By Mark Kodama
When King Bela of Hungary marched his army to the Sajo River on April 10, 1241, he knew the Mongols were near. He knew the Mongols were not warriors with whom to be trifled. He could be bear being called a coward; but he did not want to be the responsibility of leaving open his people to these ruthless invaders.
Never before had Christendom faced a more formidable and wicked enemy. Never had Europe and Hungary been so divided. The Jin Dynasty, the Southern Song Dynasty, the Kwarazmian Empire, the Western Xia, the Principalities of the Rus, Samarkand, Urgench, Bukhara had all been destroyed by the Mongols, the heads of the captured stacked into giant pyramids. But it was not too late for the forces of Christendom to unite.
Duke Henry II of Silesia was marching south with an army of 8,000 to join King Wenceslas of Bohemia. Even King Bela’s bitter enemy Duke Frederick of Austria had agreed to fight the Mongols. Indeed, after Duke Frederick drove off a small force of Mongols outside of Pest, King Bela forced the Mongols to retreat from his capitol with only a small fraction of his forces, many older men and young boys who had volunteered to fill his hollowed ranks. He was thankful that his brother Coloman, Duke of Slovonia, his old friend Mathias Ratot, Archbishop of Estzergrom, the old knight Ugrin Csak and Rembald de Vozcon, Master Knights of the Templar answered his call for help.
When King Bela, dressed in red robes with a green cape, reached the swollen Sajo River, near Mohi, he stopped to rest his men. The army marched passed the ruins of the long abandoned Roman towns. Rome, once the dominant power of the Mediterranean, now existed only in its atrophied Byzantine Empire The swampy grounds, the hills and heavy forest and the long and narrow stone bridge were dangerous, a perfect place for an ambush.
King Bela sent out scouting parties to reconnoiter the area as he met with his top commanders. His scouts reported no signs of Mongols in the immediate vicinity.
King Bela ordered his army to rest, set up camp and await reinforcements from King Wenceslas and Duke Henry and resupply. His army had force marched for six days from Pest across the fertile Hungarian Plains constantly harried by the Mongol rear guard. Later that day, an escaped Slavic slave made his way to camp and warned the Hungarians that the Mongol army awaiting them the other side of the river and were about to cross the stone bridge.
“Will you lead us in prayer?” King Bela asked.
“Oh, great Father in heaven,” Mathias Ratot, Archbishop of Estzergrom, said, “please give us the courage and strength to destroy these demons from hell sent here by the devil to ravage our lands and our people. With God on our side, who can stand against us? We believe in You and Your power to deliver us from evil. In You we put our faith. Amen. ”
“Amen,” echoed the men.
“Brother, assemble your men,” King Bela told Duke Coloman. By now, night had fallen . The Duke mustered his horsemen, infantry and crossbowmen, the best and most experienced warriors in the army, and led them in battle order to the great stone bridge that spanned the Sajo, overflowing from recent rains and snow melt from the Carpathian Mountains.
Khan Batu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, and General Subutai, watched the Hungarian army from the hills above the Sajo River. Khan Batu was part of the Mongol royalty. Subutai, the son of a blacksmith, was perhaps the greatest general in history. He was one of the late Genghis Khan’s Four Dogs, his four best military commanders. At 65, Subutai was still at the peak of his powers.
“What do we do?” Khan Batu asked.
Subutai kneeled on the ground, drawing the river and bridge in the dirt, in front of his ger. “You need to cross the stone bridge and set up a bridgehead on the other side of the Sajo River with the main army and siege equipment. Shayban will ford the river north with light cavalry and I will build a pontoon bridge and attack from the south.”
“You must engage the enemy and hold them in place until we can attack their flanks.”
“What if they resist?”
“Our spies tell us that King Bela’s army is disarray. It is mostly made up of peasants, old men and boys. Most of his nobles refused to send troops because of old animosities, defending their lands against our southern army and the raging Cumans.”
“Just hold them in place, until we can attack their flanks.”
A rider rode into camp and rode toward Subutai’s tent. The commander looked up.
“We destroyed Duke Henry II’s army at Battle of Legnica. King Wenceslas of Bohemia is in full retreat back to Prague.”
“What of the Duke?”
“He was captured,” the messenger said. “His head was cut off and mounted on a pike.”
“You see,” Subutia said, looking up at Khan Batu, “Bela will not be receiving any of the reinforcements he is counting on The trap is now set. We will now annihilate his army. We must set an example of him so there will no further resistance in Europe.”
