On Christmas Day of the year 1241, Eastern Europe teetered on the brink of utter destruction. Batu, son of Ogedai Khan, successor to the Great Khan, Genghis, had destroyed Pest, the largest city in all of Hungary. Poland and Russia had already fallen, and now Batu's unstoppable Mongol war machine was poised to conquer whatever it set its eyes on. Early in the next year, the inorexable Asian horde suddenly left as swiftly as it had come upon Europe, affording the devastated realms of the Continent's eastern front a chance to reclaim and rebuild what the invaders had destroyed. It marked the end of a series of campaigns against the West that began back in 1222…
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The leader of these Mongol expeditionary forces was Batu, a grandson of the legendary Genghis. He displayed an inheritance of his grandfather's tactical prowess, apparently suffering one known defeat throughout the entire twenty years of the campaigns. Batu first made his presence known in Russia in 1222 on the shores of the Kalka River, where he defeated a force of Russian princes and a native pagan tribe called the Cumans. Five years later, Genghis Khan died, putting Batu's father Ogedai in command of the entire Mongol nation. It is unclear when his forces finally set out, but a fairly clear marker for the beginning of the campaigns was in 1236, when Batu conquered the Volga Bulgars in southwestern Russia. The kingdom of Georgia fell in the same year. In late December of the following year, the Mongols under Batu captured the Russian city of Riazan. The city of Vladimir fell in February of 1238, and then Batu began to attack the northern realms of the Kievan Rus', one of the oldest Russian kingdoms, eventually settling his army by the River Don for about a year. Batu's lightning attacks and swift advances can be at least in part to using the climate to his advantage - he made his best progress in the winter, when the Russian rivers froze over. The crafty Mongol general used them like highways to move his army much faster than he ever could have simply shoving them through the snow. In late 1239, he was on the move again, splitting his force, sending an expeditionary force north under the command of a general named Khaidu, while he attacked the Carpathian Rus' in southwestern Russia and the present-day Balkans. Kiev, the oldest known Russian city, would fall a year later in 1240. The following year, 1241, would be a cataclysmic one for Europe. The Mongols were coming.
In March of 1241, it began. King Boleslav V (the Brave) of Poland was the first to meet the thundering Asian cavalry archers at the city of Krakow. The battle was a disaster, ending in the death of Boleslav and the shattering of his army, the remnants of which fled west to the city of Liegnitz, where the Teutonic Knights (a German Christian military/crusading order founded about a hundred years after the First Crusade) were desperately trying to form an army to stop the Asian advance. Khaidu, leader of the Mongol northern army, led his forces in hot pursuit. On April 9, in Anno Domini 1241, Christendom watched in horror as its proud knighthood, wearing the cross of Christ, was utterly annihilated at the hands of Khaidu. The ruler of Silesia, Grand Prince Henry II, was killed in the battle. The nearby realm of Silesia was swiftly ransacked, but the Bohemian Army finally stopped Khaidu's advance. Undeterred in the least, he merely headed south, for Hungary. The last great hope to stop the Mongols was gone, and the way lay open into Central Europe.
(The Battle of Liegnitz by Angus McBride)
Two days after the disaster at Liegnitz, Batu himself crushed the army of Hungary at the city of Mohi, on the banks of the River Sato. The same day, the Croatians frustrated him at the city of Grobnok. Undiscouraged, he headed south again. The next two blows would fall in December, with the destruction of the city of Lahore on the 22nd, and culminating in the destruction of the great city of Pest on Christmas Day. With a string of terrible defeats behind them and a new year soon approaching, Europe was in serious trouble.
However, the expected apocalypse was not to be, for in early 1242, word reached Batu of the death of his father, the Great Khan. Tradition demanded that a successor be chosen, and Batu and Khaidu were forced to return to the capital in Krakorum. They were forced to pull out of Europe, and the decimated nations of Eastern Europe were given a chance to rebuild their homes. Christendom may owe its existence today to the death of an old Asian war chief back in 1241.
(Medieval depiction of the Battle of Liegnitz. Artist unknown.)
Eggenberger, David, A Dictionary of Battles (New York; Vail-Ballow Press, 1967)
Hildinger, Erik, "The Mongol Invasion of Europe" In: Military History http://www.thehistorynet.com/MilitaryHistory/articles/1997/06972_cover.htm
Magosci, Paul R, Historical Atlas of East Central Europe (Univ. of Washington Press, 1993)
Mellersh, H.E.L., Chronology of World History Vol. 1. (Oxford; Helicon Publishing Ltd., 1999)
Edited, Researched and Written by:
December 6, 2000
Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.