Tsubotei – the greatest Mongol general

Tsubotei – the greatest Mongol general

Following my recent trip to the beautiful steppes of Mongolia where I had the opportunity to experience the warmth of the people and the beauty of the land, I felt moved to write about Tsubotei, a legendary Mongol general leading the armies of Genghis Khan (who was first known to all as Temujin) but who is not as familiar outside of Asia.

I must also state from the outset that the most comprehensive account of Tsubotei’s life (and indeed the basis of most of the rest of this article) comes from Richard A. Gabriel’s excellent book, “Genghis Khan’s greatest general – Subotai the Valiant”.  (Link to Amazon). I must also highlight, the Secret History of the Mongols, as another great source of information on Mongol history (which R. Gabriel draws from significantly as well).


“I’ll be like a rat and gather up others I’ll be like a black crow and gather great flocks. Like the felt blanket the covers the horse, I’ll gather up soldiers to cover you. Like the felt blanket that guards the tent from the wind, I’ll assemble great armies to shelter your tent.”

Tsubotei’s oath to Temujin (Genghis Khan) as a boy

A brief introduction to the man
Humble beginnings
Early promise of military genius and development
The conquest of China and Korea
Unfolding events in Central Asia, Russia and Europe
The end of a fearsome era

A brief introduction to the man

Tsubotei Baghatur (Tsubotei the Valiant) was one of Genghis Khan’s greatest generals. He, along with Khalid ibn Waleed a Muslim general of the 7th century, is considered to be one of the finest, most astute strategists known in ancient military history.

This is a man who was called one of Genghis Khan’s four dogs of war (the others were Jelme, Jebe and Kublai). He was Genghis’ Orloock (or eagle) who defended the Great Khan’s lands and struck fear into the hearts of enemies.

He started off as a mere attendant of Genghis Khan’s tents and rose to become one of Mongolia’s most brilliant generals with a flair for the genius and remarkable. Tsubotei, along with Jebe, became the first equivalents of modern day Field Marshals in Genghis’ new military structure.

He lived till seventy three and when he died, both his Chinese and Muslim enemies erected monuments in his honour. In his lifetime, he conquered thirty two nations and won sixty five battles. He was also responsible for the conquest of lands to the east and west of Mongolia – from China and Korea to Persia to Russia and Hungary.

Tsubotei’s conquest of Hungary decimated every major army between Mongolia and the threshold of modern-day Western Europe. It is often said that history makes monumental shifts on the slender wisps of fate. In this instance, it was the death of the Great Khan (Ogedai – the third son of Genghis and his successor), which saved Western Europe from a Mongolian conquest. At the time of Ogedai’s death, Tsubotei’s armies controlled everything from the Baltic Sea to the Danube River.

They had overcome European armies five times the Mongol army’s size. As Tsubotei’s army was conducting a reconnaissance of Vienna (and as the populace of the rest of Europe trembled in fear), Tsubotei received word that the Great Khan had died. Mongolian custom had it that all Mongolian royal princes had to return for the election of the new Khan. As Tsubotei’s army had three royal princes, he had little choice but to return to the Mongolian capital.

The history of the world as we know it now could have been altered remarkably had Tsubotei continued heading West.

However Tsubotei’s legacy continues in much of modern military operations and theory. A focus on speed, manoeuvre, surprise, concealment, rear guard battle, concentration of firepower and the doctrine of deep battle were ingrained into Tsubotei’s armies and they have continued into modern day military application. Tsubotei was also unique amongst his Mongolian peers in that he preferred to observe the battles from a vantage point and strategising rather than charging at the head of the army and lose the opportunity to watch the flow and ebb of battle and to strike at pivotal moments.

Humble beginnings

As R. Gabriel writes, one of the most interesting paradoxes of military history is that one of the greatest Mongol generals ever was, strictly speaking, not actually ethnically a Mongol. The term Mongol came about after Genghis Khan unified the various tribes of Mongolia, from the Kerits, to the Merkits, the Naimans and the Tartars.

Tsubotei was technically, an Uriangkhai. They were a forest tribe whom the chroniclers of ancient history referred to as the Reindeer people who lived near the western edge of the Lake Baikal. They were a very different people to the Mongols of the steppe. They were neither nomadic nor pastoral and were hunters, fisherman and traders who lived in permanent log huts. They also maintained domesticated herds of reindeer (or reem as they called it).

