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Subutai: The Forgotten Force Behind the Fearsome Mongol Military

Subutai: The Forgotten Force Behind the Fearsome Mongol Military


"They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords . . . 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 are Jebe, and Kublai, Jelme, and Subotai." — The Secret History of the Mongols

As the right-hand man to Genghis Khan, Subutai (Subotai) was a brave and powerful strategist and general. Subutai was a reliable choice for famous Mongol leaders to help in the expansion of the empire. He joined the Mongols as just a youth, but his amazing skills propelled him to become one of Genghis Khan’s ‘dogs of war.’

Artist’s depiction of a Mongol leader.

Artist’s depiction of a Mongol leader. Source: bitrix-studio

Subutai, known also by his epithet ‘Bagatur’ (which means ‘the Valiant’), served under both the famous Mongol leader, Genghis Khan, as well as his son and successor, Ogedei Khan. Subutai was one of the Mongol Empire’s most formidable generals, and was sent on numerous tough military campaigns in Asia and Europe.

A medieval Chinese drawing of Subutai.

A medieval Chinese drawing of Subutai. (Public Domain)

Young Subutai Rises Through the Ranks

Subutai is believed to have been born between the 1160s -1170s, with sources commonly stating that 1176 was the year of his birth. This general was from a tribe known as the Uriangkhai, which was not considered to be a Mongol tribe. These were forest-dwelling people, who, unlike the Mongols, were not known to be horsemen, but specialised in fur-trading and blacksmithing. It has been recorded that Subutai was the son of a blacksmith, one source giving the name of his father as Qaban. As a blacksmith, Subutai’s father would have offered his services to the Mongols, mending broken metal objects, such as weapons and cooking vessels. It is perhaps through this that the young Subutai would have had his first encounters with the Mongols.

Mongol cavalrymen.

Mongol cavalrymen. (Public Domain)

As a teenager, Subutai joined Genghis Khan’s army. According to one source, Subutai was just 14 years old when he left to join the Mongol army, and as he was still rather young for the battlefield, was appointed as the door attendant to the Khan. It was in this position that Subutai began to learn the Mongol art of war. As a forest-dweller, Subutai had no experience in horsemanship, and began learning it from the Mongol officer he was attached to. He was also taught to use the bow and then to combine the two elements. It was this combination of horse and bow that made the Mongol army a force to be reckoned with.

Artistic representation of Subutai.

Artistic representation of Subutai. (Mongol Khans)

Subutai rose through the Mongol ranks, and eventually became part of Genghis Khan’s inner circle. This is often taken as evidence that the Mongol leader practised meritocracy, and even a common non-Mongol like Subutai could rise to prominence in his army. As a military commander, Subutai is perhaps best-known for his campaigns in the West. During these military expeditions, Subutai led the Mongols against a number of adversaries, including the Rus, the Poles, and the Hungarians.

General Subutai and General Jebe defeat the Kievan Rus'.

General Subutai and General Jebe defeat the Kievan Rus'. (our-russia)

The Versatile General and Strategist

During these battles, Subutai displayed his skill as a versatile general and strategist. The Battle of Mohi, commonly regarded as his most brilliant victory, may be taken as an example. This battle was fought in April 1241 and pitted the Mongols under Batu Khan and Subutai against Hungary under King Bela IV. During the battle, the Mongols were taking more casualties than usual as a result of heavy firing from the Hungarian crossbowmen stationed on the opposite side of the River Sajo. In order to avoid further losses, Subutai decided to assault the crossbowmen with stone throwers, a weapon normally used in siege warfare. At the same time, a temporary bridge was built further down the river, so that the Mongols could outflank the Hungarians and take them by surprise.

Battle of Mohi, 1241, between Hungarians and Mongols.

Battle of Mohi, 1241, between Hungarians and Mongols. (Public Domain)

Under Subutai’s command, the Mongol army devastated much of eastern and central Europe. By late 1241, Subutai was planning to invade the Holy Roman Empire. It was around this time that Ogedei died, and the Mongol forces returned home for the election of the new Great Khan. It was due to this that the rest of Europe was spared from the Mongols. It has been speculated that had Ogedei not died, no European army would have been able to withstand the onslaught of the Mongols.

Ogedei Khan.

Ogedei Khan. (Public Domain)

Death of a Dog of War

The new Great Khan was Guyuk, the son of Ogedei. In 1246, Subutai was placed in charge of the campaign against the Chinese Song Dynasty. He was 70 years old at that time, which is a pretty advanced age for a military commander during that period.

A battle between Mongols and Chinese warriors.

A battle between Mongols and Chinese warriors. (Public Domain)

 This campaign lasted until 1247, after which Subutai returned to Mongolia, where he died in 1248. Apart from his epithet ‘Bagatur’, Subutai is also known as one of Genghis Khan’s four ‘dogs of war’, the other three being Jelme (his older brother), Jebe, and Khubilai.

Top image: Mongol cavalry. Source: imágeneshistóricas

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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