Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Mongol Army - Tactics, Logistics, Siegecraft, Recruitment DOCUMENTARY

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Few armies in history have a reputation as fearsome as those of the Mongol Empire.

During the height of the empire, the Mongol Horde carried a well-earned reputation for

invincibility, inflicting devastation upon enemy armies and cities.

So thorough was this carnage that many writers who experienced it firsthand could only describe

it as a punishment sent by Heaven: for how else could one explain how so many cities

and armies fell so quickly?

In this video, we will attempt to explain various aspects of the medieval Mongol military,

and provide insight as to what made the horsemen of the Great Khan so successful, including

the overview of the tactics, logistics, siegecraft, recruitment and more!

Did you know that we have a whole podcast dedicated to the History of the Mongols?

Because we do!

And you can find the link to it in the description and the pinned comment!

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The Mongols are of course most well known for their horse archers, the byproduct of

their lifestyle.

In the great grass seas of the Eurasian steppe, the Mongols and other nomads spent their entire

lives on horseback, learning to ride before they could walk in order to manage their great

herds of sheep, goat, oxen, camels, and horses.

A lifetime in the saddle in the often-harsh conditions of Inner Asia left the nomads excellent

riders with incredible endurance, able to endure hardships beyond that of sedentary


Each Mongol learned to shoot and construct their bows and arrows from a young age, beginning

with a childs bow to hunt marmots and small mammals, gradually increasing the strength

of the bow until able to master the powerful, composite recurve war bow.

Highly mobile, deadly at range, and strategically swift compared to infantry armies, the horse

archer, when used properly, could be the master of the medieval battlefield.

Many aspects of the above description of nomadic life and warfare as mounted archers, are easily

recognizable to a scholar of earlier nomadic steppe peoples like the Xiongnu and Scythians.

This Chinese description of the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC is just as applicable to

the Mongols well over a thousand years later: The little boys start out by learning to

ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little

older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food.

Thus, all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war.

It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting,

but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions.

This seems to be their inborn nature.

For long-range weapons they use bows and arrows, and swords and spears at close range.

If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat,

for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away.

Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness.

For these earlier peoples, many of the same basic tenets of mounted warfare were utilized

by both them and the Mongols, such as hit and run tactics, envelopment, and the infamous

feigned retreat.

Contemporaries to these earlier peoples remark on their endurance and hardiness, their skill

as horsemen, and the danger of their arrows.

There are however, several aspects in which the Mongol warrior found himself better equipped

than his forebears, in the form of several technological advancements to their tack and


The Scythians, for instance, had only soft padded saddles for their mounts.

Essentially two leather pads held to the horse with a girth strap, it provided minimal shock

absorption for the rider and little for him to maintain his place beyond his thighs.

The Xiongnu and Huns were better supplied with the development of the treed saddle,

a sturdy wooden frame cushioned for the rider.

It was a more secure base for the archer to shoot from, which also made it more difficult

to unhorse him.

Leaning into the front of these saddles lifted them, allowing the hips to absorb more of

the shocks from riding and reduce jostling from the horses movement.

What these early riders lacked, from the Xiongnu and Huns to the Parthians and the Romans,

was the paired stirrup.

When the stirrup emerged is a matter of controversy- the earliest stirrups were made of materials

like wood which do not preserve well archaeologically.

But it seems likely the stirrup, in a form easily recognizable today, was developed around

the third century AD in northern China or Mongolia, spreading west via Turkic tribes,

arriving in Europe with the Avars by the sixth century.

Stirrups provided several advantages: they provided a much more secure platform, allowing

the rider to raise himself in the saddle for extra leverage and reach in close combat,

or for the horse archer to stand and use his leg and core muscles to help draw heavier


Further, the knees could better absorb the jolts from the horses movement and guide

the horse in the heat of battle.

Outside of combat the benefits were more significant, particularly for the nomad.

Needing to be on horseback all day while tending their herds, the stirrup helps take pressure

off of the horses back.

A skilled rider on a strong horse could now travel further and longer.

When coupled with multiple remounts, the distance horsemen could march rose dramatically.

The famed weapon of the horse archer was their composite bows.

Rather than a self-bow, such as the Welsh longbow, which is made from a single piece

of wood, the composite bow was made from layers of wood, horn and sinew.

The horn and sinew increased the strength of the bow, transferring more energy to the


Most composite bows of the steppe world were also recurved, the ears of the bows

storing yet more energy while providing leverage to aid the archer.

Whereas a self-bows strength can only be increased by making the bow larger or the

archer stronger, the recurve composite bow remains relatively short without sacrificing


The shorter bow made it more maneuverable on horseback, allowing Mongol warriors to

even travel with heavier and lighter bows on them as the situation required.

The composite bow was however in danger of warping from prolonged exposure to humidity;

not an issue in the generally dry steppes of Central Asia, but in wetter climates dangerous

to the bows health.

To offset this, bows of the Xiongnu and Huns had the ends of their limbs strengthened with

bone plates to reduce warping, but this made the bow heavier and decreased arrow velocity.

In contrast, Mongol bows of the conquest era lacked bone plates, transferring more energy

to the arrows and granting them greater penetrative power and range, but making them more susceptible

to climate changes, perhaps accounting in part for reduced Mongol military effectiveness

in South East Asia and Europe.

Despite some modern claims, the Mongol conquests were not a result of a technological innovation

in horse archery, as the technology itself had changed little once these above-mentioned

developments were completed by the 4-5th centuries AD.

For that, we must look to the military leadership of the Mongols and their innovations upon

existing steppe traditions.

Beyond these technological changes, the Mongol army of the 13th century shared many traits

with steppe armies of the preceding centuries.

The method of organizing armies using the decimal system was present among the Xiongnu:

the highest commanders led divisions nominally of 10,000, while the smallest were squads

of just 10 men who operated together.

Traditionally this system was based within the tribe, but it was the innovation of Chinggis

Khan to largely break down the tribes of Mongolia and almost entirely replace them with the

decimal system, removing minor chiefs and Khans from power to ensure no alternatives

to his rule.

Earlier steppe confederations like the Xiongnu generally had an important imperial bodyguard

and retinue which often provided a number of the major leaders and generals of the empire.

For the Mongols, this was originally the nkd of Temujin, the basis for the famed keshig,

which he expanded upon when he took the title of Chinggis Khan in 1206.

The keshig under the Mongols evolved beyond just bodyguards, but into a general staff,

where top officers learned the ropes of command.

From there they were appointed not only to lead armies, but to conquer and govern regions

as the Mongol Empire expanded, and acted as important administrators.

Sons of the royal families of subject kingdoms were taken into the keshig as hostages, to

help secure the loyalty of their dynasty, but also to be essentially indoctrinated in

Mongol imperial destiny.

Going through trials alongside the Mongols and amply rewarded, when they returned to

their homelands they were loyal servants of the Khan who helped to uphold his rule.

The following example should prove illustrative of how Chinggis Khan innovated upon and evolved,

rather than invented, traditional nomadic lifestyle and tactics.

All nomadic horsemen learned to hunt from a young age; a means to protect their herds

from predators and provide extra sustenance for their families.

It also proved an excellent means to practice for war.

For the Khitans of the Liao Dynasty and the Mongols, large scale hunting expeditions served

as training for unit operations.

In an operation called nerge by the Mongols, an army of horsemen would form a rough circle,

at times several days journey in diameter, gradually tightening and driving all game

before them into an arena, where the nobility would take their pick of the hunt before leaving

the rest to the men.

While simple on paper, organizing this properly took considerable skill.

Given the size of the operation, a time table was set for each group, operating in their

military units, to reach their destination and begin to push the game forward.

To prevent animals from escaping, the various units had to be in contact and be coordinating

to prevent holes in the line which would allow herds to slip through their grasp; allowing

animals to escape resulted in punishments.

Following orders, meeting time tables, unit tactics, and discipline were the basic building

blocks of Mongol successes, and what allowed their armies to outmaneuver their foes.

While large scale hunting expeditions were practiced across the Eurasian steppe, and

its rules applied to warfare and battles, under the Mongols the nerge itself became

a military strategy.

Time and time again a nerge was set over an entire region, designating a major city to

be the meeting point.

Mongol units would spread across the region, attacking small towns and villages, driving

the rural populations towards the major city as the nerge tightened.

Refugees fled into the city, not just overwhelming its resources and thus reducing the length

of the siege it could withstand, but also sewing chaos and confusion, for the terrified

population brought stories of Mongol atrocities and spread fear, increasing the chance the

city would submit rather than face Mongol wrath.

At the founding of the Mongol Empire in 1206, perhaps the entirety of the Mongol army was

lightly armoured horse archers, made up of the Mongolian and Turkic tribes who had submitted

or been conquered up to that point.

The keshig may have had heavier armour, but were still armed with their powerful bows,

closing with the enemy only once they had been weakened by arrows.

Chinggis Khan understood well the effectiveness of this force in the open field, but upon

his first campaign against a sedentary society, that being the Tangut Kingdom of Xi Xia in

1209, he found that unless he could draw the enemy from their walls through a feigned retreat

or starve them out, that fortifications could prove impassable.

With his invasion of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in 1211, a solution presented itself in the

mass defections of Jin forces to his army.

Not just Khitans, a Mongolic people who loathed the Jin and were themselves skilled horse

archers, but also numerous Han Chinese, who provided the Mongols with infantry, crossbowmen,

and numbers.

More significant was the defection of Chinese catapult specialists and engineers; one of

whom, Xue Talahai, defected to the Mongols early in the invasion, and was rewarded handsomely

for sharing his knowledge, teams, and experience.

Further capture of Chinese engineers, stonemasons, and carpenters brought further knowledge of

how to attack cities and build siege equipment.

This adoption of warriors and knowledge of defectors, vassals, and captives proved perhaps

the greatest deviation from earlier nomadic empires.

In order to conquer not just the fringes of sedentary states, as per earlier nomadic empires,

but the sedentary state itself, the Mongols required the manpower and knowledge of those

sedentary societies.

Each culture the Mongols encountered, and conquered, provided them new resources and

tools for their arsenal.

With the Mongols themselves remaining primarily light horse archers, they used Northern Chinese

and Iranian infantry and siege engineers, Southern Chinese and Korean naval knowledge,

Khitan, Jurchen and Turkic horse archers, Armenian and Georgian heavy cavalry, and more.

