In an age when opposing armies were little more than feudal levies around a nucleus of well-armed and well-trained, but relatively immobile and inflexible, knights, the Mongol armies were the dominant force on the battlefields of Asia and Europe. Mongol forces, made up of skilled warriors well trained in marksmanship and horsemanship, were characterized by absolute discipline, a well-understood chain of command, an excellent communications system, superior mobility, and a unified and extremely effective tactical doctrine and organization. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989]

The Mongol army was the dominant military force of the 13th century. Never very large, it relied on superior tactics and speed, and was like one massive well-disciplined cavalry which moved rapidly, adapted quickly to changing situations and followed complex battle strategies.

The core of Genghis Khan's army consisted of only 23,000 horsemen who fought with composite bows and hand axes and protected themselves with waterproof leather armor.Chinese and Middle Eastern engineers, experienced with catapults and other siege devises, were hired to attack fortified cities.

Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great had similar-sized armies. The Mongol army was divided into units of 10-man squads ( arvan), 100-man companies ( zuun), 1,000-man battalions and 10,000 men divisions ( tumens), with an imperial guard of 10,000 soldiers protecting the khan and important generals. An entire army might consist of 100,000 fighting men, which traveled in a massive city-size caravan with family members and support animals.

Mongol Soldiers

There was no such thing as a civilian population in Mongolia. War was a full job and either you were a soldier and somehow supported a soldier. Members of rival tribes were separated and spread among different divisions. Discipline was established by the merciless enforcement of Mongol customs. Adulters were killed and the kidnapping of women was discouraged (eliminating quarrels over women). Booty was divided equally among all the men, and any man who abandoned the battlefield was killed.

Mongol soldiers were rigoursly trained. To sharpen their fighting skills and get meat for a huge feast, the Mongols held an annual great hunt called a gorugen in which thousands of horsemen encircled all the game in a large area and closed in. Each man was allotted only one arrow; failure to kill an animal was met with ridicule.

Most of the warriors in the Mongol armies were Turks. Some Mongol armies were made up mainly of non-Mongols. The Mongols also recruited soldiers from the cities and kingdoms that came under their power. The Mongol army that besieged Baghdad, for example, included Georgians, Armenians and Persians. The Mongols were leaders.

Christopher Berg of Sam Houston State University wrote: “Acts of bravery and skill were rewarded. In one particular battle, an enemy warrior killed the horse that Genghis Khan was riding. When he was apprehended, he “admitted this and was pardoned and taken into the khan’s service with the nickname ‘Jebe,’ or ‘arrow.’ Jebe rose to become one of Temujin’s greatest generals.” [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^\]

Mongol Weapons

composite bow

The Mongols improved on Persian and Chinese weapons. Mongol cavalrymen carried maces, lances with a hook and snare, sabers, three-quivered arrows and a composite bow made of wood, sinew and horn. Strapped to their left arms solder carried daggers used in close range fighting. The front guard was made up of lancers who rode high in the saddle with short stirrups which gave leverage for powerful thrusts.

Mongol bows had a range of 250 meters, twice that of English longbows. The Mongols could fire up to six arrows a minute, and utilized several arrow and arrowhead designs, including longe-range ones, short-rage ones and ones that could pierce armor. In addition to those made strictly for killing, they used arrows that left terrible wounds, ones that whistled to scare the enemy, ones that whistled and wounded the enemy and ones that were dipped in naphtha and set on fire.

Towards the end of the Mongol era both soldiers and horses were protected in leather armor made from horsehide soaked in urine. Leather armor was lighter and more flexible than the chain-mail favored by Europeans. To protect their faces, Mongol cavalrymen carried small leather shields in their left arm. Under a loose robe they wore a tunic of tightly woven silk that blunted the impact of enemy arrows. Their boots were lined with sewn-in metal plates that protected the warrior’s calves.

The Mongols were the first to use gunpowder in battle. They used it as an explosive not as a propellant to hurl bullets or cannon fodder. During sieges the Mongols used mangonels, giant catapults, to hurl stones and other objects.

Mongol Battle Tactics

The Mongols pioneered the use of feigned flight, surprise attacks, hostage taking, psychological warfare and human shields. The Mongol cavalry, situated around the around the outside of the tumen, could swiftly advance to the front with little warning, and attack the enemy with a hail of arrows. A screen of outer riders acted as an early warning system. The size of the Mongol army was exaggerated by placing dummies on the backs of horses and lighting strings of bonfires at night.

