Subutai. Medieval Chinese drawing
The Mongols at war
Subutai (Subetei, Subetai, Subotai, Tsubotai, Tsubetei, Tsubatai Mongolian: Сүбээдэй, Sübeedei; Classic Mongolian: Sübügätäi or Sübü'ätäi; 1176–1248) was the primary military strategist and general of Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan. He directed more than twenty campaigns in which he conquered thirty-two nations and won sixty-five pitched battles, during which he conquered or overran more territory than any other commander in history! He gained victory by means of imaginative and sophisticated strategies and routinely coordinated movements of armies that were hundreds of kilometers away from each other. He is also remembered for devising the campaign that destroyed the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces over five hundred kilometers apart.
Subutai is regarded in history as one of Genghis Khan's and the Mongol Empire's most prominent generals in terms of ability and tactics helping with the military campaigns in Asia and Eastern Europe. He commanded many successful attacks and invasions during his time and was rarely defeated.
Historians believe Subutai was born between the years of 1165–1170, probably just west of the upper Onon River in what is now Mongolia. He belonged to the Uriankhai tribe, a name Mongols gave to a number of tribes of "forest people". Subutai's family had been associated with the family of Genghis Khan for many generations. His brother Jelme also served as a general in the Mongol army.
Despite this close family association, Subutai was proof that the Mongol Empire was a meritocracy. He was a commoner by birth, the son of Qaban, who was supposedly a blacksmith. Qaban brought his son to serve Genghis Khan when Subutai was about 17 years old, and he rose to the very highest command available to one who was not a blood relative to Genghiz. Within a decade he rose to become a general, in command of one of 4 tumens operating in the vanguard. In 1212 he took Huan by storm, the first major independent exploit mentioned in the sources. Genghis Khan called him one of his "dogs of war", a title he earned through his campaigns.
Mongol histories say that Subutai said to Genghis Khan, "I will ward off your enemies as felt cloth protects one from the wind."
Subutai was one of the first Mongol generals besides Genghis Khan who realized the value of engineers in siege warfare. Even in field battles he made use of siege engines, much as Chinese armies had in their own wars. In the Battle of Mohi, the Hungarian crossbowmen repelled a night bridge crossing by the Mongols, and inflicted considerable casualties on the Mongols fighting to cross the river the following day. Subutai ordered huge stonethrowers to clear the bank of Hungarian crossbowmen and open the way for his light cavalry to cross the river without further losses. This use of siege weapons was one of the first recorded use in the West of artillery outside of siege warfare. While the stonethrowers were clearing the path to cross the main bridge, Subutai supervised construction of a another temporary bridge downriver to outflank the Hungarians.
Subutai was also well known for incorporating conquered peoples who brought specialized skills into his forces, especially engineers. He was skilled at intelligence gathering and planning his campaigns well in advance. For instance, he used spies to gather information on the Russian principalities, the Poles, and the Hungarians at least a year before the attacks on each. He tailored his strategy to match the enemy, adjusting his tactics according to the opponents, the terrain, and the weather as required. He emphasized the use of light cavalry in his army, maneuvering the enemy into feints and ambushes, and efficiently pursuing and defeating broken armies to destroy further resistance. Subutai kept his forces in line with the Mongol tradition of dispensing with excess baggage train and ensured his troops could efficiently live off the land and rapidly advance great distances on campaign. He preferred to maneuver the enemy into a position of weakness before committing to battle.
Unlike European armies of the day which esteemed personal valor in a commander above all else, the Mongols valued strategic vision and the skill to make tactical adjustments in the heat of battle in their leaders. Whereas leaders such as Richard the Lionheart rode to battle at the head of their men and put themselves into the thick of the fighting, Subutai situated himself on high ground at a distance from the engagement, where he could observe the battle as it unfolded and direct his troops with flags. These are among the reasons Subutai was rarely defeated, ensuring his reputation as one of the finest commanders in history.
