Making Of The Golden Horde
Winter of 1237- West of the Russian Ural Mountains
With a voracious appetite, the Tatars, as they became known, had already pillaged and burned the countryside and holdings of the Bulgar people, who lived east of the Volga river, and taken the city of Sarai near its out-pour into the Caspian Sea. That tributary and its several bridges and roads leading west were a sign to the vanguards of Batu Khan and Subedai Bahadur that yet more rich lands lay beyond, filled with treasure for their Khans, pasture for their horses, and women for their men. They led their troops in the ways the horde had perfected. Miles apart large contingents were kept in constant contact through special arrows that whistled in the wind or by waving flags. There were couriers who bound their bodies in tightly wound silks and leathers, who rode their horses without stopping up and down the Mongol roads all the way back to the capitol of Karakorum. In this way the might of 120,000 Mongolian horseman, conscripts and soldiers pressed across the frozen Volga river. Ahead of them their many spies and scouts were fanned, into the Russian people's lands of Moscow and Vladimir, in the holdings of every Russian city. Their detailed reports told Batu and Subedai something they already knew; their approach across the vast forests of the Volga's west bank had gone unnoticed, and there was much land to be claimed. With an empire already stretched from Korea to the Caspian Sea, the Mongol army that was to become the Golden Horde entered the lands of Riazan and the Suzdal Russians, starting the conquest of Eastern Europe in earnest.
With such a massive military, the Mongols had to bring massive trains of workers and materials behind the main branch of the army. Each group of ten thousand men was called a tumen, and subsequently subdivided in factors of ten. The most prestigious of these was referred to as the Kashik, where the Khans themselves led. It was made up of all the men in the royal family, but every individual within the khan's household, from officers to servants, served in the Kashik. Any man other than this in the Kashik was there by appointment, having proven themselves capable of leading, and in the most dire of circumstances, even the most junior members were qualified to command any other unit in the Mongol army. From here Batu and Subedai led the invasion of Eastern Europe, with the Kashik's own participation in a battle occurring at the most decisive moments.
Having lived their entire lives as nomadic archers on horseback, the Mongol army lived a life of pseudo warfare until any able bodied man reached an age of 20, when they were trained and drilled constantly in the art of Mongol war. As such, they were the most naturally gifted archers and horsemen in the known world. This would come to serve Batu and Subedai well in the battles to come, where the speed and mobility, coupled with the range of their horseman's bows, would play a pivotal role in outpacing and out maneuvering the slower, more heavily armored troops of the Europeans. The Russians first taste of this style of warfare would occur just outside the Riazan principality.
1237- On the Cusp of Battle
Batu's tumen had already swept the hills of the Urals alongside Subedai's own unit, and in the process they had gathered more conscripts and soldiers for the auxiliary troops. The army was swelling with both old and new riders of the Horde. They passed through the forests on the Volga's West bank with speed, pressing through unobserved. The choice of taking the vassal state of Riazan was calculated; it was the weak point of the Russian's eastern front, and was strategically nestled between both Chernigov and Suzdal, the two stronger principalities. Riazan was governed by several princes, who looked after their own interests more-so than the needs of their people. As such, they saw the loss of the Bulgars as nothing more than another raid. The true plan of Batu was lost on them, and they underestimated the power of his massive army greatly.
When the long lines of Batu's military were finally detected by Russian peasants, they immediately fled to the capitol of the state for which it was named, Riazan. When they appeared on the doorsteps of the Prince's home, they were tired, bloody, and sweating. Their horses had died from overexertion due to the ride they were pushed through, and the Prince, for what it was worth, saw the issue at hand.
“My Lord, there...” One messenger paused to catch his breath, “...is an army. Mongols. Thousands. Only a few of us made it away from their scouts...the rest..” His voice trailed off and he began to whimper, remembering the loss of his friends and family to the swift horseman's bows.
Prince Yuri said nothing for several moments. But he was aware of the devastation the Mongols had wrought to not only his outer lands, but mighty empires such as Persia as well. He stood up, the weight of his decision weighing heavily upon him.
