Subutai (Subetei, Subetai, Sübeedei; Classic Mongolian: Sübügätäi or Sübü'ätäi; 1176–1248) also known as Subetai the Valiant was the primary strategist and general of Genghis Khan (Temüjin) and Ögedei Khan. The son of a blacksmith, he rose through the ranks and directed more than twenty campaigns 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 more than three hundred miles away from each other. He is most remembered for devising the battle plan that destroyed the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, by forces almost a thousand miles apart. Subutai is regarded in history as one of Genghis Khan's and the Mongol Empire's most prominent generals in terms of ability, tactics and loyalty, helping with the military campaigns in Asia and Eastern Europe. He commanded many successful attacks and invasions during his time and was rarely defeated. Under Batu Khan he extended Mongol rule into Kievan Rus', the Crimea, part of the Balkans and defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi. Mongols remained in control of some of the Russian territories he conquered for the next three centuries.
When Batu returned to Mongolia for the election of the new Great Khan in 1242, Subatai did not accompany him nor did he press home his advantage in Europe. Had he done so, European history would have taken a different direction. Before his death in 1248, he led the Mongol campaign in China. Subatai played a major role in helping to establish the largest contiguous Empire in human history, which his master believed Heaven had commanded by Heaven to conquer. That empire would leave an indelible mark on world history. Several centuries of Mongol rule across the Eurasian landmass — a period that some refer to as Pax Mongolica — radically altered the demography and geopolitics of these areas. As a result of Subatai's conquests, a huge territory was unified under a stable and peaceful rule and by the Yasa legal code. Across the empire, merit could earn promotion regardless of ethnicity, religious liberty was in the main upheld, trade flourished and contact along the Silk Road reminded Europeans that the East was home to a great civilization and that Europe were not at the center of all human progress and development.
Historians believe Subutai was born between the years of 1160–1170, 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. Subutai joined Genghis Khan while still a teenager. Within a decade he rose to become one of the senior officers, commanding one of four roving detachments operating ahead of the main forces. In 1212 he took Huan by storm, the first major independent exploit mentioned in the sources.
Subutai was proof that the Mongol Empire, more than any that had preceded it, was a meritocracy. He was the son of Qaban, who was supposedly a blacksmith, which was a not considered a nobility. 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 directly related to the Khan. Genghis Khan called him one of his four "dogs of war", namely Jelme, Kubilai Khan, Jebe and Subutai. His title "Bagatur" (The Valiant) was awarded when he became a member of the imperial guard; it means "knight" but also "Valiant" and although promoted to higher rank, Subutai was known by this title until his death.
Subutai was one of the first Mongol generals besides Genghis Khan who realized the value of engineers in siege warfare. Even in the field, he made use of siege engines, much as the Chinese troops had in earlier campaigns. For instance, at the Battle of Mohi, the Hungarian crossbowmen had during the night defeated a bridge crossing by the Mongols, inflicted considerable casualties, and offered particularly fierce resistance to the Mongol forces fighting to cross the river the following day. Subutai ordered huge stonethrowers to clear the bank of crossbowmen and open the path for his light cavalry to attack without further such losses. This novel attack was the first use in the West of such weapons as a form of tactical artillery. While the stonethrowers were clearing the path to cross the main bridge, Subutai supervised construction of a temporary, emergency bridge downriver to outflank the Hungarians. These tactics were new to the forces he faced in Europe and the steppe, and they were unprepared to meet them.
Subutai was also well known for incorporating conquered peoples into his forces, especially engineers, who brought specialized skills. He turned the gathering of intelligence and planning in advance into a fine art. 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 the foe he faced, altering his tactics according to the opponents, the terrain, and the weather. He emphasized the use of light cavalry in his army, and made sure that his troops were both mobile and self-sufficient. Usually he maneuvered the enemy into a position of weakness before accepting battle.
During the European campaigns, the once trim Subutai was so heavy that horses could not easily bear his weight. But he was so valued on the battlefield that Batu Khan had him carried to the field in a cart or wagon. Unlike European or Japanese armies, which valued personal valor in a commander above all else, the Mongols valued strategic ability and the skill to make tactical adjustments in the heat of battle above all else in their leaders. Whereas western commanders like Richard the Lionheart literally rode to battle at the head of his men, Subutai and Batu Khan sat on a hill, far from the engagement, where they could direct the flow of battle with flags. This was one reason among many that Subutai was rarely defeated, like the Khans he advised. It should further be noted that Subutai was 65 years old during the European campaign, an old age in that era for a military commander.
First campaigns in the West
Genghis Khan sent Subutai to hunt down the Merkits. Subutai defeated them along the Chu River in 1216 and again in 1219 in Wild Kipchaq territory. Mohammad II of Khwarizm attacked Subutai shortly afterwards along the Irghiz. Subutai held him off after a stiff battle and a piece of deception. Genghis Khan led the Mongol army westwards in late 1219 to attack Khwarizm. Subutai commanded the advance guard of the main column. With 70,000 or so armed men, the Mongol army was far stronger than anything Mohammad II could hope to field. He attempted to save himself by fleeing into central Persia. Genghis Khan sent Subutai and Jebe with 10,000 men to hunt him down. Mohammad eluded capture, but he fell ill and died 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. 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. By means of underhand diplomacy, Subutai defeated the Alans and Don Kipchaqs in detail. He crushed a Rus army along the Kalka (31 May 1223), but a raid into Volga Bulgar territory ended with a defeat. Subutai received reinforcements and subsequently subjected the Wild Kipchaqs and the Kanglis. Finally, he rejoined Genghis Khan as the Mongol army was making its way back home.
