Battle of the Kalka River: Mongols Raiders Defeat Russians
Today in Military History: May 31, 1223
I return to the medieval world for today's military history lesson. One of history's greatest military machines makes its entry into European lands, and leaves a legacy of fear that still permeates the Russian psyche.
Genghis Khan (1162?-1227), Great Khan of Mongol Empire
In the previous two decades, Genghis Khan led his Mongolian army out of the desert steppes of eastern Asia. This highly trained horde (a misnomer, as his army never exceeded 100,000 men) defeated almost every force in its path. Between 1219 and 1222, a Mongol force of two tumens (20,000 horsemen) commanded by the generals Subotai and Jebe campaigned throughout modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. They left a trail of destruction and corpses that were unparalleled until the 20th century.
[For more background on the Mongols, especially their military machine, I would suggest you re-read two of my previous Burn Pit posts, namely "Battle of Liegnitz: Mongols Defeat Polish-German Army" April 9, 2010 or "Battle of Ain Jalut: Mamlukes Defeat Mongols at Goliath's Spring" September 2, 2010.]
In early 1222, the Mongols made their way north of the Caucasus Mountains into the grasslands of modern-day Russian northeast of the Black Sea. [This campaign was essentially a large-scale raid, not an invasion.] In the spring of that year, the Mongols met a coalition of regional tribes which included the Cumans, a Turkish tribe with historic ties of friendship with the Mongols. After secret negotiations – and an offer of a share of the booty – the Cumans left the alliance. Without the Cumans to strengthen them, the tribal alliance was defeated and slaughtered by the Mongols.
Eurasia Before the Mongol Invasions, circa AD 1200
(Note Mongol lands to the north of Jin Dynasty kingdom on right side of map)
The Mongols then double-crossed the Cumans and began butchering their forces as well. Most were killed, but some refugees – including the Cuman khan Koten – reached the Kievan Rus' city of Galich, which was ruled by Koten's son-in-law, Prince Mstislav the Bold. Koten warned Mstislav, "Today the Mongols have taken our land and tomorrow they will take yours." Unfortunately, Mstislav did not trust this information, as most Rus' cities had suffered Cuman raids for decades. Mstislav ignored his father-in-law's warning for nearly a year.
Finally, in early 1223 Prince Mstislav received reports that the Mongols were marching along the Dneister River, apparently heading for Rus' territory. Mstislav contacted all the regional Rus' princes, hoping to form a coalition to deal with the barbarians. One source claims he formed an army consisting of at least 18 Rus' princes and their men. He even included Khan Koten and his remaining Cumans in the mix. Mstislav's force has been estimated at between 25,000 to 30,000 men by most historians, with a maximum estimate of 80,000 by one writer. [I personally think that the 30,000 total is closest to the truth.]
After pursuing the Cumans for several months, the Mongol army moved to return eastward. In late April or early May, Gens. Subotai and Jebe received reports that the Kievan Rus' alliance was attempting to envelop their raiding force. The commanders sent several ambassadors to Mstislav III of Kiev, stating that the Mongols had no quarrel with the Rus' and were only seeking out the Cumans for punishment. Prince Mstislav ordered the Mongol messengers executed. When they received word of this outrage, the Mongol commanders sent another set of representatives, who promptly declared war on the Kievan Rus'.
Mongol Military Background
Mongol horse archers; from a 15th century manuscript
The Mongol army under Genghis Khan and his generals was formed from the various tribes of what is today Mongolia, southeastern Siberia, and parts of China. It was a sophisticated force atypical of the various steppe nomads of eastern and central Asia. After consolidating the various Mongolian tribes, Temujin (Genghis Khan's given name) began developing and training his men into a crack military machine…
The mainstay of the Mongol army was its division of units into decimals. The smallest unit of ten men was the arbat. Ten arbats formed a company of 100 men (called a zuut), followed by ten zuuts of 1000 men comprised a regiment (a myanghan), Ten regiments formed a division called a tumen. Finally, two to five tumens would form an army corps, or an ordu (likely the derivation of the term "horde").
Mongol horse archer, Chinese miniature from 15th or 16th century (Ming Dynasty)
The backbone of the Mongol forces was the mounted horse archer. Mongols were accustomed to virtually live in the saddle. Each Mongol soldier trailed 3 or 4 remounts on campaign (all Mongol steeds were mares); oftentimes, if constantly on the march, Mongols would used one or more of the remounts, stopping only long enough to give the horse minimum rest. Mare's milk was one of the mainstays of their diets; on rare occasions, the Mongol horseman would open a vein in his horse's neck and drink its blood.
The typical Mongol horse archer carried a composite recurved bow, a sword, an axe, and a lasso at minimum, and a quiver with 60 arrows. He wore a heavy felt coat or leather armor, as well as a heavy silk shirt underneath. The silk undershirt would prevent arrows from embedding themselves in the horseman's body. Oftentimes the coat was covered with metal or hardened leather plates to offer greater protection. A conical helmet topped off the archer's protection.
Mongol heavy cavalry (on right) in battle, Persian manuscript from 13th or 14th century
At the beginning of the Mongol march to empire, the army consisted wholly of mounted archers. However, after fighting the Jin Dynasty of China, the Great Khan adopted various forms of siege artillery into the army, as well as Chinese specialists to build and man them. In addition, after the Mongols fairly decimated the Khwarezmian Shahdom of Iran and central Asia, the need for heavy cavalry was realized. As a result, the Mongol army began developing and using heavily armored horsemen as the spearhead and battle-deciding arm of the ordu.
Finally, Genghis Khan realized the uses psychological warfare could have on his enemies. When the Mongols approached an enemy city and called upon its ruler to surrender, the city would be spared a sacking if it capitulated immediately. However, if a city ruler refused and resisted, the city would be completely sacked, the people put to the sword or enslaved, and the city officials tortured to death. This is what happened to the city of Baghdad in 1258. [This was the subject of a previous Burn Pit post from February 10, 2010, "Mongol Siege of Baghdad Ends, Pillage Begins" http://burnpit.us/2010/02/mongol-siege-baghdad-ends-pillage-begins ]
"Mongols Besieging Baghdad in 1258," Persian (?) manuscript, c. 1430
Tomorrow: Battle of the Kalka River