The Mongolian army was a juggernaut, Nations as far as China to the heart of the Russian steppes crumbled under the Mongolian war machine. Not even the great empires of the Middle East could stop Mongolian might. In spite of the diversity of forces Mongols armies faced, numbers, wealth, and distance could not slow the Mongolian hordes to a halt.
Mongolian success was built on mobility, communications, and adaptation. Horses were the core of the Mongolian war machine. Horses were revered in the Mongol warrior culture. Tracing back to their nomadic roots, horses were the only thing Mongolians could depend on for survival. Whether it was enabling them to hunt, pursue an enemy, flee from a battlefield, or move on to greener pastures, Mongol soldiers were one with their horses. Mongols armies did not have the fastest or strongest horses. Mongol horses allowed their riders to travel the farthest distances the fastest over extended periods of time. As a result their military structure was horse-centric. An Horse-centric military enabled the Mongolians to travel faster with greater flexibility than their enemies.
Practicality rather than formalities guided the Mongol war machine. Unlike in Europe where retreat was seen as a sign of weakness, the Mongolians used false retreats, or feints, to their utmost advantage. Such false retreats were could be performed because of the speed of lightly armored Mongol cavalrymen. The Mongols understood the advantages their horses provided them. The Europeans failed to understand the burdens of their heavy armor. Another disadvantage for Europeans was that their ideologies about war played into the hands of the Mongols. For centuries, victory in a European battle meant engaging your opponent until they retreated and culminating the victory by mowing down fleeing enemies.
The Mongols intentionally engaged in skirmishing with Europe’s slow, lumbering forces. After brief fighting the Mongol commander would call for a retreat, and the Europeans would give chase. The lightly armored Mongol horses could outrun the heavy European cavalry that was pursuing them. The trap would been set. Mongolians fled to stretch the European forces thinly, severing the cavalry from the infantry. The cavalry would be ambushed by forces lying in wait while the Mongols who had been fleeing turned around to cut down the overwhelmed European cavalry. After destroying the cavalry, the trailing infantry became isolated. The infantry would succumb to a rain of arrows and cavalry charges.
The forces Hungary, Poland, and Russian principalities were no match for the professional Mongol armies. Many soldiers in European armies were men-at-arms, ready to fight when called on. Unlike the Mongols who had been on campaign for years, Eastern European soldiers were not as experienced in warfare. The training of the Mongols instilled a discipline that enabled them to execute their commanders’ orders with optimal efficiency. Thus difficult maneuvers such as feigning retreat and ambushing could be confidently ordered by Mongol field commanders. Unprofessional European troops were often less reliable. As a result the Mongols tried to make the battle fields chaotic with such complex maneuvers as filling the sky with a volley of arrows, in such rapid succession that European accounts of the battles often reported significantly more Mongol troops in battle than were actually present.
At the time of the Mongol invasion, Europe was weak. Hungary, Poland, and Russia had not established themselves as great powers in the early 1200’s. Abutting these lesser powers was the Holy Roman Empire. It was one of the largest European land empires, dominating most of Central Europe. The Holy Roman Empire at the time of the Mongol invasion was engulfed in feud that plagued many European monarchs dating back the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The power struggle centered around who held authority over Christendom, the secular kings, or the leader of the Church, the Pope. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s resulting war with the Pope drained the resources and vigor of Central Europe’s greatest power.
A weak Holy Roman Empire meant a weak Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was supposed to be the backstop for the Eastern European kingdoms and principalities who became the victims of the Mongol invasion. Hungary and Poland both petitioned the Holy Roman Empire for support against the Mongols. Such appeals were denied. The dominant ferocity of the Mongol hordes sent shockwaves throughout Europe. If the Eastern European kingdoms fell, the weakened Holy Roman Empire could fall, and France would be next in line for a Mongolian invasion. France had legitimate concerns about fighting the Mongolians. Along with Polish and Hungarian forces, a small French Templar contingent, one of Europe’s stronger units, had gotten slaughtered in a battle against the Mongolians.
To many European nations, no kingdom or principality seemed out of reach for the Mongolians. The Mongolians coordinated a campaign that could fight on multiple fronts in Poland and Hungary while simultaneously, venturing as far as the Dalmatian Coast. Such grand and complex operations could be effectively conducted since the Mongol courier system was an unmatched means of transporting pertinent information. Light, fast horses, and posts all over Mongol held land made the courier system so effective. With such superior coordination and communication, the Mongols proved they could thrust deep into Europe. A mere sixty miles separated the Mongols from Venice.
Shortly after the Mongols penetrated deep into Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe, the unconquered forces had to turn around. The lead of the Mongols, Ogedei Khan died. Mongol tradition stipulated that all the great Mongol chieftains must be present for the election of the new khan. Thus the generals in charge of the European campaign, Subutai, Batu, Mangku, and Kuyuk had to return to Mongolia for the election. Europe was saved, but not by any great military feat, but by a political procedure. After the next Khan was elected, the Mongolians, enriched from their Russian and European campaigns settled down in what is currently Russia, content with their success.
Could the Mongolians have conquered Europe? If so, to what extent would have a successful conquest meant? Would a successful conquest meant going all the way to the Mediterranean or Atlantic Ocean? Or to closer frontiers such as the Danube or the Rhine?
There are many factors they need to be assessed in determining how effective could a Mongol conquest be. First the Mongols must be assessed on how successful they were fighting European armies. The two major battles involving Mongol armies versus combined European forces, Mohi, and Leignitz, were decisive victories for the Mongol hordes. Tactically and strategically the European armies could not match the speed, flexibility, and coordination of Mongol forces.
