On June 1, 1215, the Mongols made history when they took Beijing. After a long siege, the starved residents surrendered. The emperor had already fled to the south. With that conquest, Genghis Khan (“Sovereign of the Strong”) put Mongolia on the world map. This was a remarkable achievement for a man who had ascended to the throne just nine years earlier. Genghis had never read a book but he was a quick study, a brilliant strategist and thinker, and a man who was not shy of learning operational tactics from his enemies.
Until then, the Mongols had been known in China disparagingly as a largely illiterate and uninformed people, a group of nomadic tribes with virtually no architecture to speak of, living under primitive conditions in a cold and harsh climate of the Steppes of Central Asia. Elsewhere in the world, no one had even heard of them. All of that would change in the two centuries that followed.
Genghis Khan (also known as Temujin) did not stop with the conquest of Beijing. He was possessed with a divine mission to rule the world. In his tenure as emperor of the Mongols, he went on to conquer vast amounts of territory in Asia including Afghanistan, Georgia, Russia, Iraq and northern Persia.
He had also thought of conquering India at one point and had traveled down the Indus but had abandoned the idea in favor of other destinations. India would be conquered three centuries later by one of his direct descendants. In 1526, Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur would defeat Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi at Panipat and establish the Mughal Empire in Delhi.
When Genghis Khan died in his sixties, injured by a bad fall from his horse, his empire stretched from the Pacific to the Black Sea in Europe. His successors expanded his conquest to countries such as Iran and Iraq, which had themselves once been the seat of great empires. Many of these raids were missions of plunder, and took place along the famous Silk Road.
At their peak, the Mongols had established the largest empire the world had ever known, covering 12 million square miles in Asia and Europe. It was larger than the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire and Alexander’s Empire.
History remembers the Mongols as barbarians who looted, plundered and killed mercilessly. While much of that is true, and certainly there is nothing redeeming to say about that despicable aspect of their behavior, students of military history have never stopped seeking out the lessons that their conquests have left behind.
Western historians have often stated that the Mongols defeated their enemies by outnumbering them. This assertion is put to bed in the Encyclopedia of Military History, whose authors, Dupuy and Dupuy, assert that the Mongols won through superior strategy and tactics.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Genghis Khan walked in the footsteps of the Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, who wrote that all warfare is based on deception. Genghis often feigned a retreat, drawing the enemy into a trap. He preferred to attack in the winter when the lakes were frozen and the enemy did not expect an attack. He also preferred to fight on the open plains and in flat countries rather than in mountainous and wooded regions.
Before attacking the enemy, the Mongols asked for surrender and offered peace in return. If the offer was accepted, the population was spared. If it was rejected, and battle was waged, they would invariably win and then carry out a wholesale slaughter of the enemy and enslave the survivors.
They won their battles by relying largely on heavy and light cavalry. The heavy cavalry wore complete armor, usually consisting of leather and a simple casque helmet. The light cavalry wore no armor. Just before battle broke out, they would wear a shirt of raw silk which would trap the enemy’s arrows.
They had mastered the art of using horses in warfare better than anyone else. Each trooper had one or more horses in reserve. Their attacks were carried out with a high degree of mobility, speed and maneuverability, facilitated by a well-organized messenger service. Once the battle had been engaged, they would rely on bows, arrows, javelins and lassos.
Mongol archers could fire faster and more accurately than their enemies. They used arrowheads to pierce armor, to whistle or to light matches for signaling purposes. They had an uncanny ability to fire arrows while riding from horseback. This required great skill not only with the bow but also with the horse. The Mongols resorted to man-to-man fighting only after they had disorganized the ranks of the enemy.
In the beginning, they were unable to capture walled cities. After years of trying and failing, they finally figured out how to lay a siege. Genghis Khan conscripted the best Chinese engineers to create the siege trains, battering rams and catapults. Later on, they added Arab and Persian engineers to their armies, benefiting further from their unique skills. Their engineering corps was at least as efficient as those of Alexander or Caesar.
They also were adept at using spies and propaganda to defeat their enemies. Spies were used to sow dissension in the ranks of the enemy. Scouts were used to study the enemy’s movements.
The authors of the book, Great Commanders, note: “Genghis Khan has to be considered one of the greatest commanders in human history. He built an army, a government, a nation, gave the Mongol nation a written language, a legal system and raised a relatively insignificant steppe tribe into a major world power. To do just one of those things would have made Genghis Khan a noteworthy individual in human history. To do all of them speaks volumes about his brilliance and charisma.”
Liddell Hart, the most cited writer of the 20th century on military strategy, wrote, the Mongols taught a “paralyzing lesson in strategy” to all the countries that opposed them. Hart added: “In scale and in quality, in surprise and in mobility, in their strategic and tactical indirect approach, their campaigns rival or surpass any in history.” He went on to say that the conquests of “Genghis Khan, based on lightning speed, deception and accuracy, set a high bar for commanders that followed,” and were imitated by Napoleon Bonaparte at the fortress of Mantua and by General Heinz Guderian in the Blitzkrieg that he used to conquer Western Europe.
The student of military history would be hard pressed to find higher praise for any general in history.