3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
Genghis Khan, the Universal Prince Building an Empire


Ch 5 - Koryo and the Mongols

Masters of Survival

Born of a nation that literally lived on horseback, Genghis Khan's Mongol cavalry excelled in stamina, mobility and striking power. Molded by the barren landscape and fierce climate of the Mongolian steppes, well-armed and self-sufficient, and devoid of ceremony, pretense and "table manners," the Mongol warrior was driven by the conquest and survival.

At the dawn of the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan had created a Mongol nation of armed cavalry such as the world had never seen before nor would ever see again. With bow and sword, Genghis Khan and his Mongol war machine spread across the steppes moving from battle to battle to establish themselves as the unchallenged leaders of the steppes. He sent his armies into neighboring lands to intimidate and subdue any tribes around his borders who did not submit to his authority. Those who could not escape or resist the Khan's onslaught came bearing gifts, announced their loyalty and devotion, and placed their best warriors at his disposal. Warned one nomad who had seen Temujin's army fight, "They pursue men like game....They slay them and take from them everything."

Born of a nation that literally lived on horseback, Genghis Khan's Mongol cavalry excelled in stamina, mobility and striking power. The typical Mongol warrior was a short, stocky, heavy-set fellow with a large round head and a broad face featuring a wide flat nose, prominent cheekbones, and dark almond-shaped eyes. Constant exposure to the sun, wind and frost, gave his skin a swarthy, almost leathery appearance, even though he smeared his face with a protective coating of grease. He wore a fairly bushy mustache, usually shaved his head except for the straight black hair on the sides of his head which he braided and looped up behind his ears. He wore a tunic which was open from top to bottom, folded over the breast, and fastened on the right side. The common tunic was made from a coarse cotton or hemp cloth, stiffened with a glue-like substance to hold its form. A wealthy Mongol might were a tunic made from brocade or velvet.

Mongol warriors wore their trousers tucked into stubby felt or leather boots. Some warriors strapped their trousers at the ankles instead of tucking them into their boots. Over the trousers they wore calf-length surcoats or long robes split at the sides and gathered in at the waist by a girdle.In cold weather he wore a knee-length fur tunic slit in the back. To keep the cold winds out, his sleeves were tightly gathered at the wrist. To complete his outfit, he wore a short fur cape over his shoulders and a fur-lined cap. They never washed their clothes, believing it made the gods angry. They also believed that hanging their clothes out to dry would cause thunder. Anyone who dared wash their clothes was subject to a beating and had their clothes taken from them.

The sparse land and fierce climate of the steppes worked on man and horse and equipment to remove everything nonessential. Unlike the heavily armored knights of Europe, the typical Mongol warrior dressed lightly for combat. The Mongols wore an iron or brass helmet with a leather neck protector. A fur-lined or felt coat worn over a loose-fitting raw silk blouse provided both warmth and freedom of movement. For protection, the Mongols wore either lamellar armor made of four pieces of overlapping plates lacquered to provide protection against humidity or iron-plate armor. The tough silk fabric also had a practical side. Should a warrior be struck by an arrow, the unpierced silk would fold itself around the arrowhead as it penetrated the flesh and the arrow could be removed by gently pulling on the blouse. This was important since the Mongols never abandoned their wounded in battle.

The chief Mongol weapon was the Central Asian composite bow, a superbly deadly device used primarily in a charge and in fighting from the saddle at close quarters. This powerful weapon had a draw that approached 165 pounds. In the hands of a skilled archer, it could reportedly hurl an arrow with deadly accuracy on a flat trajectory at a range of 200 to 300 yards. They also carried a long bow, used for fighting at long range. The sheath for this bow hung from a belt in front of his left thigh. Along with the bow, the typical warrior carried three quivers of about thirty arrows each. Suspended from his belt and hung across the small of his back, each quiver contained different arrows for different ranges and uses. There were armor-penetrating arrows, arrows for use against unprotected troops, and a third type used for arrow grenades and flaming naptha. Elite warriors carried a sword or a light sabre. Some men also carried lances with hooks on the end, which they used to drag a man from his saddle.

The Mongol warrior was always ready for war. He made his own bows and arrows, saddles, bits and stirrups and each man made sure his weapons were repaired and ready for immediate use. He carried no baggage on long campaigns. To support himself in the field, he carried a hatchet, a file for sharpening weapons, an awl, a fishhook and line, needle and thread, a length of rope, and a lasso. He carried two leather flasks to hold milk and water, a small iron cooking pot for cooking meat, and a leather kit bag. Although he generally lived off the land by foraging and hunting, he did carry some food, usually dried milk curds, cheese, qumiss, millet and dried meat. Sometimes he would carry dried blood, which he dissolved in water before drinking Drinking Blood. If he had no cooking pot, he would kill an animal, take out the stomach, clean it, fill it with water and cook it over an open fire. When it was done, he simply ate the meat, "pot" and all. For shelter, he carried a small, one-man, felt "dog tent." The dried milk/blood "iron rations" and the single man "dog tents" were centuries ahead of their time. A Mongol warrior could travel for days with such seemingly meager provisions and not have to divert from his military objective in order to hunt food.

