In 1241, a Mongol army entered Poland committing the same kind of rapine and pillage that it had wrought across Russia.  The horrors heard of the Horde from refugees roused not just Poland, but also the Holy Roman Empire to fling back this war machine from whence it came.  Henry II the Pious of Silesia (thus High Duke of all Poland) had added to his allied force troops from Moravia and Bavarian volunteer miners – the latter reminiscent of the Peasants’ Crusade of 1096 that was massacred by the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia.

All in all, the Europeans easily outnumbered the Mongol host.  Yet the joint Polish-German force was annihilated, Henry, for all his piety, ending up with his head paraded on a pike.  As if to prove that their enemies did not learn from the errors of others, to repeated success, the Mongols adopted tactics independently of the knowledge of the Carthaginian military genius Hannibal but using the same stratagem as deployed at Cannae – a feigned retreat in the centre while the flanks held firm so the main body of the opposing army was swallowed up, dissolving into confusion as attacks ranged in from all sides.  They were also masters of what has come to be known as the ‘Parthian Shot’ – cavalry riders firing backwards while ostensibly fleeing.  The Mongol ingenuity had been deployed across much of Eurasia and until 1260 (in the Levant) was invariably irresistible.

After the battle, the Mongol horde turned south.  The Poles rejoiced; they thought they had repulsed the invader, that the Mongols’ victory was a Pyrrhic one and that the battle, though ending in defeat, was a necessary sacrifice.  Thereafter, 9th April was for long time celebrated in Poland as thanksgiving for being delivered and Polish children are still taught how the European allies had successfully stopped the westward advance of the Mongols at Liegnitz.  Of course, it was nothing of the sort.  The Mongol general Subutai, one of Genghis Khan’s four ‘dogs of war’ and now masterminding the invasion of central and western Europe under Genghis’ successor Ögedei, had sent that Mongol force as a diversionary incursion (another ‘feint’ cut a destructive swathe through the Balkans) while the main army advanced on Hungary.  The northern expedition was merely regrouping with the main battle force for the assault on Vienna and beyond in 1242 (the Hungarians being similarly overrun).  Then, unknown to western chroniclers of the time, the Mongols went back home to elect (or rather ‘acclaim’) a new khan on learning of the death of  Ögedei.

The myth-making in Polish history came to me on learning of events in another thoroughfare between Asia and Europe: Ukraine (Slav for ‘borderland’).  The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, has accepted the resignation of politically under fire Defence Minister, Valeriy Heletey.  This follows a rout of the Ukrainian regular army and pro-Kiev militia in late August by separatists directly backed by Russia; this forced Poroshenko, reluctantly, to agree to a ceasefire, after concluding that Kiev could not defeat Moscow’s aims in a straight fight.  Heletey, in a fierce debate last week, defended his handling of the fighting in Ilovaisk, insisting that despite their losses, Ukrainian forces had inflicted heavy casualties on the adversary, which he said had ‘stopped Putin’, the Russian president – much like the Poles who thought they had repulsed the Mongols by suffering a shattering reverse.  As Vladimir Putin warned in a telephone call to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, Moscow could take Kiev in two weeks were he minded to do so.

Poroshenko, ahead of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Milan later this week, stated on his website: ‘I don’t have illusions. These will be difficult talks. But I am ready’.  It is Heletey who is having his ‘head’ (or at least his reputation) paraded on a pike, being made a scapegoat for the concessions Poroshenko will have to make to get Putin to back off.  A far cry from Heletey promising a triumphal procession for Ukraine in the Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in March as revenge for the abrupt departure of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych into exile following protests.

It is said that the last casualty of 1968’s Tet Offensive by the Vietnamese Communists was US President Lyndon B. Johnson, as he chose not to seek re-election when, to the US public at least, his policy in Indo-China seemed in tatters.  The last casualty of August’s crushing catastrophe seems to be Valeriy Heletey.