“Summon my brothers, Oleg and Yaraslov. Inform them of the situation. We will meet them outside the city with the entirety of our forces. If we take them lightly, I fear the fall of Russia altogether.” His stewards hastened to carry out his orders, and within minutes riders were sent to the other cities. His third brother, Roman, was sent north with his army to appeal for help from the Suzdal. Yuri knew that this would simply serve as a useful tool to the Suzdalians, but it was a worthwhile gesture nonetheless.
Within days, the combined forces of Yuri, Oleg, and Yarislov stood united miles from the city as the Horde poured from the trees in a never-ending torrent. The troops they had managed to assemble were green, and unprepared for such a vast battle. They were simple peasants outfitted in leather armors, and some held tightly to pitchforks with shaking hands. The Horde drew itself out in military fashion, the efficiency and maneuverability making the Russian's own lines look all the more pitiful.
“Is that the Russian force the scouts told us of?” Batu asked his messenger.
“Yes, my Khan. That is all they have assembled.”
Batu looked on as he signaled the light cavalry to encircle and pepper the comparatively small army with armor piercing arrows. The Russian's own bows did not have the draw to reach them, and any enemy cavalry that gave chase was quickly subdued by concentrated barrage.
Within a few hours, the naccara, the drum that sounded only when the heavy cavalry was to charge, let loose its quick staccato beats, and the Russian lines broke and fled in a single, audacious charge. The green army repulsed at the sight of ten thousand screaming horses.
If this was what was to be expected of the Europeans, their lands would be Mongol by the new year.
1238- Fall of Vladimir
In the few weeks following the slaughter at Riazan, the Mongol army had advanced hundreds of miles and sacked every city in their wake. The first army they fought had fled in a single charge, and each prince had taken what was left of his own men to guard their respective cities. This spread of force only hastened the slaughter. As was tradition, the city Riazan itself was burned to the ground and the populace massacred, it being the first to fall. The Mongols sacked and pillaged every town they found, burning holdfasts and villages and slaughtering all but a few who would spread the tales of atrocities the Mongols committed.
The siege at Riazan was one of the shortest the Mongol army had experienced. In only nine days a wooden palisade had been erected surrounding it to prevent any relieving armies from reaching the city and to protect the engineers and archers working beneath the walls. Only five days later, without the use of any fire, the Mongols broke through. The burned and slaughtered every living thing within, and paused only when it was deemed more terrifying to not outright slay the people. One group of monks and citizens who had taken refuge in a church were suffered through the systemic raping of every woman they had brought with them, before they were gutted almost to a man. Of all Riazan, only a few were allowed to live.
Batu and Subedai were pleased with the ease of their campaign. They had imagined a more unified front, perhaps a consequence in the coming months in the shape of a crusade. But as they continued, first surrounding and annihilating a relieving army outside the city of Kolomna, and then marching and taking Moscow as quickly as they had the city before it, they saw no sign of any true resistance.
The Mongol's knowledge of the European armies was not complete; when they had expected plated infantry and lines of massed cavalry, perhaps from Hungary, they got only peasants and javelin armed light cavalry. With such a meager army, the Russians had no hope of holding any territory.
During the siege of Moscow, a group of Mongol riders, several Mangudai, were treated to a great personal victory. They had personally seen to the death of the military governor, but had captured one of the Suzdal princes as well. Vladimir was their prisoner, and when his father heard of the fall of Moscow, he rode north with an army to appeal for assistance from Novgorod.
Batu saw this as an opportunity.
“Subedai, the cowardly Grand Duke rides north with his army, in the hope that he can bring Novgorod back with him. He believes the 'Golden Gates' will hold long enough for this to take place.”
Subedai only looked on, taking note of the men fletching arrows and brushing their unbridled horses. Slowly, he spoke:
“If the man seeks to bring another army, then we will give him no reason to return. The city of Vladimir is rich, and we have its named Prince. Taking it would serve us well, Batu.”
Around the Mongols there was always a constant air of tension. Even knowing every possibility they were careful to commit to anything too brash without proper preparation. As it stood, such a recommendation from his most trusted adviser told Batu that if he did not take this city, and take it quickly, the campaign would be bogged down.
In the span of a single morning, the entire army packed up its great tents and began the hundred mile ride to Vladimir. It did not stop. When finally the force came upon the city walls, the Mangudai who captured Prince Vladimir, as was their honor, took him before the city and demanded to know if the grand duke was still within.
