Genghis  Khan (properly pronounced, “Chinghis”) was one of history’s greatest conquerors. After uniting the nomadic tribes north of the Great Wall, he created the most mobile army the world has ever seen. To this day, no armies have traveled further and faster (on average) than the Mongols. While the travels and conquests of others are measured in miles, those of Genghis Khan and his successors must be calculated by lines of longitude and latitude; spanning the whole of Eurasia.

Though Genghis Khan died in 1227, the juggernaut he created rolled on under his sons and grandsons. In 1230, the Mongol general Chormaqan Noyan invaded Persia. Within a couple of short years, he had smashed all opposition. Operating out of Tabriz in Azerbaijan, he reduced Georgia and Armenia to client-status.


Mongol army on the march

This control of the Caucuses region opened communications with another Mongol army under the Mongol generalissimo, Subutai “the Invincible” and Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan. With 130,000 fast-moving Mongol horsemen, these were given the task of invading Russia; a prelude to the conquest of eastern Europe. In 1236 the Mongol army crossed the Volga, and within a year had crushed the Volga Bulgars; and subdued (and incorporated) the Kipchak and Alani tribes north of the Caucasus, and taken them into their army. Between 1237 and 1238, the Mongol tumans (divisions ordynskiedospeni2zl8hc5of 10,000 men) conquered the Rus principalities of southern Russia. Of the great towns and cities only Smolensk,  Novgorod and Pskov survived sack and slaughter; the former because it submitted to the Mongols and agreed to pay tribute, the latter two because they were two far north, protected by forest and swamp. The nomadic Cumans of the Ukraine (part of the now-destroyed Kipchak Confederation) fled before the Mongol terror; finding refuge across the Carpathian Alps, in the Kingdom of Hungary.

Russia subdued, the Mongols prepared in 1240-41 for the next thrust westward; this time following the Cumans into Hungary. As part of his planned winter campaign (the Mongols preferred to campaign in the dead of winter, when militia armies had disbanded back to their farms and villages; and the great rivers were frozen hard, presenting no barrier),  Subutai and Batu sent a force of two tumans through Poland; to cover their northern flank. This force was led by the Imperial Mongol princes, Baidar, Orda and Kadan; grandsons of Genghis Khan.

1 Mongol and PoleAfter defeating smaller Polish forces at the battles of Tursko and the Chmielnik and burning Kracow; the Mongols engaged the main Polish army, under Duke Henry “the Pious” of Silesia, at Legnica, on April 9, 1241.

Henry’s forces are estimated as high as 25,000 and as low as 2,000. Along with his own Polish forces Henry’s army included small contingents of French Knights Templars (500?) and Hospitallers; as well as a force of Teutonic Knights, who held lands in northern Poland.

In the resulting battle, the Mongols created confusion and covered their movements with a smoke screen; produced by burning reeds. The Mongol light cavalry horse archers (armed with a powerful composite bow) poured arrows into the Polish ranks, goading the never-patient knights into charging them. Feigning flight, the nimble Mongol light horsemen drew the Polish cavalry far from its supporting infantry. The Mongols then surrounded the pursuing knights as their heavy horses tired; and killed their horses with showers of arrows. The dismounted knights were then slaughtered by a charge of Mongol heavy cavalry.

Legnicia 1

Duke Henry, severely wounded in the armpit by an arrow, was surrounded with just four retainers. These were cut down, and the Duke was pulled from his horse and decapitated.

The Polish infantry was then attacked, and broke after attempting to stand.

Duke Henry’s head was displayed on Mongol lance as the invaders advanced, ravaging the countryside. Within days of Duke Henry’s defeat at Legnica, Subutai and Batu Khan engaged and defeated the main Hungarian army at Mohi.

1 mongols Europe

The Mongols were masters of maneuver warfare. Unlike most of the nomadic hordes of Eurasia, they were also accomplished in the art of besieging fortified places; and carried with them a sophisticated siege train. The Feudal armies of Medieval Europe would have had a very hard time resisting Subutai and Batu’s tumans had they continued their offensive. Fortunately for Europe and the future of Western Civilization, the unexpected death of the Great Khan Ögedei (third son of Genghis Khan) in December of 1241 stopped the Mongol advance; as the royal princes and their army had to return to Mongolia to attend the election of his predecessor.


