Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Decisive Battle that Never Happened

One of the traditions of western historiography is the tradition of the decisive battle. Supposedly the decisive battle is what determines that history will take one particular course rather than another. The general tenor of the decisive battle trope is the idea that history is progressive and that the decisive battle establishes that history will go in that progressive positive direction. It is rare that a historian will talk about a decisive battle making things worst or that the whole concept, which frequently reduces war to moving pieces on a chess board, is dubious.1

Allied with this concept is the notion in western historiography of the Asiatic horde. In this concept the "West" as been frequently threatened by "Asiatic hordes" that threaten to overwhelm Europe with hugely superior numbers and subject the west to Asiatic despotism. Thus battles from Marathon, 490 B.C.E., to Vienna, 1683 C.E., are characterized as fights against Europe i.e., the “West”, being overwhelmed by the hordes of Asia.2 “Asia” is the big bogyman other that threatens the innocent progressive “West”. Of course what exactly is “Asia” is poorly defined if at all. It is simply a cliche of little real content but much propagandistic hyperbole. Allied to this the concept of the Asiatic horde necessarily requires that the “Asiatic” armies be huge and the plucky European armies, fighting for truth, virtue and the European way be much smaller, but of course by pluck, luck and skill they defeat the huge Asiatic horde and save Europe from a fate worst than death, i.e., Asiatic sloth, corruption and decadence. Of course it is a collection of cliches that go back to the Greeks and they are of course of little validity.2

European armies are not only characterized as much smaller than the Asiatic horde but they are almost always characterized as more efficient and professional, which is what supposedly enables them to defeat the huge Asiatic hordes. Asia is always that which from outside Europe is threatening to overwhelm poor small Europe.3 Allied to this is the poisonous and utterly false notion that that the “West” is the unique heir of Greco-Roman civilization and that civilizations like the Islamic are “Asiatic” and outside that tradition. This is nonsense. Islam is the heir to Greece and Rome just as much as the “West” is. Further it is curious that although “Western” civilization is frequently described as Judeo-Christian; Middle Eastern civilization is never described as Judeo-Christian-Islamic. The need to cast Islamic civilization as the “Asiatic” other is rather obvious.

Now the above mentioned cliches can be criticized at every level. For example, lumping all the cultures of Asia under the term “Asiatic” is stunningly simpleminded. Further isn’t Europe a part of Asia and so “Asiatic”? As mentioned above the separation of Islam as wholly separated from the “west” and “Asiatic” is also dubious. Such things as the concept of the huge “Asiatic” army, relying solely on numbers against the smaller professional European army are cliches not realities of the past.4

Other conceits like the idea that everything that happens is for the best and history represents an upward process of progress are also in this view of the past. But one thing is omnipresent the small free professional European army that beats the huge unprofessional despotic, decadent army of “Asiatics” through sheer skill and fighting ability and thus preserves “Western” civilization from being destroyed or turned into just another stronghold of “Asiatic” despotism.5

However in this story of the triumph of the “West” towards it “inevitable” rise to global supremacy which by virtue of its considerable merits it undoubtedly deserved that happened an event that must with great effort be excised and made harmless and wholesome. It cannot be ignored but it must be purged as a decisive event because of what it reveals about the real state of the “West” at the time and the actual realities of the world then. Of course I am being facetious about the “West’s” domination being deserved out of the “West’s” intrinsic merits that is just a conceit worthy of ridicule although taken seriously as recently as a century ago.6 The event that should actually be a centrepiece in the history of the world but has been purged out as a central event because it reveals both the military and cultural weakness of the “West” at the time is the Mongol invasion of Europe 1237-1241 C.E.

