Battle of the Kalka River, 1223 AD
In the early 13th century, a great cataclysm was about the engulf much of the known world.
The storm that would be unleashed was on a scale that was never seen before in history and would not be equaled again. It came in the form of the “riders from hell”, as they were called. Nomadic warriors that the Muslims would describe as the “the scourge of God” and the Christians as “Gog and Magog” – divine punishment.
They were the Mongolic tribes.
The Mongols were nomadic tribes inhabiting the vast steppes of Northeast Asia, living a harsh lifestyle.
Lacking towns of any kind, the fragmented Mongolic tribes that were constantly on the move, were held together by local chiefs that rose to prominence through their charisma and personal abilities. In the early 13th century the unruly and hardy tribes were united for the first time in their history under the iron grip of a charismatic leader, Genghis Khan. Genghis didn’t simply unify the tribes but also introduced a novel political and social structure to the Mongols.
Under his strict and unforgiving leadership, the full menace of the unified tribes was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.
From 1206 and onwards Genghis waged a bloody war against his eastern and southern neighbors in Central and Further Asia.
This expansion eventually brought Genghis into contact with another constantly expanding state.
Τhe Khwarezmian Empire had already under its control so much territory that dominated most of the eastern Islamic World.
At that time Genghis didn’t want to expand eastwards since he was occupied with his conquest of China.
But the Khwarezmian ruler, being deeply suspicious of Mongol activity near his borders and even more so when he was approached by Mongol envoys that were requesting a trade agreement, proceeded to execute them, thus setting into motion a course of events that would bring his empire into ruin.
The execution of envoys was a direct affront to Genghis’ prestige.
In response, the Mongol ruler left behind a small detachment to oversee military operations in China and turned the Mongol war machine west.
What followed were three years of unprecedented carnage and destruction. From 1219 to 1221 most of the great cities of the Khwarezmian Empire were destroyed and their population slaughtered.
The fleeing Khwarezmian sultan was closely pursued by a Mongol detachment under two generals, Jebe and Subutai.
After an epic chase across Asia and the subsequent death of the Khwarezmian ruler, the Mongol commanders had now reached the steppes of modern-day southern Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, Subutai received an order from Genghis Khan.
He was to march his army far to the north, cross the Caucasus Mountains and attack the Cuman Khanate that had previous quarrels with the Mongols.
The plan was to march against the Cumans, attack them from the rear and then return around the northern side of the Caspian Sea to rejoin the main Mongol army.
Battle of the Kalka River, 1223 AD
Before the Mongols embarked on their campaign against the Cumans though, they invaded the Kingdom of Georgia intending to reconnoiter and plunder the area, in late 1221, advancing through the Kura river.
A 30.000 men strong Georgian army assembled to face the invaders but were wiped out after the Mongols employed their favorite tactic of feigned retreat, luring the Georgians into a trap.
After their triumph, the Mongols proceeded to plunder the southern parts of the kingdom.
In late 1222, Jebe and Subutai began crossing the Caucasus Mountains with the aid of local captives that were used as guides. Meanwhile, news of the approaching Mongols reached the Cumans, who in response formed an alliance of local tribesmen, living north of the Caucasus.
The alliance mustered an army of around 50.000 men and took up positions near the points at which the passes of the Caucasus Mountains entered the northern Valleys.
The ensuing battle was indecisive since both armies employed similar tactics and the Cumans were almost equally skilled horse archers as the Mongols.
Eventually, the Mongols resorted to deception. Subutai sent an embassy to the Cumans convincing them that they did not seek battle while reminding them of the Turkic-Mongol friendship and promising a share of the booty gained from their previous campaigns.
As soon as the Cumans abandoned the alliance, the Mongols proceeded to attack and annihilate the local tribes. Then they chased after those who fled, defeating them in a great battle near the River Don.
The surviving Cuman leader, Khan Koten, fled to the court of his son-in-law prince Mstislav Mstislavic who was the ruler of the Rus Kingdom of Galicia.
At this point, local Russian princes had already heard about the Mongol invaders but had not taken any military measures to face this threat. Koten Khan, on behalf of all the Cumans, asked Mstislav to help defend his people and warned him of the impending doom.
Implored by his father-in-law, Mstislav of Galicia appealed to all the Russian princes to assemble for a council in Kyiv.
The Cumans offered gifts and warned that after the Mongols had defeated them, they would next devastate Russian lands. Mstislav agreed, reminding the other Russian princes that if they did not help, the Cumans might join forces with the Mongols, rendering a potential invasion of their lands even more dangerous.
Faced with these dilemmas, the Russian princes agreed to form an alliance and march together against the invaders. In March 1223, the Russian princes went back to their homes to prepare and recruit for the forthcoming campaign.
At the beginning of April, the campaign had begun. Three groups lead by Mstislav Romanovich of Kyiv, Mstislav Svyatoslavich of Chernigov, and Mstislavic of Galicia-the architect of the coalition, marched towards the agreed rendezvous point, some 50 miles south-east of Kiev.
From there the coalition armies marched along the river Dnieper and eventually met up with the main Cuman army that arrived from the south. The combined Russian-Cuman coalition army numbered around 80.000 men, which was huge by the standards of the era.
Battle of the Kalka River, 1223 AD
However, there was no unified command and few of these troops were battle-hardened professionals, with the majority being local militias.
Around this point the Mongols sent envoys to the Russian princes, informing them that they didn’t have any quarrel with them but with the Cumans, going as far as to propose an alliance between them and the Russians against the Cumans.