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: In China, Genghis discovered the art of siege. Chinese engineers would prove to be Genghis’ secret weapon against all who lived in fortified cities. Furthermore, Genghis would use another tactic repeatedly with great effect: terror. Sieges were used to take fortified positions while the “calculated use of terror” was used to demoralize any who thought to defy the Mongols. [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^\]

Mongol cavalry

In field battles the Mongols typically showered their enemy with armor-piercing arrows paving the way for a cavalry charge in which swift-moving horsemen hacked down survivors with hooked lances. A favorite military ploy was feigning retreat and luring the enemy into a prepared position and surrounding them with mounted archers or suddenly turning on the pursing army and raining them with arrows, with a concerted effort made at going after their leader. Mongol tactics and mobility were so superior to that of their rivals, that often easily defeated armies that were several times larger than theirs.

When attacking a large powerful city, the Mongols advanced on a broad front. They employed this tactic effectively in the assault on Samarkand where the force coming from the desert north was more than 1,300 kilometers northwest of a force coming in over the Pamir mountains. When the Mongols attacked Europe they formed an even broader front, one that stretched from the Baltics to Transylvania.

Such tactics only worked if there was good communication. Mongol scouts could travel at a rate of up to a hundred miles a day to gather intelligence at speeds unrivaled in its time. Messages for these scouts as well news from a large network of spies was relayed back to the khan and between commanders and officers by swift-riding Pony-Express-like messengers and an elaborate system of flag signals (the Mongols invented semaphores).

Mongols in Battle

When advancing on a city, the Mongols formed several columns that were able to overwhelm anything thrown at them because of their superior mobility and firepower. Historians say the the modern armies used planes and tanks the same way the Mongols used their horses. Germany’s Heinz Guderian, the father of the blitzkrieg, carefully studied Mongol tactics.

Before a Mongol battle, divinations a displays of prowess by champions were held and during the fighting, huge kettledrums mounted on the backs of camels were used to herald every Mongol charge.

The Mongol cavalry often attacked as a huge swarm and did much o fthe heavy fighting. Describing a Mongol cavalry charge, the Persian historian and Mongol civil servant Ala-ad-Din-Ata-Malik wrote, thy were "more numerous than ants and locusts," more than "the sand of the desert or drops of rain."

The Mongols army was so powerful it could attach tow large cities at the same time and fight a war on two fronts. To count the dead piles of stones set down before a battle---one stone for each soldier. After battle the stones were taken, again one for each soldier. The number that remained represented the number of dead or seriously wounded.

Mongol Sieges

Mongol catapult

Borrowing technology from the Arabs, Persians and Chinese, the Mongols refined sieges to an art form. During the sieges of walled cities and fortified compounds, the Mongols shot flaming arrows, hurled vessels of oil and fired animals, 100-pound rocks, human corpses and fiery naphtha bombs (probably made from long-burning mixture of sulfur, niter and petroleum) from mangonels, a kind of catapult powered by plunging weights.

Chinese and Middle Eastern engineers that operated the catapults were quite good shots. One chronicler wrote: "Mangonel-men...with a stone missile would convert they eye of a needle into passage for a camel."

In the siege of cities in wooded areas Mongols sometimes built stockades for protection against enemy arrows and bombarded the city several days with catapults until the walls were breached. Moats and rivers were crossed with pontoon bridges and strings of boats tied together. Gates were battered with huge logs and ladders were used to surmount the walls.


Mongol Violence and Revenge

The Mongols were so proficient at plundering cities, terrorizing populations, killing soldiers and civilians and seizing territory they made Attila the Hun seem like a petty warlord. They massacred hundreds of thousands if not millions, if the accounts of some historians are to be believed, and created pyramids of skulls of their victims. The Mongol cry "feed the horses" was a signal to rape, murder and plunder the defenseless population.

Mongols took few prisoner and made few distinctions between combatants and noncombatants. The killing was often done in a very methodical way. The victims were not tortured they were killed as swiftly as possible. Soldiers were given quotas for the numbers of people they were expected to kill. In military campaigns, captured civilians, thousands of them, were put to use as human shields.

After capturing a city, the Mongols would pretend to withdraw to determine if the surrender was genuine, If the Mongol representatives left behind were killed, Mongol soldiers would return to massacre the entire population. Enemy rulers were often wrapped in carpets and suffocated or trample to death by horses. Some officials were choked by having stones shoved down their throat. One Russian prince who didn't pay his taxes was kicked to death and beheaded.

