Why 1241 Mongol Invasion of Hungary Failed, Part 1 – Overview of the Invasion

Why 1241 Mongol Invasion of Hungary Failed, Part 1 – Overview of the Invasion

Historical Background

For Europe, ancient and medieval alike, central Asia was a largely unknown territory. Therefore, Mongols were a completely alien element. Their origin was unknown, and Mongols themselves, with their rough appearance and barbaric customs, appeared out of nowhere. Mongols actually came from plains between Baikal and Manchuria, and expanded from there in all directions. Mongol expansion started after they had elected Temujin as a high khan. Becoming an untouchable military and political authority, he finally united all Mongol tribes and gave them a common purpose. Mongol society had a very complex hierarchical organization, which was then modified by Genghis khan to serve as a basis for the new military organization based on tumens, standardized military units numbering 10 000 soldiers.

In literature, especially older writings, Mongols are often called Tatars. This is a term which had been used since 8th century by Chinese and Arabian historians for all nomadic tribes inhabiting Eastern Asiatic steppes. Only 13th century travels of Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William of Rubrick helped spread the Mongol name.

Medieval sources often draw a parallel between Tatars and the mythological underground world of Tartaros. Mongols are thus often described as bloodthirsty demons of Tartaros (a not wholly innacurate description), with Roger of Apulia stating that person captured by Tatars would be better off not having been born in the first place, as they will feel more like a prisoner of Tartaros than that of Tatars. This caused even more fear, as premodern people sought deeper religious meaning in various events such as plagues and invasions – it was not unknown for battles to be lost or stopped in antiquity because troops interpreted events such as a solar eclipse as a sign of anger from the gods. Thomas the Archdeacon wrote that the land was devastated through God’s punishment.

In terms of their warfighting habits, Mongols were fairly typical steppe nomads. They were, from childhood, accustomed to cold, shortages of everything, and insecurity. Their nomadic lifestyle provided them with the main advantage over their settled opponents, which was their extreme mobility. Genghis-khan’s army was capable of moving 200 kilometers in a day over favourable terrain. Mongol army utilized decimal system of organization. Basic unit was a mingban of 1 000 men, and ten mingbans formed one tumen. Commanders were chosen solely based on their ability – Subutai, Genghis-khan’s right hand, was apparently a son of a smith.

Mongol army also had no infantry. Its main force was cavalry, which was heavily standardized, having – from 13th century – also unified weapons and equipment. Light cavalrymen had bow and saber, and used silk clothes for protection against arrows – making them easy to pull out. Heavy cavalrymen also had a lance, and were equipped with lamellar armour. Infantry, engineers and other non-cavalry troops were provided by the conquered settled peoples.

Mongol language actually had no word for a soldier – it was understood that every physically capable male is also a warrior. There was no formal training, as all necessary military and combat knowledge was learned through hunting. Anyone misbehaving or not doing their duty was cruelly punished, leading to high levels of discipline in the army which feudal armies simply could not match. Leaders were chosen exclusively based on their ability. European feudal armies by comparison were private formations, owned by nobles and with no standardization as to the tactics, logistics or equipment, though this did change by 15th century. Warfare was centered around the knightly class, who formed heavy shock cavalry, armed with lances and armoured with mail. This also determined tactics, in large part, as knights – especially Western European knights – despised tactics, strategems such as ambushes and deception in general, and, generally, using a brain for warfare. Their leadership positions were also usually inherited.

Mongol Conquests

Temujin (1167. – 1227.), also known as the Genghis-khan, managed to create a huge empire. Mongols were only stopped by China at the wall. In the south they reached India, and also defeated Alans and Cumans who retreated all the way to Dniepr. There, Mongols defeated and subdued Russian princes. After Genghis-khan’s death, conquests were continued by the Ogathai khan.

In 1235., Ogathai khan proceeded to Europe. Despite attacking in several directions, Mongols were able to achieve local numerical superiority thanks to superior mobility provided by their nomadic lifestyle. Onto this basis, Genghis-khan had added very strict and complex military organisation which allowed the Mongols to utilize complex tactics, strategems, and almost always have an advantage in intelligence (i.e. information) over their opponents. They were also masters of the psychological warfare, using cruelty and bloodshed to create fear in their enemies. Main weakness of Mongol military were “allied” units, which were conscripted against their will and always ready to rebel or collaborate with the enemies.

Having crossed Volga, Mongols began their campaign of terror. They conquered Eastern Europe – southern Russia and Bulgaria – and in 1240., Batu-khan split his army into three groups. First two groups continued on towards the Germany and the Czechia. Under Burundai, they defeated the Polish-allied army and devastated their lands while continuing on towards the Germany. Having devastated Czech lands, they crossed the Carpathians and joined the army under Batu-khan, which had already crossed the Carpathians and moved into the Pannonian Plain. However, Mongols were forced to retreat from Croatia and Hungary, allegedly due to Khan Ogothai’s death.

