The Mongol General Who Almost Conquered Europe
One of the world’s most tactically-astute generals is far less a household name than Hannibal or Napoleon.
Subotai was a key figure in the unparalleled imperial expansion of the Mongols under Genghis Khan.
He was no Mongol himself, however, having grown up in a neighbouring tribe and joined the Mongol army at the age of 14, becoming a servant to the Khan, from where he was able to learn the skills of Mongol combat.
Subotai rose through the ranks, eventually becoming one of Genghis’s most trusted generals.
Serving as a commander for over five decades, Subotai oversaw and contributed to the rise of the Mongols from a collection of families on the east Asian plains to the conquerers of a territory that spanned from China in the east to central Europe in the west.
Although Subotai was involved in Mongol expansion on several fronts, his most remarkable contribution was in Europe.
In 1219, he accompanied Genghis Khan in the campaign against Mohammad II of the Khwarazmian Empire, a Persianate dynasty that occupied swathes of land in central Asia and modern-day Iran.
Subotai marched a portion of the Mongol army across the inhospitable Kyzylkum Desert, which the Khwarazmian leaders had believed to be impassable and therefore failed to defend.
The Mongol general succeeded in crossing the desert, and quickly took Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan), an important Khwarazmian city and a stop on the Silk Road.
From there, the Mongols were able to isolate the remaining Khwarazmian armies and defeat them one-by-one.
The Khwarazmian ruler, Mohammed II, fled westward, and Subotai joined Jebe, another of the Khan’s great generals, in pursuing him.
However, the chasing Mongols never caught Mohammed, who eventually reached the Caspian Sea where he died in 1221 from illness.
At first, Subotai and Jebe’s mission was to prevent Mohammed from uniting the Khwarezmian forces garrisoned in the west of the empire, in case he mounted a bid to retake his former lands.
However, Subotai soon began to see the expedition as a means of gathering information about the peoples that lived beyond the fringes of the Mongols’ known world.
With an army of 20,000 men, the two leaders overran resistance in Persia and Azerbaijan before invading Georgia.
Georgia was a Christian kingdom and had committed men to the Fifth Crusade (1217–1221). The Georgian king, George IV, was therefore reticent to fight the Mongols, who pillaged and slaughtered with free reign until the Georgians finally sought battle at Sagimi.
Faced by a force more than three times as large as his own, Subotai employed one of the staple tactics of Mongol warfare, feigning retreat and luring the Georgian cavalry into pursuing.
The Mongols withdrew to a forest, where Subotai had positioned new horses for his men, who remounted and charged the tiring Georgian cavalry.
The Christian army was overrun and the road to Tbilisi was clear, but the Mongols opted to return to Persia rather than conquer the country.
They returned to Georgia in the autumn of 1221, hoping to move quickly through the Caucasus Mountains and avoid confrontation with the Georgians.
Conflict proved inescapable, however, and the two forces met again at the battle of Khunan (1222).
For a second time, the Mongols ambushed the Georgian king, whose army pursued Subotai’s troops only for Jebe, who had taken a small force of 5000 men, to attack from the flank, encircling and destroying the Georgian forces as Subotai turned back to his aid.
Successive Georgian defeats had implications far beyond the country’s borders. The Georgians were a powerful ally in the Fifth Crusade, their lack of involvement in previous wars meaning that they had accumulated a large, well-equipped army.
In the wake of the Mongol invasion of Georgia, Queen Rusudan (the sister of George IV and ruler of Georgia after the king’s death in 1223) wrote to Pope Innocent to explain that her army would no longer join the campaign, having been destroyed by invaders from the east.
And Georgia itself never recovered either — its military frailty leaving it open to raids for decades after the Mongols passed through.
The rapid expansion of the Mongol khanate under Genghis created the problem of controlling a large territory and population with only limited resources.
A basic administrative system and the relatively small size of the Mongol army prevented its leaders from incorporating conquered territories into a homogenous empire.
Instead, control was established through pillage and massacre, before the Mongols continued on to their next conquest.
This was particularly true for Subotai and Jebe, whose intentions from the start were to undertake reconnaissance in eastern Europe in advance of a prospective Mongol invasion by the Khan.
Subotai left Georgia weakened, and crossed the Caucasus mountains during the winter.
Tricked by their guides, who remained loyal to the nearby city of Derbent, the Mongol army took a particularly difficult route across the mountains and arrived on the other side depleted and exhausted, having left behind many of their siege weapons and baggage carts.
Arriving on the other side of the mountain range, Subotai was greeted by another unwelcome sight.
An allied force of steppe tribes including the Lezgins, Kipchaks, Circassians, Alans, and Volga Bulgarians was waiting for them as they descended from the pass.
As the Mongols grew low on supplies and found themselves unable to defeat or out-manoeuvre their enemies (particularly with the inhospitable mountains to their backs), Subotai turned instead to diplomacy.
