The Art of War under Chinggis Qahan (Genghis Khan)

Genghis-KhanThe Art of War under Chinggis Qahan (Genghis Khan)

Translated by Urgunge Onon

The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan, translated by Urgunge Onon (Curzon Press, 2001)

In the thirteenth century, all Mongols thought themselves to be the centre of the universe, a belief that they derived from their Shamanistic religion. A Shamanist worshipped natural things: the sky, the sun, the moon, rivers and mountains, etc. Heaven was both their guide and their consciousness; thus every Shamanist was born free and equal. Chinggis was, like any other Mongol, a Shamanist, and he treated every Mongol equally.

The Mongols, under Chinggis’s command, were united to face the challenges of their day. Their strength lay in their unity, and the way in which they deployed their hunting skills and pursued their nomadic economy. Always superb horsemen, their iron discipline, high morale and fine leadership ensured that, as a cavalry force, they were beyond compare. Special attention was paid to the welfare of the soldiers. Chinggis Qahan once said:

`My soldiers are as numerous as forests, and their women could form a large unit within the army. I want to feed them with juicy meat, let them live in beautiful yurts, and let them pasture their livestock on rich soil.’


He was known for his personal concern for his men, and was careful not to drive them beyond the limits of their endurance.

Because the population of Mongolia was so small (some say it was over one million; I am inclined to put it at two million), human life was very precious. One can see from Chinggis’s tactics that the Mongols tended to avoid hand-to-hand fighting in order to minimize casualties among their soldiers. If a Mongol soldier was killed due to carelessness, his commander would be punished; if a wounded Mongol soldier was left on the battlefield, his troop leader would be executed on the spot. In December 1241, the Mongols, under Prince Batu (the founder of the Golden Horde), entered Hungary and fought a major battle on the banks of the Sayo River. Because of the delay in sending rafts to the river banks, some twenty Mongol soldiers lost their lives. Prince Batu strongly reprimanded his second-in-command, the famous general Sube’etei (one of the Four Hounds of Chinggis), for the delay, though some say that Sube’etei and his soldiers arrived late only because they were building bridges over the Sayo.

What is clear is that Chinggis cared greatly for his soldiers. With 129,000 Mongol cavalrymen he conducted wars in foreign countries for more than twenty years, his golden rule being that of `mutual loyalty’. Because of the way in which he treated his troops, he was able to maintain fairly constant numbers of men under arms.

Through their network of spies, traders and informers, Chinggis and his generals built up an exceptional understanding of the economic, military, and political conditions of the countries they wanted to attack. It was said that in the mornings, when the air was at its clearest, a Mongol could see for up to four or five miles and hear the sound of hoofs up to twenty miles away. Even in recent times, a horseman could ride from Ulaan-Baatar to Kalgan in nine days – a distance of some 600 miles. In 1221, Chinggis’s army rode 130 miles from Bamian to Ghazna, by way of Kabul, in two days. Every man learned to ride from the age of three, and served in the army from the age of fourteen until he was sixty.

Chinggis’s Arts of War were based on five key elements: speed, suddenness, ferocity, variety of tactics, and iron discipline.

Marco Polo tells us that a Mongol cavalryman often slept mounted and armed while his gelding grazed, and that he could go ten days without cooking food. On such occasions he lived on ten pounds of dried milk-curd, two litres of kumiss, and a quantity of cured meat. A Mongol soldier had three or four spare geldings, and would not ride a gelding until it had rested for three or four days. The Mongols took their herds of cows and sheep with them when they went on campaigns. If they went short of food, they hunted wild beasts.

In 1211, when Chinggis attacked the Jin territory in northern China, his army comprised about 110,000 Mongol soldiers. In 1219, when the Mongol army moved into Kwarizm territory, the army numbered some 150,000 soldiers (some say only 90,000), but to these he had added many auxiliaries, including Kurds, Turks, Turkomans, and even Chinese. Chinggis Qahan never liked to fight on a second front unless absolutely necessary, preferring instead to concentrate his forces on one front at a time.

Chinggis Qahan’s Sixteen Military Tactics

1) Crow Soldiers and Scattered Stars Tactics (also known as Ocean Waves Tactics)

When facing the enemy, the army would split into small groups consisting of three to five soldiers to avoid being surrounded. When the enemy regrouped, the Mongols too regrouped. They were to appear suddenly, like something dropping from the sky, and disappear like lightning. The attack would be signalled by a shout or the crack of a whip. One hundred cavalrymen could surround one thousand enemy soldiers and one thousand cavalrymen could control a front thirty-three miles long in order to attack the enemy at the right place and the right moment.

