The Battle of Mohi (today Muhi), also known as Battle of the Sajó River or Battle of the Tisza River (11 April 1241), was the main battle between the Mongol Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary during the Mongol invasion of Europe. It took place at Muhi, southwest of the Sajó River. After the invasion, Hungary lay in ruins. Nearly half of the inhabited places had been destroyed by the invading armies. Around 15–25 percent of the population was lost, mostly in lowland areas, especially in the Great Hungarian Plain, the southern reaches of the Hungarian plain in the area now called the Banat and in southern Transylvania.
The Mongol invasion of EuropeEdit
The Mongols attacked Hungary with three armies. One of them attacked through Poland in order to withhold possible Polish auxiliaries and defeated the army of Duke Henry II the Pious of Silesia at Legnica. A southern army attacked Transylvania, defeated the voivod and crushed the Transylvanian Hungarian army. The main army led by Khan Batu and Subutai attacked Hungary through the fortified Verecke Pass and annihilated the army led by Denis Tomaj, the count palatine on 12 March 1241.
Warnings and Hungarian preparationEdit
In 1223 the expanding Mongol Empire defeated an allied Cuman army at the Kalka River. The defeated Cumans retreated towards Hungary. Hungary had tried to convert the Cumans to Christianity and expand its influence over them for several decades beforehand. The Hungarian King Béla IV even began to use the title "King of Cumania". When Cuman refugees (ca. 40,000 people) sought asylum in his kingdom, it seemed that at least a portion of the Cumans had accepted Hungarian rule. The Mongols saw Hungary as a rival, and the Cuman migration to Hungary as a casus belli. In their ultimatum they also blamed Hungary for "missing envoys".
The Mongolian threat appeared during a time of political turmoil in Hungary. Traditionally, the base of royal power consisted of vast estates owned as royal property. Under King Andrew II, donations of land to nobles by the crown reached a new peak: whole counties were donated. As Andrew II said, "The best measure of royal generosity is measureless". After Béla IV inherited his father's throne he began to reconfiscate Andrew’s donations and to execute or expel his advisers. He also denied the nobles' right of personal hearings and accepted only written petitions to his chancellery. He even had the chairs of the council chamber taken away in order to force everybody to stand in his presence. His actions caused great disaffection among the nobles. The newly arrived and grateful Cumans gave the king more power (and increased prestige with the Church for converting them) but also caused more friction. The nomadic Cumans did not easily integrate with the settled Hungarians and the nobles were shocked that the king supported the Cumans in quarrels between the two.
King Béla began to mobilise his army and ordered all of his troops, including the Cumans, to the city of Pest. Frederick II Babenberg, Duke of Austria and Styria, also arrived there to help him. At this moment, the conflict between Cumans and Hungarians caused riots and the Cuman khan – who had been under the personal protection of the king – was murdered. Some sources mention the role of Duke Frederick in inciting this riot, but his true role is unknown. The Cumans believed that they had been betrayed, and left the country to the south, pillaging all the way. The full mobilisation was unsuccessful; many contingents were unable to reach Pest; some were destroyed by Mongols before they arrived, some by renegade Cumans. Many nobles refused to take part in the campaign because they hated the king and desired his downfall. Hardly anybody believed that the Mongol attack was a serious threat to the kingdom's security, and the Cuman defection was considered minor and usual. This attitude may have contributed to the death of the Cuman Khan Kuthen.
The Mongol vanguard reached Pest on 15 March and began to pillage the neighbouring area. King Béla forbade his men to attack them, as the Hungarian army was still unprepared. Even so, Duke Frederick attacked and defeated a minor raiding party – so Béla came to be seen as a coward. After this "heroic" act, Duke Frederick returned home. Ugrin Csák, the archbishop of Kalocsa, also tried to attack a Mongol contingent, but he was lured to a swamp and his armoured cavalry became irretrievably stuck in it. He barely escaped with his life.
Finally, the king decided to offer the Mongols battle, but they began to retreat. This affirmed the opinion of the nobles that the Mongols were not a threat and the king’s behaviour was not cautious but cowardly. After a week of forced marches and frequent Mongol attacks, the Hungarian army reached the flooded River Sajó, where it stopped to rest and to wait for additional supplies. The king and the Hungarians still did not know that the main Mongol army, which numbered between 20,000 and 30,000 – in contrast to the approximately 15,000-strong collection of varied Hungarian forces – was present, because of the wooded terrain on the far bank of the Sajó. The cautious king ordered the building of a heavily fortified camp of wagons.
The Mongol planEdit
It is highly unlikely that the Mongols originally wanted to cross a wide and dangerous river to attack a fortified camp. It is more likely that their original plan was to attack the Hungarians while crossing the river, as in the Battle of the Kalka River, although this is still not certain. A Ruthenian slave of the Mongols escaped to the Hungarians and warned them that the Mongols intended a night attack over the bridge over the Sajó.
The Mongols planned to bring their three contingents together if possible before engaging in battle and watched for signs that the Hungarians planned to attack. The way the camp was fortified was a tactical error since this would impede moves to escape in the event of an attack.