Within a few years of the start of the Mongol conquests, the Mongol leadership and Mongol-Turkic

army core of horse archers was supported by a large, heterogeneous army.

Able to pick the most effective tactics, weapons, armours, and warriors from the cultures of

Eurasia, the Mongolian army was thus able to adapt to a variety of situations, well

beyond what earlier nomadic empires could accomplish.

It was the job of subject peoples to fill the military roles the Mongols themselves

either could not fill, or had no interest in filling themselves.

The poor Khwarezmian defense in 1220 can be explained in part as the Khwarezm-shah Muhammad

anticipating pillaging horse archers, not a large, disciplined army, ably utilizing

siege weapons and technology.

The Mongols also showed themselves willing to use gunpowder weapons in their wars in


The Mongol Empire fractured in the second half of the 13th century.

Debate rages as to how the Mongolian military in each independent Khanate continued to develop,

and to what extent they were influenced by local military tradition.

Generally, the debate steers towards questioning if the Mongols converted to heavier forms

of cavalry.

The presence of true Mongolian heavy cavalry in the early years of the empire is not universally

accepted, with it often said that the small Mongolian horse lacked the strength to carry

heavy armour.

In the Ilkhanate, scholars like A.P. Martinez have suggested the Mongols adopted medium

or heavy cavalry to better contend with Mamluk forces, and artwork from the Ilkhanate shows

a preponderance of heavily armoured Mongolian forces.

An aspect of this argument is that the Mongols even began to sedentarize in the Ilkhanate,

abandoning nomadism altogether, while their horses mixed with larger Persian breeds in

order to carry the greater weight of armour, but making them less suited to the open steppe.

Other scholars such as Reuven Amitai have found the argument unconvincing, suggesting

that it remained the job of oft-mentioned Armenian and Georgian vassals to act as heavy

cavalry while the Mongols themselves continued as light horse archers.

Similar arguments have been put forth for the Mongols within the Yuan Dynasty, where

it has been suggested that Mongol troops adorned heavier armour taken from stores of the fallen

Song Dynasty.

In the territories of the Golden Horde and Chagatai Khanate, where Turkic influence and

access to the steppes was greatest, there can be no doubt in the continued predominance

of light horse archers.

By the latter half of the 14th century, it was lightly armoured Chagatayid horse archers

which Temur led to begin his conquests.

Much like Chinggis Khan, Temur incorporated outsiders into his army to utilize their skills

and knowledge, overcoming the deficiencies that came from an army entirely of horse archers.

Despite a growth in the percentage of heavy cavalry in Central Asia, in the steppe, heavy

armour remained difficult and expensive to manufacture and maintain, especially for the

average nomad.

The vast majority of post-Mongol successor states, from the Northern Yuan, the Timurids,

the Kazakhs, to the Crimean Khanate, saw their warriors continue to fight in a fashion recognizable

not just to the Mongols of the 13th century, but to the Gokturks of the 7th century, the

Huns of the 4th century, to the Xiongnu and even the Scythians.

The Mongol conquests were not a result of a sudden transformation in the technology

and lifestyle of nomadism, but of skilled leadership innovating upon existing customs

and taking advantage of the tools of both nomadic and sedentary cultures.

While the Mongol army of the 13th century is often presented as a vast disorganized

horde overwhelming its foes through sheer numbers, this could not be further from reality.

The army of the Great Khans was a well disciplined and strictly organized host, with a level

of complexity which was part of the key to Mongol military successes across Eurasia.

Most Turkic and Mongolic nomadic armies of the great Eurasian steppe were organized through

the decimal system, dating back to the time of the Xiongnu.

In this system, warriors were grouped in multiples of ten; 10, 100, 1,000, up to 10,000.

These divisions were kept within tribal lines: men from one tribe would not make up a decimal

unit with men from another tribe.

It was the innovation of Chinggis Khan during his unification of the Mongols to largely

break down these tribal ties.

With few exceptions of tribes like the Onggut who showed their loyalty, Chinggis Khan dissolved

the old tribal organization and reformed the Mongol tribes into these decimals units for

social organization.

As new nomadic tribes were added to his empire, Chinggis was able to likewise integrate their

warriors among these units.

All new recruits of this system were held to the same rigid standards of discipline

set out by Chinggis Khan, mandating strict adherence to the orders of the commander;

non-Mongol nomads even had to shave their heads in a distinctive Mongol hairstyle.

Instead of a confederation of tribes agreeing to follow a single leader, by the time Chinggis

Khan began attacking sedentary powers in 1209, he was followed by a host which had assumed

the Mongol identity, a unified single entity.

By largely removing the original tribal allegiances and the old tribal chiefs from power, Chinggis

ensured all ties of loyalty led directly to him, and that tribal feuding would not be

able to tear apart his empire.

Further, Chinggis Khan extended this decimal system to their families as well.

Each unit from 10 men to 1,000 had its corresponding civilian unit made up of their families,

supplying much of the equipment and serving as the new basis for taxation.

The base unit of the Mongol decimal system was the arban, or ten lightly armoured horse

archers, supplying their own bows and horses.

The smallest organizational unit, it was quite comparable to the similarly sized contubernium

of the Roman legions.

These were men who had to live, train, hunt, and fight together, a unit designed to be

self-sufficient and move on its own as necessary.

Carried with these ten men were their spare horses, tools for repairing equipment and

clothes, cooking utensils, and other supplies.

Often, they traveled with a felt tent (ger, or in Turkish, yurt) for shelter, as well

as goats, sheep, or even cattle or camels for hauling a cart with their extra equipment.

Down to its lowest levels, the Mongol army was intended to be as self-sufficient and

mobile as possible, so when travelling long distances or designating a meeting point,

each unit could move on its own.

Building on this foundation, Mongol army units could move independently to surround larger,

less maneuverable enemy armies.

Discipline for the arban was strict: should one man within the arban flee a battle, then

the other 9 men would be put to death.

With the intention that strong bonds of loyalty would build between them, such a threat was

a burden few were willing to bear.

More important than draconian punishment was reward.

Men could be expected to be rewarded for meritorious service.

One of Chinggis Khans promulgations was to forbid looting until after the battle was

won; only then would all the loot be collected, tallied and distributed among the soldiers.

This ensured the army would not break down into men scrambling for loot and allow the

enemy to escape, and that every soldier could now earn a share for his service.

Further, the widows and children of fallen soldiers were cared for as well.

From his own difficult childhood, Chinggis Khan knew what social upheaval was caused

by the abandonment of families.

By keeping soldiers content with the knowledge their families would be protected, Chinggis

Khan prevented the societal infighting that could tear his union apart and reduce the

effectiveness of his armies.

It was the efforts at this level which instilled the fierce Mongol discipline and loyalty to

their commanders noted by all of the medieval authors who encountered them.

Ten arbans formed a jagun, 100 men.

10 of these formed a minggan, or 1,000 men, and 10 minggans formed the most famous unit,

the tumen, 10,000 men.

While the tumen is more well-known, the minggan was the more important and common in terms

of administration and command.

When Chinggis Khan declared the Mongol Empire in 1206, the Secret History of the Mongols,

the chronicle written for the imperial family after his death, informs us of 95 minggans,

and who was assigned to command each of them.

The numbers of each minggan were only nominally 1,000: some would be greater and some lesser,

due to the realities of battlefield losses or incorporation of new tribes.

Nonetheless, it allows us to estimate the Mongol army in 1206 had about 95,000 men,

soon enlarged with the submission of neighbouring tribes over the following years.

Based off this number, assuming a ratio of warriors to the general population of 1:4

or 1:5, the population of the region has been estimated at around 600-800,000 people, with

higher estimates of 1 million; similar figures for the region at the beginning of the 20th


Nomadic societies did not distinguish between warriors and civilians: all men between the

ages of 15-60 could be called up for war, and since all nomads learned to ride a horse

and shoot a bow, each had the skills for war.

Compared to sedentary societies in China, Europe, and the Islamic world, a far greater

portion of the male population could be considered warriors, and called up for battle.

This is how the comparatively small population of Mongolia could raise armies large enough

to combat the great strength of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty.

Each division was given considerable freedom in how they achieved their goals.

Aside from setting the target and the timeline to accomplish the task, interference from

higher command was minimal.

Numerous Mongol commanders consistently operated independently from the Great Khan, separated

at times by thousands of kilometres.

In the early 1220s, picked generals like Jebe and Subutai in the western steppe and Mukhali

in North China campaigned independently of Chinggis Khan, at that time conquering the

Khwarezmian Empire.

Unlike Temur, who never let a campaign be led by anyone but himself, the military system

of the Great Khans allowed them to place complete trust in their commanders, who routinely led

armies across the continent and returned without hint of seeking independence.

The Mongol high command was a flexible and very experienced body.

The men chosen to lead the imperial armies at the beginning of the conquests had fought

alongside Chinggis Khan for years, joining him when he was a minor warlord and sticking

beside him throughout his early trials.

These were the nkd, followers who had risen through the ranks, proving not just

their loyalty but their ability.

Their background on the steppe hierarchy was diverse: some his distant relations, some

members of the original steppe aristocracy, while others were simple herders who had shown

military ability or aided the Khan.

Their elevation and position relied on the Khans continued favour, making them utterly

loyal to him.

With the declaration of the Mongol empire in 1206, perhaps the most important institution

of the Mongolian military was the keshik, the imperial bodyguard.

Established in 1204 and carrying over many members of the nkd, the keshik was expanded

to 10,000 men in 1206.

Made up of younger sons and brothers of the commanders of 10, 1000 and 10,000, sons of

subject rulers, and worthy commoners, the keshik served as the Khans bodyguard, elite

units, royal household, and much of the imperial administration.

The keshik was divided into three main groups: 8,000 turaqut, who protected the Khan during

the day, 1000 quiverbearers - qorchi - the only men who could wear arrow quivers in the

presence of the Khan, and an elite unit of 1,000 called kebted who guarded the Khan

at night, and only fought on the battlefield if the Khan himself was present.

Within the dayguard was a further thousand-man unit of braves, or bahadurs in Mongolian,

who formed the heavily armoured vanguard of the keshik.

Discipline was strict: no one approached the Khans person without first being searched

and vetted by the keshik.