Revenge was often the motivating force behind the Mongol raids. Their first campaign began as a response to the killing of an envoy for group and an insult from another leader. Describing the revenge extracted by Genghis Khan for the killing of several Mongol traders, Juini wrote: "in retribution for every hair on their heads it seemed that a hundred thousand heads rolled in the dust."

Cities Terrorized by Mongol Violence

Negotiations served its purpose too

The Mongols sacked Merv (Turkmenistan), Nishapur (Iran), Urgench (Uzbekistan), Herat and Balkh (Afghanistan). Genghis Khan sacked Balkh (west of Mazar-i-Sharifm Afghanistan) and massacred thousands in one of his most brutal raids. Chroniclers reported the massacred of 1.6 million people at Herat, 1.7 million and Nishapur and 800,000 at Baghdad.

Under the Seljuk Turks, Merv became a city full of palaces, libraries, observatories, and canals that nourished parks and lush gardens. All this came to an end when messengers of Genghis Khan in 1218 appeared, demanding tribute and the pick of the city’s most beautiful women. The Seljuks refused and killed the messengers. The Mongol arrived three years later and demanded that city surrender. The Seljuks complied and the Mongols responded by massacring all the city’s inhabitants. According to some accounts each Mongol soldiers was ordered to decapitate 300 to 400 civilians and set the city aflame. After the Mongols left, Merv remained uninhabited for more than a century.

The Mongol arrived in Herat, Afghanistan in 1221 and captured the city. The inhabitants were initially spared. But when they rose in revolt Genghis Khan told one his generals, "Since the dead have come to life, I command you to strike their heads from their body." Reportedly only 40 of the city’s 16,000 inhabitants survived.

Most historians believe these figures were greatly exaggerated. These cities as important as they were didn't have that many people and there was little incentive to slaughter that many people. "I can't believe they would have wasted time doing that," historian Larry Moses said. "The Mongols pretty much annihilated the armies they came against and a lot of civilians were marched in front of the army as cannon fodder, but I don't think a lot of citizens were wiped out. The Mongols needed people to move their packtrains and siege weapons."

Kingdoms that resisted risked having their entire populations massacred. Those that surrendered and offered a tribute were spared. The Mongols typically captured a city, killed as many of the people, saved the craftsmen and sent them to their cites, and spared some local officials to help them run the city.

Psychological Impact of Mongol Violence

The Arab chronicler Ibn Al-Athir wrote: “In the countries that have not yet been overrun by them, everyone spends the night afraid that they may appear there too."

Although the Mongols were unequaled in their brutality, rumors and stories of their atrocities was often much worse than the reality. One 13th-century illustrated English manuscript showed a pair of Mongols roasting a skewered victim and the legs of another. The Mongols sometimes ate the livers and hearts of their slain soldiers in hopes of obtaining their spirit and strength but as far as we know people were not a source of meat.

Historian Morris Rossabi said, "There's no question that there was a great deal of destruction. Not all the cities were butchered, but some became examples to sow terror in others. It was psychological warfare. Cities that offered resistance were often spared, escaping violence by offering tributes and letting Mongol soldiers loot unimpeded.”

Reasons for Success of the Mongol Army

As large as the Mongol army it fought armies in China, the Middle East and Europe that were considerable larger but were efficiently and routinely defeated.

How was such a small army able to conquer most of the known world at that time? First of all Genghis Khan was a good organizer. He set up a chain of command based on sections, squadrons and regiments often made up of conquered people that formed an army that eventually grew to include almost 100,000 men.

Leaders were selected on merit and soldiers were paid in booty. Second of all his ruthless and cruel tactics terrified the people in the cities and fortress he was approaching. Genghis gave his conquered people a choice: capitulation or death by strangulation with a string. Many cities and fortress capitulated before his army even showed itself on the horizon. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

How Climate Change Helped the Mongol Invasion

Scientists believe that a sudden but sustained period of warm, wet weather spanning several decades allowed the Mongols to invade such a huge area with great success. Steve Connor wrote in The Independent, “Genghis Khan owes his place in history to a sudden shift in the Asiatic climate from the cold, arid period that immediately preceded his ascent as leader of the Mongol empire, to the warmer, wetter weather that allowed his horsemen to expand out from Central Asia. [Source: Steve Connor, The Independent, March 20, 2014 *=*]