Tsubotei was the son of a blacksmith called Jachigudai and whose mother died in childbirth. He was also the younger brother of Jelme (another great Mongol general who was offered when he was still a boy to Genghis’ father, Yeseguei, to serve Genghis when he grew up).

Tsubotei was supposed to have taken over his father’s trade, however, the allure of the Mongol steppe proved too strong for him and he left the comfort of his Uriangkhai people and went on to join the army of Temujin at the age of fourteen. It is also critical to bear in mind that it is very likely that Tsubotei would not have ridden horses till this point at a time when Mongol children would have mastered the age of riding by the ages of six onwards. Tsubotei also would not have had the experience of eating uncooked food, or riding on horses for long distances and surviving on the blood and milk of mares as longer distances were covered. These are all skills Tsubotei would have learnt from scratch at the age of fourteen (in an era where boys joined the army from the age of thirteen onwards) which makes Tsubotei’s progress even more remarkable.

This also demonstrates Tsubotei’s tenacious and determined spirit. He knew his limitations and knew that his experience in Mongol warfare was non-existent at the start.

Tsubotei was initially given the role of Temujin’s keeper of the tent door where he learnt the skills of a Mongol warrior such as riding of horses and shooting bows whilst riding at full pelt along with basic Mongol military manoeuvres.

As a boy, Tsubotei pledged an oath to his master, Genghis Khan: “I’ll be like a rat and gather up others I’ll be like a black crow and gather great flocks. Like the felt blanket the covers the horse, I’ll gather up soldiers to cover you. Like the felt blanket that guards the tent from the wind, I’ll assemble great armies to shelter your tent.”

Whilst others compared themselves to bears and wolves, Tsubotei had no illusions about his lack of military knowledge but only served to seek Genghis any way he can and went as far as to compare himself to a rat or crow in his eagerness to serve his master.


Early promise of military genius and development

As Genghis Khan’s doorkeeper, Tsubotei would have been privy to the machinations to the Mongol planning and war councils. This was a fantastic military education at the feet of the Mongol generals of the time as Genghis Khan sought to consolidate and united the different tribes under one banner.

As a result, Tsubotei would have learned to think beyond individual units and tactics and think about how the various tactical operations fit under a wider strategic campaign towards a singular vision. As R. Gabriel writes, “Most new acquire this ability (the ability to conceptualise war plans and implement them on a grand scale), something that may explain why warfare has, over the long centuries of its practice, produced only a few truly great generals.”

Tsubotei’s first taste in leading a battalion was during Genghis’ campaign against the Merkits. He volunteered to lead an attack which led to a Mongol victory. Although a junior officer, he was considered to be a hugely valuable strategic asset by Genghis.

Whilst others offered their technical and physical abilities to their Khan, Tsubotei offered something more crucial – a mind that was strategic and brimming with military genius.

R. Gabriel further writes that although Tsubotei was known for his detailed planning and attention to intelligence report, Tsubotei at his core possessed the soul of a gambler, which Napoleon remarked, was the most important trait of a great general. “These traits of character, when joined with a first-rate intellect, made Tsubotei an extraordinarily innovative and imaginative commander,” explains R. Gabriel.

In the early periods of Temujin military expeditions to unite the different Mongol tribes, there was a point in 1203 where Temujin’s army was almost destroyed at the Battle of the Red Willows. Only a few of Temujin’s officers remained with him on the day, when the lake Baljuna was dry and the soldiers and officers of Temujin were dying of thirst.

Tsubotei was one of a handful of Temujin’s few loyal officers at the Baljuna lake when he and his army were almost wiped out by his one-time blood brother and then sworn enemy Jamuga and swore his oath to Temujin and remained true to the oath he made as a young boy to Temujin.                          

Temujin soon rebuilt his forces and continued to march towards his vision of unification of the Mongol tribes under one banner. As he battled the tribe of Naiman, which was the one last remaining tribe still resisting Temujin, Jamuga (who was previously Temujin’s anda or blood brother but had turned against him subsequently) is reported in the Secret History of the Mongols to have described Temujin’s generals as follows: “These are the Four Dogs of my anda Temujin. They feed on human flesh and are tethered with an iron chain. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails, and swords. They feed on dew. Running, they hide on the back of the wind. In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs of war are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme and Tsubotei.”

Subsequently, Genghis appointed Tsubotei and Jebe as the first orloocks of the new Mongol military structure. From that point one, there was never a major military campaign that was undertaken by Genghis or his successor, Ogedai, in which Tsubotei did not contribute to.

