Carl Fredrik Sverdrup, The Mongol Conquests (Albright)

Carl Fredrik Sverdrup

The Mongol Conquests

(Helion, 2017) 392 pp. £26.95

There is a great deal to appreciate about this volume. For one, it offers a look at the conquests of Genghis Khan and Sube’etei from an understanding of texts about campaigns in Mongolia and China and the Caspian Sea that have long been inaccessible to readers of Mongol history in English. For another, the book offers a large number of maps as well as charts that help the reader to gain a sense for the tactical, strategic, and logistical concerns of the Mongol army and their opponents during the rise of the Mongols from a small tribe involved in frequent nomadic warfare to a power that was dominant from Eastern Europe to Korea. Over the course of the book the author gives a detailed account of military operations as well as dispels some of the myths of Mongol creativity, showing them to be popularizers of the nomadic way of war as well as some of the ways of war practiced by obscure neighbors like the Khitan Empire. Likewise, the author also engages in some revisionist history where the question of manpower is concerned, pointing out that the Mongols were not outnumbered as frequently in battle as has often been claimed in other texts.

In terms of its audience, this book is clearly aimed at a graduate level reading audience. The book makes frequent reference to the geography of China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe in such a way that many readers will scramble to find an atlas or one of the book’s many maps to figure out the specific locations being spoken about. Likewise, this book is dense in reference to the names of various commanders of the Mongols and their many enemies during the period from 1190 or so through the early 1240’s, and that is a lot of names to keep track of. An example of the book’s dense prose is from a page taken at random: “The Daming revolt and Xia offenses were, however, minor distractions. The Jin had to consider how best to deal with the dual threats posed by the Mongols and Yelu Liuge. It was decided to try to first deal with the latter, and the Jin Court ordered Wanyan Husha, the officer defeated by the Mongols in 1211, to attack the rebel. He set out from Xianping, promising a big reward for killing Liugue. Temujin sent 3,000 men under Alci, Butu (the leader of the Ikires), and Aluduhan (?), to support the Khitan rebels. In June, with the Mongol help Liuge was able to repel the Jin army, defeating it at Dijinawuer (113).” Those readers who are able to keep the people, places, and chronology of the various military operations in mind will find this book to be immensely insightful and worthy of the time spent understanding its thorough contents.

Speaking of the contents, the book is organized in a thoughtful and excellent fashion, beginning with a list of maps, preface, introduction, a note on this book’s many and obscure sources, and a discussion of the phenomenon of nomads and sedentary states as well as the Khitan war machine that was adopted by the Mongols. After this the book moves to its first part, a detailed discussion of the warfare of Genghis Khan over the course of his life. After a biographical discussion of his life, as well as his officers and the army that he led, the author provides twenty-seven short chapters of the military operations of Temujin’s life. Roughly speaking, these can be divided into several periods: his time as an ally of To’oril from 1191 to 1202, his rise to power as master of Mongolia from 1203 to 1208, the first campaigns in China from 1209 to 1215, and the great western expedition against Khwarezm from 1219 to 1224. After that the author gives another 27 chapters that discuss the battles and operations of Sube’etei, beginning with a biography and a discussion of his early life before looking at three different campaigns: his heroic circling of the Caspian Sea from 1216 to 1224, his participation in the second round of Chinese campaigns from 1226 to 1234, and his leadership of the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe from 1236 to 1246, culminating in a series of brilliant victories in Russia, Poland, Germany, and Hungary that have long been famous in the West. After this there are two appendices that show a breakdown of the Mongol army and a detailed discussion of the battles of the Mongols and their allies followed by a bibliography and index.

This book is particularly worthwhile in the way that it frames the discussion of the Mongol army and its operations in a variety of contexts. Sube’etei is praised for his tactical brilliance but it is noted that he was a servant of the Mongol regime who lacked an awareness of or focus on larger strategic questions. Likewise, the author shows from a discussion of Genghis Khan’s early battles that even when young Temujin was less than uniformly successful as a general in a tactical sense that he had a certain ability to win people over and thus preserve his position in the face of occasional defeats. The author is keen on examining questions of political legitimacy as well as logistical strength in addition to tactical and strategic brilliance. Additionally, the author’s use of texts unfamiliar to Western mainstream audiences allows the reader to gain an understanding of much that is unknown to most readers of Mongol history, especially about the early years of the Mongol rise to dominance in Central Asia. Yet although this book offers a great deal of insight to those who are close readers and able to understand and appreciate this book’s wealth of detail, there are a few places where the author would have benefitted from some additional copy-editing, as some of the language can be a bit sloppy and some of the dates are in error. These minor flaws are hopefully to be corrected in future printings of the book.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

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