Today in European history: the Battle of Mohi (1241)

Having already talked about the Battle of Legnica a couple of days ago, I suppose we should mention the larger of the Mongols’ two major April 1241 battles, the Battle of Mohi (also referred to as the Battle of the Sajó River) on April 11 (it technically may have begun on April 10, but close enough). If you’ve already read the story of Legnica then you know that this was a Mongol victory, one that you could argue, for a brief time at least, meant that the Mongols had conquered Hungary. But their “conquest,” such as it was, lasted less than a year before their forces withdrew east and Hungarian King Béla IV (d. 1270) was able to regain and begin to rebuild his kingdom.

The Mongols invaded Hungary ostensibly in pursuit of the Cumans, a people that had once co-controlled, along with the Kipchaks, a khanate in the Eurasian steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas and stretching into Central Asia as we think of “Central Asia” today. The Cuman-Kipchak Confederation, as it’s often known today, lasted for a bit over three centuries from the 10th-13th centuries. They caused grief for the Byzantine Empire, Kievan Rus’, various Persian-speaking kingdoms that began to develop in Central Asia as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, etc. We’ve actually encountered a byproduct of the Cuman-Kipchak Confederation in the form of the Mamluk sultanate that took over Egypt and Syria in the middle of the 13th century. The slave soldiers who were imported to Egypt under dynasties that went back to the 10th century and eventually took power for themselves came (at this point–later Mamluks came from the north Caucasus), from the Kipchak steppe and were sold into slavery by merchants operating in the Cuman-Kipchak Confederation.

Anyway, we don’t need to go into much detail about the Confederation because by this point it was pretty well kaput, destroyed by the Mongol expansion. The Cumans themselves fled west, where they joined an anti-Mongol confederation in the early 1220s but were bribed to abandon it by the Mongols, who then promptly attacked them anyway after they’d dispatched the rest of the confederation. The Cumans then joined up with the Rus’ to face the Mongols at Kalka in 1223, where it’s said that their innovative tactical decision to flee before the battle really started was instrumental to the decisive Mongolian victory. They basically kept on fleeing into Hungary, and the Mongols saw the Hungarians’ decision to shelter them as a cause–or, maybe, a convenient justification–to invade.

Map - Mongol Invasions of Europe
You’ll see Mohi on the left side of this map amid all the red lines

The Mongol invasion of Hungary was commanded by Genghis Khan’s grandson (this was generally accepted even if his father Jochi’s parentage wasn’t certain) Batu (d. 1255) and Subutai (d. 1248), whose career as a general stacks up to just about anyone’s in history, and who was in actual command of the enterprise, Batu’s royal bloodline aside. They were opposed by an army commanded by the aforementioned Béla IV. This was supposed to be a Hungarian-Cuman army, but things didn’t quite work out that way. The Hungarian people were not too keen on the Cumans, apparently, particularly with the favoritism that their relatively new (he took the throne in 1235) king showed them. With a Mongol invasion seeming imminent and the Cumans looking like the cause of it, in 1239 some Hungarian noble arranged the murder of the Cuman khan, Köten, in the city of Pest. The Cumans decided to split and headed south, pillaging the Hungarian countryside as they went in vengeance for their dead khan. Frederick II, Duke of Austria (d. 1246), brought an army to Béla’s aid at Pest, but that proved to be kind of a mixed blessing.

Here’s what happened: the Mongols sent a detachment of men toward Pest to do some raiding, hoping to draw Béla and his army out of the city to give chase. Béla didn’t fall for this, at first, but his better instincts were overridden by concerns over, well, the perceived size of his balls, to be frank about it. While Béla and his army holed up in the city, you see, Frederick led his men out to victory against a small Mongol raiding party, then hilariously declared victory and went back to Austria. As Frederick had some claims on Hungarian territory in the west and was therefore a rival of Béla’s, the Hungarian king felt he had no choice but to leave the city and fight the Mongols lest he be seen as a coward in comparison to Frederick.

This proved to be a catastrophic mistake. The Mongol force immediately set to retreat, and Béla, compounding his initial mistake, chased them. He chased them all the way to the River Sajó, where the main Mongol army was encamped. Now, here’s the part where I give you the usual futile attempt at estimating numbers, but I’m not really going to bother in this case because the estimates are all over the map. Most sources put the Mongols somewhere in the 20,000-30,000 range but others go higher. Some sources put the Hungarians as low as 15,000 men but others say the Hungarians outnumbered the Mongols. They actually may have outnumbered the Mongols at a specific point on the battlefield, but overall I’m going to say these were probably similar-sized armies with the Mongols possibly having a small to moderate edge in numbers.

