Battle of Mohi. 1241 Mongol Invasion of Hungary. (“It’s a Trap!”)
This is a relatively little known battle but a classic culture clash scenario. The Mongols come riding out of the uttermost East and easily demonstrate how the West is going to be their bitch.
Medieval Europe is totally unready for the clinical military efficiency of the Mongols. These guys are like aliens. The Mongols fight in silence using flags for signalling. They happily lose skirmishes, retreat in apparent disarray and lure opponents into army sized ambushes. They readily adopt new technologies, endure huge forced marches, and are at ease with foreign advisors, genocide and horse blood energy drinks. And there is that whole thing about having the largest land empire in history.
The Mongols set their sights on Europe and move west, smashing Russia (in winter!), stomp through Poland and concentrate in Hungary. The Hungarian Army chases the Mongols away from (Buda)Pest and camp in a wagon laager some distance from the west bank of the Sajó river at Mohi. The Mongols are secretly encamped just on the other side of the river. That night a Hungarian detachment smashes a Mongol force on the bridge at Mohi. The Hungarians slap each other on the back while the Mongols begin crossing in force both up and downstream…
At dawn the Hungarian detachment is driven off by swarms of Mongols crossing the bridge and approaching from the north. Some Hungarian forces are dispatched from the camp to reinforce the bridge thinking it is a minor scrap, but encounter a major crossing in progress. They retreat and kick the rest of the troops out of bed and eventually return with the entire Hungarian army who slam into the Mongol centre and north wing. Surprisingly the Hungarian army does well and the Mongols are trapped with little room to manoeuvre against the river.
But then the Mongol south wing hits the flank and the Hungarians panic and flee back to their fortified camp. The camp is pin-cushioned by arrow storm and then flaming (possibly explosive) catapult missiles. A Hungarian sally out of the camp is shot to bits, they panic again and begin to flee west through a ‘convenient’ gap in the Mongol lines. Yep, it’s a trap, and the bulk of the Hungarian army is run down and wiped out. And Hungary suffers a year of genocidal occupation.
Yeah – that bad.
But why? Well, the Béla the IV, the Hungarian king, is a greedy cockhead and arrogant to boot. He has been rescinding land grants to nobles, so they hate him and many don’t answer the call to arms. The neighbouring Cumans have been fleeing before the Mongol advance for years and King Béla had taken them in, but failed to properly assimilate them. The Hungarians and Cuman immigrants are at each other’s throats and revolt breaks out shortly before the Mongols arrive, further reducing the fighting capacity of Hungary. Also the Hungarians regard the Mongols as primitive barbarians and don’t treat the threat as serious – BIG MISTAKE!!
There is no fast cure for being a cock, but any ruler with military pretensions (ie pretty much 99% of medieval kings) should be enquiring about potential invaders. Many of those Cuman refugees will be telling you about how they chased the Mongol raiders only to be led into an ambush. Shee-it, at least you will know they are an army of mounted archers, so wise up son. You are going to want a substantial missile component to your army, shield equipped infantry, and lottsa cavalry of your own.
To his credit King Béla does muster a varied force: some light & heavy cav, crossbows, mercenary infantry, and crap loads of spear armed militia. The crossbows and knights end up being quite effective against the Mongols. And the Hungarians use wagon laagers too – top marks. But can King Béla use these cool toys properly and avoid this epic slaughter? For a start he should drop the arrogant assumption that the Mongols are savages, AND scout their location properly.
Hungary fields light cavalry too. Not as good as the Mongols but still none- too-shabby. They should be used to scout the Mongol position. Find out where their main body is. Even if this means making an educated guess based on which location your scouts DON’T come back from.
When dealing with the Mongols you can always assume it is a trap. So when you find them crossing that bridge and chase them off, don’t cross the bridge and don’t just leave a few guys there – guard it properly- ie. with your whole freakin’ army! Move the camp to the bridge OR stay the hell away! The enemy is crazy mobile and can easily locate isolated forces and destroy them. Stay close together.
At least King Béla is slightly cautious – he is even criticised for his careful pursuit. The wagon laager does make his army less responsive and gives them a reason to retreat. But it is a sensible idea in the face of a very mobile opponent, IF it is combined with strong leadership (which, of course, it aint!)
When the army is alerted in the morning to a crossing of unknown size at the bridge, the Hungarians just send a small recce force while everyone else sleeps in. What a bunch of ‘effin douche bags!! Wake up your entire army and get ready for battle! It’s the Mongols- they are super mobile – assume the worst! Imagine if you hadn’t pissed off your nobles and thus had a crap load of knights AND that they’d all been ready that morning. When the recce returned, your counter punch would have trapped and smashed the Mongol army against the river. Shoulda, woulda, coulda – but didn’t.
OK so you flub the chance to exploit the one mistake the Mongols make. Their south wing turns up and serves up a right royal buttfucking. Y’all scarper back to camp: so just stay there. Take shelter from the fire arrows, put out the flames and don’t panic. You do have shields to hide under don’t you? And there is some sort of water supply here? Oh, you don’t have enough shields and the arrows are coming from all directions eh? Ouch. And not enough water either? Jeez Louise.