“Scientists studying ancient Siberia pine trees in central Mongolia that date back nearly 2,000 years believe that Khan’s rise to power coincided precisely with a period of unusually heavy rainfall over a couple of decades which allowed the arid grasslands of the Asian Steppe to flourish. Richer, more productive pastures for the herds of war horses on which the Mongols depended for their nomadic lifestyle helped Khan’s invading armies to take territory as far east as China, as far south as Afghanistan and as far west as Russia and Hungary, the researchers said. *=*

“Tree rings, which record periods of good and bad plant growth, show that the years from about 1180 to 1190, which immediately preceded Genghis Khan’s rule, suffered an intense drought that probably stoked the political turbulence that helped him to come to power. After this period, the tree rings show a period between 1211 and 1225 of sustained rainfall and mild weather which coincided precisely with the meteoric rise of Khan’s empire, said Amy Hessl a tree ring expert at West Virginia University.” *=*

Eurasian steppe belt

“The transition from extreme drought to extreme moisture right then strongly suggests that climate played a role in human events. It wasn’t the only thing, but it must have created the ideal conditions for a charismatic leader to emerge out of the chaos, develop an army and concentrate power,” Dr Hessl said. “Where it’s arid, unusual moisture creates unusual plant productivity, and that translates into horsepower. Genghis was literally able to ride that wave,” she said.

“The tree rings show that the normally cold, arid steppes of central Asia experienced their mildest, wettest weather in more than 1,000 years at the time when Genghis rose to power and established his enormous land empire with the help of his sons. A study of the rings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the climate soon reverted to its cold, dry state, which led to droughts and lower grassland productivity.

Each Mongolian horseman in Genghis’s army is said to have had up to five horses, which provided a supply of meat as well as transport. Higher grass yields would have also caused a boom in camels, yaks, cattle, sheep and other livestock, Dr Pederson said. “The weather may literally have supplied the Mongols with the horsepower they needed to do what they did… Before fossil fuels, grass and ingenuity were the fuels for the Mongols and the cultures around them,” he said. “Energy flows from the bottom of an ecosystem, up the ladder to human society. Even today, many people in Mongolia live just like their ancestors did. But in the future, they may face serious conditions,” he added.

Possible Reasons for the Mongol Conquests

A 13th-century Persian historian wrote of the Mongol campaigns: "With one stroke a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert, and the greater part of the living, dead, and their skin and bones crumbling dust, and the mighty were humbled and immersed in the calamities of perdition."

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “There has been considerable speculation about the reasons for the Mongol eruption from Mongolia, and though there is no scholarly consensus on specific reasons, many have pointed to the causes of ecology, trade disruptions, and the figure of Genghis (Genghis) Khan. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

“Ecology: In the period from 1180-1220, Mongolia experienced a drop in the mean annual temperature, which meant that the growing season for grass was cut short. Less grass meant a real danger to the Mongols' animals, and, since the animals were truly the basis of the Mongols' pastoral-nomadic life, this ecological threat may have prompted them to move out of Mongolia. <|>

Mongol siege devise

“Trade Disruptions: A second reason often mentioned is the attempt by Mongolia's neighbors in north and northwest China to reduce the amount of trade with the Mongols. Since the Mongols depended on trade for goods that they desperately needed — such as grain, craft, and manufactured articles — cessation of trade, or at least the diminution of trade, could have been catastrophic for them. The attempts by the Jin dynasty, which controlled North China, and the Xia dynasty, which controlled Northwest China, to reduce the level of trade that the Mongols could expect, created a crisis for the Mongols. Unable to obtain goods that they so desperately needed, the Mongols' response was to initiate raids, attacks, and finally invasions against these two dynasties. <|>

Genghis Khan's Personal Mission: A third explanation has to do with Genghis Khan himself, in particular his shamanic beliefs. It is said that Tenggeri, the sky god of the Mongols, gave Genghis the mission of bringing the rest of the world under one sword — that is, bringing the rest of the world under the shamanic umbrella — a mission that may have motivated Genghis to begin his conquests. Whatever the explanations, they all gravitate around the figure of Genghis himself. Thus it is important to see what Genghis' policies led to and to analyze his life and career.” <|>

