Subedei (Сүбээдэй), also known as Subedei the Valiant, served the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan and Ögedei. Beginning as a common soldier, he attained the Mongols’ highest military post purely by merit. He was renowned for his military genius as a strategist and tactician, and his astounding successes on campaigns from Korea to Poland.
Born as the second son to an Uriankhai blacksmith in 1175, Subedei joined Genghis’ camp at the age of 14, following after his older brother Jelme who was already a respected commander. Initially tasked with guarding the door of Genghis’ ger, Subedei was privy to military discussions between the khan and his commanders while undergoing his military training, giving him significant insight at an early age.
Slowly working his way up in rank, Subedei played a role in the consolidation of the tribes in Mongolia prior to the 1206 khuriltai that elected Temüjin as Genghis Khan. Considered one of Genghis’ “dogs of war,” he was already making a name for himself:
They feed on human flesh and are tethered with an iron chain. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails, swords. They feed on dew. Running, they ride on the back of the wind. In the day of battle, they devour enemy flesh. Behold, they are now unleashed, and they slobber at the mouth with glee. These four dogs are Jebe and Kublai, Jelme and Subotai.
Following the unification of the tribes, the Mongols brought their campaigns outside of Mongolia. Almost always outnumbered in battle, the Mongols’ success was based on the speed and maneuverability of their cavalry, the discipline of their soldiers (Subedei himself apparently rode 1200 miles in just over a week when called to meet with Genghis), and the ability to adapt as they quickly learned the art of siege warfare - something unknown to a people without permanent dwellings or defensive walls.
Subedei was at the forefront of these campaigns and acted as the Mongols’ chief strategist. He worked with a vast network of spies to keep him informed and to learn as much as possible about the next target. He was also a firm supporter of Genghis’ policy that any cities that did not surrender were to be looted, destroyed and the inhabitants killed. Although ruthless, Subedei was even respected by opposing commanders:
After the battle [Jin commander] Wan-yen Yi was offered his life if he would enter Mongol service but he refused, saying his honour would not allow it. He made one last request: that he should be able to set eyes on the great Subedei… Busy supervising executions, Subedei listened, bored, while Wan-yen paid him a handsome complement: it was not chance, but destiny, that produced great conquerors like him…
Under Ögedei, Subedei brought the Mongols to the gates of Western Europe, with fighting taking place as far as Legnica in Poland. The Mongols’ westward push culminated in the Battle of Mohi in Hungary. King Bela IV’s army of around 70,000 was annihilated and the Mongols crossed the Danube and moved toward Austria. Hungary was seen as the last major obstacle to the Mongols overrunning western Europe, but when Ögedei died in 1241, much of the Mongol force returned home.
There is little uncertainty from historians that the Mongols could have defeated any remaining European army, but there are doubts as to whether the Mongols would have been successful in the end due to the climate, lack of pasture for horses and overstretched supply lines. There were, however, plans for this campaign before
Ögedei’s death and Subedei is said to have wanted to reach the Atlantic.
Subedei was briefly placed in charge of the conquest of Song China before retiring in his 70s. After almost sixty years of service, Subedei had “conquered thirty-two nations and won sixty-five pitched battles,” easily placing him among the greatest commanders in history. He died in 1248 at the age of 72 or 73.
Further reading: The only book styled as a biography is Richard Gabriel’s Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant. Frank McLynn’s Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World gives better insight into the character of Subedei than other histories usually offer. Any general book on the Mongol Empire covers the campaigns and Subedei usually appears infrequently throughout. To be released shortly is Carl Fredrik Sverdrup’s The Mongol Conquests: The Military Conquests of Genghis Khan and Sube’etei.