Today in Military History – April 9, 1241
This is another of the many battles in the late Middle Ages whose significance has faded over the years. Although the forces of Poland, Moravia, Germany and the military knightly orders were defeated by the Mongols, the invaders turned aside and did not proceed further westward.
Background to the Battle
In 1229, the Asiatic nomad peoples known as the Cumans (also called the Kipchaks) had been beaten by the Mongols, who were conquering everything in their path. The Cumans fled their homes north of the Black and Caspian seas to central Europe, and over several years made their way to central Europe. Their emissaries contacted King Béla IV of Hungary and asked permission to settle in his country. As a bonus, the Cuman ruler offered 40,000 of his warriors as auxiliaries in the Hungarian army to oppose the Mongols. Finally, in 1238, King Béla offered refuge in his country to the entire Cuman nation.
Soon after, the grandson of Genghis Khan Batu Khan, contacted King Béla, demanding the return of his “servants” the Cumans, sending a number of emissaries to the Hungarian court. None of the ambassadors returned. Eventually, Batu Khan sent a final message to King Béla, warning him in no uncertain terms, “Cease harboring [the Cumans] or you will make an enemy of me because of them…It is much easier for the Cumans to escape than it is for you…you dwell in houses and have fixed towns and fortresses, so how will you escape me?” Not in the least persuaded, King Béla refused, and sent heralds throughout his kingdom carrying a bloody sword, the traditional symbol of a national emergency. He then began preparations to defend his kingdom.
The Mongol leader began making his plans to subdue the Hungarians. [It should be noted that the Hungarians – once known as Magyars – had been nomadic horsemen prior to their settlement of the Great Hungarian Plain in the mid-10th century.] Batu Khan and his leading general and tactician Subotai decided to launch a three-pronged attack on the recalcitrant Hungarians in the winter of 1240-1241. Batu Khan and Subotai each commanded an army aimed at invading and devastating the Hungarian lands.
Batu’s spies had reported the likelihood of nearby Christian kingdoms coming to assist the Hungarians. The largest nearby kingdom was Poland, so Subotai sent three tumans (approximately 30,000 men) under the generals Orda Khan, Baidar and Kadan to harry the Poles. Orda’s tuman devastated northern Poland and southwestern Lithuania, while Baidar and Kadan slashed their way through southern Poland. In six weeks’ time, Baidar and Kadan’s army captured and sacked two Polish cities and defeated two Polish armies sent against them (the Tartars burned the city of Kraków on Palm Sunday). Late in March, the Mongols moved against Breslau (now known as Wrocław), the capital of the Polish province of Silesia. Unable to immediately take the city, Baidar and Kadan debated whether they should attempt to besiege it instead.
However, the Mongol commanders received two alarming reports. The first stated that King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia was approaching Breslau with an army said to be 50,000 strong. The second report said that Henry the Pious, the Duke of Silesia, was assembling an army, hoping to link up with Wenceslaus and attack the Mongols. The Mongol commanders ordered their forces to pull back from the city, to regroup at a place of their choosing.
Meanwhile, Duke Henry gathered his army at the city of Liegnitz (today called Legnica). On the morning of April 9, 1242 he began to march out of his city in the direction of Breslau, a distance of about 35 miles. [A local tradition states that as Duke Henry led his army through the city, a stone fell from the roof of St. Mary’s Church, barely missing and killing the duke. The locals took this event as an ill omen.] Traveling only a short distance from the city, Henry’s army came to a nearby plain surrounded by low hills called the Wahlstadt – “chosen place” – and made the discovery that the Tartars were waiting for him. Deciding not to wait for his brother-in-law Wenceslaus and his army, Henry the Pious began his preparations to attack the invaders…
Today’s Military History Lecture: The Mongol War-Machine
Despite chroniclers of the day calling the Mongols “barbarians” and worse, the Mongol army was one of the most sophisticated organizations of its time. Commanders earned their positions by deeds, not by accidents of birth like the European nobility. Mongol armies were organized in groups of 10 – 10 soldiers to a squad, 10 squads made a troop of 100 men, 10 troops made a company of 1000, and 10 companies made a division, or tuman, of 10,000 men. Each Tartar army might consist of as few as two or as many as ten or more tumans. A Mongol commander might be located anywhere in his formation, giving his orders as he saw fit. His orders were relayed without vocalizing or use of trumpets or drums. They utilized visual signals, mainly pennants and standards raised or lowered to transmit prearranged orders.
