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The Battle of Mohi
By Raider, 1 January 2007; Revised 1 January 2007
Category: Hungarian History
In 1235, a group of Hungarian dominican monks left Hungary in order to find those Magyars who, according to the Chronicles, remained in the east. Finally, Friar Julian reached the Capital of Volga-Bulgaria where he was told that the Magyars lived within a two-day journey. Julian found them and he could speak with them in Hungarian. He named their country Magna Hungaria (= Hungaria Maior) or Non-Christian Hungary. He also heard about the infamous Tartars, who were the enemies of the eastern Magyars and Bulgars. Two years later he tried to return , but they had been devastated by the Mongols. Friar Julian returned with news of the deadly danger and a Mongol ultimatum to Hungary.
In 1223, the expanding Mongol Empire defeated an allied Russian – Cuman army at Kalka river. With this victory, the Mongol seized control over Eastern Europe and became a threat to Central Europe. The defeated Cumans retreated towards Hungary. Hungary continuously tried to convert them and expand its influence over the Cuman tribes for the last decade. The Hungarian king, Béla IV, even began to use the title King of Cumania. When the Cuman refugees (cca. 40 000 people) sought asylum in his kingdom it seemed that, at least, a portion of the Cumans accepted Hungarian rule. The Mongols considered the Cumans as their slaves and saw Hungary as a rival, and the Cuman migration to Hungary as a casus belli. In their ultimatum, they also blamed Hungary for the missing envoys.
The Tartar threat reached Hungary in a state of political turmoil. Traditionally, the base of royal power was the vast estates in royal property. Under Andrew II, the donations of land reached a new, and never before seen, 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 confiscate Andrew’s donation and executed or expelled his advisors. He also denied the Lord's 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 everyone to stand in his presence. His actions caused great disaffection among the Lords. The newly arrived Cumans gave the king a better position (and increasing prestige in Church circles for converting them) in his powerplay, but also caused a lot of problem. The nomadic Cumans seemed unable to live together with the settled Hungarians and the Lords were shocked that the king supported the Cumans in these incidents.
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 Henry Duke of Silesia, and the Teutonic knights, at Legnica. A southern army attacked Transylvania, defeating the voivod and crushing the Transylvanian Hungarian army. The main army, led by khan Batu and Subotai himself, attacked Hungary through the fortified Verecke Pass and annihilated the army led by the count palatine (March 12th 1241). The main Mongol army consisted of approximately 20-30 000 men.
Béla began to mobilize his army and ordered all of his troops and Cumans to Pest. Frederick Babenberg, the Duke of Austria and Styria, also arrived there to help. At that moment, the conflict between the Cumans and Hungarians caused riots, and the Cuman khan, who was under the personal protection of the king, was murdered. Some sources mention the role of Frederick incitin
The Tartar vanguard reached Pest on March 15th and began to pillage the neighbouring areas. Béla forbade his men to attack them. The Hungarian army was still unprepared. Even so, Duke Frederick attacked and defeated a minor raiding party, so the king, generally, was believed to be 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 the armoured cavalry got stuck in it. He could barely save his own life.
Finally, the king decided to offer a battle with the Tartars, but they began to retreat. This affirmed the opinion of the Lords that the Tartars are not a threat and the king’s behaviour was not caution, but cowardice. After a week of forced march and regular tartar attacks, the Hungarian army reached the flooded river Sajó. Here, the army stopped to rest and waited for additional supplies. The king and the Hungarians still did not know that the main Tartar army was present becauses of the wooded terrain of the other side of Sajó. The cautious king ordered a heavily fortified camp built of wagon trains.
