Superlatives and Mongols go hand in hand. But did these nomadic forces from the nigh ‘edge of the world’ only depend on brutality and ferocity for their innumerable successes on the medieval battlefields of Asia and Eastern Europe? Well, modern historians and scholar believe there is much more to the subject than just a ‘barbarian’ categorization exaggerated by fear and disgust. As a matter of fact – evidences, sources and their detailed studies have shown that Mongols were master strategists with unmatched tactical acumen and intrinsic discipline. So, without further ado, let us check out fourteen interesting facts about the Mongols that made them stand apart from their foes.
1) A Mongol was trained to ride horses by the age of three –
As a child’s age crossed the threshold of three years, it was his mother’s responsibility to teach him to ride horses. One of the preliminary exercises involved the child to be tied to the horse’s back, so as to prevent any accidental injury – which certainly gives us an indication on how fast the horse was trained to run. After a year or two, the Mongol child was finally presented with his bow and arrow, and his lifelong pursuit as a hunter and a warrior effectively started from that period. In fact, he was expected to join in military campaigns by a very early age. He was also expected to sleep in his saddle when the need arose, thus alluding to stoical hardship of the nomadic equestrian society.
The Mongol’s keen sight had been attested by various then-contemporary sources, with seemingly unbelievable claims. Some of them pertain to how a Mongol can make out an enemy hiding behind the scanty bushes of the wild steppes from a 4-mile distance, while also having the incredible capacity to discern between man and beast from a 18-mile distance. Such apparently exaggerated claims surely had some basis on the strong visual memory exhibited by a regular Mongol warrior. To that end, most soldiers from the Mongol army was required to know his surroundings well that could aid in scouting and foraging. Moreover, he was also expected to have a great deal of knowledge about the local weather conditions, vegetation, grazing lands and most importantly water supply.
In our previous point, we touched upon the Mongol’s capacity for foraging. However, given the daily test of hardships they had to face, a Mongol was also capable of surviving without food rations for days on end. Their military-provided rations were frugal to begin with – with just dried milk curd (that was mixed with water and drank as a thin-watery yogurt), cured meat (which was further tenderized by keeping it under the saddle) and ‘kumis‘ (an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk). But when the rations ran out, the Mongol was not loathe to try other exotic ‘dishes’ that ranged from hunted dogs, wolves to rats and even new-born foals.
Giovanni Da Pian Del Carpini, the Franciscan friar who was sent to the Mongol Empire on a diplomatic mission by Pope Innocent IV, cited that the Mongols also engaged (very rarely) in cannibalism – with one notable incident of siege in which they had to kill one out every ten soldiers for food. Marco Polo additionally claimed that the Mongols could also subsist on the blood of their horses, which was derived by puncturing a vein in the animal’s neck and letting the blood spurt directly into their mouths.
It is unsurprising that the regular Mongol warrior’s main weapon of choice was his compound bow (or more accurately, the ‘composite bow’), which was capable of delivering a pull of 75 kg (or 166 lbs) and had a substantial range of over 250 yards (230 m or 750 ft). Furthermore, Carpini had claimed that the Mongols carried two types of arrows – with the lighter ones used for long range firing and the broader, heavier ones used for close quarter missile attacks. To that end, the arrow heads were manufactured and treated with a special technique in which they were heated till red-hot conditions and then immediately plunged into salted water. This infused them with greater armor piercing quality that was instrumental in dealing with heavier armored foes like the Khwarazmians and the Russians.
5) As opposed to our contemporary notions, in most cases the Mongols were actually outnumbered in battles –
Unbiased studies done in our modern times have shed some new light into the logistical support and mobility of Mongol forces in 13th century AD. Intriguingly, it has also been established that the Mongols were actually outnumbered by their foes in most of the battles they emerged victorious. So, the question naturally arises – why did the Europeans and other powers perceived the Mongol generals to have astronomical hordes of soldiers supporting them? Well, the answer relates to the evolved tactics of the Mongols in the battlefield. To that end, the nomads were known for their far superior mobility and enveloping strategies that allowed them to encircle their enemies from all sides – which fueled the false notion of superior-in-number forces.
Another interesting decoy tactic used by the Mongols entailed positioning stuffed dummies atop horses – an animal resource that was always available to them in great quantity (each Mongol warrior was known to have five to six horses for each campaign). There were cases of elaborate ruse when the generals intentionally surrounded themselves with a bevy of dummy soldiers, thus endowing them with an intimidatory air. And lastly, the Mongol troopers were also known for tying sticks to their horses’ tails that raised enormous dust clouds on their backs, which made the enemies think of huge Mongol reinforcements approaching the battlefield!
For a Mongol force, the war started much before their entry into the battlefield. Sir John Mandeville termed it as the ‘great dread’ – an incredible psychological and spying endeavor that was nigh tailored to perfection. In that regard, the Mongol high command made immaculately detailed plans on how to infiltrate the enemy territory and gather first hand knowledge about their defensive systems, roads, crop lands, water supplies and even grazing lands. Spies were further recruited to plant dissension among the enemy warlords and kings. Propaganda was also used to entice the local population, with the Mongols projecting themselves as potential liberators to the poor people.
However, where the Mongols truly stood apart from their foes was their ‘practical’ approach to cruelty. This essence of ‘shock and awe’ pertained to entire city populations being mercilessly massacred – as the means to an end of psychological dominance. The exaggerated numbers of their army and such ominous words of brutality did rattle many an enemy in face of the Mongol onslaught.
