Subotai the Valiant Part II

In 1203, Jamuga and the Oga Kahn had raised a large army from the remaining tribes and brought Temujin to battle at a place called the Red Willows. Badly outnumbered, Temujin’s army fought the enemy coalition to a draw but suffered such heavy casualties that Temujin was forced to withdraw. Of the almost 20,000 men in Temujin’s army who fought in the Battle of the Red Willows, only 2,600 were alive at the end of the day. Temujin and what was left of his army retreated to the northeast, finally stopping at a small lake known as Baljuna. The epic poem tells us that,

As to those of the Mongols who have stayed with Temujin, their plight is such that they have now but one horse to each rider [usually three], no lead horses or pack animals, [the baggage train was captured] and that instead of tents all they have for shelter is the trees of the forest.

The conditions at Baljuna were no better. At this time of year, the lake was almost dry, and what water there was had to be squeezed from a handful of mud. Only a few of Temujin’s officers remained with him, among them the loyal Subotai. It was the Mongol custom to abandon a leader in defeat and seek new accommodations. Temujin never forgot the loyal few who stood beside him in his darkest hour. Like the men around Mao Tse Tung on his long march to Yunan or the “precious few” who stood with Henry at Agincourt, for the rest of his life those who had been at Baljuna were always closest to the Great Khan. He created a special military order for them, the Order of the Ter-Khans, and they were rewarded with wealth and position. Each was permitted to commit nine capital offenses without punishment and was free to enter Genghis’ tent at any time. Temujin’s gratitude for his comrades was expressed in a Persian account:

Moved by the loyalty of those who had not left him in his distress, he promised them, hands clasped and eyes raised to heaven, that hence-forth he would share with them the sweet and the bitter, asking that, if he went back on his word, he might become as the muddy water of the Baljuna. As he spoke, he drank of this water and passed the cup to his officers, who swore in their turn never to leave him. These companions of Genghis Khan were known afterwards as the Baijunians, and were recompensed magnificently for their loyal adherence.

Among these precious few was Subotai, who, true to his original oath taken long ago, stood by his commander and protected him from the wind that was blowing violently across Mongolia.

Less than a year later, after he had rallied his clans and rebuilt his army, Temujin attacked the Oga Khan, taking his army by surprise and trapping it in a narrow pass. This time there would be no mistake. Although the Oga Khan and his son escaped, the army of the Kerits was destroyed. Temujin then captured the remainder of the Kerits and dispersed them into his ranks as slaves so that the Kerits ceased to exist as a separate people. Thus, in the winter of 1203-1204, Temujin had become master of all eastern and central Mongolia. Only the Naimans in the west remained. In the summer of 1204, the Year of the Rat, Temujin

divided his army to form troops of thousands, and having appointed his commanders, having chosen his eighty night guards and seventy soldiers as day guards…. And having sprinkled libations of mare’s milk on his standard of nine tails as a signal to Heaven that he was going to war, he set out with his army against the Naiman.

The army numbered 80,000 men.

Temujin proceeded cautiously on his approach to the Naiman territory. He knew the Naimans would outnumber him when the time came to give battle. Their warriors had a fierce reputation, their commanders known for their tendency to take the offensive and press the attack. But Temujin also knew that the Naiman king, Baibuka Tayang, was not a good general. Long before the present war he had taken the measure of the man and concluded that, “the Naiman are strong in numbers, but their khan is a weak man who has never been out of his tent.” When in command of a strong army, even a weak general can be dangerous, however, for as an old proverb had it, an army of lions led by a donkey was more dangerous than an army of donkeys led by a lion! And so when Temujin approached the land of the Naiman, he ordered that when his army camped at night each man was to light five campfires so that anyone watching would think the army was greater in numbers than it was.