Though the Mongols soon withdrew, Batu established a new Khanate in Russia, centered north of the Caspian Sea: the Golden Horde. It would be many centuries before Russia would free itself from the “Mongol yoke”.

What made the Mongols so devastatingly effective?

Several factors.

First, already mentioned, was their unequalled mobility. An all cavalry army, they were not slowed by infantry or a cumbersome baggage train. Even their siege equipment was broken-down and carried on pack animals. Every Mongol rider led a string of ponies, so that he could switch mounts frequently; keeping the animals from fatiguing. Practically born in the saddle, a Mongol could remain in the saddle for weeks on end if necessary; dismounting briefly only to relieve themselves.

The second factor was the tactics and weapons of the Mongol soldiers. The mix of light cavalry horse-archers (armed with a powerful composite bow) with heavy cavalry lancers was not unique to the Mongols. Every Eurasian steppe nomad army from the ancient Scythians onward were much the same. But as historian John Keegan has noted, it was perhaps the most effective tactical system till the perfection of European musketry and field artillery in the 18th century. Against a heavier foe, they horse archers could maintain their range and weaken the enemy with long-distance archery. Only when a foe was sufficiently weakened and demoralized by archery were the lance-armed heavy horse (which comprised as much as 40% of the Mongol army) unleashed to finish them at close-quarters. As seen at Legnica, they were also adept at the tactic of feigning flight, only to draw an impetuous foe into a prepared ambush.


Third, the Mongols (unlike similar armies of steppe nomads) were skilled at sieging walled places. They could quickly assemble their artillery, dismantled and carried on pack animals; and begin battering walls. When necessary, the Mongols would erect a ramp leading up to the top of the enemy’s walls. When ready, they would the terrible “endless storm” tactic. Day-and-night, working in relays without let, Mongol warriors would assault the enemy position with sword and spear. Often prisoners captured from the local countryside were herded in front of the Mongol attackers; human shields to dampen the defender’s fire, forcing them to kill their own countrymen.

Fourth, the Mongol army was a highly organized structure. Their army was divided into tumans (or toumans) of 10,000 riders; then further subdivided utilizing the decimal system all the way down to squads of 10 men. These combat formations were supported by engineers and medical personnel (recruited from the more educated and urbane subjects of the empire). The whole was commanded by a general staff of sorts provided by the royal family of the Khans, and their trusted lieutenants. Under Genghis Khan and his immediate successors, the veteran Mongol army and its officers were as accomplished at making war as any army in history. Genghis Khan himself and his chief subordinate, Subutai must be ranked among the greatest captains of war in history.

Finally, it was the nature of the Mongols themselves that gave them an advantage. They were incredibly tough, hardy people; raised in a harsh environment (the Siberian steppes) and inured to hardship. They were also disciplined soldiers: the Yasa (the Mongol code of laws established by Genghis Khan) made fleeing in the face of the enemy, or disobeying the orders of a superior officer a capital offense. Even the squad members of a coward could be executed for that single man’s dereliction of duty.

For all their virtues as soldiers, the Mongols were also utterly savage and without remorse. They took brutality and callous disregard for life to a level not seen since the Roman Republic. Resistance or rebellion was met with wholesale slaughter. Terror was a weapon employed to great effect, and such was their reputation that strong places surrendered rather than face the inevitable destruction met out to those who resisted.

In the end, they created a vast empire stretching from the Dnieper River to the Pacific Ocean. However, in their wake they left (literally) pyramids erected with the skulls of their victims.

1 Mongol Empire


For further reading:
The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe//

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  1. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you, Gerald. Hard to deny that warfare is the most significant activity human beings engage in. Compared to war, all other activities pale into insignificance.
      Only love compares as a driving force in human affairs; though on an interpersonal level.

  2. Laurent says:

    re the Templars contingent: their letter to the king of France gave their losses as 3 “brethren” =knights, 2 sergeants and 500 ‘men’. By ‘their men’ they usually meant their dependents, hence here peasants and such that would not have been better armed or trained than the rest of the army’s infantry.
    Even if we understand them as more professional infantry, the numbers clearly tell that the mounted troops were able to escape whereas the foot were slain to a man. If, therefore, there were 500 infantry, I don’t think there could have been more than 200 horsemen – knights and sergeants together – and probably far less if the 500 ‘men’ were all those who could lift a weapon urgently mobilized.

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