Volga Bulgharia on the eve of the Mongol invasion. Called Julian, or sometimes Julianus, he had been sent to find the  Hungarians who remained in their old homeland. In a journey that took him across the steppe, through the Rus’ principalities, and Volga Bulgharia, he arrived east of Volga Bulgharia in what he called Magna Hungaria - “great Hungary,” inhabited by a Ugric people whose language, Julian was astonished to find, was mutually intelligible with his own, despite the 400 years since the Magyars had separated from them to enter the Pannonian Basin. These were the Bashkirs, related to the modern people of the same name in Russia’s Bashkortostan, though the modern descendants have been thoroughly turkicized. More relevant for us, Julian was in Magna Hungaria and Volga Bulgharia while Mongol armies gathered on the Kama River only a few days away. There is a sense that the Bulghars were quite aware of the strength of the Mongol army and the approaching terror, but lacked the manpower to repulse such a horde, leaving them to watch helplessly. During his time there, Julian encountered Mongol envoys  moving ahead of the main army with demands of submission. Julian departed before the Mongol attack on Bulghar, and we are provided no specifics on the fall. The Bulghar cities were well fortified, their army of fine repute, but they had been weakened in recent years by conflict with the Rus’ and Mongols. Over winter 1236, their capital cities were destroyed and the state of Volga Bulgharia ended.


    While there, Friar Julian heard that Saqsin, a Turkic city along the lower Volga, had already fallen to them. Indeed, it seems the Mongols made to secure the steppes around the northwestern Caspian before moving onto the Volga Bulghars. This was a region inhabited by the Qipchaq-Olberli-Qanglis of the Cuman-Qipchaq confederation, who had fought the Mongols several times. We have little specific details of this, except for one episode. Many Cuman-Qipchaq peoples fled west before the Mongols, while others submitted, with limited resistance by one individual in particular. This was Bachman of the Olberli Qipchaqs. The ruler of a territory along the Ahktuba, a branch of the lower Volga, Bachman emerged sometime in the late 1220s and early 1230s, trying to organize against the Mongols. The leading Cuman-Qipchaq chiefs had fallen to Jebe and Subutai during their campaign in 1222-1223, leaving few in the Qipchaq steppe with the following or influence to rise up. According to the Yuan Shih, dating from the early Ming Dynasty, part of Subutai’s specific instructions had been to strike down this Qipchap chief. Before the fall of Volga Bulgharia, Subutai advanced with the vanguard ahead of the main and scattered Bachman’s army, somewhere along the Caspian Sea, capturing Bachman’s wife and sons. Subutai then turned back for the Kama River to await the main army before moving onto the Bulghars. Bachman was reduced to irregular warfare with a small following, striking at Mongol parties while fleeing southwards. In early 1237 as the main army under Subutai continued on from the ruins of Volga Bulgharia, Mongke and his half brother Bojek were despatched to hunt Bachman down, each travelling down a bank of the Volga. Finding an old woman left behind by Bachman’s troops who pointed them after him, Mongke and Bojek cornered Bachman on an island in the river. Heaven showed its favour when the winds picked up and pushed the water back to reveal a ford. Crossing rapidly, Mongke and Bojek’s army fell upon the unprepared and outnumbered Bachman, destroying the remnants of his men. Bachman was captured, asking only for the final honour to be killed by Mongke’s own hand. Mongke instead had Bojek cut Bachman in half, essentially putting an end to any form of organized Cuman-Qipchaq resistance to the Mongol advance. 


    After Bachmann’s death, Mongke and Bojek marched back across the steppe to rejoin the main army, which had stayed busy. The Bashkirs had been dispersed and subjugated, Volga Bulgharia destroyed, the next target being the Mordvins, another Ugric people still extant today, giving their name to the Russian republic of Mordovia. The Mordvins were divided into two principalities; once both under Volga Bulgharian influence, the western had since fallen under the domination of the Rus’. The eastern principality submitted to the Mongols and provided troops; the western made the mistake of resisting and was crushed. 


    This left the Mongols on the borders of the Rus’ principalities. Halting on the Voronezh River in late summer 1237, Batu and Subutai waited to allow Mongke and Bojek to rejoin them, finalizing their plan of assault, sending envoys to demand submission and waiting for the rivers to freeze in order to cross them. The Rus’ principalities were the divided heirs to the Kievan Rus’; still linguistically and culturally a part of the same heritage and the Riurikid dynasty, but politically each  principality was an independent entity. In the 1230s, the most powerful was the northeastern principality of Vladimir-Suzdal’ under the Grand Duke Yuri Vsevolodovich. While the Volga Bulghars had made efforts to prepare for the Mongol return, it seems the great slaughter on the Kalka River did nothing for the Rus’, who chalked it up to another attack, though a destructive one, by the various nomads of the steppe. Few rumours of the Mongols had reached the Rus’ in the following years, and their return was sudden and unexpected. For Batu’s force, the  closest Rus’ principality was  Ryazan, which bravely, but foolishly, refused to submit. The Princes of Ryazan, Murom and Pronsk sent an army against the Mongols, at the start of winter 1237, which was destroyed near the Voronezh River, the Rus’ horsemen pierced by Mongol arrows.


