Battle of the Terek River, 22 April 1395

The battle of the Terek River (22 April 1395) was the final clash between Tamerlane and Toktamish, leader of the Golden Horde, and ended in a decisive victory for Tamerlane.

Toktamish had originally seized control of the Golden Horde with Tamerlane's help, but a rivalry had soon developed between the two men. Toktamish had suffered a major defeat at Kunduzcha, in the steppes to the north of the Caspian Sea in 1391, but this had not broken his power.

While Tamerlane conducted his Five-year Campaign (1392-6), Toktamish attempted to negotiate an alliance with Sultan Barquq, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt. In 1394 the Golden Horde raided the northern borders of Tamerlane's empire, advancing through Georgia before retreating back towards the steppes.

Tamerlane entered winter quarters on the south-west shores of the Caspian Sea. From there he sent a message to Toktamish asking why he was risking battle once again, giving him another chance for a peaceful settlement. According to the Zafarnama (Book of Victory) of Sharaf ad-din Ali Yazdi Toktamish came close to choosing peace, but was persuaded against it by his courtiers and generals, responding instead with a 'rude and imperious answer'. War was now inevitable.

Tamerlane's army broke camp on 10 March 1395. According to Yazdi the army was so large that it was five leagues wide as it advanced in order of battle, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the mountains.

Tamerlane found Toktamish at the Terek River. The Golden Horde was in a strong position, in a fortified camp that defended the only available ford across the river. A second source, the report of the Spanish envoy Clavijo, records how Tamerlane tricked his way across the river. For three days his army marched up the river, followed on the far bank by the Golden Horde. At the start of the third night the women of the camp were dressed up as soldiers and remained in the camp, while the army itself made a forced march back to the ford, getting across the river without a battle.

This fits in with Yazdi's account, which has Toktamish abandon his strong position and retreat for some distance before rallying. After crossing the Terek Tamerlane advanced along the river, towards an area where more supplies were available. At the same time Toktamish managed to rally his troups, and advanced towards Tamerlane along the lower Terek. On 21 April the two armies were finally facing each other on the same side of the Terek.

On the morning of 22 April Tamerlane organised his army into seven bodies. Mirza Mohammad Sultan, one of his grandsons, commanded in the centre, while Tamerlane led the reserve, which consisted of twenty seven chosen companies.

Tamerlane's left wing came under heavy pressure early in the battle when a strong detachment from Toktamish's right wing advanced to attack. Tamerlane responded by leading his reserves into the battle. Toktamish's men were forced back towards the main body of his army, where they rallied. One of Tamerlane's reserve companies advanced too far and ran into the enemy main body. Tamerlane's men were forced back towards his own position. The fighting retreat turned into a minor rout, leaving Tamerlane dangerously exposed and in hand-to-hand combat. A body of fifty men under Shaykh Nur ad-Din came to his rescue, and were followed by several other groups, including Tamerlane's regiment of guards. Finally Mirza Mohammad Sultan led some of his men from the centre to attack Toktamish's right wing, forcing them to retreat.

Tamerlane's right wing was hard pressed by Toktamish's left, which soon surrounded it. Tamerlane's mounted soldiers were forced to dismount to prepare for a last stand, but were saved by reinforcements arriving from the centre.

The fighting in the centre seems to have been fierce but rather more straightforward, and ended with Toktamish's men in retreat. The battle was finally decided when Toktamish himself turned and fled from the field, breaking his own power for ever.

In the aftermath of the battle Tamerlane attempted to capture Toktamish, but he escaped into the lands north of the Volga. Tamerlane then turned to the destruction of the power of the Golden Horde, sacking Tana, a trading city where the Don reached the Black Sea, and Sarai, the capital of the Horde. With these two cities destroyed the Golden Horde was never able to regain its former power, while the northern trade routes across Central Asia were closed, forcing the merchants to travel through Tamerlane's empire. Toktamish himself survived, and made a series of attempts to regain power although without success. Towards the end of Tamerlane's life he even attempted to gain the help of his vanquisher.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 August 2010), Battle of the Terek River, 22 April 1395 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_terek_river.html

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