The Naiman generals wanted to attack Temujin immediately. It was the end of May, the time when the Mongols leave their mountain encampments and come down to the plains, where the horses can feed on the thick new grass and rebuild their bodies, which have grown thin, weak, and hollow-flanked from almost six months of fast. For at least a month, the horses are of no use in war, and it was at this time that Temujin’s army was most vulnerable. But when the Naiman Tayang received reports of the number of fires flickering in Temujin’s camp, he became fearful that he was facing a larger army than his own and took counsel of his fears. The Tayang resisted the entreaties of his commanders to attack. He proposed instead to undertake a strategic retreat, forcing the Mongols to follow on their already exhausted mounts.

If we take our people back over the Altai [mountains] retreating in order this way, reforming our army on the other side of the passes, marching back and forth and enticing them to follow, appearing to retreat from them but still fighting small skirmishes along the way … the Mongol horses will be exhausted by then and we’ll throw our army back in their faces.

It was a sound (if cautious) plan, one befitting a general who “had never been out of his tent.” The debate among the Tayang’s generals went on for more than a month until the senggum, the son of the Tayang, put an end to it with his eagerness to attack and convinced his father. So “the Naiman swept down the Tamir River Valley, crossing the Orkhon, passing the eastern edge of Mount Nakhu. As they came to the Chakirmagud, they were seen by Temujin’s sentries.” The delay had served Temujin well. His horses were fit and his army was ready for war, and his sentries had deprived the Naiman of the element of surprise.

The Mongol epic describes the battle in detail and provides us for the first time with an account of Subotai’s performance in battle as commander of a 1,000-man mingan (or regiment) fighting as part of a four-regiment task force commanded by Jebe. The tactical orders of the Mongols have conic down to us, so that the order of march was to be “as thick as grass,” perhaps a reference to marching in solid regimental column to withstand an attack or to maximize shock in the attack. Once on the battlefield, the units were to assume “the lake formation” and were to attack “drill-wise.” Unfortunately, we do not know to what formations and tactics these terms refer. Aware that the Naiman had a reputation for offensive action, Zemujin order his advanced guard immediately into the attack. The impression of the text is that he caught the enemy off-guard as it was assembling its units prior to battle on the open plain. The spoiling attack was successful, and

our forward troops drove the Naiman back from Chakirmagud. Their forces retreated from us, reforming before Mount Nakhu on the skirts of the mountains there. Our forward troops drove them back, herding them together into a great mass before Mount Nakhu.

As in the Iliad, the Mongol epic describes the great battle through the eyes of the commander who, located on the high ground behind his army, watches the armies assemble and the battle unfold before him. The Naiman Tayang inquires of his ally, Jamuga,

Who are these people who charge us like wolves pursuing so many sheep, chasing the sheep right into the flock? Jamuga replies, “These are the Four Dogs of my and a Temujin. They feed on human flesh and are tethered with an iron chain. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails, swords. They feed on dew. Running, they ride on the hack of the wind. 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.”

Frightened at the ferocity of the attack, the Naiman ordered his army to withdraw up the mountain.

Here we find the first mention of Subotai as a battlefield commander, his regiment operating in concert with three others. The accounts of Genghis’ later wars mention the use of such special units as the Four Dogs from time to time. We hear of these units in other battles when their commanders are called the Four Torrents, the Four Courses, and the Four Heroes. That Temujin chose his commanders purely on ability and experience is evident in the fact that none of the Four Dogs at the battle of Chakirmagud were of his own tribe. Khubilai was a prince of another tribe, Jebe was of the Tayichigud clan, and Jelme and Subotai were Uriangkhai. Subotai’s command of a regiment at Chakirmagud is evidence that he had shown himself to be a competent combat commander as well as a military thinker. It is also obvious from the poem that the Four Dogs were superb battlefield commanders whose units were known for their ferocity in the attack. At the battle of Chakirmagud they seem to have been used as mobile shock troops, much like a modern armored column, to drive through the enemy ranks at different points, penetrate to the rear, and disrupt the enemy formations. The text tells us in this regard that they “charge us like wolves pursuing so many sheep, chasing the sheep right into the flock.” It is also likely that one of their missions was to attack the enemy commander and disrupt his ability to command. Students of modern war will recognize these tactics as part of the “deep battle,” a concept invented by the Mongols and, as we shall see, transmitted to the future armies of the West.