2) The Cavalrymen Charge Tactics (also known as Chisel Attack Tactics)

A group of cavalrymen would make a direct charge into the enemy line. If the first charge failed, a second and even third group would attack. No matter how great the opposition, even if they numbered a hundred thousand, they were unable to withstand the charges. Finally, in response to a signal, the Mongol cavalrymen would charge from all directions into the enemy lines in order to destroy their formation.

3) Archers’ Tactics

The archers, armed with shields, dismounted from their geldings and shot at the enemy, sometimes using the geldings as shelter. Other archers shot from horseback. (The horses were trained to stop dead in mid-gallop to allow the archer to take aim.) Once the enemy came under fire, their lines would be broken and they would scatter in disorder. At that point, the cavalrymen would attack.

4) Throw-Into-Disorder Tactics

If the enemy was strong on the battlefield or sheltering in a fort, the Mongols would herd oxen and wild horses into the enemy lines to cause confusion.

5) Wearing-Down Tactics

When the enemy stood in a defensive position with spears planted in a row, thus preventing a cavalry charge into the line, the Mongols would withdraw their main forces, leaving only a few small detachments to harass the enemy by shooting arrows into the spear-held line. Due to lack of food, water, and rest, the enemy would eventually have to move. Once the weary forces were on the march, the Mongol army would launch a surprise attack.

6) Confusing and Intimidating

In 1204, Chinggis Qahan ordered his soldiers to set up camp on the Sa’ari Steppe in western Mongolia. Every able‑bodied man lit five fires some distance apart, thus scaring the Naimans and enabling Chinggis to defeat them.

When the Mongols encountered numerically superior forces, they often sent troops to stir up dust behind their own lines by means of branches tied to the tails of their horses. On seeing the dust, the enemy often believed that large reinforcements were at hand and fled.

The Mongols also mounted stuffed dummies, small Mongol children, and females on the spare horses to suggest that the army was much bigger than it actually was. This trick was used by the Mongol general Shigi-qutuqu in 1221, when he engaged Jaldin at Biruan between Kabul and Ghazna.

7) Luring into Ambushes

As soon as battle started, the Mongol soldiers would feign retreat, deliberately throwing away gold and silver and other impedimenta. Such tactics were used sparingly – for example, if they could not break into heavily fortified cities or through a strong pass. In 1211, when the Mongols first attacked the Jin territory in northern China, Chinggis Qahan sent Jebe and Guyigu Nek ahead to attack the famous Chabchiyal Pass. The Mongols could not break through this pass because it backed onto mountain cliffs and was strongly fortified. Instead they decided to lure the enemy out by slowly retreating. The Jin army thought that the Mongols had given up, so they chased after them and were surprised, after a certain distance, to see the retreating soldiers suddenly turn to counter-attack. At that moment, the main Mongol army appeared from all sides in a pre-arranged ambush and slaughtered the enemy until their bodies piled up as far as Chibchayal, `like rotten logs’. Jebe stormed the gate of Chibchayal and took the pass.

In May 1222, the Mongol generals Jebe and Sube’etei and 20,000 Mongol cavalrymen pursued the fleeing Kypchaks (or Cumans) from the western side of the Caspian Sea towards the northwest, to Kiev. The Mongols met the joint forces of the Russians and the Cumans, 30,000 men, on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River. Some say that Sube’etei, with only 2,000 Mongol cavalry, lured the Russians and Cumans for nine days towards the small Kalka River that flows into the Sea of Azov, where the main Mongol cavalrymen (numbering 20,000) were waiting. Under the direction of Jebe and Sube’etei, the Mongols attacked the enemy at the end of May and destroyed most of their forces.

8) Arc Formation Tactics

The Mongols would send out two detachments in a wide curve, like the tips of a bow, but with the main forces staying at the centre of the arc, hiding in shady places to await the enemy. These two detachments went ahead to engage the enemy, shooting to infuriate them and lure them to where the main forces were waiting. These two detachments also closed in from the flanks or from behind the enemy. The Mongols called these tactics `bow tactics’. The Cossacks also used these tactics to defeat their enemies.

