KALKA river

An al­liance of Rus­sian princes at­tempts to halt 20,000 Mon­gol war­riors led by Genghis Khan’s most trusted gen­eral

History of War - - CONTENTS -

The fig­ure of Genghis Khan of the Mon­gols looms like a colos­sus over the whole his­tory of the Mid­dles Ages, in both the east and west. With an army that dis­played un­sur­passed mo­bil­ity and tight co­or­di­na­tion, he es­tab­lished one of the largest land em­pires ever, con­quer­ing vast ter­ri­to­ries in a short space of time. His em­pire also proved durable, be­ing able to sur­vive his death and di­vi­sion among his heirs for some two cen­turies or more in places.

Genghis’s be­gin­nings hardly boded well for the fu­ture world con­queror. Born around 1162 and called Te­mu­jin in his youth, at the age of 12 he be­came the head of his house­hold when his fa­ther was slain by ri­val Tatars. His fa­ther’s erst­while Mon­gol sup­port­ers would not con­sent to fol­low a boy, and his fam­ily, con­sist­ing of his mother and his broth­ers, ex­pe­ri­enced hard times. For safety they hid in the moun­tains, and Te­mu­jin sus­tained them through hunt­ing and fish­ing. His early life was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, but it tough­ened him. He also gained war­rior fol­low­ers of his own and mar­ried a woman named Borte. When his wife was car­ried off by Merkit raiders, Te­mu­jin dar­ingly res­cued her from her cap­tors.

Te­mu­jin al­lied him­self with To­grul, khan of the Keraits, and with him took re­venge on those who had killed his fa­ther, ruth­lessly crush­ing his blood en­e­mies, the Tatars. Even­tu­ally he and To­grul quar­relled and Te­mu­jin was driven far away, with just a hand­ful of his fol­low­ers re­main­ing. The pow­er­ful coali­tion that the Keraits had put to­gether, how­ever, soon dis­in­te­grated and Te­mu­jin, now call­ing him­self Genghis, re­turned for a re­match. He smashed the Keraits and To­grul fled. With their old khan out of the pic­ture, the sur­viv­ing Keraits will­ingly ac­cepted Genghis as their new khan.

Genghis me­thod­i­cally set about bring­ing all of the tribes of the Mon­go­lian steppes un­der his rule. In 1206 he held a great assem­bly, or kuril­tai, where he was de­clared the supreme khan of all the Tur­kic and Mon­go­lian peo­ples. Genghis be­lieved he had a di­vine mis­sion to unite all of the Mon­gol peo­ples, and this mis­sion even­tu­ally ex­panded to in­clude the whole of the world.

Be­tween 1207 and 1209, nearby Tur­kic tribes were pul­verised and the seden­tary king­doms of north­ern China, the Xi Xia and the


Jin, were at­tacked. The Xi Xia ca­pit­u­lated but the Jin, not­with­stand­ing the sack­ing of their cap­i­tal at Beijing in 1215, suc­cess­fully re­sisted the Mon­gols from be­hind the walls of their well­for­ti­fied cities and towns. Mon­gol siege­craft was still very lim­ited in its ca­pa­bil­ity at this time, so Genghis turned his sights else­where for the time be­ing.

Af­ter crush­ing the Qara Khi­tai in the west, Genghis mounted a ma­jor in­va­sion of the Is­lamic world. His first tar­get was the wealthy Cen­tral Asian state of Kh­warezm in Tran­sox­a­nia. Us­ing the mur­der of Mon­gol mer­chants and am­bas­sadors as a pre­text, Genghis in­vaded in 1219. The Kh­warezmi­ans had the larger army, but the Mon­gols moved much faster, aided by the peer­less mo­bil­ity pro­vided by their hardy steppe ponies. Cities were taken by the Mon­gols one af­ter an­other, and their in­hab­i­tants butchered. The cities were then set alight.

It was the same hor­ri­fy­ing story as the Mon­gols con­tin­ued their march into mod­ern­day Afghanistan and east­ern Iran. The Mon­gols were es­pe­cially adept at us­ing ter­ror as a weapon against their en­e­mies. The sheer fright they in­duced in oth­ers as a re­sult of their de­lib­er­ate ter­ror tac­tics of­ten pre­vented fur­ther ef­fec­tive re­sis­tance from de­vel­op­ing against them. The death and destruc­tion that Genghis’s sol­diers wreaked as they carved their way through Kh­warezm, which fell in 1221, was ghastly. There's good rea­son for Genghis's rep­u­ta­tion as a bloody-handed de­stroyer. An English monk, Matthew Paris, later wrote harshly of the Mon­gols: "They are of the nature of beasts... they thirst af­ter and drink blood."

