On April 11, 1241, commanded by Batu Khan and his notorious general Subutai, the Mongol Horde annihilated the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohi, causing widespread panic across all of Europe.
Upon his death in 1227, Genghis Khan named his third son, Ögedei, as sole heir to his mighty Mongol Empire, which extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea, and was already twice the size of the Roman Empire or the Muslim Caliphate at their height. After conquering Persia, Korea and submitting the Jin dynasty in China, the new Supreme Khan soon turned his sights westward.
Ögedei commanded his nephew Batu Khan and his notorious general Subutai to drive into Europe, and in late 1236, a vast Mongol army of around 40,000 mounted archers crossed the Volga River. After overrunning the Bulgars, the Cumans and other nations of the Russian steppe, the Mongol Horde invaded the declining Kievan Rus’ federation, ransacking the cities of Ryazan, Vladimir and Kiev, and inaugurating two centuries of Mongol domination of modern day-Russia and Ukraine.
By 1240, with most Rus’ principalities under Mongol rule, Batu Khan and Subutai continued west towards the Christian kingdoms of Hungary and fragmented Poland. And after King Béla IV of Hungary rejected Batu Khan’s ultimatum to surrender the defeated Cuman tribes, which had sought asylum within his kingdom, the Mongol commanders began planning for an attack into the heartland of Europe.
The Mongols invaded Hungary split into three armies. While the main force, commanded by Batu Khan and Subutai, crossed the Carpathian mountains, a second army followed the Danube and entered Hungary from the southeast. A third army, sent through Poland to protect the Mongol flank, invaded Hungary from the north, after annihilating the Polish forces at the Battle of Liegnitz.
The Mongol Horde re-grouped in April 1241 and pushed further into Hungary, forcing the remaining Hungarian resistance, led by King Béla IV himself, to retreat behind the flooded Sajó River, near the town of Mohi. Stopping to rest while waiting for additional supplies, the king ordered the building of a fortified camp of wagons, a battle-tested countermeasure against nomadic armies.
Despite initially repelling the Mongol attempt to cross the river, the Hungarians soon began to panic once the invaders started using their siege equipment and flaming arrows to pound the camp’s fortifications. Encircled, the demoralized Hungarian soldiers eventually tried to escape through a gap left open on purpose by the Mongols, where almost all of them were slaughtered. During the chaotic route, King Béla managed to escape.
While the Mongols suffered higher than normal casualties themselves, the Hungarians had lost almost their entire force. And with most of the royal army effectively wiped out at the Battle of Mohi, the Mongol Horde proceeded to lay waste to most of Hungary’s unfortified places, with particular devastation inflicted on the plains regions, where nearly half of the inhabited places were destroyed and around 25 percent of the population was lost.
Those who showed resistance were slaughtered mercilessly, but those who were willing to comply were forced into servitude in the Mongol army. By the time King Béla was chased down to Dalmatia, Hungary laid in ruins, and widespread panic spread across all of Europe. In Bohemia, King Wenceslaus had every castle strengthened and provisioned, as well as providing soldiers and armaments to monasteries in order to turn them into refuges for the civilian population.
But in late March 1242, the Mongol Horde surprisingly halted its expansion west and began to withdraw. To this day, the true reasons for the Mongol withdrawal are not fully known, but the most common reason given for this is that Batu Khan had been recalled to Mongolia to participate in the election of a new Supreme Khan, following the death of Ögedei.
In Hungary, the threat of another Mongol invasion, this time taken seriously, provided the impetus for Béla IV’s extensive expansion of Hungarian defenses, especially the building of new stone castles and the revitalization of the army. And these improvements paid off when the Mongol Horde returned four decades later, this time led by Nogai Khan…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.