The drive, which had been so successful, had halted in Croatia, Hungary and on borders of the Holy Roman Empire, for about a year – and then, instead of continuing, it reversed. All the areas which Mongols had conquered from 1236. to 1242. were absorbed into the Empire, with glaring exception of those in Europe. Question why will be answered in a future article, but campaign in Hungary and Croatia may already shed some light on it.

Bela IV and Condition of the Kingdoms

In mid-13th century, Hungarian and Croatian crowns are held by Bela IV Arpad. In essence, Hungary and Croatia are two separate, sovereign states ruled by the same monarch. This fact is clearly displayed by the fact that Croatian army is only legally required to campaign as army of the kingdom up until border of Croatia. Campaigning anywhere else, including in Hungary itself, is treated as a campaign in the foreign territory, and has to be financed by the Crown.

During the Mongol conquests in Europe, Hungarian-Croatian king Bela IV had been trying to restore the royal authority after Andrew II had destroyed it by allowing some noble families to accumulate massive properties. Thus he started confiscating noble and Church properties, which later caused problems once Mongols arrived.

Hungary itself – being a frontier state of Europe – was no stranger to harrassment by the nomadic tribes. But while these were generally low-intensity conflicts, not particularly dangerous to the state itself, Mongols themselves were a large, well-organized and state-supported army. Bela IV compared Mongols to a swarm of locusts, something divinely permitted to happen because of the sins of his people.

Mongol Invasion of Hungary

After arriving to borders of the Hungary in 1241., Batu-khan sent the Hungarian-Croatian king an ultimatum for surrender. Bela IV ignored the ultimatum and started mobilizing the army. But this was without much success, as Bela IV had made himself extremely unpopular – angering the nobility by confiscating their possessions, and the masses by offering refuge to the Cumans. Cumans would prove to be almost wholly useless against the Mongols, while doing massive damage to the land with their herds. There were also reports of them raping girls, stealing, and murdering people. Only under public pressure does Bela imprison Cuman leader Kuten. Meanwhile, Bela had sent palatine Dionysus (Denis) to block the Carpathian passes. However, the slowness of mobilization meant that palatine’s task force was woefully inadequate for the task and was destroyed by the Mongols, with palatine himself only surviving by a hairsbreadth.

Having finally become conscious of the danger facing him and his kingdom, king called a convocation of nobles for 15th March 1241., where a call to arms was declared. Army gathered slowly, so by the time it was mostly gathered – numbering maybe 65 000 men, though it could have been as few as 20 000 – Mongols had nearly reached Buda. Meanwhile, imprisoned Cuman king Kuten had been murdered, with Kumans leaving towards Bulgaria, burning and murdering everything in their path.

Battle of Mohi

King had displayed his military incompetence almost immediately, deciding to face the Mongols at Mohian desert. As Bela’s army moved very slowly, Mongols reached the Sajo river first, making camp on its left shore. Mongol scouting party was defeated and driven back across the bridge. Royal army blocked the bridge, but due to lack of reconnaissance they were unaware that the river could be crossed downstream from the bridge – something that Mongols discovered and exploited. Open plains allowed Mongols to quickly surround Bela’s camp upon crossing the river, with their siege engines causing significant casualties in the very cramped and badly constructed camp. Only Croatian elements of the army under Herzeg Koloman managed to put up resistance, but as the rest of the army fled, they too were destroyed. As a consequence of the battle, Hungarian part of the kingdom remained essentially undefended, while Bela IV fled to seek refuge with Friedrich II Babenberg. Using this opportunity, Friedrich II forced Bela to cede him three counties, and Bela returned to Zagreb to try and save his kingdom.

Mongols had already established their rule in much of Hungary, and remained relatively passive until winter of 1241, as they had been prevented from crossing the Danube. Bela IV meanwhile was trying – and failing – to find allies against Mongols, except for Pope whose prayers however were not of much use. Thus Bela was forced to continue his retreat, while Kadan crossed the frozen Danube and continued towards Croatia. Mongols destroyed Slavonian cities one after another, with only Kalnik managing to resist. Many people escaped towards the sea, and Bela himself sought refuge in the well-fortified coastal cities. He first escaped to Split, built within and around Diocletian’s palace. Then he moved to Trogir, which was built on an island and thus much more defensible. Meanwhile, Mongols had entered coastal Croatia, having killed all prisoners they had captured so far near place Srb in Lika.