Aware of their prior treachery, the Russians didn’t take the bait, sensing that this was an attempt to split the coalition.
Suspecting that the Mongol ambassadors were spies, they promptly seized and executed them.
In a repetition of the events that brought about the downfall of the Khwarezmians, the Mongols were now determined to fight.
It was May 1223, when prince Mstislavic of Galicia led a vanguard across the Dnieper River where they attacked the forward elements of the Mongol army.
The result was an astounding Russian victory with the Mongols fleeing into the steppes.
Prince Mstislavic pursued them, capturing their commander who was immediately executed. After a few more successful skirmishes, the coalition commanders felt confident to take their armies across the Dnieper River and press into the steppes beyond, which at the time were unknown lands for them.
Their minor successes probably lulled them into a false sense of security, especially given the fact that the Mongol army was significantly smaller than their own, numbering no more than 23.000 men.
The outnumbered nomadic warriors continued to retreat when confronted by the large host, luring them deeper and deeper into the steppes.
While the coalition army was chasing after the retreating Jebe and Subutai, opinions within their command structure began to differ about the next course of action.
Mstislavic of Galicia insisted on pursuing the enemy, but Prince Romanovich of Kiev urged caution and suggested that they should stop chasing after the fleeing Mongols.
Nevertheless, the coalition commanders disregarded Romanovich’s concerns and continued to press deeper into the steppe lands. For nine days the Mongols fell back in face of the allied advance until on 31 May 1223, the allied army reached the banks of the Kalka River.
Following another minor skirmish, during which the Mongols were again defeated, the Russian princes began arguing again on whether the army should stop now, or move on beyond yet another barrier of water. The arguing continued till noon, but the quarreling princes could not reach an agreement.
Eventually, the Cumans who were the most eager to chase after the apparently retreating Mongols began crossing the river Kalka accompanied by the army of Mstislavic and followed by the army of Svyatoslavich of Chernigov.
The allied army advanced towards Kalka in 4 divisions.
The Cumans acted as the vanguard and the flank guard of the Russian columns, while the Galicians and the division from Chernigov formed the main body of the army.
The more cautious Prince of Kiev marched slowly due to his disagreement over tactics and his army remained on the opposite bank of the River. Eventually, the Cuman vanguard met the Mongol outposts which they overwhelmed, forcing them to flee in three directions.
This triumph encouraged the impetuous Cumans to dash forward and chase after the dispersed Mongols, with Prince Mstislavic following close behind.
The men of Svyatoslavich though were still crossing the river, while the Prince of Kiev was further behind on the western bank.
Subutai bided his time and waited until the gaps between the separate divisions of the allied army had grown large enough. When just about half of the allied army had crossed the River
Subutai ordered his men to attack the Russian column from all sides.
During that day almost half of the Mongol army was composed of heavy cavalry which Subutai used quite effectively.
Discarding traditional Mongol tactics of skirmishing with horse archers first, the Mongol commander attacked the incoming Cuman vanguard from all sides with massed heavy cavalry.
The Cumans were almost entirely composed of lightly armored horse archers and were totally hemmed in. With both the River and the allies at their back, they could neither maneuver nor retreat and were totally enveloped and overrun.
Battle of the Kalka River, 1223 AD
The hunters had become the hunted… The retreating Cumans now had nowhere to run and they smashed into the second division of Russians totally disordering them.
In the ensuing chaos, the Mongol left and the right-wing was now ordered into action.
Jebe charged the disorganized men of the coalition from the north, while the Mongol left wing attacked from the south.
It was a complete disaster for the Russians. The panic-stricken men in the frontlines had nowhere to retreat and as a result trampled thousands of their own men, while the Mongols were relentlessly mowing down anyone in front of them. Soon, the coalition army had devolved into a disorganized mob, and all traces of cohesion and discipline had vanished.
Within a few hours, thousands were killed while the remnants of the allies fled in all directions.
Meanwhile, the army of Prince Romanovich saw the unfolding disaster and immediately ordered his men to set up a defensive position by surrounding themselves with a line of wagons.
Some of the fugitives tried to join the Kievans, but the Mongols cut them off.
After crushing the 3 allied divisions Subutai and Jebe enveloped the wagons of the army of Romanovich on all sides.
The leader of Kiev attempted to resist the onslaught with the fortifications while also trying to move gradually westwards towards the Dnieper.
But it was a hopeless situation, with the Mongols relentlessly showering the Kievans with arrows.
For three horrific days, the army of Romanovich endured, amidst the cries of their dying comrades who littered the battlefield around them.
With water running out, prince Mstislav had little choice but to surrender when the Mongol commanders promised that no blood would be spilled. But as soon as the Kievans left their fortifications, the Mongols slaughtered some of them and imprisoned the rest.
The surviving nobles were eventually executed in a sadistic way. The Mongols tied them up and threw them beneath a wooden surface made out of heavy timbers, upon which they feasted in celebration of their triumph.
The defeat was catastrophic, and the Kievan Rus never fully recovered.
while the Cumans seized to be a considerable political entity after the battle.
Losses were around 60.000 to 70.000 men for the coalition, a casualty rate of almost 90%.
On the other hand, Mongol losses were minimal.
After their triumph, Subutai and Jebe retreated back across the steppes north of the Caspian Sea, thus completing the greatest cavalry raid in history.
The Mongols would return in a decade with a massive horde, and will not stop on the borders of Russian principalities.