Mongolian warfare

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Mounted archers of the Mongols
from the universal story of Raschīd ad-Dīn

The Mongolian warfare summarized all elements of the steppe war. With the expansion of the Mongolian Empire , it consistently showed a high adaptability and took over the war technologies of the defeated peoples on a large scale.

Rise and fall

  • Mongol Empire
  • From 1260 the empire split into:
  • Golden Horde territory
  • Chagatai Khanate
  • Area of ​​the Ilkhan
  • Empire of the Yuan Dynasty
  • The decisive prerequisite for the Mongol war successes was the social reform that Genghis Khan carried out around 1190 . Before this reform, the Mongols fought separately according to tribal and clan affiliation . The leadership of the troops was held by a class of aristocracy, which was strongly structured according to origin . The booty was distributed without any fixed rules, everyone was responsible if he wanted something. After the fall of the First Mongol Empire , the various tribes of the Mongols were in constant war with one another and conditions bordering on anomie prevailed . The primary purpose of the constant raids and fighting at the time was to gain prey.

    With the unification of the tribes by Genghis Khan, a tightly centralized state emerged after fierce battles against the representatives of the aristocratic class . The ultimate goal of the war was now to achieve complete victory over the enemy. The entire spoils of war initially belonged to Genghis Khan himself, who distributed them to his followers depending on the military performance, regardless of their descent or origin. In the newly created state, the army and the people were initially identical. The line-up of the units was no longer based on tribal or clan affiliation; only trustworthy men were allowed to keep their immediate tribal attachment. Position and rank were determined solely through military performance, with the exception of the Genghis Khan family themselves, which were the only ones to remain hierarchically structured. The system was intended to restrict the independence of the clans and their leaders ( Noyon or Bahadur ) in the event of war and ensure a clear order of battle. It also made it easier to integrate new troops and foreign peoples into the nation .

    During this time, the term Mongols did not mean the descent from one of the original Mongolian tribes, but the membership of the Mongolian military, which corresponded to the Mongolian nation. The rapid growth of the Mongolian armed forces was based to a large extent on the equality of the opportunities for advancement, an order enforced by extremely tough discipline and the fair distribution of the spoils of war. Any man could attain a leading position in the Mongol army, some soldiers of very simple origins indeed became the best military leaders of the Mongols. However, soon after the conquest of all steppe regions, this new society had to fight new external enemies in order to maintain the system that had been created. The Mongols suffered their first decisive defeat in the battle of ʿAin Jālūt on September 3, 1260 against the Mameluks .

    Like the Mongolian empire, the military system began to decline after 70 years. Increasingly, the hierarchy of origin principle prevailed again among the troop leaders, some of the units became tribes again or were replaced by the units of the subjugated peoples and their organizational forms. The Mongolian military lost its uniqueness. It returned to the level of normal nomadic warfare or was replaced by the newly formed military of the partial empires.

    Structure and organization

    The army reform divided the Mongolian army into tens ( Arban ), hundred ( Zuut or Jagun ), thousand ( Minghan ) and ten thousand ( Tumen ). These units were built up independently of the tribal affiliation, in particular the Minghan and Tumen were put together as heterogeneously as possible. Only with groups and tribes that had been in the service of Genghis Khan for a long time or voluntarily did he allow the clan connection within the jagun to continue.

    The total armed forces were divided into the left wing army (in the east) called Zuunghar , the right wing army in the west called Baruunghar , and the army of the center Khol . The latter consisted largely of the guard, the Keshig . This was originally a thousand people who were led in the battle of Genghis Khan himself and then expanded beyond a tumen. The sons of leaders of a jagun or minghan had to join the guard. The sons of tribal leaders and allies were also trained there, thus ensuring the reliability of their troops at the same time. The guard also served as a kind of officers' school for the Mongolian army, from which the military leaders of larger units were often recruited.

    In the Guard, after the expansion, the day watch ( Tunghaut ) and the night watch ( Kabtaut ) formed the personal troops and bodyguards of the Ka Khan , in the strength of a thousand ( Minghan ). Initially the day watch consisted of 70 men and the night watch 80 men, but these units have also grown over time. In addition, there were other smaller elite units whose size and function can no longer be clearly determined.