All keshik commanders outranked commanders of equivalent sized units in the regular army.

The keshik also served as a military college.

The young men brought into the keshik learned the ropes of command, and the necessities

of strategy, tactics, logistics, and training, so they could be appointed to lead minggans

and armies.

Many a well-known Mongol general had earned his position through meritorious service in

the keshik, such as Chormaqun, Baiju, Kitbuqa, and Subutai.

Qarachar Noyan, the ancestor of Temur, served in the keshik of Chinggis Khan, and later,

his son Chagatai.

Aside from the purely military role, the keshik also acted as the closest servants of the


Numerous offices of the keshik are named, the Khans elite bodyguards also maintaining

his personal herds, equipment, weapons, clothing, camp, and musical instruments, organizing

hunts, and preparing his meals.

One office was specifically for the collection of items and animals left behind when the

imperial camp moved, while another was for holding a parasol over the Khan.

The keshik also served as the most important administrators of the empire, with the chief

judges, military leaders, governors and confidants of the Khan being members of the keshik.

Members of Mongke Khans keshik like Menggeser and Bulgai were the most powerful figures

of the empire below the Great Khan himself: the senior ministers, judges of state, as

well as head of the imperial guard.

Due to its close proximity to the Khan and the lead princes of the empire, it was therefore

a highly prestigious, and valuable, position to gain.

As the keshik was made up of sons of commanders and vassal lords, they were invariably hostages

to ensure the loyalty of their families.

Those of foreign royalty, when they returned to their homeland, were expected to serve

as loyal servants of the Khan upholding his rule.

Richly rewarded and their positions hereditary, the keshik was a reliable and powerful arm

of the Great Khans military and government.

At the highest level, the Mongol army was organized into wings, associated with

directions within Mongolia.

The army of the Left Wing of Eastern Mongolia - jun-qar - the army of the Right Wing in

western Mongolia - baraun-qar - and the Army of the Centre, the Imperial ordu, which

the keshik and the Khans personal troops were associated with.

The heads of each of these divisions were the closest, most trusted followers of Chinggis


Together, these formed the Mongolian regular army.

Under this system, there was a dual level of elites: the altan urugh, the family and

descendants of Chinggis Khan, and the qarachu, the noyans, commanders, appointed often from

humble beginnings to lead armies.

Working alongside the regular army was the tamma.

First mentioned during the reign of Ogedai, the tamma was something of an occupation force.

Made up of a large percentage of non-Mongol troops and officers, and generally drawn from

the various minggans, it was often commanded by a member of the keshik called a tammachi.

The tamma was placed on the frontiers of the Mongol Empire, a largely cavalry force which

would situate itself in the best available pasture.

They were a consolidating force which would move with the frontier as the empire expanded;

unlike the great invasions which saw the Mongols rapidly pass through a region and depart,

the tamma was intended to spend years in the region, and if necessary, set up permanently.

Acting as temporary military governors, behind the advance of the tamma the permanent civilian

administration would be established, and the region thus fully incorporated into the Mongol


Crushing what remained of local resistance, the tamma raided, extorted, and subjugated

the independent powers on the Empires borders.

One tammachi, Chormaqun, completed the subjugation of the former Khwarezmian territory, Iran,

and into the Caucasus during his deployment.

Since the Mongols did not rebuild the fortifications they destroyed, the tamma also acted as the

empires borderguard, desolating and patrolling the borders as necessary to protect the empire

from attack.

The tamma comprised two main forces: the main body, situated in several camps in the pasture,

and an advance force of scouts posted closer to cities and between the camps called alginchi.

As the empire expanded, greater numbers of sedentary peoples were incorporated into the


These roles could be shockingly inhumane, such as the hashar.

The hashar, so called in the Persian sources, was a forced levy of local peoples, driven

before the Mongols as living shields against enemy arrows, to push siege equipment, and

fill in enemy moats with dirt or their own bodies.

This was particularly common in Chinggis Khans campaigns in North China and against the Khwarezmian


Yet, the Mongols also learned relatively quickly that sedentary peoples could provide knowledge,

military roles, and manpower the Mongols themselves lacked.

It was most notably in the form of Chinese siege engineers, but within a few years of

the invasion of the Jurchen Jin, more Han Chinese were fighting for the Mongols than

there were Mongols fighting in north China.

Likewise, as the Mongols expanded westwards, subject peoples served them in a variety of

supplementary roles.

The Mongols, primarily lightly armoured horse archers, were more than happy to allow their

subjects to take on more vulnerable positions on the battlefield.

These same groups also served the Mongols in other roles, especially as labour or manning

local garrisons.

These local forces, the cherig, are what Mongolian regional governors had to rely upon to put

down local uprisings, as Mongol horsemen were utilized for the expansion of the empire.

Sedentary kingdoms not destroyed in the initial invasions had to provide their own armies

and commanders to serve alongside and under the Mongols, such as the Tangut Kingdom and

Armenian Cilicia.

While continuing to fight in their traditional manner, and not directly incorporated into

the Mongol army, they had to follow the commands of a Mongolian general.

In the 12th century Mongolian steppe, warfare was between forces of highly mobile horse

archers, though a few forts were scattered across the region, largely left over from

the rule of the Khitan Liao Dynasty.

With raids on China uncommon in this period, there was little opportunity for up and coming

warlords like the young Temujin to learn how to assault fortified sites.

With the declaration of the Mongol Empire in 1206 and consolidation of his rule over

the region, Temujin, now taking the title of Chinggis Khan, could begin new assaults

on China.

His first target was not the immense Jurchen ruled Jin Dynasty, but its vassal, the Tangut

Xi Xia Kingdom.

Here, the newly formed Mongol Empire had its first test against cities and forts.

Lacking siege equipment, the Mongols could rely on only three tactics.

The first was the simplest: a blockade to attempt to starve the city into submission.

The second was the feigned retreat; appearing to panic before the walls, the Mongols could

trick the garrison into running out to pursue them or collect seemingly abandoned animals,

goods and slaves, only for the Mongols to suddenly fall upon them.

The final was the most complicated, used first against the Tangut capital, modern day Yinchuan.

A nearby river would be dammed or redirected, forcing the waters towards the city.

Chinese walls made of rammed earth would be undermined, and when the water stagnated it

spread disease throughout the city.

The first attempt against the Tangut was not a smashing success, for the Mongols accidentally

flooded their own camp in the process.

Still, by 1210 Chinggis Khan succeeded in taking the submission of the Tangut, and these

three tactics were to be utilized again and again.

The next lesson in the sieging of cities came in 1211, when Chinggis Khan led his armies

against the Jin Dynasty.

The Jins border defences, the predecessor to the more famous Great Wall of the Ming

Dynasty, ran through modern Inner Mongolias steppeland, consisting of a long ditch and

earthen wall; this was bypassed as the tribes manning them submitted to Chinggis Khan and

let him through.

Over their first year of battle against the Jin, the Mongols routinely won in dramatic

field battles, like Yehuling, and devastated the countryside, but cities, towns, and forts

could only be taken when the garrisons were drawn into feigned retreats.

As Mongol victories over the Jin armies mounted and the dynasty increasingly looked like it

was losing the Mandate of Heaven, a steady flood of defections of Khitan, Jurchens, and

Chinese provided Chinggis Khan the secrets to the ancient Chinese arts of taking cities.

Some of these were basic tools: woodworkers constructed simple rams, ladders, and mobile

shelters which could be used to approach the walls.

Vast numbers of defected or press-ganged Chinese infantry could climb ladders and push siege


More valuable were actual siege specialists and engineers, who provided the specialized

tools of taking cities.

Large wheeled scaling ladders, including the folding cloud ladder, provided quick means

for large groups of men to mount the walls.

A large wooden screen held onto a mobile arm provided cover for these scaling ladders from

enemy arrows.

Some of the most effective were the ranged weapons, catapults and ox-bows.

The Chinese used a traction catapult: teams of men would pull on ropes attached to one

end of the arm of the catapult, thus propelling its projectile through manpower.

The ox-bow was essentially a large crossbow, used to pick the defenders off the walls.

These tools and the experience to build them were adopted by the Mongols quickly.

Cities would now fall to them with regularity, and by 1215, after a protracted and bloody

siege, they took the Jin capital of Zhongdu, modern Beijing.

When taking a city that had refused to submit to them, such as Zhongdu, another tool was

employed: massacres.

The intention was to spread a simple message.

Cities which immediately surrendered were treated relatively leniently, generally needing

to only send tribute, perhaps supply soldiers or tear down their fortifications.

Cities which tried to resist were severely punished, especially if through their resistance

they brought on Mongol losses or killed a Mongol prince.

In which case, the destruction was thorough, the slaughter indiscriminate.

Individuals of skill, such as artisans, engineers, and craftsmen, were spared, sent elsewhere

for service to the Great Khan.

Some women and children were taken as slaves and the remainder of the citizenry slaughtered.

Slaughter allowed the Mongol troops to exert their pent-up frustration at a long siege,

but generally the Mongols viewed it as a practical necessity.

They lacked the numbers to provide garrisons for every city, and didnt want to engage

in lengthy sieges for every settlement.

The fear of the consequences that would come from resistance was just as effective a tool

as the most powerful catapult.

Horrific atrocities, such as building towers of severed heads, to intentionally exaggerate

the numbers killed in cities, all served to buttress an image of the Mongols as an unstoppable

and implacable foe.

Many cities would simply submit rather than face such an existential threat.

The war against the Khwarezmian Empire provided the next greatest evolution of Mongol siege


Muhammad II Khwarezm-shahs defensive strategy against the Mongols consisted of maintaing

garrisons across his empires northeastern frontier, based on the simple, but sadly mistaken,

calculation that the Mongols lacked the means to take cities.

Chinggis Khan brought with him teams of Chinese siege engineers to construct his weapons,

and by then his army was well versed in the art of the siege.

With access to large teams of engineers, Chinggis Khan would array vast groups of catapults

to concentrate on a single section of the enemy wall, firing day and night in an incessant

barrage, demoralizing the defenders and grounding the fortifications to dust, or bringing pots

of naphtha into the city to spread fire and chaos.

Mongol troops protected by mobile shelters would advance on the walls, using their excellent

archery to pick off any defender foolish enough to stick his head over the crenellations.

Feigned retreats repeatedly drew overconfident garrisons out to be slaughtered.