Being often outnumbered by their enemies on a regular basis, the Tartars’ basic strategy was to kill or defeat their enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible, with the least cost to themselves. They could not afford to lose many men so far from their homelands. Mongol tactics resembled those of a hunter – use speed, finesse and deception to herd your prey to a place chosen for them, then kill them.
The Mongol army, with very few exceptions, was an all-cavalry army. The steppe pony used by the Mongols was smaller than those used by their European opponents. But they were hardier with more endurance and lived by grazing in the wild. Each Tartar soldier had at least two, sometimes three or four, ponies so that he could switch off and rest them on the march. This practice allowed a Mongol army to travel 50 to 60 miles a day, nearly three times the distance a contemporary European force could cover. This also gave the Mongols a decided edge in speed on the field of battle. Also, as most of these ponies were mares, the Mongol warrior could, in a pinch, live off the mare’s milk. In an emergency, he might even open a vein in one of his ponies and drink its blood.
The Tartar soldier was a highly-trained horse-soldier. They traveled light, depending on speed and maneuverability on the battlefield. Other than a steel helmet with a leather coif for neck protection, the only other armor he wore was a silk shirt under his leather coat. The shirt would stop an enemy arrow from penetrating deeply into his skin, allowing Mongol healers to withdraw the arrow without tearing his flesh. Two-thirds of a Mongol army consisted of light horse archers, the remainder were “heavy” cavalry. The Mongol heavies wore light and flexible lamellar armor, which consisted of large number of overlapping leather or iron plates. Some chronicles describe the iron plates being highly polished, and the leather plates being hardened with tar or pitch. The heavy cavalry also often used lances, and were the shock troops when the final resolution of a battle was needed.this would cause some part of the enemy’s army to pursue the withdrawing Tartars, sensing victory. Then, at some point, the “retreating” Mongols would reverse themselves and pepper their pursuers with storms of well-placed arrows. Or, the retreating troops would lure their pursuers into a trap where hidden or concealed Mongols would surround their enemy and decimate them. This stratagem worked to devastating effect on many battlefields from China to Russia, from Poland to Syria.
One aspect of the Mongol war-machine that is often ignored is this: they were meticulous planners. Before invading a particular nation, they would send spies and agents into the area to gather information about not only the military but the political situation in the target country. Agents would spread propaganda about the dreaded Tartar hordes coming to destroy them, or to foment unrest or mistrust amongst the populace against their rulers. These agents would also find out which nearby nations would be likely to come to the aid of the targeted country, whether through political alliance or marriage. The Mongols minutely practiced the maxim, “Know your enemy.”Duke Henry arranged his forces, numbering somewhere between 7000 and 8000 men into four squadrons. The first squadron consisted of knights from various nations – probably the Holy Roman Empire, Moravia and other nearby nations – supplemented by a large contingent of gold miners from Bavaria, probably only armed with their mining tools – and constituted the center of Henry’s army. This group was under the command of Boleslav, son of the margrave of Moravia. In the second squadron Henry placed some Polish conscript infantry – probably townspeople with little defensive armor and only spears or farm implements for weapons – with Polish knights from the town of Welkopole, all under command of Sulislav, brother of the late count palatine of Kraków. This group constituted the left flank.
The third division was commanded by Duke Mieszko the Fat of Opole, leading his own knights, their retainers and men-at-arms, including some crossbowmen, and was place on the right of the army. [A fifteenth century chronicle stated that a contingent of Teutonic Knights was present and comprised a fourth division, but modern historians have determined that this was probably a later addition.] Bringing up the rear in the fourth division, and representing the reserve, was Duke Henry himself, commanding his own force of Silesian knights and men-at-arms from Silesia and Breslau, as well as some mercenary knight, again probably mostly Germans. Also present with Duke Henry was a group of French knights who were members of two of the military Crusader orders: the Knights Templar in their white surcoats with red crosses: and, the Knights Hospitaller with their red surcoats displaying white crosses. These contingents were sent by the Pope in answer to Duke Henry’s pleas for help in this great emergency. The members of these two religious/military orders were probably the best troops in Duke Henry’s army.
The Mongol dispositions are not given. However, considering the carefully chosen terrain, it seems likely that a portion of the light archers were arranged far out on the plain as a lure, with the remaining light cavalry hidden by the low hills to the right and left surrounding the Wahlstadt. As a reserve, Ordu and most of the heavy cavalry were concealed to the rear. The loose appearance of the Tartar battle line gave the appearance of a disordered mob, giving the Europeans false hope. The total number of Mongols was likely around 8000 warriors, after the conflicts of the previous six to eight weeks had taken its toll.