Klis fortress

Abandoned by Western Europe, Bela IV could only count on help from Croatian nobility. Croatian coastal cities had to prepare their own defences. Mongols arrived in front of Split, where they believed Bela was hiding. There was no siege however, as having then received news that Bela was in Klis, Mongols moved towards that city. Their attempts to take the fortress failed despite the heavy fighting. Mongols also received news of the death of khan Oghatai. This did not deter Batu-khan, however, and having learned of Bela’s refuge in Trogir he moved towards that city. Trogir too refused to surrender, and Batu khan had to retreat. A legend speaks of Battle of Grobnik where Croatian troops ambushed and defeated the retreating Mongol army, but scarce sources make it impossible to establish its validity. Same problem exists for the naval battle at Rab, which also mentions Mongol defeat – this time at sea and then at land. Neither battle is mentioned by Thomas the Archdeacon, lending credibility to interpretation of these battles being later fabrications. At any rate, Mongols could not remain in Dalmatia. They had failed to take any cities or fortresses, and the mountainous terrain did not allow enough fodder for numerous horses and herds they had led with them. Thus, decimated Mongol army was forced to retreat across Bosnia, Serbia and Bulgaria, devastating them in the process.

Mongol retreat was unexpected – first refugees only started leaving their defensible mountain and hill tops months later. Nor did people know any explanation as to why the Mongols had retreated.

Impact of the Invasion

Mongol invasion caused heavy damage. Estimates of the total population losses range from 10% – 15% at low end to 50% at high end. The best indication of the losses is the papal tithe list, but even that is limited. Contemporary sources however clearly describe an unprecedented cataclysm, amounting to what was essentially a wholesale destruction of the people of Hungary. Sources such as Carmen miserabile by master Rogerius suggest that the kingdom nearly collapsed in 1241 – 1242 amid an orgy of slaughter. Describing what he saw as a prisoner, taking part in the march back across Transylvania during the withdrawal, he wrote, “With the exception of a few castles, they occupied the whole country and as they passed through they left the country desolate and empty.”.

This image of a deserted country appears repeatedly. Thomas of Split, another contemporary churchman, describes how the invaders “wasted the whole realm of Hungary with their raging sword” and how “bodies lay scattered over the fields, and the corpses of the common people lined the roads in countless numbers” in the ensuing famine. Multiple chroniclers also noted that the Kingdom of Hungary had been “destroyed”.

In Croatia, situation was somewhat better. Croatia lost some 15% – 20% of population during the invasion, and disruption in agricultural production caused widespread hunger. Church of St. Stephen in Zagreb was damaged, and much of archive materials were lost. Bela IV decided to promote building heavily fortified cities, which had proven themselves resillient to attacks, and would – in Hungary at least – prove their use in the second Mongol invasion in 1285. He also called back the Cumans in order to fill in the demographic losses, and gave numerous cities the status of the free royal city.

Archeological finds however show that the destruction was not evenly spread, despite what the accounts suggest. This does not mean the accounts are intentionally misleading: the shocking cruelty of indiscriminate slaughter in the affected areas might have led the authors to emphasize the totality of destruction. Settlements destroyed by the Mongols can be connected to coin hoards which also date from the period. These hoards reveal the areas most affected by the invasion, which are unsurprisingly concentrated in the Great Hungarian Plain. Corpses that show the signs of being affected by the invasion (unburied, buried hastily, victims of mass murder) are also concentrated in the same region. Contemporary textual evidence also supports the picture of the Mongol army mainly devastating the Great Hungarian Plain. Mongols had also not crossed the Danube until it froze in January 1242., as Hungarian army was still strong enough to make such a crossing difficult if not untenable so long as it could be contained to a chokepoint.

Devastation of Hungary

In one case, villagers of 70 villages in the Great Hungarian Plain concentrated in a new village called Pereg to improve their ability to resist. Despite the hastily constructed defences consisting of a ditch and a rampart, the village managed to resist for a week. Nevertheless, this and all other improvised fortified places in the plain eventually fell to the invaders. They did not have natural defences, very weak artificial defences, and the Mongols had enough time to prepare and carry out sieges and assaults in a proper fashion. Many people also died from famine. In Transdanubia the destruction was minimal, as the Mongols did not have either time or resources to devastate it thoroughly. Dense woodlands also offered refuge for the populace, as Mongols confined their operations to open plains and main roads. Southwestern Hungary and Croatia also escaped the worst of the destruction. Fact that Hungary was not in fact nearly destroyed by the Mongols is shown that Bela IV was able to mount a major military campaign against Friedrich II Babenberg to recover the lost territories almost immediately after the Mongols had left.

Bela IV himself notes that Danube had enabled the outmatched Hungarian defenders to repel the Mongols for ten months. This would have been clearly impossible had the entirety of kingdom’s military power been destroyed at Mohi (as it had been in 1526. at Mohacs). Mongols were only able to cross once Danube had frozen over due to an unusually cold winter, allowing them to bypass the chokepoints formed by the river crossings. They had also lost much time and manpower having to reduce fortified places in eastern Hungary – and list of these fortified places included essentially every single settlement in the existence there, as even villages had built makeshift fortifications. Once Mongols crossed into Transdanubia, the situation became far worse. While such makeshift fortifications could not resist a determined attack (as shown at Pest), most villages did not have enough value to justify the expenses of such attacks, and Bela IV’s charters make many mentions of successful acts of resistance against the invaders.

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