Why The Mongols Would Not Have Conquered Sacred Europe

Discussion in 'Warfare' started by Voxvot, 20 June 2015.

  1. Voxvot

    Voxvot Junior Member

    A post from Quora on the likelyhood of a Mongol conquest of the kingdoms of Western Europe.


    [​IMG]Tim O'Neill, I have a M.A. in Medieval Literature ... (more)
    628 upvotes by Simon Thompson, Ved Mundora, Quora User, Jae Won Joh, (more)

    Despite what breathless History Channel pop-documentaries and Mongol fanboys would have you believe, probably not.

    Yes, anyone who has done even the most cursory reading on the large-scale punitive raid into Europe 1240-41 AD will know that the Mongols caught the eastern Europeans by surprise and dealt them serious defeats in the field at Liegnitz and at Mohi through superior tactics and generalship. But no, this does not mean that this army would have conquered Europe if it had not been recalled (it was too small). Nor does it mean that a much larger force is likely to have done so either. There are a number of clear historical reasons this would have been unlikely:

    1. Geography, logistics and historical precedents

    Firstly, the Mongols were not the first Eurasian horse nomads to attack Europe, though they were the first who had done so for several centuries. From the Third Century to the Ninth Century western Europe has seen the Sarmatians, the Huns, the Alans, the Avars, the Khazars and the Magyars all emerge from the steppes and invade, usually via the plains of the Hungarian Basin. Some of these peoples made it as far west as what is now France and Italy, but none managed to establish a permanent foothold west of what is now the eastern Balkans.

    This is because of geography and the logistics of horse nomad battle tactics. Beyond the Hungarian Basin, Europe becomes totally unsuited to large horse armies. There simply isn't the pasture to sustain the string of 5-15 remounts needed for a nomad warrior to maintain the kind of lightning campaign that could give them a strategic advantage over the armies of sedentary cultures. Attitla's Huns established a large hegemonic "kingdom" based on the Hungarian plains with its core further east on the Ukrainian steppes, but his "invasions" of the Western Roman Empire were little more than massive plundering raids and shows of strength. They quickly ran out of steam once the Huns got too far from large supplies of fodder for too long.

    Later nomad horse armies ran into the same problem. Avar and Magyar raiders inflicted crushing defeats on western European armies, but were never able to follow up with any kind of invasion or occupation. Ottonian German feudal armies learned that the further a Magyar horse army got from its steppe base the more vulnerable it became.

    People with a knowledge of the terrain of modern Europe find this difficult to grasp. They see wide open countryside, rolling hills of farmland and can't understand why a Mongol army of the kind that had conquered similar pastoral countryside in China could find Europe so impossible. But Europe in the Thirteenth Century did not look like Europe today. Most of that open countryside was still thickly forested; and not the highly cultivated, open, park-like "forest" of modern Europe, but mainly thick wildwood forest of a kind modern Europeans never see outside of some national parks in eastern Poland. This was not nomad horse-army country. Those modern rolling hills of farmland were impassible by horse and those strings of 5-15 remounts would be dead from starvation within a few weeks. Any Mongol army foolish enough to try to force its way through this terrain would soon find itself having to walk back though hostile territory, with most of its horses dead. And there goes the famous Mongol tactical superiority.

    2. Western European Strategy and Tactics in the Thirteenth Century

    Strategy and tactics develop in a given context. This means that while the Mongols' art of war developed on the steppes and suited that context, the armies of feudal Europe developed in the far more enclosed and constrained terrain of their context. What worked on the plains of Eurasia and could be adapted to China and Russia would not work well at all in western Europe.

    And this is not just a matter of the lack of fodder and room for wide strategic manoeuvre discussed above. A combination of factors (terrain, political fragmentation, logistics) meant that war in western Europe from the Third Century onward had led to a lower emphasis on large-scale, set piece battles and the development of a warfare of manoeuvre, skirmish and siege, with field battles usually on a smaller scale and mainly only when one side with a clear advantage caught the other on the hop. Many wars were fought with no open battles at all, though with a lot of harrying, skirmishing, manoeuvre and many sieges.

    This meant that from the Ninth Century onwards, Europe became a land of castles and the art of fortification and the corresponding art of siege warfare were both raised to increasing heights of sophistication. This is why in the two centuries before the Mongol invasion of Europe, Medieval Europeans were able to hold the Crusader Kingdoms in the "Outremer" despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered - masterpieces of the art of fortification like Kerak, Montreal and Krak des Chevaliers were based on centuries of perfecting the art of castle building. In a fortress like those or their equivalents across Europe, a populace could wait until a besieging army simply starved itself into having to withdraw.

    Those who note that the Mongols were good at siege warfare underestimate precisely how good they would have to be to conquer western Europe. Yes, Mongolian use of Chinese siege tactics could storm fortresses (though Chinese siege tactics were inferior to those of western Europe in key respects). But in Europe they would have had to mount thousands of such sieges, bogging down their armies for months at a time with every single one. The sheer number of castles in Europe in this time is staggering - in 1241 they numbered in the many tens of thousands. And combined with the terrain and the logistical problems already noted, they would represent an almost endless succession of obstacles that a Mongol army intent on conquest would simply not have the capacity to overcome.