Mongol Warrior

Here was no decisive battle that saved the “West” no grand demonstration of “Western” military superiority instead what was revealed was the political, military and yes cultural weakness of the “West” when faced with the armies of the Mongols. The patent and pathetic inability of the armies of the “West” to hold off the Mongols is a graphic demonstration of the marginality and weakness of the “West” in comparison to the rest of the world at that time. It has become customary among some to talk about a “Western” way of war and by implication at least, to talk about the superiority of this method of war fighting. The argument being that “Western” ways of war fighting are superior. This is bluntly dubious. The Mongols are a glaring example about how false that is. Of course the usual reaction is talk about the Mongols being “exceptions”. This is poppycock. Instead one should be examining weather or not the very idea of a superior “Western” way of war is in fact true. But then a superior “Western” way of war goes with the concept of small, professional European armies defeating huge “Asiatic” hordes of warriors ruled by decadent, despotic elites. In other words it is flattering to European notions of superiority.7

As I said the Mongol invasions are quite brutal indications of the reality of war making in that period. The simple fact is that the Mongol armies were crushingly and massively superior to the armies of the Europeans and they demonstrated it repeatedly during the campaign. The following is a brief run through of the Mongol campaign in Europe.

In the years 1221-1224 C.E. Genghis Khan sent an army under one of his general’s, Subotai, to check out the lands further west. After going through northern Iran and travelling through the Caucasus, were they crushed the Georgians, they emerged in the plains of southern Russian where they engaged the nomadic Cumans in a war during which the Mongols were victorious. Afterwards they invaded the Crimea where they stormed several Genoese trading settlements. During the winter of 1222-1223 while they wintered besides the Black sea spies were sent to scout out the situation in Europe. In the year 1223 as the Mongols were preparing to return to Mongolia. A combined Russian-Cuman army advanced on them. In a fit of extraordinary stupidity the envoys that Subotai sent to make a deal with the Russian – Cuman army were murdered. By then the Mongols simply wanted to retire from the area with no conflict. The result was disaster.

At the battle of the Kalka river, superior Mongol strategy and tactics resulted in an overwhelming Mongol victory. The murder of the Mongol envoys ensured that the battle was followed by a wholesale massacre. The commanders of the army that the Mongols captured were brutally pressed to death. Most figures for the battle give the Mongols c. 25,000 men and their enemies up to 75,000. This is false. It is unlikely that the Mongols were up to full strength; by then they probably numbered less than 15,000 and it unlikely that the Russian-Cuman army numbered much more than 30,000 men. Afterwards the Mongols after an indecisive battle with the Volga Bulgars withdrew to Mongolia.8

Kalka Aftermath

The knowledge that the Mongols gained in this incursion would help them in their next invasion. But in the meantime the Mongols were engaged in a war with the Chin empire that controlled northern China and so were delayed in returning to the west.

It wasn’t until 1235 C.E. that the new Mongol Khan Ogatai who had succeeded his father Genghis in 1227 decided to follow up the reconnaissance of 1221-1224 C.E.

The army was under the nominal command of Batu a grandson of Genghis Khan, the actual commander was Subotai who had lead the reconnaissance of 1221-1224 C.E.

Mongol Invasion of Europe 1237-1242 C.E.

In December of 1237 C.E. The Mongols invaded across the Volga river. Some accounts give their numbers as 150,000 men. This is false the actual total seems to be c. 50,000. The Volga Bulgars were swiftly obliterated and their chief towns stormed. In the winter of 1237-1238. Previous to this the Mongols had conquered the region between the Kama and the Volga right down to the Caspian and Black sea. In a matter of a few months the Mongols stormed through central Russia wiping out several armies and storming city after city. Only a sudden thaw in February 1238 prevented the Mongols from taking Novgorod. It was a campaign of astounding swiftness during which the Mongols marched well over a thousand miles and stormed dozens of different strongholds and fortresses. Most of Russia not out right conquered submitted to the Mongols.9

For the next 2 years Subotai consolidated his conquests and planned his next move along with sending large numbers of spies to gather intelligence about Europe. During all this intelligence gathering Subotai discovered that the Europeans were fatally, almost suicidally divided and at each other’s throats. After several years of preparation Subotai moved in December 1240 C.E.

Subotai had at most 50,000 men and probably less than 40,000 it seemed an incredibly small number with which to contemplate the conquest of Europe but it was enough as the following events were to show.

Kiev was stormed and destroyed along with other fortresses and cities in southern Russia. Than Subotai advanced to the passes of the Carpathian mountains. There he divided his army into several parts.

