MOHI, 11 April 1241

The Mongol incursions presented Europe with insuperable military problems. An initial raid in 1223 tested the Russian states’ mettle and found it wanting. Then, in a series of consecutive campaigns from 1237-41, Mongol forces overran Russia and devastated Poland and Hungary. Against their strategic speed and discipline in battle, western arms proved totally inadequate. A Mongol conquest of Christian Europe might have been possible, although logistically difficult, but it was never attempted.

While Baidar and Kadan had been sweeping through Poland, Batu’s armies had been advancing into Hungary, and once Baidar and Kadan had located the armies of Silesia and Bohemia and were preparing to secure the northern flank by eliminating or decoying them, Batu, who had been taunting Bela’s soldiers in Pest, began to withdraw. As always the co-ordination of the Mongol armies was faultless, but the timing of the decisive engagements was astonishing. It cannot be dismissed as coincidence, and since the uncertainty of the enemy positions would have made pre-planning impossible, the only explanation seems to be the speed of the Mongol messengers and in particular the efficiency of their signalling system. The day after the destruction of the Silesian army at Liegnitz, the southern flank was secured by Kuyuk who stormed Hermannstadt, over five hundred miles away, and destroyed the army of Transylvania, and in the centre Batu and Subedei halted to engage Bela on the heath at Mohi, which lies south-west of the river Sajo just before it joins the Tisza.

During the retreat Subedei, Mangku and Batu rode ahead of their soldiers to inspect the battlefield which Batu had chosen. On the afternoon of 10 April the Mongol army rode over the heath, crossed the Sajo by the only bridge and continued ten miles beyond it into the thickets, with the hills and vineyards of Tokay ahead of them and the rivers Tisza and Hernard on either side. In the evening when Bela arrived, a reconnaissance of a thousand Hungarian horsemen crossed the stone bridge, rode into the thickets, found nothing and returned to guard the bridge while the remainder of their army made its camp on the heath. Hundreds of wagons were drawn up in a circle around the tents and held together with chains and ropes. In the last light of the day Batu led his staff corps back to a hilltop and showed them the Hungarian position. On their right were the marshes of the Tisza, ahead of them the Sajo, and on their left and behind them the hills and forests of Lomnitz and Diosgyor. If they could be kept on the heath, the enemy were trapped like cattle in a corral.

When night came Subedei led thirty thousand men through the hills and back to the Sajo beyond the heath. His plan was to cross over and take the enemy in the rear while Batu engaged their front, and he began to build a wooden bridge between the villages of Girines and Nady Czeks. Bela’s scouts had already proved them- selves to be inept on several occasions, including that afternoon, and if there were any pickets they saw and heard nothing.

Just before dawn Batu launched his attack on the stone bridge. The guards held the west bank until reinforcements came from their camp and when it seemed as though the deep ranks of defenders could hold out indefinitely against a narrow column of Mongol cavalry, they jeered at them across the river. But Batu brought up a battery of seven catapults and began to bombard the far side of the bridge, `to the accompaniment of thunderous noise and flashes of fire’. As the disordered Hungarian ranks drew back from the fire bombs and grenades, the catapults increased their range and Batu’s soldiers crossed the bridge safely behind a `rolling barrage’.

At first the Hungarians were confused by the tactical use of artillery on the battlefield, but on the heath Batu’s forty thousand men faced the entire Hungarian army and it seemed only a matter of time before superior numbers would prevail. Committed to a plan which limited their ability to manoeuvre, the Mongol soldiers moved round slowly towards the centre of the heath so that the Hungarian rear would be towards Subedei’s surprise attack, and only their fire power saved them from being overwhelmed by the massed charges of the finest cavalry in Europe. After two ferocious hours Batu’s dangerously depleted ranks began to stretch out audaciously into a half circle as though they believed that they could surround their enemy, and as the Hungarians were preparing to charge through the line, another half circle under Subedei appeared behind them. The rest of the Mongol army had arrived at last, and the two lines closed in behind a shower of arrows. Surprised and about to be surrounded, the Hungarians had lost the advantage, but were too experienced to panic. Before the circle could be completed, they formed into columns and made an orderly withdrawal into their fortified camp.

The Mongols surrounded the camp, but Batu was despondent. The second bridge had taken longer than expected to build and the delay had cost him terrible casualties for which he blamed Subedei. He was no longer confident that his exhausted soldiers were strong enough to storm the camp or hold their own if the Hungarians came out again, and he wanted to play safe and retreat. Subedei, however, had more faith in his soldiers and their trust in him was absolute. `If the princes wish to retreat they may do so,’ he said, `but for my part I am resolved not to return until I have reached Pest and the Danube’.