9) Lightning Attack And Surprise Attack

These two tactics were perhaps the most important of all: lightning attack meant speed, and surprise attack meant suddenness. In 1203, the Mongols attacked Ong Qan, who had erected a golden yurt and was feasting. For three nights and three days, under Chinggis’ command, they fought, and in the end Ong Qan and his son fled, though his entire army surrendered. This was an example of Chinggis `surprise attack’ tactics.

In 1213, the Mongol army, commanded by Jebe, failed to take the city of Dongchang (Mukden), so they retreated for six days over a distance of some 170 miles. The enemy defending the city thought that the Mongols had given up, but Jebe returned, covering the distance in one night and launching a surprise attack.

10) Outflanking Tactics (a)

When the Mongol cavalrymen could not attack the enemy from the front, they would leave a small detachment to draw the attention of the enemy. Meanwhile the main force went round the back, by way of difficult paths, to attack the enemy from the rear. There are two examples in the History to illustrate these tactics. In 1207, Chinggis Qahan ordered Dorbei-doqshin to attack the Tumet people in the northern part of Mongolia. He left a small detachment on the main road, and ordered his best soldiers to travel along paths made by wild animals. They climbed the highest mountain and then suddenly descended as if from heaven, finishing the enemy while they were feasting.

In 1213, when the Mongol cavalrymen under Chinggis Qahan wanted to take the Chabchiyal Pass, the Jin army fortified the pass and spread iron spikes along the road to the north to prevent the advance of the geldings. The entrance to the pass was also reinforced by an iron gate. Chinggis left a small detachment to shoot at the Jin army, and then took his main army west and back to the southern end of the pass. He captured a place called Nankou, and went on to take the pass.

11) Encircling Tactics

Chinggis used these tactics many times in order to destroy his enemies. The tactics were based on the enemy’s strengths and formations. If the enemy openly exposed his flank and rear, and the city defenders were weak, the Mongols would encircle them from all sides. If the enemy deployed their forces by the rivers, exposing two or three flanks, then the Mongols would encircle them from all sides of the riverbank.

In 1221, Chinggis destroyed Jalaldin Mangubirdi, who had deployed his soldiers on the west bank of the Indus, by attacking on two or three sides. Plano Carpini (who was in Mongolia in 1246) records that the Mongols always sent the captured personnel and non-Mongol soldiers in first, led by a few Mongols, to fight the encircled enemy. Only then would the strong regular army appear, as if from nowhere, to reinforce the stronghold, outflank the enemy on both wings, and destroy him.

12) Open-the-End Tactics

If the enemy was very strong and ready to fight to the death, the Mongols would leave a gap in their ranks. In this way, the enemy might think they could see an escape route, scatter, and start to run. At that precise moment, the Mongols would fix upon a suitable place to kill the fleeing enemy.

13) Combining Swords and Arrows

The Mongols avoided hand-to-hand fighting if at all possible, preferring to use bows and arrows, with a range of 200 to 300 yards, to kill the enemy. Plano Carpini records: ‘If at all possible, the Mongols never engage in hand-to-hand fighting. They always first use arrows to kill the enemy and their horses. After killing or wounding the enemy and their horses, making them too weak to fight, the Mongols move in to finish them off.’

14) Hot Pursuit Tactics and Dispersing Tactics

If winning, the Mongols would pursue the enemy so that no one escaped alive. If losing, they would disperse in all directions, so that the enemy was unable to catch them.

15) Bush Clump Tactics

These tactics involved dividing the soldiers into many small groups which, although keeping in contact with each other, maintained a low profile as they advanced. Such tactics were also used at night-time, and on dark or cloudy days.

16) Outflanking Tactics (b)

The Mongols faced a march of more than 1,500 miles to their goal in Bukhara and Samarkand. The Khwarazem Shah had deployed his forces along the Syr Darya River. The Mongols divided their forces into four contingents, three of which moved to face the Shah across the Syr Darya. The fourth and largest contingent, commanded by Chinggis himself, turned north and then due west into the Kizil Kum Desert, instead of turning south. There were neither roads nor water in this region. For several months, Chinggis made his way secretly across the desert, while the Shah’s forces were being worn out on the battlefront. In March 1218, Chinggis approached Bukhara from more than 400 miles behind enemy lines. This campaign is regarded by military historians as one of the most dramatic outflanking manoeuvres of all times.

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