10 surprising things you should know about the Mongol soldier

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It is no secret that the Mongols at one time controlled the largest continuous land-based empire in history. But beyond what may seem as extraordinary and even ‘barbaric’, there was more to these nomads in terms of sheer organization and evolved tactics. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at ten tremendous facts about the Mongol soldier that made him unique when it came to the contemporary military affairs.

1) The Mongol soldier and Mongol civilian was one and the same –

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There is no separate word for ‘soldier’ in the Mongolian language. This probably stems from the fact that the very civilian framework of a Mongol inside his tribal scope was geared for preparation of war or conflict. Simply put, the techniques used for herding, hunting, migrating, foraging and just ‘surviving’ during times of peace were the same ones used during times of war. The Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvaini had this to say about the dominant Mongol warrior culture (in The History of The World Conqueror, that detailed Hulegu Khan’s conquest of Persia) –

It is an army after the fashion of a peasantry, being liable to all manner of contributions and rendering it without complaint whatever is enjoined upon it…it is also a peasantry in the guise of an army, all of them, great and small, noble and base, in time of battle becoming swordsmen, archers, lancers and advancing in whatever manner the occasion requires.

In other words, the Mongol society didn’t really differentiate between a civilian tribal member and a soldier – he was one and the same. And we stretch this ambit a bit, the Mongol army was the society (or at least a part of it) that had gathered on a war footing. This collective nature of aggression was a hallmark of many nomadic cultures, but the Mongol warriors arguably perfected the scope through their logistical and organizational skills.

2) Qubchur – the payment made in reverse

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Credit: Osprey Publishing

During the time of Genghis Khan, the Mongol soldier was not paid. Rather, he had to make payments (in possible contributions) to their immediate commanders. This sort of ‘reverse’ payment was known as qubchur. Now the contributions in question here probably pertained to the loot that was shared among the soldiers of a battalion, with increased values being allocated among the higher ranking officers. In other words, plunder and booty became the basis of payment (and thus income) among the common Mongol soldiery, at least during the initial phases of their conquests. And more interestingly, it seems that most of these warriors preferred this mode of distribution without fixed income since there was no limit to the booty acquired during particularly successful campaigns over wealthy foes.

3) Mongol Warriors: Responsibilities and punishments  –

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The organizational capability of the army under the Mongol Empire was highly dependent on the discipline and tactical acumen of its officers. Suffice it to say, they had to take greater degrees of responsibility (more so than other contemporary armies) when it came to his immediate troops. For example, by unwritten law, it was the officer who was responsible for every soldier’s kit (that even entailed needles and thread) and preparedness under his command before a battle. And with greater responsibilities came greater punishments. To that end, premature retreat orders in a battlefield often resulted in outright death sentences for the officers and commanders responsible. And since we brought up the ambit of punishment, even the ordinary Mongol soldier was not exactly exempt from rigorous discipline. Desertion, stealing (especially from fellow soldiers) or even falling asleep in sentry duty often resulted in death penalties.

4) Silk shirts to the rescue?

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While this particular topic is debated, it is not unlikely that elite cavalry forces of the Mongol Empire wore silk shirts beneath their armor systems. And the reason went far beyond vanity. This is because, as opposed to popular notions, most of the harm by penetrating arrows was caused when the arrowhead was pulled out of the skin. So a layer of silk might have come in handy when its fibers twisted around the arrowhead, thus protecting (most of) the wound from the penetrative foreign object. Moreover, the Mongols were probably aware of silk’s anti-bacterial property when treated with dyes (or even turmeric). Obviously, this was not because of their perceived knowledge of the germ theory, but rather because of years of experience in warfare and wound treatment.

5) Mongol horse – the unsung hero

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Whenever we imagine the Mongol horde we visualize throngs of horsemen. Well, the reality was not that far from such reveries, since the Mongol soldier/civilian was dependent on his horse from a very early age. On occasions, the Mongol child was even tied to the saddle and raised along with the mount.  As Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, one of the earliest European travelers to the Mongol court in the 13th century, described –

They have such a number of horses and mares that I do not believe there are so many in the rest of the world…the horse the Tartars ride on one day they do not mount again for the next three or four days, consequently they do not mind if they tire them out seeing they have such a great number of such animals.

Other literary evidence suggests that each Mongol soldier probably had five to six mounts available to him (with some numbers even stretching beyond thirteen). Such incredible numbers were further bolstered by the innate level of stamina and hardiness showcased by the Mongol horses, with one medieval writer noting how a single horse could cover 600 miles in just nine days. Suffice it to say, the range could be significantly increased if the horses were cycled by a single rider, thus partly explaining the enhanced mobility of most Mongol armies.

6) Marmots, horse meat, and mare’s milk –

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Marco Polo once commented that the Mongol warriors could supplement themselves with any kind of animal ‘flesh’ while on campaigns, but mostly partook meat, mare’s milk and game animals like Pharaoh’s rats (marmots). Other writers, like William of Rubruck, also talked about how Mongols could subsist on most types of animals in their herd, by naturally drying their meat. Additionally, they also made non-salted butter and curd from cow’s milk which was hardened and then consumed while on campaigns.