The battle raged all that day with the Naiman getting the worst of it until they were forced to retreat up Mount Nakhu and darkness ended the fight. During the night, the Naiman attempted to escape:

In the darkness the Naiman tried to drive their carts and horses back down and fell from the cliffs and narrow trails of Nakhu, their bodies falling atop one another, their bones shattering from the fall, their bodies crushing each other like piles of dead trees, and that’s how most of them died.

Come daylight, Temujin resumed the attack, surrounding the Tayang and his commanders, who died fighting to the last man even as the dishonorable Jamuga made his escape. As for the Naiman tribe, the text tells us that they were assembled at the foot of the Altai and were disposed of,” perhaps “measured by the linchpin” as the Tartars had been. The last major obstacle to Temujin’s ambitions in Mongolia was destroyed at Chakirmagud. Only a few pockets of resistance remained. Later that year, Temujin attacked the Merkits and defeated them. The sons of the Merkit king escaped, however, and in the following year, the Year of the Ox (1205), Temujin ordered Subotai to hunt down the last of the Merkit princes and their followers and destroy them.

The Secret History’s account of Subotai’s campaign is rich in detail, some of it confusing and requiring explanation. The difficulty arises immediately at the beginning of the poem, which tells us: “During the Year of the Ox Temujin sent out Subotai equipping his army with iron carts, to pursue the sons of Toghtogat Beki [Toqto’a Beki] and their followers.”  The phrase temur-tergen is translated by Kahn and Cleaves as “iron carts,” while Grousset translates it as “iron-framed wagons,” from which Grousset suggests that they were special wagons built to withstand the rough terrain and gorges over which Subotai would have had to travel in his pursuit of the Merkits. This argument is unconvincing in light of the fact that the Mongols routinely conducted campaigns over such rough terrain and there are no other indications of iron carts before the Merkit campaign or after it. The reference to iron carts is puzzling, but may tell us something about the use of iron in the early Mongol armies

In the Mongolian wars, Temujin’s armies probably made only limited use of iron weapons and implements. For the most part, arrows and lances were made from fire-hardened wood, and the “arrow knife” used for manufacturing these weapons and keeping their tips sharp is mentioned several times in the Secret History. Armor and helmets were made not of metal but of boiled leather, fashioned while wet and dried to shape. As a pastoral people, the Mongols were periodically on the move and lacked the stability of place that is usually associated with the practice of metallurgy. Instead, the Mongol tribes relied upon trade with the forest tribes to provide them with iron implements, while the traveling smiths, like Jarchigudai, came among them in the spring to repair their iron weapons and implements and sell them new ones. It is certain that some iron arrowheads and spear blades were in use during this period, for tales were told of Mongol women scouring the battlefield to retrieve these items. During the war with the Chin that began in 1206, the Mongols were exposed to the Chinese metal army. Thereafter, the Mongols began to adopt metal weapons, helmets, and iron in general on a large scale. In their wars with the Muslims and the West, the Mongols usually excluded metal smiths from their slaughter and shipped them hack to Mongolia or distributed them among the army units where they could keep Mongol equipment in repair. The deportation of metal smiths was so extensive in Russia that it required more than two centuries for the craft to reestablish itself once the Mongols had departed.

Against this background, it is interesting to speculate what the Secret History may be telling us about the iron carts and their relationship to Sub otai, the blacksmith’s son. Perhaps Subotai introduced some new element to the Mongol armies. Two possibilities suggest themselves. The first is that the iron carts are mobile forges that the armies, fighting larger campaigns of longer duration over longer distances, now required to keep their increasingly large stock of iron weapons, armor, and other implements in good repair. Even though the use of iron weapons by Temujin’s army was not extensive in 1205, the Secret History was written between 1240 and 1260, when iron weapons were in common use. The chronicler may have simply been writing about what he knew and attributed it to Subotai’s time. This is a common occurrence among ancient chronicles. In the Bible, for example, “chariots of iron” are attributed to David’s army when, in fact, they were not used then. The Biblical chronicler, writing perhaps four centuries after David-when the Assyrians had introduced large armored chariots with metal tire rims, thus “chariots of iron,”-simply modified the chronology and attributed them to David’s army as well.

