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Mongol Army

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Mongol Army

"Mongol Army" redirects here. For the armed forces of modern Mongolia, see Mongolian Armed Forces.

The Mongol military tactics and organization enabled Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire to conquer nearly all of continental Asia, the Middle East and parts of eastern Europe.

The original foundation of that system was an extension of the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols. Other elements were invented by Genghis Khan, his generals, and his successors. Technologies useful to attack fortifications were adapted from other cultures, and foreign technical experts integrated into the command structures.

For the larger part of the 13th century, the Mongols lost only a few battles using that system, but always returned to turn the result around in their favor. In many cases, they won against significantly larger opponent armies. Their first defeat came in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, against the first army which had been specifically trained to use their own tactics against them.[1][2][3] But again they would return over 40 years later and defeat the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of Wadi Al Khazandar in 1299 and annex Syria, Palestine as well as Gaza. The Mongols suffered defeats in attempted invasions of Vietnam and Japan. But while the empire became divided around the same time, its combined size and influence remained largely intact for more than another hundred years.

Organization and characteristics

Decimal system

Genghis Khan organized the Mongol soldiers into groups based on the decimal system. Units, which included all males from 14-60, were recursively built from groups of 10 (Arban), 100 (Zuut), 1,000 (Mingghan), 10,000 (Tumen) and overseen by the tumen quartermaster, called the jurtchi.

Genghis Khan rewarded those who had been loyal to him during the lean years of his rise to power with command postings. Tumens, and sometimes Minghans, were commanded by a Noyan, who was often given the task to administer specific conquered territories. From two to five Tumens would then form an ordu meaning army corps or field army, from which the word "Horde" is derived,[4] under the command of the Khans or their generals (boyan). An ordu was a tightly regulated unit and its organization and layout were uniform.

Transfers between units were forbidden. The leaders on each level had significant license to execute their orders in the way they considered best. This command structure proved to be highly flexible and allowed the Mongol army to attack en masse, divide into somewhat smaller groups to encircle and lead enemies into an ambush, or divide into small groups of 10 to mop up a fleeing and broken army. Individual soldiers were responsible for their equipment, weapons, and up to five mounts, although they fought as part of a unit. Their families and herds would accompany them on foreign expeditions.

Above all units, there existed an elite force called Kheshig. They functioned as imperial guard of the Mongol Empire as well as a training ground for potential young officers, the great Subutai having started his career there.

Breaking tribal connections

Before Genghis Khan, many tribes and confederations, including the Naimans, Merkits, Tatars, Mongols, and Keraits, often raided and battled each other, and maintained centuries-old blood feuds. In addition, many families and individuals had been ostracized from tribes for various reasons and were living outside of tribal protection. These latter groups were welcomed by Genghis into his armies.

When integrating new soldiers into the army, Genghis divided the soldiers under different leaders to break up the social and tribal connections, so there was no division based on heritage of tribal alliances. Thus, he helped to unite several disparate peoples and gave them new loyalties to each other. However, old tribal identities did not completely disappear, and those tribes who had remained loyal to him throughout the hard years retained some integrity and sense of continued identity, whereas the Tatars, Mergids, Keraits, Naimans and other former enemy clans were more forcefully and thoroughly broken up.[5] Hence there existed examples of Ongut tumen but never Tatar tumen.

Promotion was mainly based on merit. Each unit leader was responsible for the preparedness of his soldiers at any time and would be replaced if this was found lacking.

Promotions were granted on the basis of ability, not birth, with the possible exception of Genghis Khan's relatives, who were given the highest levels of command. A good example would be Subutai, the son of a blacksmith (a very honorable profession, but not normally predestined for leadership). In the Russian and East European campaigns for example, nominal command went to Batu Khan, the grandson of Genghis. Two other princes of the Blood commanded wings of that army. But all three Princes were under the operational control of Subutai. Upon receiving word of the death of Ögedei Khan (son and successor Genghis) in 1243, it was Subutai who reluctantly reminded his three princes of their dynastic duties and ordered the Tumens to ride back home, sparing Europe from further devastating blows.


Each Mongol soldier typically maintained 3 or 4 horses.[6] Changing horses often allowed them to travel at high speed for days without stopping or wearing out the animals. Their ability to live off the land, and in extreme situations off their animals (mare's milk especially), made their armies far less dependent on the traditional logistical apparatus of agrarian armies. In some cases, as during the invasion of Hungary in early 1241, they covered up to 100 miles (160 km) per day, which was unheard of by other armies of the time.