The battle continued, and in the Hungarian camp many of the barons, who had earlier fought valiantly when victory seemed certain, would have abandoned Bela to his fate, if their camp had not already been surrounded. Bela’s brother Koloman rallied enough men to charge the Mongol artillery which was pounding the camp with fire bombs, but they were driven back. Then, after a bombardment of several hours had wrecked the fortifications, burned most of the tents and destroyed the Hungarian morale, the Mongol army began to mass for a charge, leaving a large gap in their lines in front of the gorge through which the armies had entered the heath on the day before. A few Hungarian horsemen made a run for it and escaped through the gap, and when the Mongol charge began, only the Templars and the soldiers of Koloman and Archbishop Hugolin formed up in a wedge to meet it. As Subedei had hoped, the remainder, many of them throwing down their arms and their armour to lessen the weight for their horses, set out after the first fugitives to make their escape while the Mongols were concentrating on their attack. The soldiers in the Hungarian wedge were decimated by Mongol arrows and finally smashed by a charge of heavy cavalry under Siban. Once again, as their brothers had done two days before at Liegnitz, the Templars died to a man. Archbishop Hugolin was killed and Koloman, fatally wounded, escaped with a few survivors to join Bela and the other fugitives.

But the escape route had been a trap.[1] When the runaway column was stretched out over the heath and through the gorge, Mongol light cavalry attacked and rode along either side of it, shooting down the fugitives as though they were hunting them. The heath became a mass of riderless horses and for thirty miles beyond it the road back to Pest was littered with Hungarian dead, `like stones in a quarry’. What had begun as a fierce contest between two extraordinary armies had ended in a rout, and the most conservative estimate of the Hungarian dead was sixty thousand men.

Only those who had been at the head of the fugitives or had ridden through the chaos into the hills at the side of the gorge escaped, and among these were Bela and Koloman. Bela outran his Mongol pursuers by taking a fresher horse from one of his loyal followers each time his own tired, and when he was clear he doubled back, swam over the Sajo and spent the night among the trees, guarded only by an old Slav retainer called Vochu. Koloman reached the Danube, crossing in a boat with the women and children who were fleeing from Pest, and made his way to his own Hungarian domains in Croatia where he died of his wounds.

The Mongols advanced, burned Pest and rode north and south along the Danube, terrifying the citizens of Buda on the western bank, although they did not cross. Instead they began to consolidate their conquest of eastern Hungary and to destroy Bela’s chances of rallying its inhabitants. In the camp at Mohi they had captured the great seal of the Hungarian chancellor and they used it to issue a fake proclamation which prevented the mustering of a new army: `Do not fear the rage and ferocity of these dogs; do not leave your houses; we have only been surprised and we shall soon with God’s help recapture our camp; continue to pray to God to assist us in the destruction of our enemies.’ In the cities they minted new coins which made Bela’s currency worthless and in the country they persuaded the farmers to return to their land under Mongol protection.

Through the Carpathian Mountains Bela and Vochu made their way towards Austria where Bela believed he would find refuge. One night they sheltered in a monastery in Thurocz where Bela met a fellow fugitive, Boleslaw the Chaste, who had fled from Cracow. At Pressburg on the Austrian border Bela was reunited with his wife and children and naively accepted the hospitality of Duke Frederick, only to find himself a prisoner. In return for his freedom and indeed his safety, Frederick demanded the repayment of the indemnity that he had been forced to pay six years before, but all the wealth that Bela had with him, including the Hungarian crown jewels, was not nearly enough. In addition he was forced to pawn three of his western departments, and while Frederick’s soldiers were preparing to take over these new dominions, which were probably the predominantly German areas of Moson, Sopron and Vas, Bela and his family travelled south to the safety of Croatia.