    Bypassing them would only work in the short term and doing so consistently would be nothing more than a large-scale raid. Ottonian Germany showed over and over again that it could always defeat the Magyars in the long term by retreating into castles and then harassing the bogged down nomads through the forage-free forests. And while people make a lot of the victories of the Mongols in Hungary in 1240, we hear much less about the disastrous Golden Horde Mongol campaign in 1285. Learning from the 1240 campaign, the Hungarians had defended their kingdom with a network of western European-style castles. Unable to take them all, bogged down and constantly attacked, a depleted Mongol army began to retreat and was intercepted and comprehensively defeated at Pest by Ladislaus IV and then finally destroyed on the retreat home. This, rather than the earlier campaign in Hungary, gives us an insight into the reception a Mongol invasion would have received further west.

    3. Religion and Politics in Western Christendom

    In the sudden and unexpected blitzkrieg of the Mongol incursion of 1240-41, the politically fragmented nature of western Christendom worked in the favour of the invaders. The various rival states of Europe were in no position to mount any kind of short-term co-ordinated response and what response was thrown together - eg by the Teutonic Order in response to the incursion in Poland - was small scale and piecemeal. Some argue that this fragmentation means that western Europe would have been easy pickings for the Mongols, who had readily conquered much larger polities and so would have picked off the divided kingdoms of Europe.

    In fact, the fragmentation of Europe was actually to its advantage, at least at first. Larger, more centrally-organised and more cohesive polities had fallen to the Mongols very quickly because of the rapid capture of a central capital, the defeat of a supreme leader or the capitulation of two or three vital centres, they precipitated the collapse of resistance. In Europe, the fall of Hungary and Poland may have caused alarm further west, but it had no greater impact than that. If the Mongols had managed to annex Croatia or even parts of the jigsaw of states that made up the German Empire, this would have had no effect elsewhere. And as the points above make clear, that piecemeal approach would not have been as easy as some armchair generals make out.

    Then there is the fact that western Christendom would not have remained disunited for long. Two hundred years earlier a much less rich, less populated and less militarily sophisticated western Europe had sent a succession of allied armies thousands of kilometres east to capture, against the odds, wide swathes of territories in the Middle East. The religious fervour of the Crusading movement had led to remarkable military feats and victories against the odds by armies from all over Europe, united by a fanatical zeal for (as they saw it) the defence of their faith.

    This zeal was still strong in the Thirteenth Century, so the idea that western Christendom would not harness that ideological power in the face of a threat not only to their homes but also to their local holy places - pilgrimage sites, holy shrines, cathedrals and monasteries - in the face of invasion by pagan hordes is unthinkable. And that level of religious fanaticism goes a long way when it's combined with patriotism and the protection of vested interests. The Mongol invasions of Syria and Mamluk Egypt were crushed by a similar combination and, along with the difficulties already noted above, this would be a massive force multiplier for the defenders of western Christendom.


    While it is possible to argue any hypothetical either way, the idea that the Mongols would simply roll westward to the sea is rarely based on a detailed analysis of the relevant factors. No other horse nomad invader managed a permanent extension of territory much beyond the Hungarian Basin, and for good reasons. The Mongols were more numerous and more militarily powerful than any of those predecessors, but the obstacles facing any longer term conquest of Europe were so formidable that it is highly unlikely they would ever had done more than inflict some short-term if devastating raids beyond Hungary. Medieval Europe would have been too tough a strategic nut for them to crack.
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  2. Celtic Skogsra

    Celtic Skogsra Heroic Member

    This is interesting but forgets the Chinese terrain was as variable as to stop the Mongols if Europe's was a barrier to nomad invasion. And the increasing willingness of Mongol rulers over time to depend upon mixed armies and foreign navies against opponents in southeast Asia and (intentionally) Japan. If the first Mongol invasions would've been easily foiled the Mongols would've adapted - could Europeans have withstood Chinese siege power? Not Chinese siege practices but experiment with Chinese technology such as gunpowder. Mongols are not Chinese, they were fast learners and risk takers. Which makes it odd they didn't make a more serious push further west, whether or not it were possible or advisable.

    People don't mention the Tatar yoke and its effect on Russia in discussions of the Mongols & Europe. Mongol rule connected cultures (not unlike Sicily, Andalucia & the Levantine Crusader states) so that Chinese government practices were brought to Russia and huge states were formed under Mongol influence. Had Mongols invaded Europe proper the legacy would've been more large stable states earlier whilst retaining Christianity as a religion. That said influences of Tengrism & Buddhism could only have been a good thing, look how Christianity in the Balkans was revitalised by the dualistic Bogomil heresy.
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  3. Celtic Skogsra

    Celtic Skogsra Heroic Member

    I think that guy from Quota is into 'west versus the rest' nonsense; of course he's right some people like to denigrate European history and ignore things like military tactics. But let's be honest, if the Mongols conquered the mountains and forests of China, and the nomadic Goths and Alans got into Gaul and Spain and North Africa with far smaller and less organised forces, no one can seriously question the possibility of Mongol invasion. Safest places would surely have been island states like England praying for a divine wind.

