The torture of the Kievan princes after their capture in the battle of the river Kalka, in a modern artwork.
By Periklis Deligiannis
CONTINUED FROM PART I
The main dispute between the Russian princes concerned their doubt if they should cross to the left bank of the Dnieper, and then march in the open steppe. Many believed that they should not do it, in order not to give battle in an excellent battlefield for the Mongol cavalry. Although the opposite point of view prevailed, the aforementioned estimation proved to be the right one. Indeed, Subotai and Djebe intended to lure the Russo-Cuman army deep into the steppe, surround it there and destroy their enemies. When the allies had marched enough into the steppe, into the land of the Cumans/Kipchaks, the Mongols began to wear their army with sudden deadly attacks of small detachments.
On 31 May 1223, the allied army arrived in the area of the river Kalka, whose site is still unknown. However it is strongly believed to be the modern small river Kalchik in eastern Ukraine, pouring into the Sea of Azov. The Mongols were now very close and the Russians clashed with their vanguard, which they repulsed. After this first success, the allied princes he ld consultations in a war council about whether they had to march further or stay there and prepare for defense. It was the most turbulent council, with intense disagreements and conflicts. Eventually the princes did not agree. The aggressive Mstislav of Galicia crossed the Kalka River with his army, along with his tributary Danilo of Volynia, determined to go alone on the march. Soon they were followed by Mstislav Sviatoslavovich with the army of Chernigov and Smolensk. The Cuman/Kipchak horsemen were marching in front of the Galician-Volynian troops. The Cumans who also insisted on the march, wanting to rid their homeland of the Mongol invaders, were the vanguard of the allied army. Kalka river was in the Cuman territory.
However the allied forces were broken up, because the numerous army of Kiev was left behind after his own prince Mstislav had refused to follow the march. But also between the marching allied armies, large gaps were turn up. This was the opportunity that Subotai awaited so patiently for. He immediately ordered the attack of his murderous nomad riders, who until then were retreating purportedly to lure the allies into their trap.
Map of the battle of Kalka river.
Legend: gray color: Mongols. Red color: Allies: 1 = Kievans, 2 = Chernigovians & Smolenskians, 3 = Volynians & Galicians, 4 = Kipchaks/Cumans.
Subotai Bahadur commanded the right Mongolian wing of envelopment and Djebe Noyon commanded the left one.
The Kipchaks who followed the Mongols close behind were their first victims. The Mongols made a sudden about-face movement and attacked annihilating them with arrows and spears. The Mongols attacked the allied army with formations of envelopment: the centre of their cavalry attacked the Cumans (and then the Russians) in front, while their two side wings were performing simultaneously an envelopment maneuver. In this battle, Subotai commanded the right wing and Djebe commanded the left one. Thus the Mongol attacking cavalry resembled to a giant pincer that embraced the enemy army and destroyed its parts one by one. Very few opposing armies managed to save themselves from these high tactics of the Mongols. Having crushed the Cumans, the screaming Tatars/Mongols fell upon the Galician-Volynian vanguard consisting of the Volynians of Danilo. The brave Danilo galloped at the forefront to hold the Mongolian attack, but he was wounded in the chest. Mstislav Nemoy who followed with the Volynian main body was cast into the battle to save his comrades, but soon his men were decimated by the Mongol arrows. Soon the Volynian survivors were flanked and encircled by the nomads.
When Mstislav Mstislavovich who followed with his own Galicians, realized the trap, gave the order to stop the march, fly the banners high and prepare for battle. But it was too late. The surviving Kipchaks, galloping to escape slaughter, caused confusion among the Galicians who in any case were unable to prepare for battle in time. Oleg of Kursk who led the vanguard of the body of Chernigov-Smolensk which followed at a distance, rushed with his men to enforce the Galicians-Volynians. But he failed to reverse the situation. After a brief and bloody conflict, the Volynian, Galician and Chernigovian Russians succumbed to the Mongolian impetuosity and began to retreat back to the river Kalka suffering heavy losses. The Seljuk Turks implemented essentially the same dual tactics of feigned retreat and then lightning counterattack envelopment and encirclement, against the Byzantines in the battle of Manzikert (1071), to cite just one of the numerous examples of implementation of these nomadic tactics in historical battles.