The mobility of individual soldiers made it possible to send them on successful scouting missions, gathering intelligence about routes and searching for terrain suited to the preferred combat tactics of the Mongols.

During the invasion of Kievan Rus, the Mongols used frozen rivers as highways, and winter, the time of year usually off-limits for any major activity due to the intense cold, became the Mongols' preferred time to strike.

To avoid the deadly hail of missiles, enemies would frequently spread out, or seek cover, breaking up their formations and making them more vulnerable to the lancers' charges. Likewise, when they packed themselves together, into dense square or phalanx style formations, they would become more vulnerable to the arrows.

Once the enemy was deemed sufficiently weakened, the noyans would give the order. The drums would beat and the signal flags wave, telling the lancers to begin their charge. Often, the devastation of the arrows was enough to rout an enemy, so the lancers were only needed to help pursue and mop up the remnants.

When facing European armies, whose emphasis was in formations of heavy cavalry, the Mongols would avoid direct confrontation, and would instead use their bows to destroy enemy cavalry at long distances. If the armor withstood their arrows, the Mongols killed the knights' horses, leaving a heavily armored man on foot and isolated.

At the Battle of Mohi, the Mongols left open a gap in their ranks, luring the Hungarians into retreating through it. This resulted in the Hungarians being strung out over all the countryside and easy pickings for mounted archers who simply galloped along and picked them off, while the lancers skewered them as they fled. At Legnica, the few Teutonic, Templar and Hospitaller knights who were able to make a stand dismounted, and did not rout as quickly. However their lack of mobility and archers ensured they were defeated all the same.

Training and discipline

Mongol armies constantly practiced horsemanship, archery, and unit tactics, formations and rotations. This training was maintained by a hard, but not overly harsh or unreasonable, discipline.

Officers and troopers alike were usually given a wide leeway by their superiors in carrying out their orders, so long as the larger objectives of the plan were well served and the orders promptly obeyed. The Mongols thus avoided the pitfalls of overly rigid discipline and micromanagement which have proven a hobgoblin to armed forces throughout history. However, all members had to be unconditionally loyal to each other and to their superiors, and especially to the Khan. If one soldier ran from danger in battle, then he and his nine comrades from the same arban would face the death penalty together.


Six of every ten Mongol troopers were light cavalry horse archers; the remaining four were more heavily armored and armed lancers. Mongol light cavalry were extremely light troops compared to contemporary standards, allowing them to execute tactics and maneuvers that would have been impractical for a heavier enemy (such as European knights). Most of the remaining troops were heavier cavalry with lances for close combat after the archers had brought the enemy into disarray. Soldiers usually carried scimitars or battle axes as well.

The Mongols protected their horses in the same way as did they themselves, covering them with lamellar armor. Horse armor was divided into five parts and designed to protect every part of the horse, including the forehead, which had a specially crafted plate which was tied on each side of the neck.[7]

Mongolian horses are relatively small, and would lose short-distance races under equal conditions with larger horses from other regions. However, since most other armies carried much heavier armor, the Mongols could still outrun most enemy horsemen in battle. In addition, Mongolian horses were extremely durable and sturdy, allowing the Mongols to move over large distances quickly, often surprising enemies that had expected them to arrive days or even weeks later.

All horses were equipped with stirrups. This technical advantage made it easier for the Mongol archers to turn their upper body, and shoot in all directions, including backwards. Mongol warriors would time the loosing of an arrow to the moment when a galloping horse would have all four feet off the ground, thus ensuring a steady, well-aimed shot.

Each soldier had two to four horses so when a horse tired they could use the other ones which made them one of the fastest armies in the world. This, however, also made the Mongol army vulnerable to shortages of fodder; campaigning in arid or forested regions were thus difficult and even in ideal steppe terrain a Mongol force had to keep moving in order to ensure sufficient grazing for its massive horse herd.



The Mongol armies traveled very light, and were able to live largely off the land. Their equipment included fish hooks and other tools meant to make each warrior independent of any fixed supply source. The most common travel food of the Mongols was dried and ground meat "Borts", which is still common in the Mongolian cuisine today. Borts is light and easy to transport, and can be cooked with water similarly to a modern "instant soup".

