The Devil's Horsemen

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In the Polish city of Kraców, every hour on the hour, a trumpet calls an alarm to its citizens, but the trumpet call is never completed. It sputters and dies out, as if the trumpeter had been suddenly struck dead. In fact, a trumpeter was once struck dead, on March of 1241, by a Mongol arrow. The present-day trumpeter at Kraców is the last reminder of the thirteenth century Mongol invasion of Europe, an invasion that once threatened to reach the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but of which no other sign now remains. What actually happened—or nearly happened—has more often been ignored than told. What impelled these Asiatic tribes so recently welded into nationhood to leave their ordinary precincts and seek victories in strange lands is also a matter worthy of careful speculation. Perhaps most interesting of all is the question of how these semisavage tribesmen were able to defeat the cream of European chivalry.

James Chambers is at his best in telling the exciting and incredible story of the invasions. In 1218, the governor of the near Eastern province of Otrar murdered the friendly ambassador and merchants of the first Mongol caravan to arrive as a result of a commercial treaty. The ruler of Khwarizm, Muhammad II, supported the actions of his governor, murdering a second ambassador sent by the Mongols in the interests of justice and sending back that ambassador’s severed head. Chingis Khan, the Mongol leader, could brook no further insult and unleashed a devastating war under the direction of his military leaders, of whom Subedei was the greatest. Under Subedei, each of whose campaigns was a “masterpiece of original and imaginative strategy,” a victorious war against Muhammad was followed by an extended reconnaissance of Europe. After this reconnaissance came the invasion of Europe, the subjugation of Russia, and the disintegration of Hungary. Just before the Mongols were to invade Austria, the great Khan died. By tradition, the leaders of the invasion returned to Asia, and a defenseless Europe was saved by accident. Later, the Mongols invaded the Near East, sacking the city of Baghdad. Again, their supreme leader died (August 12, 1259), and again the military leaders returned to Asia. Both Islam and Christendom had been saved, not by their own resources, but by chance.

Although he tells their story well and clearly, Chambers is far less competent at delving into the motives of the Mongols, which stem directly...

(The entire section is 999 words.)