The Mongolian invasions of medieval Europe…

“All warfare is based on deception… Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” — from ” The Art of War” by Sun Tzu

  • My editors notes in this article are in (parenthesis). This post is an overview and supplement to my original article which is available by download a little further down this page.

Although Chinghis and Sun Tzu were not contemporaries, much of the opening quote applies to Mongolian warfare, where deception formed a basis of battle strategy, and combined with high levels of discipline, organization and personal strength to make the Mongolian army a fierce force to be reckoned with. The Mongols believed that their Great Khan was directed by God to conquer and rule the world. Resistance to him was resistance to God and punishable by death. Conquest on the scale envisioned by Chinghis¹  needed a high degree of discipline and organization. Their power lay in tribal confederation and non-assimilation of foreign ways. 

The Mongolian Army – Structure

  • Khan / Khagan² – Commander-in-chief.
  • Noyan – The equivalent of prince, serving directly under the khan.
  • Bahadur – The equivalent of knight. The Bahadur served as personal bodyguards to the khan.
  • Yurtchis – Quartermaster of the ordos or camp.
  • The body of the army was made of of units of Tumen, Minghan, Jagun and Arban (which are described in my original article)

The Mongolian Army – Uniforms, Armor and Weapons
White was a sacred color, reserved for the Khan, whose armor and tunic were white or white and gold. He typically rode a white mount. (I hypothesize that white did not become a mourning color in Asia until the disastrous defeat of the Mongolian forces during their failed attempt to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281.) Bahadur wore black armor, a black tunic with red facings, and rode a black horse with a red leather saddle. (The uniforms for all others, as well as the provisions they carried, are described in my article.)

The iron helmet was covered with lacquered leather (I presume to avoid rust) and had a horsetail crest. Rank was denoted by a pair of red ribbons, which hung from the crown and down the back. (It is my believe that the Manchurian hats with their upturned fur brims and ribbons down the back, evolved from Mongolian army caps.)

Mongolian archers wore a stone ring on their right thumb, which they used to release the bowstring (rather than their fingers), which increased the velocity and speed of release of the arrow. Each man carried 2 quivers, which held about 30 arrows each.

The horse was the most prized possession the Mongol owned. Steppe horses were renowned for their courage and endurance. They only needed to be watered once a day, and they could dig for grass under the snow, which eliminated the army’s need to carry feed.

Each warrior had between 3-20 horses, which allowed them to ride non-stop. A Mongolian horseman could string a bow from his saddle, as well as eat and sleep on horseback. Herds of up to 10,000 head accompanied the army and were divided by color, which served as another definition of rank.

The Mongolian Army – Training and Tactics 
The harsh and demanding lifestyle provided Mongolian soldiers with endurance, mobility and other warlike qualities. Mongolians were also very dedicated to their leaders, and were highly disciplined. Their European counterparts however, went to war with little training or discipline, very little experience in fighting as a unit, and as often as not, went to war for profit under the guise of religious crusade. The feudal system allowed men to lead based on their wealth rather than on tactical ability. 

Training for the hulega, or “Great Hunt”, conducted like a campaign and designed to teach discipline, strategy and unity under command.

The most often used method of attack was the tulghma, or “Standard Sweep”, with light cavalry attacking at right angles, and heavy cavalry s charging from the rear.

Another favorite maneuver was the mangudai.A light cavalry of suicide troops charged the enemy, then retreated, leading the enemy into an ambush of heavy cavalry. Units communicated with each other with a variety of signals, including whistling arrows or flags by day, torches at night.

Dispatches were sent via courier, through a pony express system called the Yam. Roads became thoroughfares throughout the Mongolian Empire, with rest stations and fresh horses every 25 miles. This allowed couriers to ride 120 miles a day. Roads also allowed the army to move columns of soldiers at great distances, making simultaneous thrusts, surrounding the enemy, and appearing to be a larger force than they actually were. 

If the Mongolian army was too heavily outnumbered, they would turn aside, putting a day or two’s journey between themselves and the enemy, and then lay waste to whatever was around them, which depleted supplies that would normally have been foraged by the enemy. Mongolian armies might also retreat for 10-12 days, until the opposing army had disbanded, then attack them. Mongolians gained victory by destroying the enemy and progressively dominating the territories of those they conquered. The Mongols were able to do this in Russia by dividing the country and then weakening it.

The artillery stayed behind with the engineers (typically Persians), reserves and remounts. The Mongols learned about siege weapons from either the Chinese or the Persians, and improved upon them when they invaded Iran. Chinese siege engines used by the Mongols are described in my article

Among the Mongolian siege methods was to dam a nearby river and divert its flow to flood a city. The Amo River, used for this purpose, now has a new course from what it had prior to the 13th century.