    This structure of the armed forces was largely retained for the entire time of the unified Mongolian Empire, but changed bit by bit with the assimilation of the Mongols by the subjugated peoples. Certain terms were continued to be used in the resulting sub-kingdoms with a new reference, for example the term right wing no longer only referred to the troops in the west, but the entire army of the Khanate of the Golden Horde that arose from these troops.

    Equipment and technology

    Only a few finds of weapons and armor could be clearly identified as Mongolian. Nevertheless, there are now some significant excavations that complete the picture of the historical and written sources. Right from the start, the Mongols systematically took over the armament and armament of other peoples.

    Mongolian bow from the time of the Mongol invasions in Japan

    The most important weapon of the Mongols was the composite reflex bow ( nomo ). It was a further development of the bows already used by the Scythians and Huns , but had somewhat larger dimensions and was more powerful. In terms of penetration power and range, the Mongolian bows were much more powerful than the simple curved bows customary at the time and just as effective as the much larger European longbows . The classic Mongolian bow had a length of about 120 to 130 cm in the relaxed state. From the beginning, the Mongols also used bows made by Tungus , which differed in shape and material. Such Tungus bows were used not only by allies of the Mongols, but also by Mongolian troops themselves. Usually every Mongol carried at least one such bow and 60 to 90 arrows. However, many fighters also carried two such bows or even three so that they had a replacement on hand in the event of a loss. The heavy Mongolian cavalry also carried the bow throughout, which was transported in a bow quiver ( Khaadak ) to protect against moisture .

    About 30 arrows were transported in their own pockets, the so-called khegenyg . Half of the arrows ( Tumer Bulsuu ) were particularly heavy and provided with a massive or multi-bladed tip for the shorter distances. The others were light and made for a long range. Some Mongolian arrows were noticeably long at that time, but generally the length was around 80 cm. The arrowheads were shaped very differently: massive three-bladed points for general use in battle, bolt-like points for piercing armor, and broad-bladed or multi-pointed arrowheads to create the greatest possible wounds. Finds indicate that arrowheads made from bones continued to be used. Presumably such arrows were used for hunting or against unarmed opponents and opposing horses. The fletching of arrows ( Ude Khomon ) was highly developed among the Mongolian arrows, and different types of fletching were used to specifically influence the flight path . Some sources report that the Mongols used poisoned arrows. Such poison arrows ( khoron ) actually existed in the eastern steppe region. The poison used ( Mogain Khoran ) was made from the poison of vipers .

    In contrast to the European method of drawing the bow with three fingers on the string and the arrow between these fingers in archery , the Mongols used the thumb for this. A thumb ring was used to protect the thumb. With the expansion of their empire, the Mongols also got to know other extraction methods and used different methods at the same time, so that the fingers, which were used alternately, did not tire after long periods of shooting.

    In addition to the bows, melee weapons played a major role among the Mongols. Very many Mongols wielded swords, which were almost always single-edged and only slightly or not at all curved. Long saber-like swords with an only slightly curved, slender blade, the so-called Khelme, were preferred . But there were also heavy, straight-bladed and just as single-edged swords ( Mese ) in use. The blades were made of high quality material and ground very sharply. Axes ( Alma Khune ), maces and iron-shod clubs ( Gulda ) were used by the riders, who were specially equipped for close combat . Many fighters carried a lance-like spear ( zhada ) 2 to 2.5 m in length with them, which could be thrown, but was also of sufficient length for close combat from a horse. With the expansion of the empire, a wide variety of captured close combat weapons from the defeated peoples found their way into the Mongolian army and in general the use of maces and iron clubs increased considerably over time.

    As nomads, they carried everything they needed on horseback . They could also eat horse milk and cheese because, unlike the central and southern Chinese, they do not have a genetic predisposition to lactose intolerance . In this way, they transported the entire logistical equivalent of a city on horseback and were more flexible than many of their competitors' armies, who had to orient their logistics to fixed cities or who had to transport their provisions with slow pack animals.

    During the invasion of a foreign country, the Mongol armies invaded the country separately from one another in several places and gathered there at a predetermined point in time far in the rear of the enemy or in the case of a large opposing field force for battle. Usually 2 to 3 Tumen marched in close proximity to each other, these were followed after some time and at a distance by further Tumen, who then carried the siege device with them.

