Friday, March 03, 2006

The discovery of Europe

After finally conquering the jehadis, Chingiz Khan summoned a grand council in the grasslands of Central Asia. There was still work to be done—Muqali had died in China and the Kingdom of Hia was in rebellion. The tribes in the Gobi were also restless. Before planning a new campaign Chingiz first decided on his succession to keep the empire stable—the eldest son Juchi was to inherit the lands in the far west, Tuli the youngest in the east, while Chagtai would rule over Central Asia. But dominant over them all was the middle son Ogdai[1] who would be the next Kha-Khan and whose word would have to be obeyed by his brothers and uncles—even if they were older and more experienced than him.

The Mongols now set off to attack the rebel ruler of Hia, who had first joined Chingiz before his invasion of China and was even related to him by marriage. While the campaign was being fought and won Chingiz learnt of the death of his eldest son Juchi. Later even as General Subotai was thundering into the lands of Sung (southern China) Chingiz himself fell sick and realized that his end was near. After giving last-minute instructions to his generals on how the war against the Sung was to be fought Chingiz Khan died in 1227.

In obedience of his will Ogdai became the next Kha-Khan and a fresh wave of conquests swept through the world. The throne eventually passed to the family of the youngest son Tuli—the story of his sons Mangu and Kublai is well known through the writing of the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. The story of the descendants of Chagtai will be related later. The descendants of Juchi inherited new lands discovered in the west and the Mongol adventures in Russia and Europe can now be told here.

[1] The mild-mannered Ogdai was chosen because the other brothers were headstrong and would have squandered their father’s heritage in bloody quarrels over the throne. True to his nature Ogdai initially declined to ascend the throne while his brothers and uncles were alive. Then, in a dramatic act, the Mongol nobles persuaded the elder brother Chagtai to kneel before Ogdai and acknowledge him as Kha-Khan.

During the war with the Muslim Turks, the leading Mongol generals Chepe and Subotai had chased Muhammad Shah to his death on an island in the Caspian Sea. North of the Caucasus were the lands of the Kipchak Turks who were related by marriage to Muhammad Shah—Subotai asked permission from Chingiz to campaign in their lands and then to circle around the Caspian Sea and rejoin him from the north. Chingiz approved of this plan and sent a body of Turkomans to boost the resources of the two generals, who by that time had also recruited the local Kurds into their army.

The first mountain people to be tackled were the Georgians. Subotai attacked them with his division and, after some fierce fighting, pretended to flee—the Georgians who followed him in a headlong chase were ambushed in the flanks by Chepe’s division hidden in the valleys. By this same device a mixed army of the Alans, Circassians, and Kipchaks was defeated and driven north. The Kipchaks swerved west into the lands of the Russians, to whom the Mongols appealed that the Kipchaks were their enemies and should not be given shelter. But the Duke of Kiev and other princes were excited by the opportunity of dominating the disturbed steppe land of the Kipchaks and they executed the Mongol envoys.

Unfortunately the sagacious Mongols had also sent ahead spies and patrols to explore these strange new lands and their suitability for the usual Mongol maneuvers. Selecting a place beforehand for fighting the united Russians and Kipchaks the Mongols kept drawing the huge host of enemies into their trap for over a week, by which time the various Russian princes had deepened their quarrels and had spread out over a large area in their separate camps. At the Battle of Kalka River the Mongols ambushed the disunited host from all sides and destroyed their army.

Chepe and Subotai turned south into the Crimean peninsula where they received Chingiz Khan’s message ordering them to return—he was then setting out to root out the jehadis from the cities of Islam. At this time the great Chepe died but the rest of the army under Subotai defeated the Bulgars before retracing their steps. These Bulgars had at that time extended their power deep into Russia but the Mongol victory ended this growing empire.

Russia and Europe were entirely new lands discovered by the Mongols. The two adventurous generals took care to note down the forests, grasslands, lakes and other natural wealth of these conquests. Following the training of their Khan they also established outposts for horse relays to carry communications back and across the thousands of miles from Central Asia. On the way back Subotai found the brooding elder prince Juchi near the Aral Sea and took him along to the grand council called by Chingiz. While Chepe and Subotai had struck the Kipchaks from the south, Juchi had attacked their steppe home from the north[2], and he had even recruited some of these Turks in his army. At the grand council Juchi was formally assigned all the newly conquered lands in the west—he did not live long to enjoy them.

