Mongol invasion of Russia
In 1237 the Mongols under Batu invaded the Russian principality of Ryazan. Three years later, most of Russia save for the principality of Novgorod lay in ruins. It has generally been agreed that the destruction caused by the first Mongol invasion held back Russian development for two centuries.
Unlike the Mongol campaigns into Europe, the Mongols after finishing their campaigning occupied large parts of Russia and forced the local inhabitants to pay tribute. Novgorod, despite escaping the fate of Kiev and Vladimir was forced to pay a large tribute to the Mongol Khan. Novgorod was also subject to many Mongol-Tatar raids over the 50 years. See more here.
Shucking the Mongol Yoke
Prince Andrej Yaroslavich led his troops in resistance against the Tatars in 1252 near Pereyaslavl-Zalesskij but it was not until 1285 when Prince Dmitrii Alexandrovich expelled the raiding Tatars from Novgorodian lands. The Muscovites were tired of paying obeisance to Mongol overlords.
From 1269 Russian princes began recruiting Golden horde Mongols into their armies, while some Russians fought for several of the Horde’s Khans. The Russian way warfare became much more clearly defined and as of 1270 the size of Russian armies greatly increased. Influences from other parts of Europe became increasingly obvious along with this blend of style contributed to the gradual success of the Russian army. It was well know that mounted archers proved a headache for the Western armies with the best examples being against the German and Scandinavian attempts to expand into Novgorod territory. European Armour, weaponry and artillery was also to become crucial in later battles with the Mongols.
Mongol Armour Compared to Russian Armour
By the beginning of the fourteenth century the Mongol’s Armour and equipment had become inferior to those used by the Mongols under Batu. Russian military power was to flex it muscles against the Horde, they were on their way that day of glory.
Kiev was falling into decline while Moscow had greatly increased it’s importance. The Muscovites under several inspirational leaders were ready to take Russia out from under the Mongol yoke.
Dmitri Ivanovich commanded his joint Russian armies of Moscow against a larger Tatar force under the command of Mamai and Mamai’s allies at the battle of Kulikovo. Those allies happened to be Grand Prince Oleg of Ryazan and Grand Prince Jogaila of Lithuania who unfortunately for Mamai came late to the battle. For more info see here.
Muscovites and Golden Horde Battling at Kulikovo
The battle took place on September the 8th at Kulikovo field near the Don river. The Russian troops lined up into the then traditional three line order, with reserves kept at the rear and the elite cavalry of Vladimir Andreyevich, Prince of Serpukhov (Dmitri’s cousin) hidden in ambush. Mamai arranged his troops in line order as well. In the middle was his hired Genoese archers. Read more about the Genoese here. On the flanks and behind the infantry there were troops of the Horde’s cavalry and other mercenaries. Behind them there were the reserves.
The number of warriors at the battle is subject to much debate with some estimates putting the Mongol force at 250 000. Between 100 000 and 120 000 for the Mongols and 75 000 for the Russians is acceptable but around 70 000 a more reasonable figure for the Mongols with a possible figure of 36 000 for the Russians. These numbers are still massive for an army of their time.
A thick fog covered the Kulikovo Field. The fog cleared late morning at around 11am, at which point both armies began advancing on each other.
Duel Between Peresvet and Chelubej
The battle was opened with a duel between the Russian monk Alexander Peresvet and a Tatar champion named Chelubej. Both were killed by each others spears on the first pass though Russian legend tells us that Peresvet did not fall from his horse as Chelubej did. After the duel the battle began with both sides taking heavy casualties. Peresvet was later made a hero after his act of courage.
Genoese Archers Under Mongol Forces
The Genoese archers supported by Tatar cavalry attacked the Russian advance but were held. Having outstayed the first attack, the remains of the regiments went back to the main Russian forces. The severe frontal attacks by the Horde’s cavalry began along all the defensive line of the Russian front ranks. Dmitri himself fought in the first ranks and received several blows to the head and body and twice fell off his horse. Severely wounded, only his European style Armour saved him from death.
The Left Wing began to Retreat
Despite the ferocity of the attack, the Russians stood firm forcing Mamai to send his reserves against the Russian left wing hoping to break them. Despite the strong resistance of the Russian troops, the Horde’s army managed to break through the Russian lines. Having lost the most part of its soldiers, the left wing began to retreat. The reserves didn’t save the situation. At about 2pm the Golden Horde moved to the rear of the Russian troops, outflanking the main body of the Russian army. The Russian forces were now in very real danger of collapsing. At this moment the ambush force of the Vladimir’s cavalry led by Dmitri Bobrok, Prince of Volynia attacked the Horde’s cavalry in their rear. This unexpected involvement of the fresh Russian troops changed the situation dramatically. From this point on the Russian troops took the offensive. Mamai’s army took flight and were pursued until late night. The hard fought battle had lasted some four hours. It was absolute victory for the Russians. The Golden Horde troops were destroyed. Mamai escaped to Crimea, where he was assassinated by his enemies, leaving the Horde under the command of Tokhtamish.
The battle had come at a cost though. Twelve princes and 483 Boyars (the pick of the Russian army) were killed representing 60% of the Russian commanders plus a great deal of their army. It took seven days for all the dead warriors to be picked from and buried in honor.
After the battle Dmitri Ivanovich was given the title Dmitri Donskoy which meant Dmitri of the Don and later made a saint.
Kulikovo became one of if not the largest fight of the Middle Ages. More than one hundred thousand warriors participated in it.