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"Could Subotai Have Conquered Europe?" Topic

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Gorgrat24 Aug 2021 4:22 p.m. PST

Made it all the way to the north of Norway and the west of Spain and Ireland, and then said something like, "So we're done now, right? Nobody has anything else to say? And, Iceland, you better keep your mouths shut too, or we'll be stuffing ourselves with cod in a couple months?"

Or would it likely have done exactly what it did, just later? The whole invasion fallen apart because of dynastic squabbles back home?

I understand that even today that last statement is somewhat questionable. We really don't know exactly why Subotai turned around. As IIUC, even for fast running Mongol ponies, and their early equivalent of a pony express system, the news had to literally travel a third of the planet away before it could even be known about, much less acted upon.

What I do think is very unlikely is the idea that somehow a thousand little castles in Western Europe with ten knights and thirty half trained peasants each, were going to halt the Mongols so that they'd just give up and go home.

They'd gotten to be pretty good at siege warfare under Temuchin, and they were also really good at dealing with recalcitrant populations, with straightforward tactics like, say, making them cease to exist.

As I've said before, however, no specialist in medieval history am I. In fact, I've heard some scholars, like this crotchety guy from Oxford who wrote a fairy tale, thought they might be orcs?

John the OFM24 Aug 2021 4:58 p.m. PST

What was in it for him?
Conquering a bunch of hairy smelly barbarians, when there always seemed to be more just over the next horizon?
Alexander didn't want to stop and his army almost mutinied. Then he had a nice hissy fit pout and pretended he was going home. Alexander might have wanted to conquer far Cathay, but his men sure didn't.
Maybe it was the same situation.
Europe, or whatever those smelly savages called it, was not very civilized. Let that scum fight among themselves, and I'll go home where they at made decent kvaas.

It's a very Eurocentric position to think that Europe was actually worth all the aggravation. Just mark the map "Here be savages" and go back to civilization.

Gorgrat24 Aug 2021 5:21 p.m. PST

There was probably an element of that in it too, but two issues:

1. Subotai's troops were kinda hairy and smelly themselves. The Chinese certainly didn't consider them kinfolk.

2. This had certainly been the way they'd done things up to now. The mongol strategy was largely to attack the next tribe of mounted nomads with their own (better trained and commanded) mounted nomads. Then bring the new guys up to speed and use them as the army that continued the process.

But you may very well have a seed of the answer there, John.

After all, the Mongols had finally run into the place where the enemy was not tribes of light cavalry, and who would continue the process then? Did they even know that they had run into the Atlantic?

Personal logo Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP24 Aug 2021 9:55 p.m. PST

The Mongols would have kept going, but the Second Foundation stopped them. grin

I think John the OFM is onto something, but I agree that 'civilization' isn't part of the answer. The Mongols were a hard-living backwater barbarian people themselves. They had no respect for any aspect of civilization except the wealth and prestige of taking cities and ruling an empire.

But that's probably the clue: there wasn't much wealth and prestige to be had in Europe at the time, except perhaps Rome and Byzantium maybe. Also, it may just be that the Mongol perception of "valuable land" meant open horse country. Once they started to run into the mountains and forests of Europe, the environment may have just looked undesirable to their way of thinking.


All guesswork. Who can know the interior life of a prince?

- Ix

Swampster25 Aug 2021 2:55 a.m. PST

The second invasion of Hungary does indeed seem to have been stopped by the large number of stone fortified places built there after the previous invasion. Each siege takes time and the Hungarians seem to have successfully denied access to food supplies. The Mongols took very few stone fortified places and perhaps only one significant. The army involved was similar in size to the one which had caused so much devastation in the previous invasion.
Instead of leaving because of political factors way off east, this time the Mongol army was devastated by famine and a large number of skirmishes. The remnants were largely defeated either by the royal army or by locals such as the Szekeleys.

That this strategy was not a fluke is shown in Poland a couple of years later – the Poles also kept largely to their fortified places. Again, once the Mongols were less concentrated, a Polish field force was able to take on a destroy a significant part of the Mongol forces. Polish losses were not minor, but the Mongols suffered far more. It seems generally accepted that the failure of these two attacks ended the threat of Golden Horde invasion, though raids for booty continued for many years.

In Subotai's time, Western Europe already had the fortification infrastructure that Poland and Hungary built during the 13th century. Add to this the relative scarcity of pasture land for large numbers of horses. The most likely factor in their favour would be whether the westerners would want to try their luck in a massed battle before the Mongols could be whittled away, though the relatively crowded terrain further west would have been less favourable for the Mongols than the Carpathian plains.