In 1236, five Mongol armies under the leadership of Khan Batu and General Subutai invaded Europe. The Supreme Khan Ogedai, the third son of the late Genghis Khan, ordered the invasion of Europe following the death of his father. By 1241, 30,000 Mongol horsemen invaded Hungary while 10,000 swung north into Poland and 10,000 swung south in Transylvania. Riding their swift ponies and armed with their composite bow, they seemed invincible.
King Bela IV had accepted 40,000 Cuman refugees from the Eurasian steppes. The Cumans – who were mighty warriors – under the leadership of Khan Koten agreed to become Christians.The Supreme Khan Ogedai sent envoys demanding that King Bela turn over the Cuman refugees to the Mongols. King Bela refused and executed the envoys.
In 1240, King Bela set up his defenses in the Carpathian Mountains and called a council of war of his vassals. Many of the king’s vassals who had fought the Cumans for many years demanded that King Bela surrender the Cumans to the Mongols.
“They cannot be trusted,” one vassal said. “Many Cumans now serve in the Mongol Army.”
“They will stab us in the back at first chance and take our woman,” said another. “They are by nature savages.”
“They are not welcome here in Hungary,” said a third.
“They have taken the lives of our fathers and brothers,” said the first. “If you do not turn them over, we will not fight for you on their behalf,” said the first.
“We made a solemn promise to them,” Duke Coloman, the king’s brother said. “We cannot go back on our word. They are our best and most valiant warriors.”
“Please, gentlemen, under the circumstances, we need unity,” said Ugrin Csak, Arch Bishop of Koloska.
“That is our position,” the first nobleman said. “We will not fight with you as long as the Cumans remain in your service.”
“I must give the matter some thought,” King Bela said.
Koten, leader of the Cumans, visited King Bela in his place in Pest. He was in his mid-40s but his prowess as a warrior remained undiminished. He was tall and powerful with flowing blond hair to his shoulders and a blond beard now flecked with gray.
“Thanks you, my king,” Koton said, “for standing with us in our moment of greatest need. With all of our own friends destroyed or enslaved by the Mongols, we turned to you, or old adversary for sanctuary.
“Rather then turn your backs to us, you welcomed us as brothers and sisters, showing us the power of the Christian God. I just want to assure you that the Cumans stand ready at your side to fight the Mongols to the death.”
“What am I to do?” King Bela asked his brother.
“You must keep your promise, brother,” Duke Coloman said. “Be strong. Do not do what is politically expedient. Do what is right, come what may.”
“You must trust in God and do the right thing,” Duke Coloman’s wife Salomea said. “Did not God deliver David and the Israelites from the Philistines?”
“I need these knights,” King Bela said, “How can we stand a chance against the Mongols without my knights?”
“God will help you find a way,” Solomea said.
“Unfortunately, kings must live in the real world, the here and now,” King Bela said. “God rules in the heavens but we rule here on earth.
“I must pray on this,” King Bela said.
King Bela ordered his barons to arrest Khan Koten. When they rode into his camp, his people gathered around his tent in anger and surprise.
“What is the meaning of this?” Koten demanded, dressed his flowing white robes, his sword and dagger in their scabbards. His oldest wife stood next to him shank in hand.
“Orders from the king,” said one baron who had lost his two sons fighting the Cumans. The baron handed Koten a vellum warrant for his arrest.
When Koten opened the scroll and read the warrant, the baron thrust a knife into his heart. Koten’s oldest wife stabbed the baron in the arm. He slashed her in the face with his knife. The knights then slew her along with the rest of Koten’s wives.
They cut the heads off Koten and his wives, mounted them on pikes and then rode off to report to King Bela that Koten and his wives had killed themselves.
The Cumans rose up in anger. They deserted the army in mass and rode south with their families and laying waste to all in their path.
Despite fortifications and booby traps built in the Carpathian Mountains, the Mongol army crossed through the mountain passes in three days. They met and destroyed an army led by the Count of Palatine at Vrecke Pass. The Hungarian Army at Nagyvarad was defeated.
In desperation, King Bela asked other European nations for assistance included his hated enemy Duke Frederick of Austria. After driving off a small contingent of Mongol horsemen, Duke Frederick called King Bela a coward and returned to Austria.
Ugrin Csak, archbishop of Kalsoc, was lured into a trap by the Mongols’ famed feigned retreat and was defeated and nearly killed.
By March 15, 1241 the Mongol Army was on the outskirts of the Hungarian capital at Pest. King Bela sent his Queen Maria with his ten children to the fortress of Klis in Split, in Croatia for safety.
King Bela ordered his supply wagons to be chained together and be placed in a circle around his camp. Duke Coloman led his heavy horsemen , infantry and crossbowmen to defend the great stone bridge.
