The Nguyen Dynasty

01

Dec
2021

The First Mongol War

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The situation on the northern border became volatile as Southern Song power faded under the blows of Mongol invaders. Conditions on the Song border deteriorated to the point that tribute goods could not be sent to the Song court because of bandits. Then, in late 1240, officials on the border in Lang Son  Province reported that “northern people” had raided and plundered the prov- ince. A year later, Tran Canh sent soldiers by land to attack Song border  jurisdictions. He himself led a naval force in small boats to attack up the rivers in the same Song coastal jurisdictions that Ly Thuong Kiet had attacked in 1075, at modern Qinzhou and Hepu. The aim of these attacks was to clear away bandit lairs on the Song side of the border and to advise Song border officials that incapacity to control disorderly conduct from their side would not be matched by Tran passivity. In 1242, after further campaigning along the border by a Tran general, secure communications were restored between the Tran and Song courts.

In the 1250s, Kubilai, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was campaigning against Southern Song. He took Chengdu in Sichuan Province in 1252. In 1256, his general Uriyangqadai moved further south to overrun the Nan Zhao kingdom in Yunnan. In summer and autumn of 1257, Uriyangqadai advanced downriver through the mountains toward Thang Long. He had sent envoys to the Tran but waited in vain for them to return. He led a force of around 25,000 men, 5,000 Mongols, and 20,000 local levies from Yunnan. His aim was to contribute to Mongol attacks on Southern Song from the north and west by passing through Tran territories to attack from the south. It was an unprecedented crisis for the Tran, who threw the Mongol envoys into a prison and had no intention of allowing Uriyangqadai to pass.

The Tran manufactured weapons and trained soldiers as the Mongols moved steadily through the mountainous terrain between the Yunnan plateau and the Red River plain in two columns, one along the left bank of the Red River and one along the right bank of the Chay River. Then, in the last month of the year, when the dry season had started and it was feasible for cavalry to enter the lowlands, Uriyangqadai emerged from the mountains northwest of Thang Long. His two columns converged at modern Viet Tri, where the Red and Chay Rivers meet, and proceeded eastward, north of the Red River.

Tran Canh personally led his men to block the invaders near the modern district of Binh Xuyen, around thirty-five kilometers northwest of Thang Long. Meanwhile, Tran Thu Do’s wife, Thuan Trinh, the former queen of Ly Sam and the mother of Tran Canh’s queen, being the ranking woman in the palace, had organized the evacuation of Tran women and children, including the crown prince, from Thang Long. She made sure that the boats also carried as many weapons as possible for soldiers gathering downriver. Tran Canh could not hold back Uriyangqadai. His general Le Phu Tran skillfully delayed the Mongols as Tran Canh hastened to his boats to make his escape. The Mongol captain tasked with capturing him chased after the royal boats with his men on horseback along the riverbank, but could not keep up. His failure earned him a cup of poison. Tran Canh withdrew downriver past Thang Long, leaving the rearguard in the hands of General Le Phu Tran. Uriyangqadai occupied Thang Long, where he found his envoys trussed up in a dungeon, one of them dead. The city was empty of people and provisions. Forays out of the city to collect food met with stiff resistance and returned with little of value.

The initial defeat and the flight downriver broke the morale of some Tran commanders. As the crown prince’s boat moved upriver in search of the king’s boat, the boat of one officer fleeing rapidly downriver sought to avoid him by passing on the far side of the river. The men with the crown prince shouted to ask him where were the Mongols. He replied: “I don’t know. Ask the guys who atethe mangos.” He was referring to an occasion before the campaign when the king  had gathered his men and distributed mangos to them. This man had distin- guished himself by being so overcome with fright that he could not eat his  mango.

Later, in a small boat with the 17-year-old crown prince at his side, the king encountered the boat of one of his brothers, Tran Nhat Hieu, and asked him what he advised. Tran Nhat Hieu remained silent but using water wrote with his finger two characters on his oar meaning to flee to Song. The king then went to Tran Thu Do’s boat. The 65-year-old dynastic rock reportedly said: “My head has not yet fallen to the ground, so there is nothing for you to worry about.” Relying upon the counsel and battlefield prowess of Le Phu Tran and others, Tran Canh rallied his men and returned to the offensive, attacking and pushing back the Mongol force at Thang Long. From when battle was joined until the Mongols retreated upriver was only twelve days.

The Mongols were a new kind of enemy. This brief encounter, later numbered as the first of three Mongol invasions, would be remembered as relatively insignificant in comparison with the other Mongol wars in the 1280s. But it was a scare, and some Tran nobles fled, not bothering to assemble their soldiers for battle. Le Phu Tran, a man who in 1250 had risen to the rank of general on the basis of his martial merit, was celebrated as a hero. Tran Canh honored him with marriage to his former wife, the Ly Princess Chieu Thanh, who had been separated from him in 1237 by Tran Thu Do. Although Chieu Thanh had been unable to bear children for Tran Canh, she bore a son and a daughter for Le Phu Tran and died with honor twenty years later. In 1274, Le Phu Tran was assigned to teach military strategy to crown prince Tran Kham, Tran Canh’s grandson, who would be king during the second and third Mongol invasions.

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