But the most probable source of food (when hunting was not possible) must have pertained to the horses themselves. An Armenian prisoner-of-war named Kirakos of Ganja (who was imprisoned by the Mongols) apparently gave a first-hand view of the eating habits of the Mongol warriors – and he said how a single healthy pony could provide daily meat rations for hundred men. Marco Polo also talked about how some Mongol riders practices blood-letting on their horses in possible emergency situations. The horse’s blood could have proved to be nutritious in short spurts during dynamic military campaign situations.

7) Horse archery alone didn’t win battles –

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Illustration by Angus McBride

While a standard Mongol army did field a large number of horse archers, entire battles couldn’t be won by just one tactical arm of the force. In fact, almost equally (if not more) crucial was the heavy cavalry that was tailored to counter-attacking maneuvers. These heavy horsemen were mostly armored in the Asiatic lamellar style where scales of metal (or hardened leather) were sewn together through tiny holes. Sometimes entire coats were reinforced with metallic pieces – and they were possibly worn beneath dedicated armor systems for added protection, thus alluding to super-heavy cavalry units. Similarly, helmets were crafted from larger iron pieces, but they characteristically featured extended neck guards made of metallic bits. And as for arms, most of these heavy horsemen used lances, possibly both in couched and overhead positions.

However, beyond arms and armor, it was the discipline and tactical prowess of a Mongol soldier that set it apart from most contemporary forces. One particular incident epitomizes the Mongol zeal for victory even in conditions that were not conducive to their intrinsic mobility. We are talking about the forests of Burma, where a 12,000 strong Mongol army faced around 2,000 war elephants fielded by the native forces of the Pagan Empire in the late 13th century. According to Marco Polo (who covered the invasion from 1277-83 AD, in his travelogue Il Milione), while the Mongol warriors themselves were undaunted by the prospect of facing these seemingly alien animals, their horses gave way to fear, and thus hesitated to move forward. But the commander was prepared for such an eventuality, and hence he ordered his mounted troops to dismount and tie their horses to the proximate bamboo trees. Finally, most of the Mongol warriors took out their stout composite bows and shot volleys of arrows at the approaching elephants. So what was proceeding to be an easy victory for the Burmese forces, turned into a rout with the penetrating arrows befuddling the giant animals, especially after concentrated volleys that were skillfully managed from the Mongol defensive positions.

8) Advance separately, attack united –

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Once again going back to the popular reverie of Mongol hordes, it is a common misconception that Mongol armies moved at rapid speeds. Yes, without a doubt, the Mongol soldier was more mobile than most of his contemporary foes – but his approach to battle was made with concerted efforts and dedicated plans. Simply put, a rapidly moving Mongol army (across a vast distance) could run the risk of exhausting its troops on the main battlefield. Moreover, there was the crucial consideration of logistics, like feeding their horses when moving cross-country.

So instead the Mongol warriors opted for tactical mobility where different armies were utilized to cover strategic points. And even such maneuvers were planned well ahead by giving each commander precise instructions on which route to take and what time to arrive. And finally, when the armies did cover the distances (in relatively leisurely fashion) and reached the battlefield or siege, they demonstrated their remarkable mobility and speed in countering the foe.

9) Outnumbered yet overwhelming –

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Another common misconception pertaining to the Mongol warriors (and most other nomadic forces) relates to their inflated numbers on a battleground. But unbiased studies have rather proven that the Mongols themselves were actually outnumbered in most of their famous victories, especially on European soil – including the Battle of the Kalka River, Battle of Mohi and even the Battle of Liegnitz. So why did such a misconception arise in the first place? Well, the answer partly relates to the fascinating tactical acumen of the Mongol soldier that preferred versatility and mobility over defensive maneuvers. Such fast battlefield actions and enveloping maneuvers rather befuddled many a European foe, thus giving them a false impression of Mongol numerical superiority.

Moreover, the Mongol warriors themselves were partly responsible for creating an ‘effect’ of numerical superiority. There were occasions when stuffed dummies were mounted atop horses (a resource always available in great quantity to the Mongols) to form a notion of innumerable soldiers in their lithe horses. The Mongol warriors were also known to tie sticks to the horses’ tails that raised enormous dust clouds on their backs, which made the enemies think of huge Mongol reinforcements approaching the battlefield! And finally, the nomads were also known for psychological warfare tactics that entailed the use of harsh and guttural sounds that caught the foes unawares, thus resulting in chaotic disorders among the enemy ranks.

10) The Winter Hunt –

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Like we mentioned before, civilian activities in the Mongol society often mirrored military training. The great Winter Hunt aptly espoused such a warrior culture. To that end, grand plans were made to choose the designating grounds that promised games, and every Mongol soldier participating in the complex ‘maneuver’ 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 forced into a cordoned area. Finally, given the prestige of his title, 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 wildlife – that ranged from wild boars, gazelles to Siberian tigers and wolves. The incredibly vicious exercise was seen as a ‘real-time’ 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.


Sources: EliLibrary / Washington.edu / History / Hexapolis / Columbia.edu

Book References: Mongol Warrior 1200 – 1350 (By Stephen Turnbull) / The History of the Mongol Conquests (By J. J. Saunders) / Daily Life in the Mongol Empire (By George Lane)

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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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