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The Battle of Legnica

The Battle of Legnica

The Battle of Legnica, also known as the Battle of Liegnitz or Battle of Wahlstatt, was a battle which took place at Legnickie Pole (Wahlstatt) near the city of Legnica (Liegnitz) in Silesia on April 9, 1241.

A combined force of Poles and Germans under the command of the Polish duke Henry II the Pious of Silesia, supported by feudal nobility and a few knights from military orders sent by the Pope, attempted to halt the Mongol invasion of Europe. Despite the Mongol victory in the ensuing battle, this was the furthest west their forces reached due to political destabilization inside the Mongol Empire.

As with many historical battles, the exact details of force composition, tactics, and the actual course of the battle are lacking and sometimes contradictory.

The historical interpretation of the battle has been revised. Traditionally, the battle was seen as a Pyrrhic victory for Henry, who sacrificed his own life, as the Mongols did not advance further westward. However, the battle is now seen as a crushing defeat for the allied forces; the Mongols had no intentions at the time of extending the campaign westward, because they went to the Kingdom of Hungary to help the main Mongol army in the conquest of the country.

One of the Mongol leaders, Kadan, was frequently confused with Ögedei's grandson Kaidu by medieval chroniclers, and thus Kaidu has often been mistakenly listed as leading the Mongol forces at Legnica.

The Mongols considered the Cumans to have submitted to their authority, but the Cumans fled westward and sought asylum within the Kingdom of Hungary. After King Béla IV of Hungary rejected Batu Khan's ultimatum to surrender the Cumans, Subutai began planning the Mongol invasion of Europe. Batu and Subutai were to lead two armies to attack Hungary itself, while a third under Baidar, Orda Khan and Kadan would attack Poland as a diversion to occupy northern European forces which might come to Hungary's aid.

Orda's forces devastated northern Poland and the southwestern border of Lithuania, while Baidar and Kadan ravaged the southern part of Poland. Mongols sacked several cites of Poland like Lublin, Sandomierz, Zawichost, Kraków and Bytom in 1241, but were unable to capture Wrocław after an assault. While considering whether to besiege Wrocław, Baidar and Kadan received reports that King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia was two days away with an army of 50,000. The Mongols turned from Wrocław to intercept Henry's forces before the European armies could meet. The Mongols caught up with Henry near Legnica at Legnickie Pole (Polish for "Field of Legnica"), also known as Wahlstatt.

The Mongol diversionary force, a detachment (no more than two tumens) from the army of Subutai, demonstrated the advantages of the tactical mobility and speed of horseback archers over heavily armored but slow opposition. The Mongol tactics were essentially a long series of feints and faked withdrawals from widely dispersed groups, which were designed to inflict a constant slow drain by ranged fire, disrupt the enemy formation, and draw larger blocks away from the main body into ambush and flank attacks. These were standard Mongol tactics used in virtually all of their major battles; they were made possible by continual training and superb battlefield communication, which used a system of flags. The Mongol commander found the highest ground at the battle site, seized it, and used it to communicate to his noyans and lesser commanders their orders for troop movement. The Mongol system was a stark contrast to the clumsy European systems, in which knights advanced with basically no communication with supporting forces.

The numbers involved are difficult to judge. European accounts are prone to outrageous estimates of Mongol numbers - some accounts suggest in excess of 100,000 at Legnica alone. These gross overestimates probably were excuses; given the weaknesses of 13th century Mongol logistical support, current estimates suggest the Mongol force numbered, at most, 20,000 light archer-cavalry. The Historia Tatarorum by the Franciscan C. de Bridia Monachi suggests a Mongol force of 10,000 troops which would have been reduced to 8,000 after casualties suffered earlier in the campaign.

What Mongol sources remain state that the Polish invasion was a raid in force, of two tumens (20,000 men), and part of Subutai's master plan to destroy the European armies one at a time, rather than allowing them to mass in force.

According to James Chambers, Henry's force consisted of at most 25,000 troops. Lesser trained troops included an army from Opole under Duke Mieszko II the Fat, Moravians led by the Margrave of Moravia's son Boleslav, conscripts from Greater Poland, volunteer Bavarian miners from Goldberg (Złotoryja). Henry's better trained troops were his own gathered from Silesian Piast duchies, mercenaries, and very small contingents of French Knights Templar and Hospitallers.

The historian Marek Cetwiński estimates the allied force to have been 2,000 strong, while Gerard Labuda estimates 7,000-8,000 soldiers in the Christian army.

A contingent of Teutonic Knights of indeterminate number is traditionally believed to have joined the allied army. However, recent analysis of the 15th century Annals of Jan Długosz by Labuda suggests that the German crusaders may have been added to the text after the chronicler Długosz had completed the work.