To ensure they would always have fresh horses, each trooper usually had 3 or 4 mounts.[6] And since most of the Mongols' mounts were mares, they could live off their horses' milk or milk products when needed. In dire straits, the Mongol warrior could drink some of the blood from his string of remounts. They could survive a whole month only by drinking mare's milk combined with mare's blood.

Heavier equipment was brought up by well organized supply trains. Wagons and carts carried, amongst other things, large stockpiles of arrows. The main logistical factor limiting their advance was finding enough food and water for their animals. In all campaigns, the soldiers took their families along with them.


The Mongols established a system of postal-relay horse stations, similar to the system employed in ancient Persia for fast transfer of written messages. The Mongol mail system was the first such empire-wide service since the Roman Empire. Additionally, Mongol battlefield communication utilized signal flags and horns and to a lesser extent, signal arrows to communicate movement orders during combat.


The basic costume of the Mongol fighting man consisted of a heavy coat fastened at the waist by a leather belt. From the belt would hang his sword, dagger, and possibly an axe. This long robe-like coat would double over, left breast over right, and be secured with a button a few inches below the right armpit. The coat was lined with fur. Underneath the coat, a shirt-like undergarment with long, wide sleeves was commonly worn. Silk and metallic thread were increasingly used. The Mongols wore protective heavy silk undershirts. Even if an arrow pierced their mail or leather outer garment, the silk from the undershirt would stretch to wrap itself around the arrow as it entered the body, reducing damage caused by the arrow shaft, and making removal of the arrow easier.

The boots were made from felt and leather and though heavy would be comfortable and wide enough to accommodate the trousers tucked in before lacing tightly. They were heelless, though, the soles were thick and lined with fur. Worn with felt socks, the feet were unlikely to get cold.

Lamellar armor was worn over the thick coat. The armor was composed of small scales of iron, chain mail, or hard leather sewn together with leather tongs and could weigh 10 kilograms (22 lb) if made of leather alone and more if the cuirass was made of metal scales. The leather was first softened by boiling and then coated in a crude lacquer made from pitch, which rendered it waterproof.[8] Sometimes the soldier's heavy coat was simply reinforced with metal plates.

Helmets were cone shaped and composed of iron or steel plates of different sizes and included iron-plated neck guards. The Mongol cap was conical in shape and made of quilted material with a large turned-up brim, reversible in winter, and earmuffs. Whether a soldier's helmet was leather or metal depended on his rank and wealth.[7]


Mongol bow

Main article: Mongol bow

The primary weapon of the Mongol forces was the Mongol bow. It was a recurve bow made from composite materials (wood, horn, and sinew), and at the time unmatched for accuracy, force, and reach. The bow's geometry allowed it to be made relatively small so it could be used and fired in any direction from horseback.[7] Quivers containing sixty arrows were strapped to the backs of the cavalrymen. The Mongols were extremely skilled with the bow and were said to be able to hit a bird on the wing.

The key to the strength of the Mongolian bow was its laminate construction, with layers of boiled horn and sinew to augment the wood. The layer of horn was in the inner face as it resists compression, while the layer of sinew was at the outer face as it resists tension. All of this gave the bow great power which made it very good against armour. The Mongol bow could shoot an arrow over 500 metres (1,600 ft). Targeted shots were possible at a range of 200 or 230 metres (660 or 750 ft), which determined the optimal tactical approach distance for light cavalry units. Ballistic shots could hit enemy units (without targeting individual soldiers) at distances of up to 400 metres (1,300 ft), useful for surprising and scaring troops and horses before beginning the actual attack.

Mongol archers used a wide variety of arrows, depending on the target and distance. Chainmail and some metal armour could be penetrated at close range by using special heavy arrows.


Mongol sword was a slightly curved Scimitar which was used for slashing attacks but was also capable of cutting and thrusting, due to its shape and construction, making it easier to use from horseback. The sword could be used with a one-handed or two-handed grip and had a blade that was usually around 2.5 feet (0.76 m) in length, with the overall length of the sword approximately a 1 metre (3 ft 3 in).

Siege warfare

Catapults and machines

Technology was one of the important facets of Mongolian warfare. For instance, siege machines were an important part of Genghis Khan's warfare, especially in attacking fortified cities. The siege engines were not disassembled and carried by horses to be rebuilt at the site of the battle like European armies. Instead the Mongol horde would travel with skilled engineers who would build siege engines from materials on site.

