Genghis Khan, founder and emperor of the Mongol Empire rarely needs an introduction, but it is crucial in understanding how he gained his place in history by examining the Mongol military organization he pieced together to become one the world’s greatest fighting machines ever seen.
So how did Genghis Khan take the Mongols and turn them into a fighting machine? It starts with abandonment.
The Abandonment of Temujin and Rise of Genghis
It was through his abandonment that Genghis Khan, whose real name was Temujin, learned quickly whom he could trust and whom he could not. Because of this, he sought to rebuild his family’s status through alliances, and he started with Börte of the Onggirat tribe. At age 16, Temujin rode to the Onggirat tribe to take his wife. After much talk, the marriage took place, and Dei-sechen presented Temujin with a valuable sable coat. After much celebration, Temujin took his sable coat as treasure with which to connect with a more powerful alliance.
After his marriage to Borte, Temujin and his brothers traveled to meet with his father’s blood brother, Tooril Khan, known as Ong Khan, leader of the Kereit people. Ong was a powerful chieftain whose territory expanded from the Onon River across the lands of Mongol to the eastern borders of China. When Temujin arrived and approached Ong, he said, “In earlier days you and my father agreed to swear brotherhood, so you are almost as a father to me.” Then he said, “I have acquired a wife and brought you the emüsgel (new clothing).” Temüjin presented Ong with the sable jacket.
Alliances are crucial for they build a political power base from which one, a weaker host, can create an army due to the trust and stability it can provide. So long as the host remains in good favor with those more powerful, this will allow the weaker host, like Temujin, to further strengthen his political and military might through a series of wars and battles. This shows favor not only to the Khan he serves but those weaker tribes also would find favor in him due to his honor to the khan and showmanship on the field of battle. Because of this, Temujin quickly rose through the political ranks of Mongol society and eventually was titled Genghis Khan.
Mongol cavalry archery from using the Mongol bow. (Public Domain)
With politics comes war. Unlike today, while most politicians talk of war but may not have experienced it or seen one up close and personal, Temujin was baptized in both fields. It during Temujin’s time with Jamuqa from which he learned much. Before Temujin joined and co-ruled with Jamuqa, he understood little in the art of steppe warfare. This is not to say he had no knowledge, but his understanding was rudimentary. Under Jamuqa, Temujin learned much in the art of command and control, tactics and strategy. But more importantly, he was a great organizational leader, unlike Jamuqa. Temujin was not seeking to build his military and political organization based on tribal status but rather on merit (meritocracy). This allowed Temujin to tap into the vast resources of the people who were tired of their overlords on the steppe. One such example was a commoner from the Uriankhai clan by the name of Subutai. It was these qualities from which Temujin would achieve victory, but before that happened he would have to suffer defeat first— as he did at the Battle of Dalan-baljut.
Statue of Boorchi, one of the first and most loyal of Genghis Khan’s friends and allies. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
If one wishes to be a master, he has to have lost first. Temujin understood that defeat could result in victory so long as the loser learned from his mistakes. Moreover, Temujin learned to fight smarter, not harder, to achieve victory. His defeat at Dalan-baljut taught him much, and once Jamuqa, his last great adversary, was dead, he then truly focused without hindrance in turning the united Mongol tribes into a war machine.
A Brief Look at the Mongol Soldier
Before he could even walk, a Mongol boy became one with the horse. As he grew in the saddle, he learned to herd, hunt, and become a warrior. His environment would further harden him as he traversed a complex landscape of mountains, rolling plateaus, deserts, and endured a climate of long, cold winters and short, hot summers. Besides the physical environment, he grew up in a system where individual combat took place to defend one’s honor or to aid his tribe in times of war. A Mongol warrior loved and respected his tribe and family but also lived by the principle of ‘might makes right’.
Once Genghis Khan united these fierce warriors, he organized them into the world’s deadliest fighting force. The Mongol army of the 13th century was highly mobile, capable of traveling thousands of miles, and of living off the land, and they were not hampered by supply trains. The armies of the Khan seemed nearly invincible to their enemies, as neither terrain nor climate appeared to stop their progress. To understand how the Mongols did this one must first look at recruitment.
Not every Mongol male rode off into war, nor did the leadership require the enlistment of every able-bodied male from among the conquered. However, the Mongols had to have a system from which they could acquire the much-needed manpower to refill the empty spots and to add additional troops if need be for larger campaigns. In order to do this the Mongols took a census. What the census provided was the ability to calculate how many people lived within their borders, how much in taxes they could obtain to pay for future military campaigns, the amount of resources available, and the total number of skilled craftsman and technicians on hand.
Information as to the size of the Mongol army in 1209, and before Genghis Khan expanded his borders, is uncertain. The problem stems from how large the Mongol population was during that time. Some have estimated that the population was between 4-500,000, 700,000, and 2.5 million. However, according to a census taken in 1241, the estimated population was 723,910 in Mongolia. The size of the Mongol army according to the Secret History indicates that when Genghis Khan was crowned in 1206, there were 95,000 troops. This may be the only creditable figure for Mongol troop strength according to Timothy May. However, Leo de Hartog suggests that the troop number was roughly 70-80,000 strong, but even he says that, “this is a liberal estimate.”