A legend that the Prussian Landmeister of the Teutonic Knights, Poppo von Osterna, was killed during the battle is false, as he died at Legnica years later while visiting his wife's nunnery.

Henry divided his forces into four sections: the Bavarian miners led by Boleslav of Moravia; the conscripts from Greater Poland along with some Cracovians led by Sulisław, the brother of the killed palatine of Kraków; the army of Opole under Mieszko, possibly with some Teutonic Knights; and under Henry's personal command the Silesians, Moravians, Templars, and Hospitallers.

According to Chambers' description of the battle, the Silesian cavalry initiated combat with the vanguard (mangudai) of the Mongol army. After the Silesians were repelled, the cavalry of Greater Poland, led by Sulisław, and the cavalry of Opole attacked the Mongols next. The Mongol vanguard retreated, inducing the allied cavalry to pursue, although this separated them from the Polish infantry. Although the mangudai fled, Mongol light cavalry flanked the Polish forces. A smoke screen was used to hide the Mongol movements and confuse the Europeans. While the Mongol light cavalry attacked from the flanks and the heavy cavalry attacked from the front, the Mongol archers peppered the Polish forces with arrows.

Erik Hildinger indicates the levies of Boleslav led the attack instead of the Silesians. He adds that after the Polish cavalry began their pursuit during the Mongols' feigned retreat, a rider shouted "Run! Run!" to the Polish forces, inducing Mieszko to withdraw the Opole contingent from the battle. This withdrawal led Henry to order his own reserves and cavalry into the battle.

The Mongols had much success in the battle by feigning their retreat. After the European knights detached from the main body of allied forces in pursuit of the fleeing Mongols, the invaders were able to separate the knights from the European infantry and defeat them one by one. Knights with heavy armor first had their horses shot out from under them, and were then slain by the lances of the Mongol heavy cavalry.

The Annals of Jan Długosz also describes the battle, although it was written in the 15th century, not when the battle actually occurred. The army of Henry II was almost destroyed - Henry and Boleslav of Moravia were killed and estimates of casualties range from 2,000 to 40,000, essentially the entire army. The Templar Grand Master Ponce d'Aubon reported to King Louis IX of France that the military order lost nine brothers, three knights, two sergeants, and 500 men-at-arms. Mongol casualties are unknown; a perfect execution of the described tactics would have minimised losses, but the Mongols endured sufficient casualties to dissuade them from attacking the Bohemian army.

The Mongols cut the right ear off of each fallen European in order to count the dead; supposedly they filled nine sackfuls. Henry was struck down and beheaded while attempting to flee the battlefield with three bodyguards, and the Mongols paraded his head before the town of Legnica on a spear.

Despite the Mongol victory, this was the furthest west their forces reached. Wenceslaus of Bohemia fell back to gather reinforcements from Thuringia and Saxony, but was overtaken by the Mongol vanguard at Kłodzko. However, the Bohemian cavalry easily fended off the Mongol detachment. As Baidar and Kadan's orders had been to serve as a diversion, they turned away from Bohemia and Poland and went southward to join Batu and Subutai, who had crushed the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi. When Subutai heard in 1242 that Grand Khan Ögedei had died the previous year, the Mongol army retreated eastward, because Subutai had three princes of the blood in his command and Genghis Khan had made clear that all descendants of the Khagan (Grand Khan) should return to the Mongol capital of Karakorum for the kurultai which would elect the next Khagan.

After Batu Khan returned from Mongolia, his relations with his cousins were so poor that not until the election of Möngke Khan as Khagan did he again consider turning westward to Europe, but he died in 1255 before those plans could be put into motion. Under the rule of his brother Berke, the Golden Horde was preoccupied with their conflicts with their cousins in the Ilkhanate, led by Hulagu Khan, whom Berke Khan despised for the Battle of Baghdad and the murder of Caliph Al-Musta'sim.

The Mongols never again seriously looked westward for conquest, only raiding for loot, and even then they were not able to commit the bulk of their forces which had to guard against other Mongols. Led by Burundai, the Mongols successfully raided Poland in 1259 and unsuccessfully in 1287. Because these raids were not aimed at conquest, Poland and Hungary were not seriously threatened again after 1241, although the Russian lands to their east remained under the rule of the Golden Horde for the following two centuries. However, Subutai and Batu Khan were finalizing a plan for a winter invasion of Central Europe, potentially leading to the "Great Sea," (the Atlantic Ocean), when Ögedei died.

The Polish people, unaware of the reason why the Mongols left so suddenly, simply assumed that they have been defeated in battle. To this day, they celebrate a holiday in which a man is dressed up in flamboyant Oriental costume and is ridiculed by the Polish commoners.

German Federal Republic, 1991, The Battle of Legnica

Poland, 1991, The battle of Legnica

German Federal Republic, 1991.04.09, Bonn. Liegnitz


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