The Khwarezm-shahs decisions to leave each city to its own defence allowed them all to

be picked off one by one.

Fear and demoralization were refined as tools of conquest - a psychological assault as well

as physical.

Massacres and absolute destruction rewarded cities which held out like Urgench, or rose

up after previously submitting like Merv and Nishapur.

Attacking the rural and lesser settlements around a major city and driving the refugees

into the city brought panic and exaggerated stories of Mongol prowess, and also stressed

the citys resources.

The flight of Khwarezm-shah Muhammad, hounded to his death by Jebe and Subutai, prevented

the Khwarezmian leadership from becomign a rallying point to organize a defense.

Fake letters were allowed to be intercepted by the Khwarezmians, claiming the Khwarezm-shahs

mother was in cooperation with Chinggis Khan, which wrought further disunity.

Another gruesome method was called the hashar in the Persian sources.

This was the forced levy: captive townsfolk were forced at spearpoint before the Mongol

army, making it appear larger than it was.

During a siege, they were forced against the walls, taking the most vulnerable positions

as veritable meat-shields: soaking up enemy arrows while pushing siege equipment or filling

in moats, often with their own bodies.

The defenders were forced into the mental torment of having to fire on people from neighbouring

cities, or allow them to advance the Mongol siege.

The more valuable Mongol and Turkic horsemen were thus protected from the menial labour,

and could keep their strength for the actual fighting.

When Chinggis Khan returned to the Tangut Kingdom in 1226 for his final campaign, his

army was well hardened at siege warfare.

The Tangut cities now fell in quick succession, and when Chinggis died in August 1227, the

Tangut capital was razed to join him.

Mongol siege abilities continued to advance under Chinggis son and successor, Ogedai.

In north China, the Jurchen Jin were finally reduced.

The Jin capital of Kaifeng was taken through a difficult year long siege, in which it seems

early gunpowder bombs were used by both sides.

The Jin dropped them onto mobile shelters protecting sappers attempting to undermine

the walls, while the Mongols used catapults to lob them into the city.

Some historians, most notably Dr. Stephen Haw, point to the possible use of early cannons

during this fighting, but the evidence is controversial.The Mongols do not seem to have

used gunpowder weapons outside of fighting in China and Japan.

Mongol sieges in Korea met with surprising difficulty.

At Kuju in late 1231, multiple assaults on the city were repulsed: one commander with

a few picked men drove off repeated attacks by the Mongol vanguard.

Attacks were launched on the walls day and night: carts of dry grass and wood were pushed

to the gates to burn them, only to be destroyed by Korean catapults; a shelter built before

the walls to protect sappers was destroyed when the Koreans dug holes through their own

walls to pour molten iron onto it.

Scaling ladders were toppled by Korean polearms.

Bundles of sticks soaked allegedly in human fat, set aflame and hurled into the city,

could not be put out with water, but were smothered with mud and earth.

One set of catapults was repulsed by Korean counter artillery; another through constant

barrage breached the wall 50 times, and 50 times the defenders filled the gaps.

After a month without headway, the siege was called off, the city deemed to be protected

by heaven.

A spirited resistance, as the Mongols faced throughout Korea, could hamper even their


In Rus' principalities, the armies of Batu and Subtuai were met with much greater success.

The wooden walls of the low-lying Rus cities were easy prey for the warriors of the Great


Palisades were erected around the cities to trap the townsfolk, protect the besiegers,

and cover their actions.

Catapult teams acting in unison made multiple breaches in the walls and spread fire in the


Few held out more than a few weeks.

In the eastern half of the Hungarian kingdom, where fortified sites were made of wood in

the easily accessible terrain of the Great Hungarian Plain, the Mongols were unstoppable.

Depopulation in these areas reached as high as 70% by some estimates.

To ensure the population of a given site was reduced, the Mongols would leave for a few

days after taking the city.

Those who had survived would come out from their hiding places in search of food or to

begin to repair the damage.

With their guard let down, Mongols riders would suddenly return and fall upon them,

repeating this process until no more came out from hiding.

In the more densely populated and rugged western half of Hungary past the Danube, where the

major sites were protected by hard to access stone fortifications, the Mongols found their

progress slowed.

At Esztergom in early 1242, Hungarys main political centre, Hungarian prisoners were

forced to build a screen of bundles of twigs before the citys moat to cover 30 siege


Once the catapults had brought down the citys towers and part of the walls, they began to

hurl bags of dirt into the moat, the garrison unable to clear it due to the precision of

Mongol archers.

With it apparent the city was to be breached, the townsfolk set fire to the suburbs, destroyed

or hid anything of value then retreated to the citadel.

A furious Batu, denied his prize, was unable to take the stone citadel.

An able defence led by Simon the Spaniard commanding teams of balistarius, referring

either to crossbowmen or counter siege engines, kept the Mongols from breaching the citadel.

Batu pulled back from Esztergom, leaving nothing standing of the city but the citadel.

Further difficulties were had at Szekesfehervar.

The outer part of the city and its suburbs were razed by the Mongols, but again the stone

citadel, defended by Hospitallar knights and their own counter artillery, resisted the

Mongol assaults.

After a few days the siege was lifted, and soon the Mongols began a slow withdrawal from


For more on the reasons for Mongol withdrawal from Europe, you can check out episode 19

of our podcast on the Mongols, but it seems that stone castles, built on hard to access

sites, proved difficult for the Chinese style catapults the Mongols used, with their crews

reduced by enemy counter artillery.

The withdrawal in 1242 may have begun as a temporary retreat to prepare reinforcements

and more catapults, only for political matters relating to the death of Ogedai Khan to keep

them from immediately returning.

When Hulegu set on his campaign against the Nizari Assassins and the Caliph in the 1250s,

he was met with a variety of well defended sites.

The Nizari strongholds were cunningly designed, nearly impregnable mountain fortresses.

Most fell through negotiated surrender thanks to the capture of the Nizari Imam.

Some resisted, and were so strong they only fell after lengthy blockades.

Lammasar, near Alamut, fell after a year, and Girdkuh, on the eastern edge of the Elburz

mountains, withstood a Mongol siege for 15 years!

Unable to bring their large teams of catapults to bear upon them, such sites could hold out

as long as their food stores did.

For more accessible locales like Baghdad, built in the great Mesopotamian floodplain,

there was little chance for the isolated and outnumbered defenders.

There, huge teams of catapults could work in unison unceasingly against designated sections

of the walls.

After only a few days of this, the walls of Baghdad were breached and the Mongols were

in the city.

At the start of 1260 Hulegu, assisted by troops from Georgia, Armenian Cilicia, the Principality

of Antioch and County of Tripoli took Aleppo, despite its well maintained and sturdy fortifications,

sending shockwaves across the Ayyubid princes of Syria.

Its quite possible that this close cooperation with the Crusader kingdoms brought the next

evolution to Mongol siege technology, in the form of the counterweight trebuchet.

Able to launch projectiles further and harder than a traction catapult, the trebuchet used

weight and gravity to replace teams of men pulling on ropes.

Having spread across Europe and carried to the region by the Crusader kingdoms, the Mongols

carried it even further.

For the siege of Xiangyang, Kublai Khan requested Hulegus son and successor, Abaqa, to provide

him with Arab engineers capable of building these fearsome weapons.

Thus did engineers make the long trek across Mongol dominated Eurasia to bring the trebuchet

to the Great Khan in China.

Xiangyang and its sister city of Fancheng were defended by huge walls and moats so wide

the traction catapults were powerless against them.

Possibly, as identified by Stephen Haw, the defending Song Dynasty forces used some sort

of cannon mounted on small boats to break the Mongol blockade and allow the cities to

be continually resupplied by river.

The siege dragged on for five years until the arrival of these trebuchets.

Greatly outranging the defensive weapons within the cities, they broke both the walls and

the spirit of the defenders.

Having once picked up their first siege weapons in China, the Mongols returned with the most

advanced weapons of the age.

Yet the fall of Xiangyang and the Song Dynasty by the end of the decade also became the highwater

mark of successful Mongol conquests.

Successful sieges in their ensuing campaigns did not translate into strategic successes,

and in wars against the Mamluks and Delhi Sultanate, hot weather, strong fortresses,

and able defense stood defiant against Mongol efforts.

As catapults and other complicated siege machines became a smaller part of the armies after

the end of the unified Mongol empire, and they had less access to the vast reserves

of manpower to send as fodder and to man large numbers of catapults, the successor Khanates

could not repeat the many victories in siege warfare their grandfathers had enjoyed.

Lacking in both political will and unity, they could not develop means to overcome their

gradual deficiencies in siege warfare, though the heirs of Chinggis Khan remained yet deadly

in open battle.

The strength of the Mongol army rested on the same skill sets of all steppe nomads:

mobility and deadly long-range fire power.

Doctrine for all horse archers was simple: to maximize damage to the enemy from as far

away as possible for as long as possible, only closing once they had been sufficiently

demoralized, their formations broken by an unceasing rain of arrows, or tricked into

leaving their lines in an effort to pursue the horsemen.

The Mongols did not invent these techniques, but they did apply them at a scale beyond

the mightiest of previous steppe empires, adapting them as necessary for a variety of


Mongolian and steppe nomadic army tactics evolved out of the routines of daily life.

Each warrior on horseback had several remounts, armed with two or more bows and several quivers

of arrows.

This was the bare minimum to be a combatant, and effective enough for most situations.

Riding a horse from their earliest years and learning to draw and hunt with a bow from

almost as early, by adulthood every Mongol had a lifetime of experience shooting from


Nearly every medieval writer comments on the Mongols ensuing hardiness and stamina;

the Mongols were able to endure hardship that made the armies of the sedentary world buckle.

Peerless archers and expert riders, any commander would be a fool to not take advantage of such

an army.

The Mongol army was not trained, as much as it was grown.

The basic tactics evolved out of two tools: excellent bows and a massive supply of horses.

Every Mongol was armed with a composite recurve bow which they made themselves.

Incredibly powerful, these bows could send arrows immense distances.

One stone inscription from early 13th century Mongolia records that Chinggis Khans nephew

Yisungge sent an arrow almost 530 metres.

This was likely a specially made light arrow designed for distance, and lacked any meaningful

penetrative power at that range.

