The Mongol military might

The characteristics of the Mongol army

Mediaeval historians used to assert that the Mongol military superiority was due to their overwhelming numbers. As we are now aware of, this is incorrect, and assertions of Mongol numerical superiority must be interpreted as partly a specious excuse for European inferiority when fighting against the Mongols in the battlefield. Even though they never fought against the most powerful warriors who ever existed in the West, the Celts, there is no doubt that the Mongols proved superior to all those whom they met in battle.

Quality, not quantity, was the key to the incredible unbroken line of Mongolian military successes. Since the spiritual aspects of this phenomenon has been covered elsewhere on these pages, what will be elucidated here is the technical details of their military performance, their equipment and their use of it.

Overall organization

Although supreme command lay in the hands of the Supreme Khan, the high Mongol principle of promotion to posts of leadership and authority on the basis of ability alone, introduced and enforced by Chingis Khan, resulted in an unmatched quality of troops from the ordinary soldiers to the top command. Each Mongol warrior was simply incomparably superior to their Western counterparts. This exceedingly high quality ensured the competence and integrity of the commanding leaders. Thus, leaders at every level could always be entrusted with a high degree of independence in the decisions and in the execution of the different moves and operations.

After the death of Chingis Khan in 1227, none of his successors inherited his genius. For this reason, the real command of the large armies rested with the generals he picked when he was still alive, although the princes of the blood held the nominal command. The diamond among all the generals of Chingis Khan was Subedei, whose mastery of every aspect of warfare, such as intelligence, psychological warfare, military tactics and strategy and logistics, won him a place in history as the mastermind of the great Mongol campaign in Russia and Europe during 1236-1242. Subedei as a man personified the best characteristics of the Mongol forces: caution, high intuition, great intelligence and understanding, mobility, alertness, speed and power. Other eminent Mongol generals worthy of note are Chepe and Muqali, the latter did much to secure Mongol victories in China.

The organization of the army was based on the decimal system. The largest unit was the tjumen, which was made up of 10.000 troops. A large army used to consist of three tjumens (Plural form t'ma in Mongolian), one consisting of infantry troops who were to perform close combat, the two others were meant to encircle the opponent from both sides. Each tjumen consisted of ten regiments, each of 1.000 troops. The 1.000 strong unit was called a mingghan. Each of these regiments consisted of ten squadrons of 100 troops, called jaghun, each of which was divided into ten units of ten, called arban. There was also an elite tjumen, an imperial guard which was composed of specially trained and selected troops. As for the command structure, the ten soldiers of each arban elected their commander by majority vote, and all of the ten commanders of the ten arbans of a tjumen elected the commander of a jaghunby the same procedure. Above that level, the khan personally appointed the commanders of each tjumen and mingghan. This appointment was made on criteria of ability, not age or social origin.

The commanders of tjumens and mingghans had the military title of noyon. A commander of a whole army, which as mentioned typically consisted of three tjumens or more of light cavalry and in addition several mingghans of artillery, carried the title of orlok. In other words, the orlok was the commanding general.

Mongol war equipment

The Mongol warrior used to wear Chinese silk underwear, if it could be obtained. One would not normally consider underwear to be military equipment, but the fact is that silk is a very tough substance. If arrows are shot from a larger distance, they will not easily penetrate the silk. Even if an arrow penetrates the human skin, the silk may hold, so that the arrow can be drawn out from the wound by pulling the silk around. This would also prevent poison from entering the bloodstream. Outside the normal clothes, the warrior carried a protective shield of light yet effective leather armor, which was impregnated with a lacquer-like substance in order to make it more impervious to penetration by arrows, swords and knives, and also to protect it against humid weather. Very probably this lacquer was fish glue, which was the strongest and most weather resistant natural material that fits this purpose. Often their horses also carried this type of leather armor. The horses also had saddles with stirrups, because this was necessary in order to carry all the equipment and to fight from the saddle. Mongol warriors also wore helmets, the upper part of which was made of metal, the parts covering the ears and neck were in leather. 

Because the winter temperatures in Siberia and Mongolia can drop down to 60 Celsius degrees below zero, proper clothing was imperative. Thus the Mongols used heavy leather boots with felt socks on their feet. During winter they wore on their bodies several layers of wool. On the outside they typically had a covering coat of fur or sheepskin, and a fur hat with ear flaps over the helmet. 

The legs were often protected by overlapping iron plates resembling fish scales, which were sewn into the boots. Each warrior carried a battle axe, a curved sword known as scimitar; a lance, and two versions of their most famous weapon: The Mongol recurved bow. One of the bows was light and could be fired rapidly from horseback, the other one was heavier and designed for long-range use from a ground position. This heavy bow had an average draw weight of 166 pounds, according to George Vernadsky much more than the strongest contemporary European bow, the English longbow. It was not until the invention of breach-load rifles in the 1860s that the world saw a small weapon which had more power than the bow of the Chingis-Khanite Mongols. As could be expected, the troops had several quivers each. Some were filled with arrows suitable for use against warriors and horses at closer ranges, while another quiver held arrows for penetration of armor or for long-range shots. Each rider had a sharpening stone for keeping the metal arms in top shape. Since self-sufficiency was the order of the day, in addition to the indispensable knife an awl, needle and thread were carried by each rider, to enable quick and effective repair of almost any type of equipment in the field. 