Conquering and pacifying great kingdoms became standard procedure for the Mongols. On their way to Europe, the Mongols had conquered the great empires of Kwarizam, the Kievian Rus, and the strong barbarian tribes of the Cumans and Pechenegs. This was all done while campaigning against the great power of the Far East, China’s Song Dynasty. All along the way the Mongols incorporated the many Turkic peoples who lay between Mongolia and Europe, into their military.
The Mongols were able to pacify the peoples of their conquered lands through first fear, and then acceptance. When Mongols laid siege to a city, a skill learned from combating the Song Dynasty, devastation ensued. Mongols understood if they could raze a city and its population to the ground so completely, other cities would surrender without a fight. Mastery of siege warfare made the cities of Europe vulnerable to Mongolian armies. One Europe’s defensive strengths, densely packed cities, became one of its liabilities.
Central Europe’s terrain may have been what saved the Europe from complete conquest. One reason the Mongolians’ had such a massive empire was because they terrain they conquered was conducive to Mongolian horse-centric warfare. Much of the Mongol dominions were part of the Central Asian steppes. The steppes are flat grasslands that allow for optimal mobility and enough grassland for horses to feed on. Central Europe is more rugged than the steppes. Rugged terrain, rolling hills, rivers, dense forests and the Alps all limit the mobility and resources for horses. Horse-centric Barbarian tribes dating back to the fall of the Western Roman Empire such as the Huns struggled when crossing through present day Germany because of the rugged conditions and poor conditions for grazing. Much like the Mongolians they dominated the Russian steppes but became slowed in the heart of Central Europe.
Mongolians could have mitigated some of the problems fighting in Central Europe by establishing vassal states or alliances with principalities in the region. Mongol conquests brought a large portion of the silk road under Mongolian control. Venice, an emerging maritime power, depended heavily on the Silk Road’s commerce. Venice, dependant on the Mongolians for commerce, may have entered into an alliance or become a vassal state of the Mongolians. Had such an alliance happened the Mongolians would have had access to the Adriatic and a base of support in the heart of Central Europe. In addition the wealth and prominence of Venice could have added strength and legitimacy to Mongol conquests. It cannot be assumed Venice would have accepted Mongolian terms, but reasons abound as to why they may have wanted to enter into an alliance.
The Mongolian armies were tactically better than European armies. European armies had two fundamental flaws that left them particularly vulnerable to the Mongolian armies. One flaw was the lack of professional armies in weaker European states. Men at arms were ready to fight at a moments notice, but this does not mean they were prepared to fight. Poor training led to poor cohesion on the battlefields. Undisciplined men at arms were hard to control on the battlefields. This resulted in European commanders not having the ability to effectively counter the precisely executed tactics of the Mongols. The second flaw pertained to wealthier European armies. European armies of the Middle Ages preferred heavily armored forces to light forces. In uniform linear battles this had its advantages. Against the speed of Mongol attacks and retreats, European armies lacked the fluidity to effectively respond. Mongol tactics were about hitting and running, creating gaps in enemy lines by drawing out the enemy, and crushing exposed weak points with overwhelming force. Light Mongol cavalry could execute and adjust to such complex maneuvers whereas heavily armored European armies could not.
The Mongol army was far superior to anything Europe fielded at that time. Furthermore Europe was incredibly fragmented in the 13th Century, leading to an inability to direct an effective coordinated attack against the Mongolians. Mongol armies were more professional, flexible, and tactically and strategically superior to their European counterparts. Europe had the numbers to defend itself, but it lacked the coordination and the will to put aside their differences to stop the onslaught. Although some nations did band together, as in the case of Hungary and Poland, the powerhouses of Europe, such as France and the Holy Roman Empire, did not throw their lot behind the lesser powers who were succumbing to the Mongols. European armies proved again and again the Mongolian army was far too fast and well trained to be conquered on the battlefield.
Conquering Europe presented many obstacles to the Mongolians. Europe was the farthest extent of western Mongolian conquests. Although Mongols were resourceful in re-supplying themselves in conquered lands, Central Europe presented many problems. The land was not conducive for a horse centric army. Unlike the steppes of Russia, good grazing land was sparse. This explains why after the Mongols returned for electing a new Khan post-Ogedei, the Mongols pulled back from conquered Eastern European lands and remained largely in Russia. Another obstacle would have been European resistance. Europe was significantly more densely populated than the Russian steppe which meant sieges would have been required more frequently. Sieges are long and arduous. Although Mongolians could conduct effective sieges it eventually would have been a drain on their resources. Sieges could also slow the pace of the fast moving Mongolian hordes to a stand still, thus eliminating their greatest tactical advantage.
Mongolians could have conquered Europe but on a limited basis. Mongolians in an open battle could have defeated any European power it came up against. On the other hand, the rigors of campaigning in Europe would have been too hard on the overextended Mongols. The only way Europe could have been effectively conquered by the Mongols would have been by establishing alliances or vassal states with other European nations. The Mongolians could not have conquered Europe alone. Establishing alliances or vassal states would have relieved pressure from the constantly campaigning Mongol army. I think that had Ogedei’s death not ended their campaign significant chunks of Germany, Austria, and Croatia, and Italy could have come under Mongol control. It is hard envisioning the Mongols making it all the way to the Atlantic because the terrain and armies of France and the Holy Roman Empire would have slowed down the fast paced Mongol hordes to the point where further conquests may not have been worth the cost. The question to be asked is how much conquest would have satiated the Mongols? The Mongols seems to have been content with the wealth Russian and Eastern European conquests brought them. In the wake of Ogedei’s death the Mongols pulled back, saving Europe’s armies from an enemy it could not match.