Béla now got cautious again, and decided to set up a fortification along the western bank of the river instead of crossing over to continue the chase. This decision had mixed results. It’s likely that Batu and Subutai wanted the Hungarians to cross the river and were planning to attack them as they did, which could have been a bloodbath. Instead, Béla’s decision locked his army in place and allowed the Mongols to force it to maneuver in the way they wanted, and the result was, well, a bloodbath. Subutai made the decision to divide his forces, leaving most of the army under Batu to try to cross the Sajó Bridge and attack the Hungarians head-on, which he took a detachment downstream to cross the river covertly and surprise the Hungarians. It worked, but at fairly considerable cost to Batu’s men.

The Hungarians struck first by taking control of the Sajó Bridge on the night of April 10, before the Mongols could cross it. This forced them to divide their forces again, sending a small group upstream to cross the river and come up behind the Hungarians defending the bridge. At dawn, the Mongols attacked and were eventually able to take the bridge and begin their assault on the main fortification. The Hungarians seem to have been completely blindsided by this, and this could be because they still thought they were facing the small Mongol raiding party they’d chased away from Pest and hadn’t understood that they’d been led into a trap. But they were able to inflict heavy losses on Batu’s army–at this particular point in the battle, the Hungarians probably did outnumber the Mongols–until Subutai finally arrived and drove the Hungarians back into their makeshift fort.

This is where the decision to build the fort proved to be a poor one. If the Hungarians had just taken off at this point, they probably could’ve gotten back to Pest mostly intact. The Mongols were spent and Subutai hadn’t been able to surround the Hungarian army as he’d planned upon arrival. Instead, they holed up and began a waiting game. The Hungarians had no supplies to withstand a siege, so the Mongols waited and used their siege engines to pound away at their defenses. After a few hours and a few failed attempts to break the Mongol siege, the Hungarians decided to run after all. Luckily, they found a gap in the Mongol line right where they needed it to be.

You’re probably ahead of me now. Of course that gap in the line wasn’t lucky at all. The Mongols, given time to properly encircle the Hungarian position and plan their next moves, left it there hoping to sucker the Hungarians into running through it, at which point the Mongolian horse archers rode them down and slaughtered them. Béla somehow managed to get away, but the vast majority of his army wasn’t so fortunate.

The engagement at Mohi is interesting, I think, because it illustrates a couple of things about the Mongols. First, I would argue that it shows that, when they weren’t able to force a fight on their own terms, the Mongols could be vulnerable–Batu’s army seems to have taken a hell of a beating, bad enough that he was purportedly ready to retreat when Subutai showed up. Second, it shows that even when the Mongols were vulnerable they could still, especially under the command of someone like Subutai, be a military juggernaut, capable of adapting quickly and exploiting potential enemy mistakes.

Mohi was as decisive an inconsequential battle as you’ll ever see. Decisive because, afterward, the Mongols were the unchallenged rulers of Hungary. They occupied virtually the entire country, captured and razed the city of Pest, killed maybe a quarter of the population, and drove most of the rest into hills and other relatively inaccessible areas. Béla appealed to Pope Gregory IX (d. August 1241) for help–Gregory called for a crusade against the Mongols and was met with the sound of crickets, thanks to his long-running feud with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (d. 1250, not to be confused with Duke Frederick II from earlier in our story). Luckily for Béla, as it turns out he just had to wait the Mongols out. In early 1242, they withdrew from Hungary, hence the “inconsequential” bit above.

As I mentioned in discussing Legnica, the Great Khan Ögedei died in 1241, and Batu had to take much of his army east to make sure he didn’t get screwed in the upcoming succession process. That may be part of the reason for the withdrawal. But the Mongol position in Hungary was vulnerable for other reasons, including the losses they’d taken during the campaign through Europe and the lack of enough adequate pastureland to accommodate a large occupying Mongol army and all of its horses (Mongolian armies usually took 3 horses for every rider). It’s also very possible that the Batu-Subutai expedition had never intended to permanently occupy Hungary, but merely to weaken it for a future conquest. In that case, the Mongol withdrawal would have been planned and only subsequent events prevented the grand strategy from being implemented.

Whatever the reasons for withdrawal, dicey Mongolian politics, featuring a falling out between Batu’s Jochid branch of Genghis Khan’s family line and two of the other branches, put European expansion plans on hold for decades. During that time, Béla reasserted control over the kingdom and went on a castle-building spree. He likely reasoned that his army would be unlikely to beat an invading Mongol army in the open field, but that he could probably starve it by hoarding the country’s food in heavily fortified castles, and then force it to expend itself in a series of costly sieges of those castles. And he was right, though he didn’t live to see it–the second Mongolian attempt to invade Hungary didn’t happen until 1285, and it failed miserably in part because the Mongol invaders were unable to feed themselves and unable to capture any of the castles in which the food had been stored.

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