Actual effective combat range is debated; Historian Timothy May suggests it was anything

under 170 metres, while John Masson Smith Jr. puts 30 metres as the optimum distance

to maximize accuracy and penetration.

Regardless of the range, medieval authors consistently describe the Mongols as frighteningly

accurate with their bows.

In the Caucasus, where contact was easily made with several Turkic peoples proficient

in horse archery, one Armenian chronicler specifically designated the Mongols as the

Nation of Archers.

Alongside the power of their bows, the horse was the other vital component of Mongolian


Every nomad of the great Eurasian steppe rode a horse, where vast grasslands provided the

ideal environment for rearing them.

The Mongol horse is smaller than those of sedentary regions, weighing under 300 kg and

rarely more than 14 hands or 142 cm high at the withers.

Unlike the grain and fodder fed horses of China, Europe or the Islamic world, the Mongolian

horses lived almost exclusively off of the abundant grasses of the steppe.

So prime is this grassland that even today Mongolias horses outnumber the countrys

humans, and account for over 6% of the worlds horse population.

When on campaign each rider brought 5 or more horses with him, riding one a day and letting

it rest for the following days while he rode the others.

Like their riders, the Mongolian horses were hardy, surviving in conditions deadly for

larger breeds.

Sure footed, well trained, and obedient, though not the fastest, the Mongolian horse was a

reliable platform for battle.

Campaigning and entering battle with strings of remounts provided the Mongols strategic

opportunities unavailable to their enemies.

This proficiency with a bow and easy access to great quantities of horses were the building

blocks of the Mongols deadliness in battle.

Usually facing off against armies that could not amass any comparative number of horses

or skilled bowmen, the Mongols enjoyed far greater striking power and mobility, their

tactics maximizing this advantage and minimizing the need for prolonged close quarter contact

with the enemy.

Perhaps the most recognizable manifestation of this was the caracole, what historian Timothy

May believes is meant by the shiuchi, chisel attack mentioned in the Secret History of

the Mongols.

Waves of Mongols, organized in their decimal units -arban, jaghun or even minggan - would

ride towards the enemy, shooting arrows as they approached.

At a set distance -perhaps the 30 metres or less suggested by John Masson Smith- the wave

would pull away.

As this wave fell back, the riders would turn in the saddle and fire backwards, the famous

Parthian shot.

With one wave falling back out of range and to safety to rest men and grab remounts, another

wave advanced and carried out the same process, resulting in a continuous barrage of arrows.

To do this successfully is tremendously difficult.

It requires extensive training to not result in hundreds of men and horses crashing into

each other or sending arrows into each others backs.

In order to function smoothly, each wave needs to know when the other is advancing or falling

back and move accordingly, so as to not obstruct the forthcoming waves.

When operating effectively, it was extraordinarily effective.

For those subject to the Mongol caracole, it was an immense psychological attack alongside

the storm of arrows.

By nature, humans do not generally enjoy having large groups of horses run towards them- having

it occur repeatedly brings on the additional anxiety of not knowing which wave might not

turn away but ride directly into their lines.

All the while, arrows with shocking accuracy and power pick away at the other men in the

line, whittling down both numbers and resolve.

To someone on foot, the successive waves of horsemen would be impossible to count, appearing


Even well-trained men would struggle to fight their instincts to flee or charge out at the

enemy in anger, both options aligning exactly with Mongol desires.

If the enemy began to rout under the arrow fire, then instead of pulling back one wave

would instead charge into the enemy, falling upon fleeing men and taking advantage of the

opening in the line.

An enemy army in the midst of flight would be unable to resist, allowing the Mongols

to ride them down much easier.

If instead the enemy, especially proud cavalrymen, attempted to charge the Mongol caracole, then

this allowed the Mongols to employ the favourite ploy of all steppe warriors: the feigned retreat.

A feigned retreat is easy enough on paper but difficult to execute in practice.

When an enemy ran after the Mongols, the Mongols would appear to flee, panicked by the charge

of the very brave and well armoured enemy horsemen.

There was a real danger of the feigned rout turning into a real one if the enemy horsemen

reached the Mongols; their often superior armour and training would allow them to wreak

havoc on more lightly armoured Mongols.

If orchestrated properly however, the fleeing Mongols took their pursuers to ground of their

choosing, where other Mongol units waited in preparation.

Archers picked off the isolated enemy, and heavy cavalry delivered the final blow to

the stragglers.

If this had been all the enemy cavalry, the Mongols could then easily surround the surviving

infantry and pick them off at their leisure.

The feigned retreat was employed again and again across Eurasia; against fortresses,

where garrisons were tricked into coming out from their walls to chase fleeing nomads;

to epic, nine-day pursuits.

The most famous was that which Subutai employed against the Rus and Qipchaq at the Kalka


Perhaps not quite the master plan it is often presented as, Subutai may have been genuinely

fleeing before the Rus and Qipchaq following the death of his friend and mentor Jebe while

scouting the enemy army, as suggested in a recent article by historian Stephen Pow.

Pursued across the steppe, Subutai saw the enemy formation lose structure, the faster

Cuman-Qipchaqs gaining ahead of their Rus allies.

Turning back to face them, on the Kalka River Subutai brought the full might of his army

against only a portion of the enemy- first the Qipchap, who broke and ran into the oncoming


With their advance halted, Mongol arrows now fell upon them.

Order was lost, the Rus began to flee, and Subutai carried the day, annihilating

the enemy army.

In the event that the enemy did not pursue or rout, but instead held their position in

orderly formation, the Mongols had another option; simply moving on.

More mobile than their enemies and always fighting in enemy territory, the Mongols could

pull away and ravage the surrounding countryside, disheartening the enemy army by slaughtering

the local population, filling the sky with the smoke of burning homes, or cutting off

enemy access to water or resources.

Defections and panic set in as refugees fled to the army with stories of Mongol brutality.

A stationary foe or one holding up in a wagon fort as the Hungarians did at Mohi in 1241,

was soon trapped in a nerge, a Mongolian hunting circle.

Cordoning off the area, the Mongols would surround and gradually close in on the foe,

cutting off avenues of escape and driving panicked villages towards the target.

At the strategic level or while hunting, strict orders allowed nothing to leave the circle


But on the tactical level, the nerge had a devious trick.

A gap would be left in the steadily closing circle, apparently overlooked by the overeager


To those on foot, it seemed a silver lining.

The Mongols understood the psychology of men and animals; when cornered with nowhere to

run, they fight to the death.

Provided a means to see another day, either tiger or man will seize the chance to live.

And by doing so, they did exactly what the Mongols wanted.

At Mohi, when the Hungarians fled through the gap in the line, the Mongols formed up

beside the fleeing enemy, whose formation and sense to resist was long since abandoned.

Once the foe was suitably bedraggled and exhausted, only then did the Mongols fall on them, minimizing

harm to themselves but ensuring few, if any, escaped their clutches.

Contrary to some depictions, heavy cavalry was used by the Mongols, though Asian cavalry

differed from the heavy shock lancers imagined in Europe when the term is mentioned.

For the Mongols, their own heavy armoured cavalry was a minority, more usually utilizing

subject peoples in this role.

For the majority of Asian heavy cavalry, from China, Iran, and the Turkic and Mongolian

tribes of Central Asia, the primary weapon of heavy cavalry was still the bow, even when

both horse and rider were fully armoured.

In the steppe, heavy armour was harder to procure with limited access to smiths and

raw materials.

The more common armour varieties reflected this, created from materials the Mongols had

ready access to: felt and leather.

Perhaps the most well-known was the hatanga del, a sort of thick, gambeson-like coat of

thickly layered felt.

Increasingly over the 13th century, the hatanga was secured with metal plates within it for

a brigandine.

For man and horse protection laminar was favoured, long layered bands of leather laced together.

The most expensive was lamellar, consisting of individual metal plates sewn together in


Flexible, the armour was designed to fold over the legs while on horseback, though the

arms and hands were left exposed to not encumber usage of the bow.

The Mongols considered lamellar better protection against arrows than maille, as well as easier

for nomads to both produce and maintain.

Mongolian heavy cavalry was intended to be a decisive finishing blow against enemies

weakened by arrow fire or drawn into feigned retreats, rather than engage in any sort of

prolonged melee.

With their smaller horses, the Mongols had to be careful to not overexert the animals,

especially when fully armoured, and heavy cavalry charges were likely limited affairs

in the early days of the conquests.

As more subject peoples were added to the Mongol army, their own heavy cavalry could

take on these vulnerable close quarter roles, leaving the valuable Mongolian and Turkic

horse archers safe to pick off the enemy from a distance.

While fighting in China, Khitan, Jurchen and Tangut heavy cavalry were regularly employed

by the Mongols, while in the Ilkhanate, Armenian and Georgian heavy cavalry were at the forefront

of the Mongol wars in the region, particularly against the Mamluks.

For extraordinary situations, the Mongols applied unorthodox tactics.

At Mohi in 1241, the initial effort to storm the bridge was accompanied by Subutai attempting

to build a bridge further downriver in an effort to flank the Hungarian army.

When the Hungarians successfully resisted the attempt to force the bridge, the Mongols

pulled back, and early the following morning, brought up catapults and shelled the

guards left on the Hungarian side of the bridge.

This was quickly followed up with a cavalry charge.

The bridge over the Sajo River was taken and the Hungarian camp encircled.

While fighting off a Burmese invasion into Mongol controlled Yunnan in 1277, the sight

and scent of the Burmese elephants frightened the Mongol horses.

The Mongol commander quickly ordered his men to the treeline to tie them to the tree trunks.

Dismounted, the Mongols advanced on foot and sent volleys of arrows into the elephants.

Under the incessant barrage the elephants panicked, crashing through the Burmese lines

before leaving the battlefield.

While part of the Mongol force continued providing covering fire, detachments filed back to the

trees to remount their horses, continuing in this order until they were all on horseback.

Where the Mongols tactical ability failed them was in environments too unsuited to cavalry

maneuvers- the humid jungles of southeastern Asia perhaps the greatest example of this.

The conquest of the Song Dynasty was only completed with the massive conscription of

Chinese soldiers and creation of a fleet to challenge the Song on the vital rivers of

south China.

In Syria, historians like John Masson Smith have argued the region lacked the pasture

capacity to provide for the vast horse herds the Mongols liked to bring with them, forcing

them to advance with smaller forces the Mamluks could overcome.