Genghis Khan sent Subutai to hunt down the Merkits. Subutai defeated them on the Chu River in 1216 and again in 1219 in Wild Kipchak territory. Mohammad II of Khwarizm attacked Subutai shortly afterwards along the Irghiz. Subutai held him off after a fierce battle.
Genghis Khan led the Mongol army westwards in late 1219 to invade Khwarizm as retaliation for the execution of Mongol ambassadors. Subutai commanded the vanguard of the invasion force. With about 130,000 or so armed men, the Mongol army was numerically inferior to the forces of the Khwarizim Empire, but through deception and rapid maneuver, the Mongols crushed the Khwarizim in several key battles. Mohammad attempted to save himself by fleeing into central Persia, leading Genghis Khan to send Subutai and Jebe with 20,000 men to hunt him down. Mohammad eluded capture, but he fell ill and died at a fishing village on the Black Sea in early 1221.
Subutai spent part of the winter in Azerbaijan. Here he conceived the idea of circling the Caspian Sea to fall on the rear of the Wild Kipchaks and Cumans. After a police action in Persia and a raid into Georgia, the Mongols cut across the Caucasus Mountains during the winter to get around the Derbent Pass. Using clever diplomacy, Subutai isolated and defeated the Alans and Don Kipchaks/Cumans in detail. He crushed a combined Rus and Cuman army along the Kalka (31 May 1223), but a raid into Volga Bulgar territory ended with a defeat. Subutai received reinforcements and subsequently subjugated the Wild Kipchaks and the Kanglis. The campaign concluded with Subutai rejoining Genghis Khan as the Mongol army was making its way back home.
Subutai played a key part in the campaign against the Xi Xia in 1226. In 1227 he conquered the Jin districts along the upper Wei River. The Mongol operations were interrupted by the death of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan was succeeded by his son Ögedei. In 1230-1231, Ögedei personally led the main Mongol army against the Jin (in Central China), but the attempt to break into the plains of Henan ended in failure after Subutai was defeated at Shan-ch’e-hui. The Mongols besieged and took Fengxiang, a secondary target. In 1231-1232 the Mongols made another attempt. This time Subutai was able to outmaneuver the Jin armies.
The Mongols won decisive victories at Sanfeng (9 February 1232), Yangyi (24 February 1232), and T’iehling (1 March 1232). Ögedei and the main Mongol army returned to Mongolia, leaving Subutai with a small force to complete the conquest of Honan. Subutai found it difficult to take the large cities and needed almost 2 more years to finally eliminate the Jin. He made an alliance with Song China to get help to complete the job. But it did not take the Song long to fall out with the Mongols. Two Song armies seized Kaifeng and Luoyang during the summer of 1234. The Mongols returned and retook the cities.
Ögedei decided to send a major part of the army into the western regions to finally crush the Wild Kipchaks and Bulgars. Subutai was tasked to direct the operations (under the overall command of prince Batu). He defeated Kipchak leader Bachman on the north side of the Caspian Sea and next conquered the Volga Bulgars. In late 1237, Subutai attacked Ryazan and Vladimir-Suzdal, operating with 3 columns (attacking as the Mongols usually did during the winter). The Rus forces were defeated in 3 separate engagements and their cities were taken in quick succession. The Mongols spent the summer of 1238 resting along the Don River. Columns were sent out to subjugate the various tribes living in the plains around the Black Sea. In 1239, the Rus state of Chernigov was defeated and their cities were taken.
The Mongols had made a treaty with Galich-Vladimir, whose prince was therefore taken by surprise when the Mongols suddenly attacked in December 1240. Kiev, Vladimir, and other cities were quickly taken. The Mongols were ready to enter Central Europe. Subutai operated with several separate detachments, aiming to distract on the flanks, while he dealt with the main Hungarian army in the center. The Mongols defeated European armies at Chmielnik (18 March 1241), Kronstadt (31 March 1241), Liegnitz (9 April 1241), Muhi (10 April 1241), and Hermannstadt (10 April 1241). Hungary was overrun. The Mongols set out for home in 1242, after learning that Ögedei had died, relieving Vienna and the rest of Central Europe from further assaults.
