Genghis Khan led the Mongols from a poor existence on the steppes of Asia to the core of a mighty, and still expanding, empire. His successors would carry on his work until the Mongol Empire was the largest empire ever built, by landmass; this accomplishment has not yet been surpassed. In large measure, this was accomplished by turning tribes of horsemen into a well-disciplined cavalry force, and then applying that force with skill and guile against their neighbors.
Although not a battle tactic itself, the imposition of discipline among “the Mongol Hordes” and the creation of a communications system that gave commanders firm control over their troops are the factors that made Mongol tactics possible, and these factors are the personal achievements of Genghis Khan. He undermined clan loyalty by spreading out clan members among different units, fostering instead a pan-Mongol identity in his army. The army was systematically organized by tens, with signals and messengers to facilitate communication among mostly illiterate warriors. The annual practice of the Great Hunt, in which the entire army encircled all of the wild animals over a large area before any actual killing began, was essentially an exercise in army cohesion. The experience proved most valuable on the battlefield.
The Mongol army was overwhelmingly a cavalry force. As their conquests expanded, they added elements of artillery, learned from their opponents, but these were mainly used in sieges, and only rarely in open battle. They also added elements of infantry from subject peoples, but the numbers of infantry were never permitted to be a large part of the attacking force; non-Mongols could not be trusted in great numbers in case the battle went badly and the foreign troops turned against their masters. For all intents, the tactics of Genghis Khan were cavalry tactics.
Speed was an important consideration for the Mongols, and spare horses were kept, with at least one spare available per man. Horses could therefore be ridden to exhaustion without crippling the mobility of the army. Mongol speed was both strategic and tactic, applying to the movement of armies to a battlefield and to the movement of units within a battle. Units were designated as light or heavy cavalry, with the distinction resting only on the absence or presence of armor. Both types carried the same weaponry, consisting of powerful composite bows (two per man), a large complement of arrows, a spear or lance (reportedly including a hook to facilitate pulling a man from a horse), a lasso, and a backup weapon such as an axe or scimitar. Light cavalry made use of their greater speed for more nimble maneuvers, while the heavy cavalry rode in to deal a decisive blow to targets softened up by the light cavalry.
The Mongols preferred to fight as mounted archers for as long as they could before closing in for hand-to-hand combat. When possible, they would ride close to the enemy, fire arrows, and then ride away to let other units take up the fight. When the cohesion of enemy units was broken, that was the time for a charge.
One popular formation was the practice of holding the heavy cavalry in the center, with part of the light cavalry behind it for support. Two additional bodies of light cavalry would accompany the heavy cavalry to either side. If the enemy veered to either side in order to strike at the flanks (and fight hand-to-hand against light cavalry instead of heavy cavalry), the heavy cavalry would turn to counterattack at the enemy’s own flank, while the light cavalry that hadn’t been engaged would try to strike the enemy’s rear.
The dangers of retreat to unit cohesion are obvious; less apparent are the corresponding dangers of anticipated victory. When an army thinks it has beaten the foe, it will often break ranks either to plunder the dead or to pursue those who are retreating. The Mongols were aware of this problem, and undertook to take advantage of it in their enemies, even while their strict discipline attempted to avoid this problem in their own ranks.
The idea of engaging in a false retreat did not begin with the Mongols, but they refined it. A large body of light cavalry, known as Mangudai, would engage the enemy, and then at a realistic point they would retreat. If the enemy pursued, they would come under attack by other units waiting for the opportunity. If the enemy failed to pursue, the retreating horsemen would at least turn and fire their own arrows at them. Then, the heavy cavalry charged into the weakened enemy.
At the same time, the Mongols were more than ready to take advantage of true retreat on the part of their foes, although they guarded against being taken unawares by a false retreat. They often left open a single, well-chosen avenue of escape so that those who wished to flee, could do so – but the Mongols would know where they went. After dealing with the battle at hand, they followed the retreating body and destroyed it as well, leaving no force capable of resistance.
Genghis Khan knew the value of instilling fear in the enemy, and was happy to utilize tricks to make his force seem even more fearsome than it was. The practice of having several horses for each rider make it easy to make the army seem larger than it was. The Mongols were known to place mock bodies, much like scarecrows, on riderless horses to make their numbers seem larger; at night, the same effect was be created by having riders carry more than one torch.
After the death of Genghis Khan, the Mongols added some new techniques with time. They learned about stronger forms of artillery from some of their enemies. They used some early cannon and rockets, and enhanced their battlefield ruses with smoke launched by catapults. For the most part, however, the tactics remained the same as those used by Genghis Khan in the creation of the Mongol Empire.
Bennett, Matthew, et al. Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World: AD 500 – AD 1500. St. Martin’s Press, 2005
Chambers, James. The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. Barnes & Noble, 2003.
De Hartog, Leo. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. Barnes & Noble, 1989.
Turnbull, Stephen. Mongol Warrior: 1200 – 1350. Osprey, 2003.
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