Mongolian general and the primary military strategist of Genghis Khan and Ögedei Khan. He directed more than 20 campaigns and won 65 pitched battles, during which he conquered or overran more territory than any other commander in history as part of the expansion of the Mongol Empire. He often gained victory by means of imaginative and sophisticated strategies and routinely coordinated movements of armies that operated hundreds of kilometers apart from each other. Subutai is well known for the geographical diversity and success of his expeditions, which took him from central Asia to the Russian steppe and into Europe.
Historians believe Subutai was born in the year 1175, probably just west of the upper Onon River in what is now Mongolia. He was an ethnic Tuvan. He belonged to the Uriankhai clan, known as the reindeer people,[Note 1] a group of Siberian forest-dwellers who did not live like the plains Mongols to their south. As a result of his upbringing, Subutai lacked the natural horsemanship training from birth that all Mongols possessed, making him an outsider among them. Subutai's family had been associated with the family of Temujin (future Genghis Khan) for many generations. Subutai's great-great grandfather, Nerbi, was supposedly an ally of the Mongol Khan Tumbina Sechen. Subutai's father, Jarchigudai, supposedly supplied food to Temujin and his followers when they were in dire straits at lake Baljuna, and Subutai's elder brother Jelme also served as a general in the Mongol army and was a close companion of Temujin. Jelme rescued a severely wounded Temujin (hit by an arrow from Jebe, then an enemy) in the process of unification of the Mongolian plateau. Another brother, Chaurkhan (also romanized as Ca'urqan) is mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols.
According to Subutai's biography in the History of Yuan, Subutai's father was once driving a herd of sheep in order to present them to his overlord, Taizu (Genghis Khan). Encountering robbers, he was seized. Huluhun (Subutai's brother) and Subutai arrived in good time, and with their lances stabbed some of the robbers. Horses and men fell together, and the remainder of the band withdrew and departed. Consequently, they relieved their father's difficulty, and the sheep were able to attain the emperor's station.
Despite this close family association, some consider Subutai's career proof that the Mongol Empire was a meritocracy. He was a commoner by birth, the son of Jarchigudai, who was supposedly a blacksmith. When he was 14 years old, Subutai left his clan to join Temujin's army, following in the footsteps of his older brother Jelme who had joined when he was 17 years old, and he rose to the very highest command available to one who was not a blood relative to Genghis. Within a decade he rose to become a general, in command of one of 4 tumens operating in the vanguard. During the invasion of Northern China in 1211, Subutai was partnered with the senior Mongol general Jebe, an apprentice and partnership they would maintain until Jebe's death in 1223. In 1212 he took Huan by storm, the first major independent exploit mentioned in the sources. Genghis Khan is reported to have called him one of his "dogs of war," who were 4 of his 8 top lieutenants, in The Secret History of the Mongols:
They are the Four Dogs of Temujin. They have foreheads of brass, their jaws are like scissors, their tongues like piercing awls, their heads are iron, their whipping tails swords . . . 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 (different than Kublai Khan), Jelme, and Subotai.
— The Secret History of the Mongols
Appointed to the prestigious post of Genghis Khan's ger (yurt) door guard during his teen years, Mongol histories say that Subutai said to Genghis Khan, "I will ward off your enemies as felt cloth protects one from the wind." This access enabled him to listen on, and later join, the Mongol strategy meetings somewhere around his late teens and early twenties. Throughout most of Genghis Khan's lifetime, Subutai would have the opportunity to apprentice on detached missions under the elite Jebe (1211–12, 1213–14, 1219–23) and Muqali (1213–14), in addition to Genghis Khan himself (1219).
Subutai's first chance at independent command came in 1197 during action against the Merkit, when he was just 22 years old. Subutai's role was to act as the vanguard and defeat one of the Merkit camps at the Tchen River. Subutai refused Genghis Khan's offer for extra elite troops, and instead traveled to the Merkit camp alone, posing as a Mongol deserter. Subutai managed to convince the Merkits that the main Mongol army was far away, and they were in no danger. As a result, the Merkit lowered their guard and limited their patrols, allowing the Mongols to easily surprise and encircle the Merkits, capturing two generals. He also served as a commander of the vanguard with distinction in the 1204 battle against the Naiman that gave the Mongols total control over Mongolia.
Subutai was a major innovator in the art of war. In the invasions of China, Russia, and Europe, Subutai routinely coordinated large forces often separated by large distances. Subutai's maneuvers were designed to mislead his foes and strike them from unexpected directions. The Mongol invasion of the Jin in 1232 continually pulled the hitherto successful Jin forces apart despite their highly advantageous terrain, as they could not determine which Mongol armies were the feints and which were the true threats until their main army became isolated and starved. Strongly fortified locations would be bypassed and ignored until all organized resistance had been destroyed. Sieges would be limited to critical or vulnerable locations; in other situations, the Mongols either left a blockading force, or simply ignored fortified citadels and devastated the surrounded agriculture so that the remaining people would starve if they remained within fortified walls.
In contrast to the common perception of steppe horse archer armies slowly weakening their foes with arrows for many hours or even days, such as at the battle of Carrhae or the battle of Manzikert, Subutai fought in a much more decisive and fluid manner where heavy firepower was used to create openings for rapid cavalry charges with deep formations. At the battle of the Kalka River in 1223, Subutai's 20,000 man army routed the 80,000 man Russian army by stringing it out after a 9-day retreat, and then immediately turning and delivering a decisive charge without a prolonged missile bombardment. The vanguard of the Russian army was already put in flight before the second wave even reached the battlefield and began to deploy.
Subutai was one of the first Mongol generals, alongside Genghis Khan, who realized the value of engineers in siege warfare. Even in field battles he made use of siege engines. In the Battle of Mohi, the Hungarian crossbowmen repelled a night bridge crossing by the Mongols, and inflicted considerable casualties on the Mongols fighting to cross the river the following day. Subutai ordered huge stonethrowers to clear the bank of Hungarian crossbowmen and open the way for his light cavalry to cross the river without further losses. This use of siege weapons was one of the first recorded uses of artillery bombardments against the enemy army to disrupt their resistance while simultaneously attacking them. In execution, his usage functioned more akin to the creeping barrage of World War I, used to soften and disrupt enemy lines right before an attack.
Like Genghis Khan, Subutai was a master at creating divisions within the enemy ranks and surprising them. The terrifying Mongol reputation, combined with highly effective spy networks that spread discord, as well as incentives to key local leaders, prevented his opponents from effectively uniting and fighting at their full capacity.