The attack on Europe was planned and carried out by Subutai, who achieved his lasting fame with his victories there. Having devastated the various Russian Principalities, he sent spies as far as Poland, Hungary, and even Austria, in preparation for an attack into the heartland of Europe. Having a clear picture of the European kingdoms, he brilliantly prepared an attack nominally commanded by Batu Khan and two other princes of the blood. While Batu Khan, son of Jochi, was the overall leader, Subutai was the actual commander in the field, and as such was present in both the northern and southern campaigns against Kievan Rus'. He also commanded the central column that moved against the Kingdom of Hungary. While Kadan's northern force won the Battle of Legnica and Güyük's army triumphed in Transylvania, Subutai was waiting for them on the Hungarian plain.
King Béla IV of Hungary had summoned a council of war at Esztergom, a large and important settlement upriver from Buda and Pest. As Batu was advancing on Hungary from the northeast, the Hungarian leadership decided to concentrate their strength at Pest and then head north to confront the Mongol army. When news of the Hungarian battle strategy reached the Mongol commanders, they slowly withdrew to the Sajo River, drawing their enemies on. This was a classic Mongol strategy, ultimately perfected by Subutai. He prepared a battlefield suitable to his tactics, and waited for his enemies to blunder in. It was a strong position, because woods prevented their ranks from being clearly scouted or seen, while across the river on the plain of Mohi, the Hungarian army was widely exposed.
Only one day after the smaller Mongol army in Poland had won the Battle of Legnica, Subutai launched his attack, thus beginning the Battle of Mohi during the night of April 10, 1241. At the Mohi, a single division crossed the river in secret to advance on the Hungarian camp from the southern flank. The main body began to cross the Sajo by the bridge at Mohi, and continued to attack the following day. This was met with fierce resistance, so catapults were used to clear the opposite bank of crossbowmen, as was noted earlier. When the crossing was completed, the second contingent attacked from the south.
The result was complete panic, and, to ensure that the Hungarians did not fight to the last man, the Mongols left an obvious gap in their encirclement. This was one of Subutai's classic tricks, to create a tactical situation which appeared to be favorable to the enemy, but which was anything but. The Mongols had already incurred heavier than usual casualties as the Hungarian crossbowmen had done considerable damage to the Mongol cavalry. Subutai did not want a battle where the massed crossbowmen, supported by mounted Knights, stood firm and fought to the death against his army. He far preferred to let them flee and be slaughtered individually. The gap in the Mongol lines was an invitation to retreat, which would leave the Knights and crossbowmen spread out all over the countryside, easy pickings for the disciplined Mongols. As Subutai had planned, the Hungarians poured through this apparent hole in the Mongol lines, which led to a swampy area, poor footing for horses and hard going for infantry. When the Hungarian knights split up, the Mongol archers picked them off at will. It was later noted that corpses littered the countryside over the space of a two day journey. Two archbishops and three bishops were killed at the Sajo, plus 40,000 fighting men. At one stroke, the bulk of Hungarian fighting men were totally destroyed, with relatively minimal casualties to the Mongols, reportedly less than 1,000 men.
By late 1241, Subutai was discussing plans to invade the Holy Roman Empire, when news came of the death of Ögedei Khan. Over the objections of Subutai, the Mongol Princes withdrew the army to Mongolia for the election of a new Great Khan. A lucky accident, the death of Ögedei, thus put an end to the Mongol invasion of Europe.
Subutai was removed from command of the European invasions after the ascencion of Güyük Khan to the Khanate, and was instead placed in charge at the age of 70 of the campaign against Song China for 1246–1247. Most historians believe this transfer was not to denigrate his generalship during the European campaigns, but rather the opposite. The Mongol forces in Europe were headed by Güyük's relative Batu. Güyük had no love for Batu and wanted this best of the Mongol generals unavailable to Batu if the feud between them came to open war.
Subutai returned to Mongolia from the Song campaign in 1248. Mongolian histories say that Subutai died then, at the age of 72. His descendants such as Uryankhadai and Aju would serve the Great Khans for the next three decades as commanders.