The Greatest Military Commander That Ever Lived – And You Probably Haven’t Even Heard of Him

Going through the history of civilisation, a common theme that persists to this day is our love of war. The earliest human remains have been found to have suffered violence and the act of war is inherent within our very nature as a species. Regardless of the ethics of such conduct there is definitely a greatness achieved by many historical military generals and commanders.

People like Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Hannibal have cemented their place in history and are revered for their military insight and strategies. They, however, are derisory figures when compared to the greatest military commander who ever lived. They pale in comparison, by every measurable metric; one man stands out as a clear winner. It is sad to say that for many, he has been forgotten, confined to obscurity among the littered history of warfare. Until now!

Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan)

You’re probably at this point thinking, hang on a minute, everyone knows who Genghis Khan is, and you would be completely right in that assessment. This article isn’t about Genghis Khan (although Genghis Khan deserves to be almost equal top with my chosen commander), I am mentioning Genghis Khan because it provides the context.

Genghis Khan was the leader of the largest contiguous (continuous land) empire the world has ever known. In his lifetime he conquered a vast amount of land and after he died the Mongol Empire grew further under the rule of his sons, in fact, it was so vast that it was almost five times larger than the mighty Roman Empire at its peak.

Whilst being a very shrewd military leader, Genghis Khan was moreover a leader of people, he built his empire on the team he had built around him. His leadership was so effective because he chose the right people. His selection for his military general was no exception and he was able to conquer a huge portion of the world thanks to his utilisation of a military genius.

genghis khan

Subutai – The Greatest Military Commander that Ever Lived – Without Question

Subutai was Genghis Khan’s most trusted, revered and decorated general. Together they raged war that would see their enemies flee in fear and would wipe out a large portion of the Earth’s population.

He was born on the Mongolian Steppe, an expanse of inhospitable land where the original clans of Mongolia ruled and fought each other. It was only after the unification under Genghis Khan that Mongolia went from a tribal country to becoming a united, cohesive military force.

Subutai lived an odd life from the outset, he wasn’t traditionally trained as many Mongols were at the time and wasn’t particularly adept to horse riding or archery. In many ways this ostracised him from the rest of the clan community he lived in. He was, however, very good friends with Temujin (later Genghis Khan) and his clan held deep ties with Temujin’s clan for many generations.

Subutai’s class and background meant that within the pecking order he was very low down, the equivalent of today’s working class. Temujin by comparison was born into leadership because his father was a clan leader. When Subutai joined Temujin’s army he was treated well but in accordance with his social standing. In other words, for him to succeed and go on to the greatness he achieved he was going to have to work for it.

Subutai in Temujin’s Army

Before Temujin could become Genghis Khan, he had the incredibly daunting task of uniting the feuding and unruly Mongol clans. This was probably the most difficult military proposition that Genghis faced in his entire life because the Mongol clan’s rivalries was often bitter, marred in violence and vocal in their opposition of one another. Compared to the orderly army enemies of Genghis’ later military career, the Mongol clans were barbaric and a different proposition altogether.

Subutai’s greatest victory during the clan wars came on his first outing as a military commander. Genghis had long had a deep hatred of the Merkit clan (who had previously kidnapped and raped his wife Borte) and felt that they would be a great adversary to overcome. He offered Subutai his elite horde in the hope that Subutai would be able to bring about the Merkit downfall quickly by sheer brute force.

Subutai had other plans and declined the offer of the elite force, instead he set out on horseback to the Merkit camp and entered alone. He struck up a rapport with the Merkit leaders and insisted that they were currently safe as the bulk of Temujin’s forces were a long way off. Upon hearing this the Merkits were far more relaxed with camp arrangements, lowered their patrols and reduced their guard. Subutai took the opportunity to surround the camp with his own troops and quickly over ran the Merkit camp, capturing two Merkit generals in the process.

Subutai had an uncanny ability to approach battle situations in unorthodox and often baffling ways to achieve decisive victories with little cost to life. This victory over the Merkits further cemented him as an exception leader in Genghis’ eyes and he was quickly entrusted with more responsibility.

Subutai was identified almost immediately by Genghis as a warrior and someone that possessed extreme ability to innovate and execute military operations. Given that he had no blood ties to Genghis, it is even more impressive the amount of trust and recognition Subutai was afforded. He quickly rose the ranks in the army and by the time Genghis was crowned the universal ruler of the Mongols, Subutai was a well decorated general.

mongol army

Subutai – The Military General

As a military general, Subutai was without comparison with the exception of maybe Genghis Khan himself. His career reads like a resume of success, with not one defeat on his record. Together they forged a new world order and created a vast and profitable empire. One that still has aftershocks to this day.

Here are a few headline figures in order to appreciate just how significant Subutai was to the Mongol Empire;

  • 20 Military Campaigns (Often across multiple nations)
  • 32 Nations Defeated
  • 65 Pitched Battles Won (often against forces double or more his force’s size)
  • Conquered More Territory Than Any Military Leader in History

It is fair to say that although Genghis Khan would have had a truly successful career alone, without Subutai, the Mongol Empire would not have reached the scale it did.

Subutai – Notable Victories

Cunning and brilliance are likely to accompany any military leader’s success, that or sheer luck as is the case with some. Subutai was definitely a general of the former category. He excelled at using all of his available resources and won battles that most of the top military commanders from history would have lost.