They received only a shower of arrows as a reply, and set to investing themselves in the siege. The Prince was beheaded on the spot as the remaining brothers looked on, and Subedai sent a small vanguard to follow in the footsteps of the Grand Duke, to ensure the safety of his own assault on Vladimir. With the same palisade used to surround Riazan erected around this city in similar fashion, Subedai sent half the army to storm the capitol, Suzdal. The endless bloodshed that had followed the army so far was forgotten in favor of prisoners, slaves and soldiers. In less than five days, Suzdal fell, and that half of the army had returned with thousands of prisoners in shackles.
Subedai, the commanding general this time, had the catapults bombard the city for an entire day and night with rocks as ground forces moved battering rams and manned siege equipment into position. At dawn, on February 7th 1238, as the sun crested the horizon and men began to see their breath again, Subedai ordered the city to be taken. All four gates were attacked at once.
Inside the citizens ran panicked through the streets attempting to find loved ones and gather whatever things they thought valuable enough to hide. Then they stowed away in any small space that could fit them. Some drowned in refuse attempting to hide in the sewers, or were trampled underfoot. With robberies, murder, and all sorts of lunacy occurring behind and below them, the fairly large garrison of Vladimir was distraught. They were caught between defending all the gates at once from the outside, or maintaining order inside; a stress that proved too much. By midday the Mongols were in the Central Plaza, and the Grand Duchess had barricaded herself and the royal family away in the choir loft of the church. When she refused to be coaxed down, the church was burned, her and her family's fate to match that of the hundreds of corpses below them in the sepulcher.
The assault had gone off quickly and efficiently, and Subedai, now pleased with the manner of his and Batu's understanding of the Russian's forces, split the army. The scouts who had reported on the movements of the Grand Duke and his force met with Batu and Subedai in private on the eve of the separation.
“My Khan...” the Persian scout began, bowing deeply, “...to our North lie three cities; Yuriev, Rostov, and Yaraslov. These are the supposedly strong cities.” He ran his finger briskly along a line that stretched from between Moscow and Vladimir north into the frozen wastes for a hundred miles. Then he stopped and pointed to the West of Vladimir, North of Moscow. “And starting here, almost in a straight line to Novgorod lie the cities of Dmitrov, Tver, and Torzhok. Nestled between both these paths, my Khan, is the Siti River, where the two last Suzdal armies lay in wait. For what reason we do not know.”
Batu and Subedai had not taken long to make their decision. Winter was fast approaching its end. He spoke cautiously to Batu.
“If the Russian Duke wishes to hide and wait for more troops, then we will flush him out like in our Great Hunt. We will surround their forces, and before the spring thaw we will own nearly all of Russia. Of this I can promise you, Batu,” he added before leaving the tent to gather his half of the army. Batu did not have the chance to refuse, but it was not as if he would have. The plan was solid. In Mongol tradition, every year the troops would conduct a Great Hunt. It was meant to promote strategic unity throughout the army. Along a vast track of wilderness the horde would spread out, flushing and pushing the animals before them. At the same time, faster cavalry would ride out ahead, sometimes by more than fifty miles, and push from the other direction. When the forces met all manner of wild animal fought and died with one another looking for a way out. Thousands upon thousands of deer, elk, wolves, and sometimes even elephant, bear and tiger found their way into such a trap. After the Khan took the first true kill, men dismounted and fought the animals in hand to hand combat or with their bows, the goal being to pick your prey and have it whole.
The Horde had already taught the Russians that encirclement meant death. But as the armies of Subedai and Batu departed in different directions, the Grand Duke and his remaining sons' forces stayed on the Siti River, waiting for a relieving army from Novgorod that would never come. By the end of February a reconnaissance of three thousand men was sent out to discover the whereabouts of the Khan's army. In a simple phrase that would be recorded for all time, the commander, defeated internally and visibly saddened, had few words.
“My lord, the Tatars have surrounded us.”
1238 – Summer and Rest
Batu cleaned the pheasant off his golden plates of Persian make. In the span of several months his army had taken central Russia and its capital. The Grand Duke of Suzdal's army had been crushed by Subedai in a textbook encirclement, but Batu's own forces had been halted for two full weeks by a courageous defense at Torzhok. With the thaw beginning, he had turned his army back only sixty miles from Novgorod when the cavalry was bogged down by marshes and running water.