The engineers building the machines were recruited among captives, mostly from China and Persia. When Mongols slaughtered whole populations, they often spared the engineers, swiftly assimilating them into the Mongol armies.


A commonly used tactic was the use of what was called the "kharash". During a siege the Mongols would gather a crowd of local residents or soldiers surrendered from previous battles, and would drive them forward in sieges and battles. These "living boards" or "human shields" would often take the brunt of enemy arrows and crossbow bolts, thus leaving the Mongol warriors safer. The kharash were also often forced ahead to breach walls.


The Mongol battlefield tactics were a combination of masterful training with excellent communication and discipline in the chaos of combat. They trained for virtually every possibility, so when it occurred, they could react accordingly. Unlike many of their foes, the Mongols also protected their ranking officers well. Their training and discipline allowed them to fight without the need for constant supervision or rallying, which often placed commanders in dangerous positions.

Whenever possible, Mongol commanders found the highest ground available, from which they could make tactical decisions based on the best view of the battlefield as events unfolded. Furthermore, being on high ground allowed their forces to observe commands conveyed by flags more easily than if the ground were level. In addition, keeping the high command on high ground made them easier to defend. Unlike the European armies, which placed enormous emphasis on personal valor, and thus exposed their leaders to death from anyone bold enough to kill them, the Mongols regarded their leaders as a vital asset. A general such as Subutai, unable to ride a horse in the later part of his career due to age and obesity, would have been ridiculed out of most any European army of the time.[9] But the Mongols recognized and respected his still-powerful military mind, who had been one of the Genghis' most able subordinates, so he was cheerfully hauled around in a cart.

Intelligence and planning

The Mongols carefully scouted out and spied on their enemies in advance of any invasion. Prior to the invasion of Europe, Batu and Subutai sent spies for almost ten years into the heart of Europe, making maps of the old Roman roads, establishing trade routes, and determining the level of ability of each principality to resist invasion. They made well-educated guesses as to the willingness of each principality to aid the others, and their ability to resist alone or together. Also, when invading an area, the Mongols would do all that was necessary to completely conquer the town or cities. Some tactics involved diverting rivers from the city/town , closing supplies to the city and waiting for its inhabitants to surrender, gathering civilians from the nearby areas to fill the front line for the city/town attack before scaling the wall, and pillaging the surrounding area and killing some of the people, then letting some survivors flee to the main city to report their losses to the main populace to weaken resistance, simultaneously draining the resources of the city with the sudden influx of refugees.

Psychological warfare and deception

The Mongols used psychological warfare successfully in many of their battles, especially in terms of spreading terror and fear to towns and cities. They often offered an opportunity for the enemy to surrender and pay tribute, instead of having their city ransacked and destroyed. They knew that sedentary populations were not free to flee danger as were nomad populations, and that the destruction of their cities was the worst loss a sedentary population could experience. When cities accepted the offer, they were spared, but were required to support the conquering Mongol army with manpower, supplies, and other services.

If the offer was refused, however, the Mongols would invade and destroy the city or town, but allow a few civilians to flee and spread terror by reporting their loss. These reports were an essential tool to incite fear in others. However, both sides often had a similar if differently motivated interest in overstating the enormity of the reported events: the Mongols' reputation would increase and the townspeople could use their reports of terror to raise an army. For that reason, specific data (e.g. casualty figures) given in contemporary sources needs to be evaluated carefully.

The Mongols also used deception very well in their wars. For instance, when approaching a mobile army the units would be split into three or more army groups, each trying to outflank and surprise their opponents. This created many battlefield scenarios for the opponents where the Mongols would seem to appear out of nowhere and there were seemingly more of them than in actuality. Flanking and/or feigned retreat if the enemy could not be handled easily was one of the most practiced techniques. Other techniques used commonly by the Mongols were completely psychological and were used to entice/lure enemies into vulnerable positions by showing themselves from a hill or some other predetermined locations, then disappearing into the woods or behind hills while the Mongols' flank troops already strategically positioned would appear as if out of nowhere from the left, right and/or from their rear. During the initial states of battlefield contact, while camping in close proximity of their enemies at night, they would feign numerical superiority by ordering each soldier to light at least five fires, which would appear to the enemy scouts and spies that their force was almost five times larger than it actually was.