Fight at the Sajó bridgeEdit
The Hungarians still did not believe that there would be a full-scale attack, but the troops of Prince Kálmán, Duke of Slavonia and younger brother of King Béla, and Archbishop Ugrin Csák with Rembald de Voczon, the Templar master, left the camp to surprise the Mongols and defend the unguarded bridge. They reached the bridge at midnight, having marched the last seven kilometres in darkness (the sun having set at 18:29). It is very unlikely that the Mongols wanted to attack at night (horse archers avoid night battles), but they wanted to cross the river to be able to attack the Hungarian camp at dawn. When Kálmán and Ugrin arrived they found the Mongols unprepared and in the middle of crossing the bridge. They successfully forced them into battle and achieved a victory there. The Mongols had been unprepared for the crossbowmen, who had inflicted considerable losses on them, helped by the size of the bridge, which was a minimum of 200 meters long. The Hungarians left some soldiers to guard the bridge and returned to the camp, unaware that the main Mongol army was nearby. Arriving at the camp at around 02:00, they celebrated their victory.
The unexpected Hungarian victory forced the Mongol generals to modify their plans. Sejban was sent north to a ford with a smaller force to cross the river and attack the rear of the bridge-guard. At about 04:00, as daylight started to break, they began the crossing. Meanwhile, Subutai went south to build a makeshift emergency bridge while the Hungarians were engaged at the main bridge, but left Batu a plan to use giant stone throwers to clear the crossbowmen opposing them. At dawn, Batu, with the help of seven stone throwers, attacked the Hungarian guards on the bridge. When Sejban and his men arrived, the Hungarians retreated to their camp. The Mongol main forces finished crossing the river around 08:00.
When the fleeing Hungarians arrived at the camp they woke the others. Kálmán, Ugrin and the Templar master then left the camp again to deal with the attackers. Others remained there, believing this was also a minor attack and that Prince Kálmán would again be victorious. But as Kálmán and Ugrin witnessed the horde of Mongols swell, they realised that this was not a minor raid but an attack by the main Mongol force. After some heavy fighting they returned to the camp hoping to mobilise the full army. They were badly disappointed, as the king had not even issued orders to prepare for the battle. Archbishop Ugrin reproached the king for his faults in public. Finally the Hungarian army sallied forth, but this delay gave Batu enough time to finish the crossing.
A hard struggle ensued. The Hungarians outnumbered Batu's troops and the Mongols were unable to move quickly because the Sajó was behind their backs. The "History of the Yuan Dynasty" (Yuan shi) mentions that Batu lost thirty of his baaturs (heavily armoured bodyguards) and one of his lieutenants, Bakatu, when he personally assaulted a strong point with the vanguard. At this moment, Subutai who had been delayed by bridge-building, attacked the Hungarians’ rear flank, causing them to retreat in panic to their camp.
It is possible that the Hungarians might have had the capability to defend the camp, but their sallies were ineffective, and they were terrified by the flaming arrows, resulting in the deaths of many soldiers by the trampling crush of their comrades. Finally, the demoralised soldiers were routed. They tried to escape through a gap left open on purpose by the Mongols, because fleeing soldiers can be killed more easily than those who, with their backs to a wall, are forced to fight to the death. Mongol casualties had been so great that, at this point, Batu did not want to pursue the Hungarians. However, Subutai exhorted him successfully and the Mongols attacked.
Archbishop Ugrin was killed, but Kálmán and Béla managed to escape – though Kálmán's wounds were so serious that he died soon after. The Hungarians had lost nearly 30,000 men.
Role of gunpowder and firearmsEdit
Several modern historians have speculated that Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons were deployed by the Mongols at the Battle of Mohi. According to William H. McNeill, Chinese gunpowder weapons may have been used in Hungary at that time. Other sources mention weapons like "flaming arrows" and "naphtha bombs". Professor Kenneth Warren Chase credits the Mongols with introducing gunpowder and its associated weaponry into Europe.
After their victory, the Mongols regrouped and began a systematic assault on the Hungarian nation. The Hungarians' losses were such that they were unable to mount an effective defence.
An attempt was made to hold off the main Mongol army at the Danube, which was mostly successful, from April 1241 until January 1242. In an unusually cold winter, the river froze over, and after a number of close battles, the Mongols managed to cross. The royal family escaped to Austria to seek help from their ally Duke Frederick, but instead he arrested them and extorted an enormous ransom in gold and forced the king to cede three western counties to Austria. It was at this point that King Béla and some of his retinue fled south-west, through Hungarian-controlled territory, to the Adriatic coast and the castle of Trogir, where they stayed until the Mongols retreated.
While the king kept himself apprised of the situation in the rest of the country, he made numerous attempts to contact other rulers of Europe, including the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the King of France, but none seemed interested, and all seemed to have the same profound misunderstanding of the threat posed by the Mongol armies, which were by this time within a week's ride of the borders of France. The Mongols appointed a darughachi in Hungary and minted coins in the name of Khagan. According to Michael Prawdin, the lands of Béla were assigned to Orda by Batu as an appanage.