It was now Summer, a time of rest for the Mongol horses and their enemies. Winter was a time for bloodshed, for riding and fighting in order to stay warm. Here, in the vast open prairie Southwest of where they had first invaded Russia, Batu and Subedai sat with their armies, replenishing supplies and granting rest to the hard working troops. Up and down the roads messengers heralded the new conquest of Subedai and Batu. Millions of pounds of gold, jewelry, goods and what remained of the sacked cities was being sent back to Mongolia to give Ogadai, the Great Khan, his pick of it all. And while he picked of the most prestigious treasure, the Horde itself bathed in the vast quantities of goods they had acquired. Every man was made rich by the conquest. The only remaining towns were now vassals and patrolled by Mongol guard, and had few people to work there. The sheer profit of the Russian campaign had even surprised Subedai, who had considered the wealth of the Europeans.
The Horde was becoming golden.
It was a bitter sweet victory, however. On the return to their camp from Novgorod's lands, Batu and Subedai had elected to pass by Kozelsk, West of Moscow and part of the Chernigov state, rather than backtrack through the places they had already pillaged. Fearing the fates of the other Russian cities, Kozelsk left its gates and engaged the vanguard of the Horde with its own force, which, in turning to face the new foe, took its full effect. Several thousand horsemen lost their lives, and while Batu and Subedai did not deign to blame any one thing as the cause, they made sure to avenge them. Kozelsk withstood the siege of the Mongol invaders for seven brutal, terrifying weeks before the walls were breached and the city exterminated in such a fashion that even the Mongols called it the 'City of Sorrow'.
Now, however, the fighting was behind them. The Russian winters were strong, yes, but they told the Mongols they were still alive, still breathing. When winter came again later that year, the goal was consolidation. Even Batu knew that an empire gained through war needed to be controlled. They rode West and Northeast, conquering the Cuman tribes of the Black Sea and what remained of the Bulgar tribes of the Ural Mountains.
The Mongol Empire now stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, its lands full of cheap slaves, rich military men, and burned cities.
1238-1240 – King Bela of Hungary
“A powerful military needs staunch supporters, Bela. These Cumans would seek to serve us, and in doing so, escape the mighty Tatar hordes.”
Bela hated his courtiers. They were shaking in their boots at the prospect of the Mongols, the most powerful, sinister, and hellish military the world had ever seen. But Bela knew that any army could be beaten through sound mind, and from what he'd heard of the Russian's faults in the Suzdals and Riazan, he knew he could not let them march unopposed. But then came the Cumans; they were an unknown. Refugee tribal men from lands to the East, over the Transylvanian Mountains. Their leader, running from the pillaging 'Tatars', had promised the strength of his forty thousand strong military, and full conversion to Christianity by all its men, should Bela only offer them asylum and a chance to retake their lands. But that was not what concerned him most. They perpetuated the fear that already smelled rankly in the court, and the citizens of his beautiful and powerful nation needed to stay strong if their men were to fight in order to save it. For this reason, he scorned his hand.
“Tell Kotian of the Cumans his loyalty is allowed, his men to become Christian, and his fears to be gone. As an added measure, any man I see who refers to this army as the Tatars, allowing the myth that they are in fact the devil's horsemen in flesh and blood, will be drawn and quartered in front of the court's full assembly,” King Bela told the sniveling wretch, as he scampered off to give Kotian the good news.
He despised courtiers, as they reached positions through means other than birthright, Godsend or strength. Pigeons serving hawks, he mused.
The Hungarian military was indeed powerful. While the Holy Roman Empire formed by Barbarossa fought for its right to self govern, both religiously and politically, the Papal States and the all-powerful (or so it seemed) Pope deemed them heathens and devil worshipers. The schism had developed with such voracity that every nation, regardless of true allegiance or will, had been forced into supporting one side. The whole of Europe was on the verge of a mighty Civil War and to compound matters more the Mongols dominated the Russian lands East of the Black Sea, the very entry to the Mediterranean. They threatened to pour over the Transylvanians at any moment, but Poland and Austria were especially vulnerable with such wide plains between them and essentially an army of horses.
