The Mongols - Conquerors from Hell

Some Trivia Facts:

According to contemporary sources, the most prominent, recognizable feature of a Mongol warrior was his stench. 
Amir Khuzru (Persian poet): Their eyes were so narrow and piercing that they might have bored a hole in a brazen vessel, and their stench was more horrible than their color. …. Their chests, in color half-black and half-white were covered with lice, which looked like sesame growing on a bad soil. Their bodies, indeed, were covered with these insects…..

According to Friar Giovanni DiPlano Carpini, they ate: dogs, wolves, foxes, horses, rats, mice, lice and the afterbirth when their mares foaled

The Mongols assessed the extent of their victories by cutting off an ear from each dead enemy. After the battle of Liegnitz, Poland in 1241, they collected nine large sacks of ears and send them back to the Khan as proof of the victory.

Dschingis Khan’s credo: The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.

The ultimate, invincible warrior

Quote from an Arab source: They had the courage of lions, the patience of hounds, the prudence of cranes, the cunning of foxes, the long-sightedness of ravens, the wildness of wolves, the passion of fighting-cocks, the protectiveness of hens, the keenness of cats and the fury of wild boars.

The Mongols had physical advantages over their enemies:

  • Because they lived on the high plains of Mongolia, their bodies would have more red blood cells to transport an equal amount of oxygen. When they moved to the lower levels of Asia and Europe, this meant that their endurance and strength would be increased – this is the same trick track and field athletes use today when they have their training camps in high elevations like Mexico City or Denver for several months; it is called “blood doping”.
  • Great eyesight – it was said that they could distinguish a man from an animal from 18 miles away.
  • They had great visual memory – a built-in map generator in their head. They did not have maps on paper, but could remember a place and the way there after riding there once. This was an essential survival skill in the steppes, because there are no road signs there – not even roads!
  • They learned how to ride even before they learned how to walk – when they were 2 years old.
Each Mongol was equipped with his own personal artillery - the bow:
  • Each warrior, even the heavy cavalry, was equipped with a bow = tactical flexibility through ranged attack;  the English at Crecy and Poitiers also won through the use overwhelming firepower against a numerically superior enemy
  • The Mongol bow: 166lbs pull, 200-300 yards reach
    The English longbow: 120lbs pull
    SCA combat bows: 30lbs pull
The Mongol army consisted of professional warriors:
  • No peasants, all warriors: 10,000 Mongols = 10,000 fighters
    (European army: 500 knights and 9500 peasants)
  • Coherent units - equally equipped, equally trained, disciplined and experienced
  • All on horseback = modern mechanized tank/infantry corps;
    Average speed for the whole army: 60 miles per day (4 to 5 times faster than any European army);
    Each warrior had four or more horses and rode them in turns.

They fought differently:

  • Retreat, other than in Europe, was not dishonorable but used as a tactical weapon.
  • They did everything they had to, to win. Chivalry and courtesy on the battlefield did not exist for them.
  • European knights and Japanese Samurai cherished the noble idea of individual combat against a worthy opponent. This was totally inappropriate to deal with the “modern” tactics of the Mongol armies.

They had the right people in the right places:

  • Promotion due to capability, not birthright. Example: Toguchar, Dschingis Khan’s son-in-law disobeyed orders and plundered villages when he was a general, so he was reduced to simple soldier, where he remained until killed in action.
  • The imperial guard (one tumen = 10000 men) was the Mongol war college; from the imperial guard the field commanders were drawn.
  • How to chose a commander – Dschingis Khan: There is no man alive who is braver than Yessutai; no march can tire him and he feels neither hunger nor thirst; that is why he is unfit to command. Because a commander has to care about his men and protect the weakest of them, which Yessutai apparently did not care about, so he was not promoted and remained in the ranks.

How the Mongols waged war – tactics and strategies

They were prepared and had a strategical vision:

  • In 1227 after the death of Dschingis Kahn, a great assembly (Kuriltai) was held; there the commanders discussed the strategy for the next years: the conquest of Europe, Korea and the Chinese Sung Empire was thoroughly planned in all details, from logistics to who would lead the different armies.
  • They had the best intelligence and reconnaissance: networks of spies and agents in the enemy's countries and cities; reconnaissance forces surrounding the army – no one ever surprised a Mongol army. 
  • They never attacked without a declaration of war: Whoever obeys us remains in possession of his land, but whoever resists is destroyed. We send you this order, so if you wish to keep your land, you must come us in person and thence go on to him who is master of all the earth. If you don’t, we know not what will happen, only God knows.  
  • Embassies from foreign kingdoms were treated as acts of formal submission and presents were received as tribute. 
  • Kai-Kawus, the ruler of Rum, offered his submission in a unique way: he gave the Kahn a pair of socks, which had his portrait painted on the soles, so that his master might walk on his face.

