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Old 22nd August 2018, 05:42 AM   #1
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Default When East Met West

One of the interesting aspects of arms and armor collecting is the differences between Eastern and Western armament and armor. In large part, this reflected different fighting styles and philosophies. Among the most notable of the conflicts between East and West involved the repulsion of Mongol incursions into eastern Europe during the 13th C. Poles and Hungarians bore the brunt of these attacks. Much has been written about these battles, but an interesting question arises—Why did the Mongols lose and give up their move westwards. A recent article on provides 10 reasons for why this may have occurred.


Why didn't the Mongols conquer Hungary?
Susanna Viljanen, Aalto University

Ten reasons.

1. It’s the logistics, dammit! The Mongols had simply stretched their supply lines to the ultimate and were not able to replenish their troops and supplies. Clausewitz describes well the situation what happens when an army runs out of supply. The distance from puszta to Mongolian heartlands was simply too long.

2. The winter 1241–1242 was extremely harsh and spring 1242 wet. The Mongols had grazed on the Pannonian puszta, but found little to eat, and especially their horses suffered badly. In spring 1242 they were malnourished and prone to Hungarian counterattacks. They simply had eaten up everything in Hungary and were now hungry.

3. Europeans had proven a far tougher nut to crack they thought. True, they had ridden from victory to victory and crushed the Poles at Legnica and Hungarians at Muhi. But they had suffered numerous setbacks in the process and suffered defeats on smaller battles, and even the two grand victories had been close runs. Neither of them were followed by the traditional relentless pursuit—the Mongol casualties had been heavy. I have wargamed the battle of Muhi several times, and unless Sejban manages to find the ford and arrive in time, the battle will inevitably end up as Hungarian victory. Batu himself was almost killed—his bodyguard lost 30 baatars.

Note that the Hungarian army was not a heavy knight-based army like those of Germany or France, but a similar light horse archer army as the Mongols. They were thus in even worse disadvantage than a heavier German or Bohemian army would have been.

4. They could not take one single stone castle or fortified city. While the Mongols were able to devastate lesser towns with wooden palisades and earthenwork forts, they did not manage to capture one single stone castle or walled city.

If the Medieval Europeans knew one type of warfare really well, it was fortifications, military engineering and area denial. Heck, they had had almost 1000 years of experience on horse nomad incursions from Asia, and knew how deny their best asset - mobility. Siege of Esztergom (1241) illustrates this issue. They were able to take and devastate the palisaded lower town, but not the stone citadel. Instead the captain of the citadel, Simon of Aragon, picked the Mongol catapults one by one and shot them to pieces with his ballista. Batu called it quits.

Why so? Because you really cannot transport siege engines with you when your army is all mounted. The siege engines have to be built on the spot. Only the later Mongol armies contained a large number of infantry, including military engineers—which would have left them vulnerable on Hungarian incursors.

5. Batu decided not to push his luck and called it a day. The death of Great Khan Ögödei and the ensuing kurultai provided a nice excuse. Baidar wanted to press on to the Great Western Ocean, but Subudei had also his doubts. Mongols were on the winning side, and Batu decided to harvest the fruits of victory before anything nasty would happen.

The Mongols had suffered heavy casualties, and the original four tumens made up hardly even two. Moreover, they had lost a lot of their spare mounts, and their horses were starving. They knew they would be entering terrrain which heavily favoured knights and heavy foot, and which would be even stronger fortified than Poland and Hungary. Moreover, Europe was not an empire but a network of feudal states, which meant it could not be conquered by a single battle; it had to be vanquished one army at a time—and those armies could well form alliances, and the various states were bound together with bonds of marriage.

Moreover, the Pope preached for Anti-Mongol crusade, and the last thing Batu wanted was masses of soldiers with religious fervor. So he did the only sensible thing—harvested the fruits of victory and went home to consolidate his power.

6. The Mongol mode of warfare was their greatest Achilles heel. You know the astonishing speed of Mongol advance, huh? That is because they had to be on the move continuously lest they starved. Horses eat like horses, and since the Mongols did not carry fodder with them, the only way to feed their horses was foraging. And they would eat up a large patch of land unless they were continuously on the move. To add an insult to injury, each Mongol warrior had ten or so spare mounts - the skirmishing mode of warfare consumed a lot of horses.

The remedy against this was area denial and scorched earth. This is one of the reasons why the castles in Central Europe have been located with 10 to 20 km from each. They are means of area denial. They are there to slow down this advance, and make the horse nomads starve. Europeans had some 1000 years of experience on how to fight them.

7. Their enemies had now begun to know them and realize how to fight against them. And this is an extremely important thing. Novel and previously unknown tactics work only for a so long time; once your enemy becomes aware of them, he sooner or later comes up with counter-tactics. And the best counter-tactics against the Mongols was close co-operation of knights and crossbowmen.

8. They were entering in terrain which strongly disfavoured them. All warfare is the product of the terrain where it is waged, and the European terrain created the mode of European warfare (heavy cavalry and heavy infantry). Tank is the knight of today. In such terrain the Mongols were strongly at disadvantage - especially their flanks would be vulnerable. Light cavalry works best on a pool table like terrain with little or no terrain features to hamper movement and restrict speed and manoeuvre. They are mincemeat in semi-close terrain where they cannot employ their mobility.

9. The Hungarians waged guerrilla war. The true worth of castles are not their walls, but their garrisons. The guerrilla warfare is nothing new; the castles provided power bases for expeditions, raids and sallies. The guerrilla party would leave the castle in the morning, strike, retreat, run away and return to the castle by evening. This is the reason why the castles were built so close to each other—they could support each other.

10. Too little to loot and too strong defenses. Make no mistake: the Mongol Empire was a similar Raubswirschaft (rapine economy) as was the Roman Empire. It lived to loot, rob and plunder. It expanded to plunder, to enslave, to conquer. It especially expanded to the resource-rich lands of Central Asia.

Europe was actually a very poor continent - especially on easily lootable resources, such as noble metals, gemstones or other riches. It also was far more militarized than most other continents. It simply was not cost-effctive to go there any further.

When the Mongols returned to Hungary in 1285, this time King Ladislaus IV took absolutely no chances. He had had the country built full of castles, and he had strongly increased the numbers of knights and crossbowmen in his army. He practiced scorched earth and guerrilla tactics, drawing the Mongols led by Khan Nogai into terrain at banks of Danube near Pest which greatly favored knights. See Second Mongol invasion of Hungary 1285–1286.

Very few Mongols ever returned home.

Last edited by Ian : 22nd August 2018 at 06:04 AM.
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