Another way the Mongols utilized deception and terror was by tying tree branches or leaves behind their horses and letting the foliage drag behind them across the ground; by traveling in a systematic fashion, the Mongols could create a dust storm behind hills, in order to create fear and appear to the enemy to be much larger than they actually were, thereby forcing the enemy to surrender. Because each Mongol soldier had more than one horse, they would let the prisoners and the civilians ride their horses for a while before the conflict also to fake numerical superiority.[10]


As Mongols started conquering other people, they recruited the male nomads to their armies if they only surrendered, particularly the Turks, Armenians, Georgians and others, willingly or under a threat to be destroyed otherwise. Therefore, as they expanded into other areas, their troop numbers increased as other people were included in their conquests, such as during the battle of Baghdad, which included many diverse people fighting under Mongol leadership.

Ground tactics

The tumens would typically advance on a broad front, five lines deep. The first three lines would be composed of horse archers, the last two of lancers. Once an enemy force was located, the Mongols would try to avoid risky or reckless frontal assaults (in sharp contrast to their European and Middle-Eastern opponents). Instead they would use diversionary attacks to fix the enemy in place, while their main forces sought to outflank or surround the foe. First the horse archers would lay down a withering barrage of arrow fire. Additional arrows were carried by camels who followed close by, ensuring a plentiful supply of ammunition.


In all battlefield situations, the troops would be divided into separate formations of 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 depending on the requirements. If the troops split from the main force was significant, for instance 10,000 or more, these would be handed over to a significant or second-in-command leader, while the main leader concentrated on the front line. The leader of the Mongols would generally issue the tactics used to attack the enemy. For instance the leader might order, upon seeing a city or town, "500 to the left and 500 to the right" of the city; those instructions would then be relayed to the relevant 5 units of 100 soldiers, and these would attempt to flank or encircle the town to the left and right.

Encirclement and opening

The main reason for these manoeuvers was to encircle the city to cut off escape and overwhelm from both sides. If the situation deteriorated on one of the fronts or flanks, the leader from the hill directed one part of the army to support the other. If it appeared that there was going to be significant loss, the Mongols would retreat to save their troops and would engage the next day, or the next month, after having studied the enemies' tactics and defences in the first battle, or again send a demand to surrender after inflicting some form of damage. There was no fixture on when or where units should be deployed: it was dependent on battle circumstances, and the flanks and groups had full authority on what to do in the course of battle - such as supporting other flanks or performing an individual feigned retreat as conditions seemed appropriate, in small groups of 100 to 1000 - so long as the battle unfolded according to the general directive and the opponents were defeated.

Feigned retreat

The Mongols very commonly practiced the feigned retreat, perhaps the most difficult battlefield tactic to execute. This is because a feigned rout amongst untrained troops can often turn into a real rout if an enemy presses into it.[11] Pretending disarray and defeat in the heat of the battle, the Mongols would suddenly appear panicked and turn and run, only to pivot when the enemy was drawn out, destroying them at their leisure. As this tactic became better known to the enemy, the Mongols would extend their feigned retreats for days or weeks, to falsely convince the chasers that they were defeated, only to charge back once the enemy again had its guard down or withdrew to join its main formation.

See also



  • Amitai-Preiss, Reuven. The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1998
  • Chambers, James, The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. Book Sales Press, 2003.
  • R.E. Dupuy and T.N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia Of Military History: From 3500 B.C. To The Present. (2nd Revised Edition 1986)
  • Hildinger, Erik, Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to A.D. 1700. Da Capo Press, 2001.
  • Morgan, David, The Mongols. Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-17563-6
  • Jones Archer ., -- Art of War in the Western World [1]
  • May, Timothy. "The Mongol Art of War." [1] Westholme Publishing, Yardley. 2007.
  • Nicolle, David, -- The Mongol Warlords Brockhampton Press, 1998
  • Charles Oman, The History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (1898, rev. ed. 1953)
  • Saunders, J.J. -- The History of the Mongol Conquests, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1971, ISBN 0-8122-1766-7
  • Sicker, Martin -- The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna, Praeger Publishers, 2000
  • Soucek, Svatopluk -- A History of Inner Asia, Cambridge, 2000
  • Verbruggen, J.F., -- The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, Boydell Press, Second English translation 1997, ISBN 0-85115-570-7
  • Conn Iggulden., -- Genghis, birth of an empire,Bantham Dell.

External links

Medieval History: Mongol Invasion of Europe at

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