"These terrible strangers have taken our country" - The Mongol Invasion of Hungary and the Battle of Mohi in 1241

11 April 1241, a numerically inferior army of the Golden Horde led by Subutai decisively defeated King Bela IV of Hungary at the Battle of Mohi, opening the country and its neighbours to brutal invasion.

"They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords ... In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme, and Subotai."

(The Secret History of the Mongols)

It was the explosive spread of an empire the world had not seen since the days of Alexander. Over the course of some twenty years, Temüjin, better known as Genghis Khan, meaning “universal leader”, had conquered a territory across East and Central Asia from China and Korea to the shores of the Caspian Sea, twice the size of the Roman Empire at the height of its power. Admittedly, most of it was composed of steppe at the back of beyond. However, when the 13th century dawned, this somewhat inhospitable place enjoyed decades of mild, wet weather, allowing for a rapid increase of nomad’s livestock and especially local horseflesh, crucial for Genghis Khan’s expeditions of conquest. With man and beast multiplying like never before, Temüjin, his Mongols and associated tribes had everything at their disposals to show their civilised neighbours what was what and fell upon them with numbers, tactics, organisation and leadership that was the peak of mounted steppe warfare, practised and perfected by the nomadic and half-nomadic peoples out there since the Bronze Age. The nations and tribes this storm passed over usually suffered a fate of destruction, plunder, slaughter and extraction of skills and skilled labour and the horsemen from the steppe quickly learned how to proceed against fortified cities as well. During the first half of the 1220s then, occasional raids into the territories of the half-nomadic tribes of the Caucasus, steppe peoples themselves, gave the Europeans a first taste of what was to come when a coalition of several Rus' principalities joined in. A numerically inferior rider’s army under Jebe and Subutai drew the allies to a place of their choosing, the Mongol horse archers feigned flight and their heavies wiped the floor with the surprised pursuing Rus in present-day Ukraine at the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223. Four years later, Genghis Khan was dead and his successor, Great Khan Ögedei, finally allowed his nephew Batu to move against the West. Batu’s generals Möngke and Güyük arrived at the gates of Ryazan in December 1237 and demanded the surrender of the place. The Rus refused, the city was taken and put to the sack. The rest of the Old Russian city states and principalities drowned in fire and blood over the next two years, their tribal neighbours, Alans, Kipchaks, Cumans, Volga Bulgarians and what not, were mopped up, subjugated and absorbed into Batu’s host or fled west. Subutai, the strategic mastermind behind Batu, had them followed by several scouts and spies and after having gotten quite a good idea of the land’s lay beyond the Dnieper, Temüjin’s old war dog planned the next move into Central Europe. After Kiev had fallen in December 1240, the host would advance in three columns, one under Baidar and Ordu across the frozen Vistula into fragmented Poland, one under Güyük into Transylvania and the Balkans and one, under Subutai himself, straight into the Pannonian Plain and the Kingdom of Hungary.

Vasily Maximov (1844 - 1911): "Mongols demanding the surrender of Vladimir" ( around 1880)

, the authors of contemporary chronicles did not bother to read Charles Oman or Hans Delbrück and obviously hid behind the door when Xenophon and Vegetius were on the curriculum in monastic school. Thus, we have no clear idea about what exactly happened before and during the Battle of Mohi. But neither did King Bela IV, scion of House Árpád, even if he had plenty of warning, first from Cuman refugees, then from Russian boyars and finally from his Polish neighbours, even though he probably couldn’t have heard of the disaster that befell them in Silesia two days before he met the Mongols himself. Baidar and Ordu had decisively defeated the Polish High Duke Henry II at Legnica, basically using the same tactics as Subutai did on the Kalka River. We do know, however, that events at Mohi played out differently. Bela had led the Royal Army from his capital at Esztergom about 120 miles to the west into Northern Hungary close to the Slovakian border, some 60,000 men, all that he could gather, many wouldn’t follow his call, others deserted, like a large group of Cuman mercenaries who went south, plundered and might have wiped out loyal Hungarian contingents en route to Buda, just like Subutai’s advance parties did. Naturally, the Mongols had those and were quite well informed about most Hungarian movements while Bela obviously thought nothing of such unnecessary fooling around like reconnaissance. On 10 April then, when his army rested near a bridge across the River Sajó, a tributary of the Tisza, Bela had at least the sense to fortify his camp. And had positively no idea that Subutai’s entire host was across the river. An escaped Ruthenian slave even warned the Hungarians and just the king’s brother, a belligerent archbishop and their men together with a contingent of Knights Templar decided to investigate and promptly ran into the Subutai’s vanguard about to cross the bridge. The Hungarian crossbowmen took a heavy toll from the surprised Mongols, the rest was pushed back in close melee. And then the heroes who might have saved Hungary decided to call it a day, returned to camp to celebrate and just left the crossbowmen behind to guard the approaches, you never know and all that. They still didn’t want to believe Subutai was there in force. The Mongol generalissimo decided to take no risks after he had received a bloody nose, ordered catapults built on site and used them, in an idea worthy of Napoleon, to dislodge the Hungarian crossbows from the other side of the river. It was the first use of siege engines on a European battlefield since antiquity. Then his cavalry followed up, straight across the bridge along with two other columns across shallows of the river the Hungarians didn’t even know about and pushed forward to encircle Bela’s camp. Alerted by those who had fled from the bridge, the camp was still slow to take up arms until they were up to their necks in charging Mongols who shot their catapults, threw burning naphtha and rained them with fire arrows. Sallies from the Hungarian heavies and the Knights Templar still wreaked havoc among Subutai’s men and the whole thing hung in the balance during the afternoon until the men in the beleaguered camp broke and tried to leg it. Through a gap the Mongols had left deliberately open. They were ridden down and skewered with arrows and Bela was soundly defeated. He could barely escape with his own life.

A late 13th century depiction of the Battle of Mohi, moving the action on the bridge and attributing the Mongols with anachronistic Islamic insignia - the Golden Horde did not convert to Islam before 1313

while the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II busied himself in Northern Italy with feuding city states and St Louis IX, King of France, somehow believed that Genghis Khan and his heirs were Prester John incarnate, there to help him to free the Holy Land from the infidel, these very Mongols put Hungary to the sword. Those who couldn’t flee into swamps or take to the hills were slaughtered, up to one fourth of the country’s entire population. The Mongols usually didn’t bother to lay siege to fortified places that didn’t promise plunder, but Buda, Pest and Esztergom were sacked and so was Zagreb when they crossed the frozen Danube into Croatia. In the spring of 1242, the Mongols had reached the shores of the Adriatic Sea and the outskirts of Vienna. Emperor Frederick finally assembled a relief army and then, all of a sudden, the invaders withdrew to where they came from. Great Khan Möngke had died in Karakorum and the princes of the blood present on the European theatre, in all probability, wanted to cast their vote in the election of his successor, backed up by their household troops. The nightmare was over, at least for a while. Batu Khan’s Golden Horde and later the Blue Horde would lord it over the former principalities of the Rus, along the Volga, east to the Ural, the Caspian and the Aral Sea well into the 15th century, but far more benevolent than they behaved during the initial invasion. During the late 13th century, the Horde would attempt occasional raids into the region again, Hungary, Poland, the Balkan principalities and Byzantine territories in Thrace, but they were repulsed. They left the Westerners with an inherent fear, though, of what might come out of the steppes and the East to threaten them next. And indeed, about a hundred fifty years later, the Ottoman Turks were at their doorsteps.

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