The Mongols: Battlefield Medicine and Gruesome Cures—Part III

Much is known about the ancient Mongol military and their incredible victories on the battlefield, but little is ever discussed about their arms, armor, horses, and logistics. What gear did they use? How did they deal with their wounded? How did they partner with horses to become masters of the steppe?

During the early reign of Genghis Khan, each warrior brought his own equipment. In doing so, each warrior could provide for the arban. While there is no doubt that the Mongols did acquire new equipment in the same way as bandits—from the dead scattered about the field of battle—Genghis Khan still made sure his men were equipped properly.

Illustration of Mongol mounted warriors

Illustration of Mongol mounted warriors (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Arms Manufacturing and Supply: Bandits and Artisans

As the Khan’s territory expanded, the ability to manufacture arms and to supply his men moved into full production. This allowed the armies to procure from the quartermasters. However, there is no doubt that many Mongols still repaired or produced much of their own equipment.

In order to produce large quantities of arms and armor, Genghis Khan made sure that not only did the areas under his control have the ability to manufacture the weapons of war, but also served as depots from which his armies could procure armaments. Genghis Khan would also relocate many of these artisans to be near his encampment to produce the weapons of war and to educate his men. After his death, Mongol rulers would continue to bring in artisans from the conquered regions like Central Asia, Persia, and China. The artisan camps were at Chinqai Balasghun near the Mongol of Karakorum, Besh Baliq in Uighurstan on the northern slopes of Tien Shan, Xinmalin or Simali, north of Beijing and in Hongzhou, 180 km (111.8 miles) west of Beijing. Of the many artisans working for the Mongols, most came from the former Khwarazmian Empire and were assigned to work alongside their Chinese counterparts.

Mongol Horses and Warriors – Successful Partners

The impressive Mongol war machine would have been all for naught had it not been for the horse that transported them to and from the field of battle. The Mongol horse, unlike European and Middle Eastern horses, was smaller in stature but stronger and surpassed all others in endurance. The horse greatly enhanced the ability of the army to reach its objective quickly; speed on the battlefield was crucial in establishing battlefield dominance.

When on campaign, a Mongol warrior would bring with him several remounts. The need for remounts was necessary, for after some time the horse would become tired due to traveling long distances and in battle, the Mongols would execute the caracole tactic (a charging and turning maneuver), thus tiring the horse and requiring the rider to change mounts, allowing the other to rest. Understand that the Mongol army during the time of Genghis Khan could roughly travel 60 miles (96 km) a day, unlike the later Mongol army under the leadership of Hulegu, whose vast army on their way to Baghdad in 1258, appeared more like a traveling city that could only move a few kilometers a day due to its sheer size. Therefore, the need for many horses was crucial to their military endeavors.

A modern Mongolian horse ledger

A modern Mongolian horse ledger (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Maintaining horses on a grand scale was critical to the needs of the Mongols, whether that be for warfare or not since the horse was an integral part of their society. During the time of Genghis Khan the horse became even more crucial to military matters. The entire Mongol population and their property came under the authority of the Great Khan and were subject to all things martial due to many military campaigns the Mongols went on. Because of this, the number of horses needed to supply each warrior is said to have been between five and seven mounts and as high as 30 horses, according to one scholar.

The Mongol horse is roughly fourteen hands high 127cm (50 in) or 4 feet, 8 inches. The type of horse preferred was geldings, a castrated male horse. The Mongols would castrate the male around four years of age, producing a gentler horse for war. Mares were also ridden due to the same benefits that the geldings provided, but mares offered the Mongols another resource on their long trek and that was milk.  Moreover, mares are easier to control than stallions, especially when the mare is in heat. Stallions can be easily distracted when a mare is in heat or simply just present. Using mares then gave the Mongols, among other steppe nomads, a tactical advantage on the battlefield. Therefore, riders of the stallions had to be extra vigilant to restrain their mounts from chasing the mares.