Scholars have not been able to identify the exact Mongol word for ‘soldier’. There is a definitive reason for that, as the entire Mongol society was organized for the purpose of conflict. In essence, every tribal member was considered a part of the military, and the society as a whole was considered as a collective war-machine that functioned in a clock-work fashion during extended campaigns. The Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvaini had summarized the Mongol warrior culture in his account of “The History of The World Conqueror“, that detailed Hulegu Khan’s conquest of Persia –
8) Mongol officers were accountable for their troops’ preparedness –
The Mongol army was always prepared, and the responsibility of collective alertness fell on the officers and the high ranking guards. Historians have studied the various rules of pertaining to such command posts within the army, and one of them pretty much sums up the dedication required from the officer. This particular rule says – the commander of the entire guard unit of a military outpost must himself stand alongside his own soldiers for the night watch. The officers were also expected to inspect each and every soldier’s equipment under his command, and make sure that even their repairing gear (like needle and threads) were in order before a battle. And, while on march, the officer along with the next-in-line soldier were responsible for dismounting and picking up the gear accidentally left off by the preceding troop.
9) Most Mongol shock cavalry forces were required to wear silk shirts beneath their heavy armor –
Among many things the Mongols were not known for their vanity. So the ‘fad’ of wearing a silk shirt beneath the armor was inculcated out of necessity rather than a style statement. Silk is known to have fibers that can potentially cushion the impact of an arrow. More importantly, it was a common medical knowledge that a barbed arrow did more damage went pulled out from the skin, rather than when penetrating the skin during impact. The silk fibers came in handy during such injurious scenarios, because they twisted along the pierced arrow point – which made the act of pulling out the arrow much safer and clean.
10) The Mongols were experts in designing and carrying pre-fabricated dwellings –
The ger, which is often incorrectly termed as the yurt, can easily be counted among one of the most practical pre-fabricated abodes that is still in usage. Basically a circular-shaped habitat that is built upon a framework of wood covered snugly in insulating pelts, the protective structure was kept in place with the help of sturdy pegged ropes. Interestingly enough, an open-air recess is kept at the top apex-point of the circle for smoke release, while every entrance doorway faces south (which was considered sacred by the Mongols, so much so that anyone found blocking the doorway could have been sentenced to death). Even on the inside, the ger was spatially divided into men’s quarter, women’s quarter and a separate elder’s quarter – thus alluding to spatial efficiency and defined user circulation. And, in tune with the Mongol’s aptitude for mobility, the entire wooden framework could be folded and carried atop mules for speedy relocation from area to another.
11) Every winter, the Mongols called for a great strategic hunt of animals –
For Mongols, warfare was akin to hunting, and in both cases they were the predators. In that regard, the call up for each winter hunt was viewed as being as serious as the call-to-arms – with the entire endeavor replicating a military campaign. Grand plans were hatched to choose the particular grounds for hunting, and every soldier participating in the complex exercise was given a specific role to fulfill. Oddly enough, the Mongols were forbidden (on pain of death) from harming any of the animals before they were surrounded and gathered in to a cordoned area. Finally, the Great Khan was allowed to make the first kill, after which his generals joined in, and later on the soldiers added to the massacre of wild life – that ranged from wild boars, gazelles to Siberian tigers and wolves. The incredibly vicious exercise was seen as a lesson of fine tactics for the upcoming officers, and as such historians have found similar strategies being implemented in renowned Mongol victories like the battles of Mohi and Leignitz.
12) The Mongols were among the last people to successfully invade Russia during winter –
The Mongols not only dared to invade Russia during the winter season of 1237-38 AD, but were also successful in turning the bitter conditions to their advantage – as opposed to Napoleon’s and Hitler’s forces. And, while it may seem audacious on their part, the momentous decision made at the Kurultaiwas based on the pillars of practicality. To that end, the frozen rivers and lakes allowed crucial junctures of unbroken communication paths for the mobile bodies of troops, while the hardy Mongol pony also had the remarkable capacity to forage in snow. Quite antithetically, the Mongols planned to invade Iraq in the spring of 1258 AD so as to avoid the onslaught of both heat and malaria.
13) The ordinary Mongols soldiers paid their leaders, not the other way around!
In spite of their seeming professionalism in the ‘art of war and destruction’, the Mongols were not paid soldiers. In fact, every Mongol soldier was required to pay his own master or leader from the spoils of war that he had captured during a campaign or military raid. In essence, it was the loot that formed the basis of payment, which was shared among the collective horde, with increasing quantities being allocated to the top level hierarchy of command. The regular Mongol soldiers seemed to prefer this system of loot distribution, as the values of these spoil allocations for rank-and-file warriors were often greater than (theoretically) regular pays of other sedentary armies. Furthermore, the Mongol military structure (especially their officer corps) was based on a merit system – so leaders who showed initiative and braveness on the battlefield were more likely to be showered with precious gifts, grazing lands, horses and even slaves.
14) For Europeans, the Mongols came from ‘hell’
The Mongols were also known as ‘Tartars’ to the Europeans – a term which was most probably derived from the word ‘tātār’, which meant ‘mounted messenger’ in both Turkish and Persian language traditions. However, the inclusion of the extra ‘r’ in the European case was surely an intentional ploy in a bid to invoke the ominous effect of ‘Tartarus’, the Greek equivalent to hell. Actual evidence of such a word play comes from a letter send to St Louis of Frances in 1270 AD, which says –
In the present danger of the Tartars either we shall push them back into the Tartarus whence they are come, or they will bring us all into heaven.
Sources: ‘The Mongols’ by SR Turnbull (Osprey Publishing) / EliLibrary / Washington.Edu