[2] Juchi was sent north also because of his laxity, which had led to the escape of the Turk prince Jelal-ud-din from Urgench. He made up for this by a ferocious campaign against the Kipchaks.

Juchi’s son Batu Khan attended the council that saw the enthroning of Ogdai as the next Kha-Khan. At this council a further push into the west, among other areas, was planned. The person most concerned with that region, Batu, and the person most experienced in fighting in those new lands, Subotai, together had this assignment.

To boost their resources Batu’s brothers and cousins, namely Kaidu, Baibars, and Guyuk, were attached to this army with their divisions. For almost two years they campaigned in Russia, mopping up the remnants of the Alans and Kipchaks, and gaining the submission of the Russian princes. The refugees from this campaign fled into Europe, to the numerous principalities of Poland or to the strong Hungarian kingdom.

Here again Batu requested the Europeans to not shelter the refugees from Russia—but at the same time he also sent spies and patrols to explore the roads and rivers of these new lands. When the expected refusal came from the Europeans the Mongols resolved to conquer all the lands up to the great sea—meaning the Atlantic Ocean. They entered Europe in 1241 and camped under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains. The Europeans too had amassed their forces in preparation for the coming contest.

Facing the Mongols were the Poles of Boleslas. To his north were the remaining Poles under his cousin Henry of Silesia who had been joined by the Bavarians, the Teutonic Knights, and the Templar Knights from France. Behind these two forces stood Henry’s brother-in-law Wenceslas, the King of Bohemia, joined by contingents from Austria and Saxony. Against this northern grouping Batu and Subotia sent two divisions under Kaidu and Baibars.

South of the Carpathians was the Magyar Kingdom of Hungary with their sturdy King Bela and his 100,000 strong army stiffened by Germans, Croats, and more of the Templar Knights. Along the Carpathians were smaller Christian armies waiting for the infidel enemy—these were mopped up by the Mongols who divided the southern army into three divisions and pierced through the mountains at different places. They joined up to face the host of Bela at Pesth but before engaging the enemy sent off one division to establish communications with the northern army.

In the north Kaidu and Baibars had sent scouts to explore the position of King Boleslas—the brave Poles chased after these horsemen, became disjointed in their advance, and were annihilated by the main Mongol army waiting in ambush. While Boleslas fled south to take shelter in a monastery of Moravia, Kaidu and Baibars burnt the Polish city of Cracow and turned north to meet the force under the Duke of Silesia. This Battle of Leignitz lasted the better part of the day and ended with the heavily armored European knights dying fighting to the end surrounded by their men-at-arms.

Leignitz was however burned by its brave defenders to prevent its looting by the Mongols. Only a day later Kaidu and Baibars met the large Bohemian army of Wenceslas and avoided a pitched battle—they used their cavalry to ravage the fertile lands of Silesia and Moravia while harassing Wenceslas with hit-and-run attacks. So well hidden were their moves that the Bohemians could never locate the main Mongol headquarters and only moved hither and thither as they heard of disturbances occurring at different places. Finally Kaidu and Baibars vanished south to rejoin Batu while Wenceslas lost his way far north chasing an imaginary Mongol army.

Meanwhile in the south the Hungarian King Bela was crossing the Danube to come up to the distant Mongols of Subotai and Batu who by this time had destroyed the armies of Mieceslas of Galicia and the Bishop of Ugolin. The Mongols did not engage the huge host of Magyars, Germans, and Croats directly and retreated slowly as the latter advanced. While this retreat was being conducted by the divisional commanders, Batu and Subotai quietly rode away to look for the ideal place for fighting the Hungarian army—they chose the wide plain of Mohi hemmed in by forests and hills, and by the meandering River Sajo.

The Mongols galloped across the Mohi plain, crossed a wide stone bridge on the Sajo, and disappeared into the woods on the other side. Bela’s army came after them and camped for the night in the Mohi plain—they sent a thousand men across the bridge to guard against a surprise attack. Scouting parties that explored the woods reported no sign of the enemy and the European knights relaxed their guard, intending to take up the pursuit the next day.