Mongolian horses (CC BY 2.0)

To feed all these animals would have been extraordinary when considering the amount of horses each man took with him on a military campaign. A Mongol army of 60,000 would have been traveling with 300,000 horses. This suggests that each man would have had roughly five mounts at his disposal. Each horse would need 9.33 lbs. of grass (dry weight) per day. Three hundred thousand mounts would need eight square miles to graze. The total amount of food required to feed this army of horses comes to 2.8 million lbs. (dry weight) of grass per day.

Hydration was also crucial, as each Mongol horse would roughly consume five gallons of water a day. Sixty thousand horses would need roughly 1.5 million gallons of water a day, three hundred thousand mounts would need 7.5 million gallons of water a day. Perhaps half of the water needed would have come from the grass they fed on. To ensure that the horses had food, Mongol scouts, far ahead of the main army, searching for suitable grazing grounds that supplied ample food and water, but success depended on the season and climate.

Grass Determined Military Outcomes

The fertile steppe provided the Mongol horses with an abundance of food. This was of strategic importance when it comes to military campaigns. The cornucopia of grass allowed the Mongols to move with ease towards their targets. Once the region in question was conquered, the areas suitable for grazing would be utilized and this provided the Mongols with another base from which to launch future operations against neighboring kingdoms. However, not all regions are favorable for horse grazing, like Syria. Syria did have few areas from which horses could graze, but not enough to support the usual number of horses the Mongols brought with them on campaign. The number of horses the semi-arid Syrian landscape could support was roughly 80,000. Of course, arid regions could not support the massive Mongol army’s four-legged transportation.

Horses on Mongolian grasslands, circled by black kites. (BerndThaller/CC BY 2.0)

While semi-arid provided little, and arid regions provided nothing, areas suitable to supply large numbers of horses also had their problems. The Mongols needed islands of grazing lands to jump from point A to point B. However, getting from point A to B proved difficult at times. When the Mongols invaded Eastern Europe, they were able to confiscate large swaths of land from the Rus until they reached the areas of Poland, Hungary, and Croatia. The Mongol forces defeated the armies of Christendom thrown at them with ease. However, even they understood the difficulty that before them. Conquest of Eastern Europe provided them with spotty grazing lands. Most of Eastern Europe going west was primarily forest, except for one major steppe exclave located mostly in Hungary. The forest, like the jungles of Southeast Asia, refused passage to Mongol forces.

Medicines and Treatment of the Wounded

Besides the shamans brought in to deal with illness, the Mongols also had a rudimentary medical knowledge that was crucial on the steppe. Due to their conquests of China, the Near East, the Steppe, and much of Eastern Europe, they were able to draw medical knowledge from the four corners of their Empire. There is no record of the Mongols having a medical corps, however, it would have been unreasonable to think that the Mongols did not have doctors on hand. There is no doubt that doctors, surgeons, healers, and shamans did travel with this vast juggernaut. But what did these various cultures bring?

Mongol Shaman with drum, Central Asia (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

The nations of Islam provided the Mongols with knowledge of practices going back to the prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher Galen, who lived in the Roman Empire. Practices the Islamic doctors brought to the Mongol camp dealt with injuries such as broken bones, burns, and combat wounds. The Chinese doctors also brought methods as well, including dietary medicine and Tibetan Ayurevdic medical techniques. Like all armies on the move, issues arose such as dysentery, bubonic plague, and lesser illnesses. Herbal treatments could only do so much. When it came to physical pain, Muslim doctors used cauterization and surgery. Once again, there is no evidence that is conclusive to tell how the Mongols felt about medical care.

The Mongol Empire incorporated medical knowledge from the Islamic world. Folio from an Arabic manuscript of Dioscorides, De Materica Medica, 1229 (Public Domain)

In combat, the Mongols like any other force, would remove their wounded from the field of battle to receive medical care. While most of these wounded men were leaders, there is no doubt that the common man who bled was also evacuated from the battlefield to receive medical care. Those waiting to receive the wounded warriors were primarily women, until later one when specialists were recruited. The women who were brought along were probably accustomed to dealing with broken bones and resetting them as a common injury, given that Mongol men, who went through the day-to-day rigors of riding horses, dealing with livestock and breaking in the new horses, would have suffered from a broken bone from time-to-time.

