Some battles and sieges were bloody, others were outright massacres – massacres which saw more dead in a few days that many wars did in years. Whilst the battle of the Somme and the siege of Stalingrad are well known for their massive casualties, lesser known is the vast bloodshed of earlier battles. Below are ten of the bloodiest battles and sieges in early history.
Battle of Kulikovo, 1380 AD
The Battle of Kulikovo took place between united Russian principalities seeking independence and their overlords, the Golden Horde. Meeting at Kulikovo Field on September 8th, the Russian Coalition bought 60,000 men, with the Golden Horde bringing 100,000 to 150,000. Dmitri, a Russian prince, changed his armor with a young soldier during the battle. The trick worked, with the Horde firing at the soldier instead of the prince, believing him to be dead.
After three of hours of fighting, with their Prince still alive, the Russians were successful in killing almost the entire enemy army at the cost of only 20,000 of their own. A final Russian cavalry charge by Dimitri’s half-brother saw the end of the blood-soaked battle, with around 120,000 to 170,000 casualties.
The Battle of Kalinga
The Kalinga War was fought from 262 – 261 BC, between the Mauryan Empire and Kalinga, an Indian republic. It culminated in a battle fought near the Daya River. The Mauryan were able to muster more than 400,000 men for the battle, whilst Kalinga, already exhausted, bought around 63,000. Despite their fewer numbers, the Kalinga attacked the invading force valiantly for their independence. Coming close to victory on several occasions in the battle, the Kalingaraj himself led the battle personally.
Unable to overcome overwhelming odds, the fight saw the river run red with the blood of the dead. The 13th Rock Edict of Ashoka suggests that the entire Kalinga force was killed, along with many civilians who rose up during the battle to defend their republic, as many as 200,000 according to the Mauryan Emperor. Almost an equal number of invaders were killed and not a single man remained in Kalinga to live in slavery. Ashoka the Great, Emperor of the Maurya Dynasty was said to have been so shocked by the bloodshed that he never led a war of conquest again and converted to Buddhism.
Third Battle of Panipat
On the 14th January, Panipat, 60 miles north of Delhi, came under attack by an Afghan coalition led by the Durrani Empire. The Marathas responded by sending an army of 70,000 to face the Afghan force of 100,000 men. The 70,000 soldiers were accompanied by 200,000 non-combatants, mostly pilgrims. The overeager and overconfident Maratha forces were unable to break Afghan lines time and again. After losing many men attacking their lines and to Afghan cavalry charges, Sadashivrao Bhau, the Indian commander, led a personal charge. Afghan soldiers who had been captured took advantage of this, revolting. Maratha troops, thinking the enemy was attacking from behind and seeing their leader gone, started to flee.
After what remained of the Indian cavalry was decimated by a charge that broke the battle plan, the Maratha army routed. As the Afghan army followed them, they found the 200,000 non-combatants that had followed and slaughtered many. With military losses totaling around 80,000 for both sides, civilians made up most of the dead on this bloody day in January.
Siege of Tenochtitlan
The city of Tenochtitlan, twice the size of the largest European city at the time, was encountered by the Spanish when they ventured into the lands of the Aztec Empire. The Spanish, under Hernán Cortés, laid siege to city in 1521 AD, along with 13 ships, around 1000 Spanish soldiers and approximately 100,000 native allies. On May 26th, Hernán began a siege of the city which would see the end of the Aztec Empire. This was after his troops had carried out a massacre during an Aztec festival and infected the local populace with smallpox.
The Fall of Tenochtitlan is famous for its vicious fighting. This involved the Aztec soldiers planting spears in the Tlacopan causeway, which surrounded the city, these spears bought Spanish ships to a halt and allowed them to be boarded, with the Aztecs massacring entire crews in hand to hand combat. By August, after entering the city, the Spanish were bogged down by building to building fighting for days on end until August 13th, when the siege was successful. This, in addition to crippling food and water shortages, led to the death of more than 200,000 Aztec soldiers and civilians. The Spanish suffered up to 860 losses, with their native allies suffering upwards of 20,000.