One section went north to deal with the Poles, Lithuanians and Germans. The southern section went around the Carpathians to invade Hungary from the south. The main section crossed the passes of the Carpathians and advanced on Budapest.

The northern section, lead by the Mongol general Kaidu, probably numbering no more than 15,000 men at most and likely c. 10,000 divided into several section one swept through Lithuania where it tore apart several Lithuanian armies and stormed fortress after fortress. It then devastated Prussia, then controlled by the Teutonic Knights and smashed yet again several armies it then cut through Pomerania, It then joined the forces invading Poland invaded Poland. The united section smashed the army of Boleslav V of Poland at Krakow and then stormed the city. The section invaded Silesia where Prince Henry of Silesia tried to stop them at Liegnitz with an army composed of Poles, Germans, Teutonic knights and some Czechs, probably numbering c. 15,000-20,000 men. The Mongols at most numbered 10,000 men. The Battle of Liegnitz, (April 9, 1241), was a disaster, Prince Henry was killed and his army annihilated. The Mongols then proceed to methodically devastate Silesia and storm one town after the other. King Wenceslas of Bohemia withdrew his army into Saxony. The Mongols followed up and devastated large sections of Saxony. The Mongol army instead of continuing west suddenly turned south to unite with the central army under Subotai. They past through Moravia, which devastated by fire and sword and many of its towns stormed and ravaged.

Meanwhile Subotai was engaged with the Hungarians led by Bela IV. Probably the ablest of the opponents of the Mongols during the invasion Bela IV was completely out classed the Mongols. While Subotai devastated the area around the Budapest other sections of the Mongol army devastated Transylvania and southern Hungary. Storming town after town.

Reuniting most of his army Subotai withdrew to the Sajo river c. 100 miles from Budapest. Bela IV showing both caution and initiative followed. The army he brought with him probably numbered c. 20,000-30,000. Subotai whose army probably by then numbered 20,000 decided to comprehensively annihilate the Hungarian army. Bela IV, showing a surprising amount of energy, had seized a bridgehead over the river and fortified it. Subotai launched a holding attack on the bridgehead and quickly overwhelmed it. Then as the Hungarians came out of their fortified camp to repel the attack they were attacked in flank by the main Mongol force. By deliberately leaving a hole in their encircling forces the Mongols cause the Hungarian army to disintegrate into a mob of fugitives who were then relentlessly pursued. The Battle ended in a horrible massacre of the fugitives. So ended the Battle of the Sajo River, (April 11, 1241).

In the relentless pursuit that followed, Budapest was stormed and so was any Hungarian fortress that resisted. Bela IV fled to Dalmatia where he was relentlessly purued. Bela IV eventually was able find safety in Germany. The Austrian Duke instead of helping Bela IV imprisoned him to get some cash out of him before letting him go. An outstanding example of the suicidal divisions among the Europeans.

At the same time in several battles Transylvania was subdued and most of its town’s conquered.10 The astounding speed of this invasion and the fact that in a matter of months all eastern Europe was ravaged and conquered is one of the most stunning military campaigns in history.

Subotai spent most of the late spring, summer and fall consolidating his conquests and preparing for the next stage in the conquest of Europe. The Europeans during this brief interval were utterly unable to coordinate any of their defensive efforts as Subotai worked out his plans for invading Austria, Germany and Italy in the coming winter.

In late 1241, shortly after Christmas Mongol armies crossed the alps into northern Italy, while other forces devastated the area around Vienna. It is hard to believe that the campaign of 1241-1242 would not see the conquest of Germany and Italy at least. To be followed by France, Spain and England and then some moping up. All probably to take less than 5 more years. Possibly considerably less if the Europeans sensibly stopped fighting and submitted.