Yeah I’d probably panic too – but c’mon fellas, suck it up. Get those goddamn crossbowmen to shoot back, even the odds. Don’t even think about running for that obvious gap over there – the enemy are on horseback and you’ll be a Mongolian shish-kebab in no time. Unfortunately once you are in the laager, small forays/sorties don’t work either. The Mongols just back off and feather you up for your troubles. You are going to need massed missile fire to clear the way for a breakout, ideally bolting the 200 or so yards to take out their catapults. This will take organisation and some kind of shields too. But coordinating when your nobles don’t trust you, it’s raining arrows and your camp is on fire? Nup, won’t happen. You’re dead.
So rewind and either:
a) Move your entire army and camp at the bridge the night before (and probably get led into a different trap in a few days);
b) Bring more shields and missile weapons, build a better fortified camp near water, and don’t panic (but risk the Mongols disengaging and leading you into yet another trap);
c) Catch them sooner at the river in the morning and kick the shit out of 2/3rds of them.
Option c) is the clear choice, though you won’t really learn anything from this and will risk another invasion and epic defeat in a generation or so.
Ideally Béla could start with being a good king in the first place! Or better still, go for a ‘Cowpens’ type solution…ie. you know they will be laying an ambush, so you lay a counter ambush of massed cavalry waiting to the west to trap them against the river and your encampment. But that is a smidge too precognitive, even for the Armchair Corporal.
In Hungary’s defence, no one in the western hemisphere would have done much better on an open plain vs the Mongols. The eventual Mongol withdrawal is thought to have been due to frustrating sieges, losses in men, rebellions in the east, and the election of a new Great Khan.
Notably the Hungarian King actually learns from his mistakes! He treats his nobles better, encouraging them to build castles, so the next time the Mongols turn up (in 1285) they can only mill around, starving outside the stone walls, then bugger off back to the steppes, nursing crossbow wounds. King Béla comes to be known as the second founder of Hungary by doing one of those storybook changes of heart in the way he governs. Shame it took the estimated death of up to 25% of Hungary’s population to wise up.
Falkirk 1298, War of Scottish Independence. (Retreat to Victory)
OK you’ve all seen Braveheart where William Wallace fights the English. Wallace wins at Stirling Bridge but then, in the second battle at Falkirk, the dastardly Scottish nobles ride off leaving the Scottish peasantry to be shredded by the English. The movie is entertaining but about as historically accurate as Conan the Barbarian (which I like too by the way), but regardless, the Scots get hammered.
William Wallace’s army was avoiding battle, hoping to harry the English retreat from the north as Longshanks’ army quarrelled, starved and gave up in frustration. The Scottish position was betrayed by two nobles and Edward moved his army quickly to Falkirk. William drew up his army behind a marshy stream with a forest behind him. They formed into 4 spear-hedges with archers between each schiltron and the Scots’ noble cavalry in the rear.
The English army was probably twice the size of the Scottish. It rode around the marsh on either flank. The Scottish cavalry were either driven off and/or left the field deserting the infantry. The Scottish archers were destroyed but their spearmen easily repulsed the English cavalry. But then Edward brings up his Irish slingers and Welsh longbow men and the Scots get well and truly shafted.
The Armchair Corporal is here to rewrite the script and stick it to Edward Longshanks. Two betrayals don’t make it easy for the Scots so Mr Wallace could do with a wee bit of friendly advice…
Oi, fuckwit -don’t fight such a huge English army! You were doing well, the English were quarrelling, getting hungry and you were ruthless enough to scorched-earth ‘em. And then ya go and try ‘n take ‘em on!
Sure they “surprised” you, but I doubt your scouts didn’t see an army of 12000+ approaching. You don’t have to fight, so pull back ya nobber. Fight a smaller army, later. No doubt after Stirling Bridge you were full of fighting spirit and probably wouldn’t mind a scrap. So we’ll tolerate your stupidity, cue the war drums/bagpipes and assume the biff is on…
⦁ Spears – top marks. Rumour has it you actually reinvented the spear hedge (schiltron) with no prior knowledge of the technique from ancient times, bravo. Total shame that Edward is discovering the longbow at the same time.
⦁ You also have Archers – excellent! Only 1500 or so but better than naught.
⦁ Nobles with Cavalry – check! Shame that there’s not many of them and they are TOTALLY FUCKING UNRELIABLE! Two defect and blab to the English and the rest bugger off when the going gets tough. Surely they were twirling their moustaches with ominous theme music whilst your comic relief sidekicks overhear them plotting against you?
The location: sheesh. Yeah it’s ok-ish. A marsh to the front and a forest to the rear. But the marsh doesn’t cover your flanks at all. And that forest is a ways back and up a hill too.