    Here's a thought: a Mongol-ruled successor state based on Byzantium. Orthodox Ottomans?
  4. Voxvot

    Voxvot Junior Member

    Well the original article somewhat addresses these points. My belief is that the Mongols would have inflicted severe damage and havoc for many decades, but would have suffered periodic crushing defeats. The final outcome wold be that Europe would have developed strategies to defeat the Mongols oust them from established bastions and would have innovated defensive systems that would have thwarted Mongol attacks
  5. Celtic Skogsra

    Celtic Skogsra Heroic Member

    The article doesn't address these points. The argument is based on the assumptions that European terrain is vastly different to China's and that Mongol armies did not adapt to new challenges. Both of these assumptions are clearly false; Mongols really did conquer forested areas of southeast Asia by raising non-Mongol armies. And don't forget this was in humid southeast Asia which is far worse for temperate peoples and their ponies, than a central European temperate forest. Horses in southeast Asia were a status symbol for elites and flourished only as domesticated animals in the uplands. If ethnic Turco-Mongol forces were hindered by European forests, infantry would easily have been brought in. Mongols certainly had no difficulty with European-type terrain when they encountered it in East Asia and areas of China were not equally cultivated or civilised as the Quora guy strangely assumes (why?).

    There is no reason to believe Mongols couldn't have progressed further west. Its just a weak counterargument because it requires false assumptions about natural & human geography, as well as Mongol armies.
    Last edited: 22 June 2015
  6. Voxvot

    Voxvot Junior Member

    The response to your points would be that the forested East Asian kingdoms lacked the military sophistication of the Europeans; inferior weapon technology and inferior fortifications. China had advanced weapons systems and fortifications, however they were not as advanced as European weapon systems and fortification systems...aaand, Mr Quora has explain that China was an Empire which suffered a coup d'etat. China was a dragon with one head, cut of the head and the dragon is dead, Europe was a many headed hydra. Vlad the Impaler, ruler of a mere principality, was able to resist the Muslim empire for decades, defeating Muslim armies on more than one occasion. The Mongols may have conquered Europe, I don't know, you seem to have a more polemical attitude to this question which I find strange.
  7. Celtic Skogsra

    Celtic Skogsra Heroic Member

    I dislike west versus the rest thinking; usually such people play unknowingly into the hands of the Jews, 'let's you and him fight'. Mostly this involves the Moslems, though. Anti-Mongolism seems to be dead for several centuries though its shadow is maybe revived in anti-Eurasianism & anti-Russian propaganda.

    Genghis Khan was awesome, just send me to Urga like the Baron. ;)

    I agree Europe was politically more like a patchwork quilt than was China, and this slowed down for example the Roman conquest of Iberia. It still doesn't change there was finally a conquest. In the long term, its not that relevant, the Tatar yoke actually helped centralise Russia despite the lack of political stability before.
  8. caamib

    caamib Member

    The problem with Mognols conquering Europe isn't so much terrain as fortifications. In 1242 German area you had about a 1,000 huge stone castles. Mongols would have immense trouble with capturing those, since they had even trouble with Hungarian castles in 1241/1242 and would usually just bypass them.
  9. Manu

    Manu SeƱor Member Sustaining Member
    1. Norden
    2. Knights of the Iron Cross

    It is not in the details, but in the big picture. Forests alone, nope. But I fundamentally agree with the analysis in the article.

    Europe wasn't ready for the mongols at all, in relative terms, but they still lost. The mongols could not have recruited enough europeans to fight for them. We were very christian and they were not. So what they did in China with auxiliaries/mercenaries would not work.

    Furthermore, we had castles. Real ones that could withstand months or years of siege. They lacked logistics for that, as the article clearly stated. It is true, no two ways about it. A horse army is HUNGRY and it is nearly always weak when it comes to sieges, because siege equipment would defeat the purpose of a mounted army: mobility. Mongol armies were built for field battles against infantry armies. Horse armies have crushed others in such scenarios since way before Caesar's time. When Crassus got his ass handed to him by the parthians, notably. We knew this. Castles was a countermeasure. Castles also allowed for bastion heavy weapons that threw nasty things far longer than a horse bow could shoot. Burning some fields in order to starve their horses and the mongols would soon be reduced to an unmounted state, having eaten their horses. Bow-legged horsemen of short stature do not make first-rate infantry.

    Networks of castles and large grain reserves would allow castle garrisons not under siege to raid enemy supply lines. And as stated, there were tens of thousands of castles. No way to siege them all simultaneously and keep such a massive supply line going.

    Which is why we won and they lost. Their offense got countered by a more effective defensive strategy. This is always the cas eventually. Just like the current status quo of air superiority and flying things will end soon, if it hasn't already, due to better defensive capabilities against it. I have suspected for years that this is why Russia is so daring.
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