Against Xia and Jin
Subutai played a key part in the campaign against 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 Honan 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’ieh’ling (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 to get help to complete the job. It did not take the Song long to fall out with the Mongols. Two Song armies seized Kaifeng and Loyang during the summer of 1234. The Mongols returned and drove off the Song.
The second series of Western campaigns
Ögedei decided to send a major part of the army into the western regions to finally crush the Wild Kipchaqs and Bulgars. Subutai was tasked to direct the operations (under the overall command of prince Batu). He defeated Kipchaq 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 subject 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), Kornstadt (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.
Attack on central and eastern Europe
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 retreat, where he would be able to have them picked off at will by Mongol archery snipers. The inviting gap in the Mongol lines was an invitation to flee, which would leave the Knights and crossbowmen spread out all over the countryside, (as they were led to a swamp, which was poor footing for horses, and hard going for infantry), and easy pickings for the disciplined Mongols. As Subutai had planned, the fleeing Hungarians poured through this apparent hole in the Mongol lines, which led to a swampy area. When the Hungarian knights split up, the Mongol archers picked them off at will, and 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 (some sources say a many as 80,000. At one stroke, the bulk of Hungarian fighting men were totally destroyed, with relatively minimal casualties to the Mongols, although the exact number is unknown.<
By late 1241, Subutai was discussing plans to invade the Holy Roman Empire, when the news came of the death of Ögedei Khan. The Mongols withdrew, as the Princes of the blood were required to do, as was Subutai, to Mongolia. As noted previously, only the death of the Great Khan prevented the attack on the remainder of Europe. Hartog observes that if the Great Khan had not died and Subutai had pressed on towards the Atlantic, no army could have stood in his way. Batu did not actually attend the Assembly when he heard that Guyuk Khan's succession was assured but returned to his capital, Saria on the Volga.
Subutai was removed from commanding the European invasions by Guyuk Khan after his ascension to the Khanate, but placed in charge of the campaign against the Song Dynasty in 1246, at 70 years old. Most historians believe this transfer was not to denigrate the generalship of Subutai during the European campaigns - indeed, it was the opposite. Guyuk had no love for Batu, and wanted the best of the Mongol Generals elsewhere, and not available to Batu if the feud between the two came to open war. Subutai campaigned against the Song in 1246-1247. He then returned to Mongolia, where he died at age 72 in 1248. Cummins says that he retired to his herds and "like many another old general, simply 'faded away'."
Turnbull describes Subutai as "one of Genghis Khan's most celebrated generals" whose memory is honored by a statue in Ulan Batur. The Battle of Mohi is widely regarded as his greatest victory, of which "any great commander" could be proud. It is considered one of the world's most decisive battles.
Subatai can be regarded as one of the greatest military strategists in history. He played a major role in helping to establish the largest contiguous Empire in human history. Without him, says Gabriel, whose biography draws on the Secret History of the Mongols there would have been "no Mongol conquest of Korea, China, Perisa, Russia or of Hungary." Gabriel, who thinks that Subutai's life has been neglected in the West, says that much of the "theory and practice of modern military operations was first used by Subutai and his Mongol armies" so that his "legacy is living history." His leader, Genghis Khan, believed that it was his heaven-sent duty to "rule over the world." By leading the Mongol invasion of Europe, Subatai reminded Europeans that the East was home to a great civilization and that Europe were not at the center of all human progress and development and that their armies were far from invincible.
The empire which Subutai did much to create would leave an indelible mark on world history. Several centuries of Mongol rule across the Eurasian landmass — a period that some refer to as Pax Mongolica — radically altered the demography and geopolitics of these areas. As a result of Subatai's conquests, a huge territory was unified under a stable and peaceful rule and by the Yasa legal code. Across the empire, merit earned promotion regardless of ethnicity, religious liberty was widely practiced, trade flourished and contact along the Silk Road opened a cultural and diplomatic bridge between East and West. There were also, of course, more negative aspects of Subutai's legacy; Gabriel argues that three centuries of Mongol rule in Russia penetrated the Russian psyche so that "absolute power used absolutely" became the dominant political model, while "the liberating ideas and ideals of the Renaissance never reached Russia in sufficient force to influence its development."
- George Lane, Genghis Khan and Mongol rule (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004, ISBN 9780313325281), 28, note 20.
- Richard A. Gabriel, Genghis Khan's Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant (Westport, CT: Praegar, 2004, ISBN 9780275975821), 38.
- Harold Lamb, Genghis Khan The Emperor Of All Men (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1927), 45.
- Michael Prawdin, The Mongol empire: its rise and legacy (New Brunswick, NJ: AldineTransaction, 2006, ISBN 9781412805193), 270.
- Leo de Hartog, Genghis Khan: conqueror of the world (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 1999, ISBN 9780760711927), 180.
- Joseph Cummins, History's great untold stories: obscure events of lasting importance (London, UK: Murdoch Books, 2006, ISBN 9781740458085), 45.
- Stephen R. Turnbull, The Mongols (London, UK: Osprey, 1980, ISBN 9780850453720), 75.
- Cummins, 2006, 44.
- Gabriel, 2004, xi.
- Igor de Rachewiltz, The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2004. ISBN 9789004131590).
- Gabriel, 2004, xii.
- de Hartog, 1999, 146.
- Gabriel, 2004.
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All links retrieved February 26, 2023.
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