Even the most self-sufficient and well-armed Mongol warrior could not survive for long without his horse. The steppe pony, a short and stocky animal about thirteen to fourteen hands high, was every bit as strong and tough as its rider. With a well-trained horse, the Mongol warrior had a steady platform from which he could fire his arrows, even at a full gallop. Responding instantaneously to foot and leg commands, the horse could quickly turn, race off at full speed and still allow the warrior to turn in his saddle with his hand's free to accurately shoot arrows to the rear at his pursuers.

Some warriors made five-sectioned armor to protect their mounts. Two large panels protected the horse on each side from head to tail, fastened to the saddle, across the neck and just behind the saddle across the back. A third panel, tied to the side panels, stretched over the hindquarters and protected the animals rear with a hole for the tail. The fourth piece, also attached to the two side panels covered the horses breast area. The fifth piece, an iron late to protect the animal's forehead was fastened on each side of the neck.

Mongol horses grazed as they traveled, rooting beneath the snow for mosses, eating lichens and dried grass, even leaves from trees. Mongol horses could travel great distances without tiring. In one case, a single Mongol rider traveled some six hundred miles in just under nine days. Genghis Khan's remount system extended this distance considerably, allowing his army to ride one hundred thirty miles in just two days with no breaks for food.

Aside from their horses and weapons, the Mongol's most valued possessions were their flocks and herds, on which their very lives depended. The wool from sheep and goats was used to make clothing and felt cloth. Animal hides were used for clothing, quivers for arrows, body armor, and tallow for water-proofing leather and felt  Even animal horns and bones were used to make tools and weapons.

The Mongols lived primarily on a diet of meat, millet, cheese and qumiss, a potent liquid created from fermented mare's milk. When hunting was good, they ate the meat of such wild animals as gazelle, wild ass, mountain sheep, fox, and wolf. They also fed on such domestic animals as the ox, horse, dog, sheep, goat and camel If You're Hungry Enough.... Meat was generally cooked in salted water and served in the broth. After a meal, dishes were never washed. When they cooked meat, they just rinsed out the serving bowl using boiling broth from the cook pot and poured the broth back into the cook pot. Mongols never wasted food. If food could not be eaten it was stored in a small bag carried on their belt to be eaten later. They would gnaw on bones and suck out the marrow. Only then would it be given to a dog. After eating, they would wipe their greasy hands on their trousers, the grass, or anything else nearby. Napkins and tablecloths were unknown and unnecessary. The "table manners" of more civilized people were unimportant to the Mongols. All that mattered was survival.

Mongol society was based on a patriarchal family structure, one in which fathers and husbands held a great deal of power and authority. Men built the houses, carts and wagons, tended the camels and horses, milked the mares, and made the animal skin bags used to store qumiss. They shared the job of loading the camels with the women. Everyone tended the goat and sheep herds and took turns milking them. A woman's social position was generally good compared to much of the rest of the world. Women, particularly the wife's or mother's family, were shown a certain degree of respect. She could freely dispose of her property and manage her own affairs. She alone had the responsibility for bringing up the children. Mongol women were also accomplished horse riders and rode just like men. Tying their tunics at the waist with a length of sky-blue silk and binding their breasts with another piece of cloth tied around their chest, some women carried bows and arrows and were known to fight alongside the men.

Genghis Khan gave women new and greater responsibilities, principally in order to release the men for war. They became responsible for literally everything the family owned. Men built the carts and wagons used to carry the family's belongings, tended the horses and camels and milked the mares. In addition to the large four-wheeled wagons upon which the Mongols carried their tents, they also used smaller two-wheeled carts covered with black, waterproof felt to carry family possessions and food. Mongol women loaded and drove the wagons and carts drawn by horses, oxen and camels, and when the family arrived at its destination, they unloaded the carts and wagons as well.

Women milked the cows, made butter and cheese, and boiled sour milk which they then dried and stored. They slit animal tendons into long, thin strands which they then twisted into a single long thread. This thread was then used to sew socks, shoed, boots and other clothing items. Women also made the heavy felt blankets used to cover the large tent houses Mongol Felt Tents. In addition, they had to ensure their husband's war equipment and his sheepskin cloak and riding boots with their felt overshoes were always ready for use. They also had to ensure their husband's saddle bags were filled with food rations.