    In the field battle the Mongols used a wide variety of maneuvers and tactics, but the most common tactic was an attack with long-range weapons, followed by a sham retreat. The Mongols set up in formations that were often 5 men deep, then rode 50 to 100 m to the enemy and showered him with arrows. First of all, they aimed primarily at the horses of the enemy cavalry. An attack or counter-attack by the enemy was followed by the aforementioned retreat, with part of the Mongolian troops marching around the enemy and falling in his flanks or rear. This maneuver was called Tulughma.

    The Mongols always left an escape route open for the enemy and never completely enclosed him. In doing so, they prevented the enemy from fighting with the courage of despair. However, the opponent did not know that fleeing opponents were being attacked in close combat and were being pursued extremely long and tenaciously. The pursuit of defeated opponents to the last man was a core aspect of Mongolian warfare and often dragged on over several days.

    Since their warfare was superior to any opponent in terms of mobility (articulated light cavalry), they did not have to win every battle, but focused on attacking the enemy's resources (food, fields, water, etc.). Unlike the Mongols, the enemies inhabiting the cities were tied to their resources. The cities were cut off from the food supply and the farmers were driven to the cities to flee, so that epidemics broke out there. So the cities became deserted before they were even attacked. Some ruined cities (in Afghanistan and on the Silk Road ) have been abandoned to this day. The concentric attack was popular: cities were attacked by three armies from different sides, and two or three army groups were used to move on to the next target.

    Mongolian trebuchet from the Jami 'at-tawarich

    This concept mostly ensured a Mongolian victory. However, long sieges were gladly avoided due to the lack of pastureland and siege equipment. The Mongol armies preferred a quick assault, ruse, or breach of contract. In the event of failure, they moved on, but over time they developed a sense of diverse technical progress. Chinese engineers developed excellent siege machines for them, such as clay incendiary bombs, whose fire accelerator consisted of dolphin fat, but Western siege machines such as the trebuchet with counterweight were also introduced in Mongolia.

    The Mongols first used the concept of " psychological warfare " in full. They also use terror systematically as a psychological weapon. With the so-called kharasch tactic, the attackers drove a number of subjugated villagers in front of them in order to protect themselves from counter-attacks - a kind of "living protective shield". In the 14th century they erected structures made of human bones in front of a destroyed city as a symbol of their passage. Then they let some of the survivors escape to spread the terror in the area. Normally, the upper class of a conquered city was ordered to move to a new area. If this was rejected, the entire city population was driven out or massacred (except for a handful of specialists), and the city and surrounding fields were burned down.

    Since the Mongols could not control many areas in the long term, they repeatedly caused extreme carnage, which sometimes paralyzed their opponents out of horror. The numbers mentioned in chronicles , some of which exceed the million mark in individual events, are set too high, but the Mongols targeted and systematically killed a large number of people. The extremely high numbers in the chronicles are based on the propaganda of the Mongols.

    In other respects, too, the Mongols relied heavily on deception and cunning in their warfare. For example, they carried dolls on their replacement horses to deceive the enemy about their strength, spread rumors to discourage the enemy, and deployed spies and agents on a large scale .

    The cavalry

    Initially, the Mongols based their power almost entirely on light cavalry. This consisted mainly of archers with two or more bows on horseback. Agile and numerous, the light cavalry had good opportunities to attack and retreat from enemy heavy cavalry in combat. It created a dense hail of arrows that could be used both in the attack and in a (often faked) escape. The arrows were shot at full speed in the hover phase of the gallop . At this point, apart from the weight, there are no other external forces acting on the shooter, which enables a calm and targeted shot. The use of stirrups , which was not very widespread at the time, gave the necessary support to not only shoot forwards, but also to the side and especially backwards ( Parthian maneuver ).

    Archery at a distance of up to 300 meters caused unrest in the enemy battle order even before the actual attack and isolated their troops from one another. In addition, either numerical superiority or an escape was faked in order to lure the enemy into an ambush. After a short violent arrow fire at close range, the heavy cavalry overran the remains of the enemy who had escaped the archers with lances and took up the chase to prevent the enemy from gathering immediately after the battle. After the successful dispersal, the light cavalry took over the further pursuit; a retreat was often covered by the heavy cavalry.