Bela did not fear the Mongols as the Polish King did, nor did he mean to sit idly by and allow them a first move. With haste, he gathered every conscript and able bodied young man and trained them, drilled them for the time when such mass of arms would be needed. For even though Hungary held arguably the most powerful cavalry and castles in Europe, they could not hope to best the staggering numbers reported by precious few survivors of an already devoured Russia.
1239-1240 – Batu
With the re-invasion of Russia's remaining lands drawing infinitely closer, Batu and the many members of the royal family gathered within the great tent to celebrate what would be a glorious conquest. During his revelry, however, Batu made a grave mistake.
While the men cut their roasts and brandished their wine, Batu, inadvertently, drank first. As was custom the Khan and the princes were equal, and Ogadai's other sons, Kuyuk and Buri, stormed out of the tent temperamentally. They made such a scene that Batu sent a missive to his father complaining of their behavior.
The ensuing political fallout caused the entire campaign to be postponed for an entire year. Subedai, no more pleased by the disgraceful conduct of Batu than the Princes, held his tongue out of respect only, and the promise of the war starting in earnest again. Kuyuk and Buri, who had been stripped of their ranks as punishment for their behavior, were reinstated, and in November of 1240 the Horde was riding again.
Chernigov's lands fell as quickly as the rest of Russia. Novgorod, an old goal, was chosen to be left alone. The distance the army would cross was, in Subedai's estimation and Batu's consent, too far for too small a prize. They were, however, plagued by Teutonic Order knights looking for new lands, the 'crusade' that they almost constantly served in a useful excuse for cleansing the Novgorod's. While the city was not taken, the constant fight for its lands left it helpless to assist the state of Chernigov, or for that matter, the mother city Kiev herself.
Kiev was to the Russians what any great city is to any empire. It served as the center of arts and learning, but more than that, religion. It sat upon the banks of a river that had traded with Byzantium for centuries, and its many golden church roofs stood out above the high walls. The Mongols lovingly dubbed it the 'city of the golden heads', and many who had seen Samarkand regarded it as a more beautiful place.
Kiev proved surprisingly difficult for the seasoned and rested troops. Even with the city surrounded they could not hope to break the walls with stone only, and the spoils to be had within would need to be protected from fire. Instead, the artillery was focused on the wooden gate of the Polish side, and within a day, after using millions of arrows to pepper the streets, Mongol cavalry rode into Kiev. But the sheer exhaustion of the attack forced the army to spend the night camped upon the walls.
From their many positions atop the battlements the Horde's men rested. The city itself was silent, as the army slept and the people hid within. There would be no counter attack and no slaughter until the following day, and Kiev was allowed to suffer through a night of fear. On December 6th, the city was taken street by street, the horses clambering down the many alleyways searching for survivors and loot. The riders went in packs and fought the remaining garrison tooth and nail for their gloriously beautiful home, and in the end, Kiev was Mongol. In short order it was burned, torn apart brick by brick in search of Byzantine treasure. Tombs, homes, shops, wells, church roofs; all held gold, and held a lot of it. When they had finished, Kiev had been reduced to nothing but a shell and The Golden Horde had earned its name in full.
Within three weeks of the fall of Kiev, all of Russia belonged to Batu.
King Bela, the only monarch in all Europe who had seen the threat of invasion and acted upon it, sat atop his plated horse Cherry on a small hill overlooking the bridge. The forces he had assembled in the two years he knew of the Mongol's intentions were not fresh men. They were finely trained, and stood as the first real European army that Subedai and Batu had seen. When Russia fell, Bela bolstered the strength of the Transylvanian passes above his beloved nation. When those passes inevitably fell, he drew out the Mongols with the Cuman troops. When they had rebelled against him, they were fought in such a way to be caught betwixt the Horde and its city-conquering schemes. And now Bela stood with the best cavalry in all Europe, save the Gendarmes of the French.
But above all, he feared. A defeat here meant the loss of all Christendom. Their squabbles over right to rule, the Papacy's refusals to give aid out of the conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and his own so-called 'allies' watching his country burn ate away at him. If he was to die it would be defending the nation he fought so hard to make relevant to all Europe. As his heavy cavalry crashed again into the lighter horses and foot soldiers of the Mongols, he smelled victory in the air.
All his hope for victory vanished when he heard the Naccarra and felt the screams of Subedai's horsemen behind him in the yellow plains of grass, and heard the firing of hidden trebuchet before half his army was shrouded in smoke.