The ability to spot talent and character is one of the key traits and pillars leading to Genghis’ genius and accomplishments. Genghis was also not concerned with the ethnicity and background of his key generals. Of his Four Dogs, none were of the Borjigin Mongols which Genghis belonged to. Jelme and Tsubotei were both Uriangkhais, Khubilai was of another tribe, and Jebe was a Tayichigud. In later times, there were even Muslims and Chinese who held important positions in the Mongol army.

Tsubotei had the military genius, the discipline and the brilliance to lead the Mongol army to victories. As R. Gabriel explains, “Courage and warrior spirit were qualities not in short supply among steppe warriors. Competent field commanders were easily available, but an officer who could plan and coordinate large-scale military operations across thousands of miles was a rarity.” Therein lay the principal reasons for Tsubotei’s ascendency in the Mongol army.

The conquest of China and Korea.

Chinese chroniclers write of the brilliance of Tsubotei in planning numerous battles against the Chin states. Tsubotei was instrumental in the Mongol war against the Chin Empire and led the assault on the Great Wall. Following the major victories in Shaanxi, Tsubotei and his men rode across Manchuria to subdue the Mongol enemies there.

Tsubotei soon arrived at the outskirts of Pyongyang, the capital then and the Korean kingdom submitted peacefully. A few decades later, Korea was incorporated into the Mongol empire as a tribute state.

Following Genghis’ death and the succession of Ogedai, there were those who insisted that there was no need for further Mongol conquests. However, Tsubotei, one of the original orloocks, argued that the Chin empire was still intact and capable of resisting the Mongol kingdom and that there were still lands in the west belong to Russian and European princes all awaiting conquest. Tsubotei belonged to an old school of Mongol warriors for whom governing empires meant little. For him, only the conquering of nations mattered. The old Mongol belief was the between the mother Earth and Tengi (the Sky father), life was only about struggle – about riding, roaming and conquering.

Tsubotei convinced Ogedai Khan that time was right to continue with the conquests and Ogedai was convinced by the Mongol army’s greatest general.

Tsubotei’s genius, cunning and adaptable nature soon led to a total and complete victory by the Mongol army over the Chin empire. It is also said that Tsubotei initially wanted to destroy every single aspect of the Chin Empire and turn the plains into fine horse breeding country. Thankfully, Ogedai’s trust Chinese advisors pointed out that it was in nobody’s interests to pursue such a scorched earth policy and Ogedai spared the Chin Empire from a very terminal fate.

Unfolding events in Central Asia, Russia and Europe

Genghis, upon his return to Mongolia, in 1217, decided that he wanted to pacify the Kara Khitai, a mostly Turkic populated region. At the time the Kara Khitai was being ruled by Kuchlug (a Naiman Mongol who fled to Kara Khitai when Genghis undertook campaigns against his father. Kuchlug also instituted a campaign of forced conversion for a mostly Muslim population living in the Kara Khitai. Strangely enough, Kuchlug had an alliance with the Muslim Shah of Khwarizm.

Genghis despatched Jebe and Tsubotei to kill or capture Kuchlug who posed threats to his dominion over the lands. Jebe’s troops were the central flank leading into the Kara Khitai region whilst Tsubotei provided the support on the flanks and to ensure that Kuchlug’s ally, the Shah of Khwarizm did not threaten the main body of Jebe’s troops.

As Jebe proceeded through Kara Khitai, he proclaimed that all Muslims would have the freedom of religion and that none of the holy places would be harmed. Jebe opened up mosques and no plundering or atrocities were committed by his army. They eventually captured Kuchlug and executed him and exerted their influence over the Kira Khatai region as well.

In 1218, Genghis decided to send a trade caravan, comprising mostly of Muslim Mongols to Khwarizm to establish trading relations with the Khwarizm and Muslim empire. The governor of Otrar then set in motion a series of events that had impacts that reverberated across the Muslim and Western world. In a moment of lunacy, he decided to execute every single member of the Mongolian trade delegation. One of the camel drivers escaped and managed to inform Genghis what had happened.

Genghis decided that perhaps the Shah was unaware of his governor’s actions and decided to send another delegation to explain to the shah that he wanted the death of the governor who had trespassed diplomatic protocol. It is at this point that the Shah killed even more Muslim members of the Mongolian delegation and shaved the beards of the Mongols. Genghis took this latest outrage very personally and declared war against Mohammad Shah, the leader of the empire of Khwarizm.