To fill the ranks, Genghis Khan relied on a registry. This registry kept records on the people, particularly males, assigned to the various Mongol princes and military leaders. When it came to recruitment, the admissible ages were between 15 and 70. A census taken in 1241, 97,575 says troops were ethnic Mongols out of a population of 723,910. This indicates that each Mongol household had 7.4 family members on average.
The recreated interior of an ancient Mongolian ger (also known as a yurt), from Genghis Khan: The Exhibition. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Besides the recruitment of ethnic Mongols, Genghis Khan and future leaders also incorporated conquered armies as their borders expanded. As R.A. Skelton states in Tartar Relation, “Chingis (Genghis) conquered and incorporated his beaten followers in his own army. For he had acquired the invariable habit of conscripting the soldiers of a conquered army into his own, with the object of subduing other countries by virtue of his increased strength, as is clearly evident in his successors, who imitate his wicked cunning.” Those armies brought into the Mongol fold either would fight under their own commanders, like the 10,000 Uighur’s under Baurchuk Art Tekin during Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia, or were divided among the Mongol army to serve under Mongol-appointed officers. With new territories under Mongol control, the Khans realized the additional manpower they could draw from.
After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his son Ogodei Khan expanded Mongol military service by conducting a systematic registration of the non-nomadic population. However, this focused only on Northern China between 1234-1236. Another such census was taken again during the reign of Mongke Khan. Unlike the previous one that focused on a specific region, the Mongke Khan census covered the whole empire starting in 1252. Because of this, the number of men the Mongols could acquire from in 1267 differed, as a household consisting of two or three males provided one soldier, four or five males per household provided two men, while households with six or seven males would provide three men for military service.
Portrait of Ögedei Khan (the 14th century). The Chinese annotation reads: Third son of Genghis Khan, also known as Emperor Qaγan. (Public Domain)
While the Mongols could recruit many from their large population, not all were fit for certain military duties. Take Iran for instance where only one out of ten adult males were drafted for military service. However, they were not assigned to a cavalry unit. This is not to say that Middle Eastern equestrians drafted for service were not suited to serve among the Mongol cavalry ranks. Instead, this focus is primarily on the commoner who was not accustomed to riding. These men were assigned to serve in other military capacities such as garrison duty and as corvée labor. Once they joined their assigned unit, they were disciplined, trained in infantry tactics, and subject to military reviews. Those who were of nomadic stock were absorbed in the Mongol cavalry. Many of the new cavalry recruits were placed in existing units or were added to newly created units with veteran oversight, particularly those units that consisted of men between the ages of 20-30 in 1229. Once assimilated, they would begin military drilling in the arts of horsemanship, archery, unit tactics, strategy, and formations. Such training disciplined the rider in order to mold his physical and mental training.
Drawing of a mobile Mongol soldier with bow and arrow wearing deel, traditional clothing. (Public Domain)
The newly acquired men would also get a haircut to distinguish them from the rest of the population. The Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck describes the haircut of the Mongol soldier:
The men shave the square on the top of their heads and from the front corners of this square they continue the shaving to the temples, passing along both sides of the head. They shave also the temples and the back of the neck to the top of the cervical cavity, and the forehead as far as the crown of the head, on which they leave a tuft of hair which falls down to the eyebrows. They leave the hair on the sides of the head, and with it they make tresses which they plait together to the ear.
Besides hairstyle came benefits for some Mongol and non-Mongols through the registration process. This process ensured that males from the same household would always be enlisted, which in turn created a long line of hereditary military families among the nomadic and sedentary populations. As for the death of soldier on duty, whether it was by accident or disease, it would take up to 100 days until the next able-bodied soldier from the same household was ready to replace the dead soldier. If a soldier died in combat, his family would be exempt for a year from providing another male to the Mongol ranks.
In addition to soldiers, the Mongols also drafted those with expertise to serve in other capacities among the Mongol ranks. Those with skills were often the artisans, engineers, and artillerists who provided the Mongols with abilities they lacked, like the construction and utilization of siege equipment. Artisans also had tasks that were desired outside the court in the military, as in the manufacturing of weapons, arms repair, armor, cooking pots, and other miscellaneous metal items.
With the conscription of many men came desertion. Any man failing to report to their assigned duty station would be executed. The same consequence was upheld for those who deserted their unit. Such penalties kept the draftees in check and kept the ranks of the Mongols satiated.
Top Image: Deriv; Illustration of Yesugei, Temujin’s father (CC BY-SA 3.0) and a painting depicting the Battle of Cheoin (Korea) between Goryeo and Mongol Empire forces in the Korean peninsula in 1232. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Cam Rea
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