Neither of these invasions were simply raids in force. The attack on Poland was the largest of their three invasions and by far the least successful. The intention behind them was probably similar to, say, Bulgaria. Possible direct control of some of the territory but certainly demands for tribute and 'co-operation'.

The Mongols in other areas had been successful in taking even major cities. All sorts of factors may have made the difference – mass manpower from previous conquests often being significant. One factor which _may_ have been relevant in Hungary would be a relative lack of handy ammunition for siege engines. For the attack on Alamut, for instance, the Mongols had stockpiled large numbers of rocks. The different terrain of Hungary would have made it difficult to do this over much of the country. Note, this is supposition and there are many other factors involved.

tigrifsgt25 Aug 2021 5:27 a.m. PST

Another important factor would be that they came to forested land. Its hard to feed 20,000 horses from trees.

Martin Rapier25 Aug 2021 7:26 a.m. PST

I don't know much about this period, but the obvious question is what were the Mongols war aims? What did they hope to achieve?

Whatever it was, they presumably decided it wasn't worth the effort after all, and they were a loooong way from their home bases. Such as it was. Maybe it was just strategic exhaustion. 'Never fight a land war in Asia' in reverse?

Swampster25 Aug 2021 12:18 p.m. PST

If it wasn't worth the effort, why did they attempt another equally large attack on Hungary later, and two large attacks on Poland?
If the Golden Horde attack on Serbia is anything to go by, the Mongol war aims would have been pillage but also attempting to impose acceptance of Mongol overlordship.
The original war aim for the invasion of Hungary was to punish for allowing the Cumans into the country. However, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a convenient excuse.

Gorgrat25 Aug 2021 12:58 p.m. PST

Though it's kind of an isolated example, Swampster may well be on to something too. Though I can't imagine that the Mongols were any less greedy as a whole. As their armies had a way of recycling themselves after newly defeated tribal chiefs became officers under Subotai and in turn wanted a piece of further conquest for themselves.

Of course, though I brought the whole issue into question, there is the fact that at some point, Subotai just turned around and went home.

We can speculate, but we'll probably never really know why.

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP25 Aug 2021 1:47 p.m. PST

A conqueror turns around and goes home when he knows he can't win.
It could be argued that Subotai already answered this question.
The number one rule for any general is: "Don't fight a war you can't win."
And if you think you can't win, you won't.

Gorgrat25 Aug 2021 7:15 p.m. PST

Could well be.

The Last Conformist25 Aug 2021 11:10 p.m. PST

The Mongol conquest of southern China, also on unfavorable ground to nomad armies, was achieved in large part by the decades-long efforts by Chinese troops who went over to the Mongol side (or grew up under Mongol rule). I figure something similar would have been necessary to conquer western Europe, but far less likely to happen, there having been no equivalent of the Liao and Jin to accustom western Europeans to nomad rule.

Deucey Supporting Member of TMP26 Aug 2021 3:34 p.m. PST


gregmita2 Supporting Member of TMP27 Aug 2021 10:40 p.m. PST

Swampster put it best. People seem to forget that the Mongols did see action in Europe after the time of Ogedei's death, and they didn't come off first place all the time. This is rather like the Hundred Years War, where people (English speakers at least) seem to only remember Crecy, Poitier, and Agincourt. People seem to only remember Liegnitz and Mohi, and ignore later Mongol invasions.
As the Mongols left favourable grasslands terrain, and went into heavily fortified areas, they became less and less capable. That's also why it took them decades to conquer southern China, and that was with a lot of local troops, something that would be much harder to manage in Europe, as the Last Conformist mentioned above.
Also, 13th Century Europeans were not "smelly barbarians", by any measure. Read the travelogue of Rabban Sawma to see how someone born in the Mongol Empire saw western Europe.

Gorgrat28 Aug 2021 7:05 p.m. PST


Well said. And yes, people tend to forget that at the end of the Hundred Years War, the English were confined to one little town on the coast, and soon not even that. Yes, there was Poitiers, Crecy and Agincourt, but there was also Castillon and Formigny, and in the end, those battles are why it's called France, and not "South Britain" or something similar.

Like the English, the Mongols came, had their day in the sun, fell apart for one reason or another, and that was that.

Erzherzog Johann11 Sep 2021 12:46 p.m. PST

I'd just say I don't think the Alexander parallel is very relevant. He was expanding from a small, previously insignificant area, into regions ruled by huge sophisticated empires (Persia, India, China). The Mongols were passing through or near those regions (later conquering China and India (Moghuls)), before arriving at a small peninsula off the west coast of Asia (Europe).


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