They did almost everything differently than their enemies:

  • In Europe and Persia, the campaigning season was summer, after the seed in spring and before the harvest in autumn.
  • The Mongols had no fields to plow; they carried their food with them (cattle, horses, goats); their campaigning season was Winter.
  • Frozen soil = best ground for fast movement on horseback.
  • Rivers were frozen and thus no obstacle anymore.
  • They were used to harsh winters in Mongolia, so they knew how to handle it.
  • Preferred targets: the Horses of the knights/cavalry.
  • No close combat fighting against mounted knights; only if the horses were dead and the knights were on foot, they moved in for the kill with their heavy cavalry.
  • Commanders did not fight themselves (unlike the European Kings and Generals). They commanded the forces from an elevated safe place.
  • Communications on the battlefield with black and white flags ensured tactical control over the army at all times. Communications in that form did not exist in European armies – everybody fought for himself, and most of the time, not even a battle plan existed.
  • Every order was given from one to ten:
    From the Khan to his ten generals - From each general to his ten division (tumen) leaders - From each division leader to his ten sub-commanders … and so on to the smallest unit of 10 men (arban).
Battlefield Tactics:
  • Two rows of heavy cavalry in armor with lances and swords and three rows of light cavalry with bows and javelins.
  • Light cavalry stormed forward and showered the enemy with arrows to harass the enemy and lure them away into the heavy troops in an unorganized charge.
  • Purpose: Disorganize and split the enemy and beat them piecemeal with the heavy cavalry.
  • There was always a way to escape given to a surrounded enemy – that led to routing, and the routing men could be cut down quite easily because there was no unit cohesion anymore. The pursuit would last for days, stretching dozens, even hundreds of miles.
  • Dummies, women and slaves were put on the spare horses, so that the strength of the Mongol army would appear larger.
  • The favorite tactic was the fainted retreat (mangudai): After this tactic became known to their enemies, they just retreated longer, sometimes for days. At the Battle of Kalka River they retreated for 9 days until the Russians were spread out like pearls on a string and could be cut down one by one very easily.
  • The only way to fight the Mongols was to stay together!

They were not perfect:

  • The only defeat in the European/Middle Eastern region came in 1260 at Ain Jalut in Palestine, at the exact same site David had defeated Goliath thousands of years before.
    They were beaten by a Mamluk army from Egypt. The Mamluks were slaves from the Cuman, Alan and Circassian tribes, sold to Egypt by the Mongols after they had been defeated in 1238.
    Mamluks: 120,000 men
    Mongols: 25,000 men
  • The Mongols were not good at sieges – until they got their hands on Chinese engineers, who taught them how to do it. The Mongols then became masters of siege warfare - average time to take a city was than 5-9 days.

  • They used captives from already conquered cities to fill moats, built ramparts and operate siege machines – how many of them would get killed was of no importance, they were conquered and enslaved people who just had been lucky to not be slaugthered right away when the Mongols took their city.
  • They would surround the besieged city with a wooden palisade, which gave them protection against the missiles from the city and against a possible relieving army from the rear; also, it prevented messengers from the city to escape and provisions brought into the city.
But above all, they were masters of psychological warfare:
  • The poor were promised liberation by their agents
  • The rich were promised greater riches and privileges by their agents
  • Rumors were spread about deals of single leaders with the Mongols to drive alliances apart
  • Rumors about the vast numbers of the Mongol army were spread
  • They used terror and cruelty as weapon to win battles and sieges only by reputation

The use of Terror and Cruelty as weapon

  • They put whistles on their arrows – same effect as the German Stuka dive bombers in WWII – to terrorize the enemy, especially the horses

  •  Poisoned the arrows with snake or vegetable poisons, which killed immediately

  •  In 1209 Dschingis Khan besieged a fortress in China. He built a dyke to flood the fortress, but his engineers flooded his own camp instead. The fortress surrendered anyway, because they figured that eventually the Mongols would get it right and by then would be very, very angry …

  • In 1220, after the siege of Bukhara in Uzbekistan, they poured molten Gold down the throat of the Governor. Reason: He had killed Mongol merchants, who he accused of spying to rob them. The Mongols apparently thought, if he wants our gold, he shall get it...

  • 1221 in Merv (Persia), they slaughtered 700,000 people. Only the useful, like engineers, doctors, artisans, were spared and enslaved. Not even dogs were left alive.
    Reason: Revenge for the death of Toguchar, a son-in-law of Dschingis Kahn, during the siege.

  • After the Battle of Kalka River in 1223 against the Russian principalities, they promised to let the Kiev detachment go for a ransom. The men from Kiev agreed, but were captured instead. Most were slaughtered, the rest enslaved.
    The Mongols then built a large, heavy wooden platform out of logs, on which the Mongol commanders held their victory feast. Beneath the platform they put the leaders of the Kiev detachment, which slowly suffocated during the feast.
    Reason: Revenge for the killing of Mongol ambassadors in Kiev.

  • After they conquered Baghdad, they locked up the Caliph in a tower with all his gold and silver. Why? To punish him, because he had refused to spend his personal wealth on the defense of the city. That insulted the professionalism of the Mongol commanders, who never would have held back anything to achieve victory. Baghdad was looted for seven days during which the Caliph starved to death amongst his riches.
    They slaughtered about 800,000 people in Baghdad.
    After that, Damascus surrendered immediately when the first Mongol patrol was in sight of the city.

