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Section: History
Invincible Army of the Mongolian Empire

Invincible Army of the Mongolian Empire

In the 13th century, the peoples and countries of the Eurasian continent experienced a stunning attack of a victorious Mongolian army sweeping away everything on its way. The opposing armies had eminent and experienced commanders, they fought on their own territories, and protected their families and peoples from the cruel enemy. The Mongolians fought far from their homes, in an unknown land, under unfavorable climatic conditions, and the size of their army was often less than that of the enemy’s. Nevertheless, they attacked and vanquished, being convinced that they were invincible…

On the way of their triumph, the Mongolian warriors were opposed by troops of numerous countries and peoples; among them were belligerent nomad tribes, battle-tested and well-armed troops. But the unconquerable Mongolian whirl swept these troops over the northern and western regions of the Great Steppe, subdued them, and they had to join the troops of Chinggis Khan and his progeny.

Armies of the largest states of the Middle and Far East, whose sizes were greater and whose arms were most advanced for that time, as well as armies of the states of Western Asia, Eastern and Central Europe, succumbed to the Mongolian army. Japan was saved from the Mongolian sword by the typhoon called Kamikaze, a “divine wind”, which swept away the Mongolian ships as they approached the Japanese Islands.

The Mongolian troops were stopped only at the borders of the Holy Roman Empire — either because of exhaustion and increasing resistance, or because the internal struggle for the throne of the Great Khan intensified. It may also be that they considered the Adriatic Sea as the limit they had to reach in accordance with the will of Chinggis Khan…

Very soon the word of the victorious Mongolian armies began to spread beyond the borders of the lands reached by the Mongolian troops, and it had remained for a long time in the memories of many generations of the Eurasian peoples.

“Shoot and attack” tactics

First the Mongolian conquerors were considered as demons and means of God’s will to punish the sinful humankind. The first opinion of the Europeans about the Mongolian warriors was based on rumors and was neither full nor trustworthy. In accordance with a description by M. Paris, a contemporary, the Mongolians “are dressed in bull skins and armed with iron plates; they are stunted, stout, sturdy, strong, invincible, with <…> armored backs and chests”. Emperor Frederick II asserted that the Mongolians had no other clothes than bullock-, donkey-, and horse-skins, and that they had no other weapons than coarse iron plates badly knocked together (Carruters, 1914). However, he also claimed that the Mongolians were “skilful shots” and could become even more dangerous if equipped with “European weapons”.

Works of D. del Plano Carpini and G. Rubrouck, who were envoys of the Pope and French King to the court of Mongolian khans in the mid-13th century, provide more accurate information about the arms and art of war of the Mongolian warriors. The weapons, protective armor, military organization and tactics of military operations attracted special attention of the Europeans. The book of the Venetian merchant M. Polo, who was an officer at the Yuan Emperor court, contains some information about the military art of the Mongolians.

The historic military events of the time of formation of the Mongolian Empire are described in most detail in the Mongolian book called “The Inmost Tale of the Mongols” and a Chinese chronicle of the Yuan dynasty called “Yuan Shi”. Besides, there are Arab, Persian, and Old Russian written sources.

The outstanding orientalist Yu. N. Rerikh noted that the Mongolian warriors were well-armed horsemen with various weapons of distant and close combat and protectors, and the Mongolian cavalry tactics combined shooting and attacking. In his opinion, much of the military art of the Mongolian cavalry was so advanced that it was used up to the beginning of the 20th century (Khudyakov, 1985).

In the last few decades, archaeologists and weapon specialists began active studies of artefacts from the Mongolian monuments in Mongolia and Transbaikal region, as well as pictures of warriors in medieval Persian, Chinese, and Japanese miniatures. The researchers noticed the following contradiction: in the written descriptions and miniatures, the Mongolian warriors were described as well-armed and armored, whereas only remains of bows and arrowheads were found during archaeological excavations. Other kind of weapons were found very rarely.

Judging by archaeological artefacts, bows and arrows were the main weapons of the Mongolians in the 13th—14th centuries

Specialists in the history of old Russian weapons who found Mongolian arrows at the sites of ruined ancient settlement believed that the Mongolian army consisted of lightly armed mounted archers. These archers were strong thanks to “the massive use of bows and arrows” (A. Kirpichnikov, 1971). In accordance with another author’s views, the Mongolian army had armored warriors with practically “impenetrable” armor made from iron plates or multi-layer pasted skin (Gorelik, 1983).

Arrows pouring like a shower…

A lot of weapons used by the invincible army of Chinggis Khan and his commanders were found in the Eurasian steppes and, first of all, in the “home” lands of Mongolians — Mongolia and Transbaikal region. Judging by these artefacts, bows and arrows were really the main weapons of the Mongolians in the 13th — 14th centuries.