The Mongol battle line began a slow advance to open the battle, probably firing a few volleys of arrows to entice their enemy. Duke Henry’s first division charged at the Mongols, hoping to come to grips with the invaders quickly. However, the two Mongol wings then showed themselves, easily surrounded the Europeans knights and the Bavarian miners, peppering them with clouds of arrows. Unable to contact their enemy – and receiving no immediate support from the rest of the army – Boleslav’s men broke off their attack and began to fall back.
As the Mongols sought to envelop the first division, the Polish right and left launched their attacks, experiencing some success against the Tartar cavalry. The Mongol center pulled back and was in seeming retreat, with the Polish knights in headlong pursuit. This act also separated the knights from their supporting infantry. As the Mongols continued their “disordered” retreat, a strange thing occurred. A single horseman began riding through the Polish lines, shouting “Run! Run!” in Polish. Whether this soldier was a traitor, a Tartar or possibly a Rus’ian pressed into Mongol service who spoke Polish, Mieszko the Fat took no chances and promptly ordered his knights to withdraw, leaving the battlefield entirely.
Seeing the retreat of his third division, Duke Henry ordered his squadron forward to engage the Mongols. His men managed to contact the Mongols, and again the men of the steppes apparently began to rout, which provoked a pursuit by Henry’s knights and the Crusader knights. However, they were now riding into a well-laid trap. At this point, according to a medieval chronicler, a large amount of smoke “with a foul smell that envelopes the Poles and makes them all but faint” began issuing out of the wooded hills, providing unexpected cover for the fleeing troops. [There is some speculation that this smoke was the result of the Mongols’ use of rockets or firecrackers, obtained from their conquered Chinese subjects. Or, it may just have been large bonfires.] The smokescreen hid the movements of the European horsemen from their men-at-arms, allowing the hidden Mongol heavy cavalry to appear suddenly on the flanks of the pursuing knights. As the supposedly disordered light archers reformed, the Mongol heavies slammed into their pursuers as the archers began showering them with deadly missiles.
The impetuous charge of the European knights was blunted, and they were ridden down by the heavy cavalry of the invader. Many of the knights’ horses were shot from under them, and the knights – often encumbered by 150 pounds of armor and weapons – were easy prey for the lances of the Mongol heavies and the arrows of the archers. The rest of the European army disintegrated and began to rout.
Trying to join his retreating troops, Duke Henry was ridden down and killed by the Mongols, his head removed from his shoulders. In addition, the Mongols scoured the battleground, cutting the right ear off each enemy corpse for an exact counting of the dead, as was their custom. Contemporary chroniclers say the Mongols had nine sacks of ears, which may have accounted for almost the entire European force. Mongol casualties were probably minimal. However, the Mongol leaders decided, rather than confront King Wenceslaus and his approaching army, to ride south and join Batu Khan and Subotai as they harried Hungary.
Footnote #1: Two days after the fight at Liegnitz, the Mongol forces of Batu Khan and Subotai met the army of King Béla near the Sajó River. Despite the expertise of the Mongol generals, the Hungarian monarch nearly beat them, but suffered horrendous casualties and was forced to retreat to Austria. Upon reaching the neighboring nation and appealing to the Austrian archduke for help, he was seized and imprisoned. When Béla agreed to cede three western counties to Austria, he was released and allowed to carry on the struggle to repel the Asiatic invaders. When the Mongols finally left Hungary, nearly half the inhabited places in the country were destroyed, and a quarter of the population was dead.
Footnote #2: The head of Duke Henry the Pious was placed on the end of a spear, which the Mongols paraded before the walls of Breslau as an example to his people of the consequences of opposing them. His naked and decapitated body was not identified until his wife was brought to the battlefield. She pointed out his unusual birth defect: he had six toes on his left foot.
Footnote #3: Despite the twin Mongol victories at Liegnitz and the Sajó River, they did not follow up these triumphs. Shortly afterwards, the Mongol leaders learned of the death of the Great Khan Ogadei in Mongolia the previous year. According to Mongolian tradition, all the leaders of the Mongols were required to return to their homeland to elect a new Great Khan. This single event, more than any other, saved Europe from being conquered by the Tartars. They would raid into Europe several more times over the next fifty years, but never in sufficient force to bring Europe under their dominion.