  • Fear Factor: In Persia, one Mongol took a man captive but had no sword to kill him. So he ordered the man to lie down on the ground without moving while he would get a sword. The man was so terrified that he actually lay there until the Mongol came back and cut his head off.

  •  In 1237 the city of Riazan in Russia was conquered after a siege of five days. Before the citizens were slaughtered (by impaling and flaying), they were forced to watch how the Mongols raped systematically all young women, including nuns.

  • In 1259, after first swearing fealty to Möngke Khan, then providing soldiers to the Caliph’s army, Prince Kalim Muhammed of Syria was punished: pieces were cut from Kamil’s flesh and forcibly fed to him until he died.

  • The cruelty was calculated and used to spread terror; sometimes it was a punishment, sometimes it was revenge – but it never happened without a reason.

  •  They always left some people alive and set them free, so that the news of the terror would spread - see above, the Damascus example.

Europe’s answer

  • Mongols were known as the “Tartars” in Europe; from Latin Tartarus = Hell; they were first seen as heavenly punishment for the sins of the people. 
  • In 1239, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, received a message from Khan Batu in which he demanded the surrender of the Empire and offered Frederick a position in the Mongol hierarchy.
  • Frederick’s answer: He attacked the Pope. The two mightiest men in Europe, The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and the Pope continued their war against each other regardless of the invasion of Hungary, the battle of Liegnitz and the threat to Europe.
  • It was rumored that the Pope actually encouraged the Mongols to attack his enemy, The Holy German Emperor.
  • Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester: Let us leave these dogs to devour one another that they may all be consumed and perish; and we when we proceed against the enemies of Christ who remain, will slay them and cleanse the face of the earth, so that all the world will be subject to one Catholic Church and there will be one shepherd and one fold.  
  • Duke Frederick of Austria: They are just a horde of nomad raiders.
  • In 1241, when the Mongols invaded Hungary, the Hungarian nobility would only fight, if the King rewarded them with greater powers and more privileges.

  • They finally agreed to ride with the King to meet the Mongols, but the quarreling and bickering amongst them went on. The result: The battle of Mohi ended with 65,000 Hungarians dead.
  • On the same day as the battle of Mohi in Hungary, the battle of Liegnitz (Poland) was fought – 25,000 Polish troops, Teutonic Knights and Templars were killed. The way to the heart of Europe was wide open, and nobody was there to stop them.
  • Europe was saved, not by its knights, but only by the death of the Great Khan ögedei in 1242. The Mongol commanders went back to elect a new Khan and took their armies with them. 
  • In 1260, the European Count Bohemund of Antioch formed an alliance with the Mongol Khan Hülegü and together they planned the recapture of Jerusalem for Christendom. But before that happened, the Great Kahn Möngke died and Hülegü returned to Mongolia. Bohemund was excommunicated by the Pope.

Mongol laws and customs

  • By law forbidden:
    • To cut the throat of an animal killed for food; instead, the belly should be slit open and the heart pulled out
    • Urinating in running water
    • Washing in running water
    • Adultery (death penalty)
    • Cattle theft (death penalty)
    • As a merchant, Bankruptcy for the third time (death penalty)
    • Spying (death penalty)
    • Desertion (death penalty)
    • Theft (death penalty)
  • Every monotheistic religion (Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jews) was tolerated
  • They believed in one God – Tengri; the sky-God, so they tolerated all other monotheistic religions and even converted to them when they felt it would help their cause.
  • Khan could only become who was without physical defect (i.e. only one eye, humpback, missing limbs)
  • The only artisan in the Mongol society was the blacksmith (for weapons, horseshoes etc.)

The Mongol legacy

  • They erected no lasting monuments, no stony witness of their greatness. No pyramids, no cathedrals no mausoleums, no cities, no monuments.
  • They never put their cultural stamp on the conquered lands; instead they incorporated the cultures of their new subjects into their own lifestyle.
  • But: every modern army is modeled after the Mongol army
  • They were the ultimate warriors, the most successful conquerors – but lousy rulers.
  • Chu-Tsai, the Chinese advisor of Dschingis Khan said: The Empire was won on horseback, but it won’t be governed on horseback.  
  • In 1294 the death of the Khan Kublai marked the end of the Mongol Empire. There already was infighting between several factions of the imperial family, which resulted in the weakening of the Empire. The Mongols were either ousted by the conquered population or were absorbed into their civilization. There was never a decisive defeat – they just faded away.
  • In 1241, when the Mongols marched towards Cracow in Poland, a trumpeter sounded the alarm from the highest tower in the city and continued through the storming of the city, until a Mongol arrow struck him down. To this day, every 24th of March, a trumpeter from the Cracow fire department sounds the alarm call from the cathedral tower; he ends it abruptly at the exact time, when the original trumpeter was struck down by the Mongol arrow.

  • All that is left today as the Mongol legacy, is this lingering panic in the collective sub-conciseness of Russians, Persians, Koreans, Chinese and Europeans, this fear the terrible Mongol hordes might come back one day - to finish their conquest.

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