On December 16th, 1237, Batu’s  armies arrived outside Ryazan, surrounding the city with a stockade. On the 21st of December, the city’s wooden walls were breached by catapult and battering ram, the Mongols pouring in. In the words of the Chronicle of Novgorod, the Mongols “killed the Knyaz and the Knyaginya and men, women, and children, monks, nuns and priests, some by fire, some by the sword, and violated nuns, priests’ wives, good women and girls in the presence of their mothers and sisters.” The slaughter was total and indiscriminate. Grand Duke Yuri was unable, or unwilling to help. Some historians such as Alexander Maiorov have suggested based on the Laurentian Chronicle that Yuri had actually accepted a Mongol demand for submission, having sent back their envoys with gifts. In the Chronicle, Roman Igorevich, the brother of the Prince of Ryazan fled with his druzhina bodyguards, hotly pursued by Mongols, making his way to Kolomna on the Oka River. There he was unexpectedly supported by the commander- an officer of Grand Duke Yuri- who tried to help him. The Mongols won the battle, but one of their generals was killed- Kolgen, a son of Chinggis Khan. The killing of a Chinggisid prince was always cause for horrific retaliation, and even if Yuri had accepted submission, or at least hoped to avoid violence, it was too late. The consequence of Kolgen’s death was the rapid assault and sacking of numerous cities across the northern principalities over spring 1238, among them a small town called Moscow on the 15th of January. 


Grand Duke Yuri fled north, his capital of Vladimir falling on February 7th, his family killed in the process. On the 4th of March , Yuri and a small force was caught on the Sit’ River by the Mongol Noyan Boroldai. Yuri was captured and suffered a horrific death the sources could only allude to


Only at Torzhok and Kozel’sk did resistance last weeks. Kozel’sk in particular was a bloody affair, aptly defended under its young prince Vasilko. Batu was unable to force the city for almost two months. At one point a wall was breached and the Mongols rushed it, only to be repulsed. Only when  Qadan and Buri arrived with reinforcements was the city to be taken. Before the city fell in May 1238, the citizenry rushed from the gates in an unexpected charge, taking the Mongols by surprise and inflicting heavy casualties, destroying catapults and killing the sons of three commanders before the Mongols overcame them. According to the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle, the Mongols came to call Kozel’sk “the evil city,” and none dared mention it in their presence. Of the major cities of the northern principalities, only the republic of Novgorod escaped slaughter with the timely submission of its prince, Alexander Nevsky, perhaps aided by the spring melt turning the approaches to the city into marsh and hamphering Mongol advances. Nevsky is most famous today as the victor over the Teutonic Knights at Lake Peipus in 1242, a small victory the Rus’ clung to in an era of devastation. With the onset of warmer weather around May 1238, the Mongols withdrew from northern Rus’ to rest men and horses and take stock of their efforts.


Why did the Rus’ fair so poorly? From December 1237 to May 1238,  the Mongols took the major cities of the northern principalities with few holding out longer than a couple of days. We can boil it down to two main factors. The first being the matter of defenses and weaponry. The defenses of the Rus’ cities were mainly logs on top earthworks, with towers few or non-existent and stone works rare. For catapults designed to bring down the great pounded earth walls of China, such walls provided little defense. Mongol siege techniques were simply far advanced beyond that of the Rus’, where sieges were generally blockades to starve out the inhabitants and catapults exceedingly uncommon. Defenders behind the city walls had nothing to compare to the range of Chinese catapults, leaving them only able to watch as the walls were battered down from afar. Cities and fortresses were, unlike Europe, built on level and approachable ground, making them easy to surround, advance to, and easy to strike with siege machines. 


The other cause for the swift Rus’ defeat was the deep fragmentation of the principalities. Princely conflict was tense in the years building up to, and even during, the Mongol invasion,  princes keen to watch their neighbour take the force of the Mongol assault, only to be surprised when they were struck next. In comparison, the Mongols had a mostly unified and effective leadership- though their own princely antagonisms were about to begin to rear their heads. Mongol army units were able to cooperate and move independently from hundreds of kilometres apart, kept in contact with a series of messengers and set timelines to meet. Rather than a massive assemblage moving altogether, the Mongol army split into contingents led by their princes and commanders, units of 1000 darting across Rus’. The sensation within the cities must have been that they were totally surrounded, new parties of Mongols riding to and fro daily, their numbers seemingly endless. Like the cities of the Khwarezmian Empire, the Rus’ cities were basically each left to their own defense, allowing the Mongols to always isolate the enemy and enjoy local superiority in numbers despite the fierceness of the Rus’ garrisons.


By the time Batu ordered the withdrawal for summer 1238, northern Rus’ was devastated. Archaeologically the evidence of the slaughter of men, women and children has sadly corroborated Rus' accoutnts, though the destruction was not as total as commonly portrayed, as Rus’  princes still had military and economic power to continue fighting each other in the following years. Their ability to offer an effective military resistance to the Mongol Empire was broken, and it would be well over a century before the Rus’ could provide a direct military challenge to Mongol forces. Still, not all the principalities were destroyed in this first wave: the south and far western principalities like Chernigov, Kiev, Galicia and Volhynia had not yet been targeted, and the Cuman-Qipchap inhabited steppe between the Caspian and Black Seas still needed to be conquered, the next tasks for Batu and Subutai after their break for summer 1238, and the topic for our next episode, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!