As news of the disasters in Poland and Hungary began to spread throughout the rest of Europe, a wave of panic followed it. Gruesome rumours of diabolical atrocities committed by unearthly monsters with supernatural powers led to a superstitious hysteria, and even the clergy revived the old myths and legends in an attempt to explain the mysterious invaders. The Dominican Ricoldo of Monte Croce argued learnedly that the true name Mongol was derived from Magogoli, the followers of Magog, and that the Tartars trembled at the name of Alexander. In Germany it was said that the Tartars were the lost tribes of Israel and that Jews were smuggling arms to them, using barrels which they pretended were filled with poisoned wine, with the result that at several border posts Jewish merchants were indiscriminately slaughtered. Mongol women were said to have accompanied the army and to have fought in battle as fiercely as the men. The Hungarians had described the invaders as `dog-faced Tartars’, probably because of the shape of their fur caps, but Ivo of Narbonne recorded that their princes had the heads of dogs and that the soldiers, who ate the bodies of the dead, tore off the breasts of the young women that they had raped and reserved them as delicacies for these princes. After the collapse of the mighty Hungarian army it seemed, even to the pope, that all of Christendom might be destroyed by these merciless horsemen from hell and every day in the crowded churches of northern Europe the congregations prayed, `from the fury of the Tartars oh Lord deliver us’.

It is difficult to determine just how much further into Europe the Mongols might have penetrated if his campaign had continued. Certainly they reached Korneuberg and Wiener Neustadt, only 30 miles south of Vienna. However, the news which reached them there and caused their withdrawal probably saved Western Europe from ‘a nasty ravage’ and Eastern Europe from permanent Mongol occupation such as befell parts of Russia; for, hearing that Khan Ogodai had died, they returned to the east for the election of his successor.

[1] The Mongols sometimes confused an enemy by feinting towards his front and then unleashing their main attack against his rear. By attacking from several directions, the Mongols gave their enemies the impression that they were surrounded. By leaving a gap in their encirclement the Mongols allowed the enemy an apparent means of escape, whereas in reality it served as a trap. In their panic and desire to escape through this gap, the enemy often discarded their weapons to flee faster and rarely maintained their discipline. The Mongols then attacked them from the rear, as in their defeat of the Hungarians at Mohi in 1241. Dalantai called this the ‘Open-the-End tactic’ and noted that the Mongols used it if the enemy seemed to be very strong and might fight to the death if trapped.

HUNGARIAN TACTICS

Even though the Hungarians began to become ‘Westernised’ at a relatively early date their tactics continued to include many purely Asiatic elements, notably in the use of both native and mercenary nomad horse-archers (the latter at first composed of Pechenegs but by the early-13th century principally Cumans); indeed, up until the 13th century even Hungarian heavy cavalrymen continued to often carry a bow in addition to lance and shield, and when tactically necessary they were prepared to fight as horse-archers. More usually, however, this role was left to the light cavalry, who wore no armour but dressed only in ‘fair garments’ and pointed caps and were usually armed with just bow, sabre and mace. Such Hungarian light cavalry either preceded the heavy cavalry in open order or skirmished from the wings- as, for example, at Marchfeld in 1278, where they rode back and forth and peppered the Bohemian right flank with volley after volley of arrows, disordering it in preparation for the charge of the Hungarian heavies. Onokar von Steier’s early-14th century ‘Rhyming Chronicle’ gives interesting details of a similar encounter between Hungarian light cavalry and heavily- armoured German knights in 1286. He describes how the Germans drew up in their usual close array, ‘stirrup to stirrup, lance to lance’, and how the Hungarians, who wore no armour, repeatedly rode at them, yelling like demons and shooting showers of arrows but never pressing their auack home; instead they wheeled away to left or right as they drew close (the order for which maneuver was given by rattling an arrow quiver, so Villani tells us in the mid-14th century; this noise was therefore only audible to the charging horsemen themselves, and not to the enemy). After 5 hours, during which time they had not come to grips with the Hungarians once, the exhausted Germans, with many of their horses dead or wounded, were obliged to surrender. One other prominent feature of Hungarian tactics that was doubtless a result of Asiatic, in this case Pecheneg, influence was the frequent use of wagons to fortify the army encampment, as at Mohi in 1241. (It should be noted, incidentally, that though the Hungarians were defeated at Mohi through poor generalship, contemporary Chinese sources state that the heaviest losses inflicted on the Mongols in their European campaign of 1237-41 were suffered in a night-battle against the Hungarians just before the engagement on the Sajó.)

Sometimes the Hungarians also employed standard Western European tactics, drawing up in close order with their best troops traditionally in the front line. Their close array appears to have been the cause of their defeat at the Battle of Serolin in 1167, where the Byzantines, with an army of similar composition, deployed in a looser, more maneuverable formation than the Hungarians, who formed up as ‘a single compact body’ around their standard, which was here mounted on a carroccio (obviously under the influence of Italian mercenaries, often encountered in Hungarian armies as, for example, at Mohi). When present on the battlefield Hungarian infantry seem to have constituted the centre of the line, either behind or in front of the cavalry.

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