    It is still being discussed when and to what extent the Mongols also used heavy shock cavalry with horse armor to ride down close foot troops. There is at least some preserved Mongolian horse armor. In the initial structure, two thirds of the Mongol riders were intended as mounted archers , but one third was also specifically trained and equipped for close combat .

    With the victories and the expansion of their empire, the tactics of the Mongols changed forever. With the use of troops from the conquered peoples, the classic way of fighting as light cavalry was only prevalent in part of the army, in the Mongolian nuclear forces and the many Turkic peoples fighting in their service.

    Military communication

    The Mongols used a developed system of horn and flag signals that were given by the military commander, whereupon they shifted their troops to certain positions in the theater of war or went into attack, retreat or certain formations. Large drums, sometimes carried on camels, were also used, as well as light or smoke signals . The Mongols had many messenger riders who acted as couriers to transport orders very quickly from one army unit to another. These riders brought the orders orally, often in the form of a rhyme. In addition, subordinates often had decision-making responsibility on site; Many very rapid changes in movement of Mongol armies were based not only on superior communication, but also on an early form of mission tactics in which the subordinates knew the overall goals and tried to realize them independently.


    The Mongolian riders ate a large part of borts , a dried meat powder, practically an early type of instant soup that was carried in the saddle and only had to be boiled. This saved a lot of space and was able to ensure the nutrition of the riders for months. The term Tatar for the finely chopped meat of the Mongols or Tatars is still derived from it today. For a long time European sources assumed that the Mongolian horsemen would ride the meat softly under their saddles, but in fact it was just the flatbread- like consistency of a powder.


    Mongolian armaments differed significantly from European ones. In contrast to European knights and warriors, who used chain armor (later transitional armor and plate armor ), nasal helmets , cranial hoods and pot helmets , the Mongols wrapped themselves in silk scarves, i.e. quilted armor made of many layers of raw silk, and in iron-reinforced leather armor composed of rings. The Mongolian warriors were better protected compared to the enemy thanks to greater freedom of movement, a view, endurance and resistance to weapons.

    The story often told in relation to the Mongols that the silk shirts - if an arrow hit the warrior - made it possible to pull the arrow out cleanly, is a legend. The silk shirts refer to the aforementioned quilted armor, in which arrows often got stuck without even reaching the skin.

    Sources and literature

    Source editions


    • Burchard and Helga Brentjes: The hosts of the Orient . Brandenburgisches Verlagshaus, Berlin 1991, ISBN 3-327-01075-7 .
    • Katharina Ganster: "Arma autem ista ad minus omnes debent habere". The Mongols and their weapons . In: Johannes Gießauf, Johannes Steiner (ed.): "Lord over the peoples in the felt wall tents". Steppe empires from Attila to Chinggis Khan. Income from the International Symposium at the Karl-Franzens-University Graz (September 28/29, 2006) (= Grazer Morgenländische Studien. Volume 7). Graz 2009, ISBN 978-3-902583-05-5 , pp. 115-137.
    • Karlheinz Gless: The horse in the military . Military publishing house of the German Democratic Republic, Berlin 1980.
    • Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger , Alfred Jürgen Christian Middleton, Paul Heinrich Gerhard Röhl: Battles without dead. Psychological Warfare. Mittler, Frankfurt am Main / Berlin 1960.

    Individual evidence

    1. Choongwon Jeong et al .: Bronze Age population dynamics and the rise of dairy pastoralism on the eastern Eurasian steppe. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), November 2018, 115 (48) E11248-E11255.
    2. PAM Linebarger u. a .: battles without dead. Psychological Warfare. Frankfurt am Main / Berlin 1960, pp. 28-30.
    3. The Mongols - In the Empire of Genghis Khan on YouTube, (TV documentary by Christian Twente), Gudrun Ziegler, Alexander Hogh (ed.): The Mongols: In the Empire of Genghis Khan. The book for the television series. Konrad Theiss, 2005, ISBN 978-3-8062-1940-1 .