Meanwhile, in the main territory of Hungary, surviving members of the royal retinue, being for the large part those that did not get to the battle of Mohi in time to participate, along with a number of unorganised irregulars consisting mostly of armed peasants, employed guerrilla tactics to harass the Mongol troops, occasionally engaging them in open battle. Much of the civilian population fled to areas of refuge inaccessible to the Mongol cavalry: high mountains in the north and east, swamps (especially on the Puszta, around Székesfehérvár and in the west [the Hanság]), and older earthwork fortresses (most of which were in a motte-and-bailey form or consisted of a mud-banked enclosure on the top of a mountain, steep natural hill or man-made hill). Rogerius recounts his experience in one such refuge called Fátra in his Carmen Miserable. (Such places are often referred to by the German term Fluchtburg.)
At dawn on 11 December 1241, Great Khan Ögedei died, causing the Mongols to retreat to Mongolia so that the princes of the blood could be present for the election of a new great khan. Prior to their departure, the Mongols were having difficulty pacifying the country, though they had planned to attack Austria and eventually Germany and Italy. While the defeat of the Hungarian army at the River Sajó is most often described in a couple of sentences as an effortless rout of the Hungarian army by the Mongols, this is an oversimplification. The Hungarian army as well as irregulars from the countryside proved dangerous foes and Mongol losses were significant. Subutai's engineers faced greater difficulties in constructing a bridge in the deeper-than-expected waters, and managed to attack the Hungarian rear just in time, as Batu's forces were being stretched and taxed by the numerically superior Hungarian forces.
By the mid-13th century, the Hungarian army is thought to have abandoned the tactics of the steppe nomads that made them such effective fighters against the German states, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Balkans and the Low Countries in the ninth and tenth centuries. But some historians have expressed doubts about this, and have suggested that the Hungarian military became more Westernised after the Mongol invasion and because of it; further that using steppe tactics, early Hungary rebuffed German offensives many times (in the wars of 1030, 1031, 1051, 1053 and 1074) in the western borders of Hungary. Light horse archers had a less important military role after the Hungarians adopted Christianity. The majority of the horse archers were conscripted from various ethnic groups, such as Székelys, Kipchaks, Jassic people and (after Mohi) Cumans from the poorest peripheric regions of the kingdom (southern parts, the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain and eastern parts of Transylvania). Nonetheless, during the battle, Batu Khan's personal guards were attacked and his life placed in peril. At another point, the Mongol troops were being routed by the Hungarian archers followed up by the heavy mounted knights, and only the personal rallying of Batu Khan prevented his army retreating.
In spite of this, by Candlemas (February) 1242, more than a year after the initial invasion and a few months before the Mongols' withdrawal, a significant number of important castles and towns had resisted the formidable and infamous Mongol siege tactics. Among the nearly eighty sites that remained unconquered, only three were of the most formidable type: the then-new stone castle on an elevation: Fülek, Léka (near the western border) and Németújvár. The rest were either fortified towns (e.g., Székesfehérvár), old committal centre castles (e.g., Esztergom citadel), fortified monasteries (e.g. Tihany and Pannonhalma) or military fortresses (e.g. Vécs guarding a main trade route in the mountains of Transylvania. Ultimately, the country was not subdued, and though much of the population was slaughtered, the king and higher nobility avoided capture. As a tardy revenge, the Hungarians and Croats ambushed and destroyed the rearguard division of the retreating Mongol army in the Carpathians.
After the withdrawal of the Mongol troops, they were never again to return to Hungary with a force capable of laying siege to fortified cities, as the Chinese bombardiers and engineers under general Subutai were no longer deployed in the European theater of operations. Subutai was reassigned by Guyuk to engage the Southern Song, and died of old age in 1248. Hungary lay in ruins. Nearly half of the inhabited places had been destroyed by the invading armies. Around 15 to 25 percent of the population was lost, mostly in lowland areas, especially in the Alföld (where there were hardly any survivors), in the southern reaches of the Hungarian plain in the area now called the Banat, and in southern Transylvania.
However, the power of the kingdom was not broken. Within a year of the withdrawal of the Mongols, the three westernmost counties (Moson, Sopron, and Vas) that were extorted as ransom by Duke Frederick of Austria were recaptured, and a local uprising in Slavonia was quashed. The threat of another Mongol invasion, this time taken seriously, was the source of exceptional national unity and provided the impetus for Béla IV's extensive expansion of Hungarian defences, especially the building of new stone castles (forty-four in the first ten years) and the revitalization of the army, including expanding the number of heavily armoured cavalry in the royal army. Béla IV is seen now as a second founder of the nation, partly in recognition of all that was done during his reign to reconstruct and fortify the country against foreign invasion from the east. These improvements were to pay off, in 1284, when Nogai Khan attempted an invasion of the country. In that event, the invasion was defeated easily, as were a number of other minor attacks before and after.
In the coming centuries, as the power of the Mongols of the Russian steppe waned and western defences became more capable, the attention of countries of central Europe would increasingly be directed to the south-east, and the growing power of the Ottoman Empire.