In straight tactical engagements, the Mongols performed their poorest against those who

fought in similar fashion to themselves.

Chinggis Khans only defeats were against other tribes of the Mongolian steppe, and

it seems he considered the nomadic Turks of the western steppe, the Cuman-Qipchaqs, to

be the greatest single foe against Mongol expansion.

The Mamluk sultanate of Egypt and the Sultanate of Delhi both employed Turkic horse archers,

often Cuman-Qipchaps bought as slaves, to great effect against the Mongols.

Essentially, these were armies which could recognize feigned retreats and nomadic ploys,

and force the Mongols into engagements which minimized their superiority in horse numbers.

An army is only as effective as its ability to feed and supply its own men, and the armies

of the Mongol Empire were no exception.

As with so much of the Mongol military, popular depictions of the logistical capabilities

of the 13th century Mongol army are a mix of hyperbole and exaggerated claims of Mongol


Quite rightly, most discussions of the Mongols logistical ability has focused on their lives

as nomads, and how they utilized their animals herds- sheep, goats, oxen, camels and horses.

As pastoral nomads, their very lives provided them excellent experience in the skills of

strategic logistics.

Every seasonal movement had to be well planned and organized, for timing of the weather and

pasture availability.

Pasture had to be carefully managed to avoid overgrazing, the animals kept in the right

proportions for water usage and avoiding its contamination.

Pastures for winter grazing needed to be secured and avoided.

Lacking sufficient alternative fodder, the animals needed to be able to provide for themselves

by eating through the snow; the sheep, goats and oxen following behind the horses as they

instinctively dug through the snow with nose and hoof.

In turn, each animal provided milk, meat, felt, clothing, and more, providing nomads

much of their requirements to survive.

Each nomad had to learn how many animals were necessary to survive off of, and had a lifetime

of experiencing moving vast herds of livestock from horseback over great distances.

Any Mongol who survived to adulthood knew how to withstand harsh environments, live

off little, make use of every part of the animal and take advantage of local resources;

all valuable skills for any army on the march.

As stated, the Mongols did not provide fodder for their herds, subsisting them almost entirely

off of grasses.

In the great Eurasian steppes, this provided any nomadic people an immense advantage, not

requiring the difficult and lengthy procurement of grain supplies for troops and horses.

Larger horse breeds of sedentary societies, for example, cannot maintain body weight and

strength enough to campaign from only grass alone, and require regular feeding of hay

or preferably, grain.

For the smaller horses of the Eurasian Steppe, grass provided their necessary nutritional


With no shortage of grass in the steppe, it was also much easier to field immense herds

of horses; far more than any sedentary rival power could compare to.

A single Mongol warrior could go on campaign with 5 or more remounts, rotating between

the horses so as not to overexert a single animal.

While the vast herds of their animals were a key aspect of everyday life in Mongolia,

the five snouts were rarely all brought on campaign.

Sheep and goats simply cannot travel as quickly or as long as horses; 5 kilometres per day,

or 3 miles, is a reliable speed with these animals.

Depending on the campaign and as conditions allowed, we sometimes see instead a central,

slower moving army, which may have sheep, goats, supply and tool carts pulled by oxen,

and some families, a base camp called an ordu, generally commanded by the Khans, or a

generals, wife in his absence.

The warriors would ride separately in flying columns well ahead of the ordu.

Travelling with only their horses, these columns could strike with greater speed before returning

to this slower main body, to resupply on those things which they could not have carried with


This would mean stocking up on staples of the Mongol diet to carry back with them for

the next stretch of the horse only part of the attack.

A group of 10 men, an arban, would stock up on strips of dried meat, borts, or dried milk

curds called aaruul or cheeses called eezgii.

The arbans returning out to campaign carried this among themselves and their spare horses,

which themselves were a source of nutrition for the Mongols.

Mares were preferred, as both their milk and blood could be drunk, providing nutritional

value when other alternatives were scarce.

If the horse died on the march, then it would be cut up on the spot for its meat to be reused;

even the bones would be used for a broth called shulen, thickened with millet and whatever

pieces of meat and vegetables could be collected.

These meals were augmented by hunting when he could, be it big game, enemy livestock

or marmot- a useful practice to keep their archery skills sharp as well.

Little was wasted, and numerous primary sources remark, often with disgust, at the willingness

of the Mongols to eat anything.

But the Mongols knew quite well that picky eaters did not last long in the cold winter.

Yet even in the steppe the supplying of so many animals was not without issue, especially

at the end of winter or in drier years.

When campaigning against their enemies, this became an even greater struggle, for there

was simply not the same expanses of grassland to rely upon the further they rode from the


In order to overcome this, the Mongols relied on an exceptionally predatory foraging strategy.

Mongol armies travelled in divisions and smaller units, spreading themselves out across the

countryside, feeding their horses on both the smaller areas of grassland, and local

grain stores, while the riders would feed themselves on the peasants harvests.

This would also play into their strategy of harassing and driving the peasants from farms

and rural villages towards major urban centers, spreading fear and straining the enemys


It also had an advantage of making it difficult to react to Mongol armies; for the defenders,

reports would come in of Mongols everywhere, coming and going in each direction.

The chaos of the panic-stricken flights of the peasants would have certainly brought

with them exaggerated stories of the scale of the enemy forces, sowing always further


This takes us to one of the most popular myths of the Mongols, that they were a shockingly

fast force, a lightning bolt from the steppes.

This is a result partly of the intentional confusion caused by the Mongols; when they

were striking cities hundreds of kilometres apart, it would seem they were crossing great

distances at lightning speeds.

But calculations by John Masson Smith Jr., noting, when available, the rough length of

time and distance travelled by the Mongolian armies, found there could be great variation

in the speed at which they travelled.

The greatest speed recorded was the great invasion of western Eurasia under Batu and

Subutai in the 1230s; their journey from Qaraqorum to the Volga River, nearly 5000 kilometres

over an estimated six months, made an average daily speed of around 27 kilometres per day.

This part of the journey, with little campaigning and nothing but grassland before them, was

made with the greatest haste.

In Smiths calculations, the average kilometres per day for other campaigns with available

data was around 22-24 kilometres per day.

Smith suggests that the speed made by Batu and Subutai was the maximum top speed for

an army based on steppe horses in ideal conditions.

Time in the day needed to be given for the horses to graze and sleep, and as it takes

longer for horses to meet their daily feed requirements via grazing rather than grain,

this puts a cap on the top speed of these armies.

And yet such ideal conditions would not be met elsewhere.

Smith is also able to make calculations for much of Hulegus route during his march

in the 1250s.

At the fastest part of his journey from Karakorum to Almaliq, Hulegu covered approximately 2697

kilometres in some six months, some 15 kilometres per day.

Across Transoxiana and Iran, Hulegu rarely made such speeds again, usually between 6

and 9 kilometres per day depending, and often halting for months at a time.

For Hulegu, the campaign was much more methodical than the immense tidal waves they are often

depicted as.

The sources describe Hulegu marching in the mornings, then allowing horses to graze over

the afternoon and sleep through the night, while his own men rested and drank.

Its important to note that for armies like Hulegus, often estimated around some 70-150,000

men, only a part of the force was actually Mongolian.

Aside from fellow nomadic peoples like the steppe Turkic tribes who would handle the

journey similarly, semi-nomadic Khitans and Jurchen accompanied them, as did Tanguts,

Northern Chinese, especially as engineers, and other subject people along the route through

Transoxiana and Iran.

Such huge and varied armies could not live off of Mongol mares milk and blood.

Instead, such campaigns took advantage of the ever-developing administration of the

Mongol Empire.

By the time of Hulegus expedition, Great Khan Mongke ordered vast depots of supplies

to be made for his brothers army along the route, immense hills of skins of flour

and wine produced from across western Asia.

All pastures that Hulegus armies may need were to be cleared and let fallow for their


Roads were cleared, bridges built and mended or ferries prepared to aid in their passage,

both for the men and the many carts travelling with them, carrying supplies, weapons, and

tools to construct siege machines.

As Hulegu marched across Asia, he met with Mongol appointed governors and vassals, who

had to help arrange more supplies for the army.

Marches had to be carefully timed, aiming to avoid the harshest summer weathers and

take advantage of pasture availability.

While it is popular to think of the Mongols living and fighting purely from their horses,

by the time of their great campaigns they needed supplies as much as everyone else.

These marches were generally made without the families of the warriors.

Even for Hulegu himself, most of his wives were only able to arrive in the Ilkhanate

by the end of the 1260s; only then did they learn of Hulegus death in 1265.

If even for a royal prince it was hard to bring his wives with him, then a great many

Mongolian families were permanently separated by the campaigns.

For tamma garrisons, stationed on the frontiers of the empire, such a consequence was outright


Travelling without their original families, in the regions where these tamma forces were

based such as parts of modern Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, these men took local wives

and mixed with the local cultures.

The family separation policy of the Khans accounts in part for the rapid absorption

of the Mongols into the Turkic and Farsi peoples in the west of the empire.

Much of the aforementioned comments are also reflected in the arming of the Mongol soldiers.

For their base equipment, each Mongol was expected to produce and maintain his own weapons;

building his own bows and arrows, his own saddle and the like.

At the start of the conquests, blacksmithing in Mongolia was difficult but not impossible.

Access to the raw materials was a great hurdle and often relied on trading with the Chinese

dynasties to their south.

For these reasons, specialized equipment such as swords and full sets of metal armours would

have been uncommon and restricted to those with the wealth and means to afford them.

If the average Mongol trooper had a metal weapon, it was likely cheaper yet effective,

such as maces and spears, or if metal armour, perhaps nothing more than a helmet.

As the empire expanded, so too did their access to more varied weapons and armours.

A great many Mongols must simply have repurposed looted equipment.

After a battle, Chinggis Khans orders were to collect and redistribute the weapons and

armour of the defeated enemy forces, though doubtless the Mongol elite and bodyguards

were given priority in this.

From both conquest and tribute, as well as the forced migrations of artisans and craftsmen,

the Mongols gained reliable access to great numbers of blacksmiths and the raw materials

necessary for their crafts.

On the eve of the invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire, one of the rising members of Chinggis

Khans entourage and a great minister of the Mongol Empire, Chinqai, founded Chinqai

Balasaghun, meaning Chinqais City, in western Mongolia.

