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  • Darren Lindeman

What made the Mongol warrior's way of war so effective.

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

The Mongolian military during its heyday (around 1200 – 1350) was often considered one of the or if not the greatest fighting force in recorded history. The Mongols achieved an unprecedented pace of territorial expansion peaking around 1280 to encompass all of Eurasia, most of Western Russia, China and Turkey. Territorial expansions, was fueled by effectiveness of the Mongolian army which fought against many regional entities with relatively far larger men at arms. The success factors for the Mongolian hordes are usually attributed to general effectiveness of the Mongolian mounted archers which rode small, stocky horses which could traverse and live in inhospitable environments. There are however also other factors that play a part in the Mongol's combat effectiveness which are more focused on other advantages besides the horse and bow.

The basis of the Mongol's relative strength was effective command and control and soldiering. The definition of command and control is the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated individual over assigned resources in the accomplishment of a common goal. Command and control set of organizational and technical attributes and processes ... [that] employs human, physical, and information resources to solve problems and accomplish missions. Command and control is therefore a military, its general structure for its future human, physical and information resources to achieve any objective. In other words, command and control is just the overall military functioning organization. The Mongols were known to excel in command and control; especially with coordination of forces both tactically and operationally.

The Mongol hordes were well known for their professionalism. Although this implies the skill of an individual soldier, it also implies the tactical aptitude of a fighting formation of men and horses; their awareness of combat procedures, orientation to coordination with each other on the battlefield. The use of feigned retreats, reconnaissance and ambushes meant that the Mongols required a high degree of mobility and also coordination of forces over large distances. The Mongols excelled in the respects of understanding command signals, acting in synchronization and being committed to tactical and operational objectives. These superior command and control procedures thereby enabled the Mongols to conduct risk reward initiatives in battles that more poorly trained forces may not be able to conduct.

Looking back in time, it could be seen in one perspective that the Mongol’s organizational abilities largely had some similarities with that of the Roman military organization and also the Phalanxes during the Greek military hegemony. It was Alexander the Great's father Philip of Macedon who was famous for developing the foundations for professionalism in the Greek social military hierarchy. Back to Medieval Europe, the continent was coming from centuries of being under the ‘dark age’ and therefore military organization may not have necessarily advanced into complex systems of management we see now it modern professional military structures. The largely feudal aspect of medieval armies largely negates the proper command and control structures we see now in single nation state armies.

The idea of a medieval infantrymen, levy or knight would likely remind you of a man holding an axe and fighting in occasional skirmishes and pitched battles.  Pitch battles in Europe are actually relatively rare during the middle ages. Without pitched battles, armies actually confront and fight on a series of smaller scale skirmishes and maneuvers. Controlling large armies for pitched battles therefore did not become such a craft as it is done today, under a strict bureaucracy and well reformed command hierarchy. This brings the role of the medieval infantry men, and what was his actual job. Mongolian soldiers often grew up in harsh living conditions and under the saddle. Their harsh living environment coupled with the need to hunt meant most Mongol horsemen had already an applicable soldiering standard.

In some ways it can be seen that medieval forces were conceptually more akin to paramilitary or localized paramilitary forces we seen in countries around the world. Groups have their own techniques, tactics and procedures and we loyal to the local regent or lord which employed the use of their own local forces. We see that for example when the Mongols invaded the regions and polities of Hungary, Russia and Japan, these countries all exhibit problems of coordinating large national forces comprised with many tens of thousands of men. The lack of command and control and poor soldier standards partly contributed to the polities especially in Europe to become unable to face the Mongolian war strategy. This was explained in the video titled ‘Mongol: Expedition of Subutai and Jebe – Battle for Kalka river'.

In brief when the Mongols began encroaching the region of Kieven Russ the region had at least four major political belligerents, numerous princes and in which strategic and tactical decisions were hampered by internal infighting and general non-conformity. This would lead to great delays in the initial response to the Mongol encroachment. The battle of Kalka river, which was decisively won by the Mongols was partly attributed to the inability of the various princes and their men at arms to be coordinated especially to the Mongol’s advancing momentum in the battle. The use of levy's were also highlighted as a broad weakness of the forces in medieval Europe. If there is one way of describing the difference between European and Mongolian command and control, it is indecisiveness.

Indecisiveness is not only a matter of politics and strategy, but in the actual tactical battle itself. One should also factor in that the European and Eurasian polities often benefit from the advantage on fighting on home soil, which benefits logistic supplies, knowledge of local terrain and concentration of forces with regard to space. This being said the Mongols had been able to defeat the numerically superior Europeans on their own turf in multiple invasions. Besides command and control, the Mongolians had achieved noticeably ability in firepower, mobility, communication (networking), logistics, tactical literacy, reconnaissance and command and control. The broad basis for these combat efficiencies was due to a series of contributing advantages that other polities and organizations did not share in relativity.

One of these are the Mongolian horse. Mongolian horses was small steeds that are easily sustained by essentially anywhere with grass, allowing it to forage in otherwise inhospitable environments. The relatively ease of managing horse breeding and grazing allowed the horses to manage a system of military logistics, ranging from transportation, communication, surveillance, and of course for actual battle. Although the horses pale in size with comparatively larger horses of other regions, the horses and their abundance and ease of sustenance allowed armies to travel 50 kilometers per day, an incredibly astounding figure at the time. A Mongolian soldier may carry upwards of four horses each, meaning an army of ten thousand could carry upwards of forty thousand horses included in the band wagons.

Mongolian communication systems via the use of horse relaying allowed Mongolian generals to communicate and coordinate forces to hundreds of kilometers. With this being said this opens the idea to how the Mongolians coordinated and controlled its forces. It for example used the decimal system to split its forces into easily coordinated groups. Although their system is not much different in theory to other troop(s) coordination system’s such as the one used by the Roman army per say, the highlight of the Mongolian system was the perfectly strict discipline which is established through drilling of commands and also punishment of poor discipline. If a single soldier deserted his unit for example, likely the immediate others would face the death penalty. Besides coordination the Mongols also heavily practiced interchangeability of forces similar to the Romans and other professional historical armies.

The interchangeability aspect enlarges a soldier's individual applicable roles, to expand to a higher level then otherwise capable from a soldier within a weaker interchangeability system. This enables the Mongol soldiers to be able to perform multiple roles in battles and maneuvers and also emphasizes the ability to approach tactical circumstances creatively with more interchangeable choices. This is as opposed to relying on a overly top down managed approached to fighting their enemies, which would be more similar to less cohesive formations. To put it simply this was the Mongol’s version of ‘changing tact’ for their soldiers. This was combined with the Mongolian bow, which greatly improved possibly every soldiers role to archer and infantry instead of separating the two. The Mongolians were master bow men with many having been trained since the youngest of ages because of the harsh living environment. 

Perhaps what would be probably the most under stated or under emphasized Mongolian advantage is the understanding of linear numerical systems. The Mongolian horse back systems was also managed by a system of managing general movement and logistics. This is simply the use of additional, division, multiplication and subtraction on every day operational tasks the Mongols needed to conduct. Although the Mongolians managed a complex logistical system, the theoretical numerical foundations for this is not a mathematically difficult achievement. The logistic and communication organizations and protocols likely would have derived from a linear numerically literate force at many levels to improve overall efficiency of the mobility based communication system. This numeracy would also likely be applied in military strategy and thinking. The famous general Subatai for example is well known in his ability to coordinate forces hundreds of kilometers apart.