Honor, Virtus et Potestas

The Battle of Liegnitz: Duke Henry and the Mongol Invasion

By Jefferson P. Webb

Although people typically conjure up
mental images of battles fought in the deserts and cities of the
Middle East during the Crusades when names such as, Templars,
Hospitallers, or Teutonic Knights come into conversation, but these
monastic knights saw combat actions in a number of other places to
include Europe. Furthermore, Crusades were not only fought in the
Middle East, but also in Eastern Europe in an effort to expand the
influence of the Church for Christianity and to convert pagan
peoples.1 While these knightly orders saw action against a
number of pagans and non-Catholic Christians, these knightly orders
along with secular knights, noblemen and the common soldier faced one
of the world’s best disciplined military forces in history. That
force was the invading Mongol army under the leadership of Batu Kahn.

In the process of Batu Kahn’s
invasion of Eastern Europe he inflicted defeat after defeat upon his
enemies. He defeated the Russian principalities and Batu Kahn
continued his push westward posing an ever-increasing, serious threat
to the existence of the Holy Roman Empire.2 To meet this
Mongol threat, Henry Duke of Silesia took his army of knights and
men-at-arms forward from the city of Liegnitz to a place called
Walstadt.3 Duke Henry’s Christian force was without
question a formidable military force by the day’s standards with
heavily armored knights of the Templar, Hospitaller and Teutonic
Orders serving as heavy cavalrymen supported by well armed
men-at-arms. The Duke’s army was thus armed with heavy armor of both
plate and chain, and utilized weapons such as broadswords, shields,
and lances. Duke Henry’s force was designed to close with an enemy
and engage them in close-quarters combat.4 The Mongol army
the Duke faced was a very different army from his own.

The Mongol army was composed entirely
of cavalry and while the Mongols did carry daggers, maces, and
swords, their primary weapon was the bow. Furthermore, the Mongol
army was much lighter weight than that of the troops comprising
Henry’s army. Even the Mongol heavy cavalry carried a much lighter
load than that of the knights of Duke Henry’s force. The Mongol heavy
cavalry wore a leather lamellae atop silk shirts instead of heavy
metal armor. Some wore helmets made of iron, but many of the Mongol
warriors had helms that were also made of leather.5 Whereas
Duke Henry’s force, in particular his heavy cavalry were designed for
shock in destroying enemy formations, the Mongol force was designed
to keep distance from the enemy while in range for using their bows.
The Mongols were lighter, faster and more maneuverable in battle than
the European forces of Duke Henry. On April  9th 1241,
these two formidable armies faced off.6

Duke Henry took the initiative and
opened the battle by ordering a charge of his German heavy cavalry.
The first charge was forced to fall back after withering arrow
barrages from the Mongol mounted light archers.7 Duke
Henry ordered a second attack and this time used his entire heavy
cavalry force to include the monastic military orders in the charge.
This time the Mongol cavalry began to break and retreat the field.8
The mounted knights of Duke Henry’s heavy cavalry gave pursuit
to the fleeing Mongols in their swift retreat, but as the knights’
formations became strung out, the Mongols set into action their
trap. The Mongol retreat had been a lure and the Mongol horse archers
turned to once again face the knights with a withering barrage of
arrows directed at the armor laden knights’ horses.The
knights were now a considerable distance from the support of their
soldiers of foot, and many of them were themselves dismounted and
wearing approximately 50 -70 pounds of armor. With  the Mongol forces
having also moved troops around behind the knights where they set up
a smoke screen between the knights and Duke Henry who was with his
infantry, the element of combat known as the “fog of war” became
intense for Duke Henry. He could not longer see what was happening
forward of his position. He was blind to his knights’ situation.

The Mongol cavalry then attacked Duke
Henry’s infantry through the smoke. The Duke was now commanding an
infantry force attempting to absorb the shock of a cavalry charge.
The Mongol Cavalry charge was more than the Duke’s infantry could
withstand and Duke Henry’s force began to retreat. As Duke Henry
retreated with his bodyguards and the infantry, he too was killed in
action and later his head carried on a pike by the Mongols around the
walls of the city of Liegnitz.10

At the Battle of Liegnitz,
the Mongol force took great advantage of its prime assets, which were
speed, maneuverability, and the bow. Furthermore, the Mongols took
what was normally an advantage of the European knights in being
heavily armed and armored on strong war horses and manipulated this
into a disadvantage in speed and range of weaponry. It is very easy
for one today to state that Duke Henry fell for one of the oldest
tricks in the book. The trick of being lured by a false retreat into
an enemy ambush. However, this was not the norm in European warfare
and it can be reasonably speculated that the Duke had not confronted
such a military force using these tactics before. In fact, he never
again got the opportunity as he was killed during his retreat. The
Battle of Liegnitz shows that even in the year 1241 just as today,
speed coupled with maneuverability and range weapons could prove
vital when faced against an enemy that could almost surely defeat you
in a heads-up, close in fight. Furthermore, the Mongols were able to
neutralize the Duke’s force which was a combined-arms force of heavy
cavalry and infantry by separating these two components and
dismantling them individually rather than trying to face them
together at the same time. This proved essential for the Mongol
victory at the battle of Liegnitz.

1. Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua
B., Cairns, John. Warfare in the Medieval World. 121

2. Carey, Brian Todd, Allfree, Joshua
B., Cairns, John. Warfare. 121

3. Historynet.com. Mongol Invasion:
Battle of Liegnitz. 4

4. Historynet.com. Mongol Invasion. 3

5. Grant, R.G. Warrior: A Visual
History of the Fighting Man. 92-93

6. Carey. 121

7. Historynet.com. Mongol Invasion. 4

8. Historynet.com. 4

9. Carey. 121

10. Carey. 123

Bibliography

Andrew Jotischky and
Caroline Hull. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Medieval World.
London, UK: Penguin Group 2005.

Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfree, John Cairns.
Warfare in the Medieval World. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword 2009.

Historynet.com. Mongol
Invasion: Battle of Liegnitz. Historynet.com June 12, 2006. Accessed
6-12- 2011 at:
http://www.historynet.com/mongol-invasions-battle-of-liegnitz.htm

R.G. Grant. Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man. NY: DK Publishing 2007.

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