In addition to the light weaponry described above, after the advent of Chingis they built up a light artillery equipped with javelin-throwers and catapults of different kinds, which might be disassembled and loaded on pack horses or on a two-wheeled wagon, called a kibitka. These advanced weapons were the inventions of Chinese engineers who were enlisted in Chingis Khan's service. Somewhat later, during and after the campaign against Khwarezm, the Mongols acquired ballistae, which were like extremely large crossbows that could shoot large big arrows over more than 320 meters with considerable precision, with devastating effect on a battlefield. Also, the Mongol army used trebuchet-like catapults that could hurl heavy rocks with great impact against a city wall or a fortress.

The principle of independence and self-sufficiency, so important to the Siberian Mongols, applied as far as possible even to the individual warriors. Every warrior was equipped with a full set of tools and spare parts: a lasso, a kettle, a bony needle and sinews. In addition to this he carried a waterproof leather bag which kept the clothing dry, and which would be used like a swimming belt during the crossing of great rivers. They then tied all their equipment to the horses and swam together with the animals. For food, the warriors also carried a ration of dried meat, as well as fermented and/or dried milk. When need arose, the riders would open the jugular veins of the horse, and drink the blood. On a military campaign, each rider had from one to five reserve horses. 

It is worth dwelling with this crucial element in the Mongolian military concept; the relative independence of both the individual soldier, the units and their leaders. Each of these had to be able to participate in major coordinated efforts, but each soldier or unit must also be capable of independent existence and action. There was never any dependence on a central unit for the function of all. The extensive collection of equipment carried by each individual is testimony to the emphasis laid upon this all-important combination of capability of joint engagement on the one side, and capability of independent action and a high degree of individual, even personal, self-sufficiency on the other.

In the battlefield

Signals were given by banners, occasionally by beating the kettle or by smoke signals. Remarkably, the Mongols fought in silence. Among them, there was absolutely no histrionics and striving for effect. This might be because of the more feminine nature of their spiritual origin. In the West, mistaken ideas abound about the merciful feminine principle and the merciless and belligerent masculine. In the Siberian and Inner Asian spiritual universe, the dark female forces have invariably been considered very formidable in every respect, and much more pitiless than the male principle. Accordingly, the most skilled Mongol women (even if they formed a small minority) waged war together with the men. This is a historical fact that has been downplayed, perhaps partly because of a subconscious reluctance to accept that women also can be warriors. Nor did the Mongols subscribe to Western ideals of manliness. One of their most formidable tactical moves was the retreat. In the face of a strong opponent, they would more often than not withdraw. This maneuver was often interpreted as implying cowardice and lack of strength. In reality, the Mongols wanted the opponent forces to pursue them, and thus expose their weaknesses. This is the Asiatic principle, known from martial arts like ju jitsu and kung fu, of being soft and yielding where the opponent is strong, and be hard and offensive at spots where weakness is encountered. This principle was developed into a fine art by the Mongols. The principle of brute strength, heavy swords and armor is effective in narrow streets of cities, inside castles and fortresses, but in the open field it pays off to be nimble, smart and alert.

One type of Mongol battle formation when facing the opponent directly was composed of five squadrons spread wide apart. Because of their mobility, ability to intuitively "sense" the movements of each other, their discipline and resultant ability to rally at a definite point in a very short time, this was no risk. On the contrary, the opposing army never knew where the Mongols were at any given moment. The normal five squadrons were divided into two front, or spearhead, ranks, and three rear ranks. The two spearhead ranks wore the heaviest armor as well as the heaviest weaponry. When an attack began, the three rear ranks broke through the openings between the lines of the front ranks, and harassed the opposing army with continuous hails of arrows. When this had worked its effects for some time, the rear ranks would withdraw in order to be able to encircle the opponent's forces in the event of an attempt of escape. Simultaneously, the front ranks would charge and deliver a decisive blow, and now they would finally engage in close combat, a discipline in which the Old Mongols were extremely skilled. In this context it merits mention that the millennia-old Mongol contact with Chinese had brought them into acquaintance with Chinese traditional martial arts, something very different from the sports wrestling that dominated the scene after the days of greatness were gone.

Encirclement strategies, often on a very large scale, fitted hand in hand with the above. When Western armies would place heavy emphasis upon strength and heavy armor, the Mongols would prioritize mobility and swiftness. The heavily armed mediaeval knights learned to their sorrow that their heavy iron armor impeded their movements and moreover was of little use when the Mongols just shot the horses dead under them. The Mongols then attacked with dagger and sword, and the Europeans learned another lesson, that the Mongol unwillingness to engage in close combat at the first moment of an encounter was not due to lack of physical strength. They simply wanted to harass the opponent with feints, showers of arrows and javelins until the opposing army was "ripe." When the opposing forces were outflanked, sufficiently angered, exhausted and disorganized, the charge began. When the Mongol military might was at its most formidable, that is during the era of Chingis Khan, the Mongols, in spite of their almost always being considerably outnumbered by sometimes as much as three to one or even more, never met an army they could not beat.

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Last updated January 18, 2002 by Per Inge Oestmoen