Deployment: meh, it sucks. Archers by themselves will work a hundred years later when you have thousands of kick-arse longbow men behind stakes or entrenchments. Your Scottish archers are literally speedbumps for the knights galloping between the spear-hedges. And you are positioned such that you don’t contest the stream crossing, and that the forest doesn’t protect your rear. You could have had one of these terrain advantages but you chose neither.
So get your archers inside the schiltrons. Yes the spear hedge won’t be quite so spikey but it will also shoot! And you don’t have shields – seriously? OK sure holding a pike needs two hands, and massed archery is new here, but most armies do have ranged weapons and standing unprotected is just asking for it. *shakes head* Moving right along…park your shooty schiltrons either near the stream or near the forest. Let’s go for the fighty option and defend the stream.
The English go around the marsh so the spear hedges on the flanks move left and right to counter, hopefully intercepting the cavalry as it crosses the water and exacting a heavy toll. The English will go wider still and cross the stream. Your cocknut Scots cavalry gallops away, and you are again left surrounded wishing you were defending at the forest’s edge! The English missile troops approach but you can forget about any archery duel with your outnumbered & hedged in bowmen. Don’t just stand there! Start shuffling, in formation, uphill to the forest. The Knights can’t touch you yet and the Welsh archers have to get around the marsh to catch up. The Scottish army will be a pin-cushioned clusterfuck by the time they reach the trees, but should just make it before being ridden down and annihilated.
Yep, it is no glorious win, but it’s NOT the arse paddling you actually got handed either. And the English still withdraw from Scotland afterwards anyway, so now it’s a strategic victory! Close up of winning smile and teeth gleam here. Dolly back to a shot of William Wallace and co. romping across the highlands chasing retreating English troops, followed by a montage of Scottish lords getting their just desserts. Roll credits and include “Battlefield Advice – Armchair Corporal” in large comic sans font.
Poiters 1356, The One Hundred Year’s War. (Tin-can head-butt)
French kniggits versus the English again. It has only been a decade since the humiliation of Crécy and have the French thought long and hard about how to beat a longbow army?
The French army has finally caught up to Edward the Black Prince’s chevauchée near Poiters. The English troops are starving but have their backs to a wood and a defensive hedge to fight behind. Thinking the English are withdrawing, two formations of French knights charge the flanking archers and men at arms. The French knights have half-hearted assistance from crossbowmen. The knights cop a harrowing arrowing which roots up their horses and then they have to attack a defended hedge line. The right flank knights are easily driven off and the left flank make it to the hedge but are mauled by English men at arms.
Then the French send in a formation of dismounted knights led by the Dauphin. They waddle through the arrow storm into the English centre. After enduring a lengthy hand to hand, smash ‘em up derby, they withdraw towards Poiters, but the second French column of fresh infantry inexplicably follows them off the battlefield! The French king and his third wave charge in, assisted by crossbowmen. But the Black Prince has sent out units of cavalry to attack the French in the rear and flanks. The Anglo Gascon cavalry, smash into the French…they run for it and are cut down and their king is captured – game over.
Seriously, just read my Agincourt or Crécy do-overs, ‘cos a stoopid frontal attack on a prepared longbow army = epic fail. Withdraw, let the English get on the move again, and then ambush ‘em. Crossbows on the flanks, and cavalry charge the front/rear. Better still, just wait! The English army is starving. Wait another few days, blocking any retreats, and they’ll probably just capitulate.
If you insist on fighting here- DON’T! It is terrible ground! The English are on a gentle hill with a forest covering their rear. They are very hard to outflank with archers on both ends of their line, and protected by trenches at one end, marshy ground at the other and a hedge in the middle. Don’t fight here!
Oh ok – you really insist on doing it here… (“Sacré bleu!”)
Firstly tell those pushy “attack now” noble dipshits to shut-the-fuck-up! And forget putting the Princes into separate squadrons: keep them with you so you aren’t worried for their safety.
Now get your army coordinated. Give your crossbowmen time to get in position. Get them to focus on the English right flank – shoot those archers behind the trenches. Meanwhile your dismounted knights need to be assembling in a huge arc around the English lines. Some going beyond the English right flank, around the trenches and through the forest, some going through the trenches (yeah that’ll suck), and the rest pile into the hedge line and have-at-it.
Basically spread out and hit the ENTIRE English line at once. The flanking English archers will have to concentrate on saving themselves thus allowing the rest of the French to hit the English line mostly intact. A sizable reserve of cavalry, with the king and his sons, is kept back ready to exploit any breakthrough and to stop any rear attacks (by Anglo-Gascon cavalry for example).
So the English archery is kept busy defending itself, and the battle becomes a plain old trial of arms (aka. butchery) letting the French bring their superior numbers to bear. The French will still be attacking a defended position BUT there’ll be no entire divisions “accidentally” wandering off the battlefield in confusion. The original French plan was like a bunch of baddies waiting their turn to individually attack (and get clobbered by) a martial artist. Now everyone simultaneously attacks everywhere – a ‘Point and Click’ plan so simple that even French knights can’t stuff it up.