The Mongols (1206 to 1405)
The Mongols were nomads from the steppes of Central Asia. They were fierce warriors who fought each other over pasturelands and raided developed civilizations to the east and south. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Mongol clans united and began a campaign of foreign conquest. Following in the hoofprints of the Huns, their predecessors by a thousand years, they carved out one of the largest empires the world has yet seen.
The Mongols inhabited the plains south of Lake Baikal in modern Mongolia. At its maximum, their empire stretched from Korea, across Asia, and into European Russia to the Baltic Sea coast. They held most of Asia Minor, modern Iraq, modern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, parts of India, parts of Burma, all of China, and parts of Vietnam.
The Mongol clans were united by Temuchin, called Genghis Khan ("mighty ruler"), in the early thirteenth century. His ambition was to rule all lands between the oceans (Pacific and Atlantic) and he nearly did so. Beginning with only an estimated 25,000 warriors, he added strength by subjugating other nomads and attacked northern China in 1211. He took Beijing in 1215 after a campaign that may have cost 30 million Chinese lives. The Mongols then turned west, capturing the great trading city Bukhara on the Silk Road in 1220. The city was burned to the ground and the inhabitants murdered.
Following Genghis Khan's death in 1227, his son Ogedei completed the conquest of northern China and advanced into Europe. He destroyed Kiev in 1240 and advanced into Hungary. When Ogedei died on campaign in 1241, the entire army fell back to settle the question of succession. Europe was spared as Mongol rulers concentrated their efforts against the Middle East and southern China. Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis, exterminated the Muslim "Assassins" and then took the Muslim capital of Baghdad in 1258. Most of the city's 100,000 inhabitants were murdered. In 1260 a Muslim army of Egyptian Mamelukes (warrior slaves of high status) defeated the Mongols in present-day Israel, ending the Mongol threat to Islam and its holy cities.
Kublai Khan, another grandson of Genghis, completed the conquest of China in 1279, establishing the Yuan dynasty. Attempted invasions of Japan were thrown back with heavy loss in 1274 and 1281. In 1294 Kublai Khan died in China, and Mongol power began to decline in Asia and elsewhere. In 1368 the Yuan dynasty in China was overthrown in favor of the Ming.
In the 1370's a Turkish-Mongol warrior claiming descent from Genghis Khan fought his way to leadership of the Mongol states of Central Asia and set out to restore the Mongol Empire. His name was Timur Leng (Timur, "the Lame," or Tamerlane to Europeans and the Prince of Destruction to Asians). With another army of 100,000 or so horsemen, he swept into Russia and Persia, fighting mainly other Muslims. In 1398 he sacked Delhi, murdering 100,000 inhabitants. He rushed west defeating an Egyptian Mameluke army in Syria. In 1402 he defeated a large Ottoman Turk army near modern Ankara. On the verge of destroying the Ottoman Empire, he turned again suddenly. He died in 1405 while marching for China. He preferred capturing wealth and engaged in wholesale slaughter, without pausing to install stable governments in his wake. Because of this, the huge realm inherited by his sons fell apart quickly after his death.
The Mongol Army
The Mongols were nomadic herders and hunters who spent their lives in the saddles of their steppe ponies. They learned to ride and use weapons, especially the composite bow, at an early age. For hunting and war, every able-bodied male under the age of 60 years was expected to take part. The armies of the united Mongol tribes consisted of the entire adult male population.
They fought under a strict code of discipline. Booty was held collectively. The penalty was death for abandoning a comrade in battle. This discipline, together with leadership, intelligence-gathering, and organization, raised the Mongol force from a cavalry swarm into a true army.
The Mongol army was organized according to a decimal system, with units of 10, 100, 1000, and 10,000 men. These numbers for units were probably rarely approached due to casualties and attrition. The 10,000-man unit was the major fighting unit, like a modern division, capable of sustained fighting on its own. Individual soldiers identified most with the 1000-man unit of which they were a part, the equivalent of a modern regiment. Original Mongol tribes fielded their own 1000-man units. Conquered peoples, such as the Tatars and Merkits, were broken up and distributed among other units so that they could pose no organized threat to the ruling family.
Genghis Khan created a personal guard unit of 10,000 men. This unit was recruited across tribal boundaries and selection was a high honor. In its early stages it served as a form of honorable hostage-holding. It grew into the family household and the source of the growing empire's ruling class.
Mongol soldiers at first received no pay other than booty. Advancement was based on merit. Once the rapid conquests slowed, a new system of pay was put in place. Officers were later able to pass on their posts to heirs.
Each soldier went on campaign with approximately five horses, allowing quick changes and rapid movements. No comparable armies moved as rapidly as the Mongols until the mechanized armies of the twentieth century.
The Mongols fought mainly as light cavalry archers (unarmored), using the compound bow. This was a compact weapon of impressive range and penetration power. They employed Chinese and Middle Easterners as siege engineers. Infantry, garrison troops, and heavy cavalry (wearing armor) that used lances came from the armies of subjected peoples.
The Mongol armies relied on firepower, the ability to move quickly, and a reputation for ruthlessness that came to precede them. All of their opponents moved much more slowly and deliberately. The Mongols looked for opportunities to divide an enemy force and overwhelm the pieces with rapid bowshots. They sought to surround or encircle enemies and achieve local superiority of numbers. Horses of mounted enemies were wounded, dismounting the riders and making them more vulnerable.
The Mongol light cavalry could not stand against a heavy cavalry charge, so they feigned flight to draw the knights into exhaustive charges that left them vulnerable. The fleeing Mongols turned rapidly and became the hunter. They excelled in setting ambushes and surprise attacks. Mongol army leaders made great use of scouts and synchronized force movements to catch the enemy at a disadvantage.
The Mongols made extensive use of terror. If the population of one city was massacred after capture, the next city was more likely to surrender without a fight. This proved the case, as city after city surrendered upon the approach of Mongol armies.