Made of mainly captured and relocated Chinese craftsmen, Chinqai turned this into one of

several manufacturing centres in Mongolia.

Both a farming settlement and weapons production facility, it supplied Chinggis host as

they moved west for the invasion of Khwarezm.

Even the imperial capital, Karakorum, had smithies and arms producers.

It is unclear to what extent these finished products actually made their way to the regular

soldiers, outside of arrow production.

By providing their warriors millions of iron tipped arrows, the Khans would have been giving

them the most effective, and deadliest, assistance they could.

No evidence seems to indicate there was ever a concerted effort to armour the vast majority

of Mongol troops or provide them a regular kit, though the soldiers were expected to

have some base equipment such as knives, bows, ropes, sewing kits and other basic tools.

The Franciscan Friar William of Rubruck, during his return journey to Europe from the court

of the Grand Khan in the early 1250s, had only two of the twenty Mongols assigned to

protect him armoured; both were in hauberks of maille from the Alans of the Northern Caucasus,

according to Rubruck.

Other travellers such as John de Plano Carpini and Marco Polo also indicate that outside

of the Khans keshig, little effort was made to furnish the regular army with equipment.

Communication between their forces was an important tool of the Khans.

In this, they developed one of historys most famous postal systems, the yam.

Situated on average roughly 30 kilometres apart, the yam stations, also known as ortoo,

were locally supplied relay stations which snaked across the whole of the Mongol Empire.

The communities the ortoo were situated in provided foodstuffs and animals; messengers

bearing either written or verbal communication, would ride furiously to each station.

There they would be resupplied, fed, jump onto fresh horses and be on their way to bear

messages to and fro.

Each user was provided a passport, called gerege in Mongolian or paiza in Chinese.

The highest level of the gerege, the golden tiger-head, bore the name of Chinggis

Khan and stated: By the name of Chinggis Khan, endowed by Eternal Blue Heaven: This

man is empowered to act with the same freedom as I myself should exercise, had I come in


Below it would list what supplies this level of passport provided the bearer.

The yam system may have been brought to Chinggis Khans attention by defectors from the Jin

Empire, be they Chinese, Jurchen or Khitan, or they may have organically emerged out of

necessity of retaining some semblance of authority over the ever-growing empire.

No matter the origin, Chinggis Khan had recognized the utility of such a system by the 1210s.

The yam was expanded over the course of the thirteenth century, particularly under Ogedai

and Mongke, but continually disrupted and a source of frustration for the locals, who

had to both supply the yam, and the greedy officials and merchants taking advantage of

their generosity.

In much of the empire its presence was marginal even at the height of the authority of the

Great Khans.

Yet it provided means to connect far flung sections of the empire and retain contact

between the various, long ranging armies carrying out the Khans will.

Via the yam, orders could be relayed across the empire to organize timetables, such as

the new censuses carried out on the orders of Mongke, and then the demands for troops

and supplies to be mobilized.

Because of this, Hulegu was able to meet up with more contingents and successfully stocked

food depots without needless delays.

By the time he reached the Hashashin fortress of Maymundiz, so successfully had the yam

stations been able to line up the campaign that forces sent from the Jochid ulus were

able to cross the Caucasus and unite with Hulegu in northern Iran for the fall of these

fortresses: both armies have marched on opposite sides of the Caspian Sea.

While films and video games like Ghost of Tsushima often show the Mongol conquests undertaken

by forces entirely consisting of the Mongols, this is a gross simplification.

The majority of the army serving the Great Khans was multi-ethnic and not made up only

of nomads.

Even during his war for the unification of Mongolia, the warlord Temujin was relying

on troops of different backgrounds.

While all were nomads practicing the same horseback archery, not all were speakers of

Mongolian languages.

Many were Turkic peoples, some of whom were even Eastern Christians, popularly called


For horsemen of the steppe, these sorts of ethnic distinctions were fluid; tribal

names generally served to mark lineages both real and imagined, and political loyalties

which could shift as necessary.

So once these Turkic groups submitted to Temujin, and especially once he took the title of Chinggis

Khan, these tribes would signify their loyalty by deeming themselves Mongols as well, usually

involving the adoption of Mongolian hairstyles and clothing.

For any nomadic steppe confederation, this is not a unique process: from the Huns to

the Gokturks, such an approach can be seen again and again.

Following the declaration of the empire in 1206, Chinggis Khan rapidly began to expand

the Mongol ulus, incorporating neighboring peoples into his army, many of whom were speakers

of Turkic languages, who were nomadic, semi-nomadic, and even agriculturists; the forest peoples

around lake Baikal, the Kirghiz of the Yenisei River Valley, the Uighurs of Xinjiang, the

Qarluqs of Almaliq and the Onggut in what is now Inner Mongolia.

Some, like the Uighurs, had a great role in the emerging administrative system.

It was from the Uighurs that Chinggis Khan adopted a script for the Mongolian language,

still in use today in Inner Mongolia.

While Chinggis was incorporating these peoples into his army, it was fundamentally not changing

the army itself, for it was their cavalrymen he incorporated.

For his early campaigns in the steppe, infantry was too great a liability.

However, once Chinggis Khan began to take his war to the more powerful sedentary kingdoms

in what is now China, he required a shift in his operational thinking.

Fighting against the Tangut Kingdom, his horsemen had little offensive capability against city


Dominating in the field battle, they lacked the knowledge to besiege cities effectively.

For this, he would need to incorporate sedentary peoples into his forces.

While Chinggis Khan won his first significant field battles against the Jurchen Jin Dynasty

through the might of his horsemen and their arrows, he understood that to make any lasting

gains, he would need to utilize the very inhabitants of the Jin Empire against their Jurchen masters.

Within the Jin Dynasty were three primary groups: the Jurchen, a Tungusic people hailing

from Manchuria and ancestors of the Manchu, who made up the ruling elite of the dynasty;

the Khitans, a people related to the Mongols who a century prior had ruled north China

and Mongolia during the Liao Dynasty, until being conquered by the Jurchen; and the Northern

Chinese, who made up the vast majority of the population.

Even before the invasion began, the Khitans, who made up much of the Jin Dynastys military,

were defecting to Chinggis Khan, providing intelligence and horsemen.

Having been treated as second-class since the Jurchen conquest and denied advancement

in the military, there was long-simmering antagonism between the Khitan leaders and

the Jin.

The Jin rulers, fearful of a Khitan revolt in the face of the Mongol attacks in 1211,

had sent Jurchen colonists among them in an attempt to subdue them; the effort backfired

monstrously, creating the revolt they so feared and resulting in a restored Liao Dynasty,

which immediately submitted to Chinggis Khan and provided more Khitan forces to aid in

his conquest.

Not only were they men and horses for the Great Khan, but they also took the same resources

away from the Jin Emperor and stretched their forces even thinner.

While they were undoubtedly important for the fighting in China, we know Khitan horsemen

would accompany the Mongols in the west.

In late 1218 or early 1219, when Jochi and Sbeetei were returning through Kazakhstan

from hunting down Merkit refugees near the Caspian Sea, they were attacked by the Khwarezm-Shah

Muhammad II.

In the fighting Jochi was injured and nearly overtaken by Khwarezmian troops, until he

was rescued by a timely charge of a Khitan Prince in his keshig.

Perhaps the most significant addition to the Mongol war effort in China was the mass incorporation

of Northern Chinese into the Khans army.

It was the adoption of Chinese infantry and siege engineers which allowed the Mongols

to learn the ways of siege warfare, and have the manpower to experiment with it.

The Mongol leadership always wanted to avoid expending the valuable lives of their nomadic


Each one was a lifetimes investment and hugely effective in the open field; to use

them to push siege equipment was simply to waste them.

The Mongols recognized this early on, and it was for these tasks they employed their

ever-growing new Chinese army.

From pushing siege equipment to filling in moats, to manning catapults and scaling ladders,

tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Chinese were brought into the Mongol army

within years of the start of the conquest.

Many were undoubtably forced, driven before the Mongols as a veritable human wave to absorb

the arrows of the defenders.

But it cannot be dismissed that many willingly joined the Mongols, particularly once it seemed

the Jin Dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven, the right to rule China, when they abandoned

their capital of Zhongdu in 1215.

By the time Chinggis Khan took his forces west in 1219 against the Khwarezmian Empire,

there were more Chinese fighting on behalf of the Mongols in China, than there were Mongols

fighting in China.

While some of these Chinese forces were under the command of Mongol, Turkic, Khitan or Uighur

officers, many were led by Chinese warlords and militia leaders who sided with the Khans,

like Shih Tienzi or Cheng Jou.

These were men who not only willingly served the Khan of Khans, but did so with extraordinary

loyalty; Shih Tienzi and his family would remain prominent military leaders under the

Mongols until the reign of Khubilai Khan, and Cheng Jou was the most trusted lieutenant

of the brilliant Mongol commander Mukhali.

With Chinggis Khan absent fighting the Khwarezmian Empire, Mukhali was left as a viceroy to keep

the Jin Dynasty occupied until the Khan should return.

From 1217 until his death in 1223, Mukhali led a stunning, highly mobile campaign throughout

the reduced Jin Empire.

Cities after cities were taken and retaken, while Mukhali drove his armies to within striking

distance of the new Jin capital at Kaifeng.

While Mukhalis main force was Turkic and Mongolian horsemen augmented by Tangut cavalry,

in other provinces in China Mukhali left command to officers like Cheng Jou, who fiercely fought

against the Jin to expand the Mongol Empire.

Neither the Jurchen nor the Mongols were Chinese; yet in much of the increasingly ruined Jin

Empire, the fighting was being undertaken almost exclusively between the Chinese subjects

of both states.

In the area around the Shandong peninusla this became particularly confusing.

Here, an uprising against Jin rule broke out, known as the Red Coats.

Here, loosely aligned warlords -some independent, some aligned with the Mongols, some aligned

with the Song Dynasty, and all hating the Jin- fought themselves, the Mongols, the Song

and the Jin.

Some, like Li Quan, joined the Mongols and on their behalf, fought the Jin and the Song

for decades, earning high status and rewards from the Mongol government.

Li Quans son, Li Tan, lasted as a prominent regional warlord until he revolted against

Khubilai Khan in 1262, likely on account of Song bribes and their empty promises.