Building on the foundation set in place long before he was elected Genghis Khan, Temujin organized an army without equal. All able-bodied men between 14 and 60 years of age were liable for military service. He expanded his original night and day guard units from 80 and 70 men each to 1,000 men each. In time, they were further expanded to 10,000 men and combined as the Imperial Guard. From this unit, 1,000 men were selected as Genghis Khan's personal guard and fought only when he went to war. In peacetime, they acted as quartermasters, responsible for such duties as the issue of all weapons, the care of horses, and loading and unloading the palace tents. They also assisted in enforcing the law.

The united Mongol army organized itself along familiar lines using the simple, yet effective decimal system. Ten men formed an arban, the army's smallest unit. Ten arbans formed a single squadron, or jagun. Ten jaguns made up a single regiment, or minghan. Ten minghans made up a single division, or tumen. A typical Mongol Army would contain two or three tumens. Genghis Khan maintained three large armies:  the Jungar, Army of the Left Wing, the Barangar, Army of the Right Wing, and the Khol, Army of the Center. Since no officer ever had to give orders to more than 10 men and every warrior was responsible only to the officer directly above him, order and discipline could be effectively maintained.

Genghis Khan was a practical man who did not like to take action without a good idea of what would happen as a result. He learned not to make military decisions without a great deal of information. Only then would he begin drawing up his battle plans. He employed a network of spies to gather intelligence from travelers, merchants, dissidents, scouts, and anyone else who might have the smallest bit of useful information. Tribes under his rule were under orders to immediately inform him of any remarkable or unusual occurrence. Mongol messengers constantly patrolled the steppes, eagerly seeking out anything that could be reported. From such sources, Genghis Khan learned about mountain passes, river fords, roads, fortresses, towns, cities and military forces they might encounter on a campaign.

Plans for a major military campaign were discussed at a quriltai, where the senior generals discussed such issues as manpower, livestock (at least two to three horses per man), logistics, and which season was best suited for the campaign. After everything had been discussed down to the smallest detail and preparations completed, the campaign commander would conduct a general inspection of his army, including all horses and equipment, to ensure it was up to strength. Only then were marching orders given.

A Mongol military expeditionary force usually entered a country in widely spaced columns. To prevent discovery and surprise attack, large scout groups of up to 200 men each rode two days ahead of and behind the main force. Similar groups covered the left and right flanks. In the area of open field warfare, the Mongols had no equal. When they encountered a large enemy force, hard-riding messengers capable of carrying information across vast distances in an incredibly short period of time alerted the main army. Through a signaling system that used the squadron's black and white battle flags in daylight and lanterns at night, the troops could be rapidly united and deployed with unbelievable speed in relative silence.

In a typical Mongol battle formation, the tulughma, five ranks were spaced at wide intervals, two heavy cavalry ranks in the front and three light cavalry ranks to the rear. The heavy cavalry, comprised of warriors with complete armor protection on both man and horse, was armed with swords, lances with hooks on the ends and maces. The more mobile light cavalry wore no armor and carried bows, javelins and sabers for hand-to-hand fighting.

Once in formation and ready for a fight, the pounding of large war drums carried on the backs of camels signaled the attack. The pounding noise of the drums was quickly overwhelmed by the ferocious screams of charging Mongol horse archers. The battle usually began with the two units of light cavalry sweeping around both ends of the tulughma to harass the enemy flanks as he advanced. Horse archers would ride in, fire a deadly volley of arrows, turn and disappear, then reappear just as suddenly to continue the assault. As the enemy drew closer, the third light cavalry unit charged forward through the heavy cavalry into the front lines to overwhelm the enemy with arrows and javelins. Once the enemy ranks collapsed in disorder, the light cavalry retired back through breaks in the front lines and the heavy cavalry charged in for the kill. Horse archers continued to harass and demoralize the enemy until he finally gave up. Only after wearing down the enemy and his horses by repeated charges did the Mongols ever fight at close quarters.

No Asian army ever equaled the Mongols in mobility, horsemanship or archery. Unquestioned obedience, the ability to endure unspeakable hardships, unbelievable mastery of the bow, and excellent horsemanship made the Mongol warrior superior to his enemy. This well-trained, highly disciplined fighter was treated fairly by his leaders and, by and large, was much better off than soldiers in most armies. The Mongols believed the guardian spirit of the Golden Family resided in the great white standard that led the Army. More importantly, they were convinced of their invincibility and that the Everlasting Blue Sky had sent them to conquer the world. A relentless and bloody march against a succession of empires was about to begin.


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Genghis Khan, the Universal Prince Building an Empire