The in­va­sion of Me­dieval Rus­sia

Other lands would soon know the un­speak­able cru­el­ties of a Mon­gol in­va­sion. North­ern In­dia was bru­tally at­tacked, and by 1223 a pow­er­ful Mon­gol army had ap­peared on Rus­sia’s fron­tier to con­duct a mas­sive re­con­nais­sance raid against Eu­rope.

The Rus­sia that the Mon­gols at­tacked was a far cry from the gi­ant em­pire of the tsars it would later be­come. The Rus­sian state had got­ten its start in the 8th cen­tury CE with the set­tle­ment of the Varangian Rus – Scan­di­na­vian Vikings who used the nu­mer­ous rivers of western Rus­sia as high­ways to travel to and con­duct trade with Byzan­tium far to the south. The Rus even­tu­ally put down roots, with one North­man, Rurik, and his two broth­ers be­com­ing over­lords of the Slavic tribes in the re­gion. The Rus thus be­queathed their name to what would be­come Rus­sia.

In the north, the fore­most Rus­sian city was Novgorod. In the south, it was Kiev. The Scan­di­na­vian Varangians be­came Slavi­cised as they in­ter­mar­ried with the lo­cal tribal peo­ples. To­wards the end of the 9th cen­tury, the pa­gan Rus­sians started con­vert­ing to Or­tho­dox Chris­tian­ity un­der the tute­lage of Byzan­tine mis­sion­ar­ies. Prince Vladimir I of Kiev was bap­tised a Chris­tian in 988 and made his peo­ple con­vert to the new faith. This ear­li­est Rus­sian state, that of Kievan Rus­sia, would de­velop steadily over the next few cen­turies, ex­pand­ing but also re­main­ing weak­ened by divi­sions among its lead­ing princes, who reg­u­larly feuded among them­selves.

By 1221 the Kh­warezmian Em­pire had been shat­tered, but its fugi­tive shah, Ala al-din Muham­mad, had eluded the Mon­gols and made his way west. Two of Genghis’s close com­rades and lead­ing gen­er­als, Sub­o­tai Ba­hadur and

Jebe Noyon, both of whom had just fin­ished de­stroy­ing the Kh­warezmian state, had fol­lowed af­ter him. Af­ter mak­ing cer­tain that the shah was dead, Sub­o­tai had the idea of con­duct­ing a mas­sive re­con­nais­sance raid, with the goal of learn­ing what was to be found in Eu­rope, a land scarcely known to the Mon­gols at this time. With an all-cav­alry army con­sist­ing of some 20,000 riders, Sub­o­tai and Jebe rode hard northward through the Cau­ca­sus. What fol­lowed would be­come the great­est cav­alry ride of all time.

The ride was led by for­mi­da­ble men of ex­tra­or­di­nary mil­i­tary prow­ess. Years later, in 1247, Giovanni di Plano Carpini, a Fran­cis­can monk, would travel to the dis­tant Mon­gol court. He con­cluded that Sub­o­tai was "a sol­dier with­out weak­ness". The Mon­gols them­selves knew him as ‘Sub­o­tai the Un­fail­ing’. It would later be said of Sub­o­tai, af­ter his death at the age of 73 in 1248, that in his long mil­i­tary ca­reer he had con­quered 32 na­tions and had been vic­to­ri­ous in some 75 pitched bat­tles. These are as­ton­ish­ing achieve­ments, and they high­light the qual­ity of the gen­eral to whom Genghis had en­trusted the western cam­paign. He had cho­sen his man well: Sub­o­tai was not just an adept mil­i­tary leader, he was also fa­mously loyal to the Great Khan, once say­ing to his mas­ter, "As felt pro­tects from the wind, so I will ward off your en­e­mies."



Grand Prince Mstislav of Kiev is taken cap­tive and his forces slaugh­tered fol­low­ing their sur­ren­der to the Mon­gols

A de­pic­tion of the onesided bat­tle on the Kalka River. The Mon­gol cav­alry at­tacks the al­lied force's dis­or­gan­ised sol­diers

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