Carl Fredrik Sverdrup, The Mongol Conquests (Helion, 2017, 2020)
Most of us have heard of Genghis Khan and his Mongols and the massive empire they created across Asia in the 13th Century. Less well known is that the Empire continued to expand after his death under his great general Sube’etei. Carl Fredrik Sverdrup’s book dissects the military campaigns that brought this about, focusing on operational aspects. The result is a detailed and authoritative account that will be hard to surpass.
After an annotated discussion of the main sources and a brief background survey, The Mongol Conquests is split into two parts; the first tracking Genghis Khan on campaign and the second Sube’etei. Sverdrup describes the Mongol army then delves into their campaigns, battles, and sieges in a blizzard of short chapters for both generals each with an introductory comment from a source and most with a map included. He also stops the action at times to provide a short overview of the chapters to follow. Sverdrup adds a brief verdict for most of the campaigns, which combine to form a cogent analysis of Mongol performance and that of their enemies. He leaves no doubt that the Mongols were a highly intelligent, determined, and ruthless foe – of Sube’etei, Sverdrup writes that he “conquered for the sake of conquest” and it showed, though Genghis Khan also displayed considerable diplomatic skills. He also notes, however, that the Mongols were not ‘supermen’ as they are often portrayed, and for the most part they deployed superior tactics and strategies over brute force and terror to achieve victory. They also suffered several defeats and setbacks, and in the end, even the Mongols under their greatest generals discovered the limits of Empire. Sverdrup concludes with useful appendices on the Mongol army and a list of their battles.
Historians rely on their sources to write with authority, and Sverdrup surely cannot be faulted in that regard. Each chapter concludes with the sources used and Sverdrup is also willing to engage modern historians and their interpretations. He appends a significant bibliography too. I highlight that here because The Mongol Conquests is Sverdrup’s first book, but he handles his material with some aplomb. Not only are his sometimes controversial arguments solidly argued, he writes well too – the Battle of Sanfeng chapter was a particular highlight for me as an example of how to clearly narrate a battle. Overall, Sverdrup’s book is an excellent introduction to the Mongol conquests of the 13th Century and a ‘must-read’ for enthusiasts of mediaeval warfare in the East.
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