The general bribed the Kipchaks, who departed the allied camp at night, leaving the rest of the allied army at the mercy of the Mongols.
Subotai then chased the Kipchaks, slowed in their retreat by the baggage they had received as bribes and now divided into two separate armies, and slaughtered them.
The two leaders of the force, Jebe and Subotai, then split their own army, with Subotai heading south to the Sea of Azov, where he entered an alliance with the Venetian traders who had settled on its shores.
Subotai offered to spare the Venetians and destroy rival trading colonies in the area in exchange for information about the kingdoms of Europe, which the Mongols would later turn to their advantage.
The Mongols advanced further into Russia and met another coalition army, this time comprising several princes of the Kievan Rus’, convinced by the remaining Kipchaks of the danger the Mongols posed.
Subotai and Jebe united once more, but the Russian alliance succeeded in routing the combined Mongol army, around four times its inferior.
Subotai sacrificed his rearguard as the main body of the Mongol force fled, prompting the Russian princes — who sensed an opportunity to totally destroy the invaders — to chase them.
The pursuers’ ill-discipline cost them, however, with each principality’s army marching separately from the others.
After nine days of fleeing, the Mongols suddenly turned back, surprising and defeating the Kipchaks at the Battle of the Kalka River. The Rus’ princes arrived late to the battle, and attacked the Mongols in turn, with the Mongols successively defeating each.
Just one-tenth of the allied force successfully fled the battle, while the rest were killed or enslaved.
The Rus’ princes were also taken captive, and used to support a wooden table in the Mongol camp, on which the Mongol generals ate their meals. The princes were gradually crushed under its weight.
Subotai returned to Mongolia and joined Genghis Khan in subduing the Chinese kingdom of Xi Xia, which had failed to support the Mongols in their previous campaigns.
Genghis died shortly after, in 1227, and his son Ögedei won the struggle for control of the empire.
In 1235, the new Khan ordered much of the Mongol army in the west to reprise its conquest of eastern Europe and Subotai returned to continue his quest in the service of the Mongol prince Batu (the grandson of Genghis Khan and son of Genghis’s son Jochi).
An army of 130,000 Mongol warriors swept through central Asia, arriving in Ukraine in 1237 and destroying many Rus’ principalities in the years to follow.
In 1240, the Mongols successfully besieged Kyiv, perhaps the strongest of the Rus’ principalities’ capitals.
The gates to Europe were open, and the Mongols now cashed-in their deal with the Venetians, who provided the invaders with information about the kingdoms they would encounter as they moved west.
While another army to the north succeeded in taking Poland, Subotai and Batu turned their focus on Hungary, and met the Hungarian king Béla IV at the Battle of Mohi on the Sajó River.
The Mongols were vastly outnumbered and wrongly attempted to cross the river at night via a bridge near the Hungarian camp.
The Hungarians discovered the ambush and won easily at the bridge, returning to their camp to celebrate.
Their jubilation proved premature, however, and the next morning the Mongols divided their force into three groups, with each crossing the river at different points.
Batu assaulted the bridge from the Mongol side, while those crossing to the north swept behind the Hungarians guarding the bridge and destroyed them.
As the Hungarians left the camp to engage the Mongols who had crossed the river, Subotai arrived from the south, forcing the European soldiers back into their camp, where they were surrounded and allowed to flee, only to be picked-off.
In just two days, both Hungary and Poland were overrun and pillaged. Half a million Hungarians are thought to have died, equivalent to as much as half of the country’s population.
While some were slaughtered, the Mongols also ensured that any farmland was spoiled so that many surviving peasants found their livelihoods ruined and subsequently starved to death. Subotai then continued into Serbia and Bulgaria, ravaging both.
The speed and the success of the Mongol invasion prompted the states of central Europe to respond with panic.
The Pope, Gregory IX, ordered a Crusade against the Mongols, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, levied his troops in preparation for an invasion.
Fate intervened, however, and the invasion never arrived.
In December 1241, Ögedei died in Mongolia and, in the months that followed, Batu returned with his army to Mongolia to elect the empire’s next khan.
A Cuman uprising in Russia also diverted Mongol attentions, and Subotai quelled this revolt before himself returning to Mongolia.
He did not get the chance to return to Europe, and instead took charge (aged 71) of the campaign against the Chinese Song dynasty before dying peacefully in Mongolia in 1248.
Subotai’s ambition led him from Mongolia, through eastern Europe to the gates of the Holy Roman Empire.
Armed with information provided by the Venetians and with Mongol tactics that had proved so successful against numerically-superior armies in Europe and Asia, Subotai’s insatiable ambition has left historians ponder what might have happened had he been able to continue his European conquest.
Little wonder that the Mongols gave Subotai the epithet Baghatur — a title that means “the Valiant”.