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Mongolian Warfare

All men may be created equal, but all cultures are not. True, each culture has its positive, negative, and inconsequential traits, but there are undoubtedly some cultures that have every aspect of their existence bear on a single effort. Cultures such as these have left an irremovable stamp on every society near them, and left their name emblazoned forever on world history.

Such a culture was the Mongol culture. There have been a few other peoples that matched, maybe even exceeded, their military-minded way of life, but none that have managed to turn this focus into creating the world’s largest empire. The Spartans could contest for the title of “most enduring,” but they could never unite the rest of the Greeks alongside. The Macedonians might reach them in dedication and conquest, but their gains were futile, lost due to Alexander’s disputed succession. The Mongols, however, joined their previously fragmented societies into a single effective war machine and ruled the world’s largest empire for several generations.

The reasons for the Mongol’s military successes stem from three main advantages: their home life, their weapons and training, and their military leadership. Home life was focused on military achievement, with mobility and speed a side-effect of their nomadic culture. Military weapons and training stemmed from home life, where each man was a warrior, in charge of his own weapons and trained from an early age on horseback. Officers and generals were a natural consequence of the single-mindedness of culture – where else would a leader go, but the army?

The home life of the Mongols was centered on mobility. Each man had his own “ordu” that consisted of his wives, children, and servants. With a large number of buildings in each “ordu,” it could take up as much space as a smaller nomadic town itself. Understandably, with so many people and a constant need to be o the move, discipline was strict, and every aspect of the Mongolian home life was tailored towards organization.

The houses of the village were no exception. Each house, or “yurt” was made of a framework of wood, on top of which was a layer of felt, according to Marco Polo. This unique construction was not purposeless. The light houses could be lifted onto carts and moved in one piece. Each cart was pulled by oxen, which could number up to twenty-two, as reported by William of Rubruck, a Franciscan Monk. Valuable belongings were packed into a bundle constructed the same way as the house, except waterproofed with tallow or the milk of ewes. With all this baggage, a single man could have up to two hundred carts when his “ordu” was on the move, most of which were handled by his wives and their servants.

With such extravagance for a single man, it should not be surprising that the emperor of the Mongols would live in a mobile palace when on the move. According to Marco Polo, the Great Khan lived in a large tent, constructed of wooden beams and layered in and out with animal skins. He continues on to say that the entire structure was waterproof and large enough to hold ten thousand men, with their officers. Friar John of Pian de Carpine tells us that Batu Khan, a slightly lower ruler in his own time, lived in large tents of linen, previously owned by the King of Hungary.

The bodyguard around the emperor’s tent is a good example of the discipline of the Mongols: harsh and cruel. Anyone attempting to get close to the emperor’s tents without permission would be shot. Not with deadly arrows, but with headless arrows, a nonlethal, yet painful option. Discipline all around camp was strict, and the Khan was in complete control. Polo gives us endless lists of the good and generous deeds of the Khan, and Carpine says that Batu was “kind enough” to his own people, but he was “greatly feared” by them. These claims are backed up by Richard Hakluyt, who also comments on the “rigor and extremity” of punishment in a Mongolian camp.

One distinct trait of the Mongolian culture seems to be the attitude that pervaded their society. Mongols would demand gifts of foreigners, and accept them without thanks, for their feeling was that the world was made for them. Polo says they were “fitted to subdue the world,” but other sources go further by saying they “think that all things are created for themselves alone,” and “there is nothing that anyone has the right to refuse them.”

Hunting, as a staple of the nomadic way of life, was done in a very military manner as well. Working together, the horsemen would corral numerous wild animals and shoot them at a distance, procuring the necessary amount of meat. This was often similar to their treatment of the enemy, dividing or corralling them where needed, and harassing them from afar.

When the hunting was over, and the men needed to play a game, it was not a relaxing game of chess. The Mongolian game of Buzkhashi was a miniature mounted battle. All the participants worked towards the goal for themselves: possessing the headless, hoofless carcass of a calf. Pressing together around the carcass, they needed perfect control of their horse and extraordinary strength and agility to pull the calf away from multiple other contestants and carry it to an uncontested area. Once they did so, however, the game was not over. It started up once more from where the carcass was dropped, sometimes lasting the through entire day, not to mention several calves.

