The Mongol military tactics and organization helped the Mongols
to conquer nearly all of continental Asia, the Middle East and parts of
eastern Europe. In many ways, it can be regarded as the first "modern"
The original foundation of that system was a direct extension of the
nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols. Other elements were newly invented by
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 only lost a few
battles using that system, but always returned to turn the result
around in their favour. In many cases, they won against significantly
larger opponent armies. Their first real defeat came in the Battle of Ain Jalut
in 1260, against the first army who had been specifically trained to
use their own tactics against them. That battle ended the western
expansion of the Mongolian Empire,
and within the next 20 years the Mongols also suffered defeats in
attempted invasions of Vietnam, and Japan. But while the empire became
divided at around the same time, its combined size and influence
remained largely intact for more than another hundred years.
- 1 Organization
- 2 Troops and Weapons
- 3 Strategy
- 4 Supply
- 5 Communication
- 6 Battlefield tactics
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Genghis Khan organized the Mongol soldiers into groups based on the
decimal system. Units were recursively built from groups of 10 (Arban),
100 (Yaghun), 1,000 (Minghan), and 10,000 (Tumen), each with a leader reporting to the next higher level. Tumens, and sometimes Minghans, were commanded by a Noyan, who was often given the task to administrate specific conquered territories. From two to five Tumens would then form a hordu meaning army corps or field army, from which the word "Horde" is derived, under the command of the Khans or their generals (boyan).
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
Breaking tribal connections
When integrating new soldiers into the army, Genghis Khan divided
the soldiers under different leaders to break up the social and tribal
connections, so that there was no division based on heritage of tribal
alliances. Promotion was based only 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 predestinated 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 of the Great Khan himself) 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
Troops and Weapons
Six of every ten Mongol troopers were light cavalry horse archers, the remaining four were more heavily armored and armed lancers. Mongol light cavalry
soldiers, called Keshik, 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 troups were heavier cavalry with lances for close
combat after the archers had brought the enemy into disarray. All
solders usually carried scimitars or axes as well.
The Mongolian horses
are relatively small, so they would lose short distance races under
equal conditions. Since most other armies carried much heavier armor,
the Mongols could still outrun most enemy horsemen in battle. In
addition, the Mongolian horses are extremely endurable and sturdy,
which allowed the Mongols to move over large distances quickly, often
surprising enemies that had expected them to arrive only days if not
All horses were equipped with stirrups. Those had been invented by the Huns
quite some time before, but remained largely unknown to the rest of the
world. This technical advantage allowed the Mongol archers to turn
their upper body, and shoot in all directions, including backwards.
The primary weapon of the Mongol forces was the Mongol bow. It was a reflex bow
made from composite materials (wood, horn, and sinew), and at the time
unmatched for accuracy, force, and reach. The reflex geometry allowed
to make it relatively small so it could be used from horseback.
Targeted shots were possible at a range of 80 or 100 m, 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 m, useful for surprising
and scaring troups and horses before beginning the actual attack. They
used a wide variety of arrows, depending on the target and distance.
Plate armor could be penetrated at close range, using special heavy
Training and discipline
Most European armies consisted of a few professional men at arms, and Knights, and large levies of peasants or militia.
Only the Knights and the few professional fighting men trained
regularly, and their training emphasized individual combat, such as
jousting, rather than group combat tactics. The Mongol armies, by
contrast, 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 solder ran from
danger in battle, then he and his nine comrades from the same arban
would face the death penalty together.
One unique training method that the Mongols used were huge hunting
excursions organized annually on the steppe. The Mongol horsemen would
make a great circle, and drive all manner of animals in towards the
center. Practicing the dynamic manoeuvres also to be used on a
battlefield, the Mongols would trap all the animals of various types in
their encirclement, and on the order of their commander, begin the
slaughter. This was an excellent way for the Mongols to train, and
enjoy the recreation of hunting, as well as gather huge amounts of food
for massive feasts.
Intelligence and Planning
The Mongols carefully scouted and spied out their enemies in advance
of any invasion. For instance, 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 the level of ability of each to
resist alone, and in toto.