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 they crossed the river, just like in the case of Kalka. But, all in all, we will never know what the Mongol generals really thought. We know that a Ruthenian slave of the Tartars escaped to the Hungarians and warned them of the Mongol night attack through the bridge of Sajó. The Hungarians still did not believe this would be a full scaled attack, but the troops of prince Kálmán, the younger brother of king Béla (the Duke of Slavonia, but primary sources often refer to him as king because he was also the titular king of Galich) and archbishop Ugrin Csák, with the templar master, left the camp to surprise the Tartars and defend the unguarded bridge. They reached the bridge at midnight. The sun set at 18:29 (April 10th 1241), so they had to march 7 kilometers in darkness. 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 Tartars unprepared and in the middle of crossing the river. They successfully forced them to melee and achieved a great victory at the bridge. It was a huge bridge, and, according to its remains, it was a minimum of 200 meters long. The Hungarians left some soldiers to guard the bridge and returned to camp. This shows that they were unaware that the main Mongol army was there. When they returned to the camp (ca. 2 am.), they celebrated the 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 bridgeguard. At ca. 4 am (they needed light), they began the crossing. Meanwhile, Subodai went south to build an "emergency” bridge while the Hungarians are engaged at the bridge. (They were able to begin crossing ca. 9 am). At dawn, Batu, with the help of seven stone throwers, attacked the Hungarian guards on the bridge, and, after the arrival of Sejbán, the Hungarians retreated to their camp. The mongol main forces finished crossing the river at around 8 am.
When the fleeting Hungarians arrived at the camp, they awakened the others. Kálmán, Ugrin, and the Templar master left the camp again to deal with the attackers. Others remained, believing this to also be a minor attack, and prince Kálmán would defeat them again. Kálmán and Ugrin saw more and more Tartars and they realised that this was not a minor raid, but a very dangerous attack by the main Mongol forces. After some heavy fighting, they returned to camp to reinforce themselves and to return with a full army. They were disappointed that the king didn’t even give orders to prepare for the battle. Archbishop Ugrin opprobriated the king in public and, finally, the Hungarian army left the camp, but that delay gave enough time to Batu to finish the crossing. A hard struggle ensued. The Hungarians outnumbered Batu troops and the Tartars were unable to move quickly because the Sajó were behind them. A Chinese-Mongol source mentioned that Batu lost 30 of his bodyguards and one of his lieutenants, Bakatu, and only the personal action and bravery of Batu withheld fleeing. At that moment, the Subodai, who was delayed by bridgebuilding, attacked the Hungarians’ back and the panicked Hungarians retreated to the camp.
It is possible that, in the camp, the Hungarians would have been able to defend, but the outbreaks were ineffective and were panicked by the flaming arrows (many soldier trampled in the tight room). Finally, the panicked soldiers routed and tried to escape on a gap, left open on purpose by the mongols. (Fleeing soldiers can be killed more easily than those who are forced to fight till death.) The Tartar casualties were so large that Batu didn’t want to pursue the Hungarians. Subodais had to exhort him. Archbishop Ugrin was killed, but prince Kálmán and king Béla managed to escape, although the wounds of Kálmán were so serious that he died later. The Hungarians lost cca. 10 000 men and were unable to field another army to contain the Tartars.
There was not another Hungarian army to fight the Mongols, but there were some remaining troops, mostly those who did not arrive in Pest in time, and those who remained at home. The king was supposed to halt the Mongols at the Duna, but, when it was iced over, the Tartars crossed the river and tried to capture the king. The royal family escaped to Austria, but Duke Frederick arrested and blackmailed them to pay a huge ransom and to give him 3 counties. Finally, they went to Dalmatia and locked themselves in the castle of Trau (now Trogir) on an island in the Adriatic Sea.
The Mongols gave up and, in 1242, they retreated from Hungary. They lost too many men, they feared a possible german crusade, and were unable to break Hungarian resistence. Many castles (ca. 160 castles, fortified monasteries etc.) were able to defend themselves. (The Death of the Great Khan was falsely believed to be the cause of the retreat.)
Though Hungary was in ruin and lost approximately 25 % of her total population, Hungarian power was not broken. In the following year, the king was able to recapture the territories and castles from Austria and beat down a rebellion in Slavonia. The fear of the return of the Mongols created an exceptional national unity and helped to rebuild the country as a major power player of the region.