As R. Gabriel writes, “The actions of an obscure government official set in motion a chain of events that changed the world. Until this incident, there was no evidence that Genghis Khan was dissatisfied with the borders of the great empire he had established for the Mongols. Now, the events of Otrar forced him to move against the Shah, with the result that all of Persia eventually came under Mongol rule. This, in turn, led to Tsubotei’s reconnaissance into the Russian steppes, which provided intelligence for the Mongol attach and occupation of Russian, an occupation that lasted for three centuries! And the success of the Russian campaign led inevitably to Tsubotei’s assault against Eastern Europe. No one foresaw it at the time, but the murder of the Mongol caravan at Otrar changed the entire history of Central Asia, Russia, and the West.”

As Tsubotei, Jebe and Jochi (Genghis’ eldest son) pursued the Shah, Tsubotei was presented with a warrant marked with the red seal of the Great Khan in which he promised that all those who did not resist were to be spared. Anyone who resisted was to be eliminated. Genghis was a man of his word, so much so that his own son-in-law, Toguchar was asked to stand down and transfer his troops to Tsubotei when he defied the Khan’s orders and sacked a town that had already surrendered.

Tsubotei pursued the Shah until the Shah crossed the Caspian Sea and found refuge in a small island but died in poverty and despair. Thus ended the mighty kingdom of Shah Mohammed II which was then captured piecemeal by the Mongols (and sometimes in horrific and tragic ways).

Following this though, there was still a huge issue which Genghis grappled with. There was concern that the Western armies (in Arab or European lands) may raise an army to fight the Mongol army. In the East, there was intelligence that Jalal al-Din, the faithful and able son of the Shah was raising an army to avenge the loss of the Shah’s dominion. The only commander who had any knowledge of the Western front was Tsubotei and he received very clear instructions when he was camped on the Caspian to return to Samarkand, Uzbekistan where Genghis was waiting. Tsubotei, a man who lived to serve his Khan, left the Caspian and undertook a 2,000 kilometre journey in just over seven days.

Here Tsubotei assured Genghis that given the terrain and conditions, it was unlikely that any army from the West will link up with Jalal al-Din’s army in the East. He also further proposed to Genghis that he and his men be permitted to ride on further West where there was a land with “narrow-faced men with light hair and blue eyes.”

R. Gabriel describes the subsequent events as follows, “In the late autumn of 1220, Tsubotei and his troop of Mongol cavalry men began what was to become the most remarkable cavalry raid in military history.”

Tsubotei undertook this very difficult campaign armed with the tenacity of his men along with the deep intelligence gathered by his staff officers who included Chinese scholars as well as Muslim scholars. They helped him compile the maps of Hungary, Poland, Silesia and Bohemia. A majority of this information was provided through interactions with Venetian traders whom Tsubotei’s men had come in contact with.

The Venetian traders had signed a secret treaty with the Mongols that they would send me back detailed reports and intelligence from the countries they visited. In exchange, the Mongols promised to destroy all other trading stations in the lands they rode on leaving the Venetians with a monopoly.

The Russians fearing the threats posed by the Mongols joined forces and converged upon Tsubotei. He was surrounded on all sides by various Russian troops and their allies. Tsubotei tried to use diplomacy to break off possible military engagements. In an interesting anecdote, Tsubotei sent an ambassador to the Prince of Kiev trying to convince the Prince that his intentions were not on conquering Russian fiefdoms.

However the Prince of Kiev executed the ambassador. In response, Tsubotei surprised the Prince of Kiev with another ambassador, this time carrying a formal declaration of war. Mongol military etiquette required that, whenever possible, a declaration of war be issued before the commencement of hostilities.

To avoid being entrapped by the Russian armies, Tsubotei and Jebe continued to move east, away from Russia. They left a rear guard platoon to report on enemy movements and to also delay the Russians as they advanced upon the Mongols. For over a week, the Russians pursued Tsubotei and Jebe after overcoming the rearguard Mongol troops.

Finally Tsubotei camped near the Kalka River, a terrain he had been over before. He decided that he would launch his counter attack of the Russian troops here. Tsubotei lit huge Mongol fire pots that created plenty of smoke that disoriented the advancing Russian troops and the Mongol light cavalry rode forward and backward in the path of the Russian troops concentrating their arrow fire to a deadly effect. The net result of this was that a Mongol army of 18,000 overcame a Russian alliance far larger and killed over 40,000 Russian troops along with six princes and seventy nobles.