Hulagu and his army. Jami’ al-tawarikh, Rashid al-Din. 1430. (Public Domain)

One technique that seems to have been known by both the battlefield doctors and the warrior is arrow wounds. Genghis Khan early in his life received an arrow wound to the neck during a battle. He tried to patch up the wound to stop the bleeding but had no luck. Once he arrived back at his camp, Jelme, a general and good friend, saw the pain Genghis was in and the blood coming from the wound, and decided to suck the blood out of his neck and spit it out. The reason for doing this was to clear the wound of infection, like many others at the time, knew that such a wound was common and serious. An arrow in the neck could damage any of the major arteries and veins along with the esophagus and trachea.

Wounds are inevitable on the battlefield. The Mongols at war. (Public Domain)

You Thought it Smelled Bad on the Outside?

On a side note concerning Genghis Khan’s wound, it is said that if a patient went into shock, an ox or an animal similar in size, preferably livestock, was killed and the patient would be inserted into the animal. One such case did happen when Guo Baoyu, a general of Genghis Khan, was struck in the chest by an arrow, along with another by the name of Li Ting, who took two bolts from a ballista while attacking the Song city of Shayang in 1274, as well as Muhan, who was shot with three arrows while scaling the walls of Xijing in Xi Xia.  All three men were placed inside an ox after it had been found, killed, and the intestines removed. The patient would be stripped naked and placed inside the carcass for an unknown period. Understand that the person placed into the large animal was arranged in the fetal position. In all three cases, each man recovered from this procedure. Interestingly, Genghis Khan is said to have performed two of these procedures for both Muhan and Guo Baoyu.

Long-haired domestic Yak found throughout central Asia. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Gruesome Animal Cure

The reason for such treatment is that, depending on the size of the wound or where it is located, that determined the size of the animal needed to help repair the wound. If a man received a head wound, a sheep would suffice. Understand that not all cases required a man’s head be inserted into a sheep just as all wounds do not always require an ox.

Mongolian Sheep (RichardGHawley/CC BY-ND 2.0)

In other cases, the Mongol doctors would use the skin of a freshly killed animal to place over the wound for healing. This practice was still being used well into the twentieth century among the Kazakhs for frostbite, and even today, fish skin is still used to help heal burn wounds as reported in December of last year.

To ensure that patients got the most out of such treatment depended on the way the animal was killed. Typically the doctor or the warrior, well versed in steppe medical procedures, would restrain the animal, make a small slit into its skin, just wide enough to fit their hand in the chest to stop the heart by squeezing it or ripping the aorta. Stopping the heart by squeezing was the preferred method to ensure that the blood stayed in the vessels. This was preferred, for once the patient was placed into the body, the blood of the animal would help in coagulating the wounds. Moreover, pressure from the body of the larger animals aided in staunching the wound and preventing the patient from going into shock by forcing blood flow.

Innovation and New Technology through Empire

Overall, the Mongol military from a military viewpoint looks no different from your average steppe nomad during the time. However, what set them apart was the fact that they were willing to adopt new ideas and innovate. Over time, it became easier as their empire expanded and they were able to draw in more peoples with complex technologies. Because of this, the Mongols were able to carve out large swaths of territory due to the technological and logistical innovations they learned from those they conquered.

The siege of Zhongdu (modern Beijing) in 1213–14 (Public Domain)

Many nations who conquer another take their time looking into what made that nation great (if ever taking the time do so at all). Nations like Assyria and Rome come to mind when it came to adopting and innovating new military methods to combat those who were a thorn in their side, much like the Mongols. However, the difference with the Mongols was that they were quick learners and quick conquerors, but in the end, they did not seek ways to effectively govern their large empire efficiently and therefore quickly fell apart.

Top Image: Reenactment of Mongol battle (Public Domain);Deriv

By Cam Rea


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