The Mongol Military – Part II


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. How did he do it?

[Read Part 1]

Military Organization

Mongol military organization based on decimal lines under Genghis Khan was nothing new. Other steppe peoples, like the Khitan and Jurched had been using the same system for many years beforehand. Genghis Khan was introduced to this military system during his time with Ong Khan. The system introduced by Genghis Khan to the Mongols was structured as arban, jagun, minqan, and tumen.

Mongol military leadership started with the arban at the bottom of the chain. Every Mongol warrior belonged to an arban. An arban consisted of 10 men with one being the commander. Ten arbans equaled one jagun (plural jaghut) consisting of 100 men. Ten jagunt consisted of 1000 men and formed a minqan(plural minqat). Ten minqat formed one tumen (plural tumet) consisting of 10,000 men.

10 men = 1 arban

100 men = 1 jagun

1000 men = 1 minqan

10000 men = 1 tumen

100000 men = 1 Tuc

The military organizational structure was divided into three corps that consisted of the baraghun ghar (right flank), je’un ghar (left flank), and tob or gol(center or pivot). To move this large army the command structure of course started with the Great Khan, who issued orders to three commanders in charge of the three tumen. See the figure below.

Chart showing command structure of Mongol leaders.

Chart showing command structure of Mongol leaders.

To break down the chain of command further, Marco Polo provides more detail:

You see, when a Tartar prince goes forth to war, he takes with him, say, one hundred thousand horse. Well, he appoints an officer to every ten men, one to every hundred, one to every thousand, and one to every ten thousand, so that his own orders have to be given to ten persons only, and each of these ten persons has to pass the orders only to other ten, and so on; no one having to give orders to more than ten. And every one in turn is responsible only to the officer immediately over him; and the discipline and order that comes of this method is marvelous, for they are a people very obedient to their chiefs.

Even though Marco Polo wrote this during the time of Kublai Khan, the document indicates that the military organization Genghis Khan had set in place was still in use and relatively unchanged. Furthermore, Marco Polo’s description shows how well organized the Mongol military staff was, and indicates the effectiveness of this system to rapidly relay orders from the top down and information from the bottom up. This allowed swift changes to be made during the thick of battle.

With such a large army on hand, every Mongol preformed certain duties within the camp. Some were in charge of carrying bows and arrows. Others were responsible for the manufacturing of the arrows. Some were responsible for food and drink. Others were responsible for watching over the sheep and horses in the pasturage. Carts were of great importance and men were assigned to prepare, repair, and watch over them. Carrying swords was another duty. Overseeing the domestic staff was another. Lastly, two men would serve as guardians of the assembly. Overall, every Mongol soldier had a duty to perform and most likely rotated out to perform other tasks once or every two weeks. Leaving one Mongol unit for another was unheard of. The Persian historian and bureaucrat Juvayni (1226–1283) noted, “No man may depart to another unit than the hundred, thousand, or ten to which he has been assigned, nor may he seek refuge elsewhere.” The organization of the Mongol support structure looked something like this:

Organization of Mongol support structure.

Organization of Mongol support structure.

Military Training and the Great Hunt

When it came to military training, the Mongols would take part in a great hunt called the Nerge. The Nerge was a way for the Great Khan, starting with Genghis Khan, to see how well his commanders led their men on a hunting expedition and how well the soldiers performed. The Nerge was nothing more than a war game but an important one at that. Genghis Khan and his descendants understood the importance of military exercise.

The Mongols partook in the Nerge every winter. Before winter arrived the Great Khan would send out orders to his commanders to send seven out of ten men with arms to participate in the hunt. Once the men arrived, they would be placed under one of three military wings: the right wing, left wing, or center army. Afterwards the Great Khan would arrive with his huge entourage of ladies, concubines, food and drink.

Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan. (Public Domain)

Once all was ready, they armies pushed ahead slowly forming a large circle. For two to three months, they would slowly push forward, disrupting the habitat before them and causing millions of creatures to rush away from the oncoming line of cavalry. The goal was to make sure that no animal escaped the ring. If any animal were to escape, the commanders, along with the men were severely punished for being irresponsible. Once the ring was tight enough, it was ten miles in circumference.

Afterwards, the Great Khan would enter the circle, which at that time would be teeming with wild animals, and he would pull back his bowstring and fire an arrow at his prey. After the Great Khan had finished, the princes would take their turn and soon after the commanders and the lower ranks. This carnage would go on for several days before a group of old men would come forth and beg the Great Khan to allow the remaining animals to go free to find food and water. As for the dead animals, the Khan’s men would begin gathering the corpses which were counted and each warrior received his share.