  • My thanks to the editors of The Elf Hill Times, who first published my article in January, 1998 under the title “The Mongols: Their Attempt at World Domination” which you can download here:
  • This post is updated to include notes from classes I taught in 1998-99 on “Warfare in Medieval Mainland Asia”. This work has been cited in an academic research paper titled “Challenges Facing Mongolia’s Participation in Coalition Military Operations”, written by Lt. Col. Byambasuren Bayarmagnai of the Mongolian Armed Forces, published by the U.S. Army War College in March 2005.

The Mongolian Army – Invasion Timeline and Legacy
1206 – Temujin, after uniting the nomadic tribes of the steppes into the Mongolian Federation of Tribes, is proclaimed khagan, and given the name of Chinghis. He begins a series of foreign conquests the following year.

1207-1210 – Chinghis sends his eldest son Jochi to defeat the Oirat, Buriyat, Turkish Kirghiz and Tumet tribes. The next battle is against the kingdom of Si-hia in the Ordos desert. This is a stronghold of Buddhism and Chinese culture with an army of 150,000. Jochi lays siege until 1210, when the capital city of Chungsing surrenders. —In the meantime, Chinghis takes the kingdom of Karakhitai, of which most subjects are Turks. In 1209 Barchuk, the ruler of the Uighur Turks, joins with Chinghis.

1211-1217 –Jaghatai, Jochi, Ogodei and Chinghis lead three forces totaling 120,000 men across the Gobi Desert against the Chin army of 500,000, and defeat them in 1217. Turkistan is invaded on this campaign and absorbed by Chinghis in 1215.

1219 -1245 are detailed in my original article

1246-1251 –Ogodei’s widow Artedais serves as regent until the new khagan can be elected. Although Ogodei appointed his grandson Kubilai, Artedais succeeds in putting her own son Kuyuk on the throne. However, Kuyuk dies two years later and Mongke, nominated by Batu, becomes khagan in 1251.

In a controversial move, Batu later establishes himself at Sarai (65 miles north of Astrakhan on the lower Volga River) and holds his own khurlitai, where he is proclaimed (or proclaims himself) khagan. Batu breaks allegiance with Karakorum and rules independently as the Great Khan of the Golden Horde (from the Mongol altun ardu). Although Batu’s tribes are mostly Turkish, the official language remains Mongolian, and it remains a province of the Mongol Empire. This is the beginning of the splintering of Chinghis’s empire, and begins the demise of the Mongolians as a coherent ruling force by the 14th century. 

Italian trade settlements at Kaffa, Sudak and Kertch are maintained by Genoese and Venetians. The Mongols take over direct administration in the Ukraine, but allow Russian princes to administer most of the rest of Russia. Tribute takes the form of annual taxes from merchants and farmers, and animals from Russian nomads and cattle breeders. The Mongols interest in land was not political (they did not care who owned it), but rather they viewed land as a source for troops and revenue, assessed through annual censuses which were carried out by the Chinese. Their only political interest was for the Russian nobility to acknowledge their khagan at Karakorum as the Supreme Ruler. Batu’s aim was to keep Russian princes disunited; rivalry was encouraged through the naming of one of the princes as Grand Duke, a title which was revoked and transferred by the ruling Khagan at will. 

1255-1299 –Hulagu, a grandson to Chinghis, conquers Transoxiana, Iran and Iraq and establishes the Iklhan Horde in Iran. Batu dies at old Sarai in 1255, leaving a territory from the upper Ob River to the lower Syr Darya, and from the Caspian coast to the Black Sea. A decline in leadership begins. Berke succeeds him in 1257 and dies in 1266.

Mongke Temur becomes khagan in 1266, but Nogai Noyan is the actual hand of power, and the cause of much infighting among the Mongolian ruling class. Nogai urges the Russian princes to fight against Poland and Lithuania, while he advances on south Poland and Hungary. Mongke Temur dies in 1280 and is succeeded by Tuda Mongke, who later abdicates to Teleboge, who is later seized and given to Tokhtu whom Nogai later proclaims as Khagan. 

Nogai takes dominion in the Crimea, and is later opposed by Tokhtu, who sides against him in a war between Venice and Genoa. Nogai dies in 1299. Kubilai, grandson of Chinghis, conquers China in 1279 and establishes the Yuan Dynasty. Ghazan, great grandson of Hulagu, has become a Muslim and the Ilkhans become the national dynasty of Iran. Ties to the Mongol Khagans to the East dissipate. 

1312-1378 –Tokhtu dies and is succeeded by Ozbeg, who appoints Ivan Kalita of Moscow as Grand Duke. This office remains with the princes of Moscow until the end of Mongol rule in Russia. Ozbeg dies in 1341 and is succeeded by his son Janibeg who dies in 1357, and is in turn succeeded by Beribeg. The Golden Horde loses interest in lands south of the Caucasus. Beribeg is murdered in 1359. Timur becomes a major player and establishes Samarkand as hie capitol in 1335.