Battle of Salsu
The Battle of Salsu occurred during the second Goguryeo-Sui War between the Korean Kingdom of Goguryeo and the Chinese Sui dynasty. The Sui Emperor sent 1,000,000 men into enemy territory to capture the Korean capital of Goguryeo in 612 AD. In response, the Goguryeo Emperor sent 305,000 men to defend the city. To do so, an ambush was set up at Salsu. The Korean force had built a dam blocking a river in the area, and when a Sui force of 300,000 men crossed the river, the dam was busted, crushing the Sui army under a tidal wave. Those that survived were charged by Korean cavalry, with only 2700 soldiers of the original 305,000 surviving and minimal casualties being inflicted to the Korean army.
Battle of Didgori
The Battle of Didgori, taking place on August 12th, involved immense amounts of deceit and slaughter. The Great Seljuq Empire invaded the Kingdom of Georgia with a force of between 400,000 and 600,000 men. King David IV of Georgia met this army with a force of 55,600. In the morning, a force of 200 cavalry left the Georgian camp, signalling to the Seljuqs that they wished to defect. The Muslim commander, clearly not the brightest of military minds, brought them into his tent, at which point, the Georgian 200 cavalrymen proceeded to butcher the entire leadership of the enemy arm. The Seljuq army, unable to form a defense without leadership, was butchered by the advancing Georgians. Around 70% were killed and 25% captured.
Battle of the Badger
In 1210, after Genghis Khan insulted Emperor Weishaowang of China, the Emperor executed the Mongolian ambassador. Genghis Khan invaded Jin Dynasty lands, with a force of 90,000 cavalry. To combat their advance, the Jin bought a force of 500,000 to Badger Mouth. Genghis managed to flank the forces, killing resting Jin soldiers in supply camps and surrounding the main force from all sides.
The Jin force was butchered in the attack, with nearly every man being killed in the initial attack or in the retreat. In total, 500,000 were killed on the battlefield or executed if there were “lucky” enough to survive. Half of the 950,000-strong Jin army was wiped out in a single battle.
Battle of Changping
The Battle of Changping took place in China after relations between the State of Zhao and the State of Qin broke down. After Qin attempted to invade Zhao in 262 BC, they were forced back and a stalemate ensued. In July 260 BC, Zhao took 400,000 men and attacked the Qin camp. After being ambushed by Qin forces in a mountain pass before they could make it to the camp, the Zhao forces were surrounded. After 46 days without supplies, the State of Zhao surrendered.
The Qin forces took around 250,000 casualties, while Zhao fared far worse, with his entire army being executed in mass slaughter after the battle. In all, the battle saw the death of around 650,000 men.
Siege of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, occupied by Jewish defenders came under siege in February 66 AD by the Roman Empire as part of the First Jewish-Roman war. The lack of proper organization or leadership amongst the Jewish defenders meant that the Roman legions of 70,000 men could easily overwhelm the 40,000 defenders by August. Once the Romans were in control of a large portion of the city, they went on a killing spree against any suspected Jew in the city.
In all, the siege saw 1,100,000 deaths as Josephus, a historian and scholar of the time, claimed. This figure includes around 40,000 soldiers on both sides, the rest were civilians, mostly Jews. Josephus explains that the slaughter was so intense that legionnaires had to climb “over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination.”
Siege of Baghdad
If there’s one thing Mongols like more than pillaging, it’s killing. This was shown by the barbarism that took place during the Siege of Baghdad which took place from January 29th until February 10th, 1258 AD. Hulagu Khan, doing what all Khans do best, marched on Baghdad and demanded its surrender. The defending force of 50,000 men made the fatal mistake of surrendering to the 150,000 strong horde after a few days. Then began one of the biggest massacres in early history. The 50,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed alongside low estimates of 1,000,000 civilians. However, some claimed that as many as 2,000,000 civilians were massacred when the Mongols entered the city. Whilst numbers are unclear, we know that every last person within the city was butchered, with a low estimate of well over a million casualties.