Here are some truly astonishing victories;

Defeat of the Russian Army

The country of Russia (Rus) was a rich and prosperous land that provided the gateway that the Mongols needed to acquire into Europe. Rus also happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time if that is possible for a nation. After defeating the Khwarezmian Empire, the Mongols were in limbo awaiting orders from Genghis, instead of sitting around, Subutai and Jebe (another highly esteemed military general) decided to see how far west they could push with the 20,000 men they had left from the Khwarezmian campaign.

They lead their men on what can only be described as a rampage across the Persian Gulf, leaving destruction everywhere they went. So feared were the Mongol hordes that many towns would surrender as they approached. Those that didn’t would be annihilated. This in itself was a great military tactic as many enemies ultimately surrendered rather than risk the complete atrocities that the Mongols would inflict. Mongol generals knew the more barbaric they were to enemies that did not submit, the more land they would be able to take “peaceably” without the need to shed blood.

Ultimately much of the Middle East fell easily to the Mongols and they turned their attention and their 20,000 men northward for what they anticipated to be a raid before receiving further campaign orders from Genghis.

They made their way north and were met by a hostile Georgian army who had pitched themselves on the other side of a river and that presented the Mongol forces with an issue. This meant that Jebe and Subutai were in a position where they would have to either invade Georgia (without instructions from Genghis) and potentially lose a lot of men in the process or hold off.

Jebe and Subutai decided that they would launch a skirmish at the Georgian army and test the waters. Finding the resolve of the 10,000 men to be strong they retreated whilst launching counter attacks (this was a common tactic employed by Subutai where he would dwindle enemy forces without having to commit the full force of his army). Eventually the Mongols realised that King George was sending reinforcements and his number was growing with each counter attack that the Mongols were launching so they decided to launch a full attack on Georgia with the might of their whole horde.

By the time they launched the full attack, George’s forces were said to number around 70,000 though the actual figure is probably around 35,000. Regardless of the exact figure, the Mongols were easily outnumbered. They weren’t outdone though and the Mongol horde was a battle hardened and ruthless machine. Under Jebe and Subutai, they were far too great a force to reckon with and the Georgian army fell quickly.

Because they were still awaiting orders, Jebe and Subutai didn’t push further north and instead turned back southwards after raiding Georgia. After a long wait, Genghis Khan granted Jebe permission to launch a campaign against Rus, with Subutai his second in command. Chomping at the bit and with the green light, the Mongol horde launched an offensive north and swept through Georgia, killing King George on the way.

genghis khan army

Pressing north they were met with the cold conditions (that would be the downfall of Nazi Germany hundreds of years later when invading Russia) and had to abandon their siege equipment. It was also noted that a few hundred men succumbed to the conditions and the resulting Mongol army was ill-equipped, and depleted in number. Remember they only had 20,000 men to start with and had fought a battle between that point and entering Russia.

Cold and on horseback the Mongol army pushed on (they were well provisioned with food etc from previous raids) until they met an army sent to destroy them. The army they met was an unusual alliance of 50,000 men from various groups including Turkic forces that the Mongols had previously had a good relationship with. Jebe and Subutai were undeterred and ordered their men into battle.

Outnumber almost 3 to 1 it is surprising that the battle didn’t go in the alliances favour, instead it drew a stalemate with neither side ceding ground and many killed. Jebe sent a messenger over to the Turkic portion of the alliance army that stood in his way and advised the Turkic forces to join the Mongols and they would be able to benefit from the subsequent raids. A gentle reminder was made of the longstanding good terms that the Mongols had with the Turkic people and a request for them to switch sides.

The Turkic army struck a deal with Jebe and before long the Mongol army had destroyed the alliance force. Given that they had now acquired extra men it is safe to assume that they numbered now, just over 20,000 troops. Penetrating further was easy going until the Rus princes heard that the Mongols were planning to take Kiev, at this point the princes accumulated as many troops as they could and set about trying to rid their land of the Mongols.

Estimates of the Rus army are differing according to which source you believe, but the Russians themselves chronicled that the resulting army numbered around 80,000 with modern Russian historians believing it to be near 100,000. One thing is sure about the invasion of Rus, the Mongols hadn’t got much men, they hadn’t prepared well for the terrain or weather and they fully believed that the force (however large) that the Rus princes had arranged was a real threat.

With 80,000 men in front of them, Subutai came up with a bold and innovative plan that is still used in military exercises today. Essentially the Mongols knew that having the 80,000 men densely packed in a pitched battle would ultimately mean that they would succumb so they sent their force in with the sole aim of feigning a retreat. Accomplished horsemen, the Mongol horde turned and caused the Rus army to think they had them on the back foot, giving chase.

Over distance (and 11 full days of riding) this spread out the Rus forces considerably and instead of moving as a solid single unit they were disjointed and without co-ordination. At the optimal time, Subutai ordered his men about and they simply charged head first through the trailing line of Rus troops and killed almost all of them. By the time the bulk of the Rus forces had caught up to the lead packs the Mongols were in full rampage mode, charging head on in a reign of arrow fire.

Subutai had also sent out two outlying “wings” that co-ordinated to flank and destroy the remainder of the Rus army in what can only be described as a bloodbath. Mongol losses were minimal and Rus losses were staggeringly heavy with an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 men killed in the manoeuvre.

After destroying the Rus army and killing a prince or two along the way, Jebe and Subutai turned back east to rendezvous with the main Mongol horde on the Mongolian Steppe which was led by Genghis. Subutai would return to fully defeat the Rus army under the rule of Genghis successor Ogedei.

Part two will chronicle two other major military campaigns as well as highlight some of the military tactics that Subutai pioneered and that still get used today.

Part 2 Coming Soon

But in the meantime, why not learn a bit more about Mongol Warfare? I highly recommend watching Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan.

Leave a Reply