A second possibility is that Subotai’s knowledge of iron led him to suggest a way to solve a chronic problem of Mongol military mobility. Mongol wagons were equipped with solid, wooden wheels of the kind commonly found in ancient Sumer and Egypt from the time of the third millennium B.C.E. Spokeless and solid, they were easy to manufacture but subject to breakdown in difficult terrain, a problem that also plagued the armies of Sumer and Egypt. Mongol armies usually operated on the treeless steppe or in steep mountains, where the lack of trees made finding the wood to repair broken wagon wheels difficult. Subotai, as the son of a blacksmith, may have hit upon the solution of fabricating an iron rim for the wooden wheel, a solution long known in China and the West. An iron rim would strengthen the wheel and reduce breakage in rough terrain. The iron carts are mentioned only twice in the Secret History, and in both instances they are associated with Subotai.

R. P. Lister, in his history of Genghis Khan, offers yet another explanation regarding Subotai and the iron carts: “Subotai had swiftly grown to enormous stature and bulk; none of the steppe horses could carry him far, and he customarily travelled in an iron wagon.”  Unfortunately, Lister does not cite any of the chroniclers in support of Subotai’s obesity. A portrayal of Subotai that appears in the Chinese Sou-Houng-Kian-Lou and is the only known rendering of the man to come down to us. Portrayed in the stance of an attacking tiger, no doubt to imply his ferocity in battle, the drawing does not suggest that Subotai was obese. Nor is the rendering out of proportion to the portrayals of other Mongol generals in the same chronicle. Moreover, the reference to Subotai and the iron carts appears in the Secret History as occurring in 1205, less than a year after Subotai and the Four Dogs performed so gallantly in the battle against the Naiman. Later, in 1221, we find Subotai and Jebe conducting a great cavalry raid around the Caspian Sea covering more than a thousand miles on horseback. Then again, in 1224, when Genghis summoned Subotai to his camp in central Asia, Subotai made a solitary journey of over 1,000 miles on horseback to comply with the Khan’s order. None of these exploits would have been possible had Subotai been obese and required to travel in an iron-wagon.

Subotai was thirty years old when he was assigned his first high-level, independent combat command. Although he had proven himself a capable combat commander at the regimental level, he had never been in sole command of a large force of several regiments until he was assigned to hunt down the Merkit princes. All his previous experience had been in command of units that were part of larger operational forces under the overall command of others. With the order to capture the Merkits, Subotai was assigned his first large, independent command with instructions to undertake operations far from his home base. The Mongol epic goes into considerable detail regarding the instructions given to Subotai by Temujin himself. The first part of these instructions amounts to a heroic narration by Temujin urging Subotai to be determined and courageous. Temujin tells Subotai,

If they [the Merkits] sprout wings and fly up toward heaven, you, Subotai, become a falcon and seize them in mid-air. If they become marmots and claw into the earth with their nails, you become an iron rod and bore through the earth to catch them. If they become fish and dive into the depths of the sea, you, Subotai, become a net, casting yourself over them and dragging them back.

But it is the second part of Temujin’s instructions to Subotai that is puzzling, for in it he seems to be instructing Subotai in the very basic application of Mongol military arts, something that we would have thought completely unnecessary for a commander of Subotai’s rank and experience. Thus, Temujin instructs Subotai:

I’m sending you off to cross high passes and ford great rivers. Keep in mind the distance you will have to travel and spare your horses so they don’t get exhausted. Conserve their strength before its [sic] used up. When a gelding is already worn out, it’s useless to spare him.