But during that night the Mongol army maintained its position deep in the forest without making a sound or challenging the European scouts. The master strategist Subotai had already selected a place for crossing back over the Sajo and in the darkness he led his wing in a wide circular movement through the forests and hills to emerge across the river in the next afternoon. It must have been an extraordinarily wide movement since the mass of men and horses would have surely slashed through the brush, broken off branches from the trees, and disturbed the wild animals in their long journey! At any rate the Europeans never learnt of this distant maneuver of the enemy forces.

At dawn began the Battle of Mohi. The rest of the Mongols under Bela moved through the woods and assaulted the thousand Europeans at the bridge. The Mongol horsemen began crossing over the bridge while their catapults assaulted the alarmed Europeans on the Mohi plain with a barrage of stones. Bela and his knights fought stoutly till mid-day surrounded by bands of Mongol archers and swordsmen, swiftly weaving in and out of the European camp. And then came a force of armed Mongols in the rear—Subotai had finally crossed the Sajo and his horsemen were assaulting the Christian soldiers in the rear.

And then as the Christian ranks were being packed together from two sides, the sagacious Subotai ordered his wing to part ranks and left open the road to Pesth, seemingly allowing the Hungarian army a way out of the trap. Bela and his knights fled through this gap, their cavalry became separated from the infantry, which was annihilated. Then the armor-clad horsemen were chased at leisure and hunted out with arrows shot at long range—their bodies littered the road to Pesth. Bela however escaped, crossing into the Carpathian Mountains, and finally finding refuge at the same Moravian monastery that housed Boleslas the Pole.

Batu and Subotai stormed Pesth, crossed over into Austria, and moved down along the Adriatic coast. Only the one town of Olmutz fought off their assault—the rest of the towns and cities were looted and burned. The northern and southern armies had united and were seeking to penetrate further west when the summons came from Kara Korum—the Kha-Khan Ogtai had died and they were required to return and elect the next Kha-Khan.

The Mongol-European encounter lasted only a few months and ended with the annihilation of the European armies, the sacking of their cities, and the ravaging of their countryside by the Mongol horsemen. In sheer numbers the Europeans outnumbered the invaders almost four to one but the composition of those numbers was the failing of the former.

The European cavalry was formed by elaborate grades into Dukes, Barons, Knights, and Pages. The infantrymen followed their lord into battle, carried his weapons, cared for his horses, and guarded his camp—these footmen formed the bulk of the European armies. The story of each battle fought above displays graphically the weakness of such formations.

But even the European horsemen by themselves were no match for the Mongols. The heavily armored knights and their sturdy horses charged in a compact body to crush stationary enemy formations—they were ineffective against a rapidly maneuvering opponent. Their horses lacked the endurance for long-range movements, which the Mongols excelled in—moreover the Europeans lacked unity of command to coordinate their larger strategic moves. The Mongol-European contest usually ended with the unhorsed knights of a particular dukedom or religious order huddled in a group and fighting bravely to the last.

This brief but devastating encounter opened the eyes of observant Europeans. Frederick II of Austria, the King who had been saved by the Mongol withdrawal, remarked, “The Tartars are men of small stature but sturdy limbs; high-strung, valiant and daring, always ready to throw themselves into peril at a sign from their commanderthey are mounted on better horses, they sustain themselves on choicer foods and wear garments less rude than our own.” He went on to declare that these Mongols were the punishment of God, visited upon Christendom for its sins.

Another contemporary European, Thomas de Spalato, wrote, “No people in the world is as able—especially in conflicts in open country—in defeating an enemy either by personal bravery, or by knowledge of warfare.”

The Pope Innocent IV called the Council of Lyons to discuss means of saving the “Church of God” from the Mongols. He sent Fra Carpini as an envoy to the Mongol court—this man observed the Mongol method of warfare, “Men and horses they wound and slay with arrows, and when men and mounts are shattered in this fashion, they then close in upon them.” Fra Carpini goes on to suggest, “Our armies ought to be marshaled after the order of the Tartars, and under the same rigorous laws of war. The field of battle should be chosen, if possible in a plain where everything is visible on all sides. The army should by no means be drawn up in one body, but in many divisions. Scouts ought to be sent out on every side…The Princes of Christendom ought to have many soldiers armed with strong-bows, cross-bows and artillery…our men ought to have good helmets, armor and horses.”