Only in reaction to this, did the Mongols crack down on the power of the Chinese warlords

in their service.

Despite the restriction of their independence, the Chinese in Mongol service only increased

in importance as their war into the more humid, less horse friendly climate of southern China


Against the Song Dynasty, a vast army and riverine navy of Chinese was assembled, serving

alongside a core of Mongol horsemen and often under the command of Mongols and Central Asian

Persians and Turks.

By the end of the war against the Song Dynasty, during the pursuit of the fleeing boy emperors

to the island of Yaishan, the combined Mongol-Chinese army was under the supreme command of a northern

Chinese, Zhang Hongfan, assisted by a Uighur, Ariq Khaya, and a Central Asian Muslim, Omar.

The Mongol conquest of China could not have been completed without the manpower of the

Chinese, or their military skill for taking cities.

The Mongols made heavy use of Chinese manpower; cities in Mongolia like Karakorum and Chinqai

Balasaghun were built using labourers from China.

Chinqai Balasaghun served as an industrial and farming hub, manned by Chinese, to help

supply Mongol armies as they passed through western Mongolia on campaign.

When planning the great western invasion in the 1230s, the Mongols consdered sending west

a vast army of Chinese infantry with them.

This was dismissed early on in the proceedings, deeming them unsuitable to such a journey.

However, Chinese siege engineers were brought with the Mongol armies on Chinggis Khans

invasion of Khwarezm, almost certainly with Batu and Sbeeteis 1230s western campaign,

and with Hulegu in the 1250s- thousands of them and their families to assist him in taking

the remaining fortresses of the islamic world.

But the Chinese were not the only ones brought into use in the Mongol armies in the west.

As the Mongols advanced across the western steppe, many of the local Turkic tribes were

absorbed into their forces.

During Jebe Noyans swift conquest of the Qara-Khitai, the local garrisons largely submitted

to their new Mongol masters without issue, but there is not substantial evidence to suggest

they accompanied Chinggis Khan against Khwarezm.

In the Khwarezmian Empire, much of the military were Turkic Qipchaq tribes, a great number

of whom freely abandoned their posts to join the Mongols upon invitation and fight against

their former employers.

We have already noted Chinggis Khans mass employment of forced levies, driving the local

population before his armies much as he had done in China.

With his forces now experienced in siege warfare from the fighting in China, there was less

of a need for defections, as long as the Mongols could use the locals in the most vulnerable


After Chinggis bloody campaign ended however, the Mongols were more amenable to utilizing

the locals militarily, generally for garrisoning cities.

Regional commanders appointed by the Mongols would not have had access to substantial numbers

of nomadic troops.

Therefore, when rebellions did rise up after the conquest, the initial responding force

would not be Mongols from the steppe, but locally raised militia.

The western invasion of Batu and Sbeetei provides a few notable mentions of foreign

troops in Mongol employ; the heavy usage of catapults against the Rus cities suggests

the presence of Chinese siege engineers; we have Tanguts taking part in the siege of the

Alan capital of Magas, alongside many Alans newly conscripted to the Mongol army; when

a Mongol raiding party was captured in Austria, the Austrians were surprised to find an Englishman

in their employ, a man who had apparently served as interpreter and envoy on behalf

of the Mongols.

Men were also taken in the opposite direction as well; Rus, Qipchaq, and Alan men were

carried east to serve in the Mongol military, often filling the role of bodyguards.

The general assumption seems to have been that transplacing these men like this ensured

their loyalty.

A young Qipchaq warrior would be unlikely to learn Chinese well enough to start taking

bribes or escape on his own, and therefore be forced to remain utterly loyal to the Khan.

After the end of Mongol imperial unity, the reliance on non-Mongols became even greater.

In the Ilkhanate made heavy usage of Georgians and Armenians from Cilicia and beyond, largely

as heavy cavalry, who often took a primary role in their many battles against the Mamluk


While some have suggested this was due to the superiority of the Caucasian heavy horse,

it may just be again the Mongol inclination to place their foreign, expendable troops

into the most vulnerable positions, and thus save their own men.

Khubilai Khans foreign ventures towards the end of his life demonstrate the reliance

on non-Mongols for roles his horsemen could not fill.

Leaving many of the Mongols to guard major sites, particularly on his border with the

Central Asian Khanates, Khubilais famous and often disastrous overseas attacks were

usually made up of Chinese troops, augmented by the people inhabiting the part of his empire

in the closest direction to that which he wanted to strike.

For the invasion of Japan, Koreans built and manned much of the ships that made up the

navy, especially in the first invasion, while northern Chinese, Jurchens and Khitans, as

well as Mongols, made up the varied assaulting forces.

For the invasions of Dai Viet, Champa and Pagan, Mongols fought alongside former Song

troops, as well as men raised from Yunnan and the small kingdoms on the late-Song Dynastys

southwestern border.

The navies supporting the Vietnamese invasions and attacks on Java were ships raised from

southern Chinese manned by Chinese crews; for the attack on Java, the command was just

as varied.

The army was led by a former Song commander, Gao Xing, the navy commanded by a Uighur,

Yiqmis, and the total force was under the overall command of a Mongol named Shi Bi.

The Mongol army was never a homogenous body.

Aside from these most obvious mentions we have made, there were thousands upon thousands

of men from across Eurasia who served the Mongols in less exciting roles.

Local scouts to show them routes; smiths and artisans from Central Asia carried with the

force to help produce and maintain weapons and supplies needed for the daily function

of the army; physicians from China who must have set broken bones and mended wounds from

Korea to Afghanistan.

While the Mongols themselves provided the necessary edge in direct warfare, it was the

vast support system and ability to draw on the knowledge and traditions of peoples across

Eurasia which allowed the Mongols to expand beyond the Eurasian steppe.

The rapid expansion of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century cannot be attributed

to a single new military invention providing technological supremacy over their enemies.

Still, the Mongols were adept in employing the tools of their foes.

As historian Timothy May wrote, the Mongols rarely met a weapon they did not like.

But what was the role of the Mongols in the transmission of gunpowder and gunpowder weapons

over the 13th and 14th centuries?

For some historians, like J.J.

Saunders or Kate Raphael, the idea of the Mongols as both users of gunpowder and transmitters

of its knowledge to the west is a total negative or extremely unlikely.

But the great British sinologist Joseph Needham demonstrated thoroughly that the Mongols used

a variety of gunpowder weapons during their wars in China, while more recent historians

such as Iqtidar Alam Khan, Thomas T. Allsen and Stephen G. Haw, have argued that the Mongols

carried a number of gunpowder weapons, such as bombs, fire-lances and rockets, west in

their conquests over the rest of Eurasia.

The first recipe for gunpowder appears during the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century CE, in

a Taoist work urging alchemists not to mix saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and

carbon-rich materials like coal, and to especially not add arsenic to the mixture, as the result

would light aflame.

The Chinese quickly found the energy produced by these materials quite mesmerizing when

used in fireworks display, and in civil engineering projects and mining.

Contrary to some popular sentiments that the Chinese only used it for peaceful purposes,

it did not take long for it to be turned to warfare.

By 1044, possibly in reaction to military defeats against the Tangut Xi Xia, the Song

Dynasty was presented a collection of nine kinds of gunpowder weapons and three distinct

gunpowder recipes in the Wujing Zongyao.

This technology advanced under the Song Dynasty, which faced a collection of ever-more fearsome

foes on its northern borders.

These weapons took a number of forms.

Bombs thrown from catapults (huopao), enclosed in pottery or fragmenting metal shells.

Arrows (huojian) with incendiary packages strapped to them, launched from bows or massive

mounted crossbows, developing into early rockets over the twelfth century.

Most infamous was the fire-lance (huojiang): a bamboo or metal tube capable of shooting

a jet of flame three metres in length, sometimes with shrapnel and toxic materials packed into

the tube to form a terrifying, flame-spouting shotgun.

some to explode and throw armour piercing shrapnel, some to spread flame and destroy

buildings, with others to have a choking, blinding gas dispersed by the explosion to

envelop and confuse the enemy.

The Song Dynasty government was so terrified of their foes acquiring them- that it prohibited

the sale of any of the materials composing gunpowder to the Khitan Liao Dynasty or Tangut

Xi Xia in the 11th century.

Both lacked access to natural reserves of saltpetre producing lands.

But with the Jurchen conquest of the Liao and Northern Song in the early 12th century,

the newly formed Jin Dynasty seized not only stores of these weapons, but the knowledge

and resources to produce their own.

The first textual references to fire-lances, rockets, and new kinds of bombs appear as

Song forces desperately resisted Jin invasions.

When Chinggis Khan invaded the Jin Dynasty in 1211, whole companies of Chinese siege

engineers entered into his service, bringing with them knowledge to construct Chinese siege


One such Chinese siege specialist who willingly deserted, Guo Baoyu, accompanied Chinggis

Khan west on his campaign against the Khwarezmian Empire.

According to his biography in the Yuanshi, when the Mongols attempted to force a crossing

of the Amu Darya, a number of Khwarezmian ships blocked their path.

Guo Baoyu ordered a volley of huojian to be launched against the fleet.

The ships were all set aflame, allowing the Mongols passage.

While huojian originally and literally meant fire arrows, according to Joseph Needham,

Jixing Pan, and Thomas Allsen, over the twelfth century the term came to signify rockets,

when powdered gunpowder mixtures with higher percentages of saltpetre, charcoal and less

sulphur made for effective rocket propellants.

While Chinggis Khan certainly brought Chinese siege engineers westwards with him, gunpowder

was not a key component of his tactics.

Likely, Chinggis lacked the resources to manufacture gunpowder and gunpowder weapons, and if he

was making use of them, it was in limited quantities and quickly depleted.

After Chinggis Khans death in 1227, his son and successor Ogedai completed the war

with the Jin Dynasty, in the process acquiring greater experience with gunpowder weapons,

as well as the natural and manpower resources to produce them.

In 1231, for instance, the Jin utilized a new development in bomb technology, the heaven-shaking

thunder-bomb (zhen tien lei), to sink Mongol ships in a naval engagement.

These were bombs with high nitrate content encased in a cast-iron shell.

When set off, they created a monstrous noise like thunder, splintering the iron shell into

a wave of armour and flesh tearing shrapnel, an early fragmentation grenade.