Mongol military tactics and organization

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" military system.

The original foundation of that system was a direct extension of the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols. Other elements were newly 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 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.



Decimal system

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 broken army.

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 ├ľgedei 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 devastation.

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 weeks later.

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 arrows.

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 Mongols.

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.

Psychological warfare

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.

Battlefield tactics

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 ammunition.

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 were outnumbered.

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.


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External links

Medieval History: Mongol Invasion of Europe at

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