Perhaps Temujin recalled that Subotai was not a steppe Mongol by birth, and that, until the Uriangkhai had joined him, horsemanship was unknown to Subotai. So basic a reminder to even a lower-ranking steppe Mongol officer would have seemed strange, indeed. On the other hand, the Mongol epic, like other epics, may include considerable detail only to enlighten or entertain the reader. Perhaps Temujin’s “oration” to Subotai is of the type of similar orations found by battle commanders in other epics and is purely a poetic device.

Throughout the narrative Temujin continues to instruct Subotai in basic military arts. He tells Subotai how to sustain the army on the long march to the objective.

Once you have used up your provisions, there is nothing to save. There will be a great deal of game to hunt on the way. Keep in mind how far you have to go and don’t let the men ride off to hunt at their whim. Only hunt within limits … then set a limit on how much will be killed.

Once more, he instructs Subotai on the proper use of horses: “See to it that your men keep their cruppers hanging loose on their mounts and the hit of the bridle out of their mouth, except when you hunt.” Loosened cruppers and bits not only reduce fatigue on the horses but also make it impossible for the horsemen to chase game on a whim. Next, Temujin tells Subotai that on a long march it is the commander’s responsibility to insure that military discipline is maintained at all times. “Having established these rules see to it you seize and beat any man who breaks them. Any man that I know who ignores my decree, have him brought back to stand before me. Any man I don’t know who ignores this decree, cut off his head where he stands.” Finally, Temujin cautions Subotai that the application of tactics must always be directed toward the higher strategic goal and that tactics must never he permitted to distract the commander from his strategic objective. “Though your army will divide beyond the great rivers, all must continue in pursuit of one goal. Though mountain ranges separate your men from each other, think of nothing else but this task.” Temujin’s advice is sound, of course, but what is puzzling is why he felt it necessary to instruct a senior regimental commander-one whom he had come to rely upon for his strategic insight in the councils of war-in such basic matters. Elsewhere in the Secret History, we find Temujin giving tactical direction to his commanders, but nowhere do we find it in such detail and at so rudimentary a level as we do in the instructions to Subotai. Perhaps because Subotai was not a steppe Mongol, Temujin remained uncertain as to his fitness for higher independent command even though Temujin knew the value of Subotai’s military mind. If so, then sending Subotai against the Merkits in command of his first large-scale, independent operation may well have been a test of his ability. The Mongol epic tells us that Subotai passed the test. “So Subotai the Brave, equipped with iron carts, was sent off to war … he overtook the sons of Toghtoga Beki [sic] by the banks of the Chui River, destroying their forces, and returned.

While Subotai was destroying the remnants of the Merkits, Jebe was hunting down the last of the Naiman princes. Jamuga, too, was captured and put to death. In May of 1206, the Year of the Tiger, “having set in order the lives of all the people whose tents are protected by skirts of felt, the Mongol clans assembled at the head of the Onan. They raised a white standard of nine tails and proclaimed Temujin the Great Khan.” For the first time in almost fifty years, all the Mongol clans were united under the command of a single national leader, and his name was Genghis Khan. He immediately set about creating a national army. When the armies of the clans were combined, there was sufficient manpower to create ninety-five regiments of 1,000 men each, also known as the mingans. Genghis personally selected the regimental commanders and made them all Mingan-u Noyan, or Lords of the Regiments. Among them was Subotai. In appointing his commanders, Genghis had special praise for the Four Dogs, Subotai among them. “`For me you have broken the necks of the strong and the backs of the athletic. When the order, “Forward!” sounded, you clove rocks and stemmed the wild torrent. On the day of battle, with such men before me,’ cried Genghis Khan, “I could rest assured.”

