Mongol War Tactics

Mongol War Tactics

Mongol War Tactics

Mongol War Tactics

All males between the ages of 15 to around 60 who were capable of bearing arms were eligible for military service. The rigors of daily living in the harsh climate of Mongolia prepared the nomads well in terms of endurance and fortitude. Trained from youth to be expert horsemen and archers, the nomads of Mongolia were well prepared to be warriors. By the thirteenth century, nomad horse archer armies already possessed a long history of success.

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Yet, the one which Chinggis Khan created perfected this form. He added the essential element that separated the Mongols from their peers: discipline. This enabled him to overcome the assortment of tribal confederations and alliances, which he faced before becoming the ruler of all Mongolia. While other armies would disintegrate in order to loot the dead and baggage of an enemy in flight, Chinggis Khan ordered his armies to wait until victory was complete. Those who disobeyed this command would be struck down. This disciplined soldier was then given a high rate of mobility. Each trooper had a string of three to five horses. This allowed him to exchange mounts when one tired. If one was slain, the Mongol trooper had replacements. In sedentary armies, this simply was not possible. Horses were simply too expensive to maintain to allow each cavalryman to have more than one, especially the large horses necessary to carry an armored warrior.

Mongol War Tactics Equipment

The Mongols themselves, in order to maintain their mobility, were lightly armored compared to many of the armies they faced. Their armor, for the most part, consisted of lacquered or boiled leather, which mainly covered the upper body. A helmet was also part of their accoutrement. Other types of armor, such as chain mail, did appear, but it was not as widespread among the Mongols due to the weight. The armament of the Mongols focused on the bow. This was a double recurred composite bow, made of layers of sinew, horn, and wood. Each warrior had more than one, probably attached, in a special quiver, to their saddles on each horse in addition to quivers of arrows. The bow itself possessed an incredible amount of penetrating power, often consisting of pull weights of over one hundred pounds. The Mongols used a wide variety of arrows, many with specialized purposes, such as armor piercing, blunt stun arrows, and even whistling arrows for signaling purposes. In addition, the soldiers carried sabres, maces, axes, and sometimes a short spear with a hook at the bottom of the blade. Other supplies, such as rope, rations, files for sharpening arrows, etc., were also carried. This made the soldiers of the Mongol army a self-sufficient unit able to function independently of supply lines. Thus, they were not hampered by a slow moving baggage train, allowing them to make the rapid marches that so characterized Mongol warfare.

Mongol War Tactics and Strategy

Before invading a territory, the Mongols made extensive preparations in a quriltai. At this meeting it was decided not only how the upcoming war would be conducted, but also, which generals would participate in it. In The Secret History of the Mongols, this procedure is demonstrated on several occasions. The Mongols meanwhile would have been accumulating intelligence on their opponent. Only after this was obtained, would there be a declaration of hostilities. Then, during the quriltai, units would be called up. Although the planning of the campaign was a major component, the Mongol generals still maintained a high degree of independence. Thus, they were able to complete their objectives on their terms, but they still had to abide by the timetable. This allowed the Mongols to coordinate their movements and concentrate their forces at prearranged sites.

The Mongols had a set method of invasion which varied only slightly from campaign to campaign. First the Mongol army would invade in several columns. Often it was three pronged attack, consisting of an army of the center and then two flanking forces. Flanking forces in some cases went into neighboring territories before rendezvousing with the army of the center. All of these columns were covered by a screen of scouts who constantly relayed information back to their mother column. In addition, because of their pre-planned schedule as well as the scouts, the Mongols not only marched divided, but also were also able to fight united. Furthermore, because of their forces marched in smaller concentrations, the Mongols were not impeded with columns stretching for miles. They used their mobility to spread terror to the effect that rarely were their opponents ever really prepared to concentrate their forces when the enemy appeared everywhere.



The use of a many-pronged invasion also fit into their preferred method of engaging the enemy. The Mongols preferred to deal with all field armies before moving deep into enemy territory. This was very practical. Reaching this goal was rarely difficult, as the enemy (except in the case of the Khwarazmians) usually sought to meet the Mongols before they destroyed an entire province. Furthermore, the use of columns with its screen of scouts gathering intelligence enabled the Mongols to locate the enemy armies much more rapidly than one army wandering around. In addition, since the Mongols could usually unite their forces before the enemy was cognizant of all of the different invasion forces, the Mongols were better able to conceal their troop strengths. This also meant that an embattled force could receive reinforcements or, in the advent of defeat, they could be avenged.

By concentrating on the field armies, the strongholds had to wait. Of course, smaller fortresses, or ones easily surprised, were taken as they came along. This had two effects. First, it cut off the principle city from communicating with other cities where they might expect aid. Secondly, refugees from these smaller cities would flee to the last stronghold. The reports from these cities and the streaming hordes of refugees not only reduced the moral of the inhabitants and garrison of the principle city, it also strained their resources. Food and water reserves were taxed by the sudden influx of refugees. Soon, what was once a formidable undertaking became easy.

The tactics used, whether in the field or during a siege, focused on two aspects: firepower and mobility. Military historians often speak of the great success of the English with their longbows at Agincourt or Crecy, but almost a century before Crecy, the Mongols had demonstrated on several occasions the advantages of concentrated firepower over any opponent. Not only did a withering hail of arrows break a charge of armored knights, but it also could pin units to a particular location. During siege operations, the Mongols still relied on concentrated firepower. At the siege of Aleppo, Hulegu used twenty catapults against the Bab al-Iraq alone (Gate of Iraq). In Jûzjânî, there are several episodes in which the Mongols constructed hundreds of siege machines in order to surpass the number, which a defending city possessed. While Jûzjânî surely exaggerated, the improbably high numbers which he used for both the Mongols and the defenders does give one a sense of the large numbers of machines used at a single siege.

Mobility was vital for the Mongols to carry out the caracole technique. By advancing, firing, wheeling, and retreating, the Mongol warriors left themselves open to a possible counterattack. Only due to the unit integrity, and mobility (i.e. number of horses involved) permitted the Mongols to do this technique. Other tactics, such as encircling the enemy as the Mongols did during the battue hunt, could only be achieved with a high degree of mobility. Perhaps of most importance, it allowed the Mongols to withdraw and then reappear unexpectedly. This made it almost impossible for their opponents to accurately report on the movements of the Mongol armies.

Discipline separated the Mongol armies from their contemporaries. Without discipline, the Mongols could not have perfected the system of steppe/horse archer warfare, which had existed for centuries. Nomads since the Scythians and Hsiung-nu based their armies and method of war on mobility and the bow. The Mongols, however, perfected it, allowing them to conquer the entire steppe land of Eurasia. While some may dismiss this accomplishment as simply being a victory over other tribes, one must remember, these are the tribes from which the Khitan, the Jurchen, and the mighty Seljuk armies came. Horse archers from the steppes were a desired element in every sedentary army stretching from China to Egypt. The Mongols perfected the system by adding the strict discipline that allowed them to overcome other nomads who also relied on the key factors of mobility and the bow. After overcoming the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, the victories over sedentary armies seem less astonishing.


Dr. Timothy May
Assistant Professor of History
Young Hall
North Georgia College and State University

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