The Golden Horde is counter-attacked successfully in 1363 at the battle of Kulikouo by Dmitry Donskoy, Prince of Moscow. This battle is the first major defeat suffered by the Golden Horde.Civil war breaks out between rivals for the khanate and Russian princes attempting to overthrow Moscow. The Lithuanian Grand Dukes extend their power as far as Kiev. The Golden Horde’s territory is divided between the rulers of the Crimea, Astrakhan and Khwarazm. Timur Melik makes himself master of Khwarazm, and helps Tokhtamysh in his possession of Astrakhan and Sarai in 1378.

sees the beginning of the disentegration of the Golden Horde. The remainder of this timeline, running to 1689, is detailed in my original paper.

The Mongolian Legacy The Mongols were the last and most destructive invaders to come from the steppes. Even though Europe was saved from invasion by the deaths of Ogodei and Mansu, the Mongolian campaign had the following far-reaching and negative consequences: 

  • Herring glut – In 1238, the British herring market became glutted when ships from the Baltic didn’t arrive because of preparations they were making against the Mongols. Fifty herrings sold for one shilling. 
  • Genoese monopoly – Subetai signed a treaty with the Genoese, who acted as spies in return for the Mongol destruction of all other trading posts in the Crimea, which gave the Genoese a monopoly there. 
  • Russian economy – Russia suffered a ruined economy and exploited peasantry, as well as self-important and abusive aristocrats. 

However, not all consequences were dire: 

  • Western Europe gained knowledge of Asia and trade routes to China were reopened.
  • China flourished during Kubilai’s reign, since many of the governing officials left court and turned to artistic and scientific pursuits.
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church became self sufficient due to it being isolated from Constantinople and went unchallenged by foreign ideas
  • Novgorod became a center of trade.
  • Russia’s population spread out evenly across the countryside as forests were cut down and agriculture was expanded.

The success of Chinghis lay in the strategies of his general, Subetai, as well as his own skill and organization in battle. The Mongol nation was eventually defeated by their own political infighting, disintegration in their discipline, and their shift from the harshness of nomadic culture, to the soft luxuries of city life. The introduction of firearms to Eastern Europe also played a major role, as they changed the nature of war throughout Europe, and later, the world at large. 


  1. Although there are many spellings of Chinghis Khan, I prefer this more obscure one, which phonetically resembles the name’s meaning, which is “the sound of iron being forged”. 
  2. Under the Mongolian Federation of Tribes, each tribe had a khan, the Mongolian term for chief. Khagan is the Mongolian term for “khan over all khans” or “Great Khan”.
  3. A silk shirt did not pierce when shot, but instead traveled with the arrowhead into the flesh. The Mongols found that pulling the shirt extracted the arrow point, which kept the wound clean since it never came into contact with the metal tip, which in turn lowered a soldier’s risk of infection.
  4. The Secret History of the Mongols, adapted by Paul Kahn, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. 
  5. All sons of Chinghis 
  6. Jebe, also known as Jirghogadai, from the defeated Tayichigud tribe, is one of Chinghis’ four generals.
  7. Subetai, also spelled in some sources as Subedai, was also one of Chinghis’s four generals. 
  8. Batu, son of Jochi and founder of the Golden Horde.Khurlitai, the gathering of all the tribes for the purpose of electing the new khagan. 
  9. By tradition, the wife (khatun) of the deceased khagan ruled as regent until the khurlitai was held. Although this text refers to the next khagan being named (as in the case of Chinghis appointing Ogodei to succeed him) such appointments had to be ratified at the khurlitai before the title was recognized. Being named a successor did not always guarantee the right to rule, if the khurlitai or political intrigue placed someone else as khagan.
  10. Mongke, also spelled Mongge, eldest son of Tolui and fourth khagan of the Mongolian Empire.Ozbeg, nephew to Tokhtu, khan of the Golden Horde, who is also known as Tokhtagha. Ozbeg is Islamic, the Uzbeg tribe is named after him. History of the Mongols by Bertold Spuler, Dorset Press, NY 1988. 
  11. Timur, also known as Tamerlane. 

Additional Sources

  • The Sword and the Scimitar by Ernie Bradford, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Italy 1974
  • The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe by James Chambers, Athenium Press, NY 1979
  • The Horizon History of Russia by Ion Grey, American Heritage Publishers, NY 1970
  • The Travels of Marco Polo, translated by R.E. Latham, Penguin Books, England 1958
  • Silks, Spices and the Empire by Owen and Eleanor Lattimore, Delacortes Press, 1968
  • The Rise of the West by W.H. McNeill, Mentor Books, NY 1965
  • The Mongols by E.D. Philips, Frederick A. Praeger Inc., NY 1969
  • Medieval People by Eileen Powers, Barnes and Noble Books, 1963 
  • Cities of Gods, Isles of Spice by Christine Price, David McKay Co., Inc. NY 1965

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