The Mongolian arrows traveled at a high speed, although they were used at short distances. Together with quick-shooting bows, they enabled massed shooting to prevent the enemy from approaching and starting hand-to-hand fight. For such firing one needed so many arrows that there was always a deficit of iron arrowheads; therefore, in the Baikal and Transbaikal regions the Mongolians also used bone arrowheads.

Plano Carpini wrote that the Mongolian horsemen always started shooting at an arrow-flight distance: they “wound and kill horses by arrows, and when people and horses weaken, they start fighting.” In accordance with Marco Polo’s observations, the Mongolians “shoot forward and backward even when they are pursued. They shoot well, and hit both enemy’s horses and people. Often the enemy is defeated only because his horses have been killed.”

It was the Hungarian monk called Julian who described most vividly the Mongolian tactics: “their arrows, so to say, do not fly, but pour like a shower.” Therefore, contemporaries believed that it was very dangerous to start fighting with the Mongolians, because even in small fights with them there were as many killed and injured as in big battles with other peoples. This is because they were adroit in bow fighting: their arrows penetrated almost all kinds of protectors and armors. If a battle was lost, they retreated in an organized manner; however, it was very dangerous to pursue them, because they could turn back and shoot during retreat and injure warriors and horses.

To hit at a distance, Mongolian warriors could use darts (spears) besides arrows. At close combat they attacked the enemy with spears and palms, i. e. heads with a single-edge blade fixed to a long shaft. The latter weapon was widespread among the warriors who served at the northern periphery of the Mongolian Empire in the Bailkal and Transbaikal zones.

At close combat, the Mongolian horsemen fought with swords, broadswords, sabers, battle-axes, clubs, and daggers with one or two blades.

On the other hand, parts of protective arms have been found very rarely in Mongolian monuments. This can be explained by the fact that many armors were made from hard multi-layer leather. Nevertheless, at the time of Mongolian conquest metal armors for armored warriors appeared.

In medieval miniatures, Mongolian warriors have armors of lamellar (with rather narrow vertical plates) and laminar (with wide cross strips) constructions, helmets, and shields. Probably, in the process of conquering agricultural countries the Mongols mastered other kinds of protective arms.

Also, heavy armed warriors had protection for their war-horses. Plano Carpini gave a description of such protective covering, which included a metal headrest and leather parts to protect the horse’s neck, chest, sides, and croup.

As the empire was spreading, Mongolian rulers started organizing large-scale production of weapons and arming at state plants by workers from conquered peoples. The armies of Chinggis Khan’s descendants widely used weapons which were traditional for the entire nomad world and countries of the Near and Middle East.

“In the hundreds of battles I fought, I always went ahead of all”

The Mongolian army at the time of Chinggis Khan and his successors had two main parts: heavy and light cavalry. Their proportion in the army and the arms were changing in permanent wars lasting for many years.

The heavy cavalry consisted of crack troops of the Mongolian army, in particular, troops of Khan Guards formed from Mongolian tribes that proved to be loyal to Chinggis Khan. However, most of the army consisted of horsemen with light arms, and the character of the Mongolian military art, which was based on the tactics of massed shooting, indicates that their role was great. These warriors could use massed attack at close combat, and then pursue the enemy in retreat and flight (Nemerov, 1987).

As the Mongolian state was expanding, auxiliary infantry troops and siege elements with pack animals and heavy siege guns were formed from conquered tribes and peoples used to foot fighting and siege war.

Achievements of settled peoples (and, first of all, the Chinese) in the military technique to siege and storm fortresses were used by the Mongolians for other purposes: The Mongolians were first to use stone-throwers for field fights. Chinese soldiers, Jurchens, natives of Moslem countries of the Middle East, were often used in the Mongolian army as “artillerymen”.

The Mongolian army also had a commissary service and special detachments providing the passage of troops and laying of roads. Special attention was given to reconnaissance and misinformation of the enemy.

The Mongolian army structure was traditional for nomads of Central Asia. In accordance with the “Asian decimal system” for subdividing the army and people, the army had detachments of tens, hundreds, thousands, and ten thousands (tumens), as well as wings and a center. Every efficient man belonged to a certain detachment and had to come at first notice to an assembly place in full outfit and with a food supply for several days.

The army was headed by a man called khan, who was in charge of the state and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Mongolian armed forces. However, many important matters, for instance, plans of future wars, were discussed and designed at kurultais, i. e. commanders’ meetings chaired by the khan. If the khan died, a new khan was elected from members of the ruling Borjigin “Golden family” (Chinggis Khan’s descendants).

The Mongolians were the first in history to use stone-throwers for field fights

Mongols had an efficient system of appointment of the command staff, which contributed a lot to the military success. Although the highest posts in the Empire were occupied by Chinggis Khan’s sons, the most capable and experienced commanders were appointed as army commanders. Previously some of them fought for Chinggis Khan’s enemies, but later they took the side of the Empire founder, believing in his invincibility. The commanders were of various tribes, not only nobles, but also ordinary nomads.