It was not to be. Instead of Europe saved by some last minute military feat, Europe was saved by the fact that the Mongol Khan Ogatai drank too much. In a night of drunken excess in the fall of 1241 Ogatai drank too much and died. THe news took a couple of months to reach the armies in Europe. But when it did the law of Genghis Khan stated.11

..after the death of the ruler all offspring of the House of Genghis Khan, wherever they might be, must return to Mongolia to take part in the election of the new Khakhan.12

Khan Ogatai

There was considerable arguing among the commanders of the Mongol army. The details are fascinating in that the three Mongol Princes wanted to stay and continue the war or at least leave their armies there under subordinates to continue the war. Subotai, the military genius responsible for this spectacularly successful campaign argued for a withdrawal from central and eastern Europe, leaving some forces in southern Russia and too renew the campaign at a later date. The rest would return to Mongolia for the selection of a new Khan.

As the Mongols withdrew they went through Serbia and Bulgaria in 1242 C.E., where they, once again, cut up various armies, devastated large areas and stormed many towns and fortresses leaving behind a wasteland.13

The Europeans promptly started their suicidal infighting again, basically unmindful that the Mongols might come back. Fortunately the Mongols never did come back.

Basically the Mongols were preoccupied by internal disputes and they decided to concentrate on the conquest of all of China, a vastly more profitable and difficult challenge than Europe. This took many decades. (Until 1279 C.E.). By then the Mongol realm was divided and the Khanate of the Golden Horde that controlled the Steppes of Russia was not strong enough on its own to conquer Europe and also frankly not interested.14

The true state of actual power relations at the time is revealed by the fact that not only did it take the Mongols decades to conquer all of China, (almost 70 years), but the armies they used were vastly larger in the order of 150,000 – 200,000 men by 1270 C.E. Further there was no equivalent in the conquest of China of a spectacular conquest like that of Eastern Europe in 1240-1241 C.E. There a Mongol army of c. 50,000 sufficed to crush eastern Europe in a few months whereas Mongol armies of a similar size had trouble conquering a single Chinese province. Compared to China Europe at the time was weak and no match for the Mongols. It is fortunate for Europe that the Mongols after this invasion were so fixated on China that it consumed their main efforts for decades. By the time China was conquered the Mongols were both unable and unwilling to renew the conquest of Europe. So in a way China saved Europe from the Mongols.

Traditionally the nomadic armies of the steppes could be quite formidable their chief weakness was lack of logistic support and the inability to storm cites and strongholds.

Genghis Khan solved those problems in combination of ways. The Mongol armies were highly mobile; each fighting man had at least 4-5 and usually more spare mounts. Discipline was ferocious and training comprehensive. The Mongol armies were able to move at truly spectacular speeds due to their vast array of horses and other support animals to cart supplies etc. The logistic problems of gathering supplies were solved by an efficient commissariat that used the bureaucratic techniques of the Chinese with Chinese technical experts to organize such things. Giving the Mongols an effective logistical setup. Further Chinese bureaucratic expertise enabled the Mongols to organize an efficient intelligence gathering i.e., spy system and to collate and analyse the information effectively. Also Chinese technicians provided the support and expertise in siege craft, machines etc., for how to effectively and quickly storm cities and fortresses. In Europe this was especially useful in that compared to Chinese cities and fortresses European cities and fortresses were not very challenging to take. In effect Mongol war making was a combination of steppe nomad traditional war making and Chinese technical / bureaucratic expertise. The combination proved to be brutally formidable and something the Europeans of the day had no answer too.15

The usual figures given even now, in my opinion, greatly exaggerate the size of the Mongol armies. Confusing paper strength with actual strength for one thing. Given that the Mongol armies were heavily horsed and mobile it is very unlikely that they would number over 100,000 for the invasion of Europe, even 50,000 is likely too large. Interestingly the Mongol armies invading China had large infantry units. Given that each fighting man would have at least 4 horses, (some accounts say 16) and that support forces would have at least 50% of the number of horses of the fighting men. That would mean an army of 50,000 men would have a minimum of 300,000 horses, to say nothing of mules donkeys etc. Given also that all cavalry armies are almost always much smaller than largely infantry armies, (because of the extra logistic support all those horses require), it is hard to believe that the Mongol armies invading Europe were very large.16

One of the half truths that is popular today is the idea of a “Western Way of Warfare”.17 The idea is that there is an especially different “Western" way of warfare that is more deadly and formidable than other ways. In other words another way of flattering “Westerners” i.e., Europeans on their supposed superiority. I rather think that an unbiased look the history of warfare would call into question any notion that the “Western Way of Warfare” is in fact necessarily superior, assuming such a concept is in fact for real. It also feeds into the European notion of the “Oriental Horde” defeated by the small European army in a decisive battle that saves the “West” from the horrors of a decadent Asia.

