Genghis Khan established the Mongol nation, conquered most of the known world, and rightfully earned the reputation as one of the great military leaders of all time. Although often called “barbarian,” with a “horde” for an army, Khan achieved his victories through brilliant organization and tactics rather than barbaric behavior
Born into an influential family in central Mongolia along the Onon River in 1167, or as early as 1155, depending on the account, Genghis Khan received the name Temujin in honor of a Tartar enemy his father admired. Then Temujin was nine, rival tribal members killed his father, forcing the family into exile. They barely survived the harsh winter, and their situation became even more tenuous when another tribe raided their camp and took Temujin prisoner, placing a heavy wooden collar around his neck to prevent escape.
The security measures did not prove sufficient. Temujin managed to free himself, return to his tribe, and by his early teens, gain the reputation as a furious warrior. Before he was twenty, Temujin had begun to forge cooperation among the many clans and tribes through diplomacy and marriage to the daughter of a powerful neighbor. While the number of the young leader’s alliances were still small, a rival tribe, the Merkits, raided Temujin’s camp and kidnapped his wife. Temujin increased his efforts to unite neighboring families and within a year defeated the Merkits and rescued his spouse.
Temujin’s success against the Merkits drew other tribes to his side. He attacked and defeated those who opposed him. He then allowed survivors to choose between joining his forces or being put to the sword. By the age of twenty-five, Temujin had systematically united all of the Mongol tribes into a single federation and assumed the title Genghis Khan – variously defined as “universal lord,” “rightful lord,” or “precious lord.”
Khan required each of his federation’s subtribes to maintain a standing force prepared to defend their territory or to assume the offensive. He organized his military on a system of ten – ten men to a squad, ten quads to a company, ten companies to a regiment, and so on, up to “Tumens” of ten thousand men. Khan’s sons and other trusted family and clan members assumed the senior leadership positions and enforced rigid training and discipline. These practices and organization are similar to that of Attila the Hun, of more than seven hundred years earlier. History does not reveal whether Genghis copied any of his predecessor’s ideas or if they were his own innovations. Regardless of their origin, he wisely organized his army to achieve maximum results.
Heavy cavalry warriors, armed with lance and sword and protected by leather helmets and breastplates, made up almost half of Khan’s army. Light cavalry archers, armed with bows and arrows and protected by little more than leather helmets, filled the remaining ranks. All members of the Mongol army were mounted, and the cavalrymen led spare horses that carried sufficient supplies and equipment needed for protracted campaigns. These innovations and adaptations produced an extremely mobile army far superior to any other of its time.
To support his operations, Khan employed an extensive network of spied and scouts who reported enemy strengths and locations. When reconnaissance detected a weakness, Khan massed his force of as many as 250,000 men and attacked, with the heavy cavalry leading the way and the archers supporting from the rear. Columns of horsemen could divide into smaller groups and exploit weaknesses or pass through each other and surround strong points. This bold, rapid offensive is the first example of “blitzkrieg” warfare that would typify combat for centuries.
The Mongol army, however, did not remain static, rather, it constantly evolved as the situation demanded. When Khan faced fortified cities in northern China, he added carious catapults and siege machines that his men could disassemble into sections and carry on pack animals. When needed engineer and medical skills were not available within his own ranks, he conscripted or captured experts from other countries.
Terror, both as a psychological tool and as a characteristic of the warfare of the time, played an important role in Khan’s tactics. His army rarely took prisoners, often butchering civilians as well as soldiers as they captured cities. So fearful did the Mongol reputation become that potential enemies often fled rather than attempt to stand against Khan’s “barbaric hordes.”
Once Khan had eliminated all opposition in his native territory and effectively established the Mongol nation, he looked elsewhere to expand his empire. In 1206 he invaded China and within two tears breached the “Great Wall.” Through systematic offensives, Khan defeated all of China by 1215 and in 1218 added the peninsula of Korea to his empire.
In 1219, in retaliation for the murder of Mongol traders, he turned his army westward against the Turks and soon captured the region that today includes Iraq, Iran, and western Turkestan. Khan then attacked and occupied the area of modern northern India and Pakistan. With the territories to his south and west under his control, Khan invaded Russia in 1222 and occupied lands from the Persian Gulf to the Arctic Ocean.
Although Khan plundered and murdered all across Asia, he did not neglect the people of a defeated country who had managed to survive the initial onslaught. He established viable governments, often with local officials left in charge, and ensured the availability of ample food and security for all as well as allowing prevailing religious observances to continue without persecution. As caring in peace as he was vicious in war, Khan left many of the Mongol-occupied areas and defeated local inhabitants to experience an improvement in their quality of life.
By 1226, Khan ruled an empire that stretched from Poland in the west to Korea in the east and from Vietnam in the south to Russia’s Arctic Ocean shores in the north. Yet it was not complacency that slowed the Mongol leader; it was age. Over sixty and in failing health, Khan attempted to return to Mongolia from a campaign to put down a revolt in China but died during his journey. Shortly before his death, he placed one of his sons in charge of the army and directed his to slaughter the Chinese rebels after their defeat.
Khan’s empire lasted for more than 150 years after his death due to able leadership by his sons and grandsons. Although Russia and China each eventually subjugated parts of his empire, the Mongol nation remained. Within Mongolia today, Khan remains a national hero. Despite interference from the then ruling Soviet Union, his eight hundredth birthday was a day of national celebration. Both within and outside Asia, the name Genghis Khan remains synonymous with world domination and military might. His accomplishments were vast and lasting, and his military skills were superior in every manner. He easily ranks as one of the all-time most influential military leaders in history, eclipsed only by George Washington, Napoleon I, and Alexander the Great.