Chinggis Khan often declared, “I treat my warriors as brothers. In the hundreds of battles I fought, I went ahead of all.” However, a lot of most cruel punishments he and his commanders used to maintain severe military discipline were stamped in the memory of his contemporaries. The warriors of each detachment were mutually responsible, and paid their lives for the cowardice and flight from the battlefield of their fellows. These measures were not new for the nomads, but they were especially strictly kept at the time of Chinggis Khan.

All were killed without mercy

Before starting military operations against a country, the Mongolian commanders tried to learn about it as much as possible, to know the weaknesses and inner contradictions of the state. Such information was gathered by diplomats, merchants, and spies. These thorough preparation measures contributed much to the ultimate success of the military campaign.

The military operations started, as a rule, by a “round-up method”, i. e. in several directions, which did not allow the enemy to summon up its strength and organize a united defense. Mongolian cavalries penetrated deep into the country, destroying everything on their way, disrupting communications and supply routes. The enemy suffered great losses even before the army started a decisive battle.

Most part of the Mongolian army consisted of light cavalry, which was crucial for massive firing of the enemyChinggis Khan convinced his commanders that during an offensive the army should not loot. He said that after the victory “the booty will not run away.” Owing to high mobility, the Mongolian army advance-guard had a great advantage over the enemies. The advance-guard was followed by the main forces, which neutralized and crushed any resistance, leaving in the rear of the Mongolian army only “smoke and ashes”. Neither mountains nor rivers could stop them: they could easily force water obstacles using air-inflated wineskins for the crossing.

The offensive strategy of the Mongols was to exterminate the enemy’s manpower. Before a big battle, they concentrated their armies in one strong “fist” to attack with forces as strong as possible. The main tactics was to attack the enemy in an extended order and at massed shooting to cause the largest possible losses to the enemy without suffering great losses in its own army. The Mongolian commanders tried to throw first on attack troops formed from conquered tribes.

The Mongols tried to decide the outcome of a battle at the stage of shooting. Observers noticed that they started close combat reluctantly, because in this case great losses in the Mongolian warriors were inevitable. If the enemy was resistant, the Mongols tried to provoke him to attack by a feign flight. If the enemy retreated, the Mongolian warriors intensified the pressure and tried to kill as many enemies as possible. The cavalry fight was completed by a ram attack of armored cavalry, which swept away everything on its way. The enemy was pursued until he was completely defeated and crushed.

The Mongol were very cruel. They were especially cruel to those who offered firm resistance. “Everybody, old and young, handsome and ugly, poor and rich, resistant and obedient” were killed “without mercy”. This was done to arouse fear among the population of the conquered country and suppress the will to resist.

It was the opinion of many contemporaries who experienced the “military power” of the Mongols, which is supported by some historians of our time, that this unprecedented cruelty was the main reason for the success of the Mongolian troops. However, such measures were not invented by Chinggis Khan and his commanders — acts of mass terror were typical of the wars waged by many nomad peoples. Only the scale of these wars was limited; therefore, the cruelties of Chinggis Khan and his successors remained in history and in the memory of many peoples.

One can conclude that the success of the Mongolian army was attributed to the high fighting efficiency and professionalism of its warriors, wide experience and abilities of its commanders, iron will of Chinggis Khan and his successors and their confidence in success, strict centralization of the military organization, and the rather high for that time level of arms and munition. The Mongol did not invent new kinds of weapons or tactics of mounted fighting, but they managed to bring to perfection the traditional military art of nomads and used it with maximum effectiveness.

The war strategy at the onset of creation of the Mongol Empire was also conventional for all nomad states. Chinggis Khan declared that his primary task — quite traditional for the external policy of any nomad state of Central Asia — was to unite, under his rule, “all peoples living behind felt walls”, that is, the nomads. Later, however, Chinggis Khan began setting new tasks, trying to conquer the entire world, as he understood it.

And this task was nearly fulfilled. The Mongolian Empire managed to subdue all nomad tribes of the Eurasian steppe belt and conquer many settled agricultural states far beyond the nomad world, which no nomad people had managed to achieve. However, the Empire’s manpower and organizational resources were not endless. The Mongol Empire could exist only as long as its troops managed to be victorious on all fronts. But as new and new lands were conquered, the offensive energy of Mongol troops gradually weakened. Having encountered stubborn resistance in Eastern and Central Europe, in the Near East and Japan, the Mongolian khans had to give up their ambitious plans to conquer the world.

Heavy cavalry had the best parts of the Mongolian armyThe Chinggis Khan’s descendants, who ruled separate uluses (regions) of the empire that had once been united, got involved into internal wars and tore the Empire into separate parts. They ultimately lost their military power and political might. The Chinggis Khan’s idea of world’s domination remained unrealized.

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