The Kievans under their wise ruler Mstislav Romanovich, who did not cross the river, watched anxiously the battle. They had enough time only to get their arms and armor and prepare for battle, when the Mongols crossed the Kalka river and started to gallop against them. It was too late to fight back the winners of the battle and all they sought was their organized retreat under the defensive coverage of the wagons of their convoy. Subotai immediately sent his officers Teshukhan and Chigirkhan to cut off their retreat, while he and Djebe continued their pursuit of the defeated Russians. The Galician-Volynian survivors were retreating to the west, to the Dnieper, their boats and their salvation. The Chernigovians and Smolenskians chose to retreat to their country which lied directly to the North. But they did not succeed in their quest. The Mongols cut off their retreat and massacred them, together with their prince Mstislav and his son. The only survivors of this Russian army was approximately 1,000 men of Smolensk under their able prince Vladimir, who fell to the northwest reaching finally exhausted the Dnieper, where they managed to repel the Tatars. The same was accomplished by the Galician-Volynian survivors who managed to reach their boats. Until the last moment, Prince Mstislav the Brave was under the danger of been killed by the Mongols, of whom he managed to escape by paddling in the Dnieper.
Meanwhile, the besieged Kievans were trying desperately to break through the Mongol cluster, with bold but unsuccessful attacks. Some small groups tried to escape during the night but they were decimated by the Mongol archers-skirmishers. Simultaneously, the Mongols unleashed attacks to crush the Kievan resistance. Three days later, Subotai who returned from the pursuit of the other Russian armies, suggested to Mstislav of Kiev to let them go in exchange of rich ransom. The Kievan ruler had no choice as the water supplies of his army were already exhausted. He accepted the proposal of the Mongol general, but when the Kievans got out of their defensive fortifications, Subotai broke his promise and his men killed many Russians and captured most of the survivors. This treachery was Subotai’s revenge for the murder of the Mongol envoys. The Mongol general took ferocious revenge especially against Mstislav and the other Kievan princes who he had captured. His men tied them hand and foot, stacked them in heaps, and placed over them a heavy dais (platform) made of tree trunks. Subotai, Djebe and the other Mongol army officers lunched, drunk and amused themselves on the platform, while the Kievan princes were dying one by one from suffocation.
However the Mongols also had heavy losses because of the stubborn Russian resistance. So Subotai who after all did not intend to attack the Russian principalities, ordered the retreat of his army to the east bank of the great river Volga. From there he ordered the return of his troops in Central Asia, where he met Genghis Khan and the Mongol imperial headquarters on the banks of the great river Syr Darya. There he gave a full report to Genghis on the results of his campaign, winning the praise of the great conqueror. Indeed, Subotai was one of the greatest commanders of all times.
Russian cataphracts by Angus McBride (credit Angus McBride/Osprey Publishing).
According to the Russian literary tradition, 90% of Russian and Cuman warriors were killed in the battle of the Kalka river and during the subsequent persecutions and conflicts. This figure is rather true, mainly because of the Mongol custom of killing at once the defeated enemies and not detaining prisoners of war (except the aristocrats, whom the nomads wanted to exploit for ransom). Therefore, the surviving Russians and Kipchaks did not exceed the figure of 8,000. Two of the three High princes called Mstislav were killed, along with ten Russian tributary princes. Mstislav the Brave, of Galicia was saved. However he was the main responsible for the defeat. On the other hand, Mstislav of Kiev who insisted firmly in favor of careful strategy and tactics against the crafty Mongols, lost his life.
- Fennell, John: The Crisis of Medieval Russia 1200-1304. London and New York, 1983.
- Gabriel, Richard: Subotai The Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General, 2004.
- Jackson, Peter: The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410. Pearson Education Limited, 2005.