While one would think that the Nerge taught little to the Mongol armies since many were already familiar with such training, as it was a part of their culture. But the training was necessary to sharpen the skills of those commanders and their soldiers. Such drills exercised the army as a whole and taught the individual warrior much. Mass training allowed the Mongols practice, horsemanship, strategy, tactics, and communications at a distance, since they used signals to coordinate precise tactical maneuvers with strategic precision. Such actions during the heat of battle, (or even if in a great hunt), allows commanders and lower ranking officers and soldiers, to react to any situation without waiting for orders from above.

Mongol soldiers using bows

Mongol soldiers using bows (Public Domain)

Genghis Khan and his great commanders, like Subutai, educated the officers and the common soldier in the ability to be flexible. With flexibility came the ability to adapt under any condition and once the army, whether on a macro or micro level, became comfortable with their surroundings, that is when the lethality of the army can be coordinated on the intended target.

War Games

Besides the Nerge was the sham-fight. The sham-fight was what we call today war games, where two armies face in a nonlethal contest. Genghis Khan understood that while hunting, cornering, and engaging the animals was one way to train an army, the idea of actual mock combat was another. During the sham-fight, Genghis Khan would have large forces square off against one another. Large Mongol forces, perhaps two tumen, would engage in a ballet of attacking, retreating, and wheeling as a unit. The men partaking in this fight would be close kin to one another and the side that lost felt disgrace. The goal was to see who could out maneuver the other in a series of circumventive moves. Forces from both sides would continue to probe each other’s lines until one side out-flanked or pierced the enemy’s center.

The Mongols at war.

The Mongols at war. (Public Domain)

The sham-fight sharpened the skills and senses of the Mongol officers and the soldiers under their command. Furthermore, it tested the clarity of the crucial bidirectional flow of information during the organized chaos of mock combat. It allowed commanders to reevaluate how fast their units reacted to orders and how their officers and subordinate military units responded.

Mongol War Academy

While the Nerge taught much to all ranks, those who wished to further their understanding in the art of war attended an academy. The Mongol war academy came about due to Genghis Khan’s keen understanding of the ever-changing nature of warfare. This willingness to learn from setbacks and even victory filled a void in an officer’s education. However, this academy did not come until sometime later.

Any officer who desired to lead a Mongol regiment had to attend this academy. The education primarily focused on the art of siege warfare. The reason for making siege warfare the Mongol focus was due to challenge in dealing with the fortified cities throughout northern China.

The officer in question would be trained by Chinese siege experts in how to best approach the walls of the city. These educators would train the officers in the use of large shields that provided suitable protection to the soldiers advancing towards the walls. Once close enough, the officers would be instructed in the deployment and use of storming-ladders and sandbags. When the officer had completed his training, he would take back the knowledge to his men where they would make the devices needed, train with them and store them in special arsenals for future use under the supervision of the officer appointed to provide such crucial support when needed.

While training in siege warfare was a major focus in the Mongol military, the actual experience the officers underwent in scaling fortress walls was valuable in training future officers. Besides siege warfare, the experience the officers faced in battle was also crucial in preparing future officers. The diverse strategies and tactics utilized by their enemies were taught to younger officers. In this way, those future officers would learn how to approach the enemy, how the enemy might approach them, and the best way to counterattack their efforts to defeat them. Such military exercises cultivated the young officer’s mind to help him perform with near precision on the field of battle.

Reconstruction of a Mongol warrior.

Reconstruction of a Mongol warrior. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In conclusion, the Mongol military organization was in many ways ahead of its time. It reminds one the old Roman system and of the more modern armies to come many centuries after the Mongol rampage throughout Eurasia. Overall, Genghis Khan did well in creating and establishing a fighting machine the world has never forgotten, but continues to mesmerize us by its sheer ability to innovate, adapt, and overcome nearly all obstacles thrown its way.

Top Image: Deriv; Illustration of Yesugei, Temujin’s father (CC BY-SA 3.0) and a battle between Mongols and Chinese (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


Thomas J. Craughwell, The Rise and Fall of the Second Largest Empire in History: How Genghis Khan’s Mongols Almost Conquered the World (Beverly, Mass: Fair Winds Press, 2010).

Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).

Timothy May, The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System (Yardley, Penn: Westholme, 2007).

Richard D. McCreight, Mongol Warrior Epic: Masters of Thirteenth Century Maneuver Warfare (Fort Leavenworth, KS: US Army Command and General Staff College 1983).

Marco Polo, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Volume 2 edited and translated by Henry Yule. 3rdedition (London: J. Murray, 1929).

Michael Prawdin, The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1961).

George Vernadsky, A History of Russia, Vol 3 (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 1953).

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