It did not happen in this case then backwater Europe was saved by a mere fluke, a stroke of luck that the Europeans did nothing to take advantage of. Only later developments in central Asia and China prevented the renewal of the conquest of Europe. There is no decisive battle to write up in collections of decisive battles. The battles of Liegnitz and Sajo would likely have marked the decisive battles in the conquest of Europe except for a fluke event. Even so it is passing ironic that Subotai who organized one of the great campaigns of military history was the one responsible for calling it off. It appears that he expected to come back to it in a couple of years. Fortunately for Europe he never came back and Liegnitz and Sajo are simply decisive battles that might have been.

Sometimes small things have huge effects and in this case Ogatai’s decision to drink a few extra cups of wine may be one of the most important decisions in the last thousand years.

1. See Keegan, John, The Face of Battle, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pp. 13-77, for a critique of the concept of the decisive battle.

2. See Creasy, Sir Edward S., The Fifteen Decisive Battles, London, 1908, and Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 1-3, Da Capo Press, New York, 1954, 1955, 1956, Dupuy, R. Ernest, & Dupuy, Trevor N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, Revised Edition, Harper & Row Pub., New York, 1977, for many examples of this sort of thinking.

3. IBID, Fuller.

4. Fuller does this a lot and so do Dupuy & Dupuy.

5. Footnote 1.

6. See Creasy for example.

7. The idea of a “Western Way of War”, is from Hanson, V., The Western Way of War, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989. Although the book is excellent he does not in any sense prove his idea that the “Western Way of War” is superior or that it is unique to the “West”. John Keegan in his A History of Warfare, Vintage, New York, 1993, uses the idea with great care and sense.

8. Dupuy, pp. 338-339, Prawdin, Michael, The Mongol Empire, 2nd Edition, The Free Press, New York, 1961, pp. 210-220, Mote, F. W., Imperial China 900-1800, Harvard University Press, Harvard CONN, 1999, pp. 432-433, Turnbull, Steven, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests, Osprey Pub., 2003, pp. 74-75, Buell, Paul E., Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire, The Scarecrow Press Inc., Oxford, 2003, pp. 35-36, 255-258, Shpakovsky, V., & Nicolle, D., Kalka River 1223, Osprey Pub., 2001, pp. 50-82.

9. Prawdin, pp. 250-252, Dupuy, 347, Mote, 435-436, Buell, pp. 45-46, 233-234, Turnbull, pp. 44-48.

10. Prawdin, 252-269, Dupuy, 347-350, Mote, 435-436, Buell, pp. 46-47, 186-187, 235, 257-258, Turnbull, pp. 48-54, 75.

11. Ögedei Khan, from Wikipedia, Here, Dupuy, p. 350, Prawdin, p. 269, Mote, p. 436, Turnbull, p. 55, Dawson, Raymond, Imperial China, Penguin Books, London, 1972, p. 215. There were rumours that Ogatai was poisoned. These rumours are almost certainly not true.

12. Dupuy, quoting the law p. 350.

13. Dupuy, p. 350.

14. Mote, 444-460, Turnbull, pp. 55-56, 60-61, Dawson, pp. 212-221.

15. Dupuy, 340-345, Keegan 1993, 200-207, Dawson, 204-212, Shpakovsky, pp. 23-35, Turnbull, pp. 17-18, Buell, pp. 112-113.

16. Mote, pp. 427-428, Turnbull, p. 18, Buell, pp. 109-110. Dupuy and Dupuy are especially guilty in this respect giving very exaggerated figures for both the Mongol armies and the European armies opposing them, see pp. 347-350.

17. See Hanson Footnote 7.

Pierre Cloutier

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.