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Timothy May


Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Mongol empire was the largest the world has ever seen, at least as a contiguous dominion. It stretched from the Sea of Japan in the east to the Mediterranean and the Carpathian mountains in the west. At its peak it had more than a million men under arms. But it did not remain long intact after the death of its founder, Chinggis Khan (Gengis Khan). This book seeks to explain why its armies were so successful and how they functioned.

The first chapter sets the scene with a historical summary, starting with the rise of Chinggis Khan. Under his successor, Mongke, the empire reached its zenith. The Mongols had already conquered northern China ruled by the Jin and now tried to do the same in southern China, ruled by the Song, but the terrain here was more difficult and progress was slow. Meanwhile, in the west, the Mongols under Hulegu were subduing the Middle East. But after Mongke's death civil war ensued in Mongolia and the empire began to break up, the various rulers going their different ways.

The following chapters describe how the Mongol armies were recruited and organised; how the soldiers were trained and equipped; logistics; tactics and strategy; leadership; the Mongols' opponents; Mongol warfare; and the Mongols' legacy. May has a lively style, with plenty of vivid details. At the end of the book one is left with a pretty clear idea of why the Mongols were so successful.

The Mongols relied mainly on light cavalry, avoiding hand-to-hand fighting as much as possible. Their fighting techniques were essentially those that had long been practised in their homeland, such as encirclement and feigned retreats, but these were refined and disciplined by Chinggis Khan. Discipline was strict but democratic: Chinggis Khan would promote an able man over the heads of princes, but he expected unwavering obedience to orders: one general who disobeyed was reduced to the ranks. But initiative was also prized.

The Mongols were adaptable and were quick to incorporate new methods of fighting when they encountered them—including even gunpowder in China. They made use of mercenaries, who were skilled in tackling fortified cities with mines or catapults. But their great advantage was always their mobility, which often enabled them to take their enemies by surprise.

Cities were usually offered the option of surrender, in which case they would not be plundered or their inhabitants slaughtered, but if they later rebelled the Mongols were merciless and killed everyone apart from those they thought might be useful to them. But choosing the right moment to surrender could be critical: if a feudal lord submitted too soon, before his sovereign had been defeated, Chinggis Khan would punish his disloyalty by execution.

May finds that a number of twentieth-century military thinkers were influenced, directly or indirectly, by Mongol ideas. Liddell Hart, the influential British military strategist, acknowledged this explicitly, and the Nazis' use of blitzkrieg was in many respects an adaptation of Mongol strategy.

18 February 2010

%T The Mongol Art of War
%S Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System
%A May, Timothy
%I Pen and Sword Books Ltd
%C Barnsley, South Yorkshire
%D 2007
%G ISBN 978-1-84415-476-0
%P 214pp
%K military history, history
%O illustrated

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