Soon thereafter, the Mongols overcame the Prince of Kiev (who was suffocated in a box – as Mongol tradition forbade the shedding of royal blood except in battle).

Tsubotei then joined Jochi’s troops and defeated the Volga Bulgars. Thereafter, Tsubotei and Jebe headed back to the Mongol capital to meet with their Great Khan. Jebe passed away and never made it. Tsubotei also left behind a sophisticated intelligence network that allowed for the gathering of information and insight that was instrumental when Tsubotei headed back West. Tsubotei’s initial venture out into the West was with a very small army and was a cavalry raid. The next time he returned, he would do in a large force.

In 1227, Ogedai had taken over Genghis as the Great Khan following Genghis’ passing. At this point, the Mongol empire was engaged in four separate engagements: one against the Chinese empire; second against Korea to suppress a widespread revolt that had broken out in the Korean peninsula; the third against kingdoms around the Caucasus and Persia; and the fourth into Russia and then Central Europe.

Tsubotei was placed in charge of the fourth engagement towards the West. Tsubotei’s key idea was to conquer Russian piecemeal so that they did not have enough time to form mighty coalitions. Another key strategy was to attack them in winter when the Russians and European armies were ill-equipped to conduct battle.

In a short four years, Tsubotei had managed to capture almost all of Russia. He then turned his sights towards Eastern Europe. At this time, Europe remained a deeply feudal society with internecine warfare and campaigns against one another. Tsubotei decided to invade Hungary but simultaneously sent a force under Kaidu Khan, grandson of Ogedai to strike at Poland, Bohemia and Silesia and distract Tsubotei’s main aims of an attack against Hungary.

The Mongols destroyed all opposition to their plans of conquest at the battle of Liegnitz in 1241 where the Silesians were routed. Following this, the Grand Master of the Templars wrote to King Louis IX of France that there was no army of significance between France and a powerful Mongol army that aimed straight for the heart of Western Europe.

“The Mongol army was truly the most organised and combat efficient army that the world had seen in almost a thousand years,” writes R. Gabriel.

Whilst Kaidu Khan was destroying the armies of Poland and Silesia, Tsubotei was waging war against Hungary. Tsubotei broke the spine of the Hungarian army led by the Hungarian king, Bela decisively at the Battle of the Sajo River. Again, Tsubotei used his cunning to create openings and gaps that lured the Hungarian troops into the space which he then closed up with his archers and infantry troops. Over two days, the Mongol war machine killed between 50,000 and 70,000 Hungarian soldiers including the entire royal army of Hungary.

As Tsubotei’s troops encircled Vienna and poised to strike into the rest of Western Europe, the Mongol army heard the news that Ogedai Khan wad dead and they had to return to the Mongol capital. As the powerful Mongol machinery made its way back to the capital, they disappeared, never again returning to Europe.


The end of a fearsome era

R. Gabriel writes that when the Franciscan monk Giovanni di Plano Carpini visited the Mongol court, he reported that Tsubotei was alive and in his early seventies. He was the most famous and admired of all Mongol general.

It was rumoured that Tsubotei had removed his badges of rank and lived in his ger (a Mongolian tent) tending his herds and watching his grandchildren grow.

The Mongols referred to Tsubotei as the Unfailing. Carpini described him as a soldier without weakness. The Muslims described him as “silent, insatiable, and remorseless.”

The Russians thought of his as “extremely disciplined.”

The Chinese held Tsubotei in very high esteem as a great warrior upon his death, bestowed upon him the title of King of Hunan because he had captured the province. They also called him, “the faithful and steady.”

When Tsubotei died, Muslim chroniclers noted that he “had conquered thirty two nations and won sixty-five pitched battles.”

In the end, Tsubotei became a man whom even his enemies respected for his military genius, brilliance in planning and strategy. Tsubotei Baghatur or Tsubotei the Valiant truly was amongst the greatest generals in military history.


A random musing on society and the elderly…

I am currently sitting at the airport lounge in Terminal 3 in Singapore. I look around the lounge and all I see are elderly people (some of whom do not look in the best of health) working as support staff, clearing plates and glasses in the lounge and slowly doing the rounds around the entire lounge and I am left pondering…
What is the purpose or point of all of this economic progress and development when we are unable (or unwilling?) to provide a social support or safety net to the vulnerable and elderly within our society?
My view is that a society cannot truly call itself advanced if its elderly and vulnerable are not supported and they are in a position where they are made to work to support themselves. The advancement of our society rests on our ability to protect those who need our help the most.