But such military capacity cannot merely be imitated—it has to be built up by sustained investments over years and decades. Additionally the environment for that capacity is also a pre-requisite. Europe just did not have the right horses for the Mongol manner of warfare and their terrain of thick forests, cultivated plains and fortified cities, and numerous roads and rivers prevented the imitation of the Mongol method of warfare—much as the Europeans would have liked to possess such capability[3].

The death of Ogdai saved the kingdoms and peoples of Western Europe from annihilation. But the sudden Mongol withdrawal and the fact that they never returned to torment Europe gave rise to some myth making. The dark warning of Frederick II and the opinions of de Spalato and Carpini were soon buried in the pages of history and late till the 19th Century, the slaughter at Leignitz and Mohi, and the out-maneuvering of Wenceslas had come to be regarded as victories (!), which had deterred the “Tartars” from advancing deeper into Europe! The modern Europeans who first wrote about Chingiz Khan in the early 20th century finally unearthed the truth.

But why did the Mongols never return to complete the conquest? Chepe and Subotai had been similarly called back by Chingiz while in Russia—but Subotai returned with Batu several years later to complete the task. However the victorious Mongol army gazing at the Adriatic Sea in 1242 was suffering a little from dissensions—Batu Khan was angry with Subotai for taking an entire night and half a day to make his circling movement at Mohi, leaving Batu and his soldiers alone to fight the full force of Bela for hours. This point came up at the council in Kara Korum where Subotai explained that there was no bridge at the place his army had to cross the Sajo, which caused their delay. Subotai died a few years later in 1248 and left a void in the higher command that was never filled.

Batu was also angry with his cousin Guyuk, the son of Ogdai. The latter prince left the invading force after a quarrel and returned to Monglia in a huff—after his father’s death Guyuk was elected as Kha-Khan in 1246. However the quarrel with Batu nearly exploded in a civil war two years later when both sides began leading their armies for a decisive clash across the thousands of miles that separated them—fortunately Guyuk died on the way. Batu however continued his march and used his influence to pass on the throne to his cousin Mangu, the son of Tuli. In return Batu was left alone in his Russian plains as an independent ruler with no army coming from the Kha-Khan to drag the prince off to some distant war.

The death of Subotai, the internal quarrels of the Mongol princes, and Batu Khan’s desire for independence saved Europe from another invasion. The new Kha-Khan Mangu, sent his brothers Kublai to southern China and Hulagu to Persia. The latter prince sacked Baghdad and destroyed the Khilafat forever—in the coming battles with the Muslims Hulagu sought an alliance with the European crusaders. The Mongols were tolerant of all faiths and there were Nestorian and Armenian Christians among them—after conquering Syria Hulagu ordered, “every religious sect should proclaim its faith openly, and no Muslim should disapprove.” He also issued commands permitting the rebuilding of churches destroyed by the Muslims.

The descendants of Batu converted to Islam under the influence of their Kipchak soldiery but remained contented with their Russian plains and the tribute from the Russian princes, although they did raid Eastern Europe a few times. In these raids, and in the earlier invasion, the Mongols would set up camp for the night—their wagon-drawn tents were called Yurts and the entire camp was called the Ordu. This word ordu became corrupted to horde in the European languages. From the effects of the Mongol cavalry raids “horde” in these languages came to mean, not a disciplined army camp, but an uncontrollable mob!

In the east the same word ordu survived in another form.

[3] This European cavalry later suffered at the hands of its own infantry! The English longbow men trounced the French knights at Agincourt…the English knights in their turn suffered defeats at the hands of Scottish pike men. The European revival came through the rediscovery of the military techniques of the Greek and Roman civilizations…mainly their use of disciplined infantry. Coupled with the greater use of firearms this development set the Europeans above the Mongol and Turk cavaliers in the east…and over the Rajput, Afghan, and Maratha cavaliers further east in India.