The weapons and training of the Mongols were the keys to their success. The bows used in hunting were quickly turned on the enemy, and would wreak havoc on European armies in tight formation. They had the best tools of their trade and the right training for the job.

Polo says “all their accoutrements were of an expensive kind,” and this is undoubtedly true with reference to the Khan’s court. Even on the lower ranks, however, the weapons were of a similar type, if not a similar value. In both places, the bow reigned supreme. Made of five layers to increase their drawing power, these bows were strong enough to pierce armor at 100 yards, and were accurate to 250 yards, although a skilled archer could far surpass even that number. They were made by the warriors themselves and stored in their own tents, ready for instant use. The training for these warriors was long and intense, starting from youth, and they were in practice throughout their entire lives. The stronger the bow, the harder it was to shoot, and the more skillful the archer had to be.

In warfare, however, not every fight could be won by bows alone. Mongols also carried weapons to finish of their enemy, including iron maces and spears, according to Polo, backed up by Hakluyt, who adds swords and battle-axes. Armor was of leather, dried and shaped into small, convex pieces and attached together, which today we call “lamellar.” It was tough and presumably lighter than iron, but Rubruck calls it “unfit” and “unwieldy.”

The culmination of all these characteristics was war. In a battle, the Mongolians undoubtedly already had the advantage of skilful, trained men, but the final pieces of the puzzle were their leaders. Devious politics and cunning tactics, combined with exact organization, produced the final picture of the Mongolian Empire.

The Mongolian leaders had a penchant for trickery. It pervaded both their politics and their warfare. In beginning an assault on some new country, the Mongol leader would provide an excuse for their presence. Hakluyt gives several examples, such as the Mongol’s desire to learn from the French, or grow more crops for their men. In each case, as long as it sufficed to get them in the country, they would turn on the people they had fooled, and destroy their nation so rapidly that no defense could be made.

In cases where the battles were not so one-sided, the commander would still devise ingenious ways of fooling the enemy. Polo tells us of the Mongolian’s habit of never mixing with the enemy, and feigning retreat to draw the enemy out of formation. This tactic was used to disastrous effect at the Battle of Liegnitz, in which Kaidu, the Mongolian general, destroyed the army of the Duke of Silesia, killing him and nearly the entire European army that followed him. He also used a smokescreen, created from firepots, to increase the confusion.

In a later battle, Kaidu found a new way to disorganize the enemy. By almost entirely encircling the King of Hungary’s army, but leaving a single gap, he let the panicked soldiers think they could save their own lives. King Belas’ army disintegrated, his soldiers thinking they had escaped, but fresh Mongolian cavalry cut down the unorganized mobs.

Of course, the Mongol “hordes” could never have done this without organization of their own. The Mongolian army was divided up by tens, with each officer controlling ten sub-officers, and each of those officers over ten more officers, and so on down the line. A division of one hundred men was called a “tuc,” and ten “tucs,” or ten thousand men, was a “tuman.”

This division of men, coupled with the skill of their leaders, allowed the Mongol armies to quickly react to any crisis, or to even make one of their own. They could infiltrate a country and cut of lines of communication before a leader even had a chance to assemble an army, taking all fight out of the enemy. Without a doubt, organization was a large factor in the Mongol’s successes.

It was not the only one, however. Just as Genghis Khan had told his sons, many arrows together will hold strong, but just one will break. The Mongolian culture, inspired by men like Genghis, had many advantages on its side. Their men were warlike, dedicated, and skilled, due to their training from a young age. Their weapons were the best of the day, and their use of them was superb. Their leaders were cunning, devious, and unafraid of overwhelming odds. In the end, it was the single-minded focus of the Mongolian culture that gained them dominion over an entire continent, and left their stamp on military doctrine and even the world as we know it today.



Lamellar armor is any type of armor that used small plates of protective material, called lames, tied together to form a flexible sheet of armor. It was heavy and hot, but allowed more movement than pate armor. One study suggests that the lamellar armor used by the Byzantines was actually stronger than chain mail.
The plates could be made of iron, steel, or even leather, and strapped together with silk, leather or cotton. When leather was used, it was treated in a similar manner to leather that was used in entirely leather armor.

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