Importance of Mongol Tribal Bonds and Organization

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The major lessons that Genghis Khan learned from the hardships of his early years (his father's untimely death forced his mother to eke out a survival for the family in the harsh desert lands of Mongolia) convinced him that no one could survive in the daunting landscape of Mongolia without maintaining good relations and seeking help on occasion from one's allies. Genghis's earliest experiences thus convince him of the importance of forging alliances. One's anda (blood brother) pricked his finger and mixed blood with one to forge a blood brotherhood. Genghis found many andas, and his blood brothers, realizing his superior abilities and his charisma, would often join under his banner. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

“Early in his rise to power, Genghis attempted immediately to break down the tribal groups that joined him, because he felt that loyalty in the tribal group would belong to the tribal leader rather than to himself. He wanted to eliminate any feeling of tribal identity and convert it to a Mongol identity — a unit that would be much larger, greater than that of the tribe, wherein the loyalty would remain with him, rather than with a tribal leader. Thus, when a tribe did join him, he quickly dispersed its members through the various units that he controlled. <|>

“Genghis Khan's organized units were based on the principle of ten. He organized his people into units of ten, a hundred, a thousand, and ten thousand, and the head of a unit of ten thousand would have a strong personal relationship with Genghis himself. That kind of loyalty was to be extremely important in Genghis's rise to power and in his ability to maintain authority over all the various segments of his domain. <|>

“Genghis's military tactics showcased his superiority in warfare. One particularly effective tactic Genghis liked to use was the feigned withdrawal: Deep in the throes of a battle his troops would withdraw, pretending to have been defeated. As the enemy forces pursued the troops that seemed to be fleeing, they would quickly realize that they'd fallen into a trap, as whole detachments of men in armor or cavalries would suddenly appear and overwhelm them.

Siege of Girdkuh

How Such Small Group Succeeded

How did such a small group succeed? According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “One answer to this question is that the Mongols were adept at incorporating the groups they conquered into their empire. As they defeated other peoples, they incorporated some of the more loyal subjugated people into their military forces. This was especially true of the Turks. The Uyghur Turks, along with others, joined the Mongol armies and were instrumental in the Mongols' successes. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

“A second explanation is that the rest of Asia was declining at this point. China at this time was not a unified country — in fact, it was divided into at least three different sections, all of which were at war with one another. Central Asia was fragmented, and there was no single leader there. As for Russia, it was only a series of fragmented city-states. And after four centuries of success, the Abbasid dynasty in Western Asia had by this time lost much of its land. <|>

“By 1241, Mongol troops had reached all the way to Hungary but had to withdraw that very year because of the death of Ögödei, the Great Khan. The Mongol elite returned to Mongolia to select a new Great Khan, but they were unsuccessful in their efforts to form a consensus on the matter. For the next 19 years, there would be a variety of disputes over who was the most meritorious of Genghis Khan's descendants and who ought to be the next Great Khan.” <|>

Military Importance of Mongol Horses

Morris Rossabi wrote in Natural History: ““Genghis Khan and his descendents could not have conquered and ruled the largest land empire in world history without their diminutive but extremely hardy steeds...A Chinese chronicler recognized the horse’s value to the Mongols, observing that “by nature they [the Mongols] are good at riding and shooting. Therefore they took possession of the world through this advantage of bow and horse.” [Source: “All the Khan’s Horses” by Morris Rossabi, Natural History, October 1994 =|=]

“The Mongols prized their horses primarily for the advantages they offered in warfare. In combat, the horses were fast and flexible, and Genghis Khan was the first leader to capitalize fully on these strengths. After hit-and-run raids, for example, his horsemen could race back and quickly disappear into their native steppes. Enemy armies from the sedentary agricultural societies to the south frequently had to abandon their pursuit because they were not accustomed to long rides on horseback and thus could not move as quickly. Nor could these farmer-soldiers leave their fields for extended periods to chase after the Mongols. =|=

Battle of Kulikovo

“The Mongols had developed a composite bow made out of sinew and horn and were skilled at shooting it while riding, which gave them the upper hand against ordinary foot soldiers. With a range of more than 350 yards, the bow was superior to the contemporaneous English longbow, whose range was only 250 yards.

“Genghis Khan understood the importance of horses and insisted that his troops be solicitous of their steeds. A cavalryman normally had three or four, so that each was, at one time or another, given a respite from bearing the weight of the rider during a lengthy journey. Before combat, leather coverings were placed on the head of each horse and its body was covered with armor. After combat, Mongol horses could traverse the most rugged terrain and survive on little fodder. =|=

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; History of Arab People by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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