When Duke Coloman arrived at the 200-meter-long stone bridge at midnight April 11, 1241, the Mongols had already begun to cross the river. Coloman and his cavalry attack driving the Mongols back across the river as his crossbowmen brought down scores of mounted warriors. Coloman returned to camp, leaving his infantry and crossbowmen to guard the bridge.
Before dawn, Mongol horsemen under Shayban, forded the river to the north and Subutai began building a pontoon bridge to the south. Batu drove the crossbowmen back with his catapults before leading a charge across the stone bridge.
Seeing the Mongol light horsemen approaching from the north, the infantry and crossbowmen retreated to camp, carrying their wounded and dying with them. Coloman, Ugrin Csak and Rembald de Vozcon, Knights of the Templar master, led their heavy cavalry against overwhelming numbers to give King Bela time to organize his army for battle.
Rembald de Vozcon, the Knights of the Templar master, raised his sword and shouted “For the Cross!”
Duke Coloman and Ugrin Csak shouted “For the Cross!”
“For the cross!” echoed the knights as they thundered toward the river.
Coloman, Ugrin and Rembald charged the Mongol Army and the two armies engaged in bloody hand-to-hand fighting. The Mongols threatened to surround the horseman so they retreated to camp.
To their surprise, King Bela had done nothing to organize the troops for battle. “What have you been doing?” Ugrin shouted at the king. “We risked our lives and lost many brave men.”
“Brother,” Duke Coloman said, “we are in a battle for our very lives.”
The army was quickly mustered and marched disorganized into battle. It took them two hours to form up, losing valuable time. Finally, they attacked the Mongol Army commanded by Batu, inflicting heavy losses in a desperate struggle, even killing 30 member of Batu’s personal guard, including his captain.
The Hungarians began to push the Mongols back toward the river, nearly breaking their line. Finally, Subutai finished his pontoon bridge and crossed the river.
Once Subutai appeared on the Hungarians right flank, the Hungarians panicked and began to run toward camp. The Mongols slaughtered them in great numbers as they fled in terror. The few who stood their ground to cover the retreat were cut down where they stood.
The Mongols surrounded their camp, raining fire arrows and fire bombs upon them. They brought their catapults forward and fired heavy stones upon the defenders.
Duke Colomon led three break-out attempts but every time he attacked, the Mongols simply retreated. Finally, the army broke and ran through a narrow corridor left open by the Mongols.
Duke Colomon was struck by a fire bomb, engulfing him in flames. Ugrin was killed in the fighting. Colomon was mortally wounded. The escape route was covered in blood as soldiers were shot down by a gauntlet of Mongol archers.
All those captured, we decapitated. No prisoners were taken.
As Duke Coloman lay dying King Bela wept. He had no hair, no lips, no nose, no eyes. His naked burned body was covered in salve.
“I’m sorry, bother,” King Bela said. “I let you down.”
“We did our best,” Duke Colomon said. “That is all God asks of us. Have faith in God’s grace.”
“I failed,” King Bela said.
“It is not about you, brother,” Colomon croaked. “It’s about God. If you listen closely, you can hear God speak.”
“Only God is perfect,” Solomea said. “We are imperfect and God forgives.”
“You need to flee to safety,” King Bela told Solomea. “The Mongols are almost upon us.”
“I belong with my husband, Solomea said.
Nearly the entire army of 10,000 were killed that day. King Bela was among the few survivors. The Mongols lost 3,000 to 5,000 dead that day, high losses for their army.
King Bela was captured by his hated rival Duke Frederick of Austria who forced him to cede land to him in exchange for his freedom.
King Bela fled south to Trigor on Vis Island on the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia, just ahead on the Mongol horsemen sent to capture him. There was no army to defend Hungary and the Mongols slaughtered the population and destroyed everything that stood in their way. Hungary lost up to 25 percent of its population in the war and the famine that followed.
All of King Bela’s best commanders and knights were dead. Only the fortified cities were able to hold out against the invaders. Resistance was met with total destruction. Old men, women, children, livestock and dogs were slain.
“God, do you even exist?” King Bela cried in anguish.”How often I prayed to you and followed your ways. How can You be all good and all powerful and yet allow so much suffering?” There was only silence.
The ruler of Samarkand had molten silver poured into his eyes and ears. Surely, such a fate awaited King Bela. King Bela watched a shepherd butcher one of his sheep, slitting its throat. King Bela prayed for deliverance and forgiveness.
Bulgaria and Serbia were attacked and fell to the Mongol Army. The Pope called for a Crusade against the scourge from the East. Then in December 1241 the Supreme Khan Ogedei died. The Mongolian Army left Hungary and returned to the steppes, never to return.