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

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 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.

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 make it more impervious to penetration by arrows,
swords and knives, and also to protect it against humid weather. Their horses often 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 breech-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 loaded 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.

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 warrior 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 as much as three to one or even more, never met an army they could
not beat.

Last updated October 6, 2000 by Per Inge Oestmoen