Each Mongol soldier maintained between 2 and 4 horses. 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, made their armies
far less dependent on the traditional logistical apparatus of western
agrarian armies. In some cases, they covered up to 100 miles per day,
which was unheard of by other armies of the time.
The mobility of individual solders 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
During the invasion of Russia, the Mongols used frozen rivers as
literal highways, and winter, the time of year usually off limits for
any major activity due to the intense cold, became the Mongol's
preferred time to strike.
The Mongols used psychological warfare
successfully in many of their battles, especially in terms of spreading
terror and fear to towns and cities. They would often offer an
opportunity for the enemy to surrender and pay tribute,
with the threat to be destroyed otherwise. They knew that sedentary
populations were not free to flee danger, as nomad populations were,
and knew also that destruction of their cities was the worst a
sedentary population could expect. In many cases, cities accepting the
offer were indeed spared, but of course required to support the troups
with manpower, supplies, and other services.
If the offer was refused, they would invade and destroy the cities
and towns, but allow a few civilians to flee and to report of their
loss to other areas. Those reports were an essential tool to incite
fear in others. Their reputation for terror was so great there were
tales of lone Mongol soldiers riding into villages and killing the
inhabitants one by one without resistance, as it was known that to
resist was to bring forth the whole of the Mongol army. However, both
sides often had a similar if differently motivated interest in
overstate the actual dimensions of the reported events. For that
reasons, specific data (eg. casualty figures) given in contemporary
sources needs to be evaluated carefully.
The Mongol armies traveled very light, and were able to live largely
off the land. Their equipment included fish hooks and other equipment
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 had five
spare mounts. And since most of the Mongols' mounts were mares, they
could live off their horses' milk or milk products when need arose.
Wagons and carts carried large stockpiles of arrows, which were then
put on the backs of camels (the Mongols' favorite beasts of burden
after the horse) who would travel along with the spare mounts. So a
Mongol trooper was rarely for want of munitions, a fresh horse or fresh
milk. The main logistical factor limiting the Hordus' advance, was
finding enough feed and water for their animals.
The Mongols established a system of "iamy," or postal-relay horse
stations, thus creating a mail service much like the later Pony Express
of the U.S. frontier era. The Mongol mail system was the first such
empire-wide service since the Roman Empire. Additionally, Mongol
battlefield communication relied on flags to communicate movement
orders during combat.
The Mongols were masters of the feigned retreat, which is perhaps
the most difficult battlefield tactic to execute. Pretending disarray
and defeat, they would turn and run, only to pivot when the enemy was
drawn out, and destroy them at their leisure.
The tomens would typically advance on a broad front, five lines
deep. The first three lines would be comprised 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
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 and 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, with their emphasis on heavy cavalry,
it was obviously not the Mongol's style to engage in heavy melee combat
against a strong and unshaken foe, but rather picked off the heavy
cavalry at long distances with their bows. In the few cases where armor
actually withstood their arrows, the Mongols simply killed the Knight's
horses, leaving a heavily armored man afoot, unable to go any distance.
At the Battle of Mohi,
the Mongols left open a gap in their ranks, luring the Hungarians into
retreating through it, which resulted in their 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 Teutonic, Templar and Hospitaller
knights were able to make a stand dismounted, and inflicted unusually
heavy casualties on the Mongols - but were killed in the end. The
Mongols simply accepted the casualties, and destroyed the Knights, who
The Mongol battlefield tactics were a combination of masterful
training combined with excellent communication and the ability to
follow orders 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 where 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. No one would have respected him, let
alone obeyed his orders. But the Mongols recognized and respected the
still powerful military mind buried within the old fat man, who after
all, had been one of the Genghis Khan's most able subbordinates, and so
they cheerfully hauled him around in a cart.
- Amitai-Preiss, Reuven. The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1998
- Chambers, James, The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe
- 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 *Morgan, David -- The Mongols, ISBN 0-631-17563-6
- Jones Archer ., -- Art of War in the Western World 
- May, Timothy. "The Mongol Art of War."  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 0851155707
Medieval History: Mongol Invasion of Europe at http://historymedren.about.com/library/prm/bl1mongolinvasion.htm
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