Regimental-strength units were traditional to the Mongol armies. But now, perhaps conscious of his plans for conquest, Genghis introduced new units of 10,000 men. These were the Mongol toumans that were to gain such fame in the forthcoming wars against the Chinese, Muslims, and ultimately the West. Genghis assigned command of one of the three new toumans to Bogorchu to command the Army of the Right, one to Mukhali to command the Army of the Left, and one to Nayaga to command the Army of the Center. But most importantly, Genghis said, “Let the two commanders, Jebe and Subotai, lead armies as large as they can gather.” Here the Secret History tells us that Jebe and Subotai were appointed as the first orloks of the new Mongol army. The term literally means “eagles,” but in the context of the terminology of military command, Jebe and Subotai were appointed Field Marshals. From that day forward, no major military operation was planned or undertaken by Genghis Khan, or later by his son, Ogedai, in which the voice of Subotai was not heard.

Genghis’ selection of these two officers to lead his army is evidence of what historians have recognized as his unfailing capacity to judge the character and ability of the men he selected for high office. Jebe and Subotai could not have been more opposite. Jebe was a dashing and reckless leader of men in battle with considerable combat experience even before he joined Temujin. During one of the battles with the Tayichigud clan, Temujin had his horse shot out from underneath him when an arrow struck it in the spine. Later, when the Tayichiguds had been driven from the field, a young warrior rode into Temujin’s camp. It was Jebe, and he told Temujin that he had shot the horse. Jebe’s bravery so impressed Temujin that he spared his life and made him one of his unit commanders. From that day forward, Jebe was among the bravest of Temujin’s warriors whose exploits are celebrated in the Secret History.

The Mongol epic, by contrast, tells us little about the combat prowess of Subotai. Indeed, the text hints that Temujin had doubts about Subotai’s ability to command men under fire even though he had performed well at the regimental level. But Temujin was a shrewd judge of men, and Suhotai had been present at the war councils for many years, first as a boy observing as he tended the tent door and later, as the Chinese tell us, as a participant in the discussions. Temujin became increasingly impressed by Subotai’s intellect and his grasp of strategy and tactics in operational planning. We cannot know, of course, how many wars, battles, and campaigns undertaken by Temujin in his quest to become Khan might have been influenced or even planned by Subotai, but it is likely that his influence was considerable. Temujin may once have harbored doubts about Subotai’s fitness for field command. Courage and warrior spirit were qualities not in short supply among steppe warriors. Competent field commanders were easily available, but an officer who could plan and coordinate large-scale military operations across thousands of miles was a rarity. Temujin had no doubt watched Subotai’s mind work over many years around the campfires where battles were planned. Now that Genghis Khan had established a Mongol national army, he appointed his most brilliant officer to lead it.

Many of Genghis Khan’s campaigns from this time forward were planned at the strategic level by Subotai. Among the most important of these were the wars against the Chin (1211-1216), the westward campaign against the Muslim empire of Khwarizm (1219-1224), and the attack against Russia and the West (1237-1242). In all of these campaigns, Subotai took the field to direct operations. To be sure, the last word as to design and implementation of the campaigns rested with Genghis himself. The planning, however, was done by Subotai and his staff. Later this staff comprised Chinese and Muslim experts, as well as Mongols. After Genghis’ death, his son, Ogedai, seems to have left all of the military planning and oversight to Subotai. It was the practice of both Genghis and Ogedai to appoint royal princes as the nominal commanders of military operations while real authority rested with Subotai. In the campaign against Russia and the West, for example, Batu was the nominal commander of the army, but Subotai actually planned and directed the battles. In one instance when Subotai and Batu disagreed, Subotai carried the day. In another, Subotai refused to execute a direct order of his commander, implying that the young Batu had lost his courage. Genghis Khan and Ogedai knew the value of Subotai’s brilliance and were not wont to squander it merely to soothe the ego of a royal prince.

1 thought on “Subotai the Valiant Part II

  1. Could be that in later year Subotai became a military teacher to Chingisid princes and one of the, probable author of the Secret Chronicle Temuge-otchigin – disliked the old veteran so much that he diminished him in his book?


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