Humble Beginnings — The Mongol Cataclysm

Cataclysm—the upheaval or revolution—literally meaning a sudden flood of water. It was indeed a revolutionary flood that erupted in 12th Century Mongolia and swirled across the known world and beyond for two centuries. Mongolia today is a landlocked country sandwiched between the military-economic powers of Russia and China. In the 12th Century, the land was sparsely dotted with habitation and the leading powers of that age were too far away to influence life in the steppes. The cold treeless plateau was littered here and there with lakes and rivers while stretches of burning desert and thinly forested mountains marked the boundaries with the more civilized regions. Such land could not sustain a settled population and the various tribes moved from place to place with their herds—searching for pasture and game and fighting each other over these scarce resources.

Horses had been the principal vehicles for these battles, and even more for the mobility of the tribes, ever since their domestication thousands of years earlier. From the early centuries of bareback riding, the cavalry had been improved by developments that came about in the steppes or were imitated from inventions in the civilized areas[1]. In this period the steppe cavalry was inferior to its neighbors in the matter of armor—other powers, particularly the Muslim Turks, used expensive chain-mail while the Mongols and allied tribes made do with coats of leather. This leather was stiff and fairly strong—it also had plates of iron sewn in to provide extra protection—but it did not provide the flexibility and freedom of movement that a warrior clad in chain-mail possessed. This freedom of movement was important for soldiers engaged in close combat, which however was a rare part of battles in the steppes, rare even more in hunting.

In the endless open plain big game hunting was necessary to feed many mouths. For these hunts strategies and tactics were evolved that eventually came to be used in war. The Mongols would patiently follow the tracks of wild animals for days together while shooting iron-tipped arrows at long range. On other occasions, a large tribe could encircle animals scattered across several hundred miles of land, then slowly close the trap over the next few days and weeks, and finally hunt them all down. Similar tactics were used in war.

The whole basis of steppe warfare was long-range maneuvering, to tire out the enemy tribe or to ensure that their various units were too far spread out to be effective in pitched battles. The lay of the land was also important—the enemy tribe would ideally have to be stranded on marshy lands or trapped between patches of forest, after which, the attack would be launched. And even then, these pitched battles were not for annihilation. The men, women, and children of the enemy were either absorbed into the victorious tribe or allowed to wander off. In all the thousands of years of such warfare, there were moments, rare moments, when a coalition of tribes was formed, which had the numbers and resources to launch attacks on civilized neighbors.

Such had been the Hiung-nu and Yeuh-chi of the past. At the beginning of the 12th Century too, a coalition of Mongol clans was formed by Khabula Khan of the Borjigin Mongol[2] clan. After Khabula’s death the rule over the coalition passed to his grandson Yesugai—but in 1170 Yesugai Khan was poisoned by enemies of the eastern Tatar tribe. The coalition had already fallen part but even the Borjigin clan was on the point of dispersal because Yesugai had left behind an inexperienced successor—his 13-year-old son, Chingiz[3].

Humble Beginnings

To make matters worse for the orphan Khan, Targoutai of the Tayichud clan had announced that he was now overlord of the Mongol clans. Many Borjigin tribesmen joined the enemy because a strong ruler would better protect their families and herds than a helpless orphan like Chingiz. To confirm his claim Targoutai came hunting for Chingiz. The boy fled but was captured and, after an adventurous escape, lived like a fugitive for some time. After the storm had ebbed he returned to his mother and siblings and very bravely went to the families that had served his father and asked them to pay their annual tax of a horse or an ox to him. In this manner, Chingiz scratched out an existence for his family and followers without approaching other tribes for aid[4].

The Borjigin Mongols were now the weakest tribe in the steppe region, quietly tending their herds and horses in summer, and fighting off robbers and wild animals in winter. But Chingiz, with ingrained patience and quiet determination, was building up his armed strength by befriending capable young men from other tribes. The names of those tribes or clans are not important but the names of these men should be remembered for they were destined to become the divisional commanders of the future Mongol war machine.

  1. Borchu: the first of these friends helped Chingiz in recovering stolen horses from a gang of Tayichud robbers. Borchu went on to command the right-wing of the Mongol army and was given the honor of being seated next to Chingiz in his council. Kassar and Temugu, younger brothers of Chingiz, also displayed their skills in archery and riding while fighting minor skirmishes with robber bands. At the age of 17 their older brother, the Khan, decided to get married[5].

  2. Chepe Noyon: this gallant fighter belonged to the Tayichud clan that was defeated by the Chingiz when he was still a boy. Chepe asked Chingiz for a horse so that he could continue fighting. When this bold request was granted, he skillfully cut his way through the surrounding Mongols and escaped. A few days later the young man returned and offered to join the service of such a chivalrous Khan. For his swiftness and agility, he received the nickname of an arrow (Chepe or Djebe) and later became commander of 10,000 Cavalry (Noyon).

  3. Subotai Bahadur: very different from Chepe in his origin but similar in daring was Subotai. His Uriankhi tribe—herders of reindeer in the far north—had joined the services of Chingiz. In one battle the Khan asked for a warrior to lead the initial assault—the young Subotai stepped forward. Instead of leading any charge he rode alone to the enemy camp, declared himself a fugitive from Chingiz, and convinced them that the Mongols were yet far away. When Chingiz bore down with his horsemen he was stunned to see that the enemy tribe had not even armed in self-defense!

  4. Muqali: Muqali and Bayan were older than Chingiz and the former belonged to the Jurkin clan. Muqali would go on to become the independent military commander of northern China. Of more humble origins were Soo the expert crossbow wielder and Arghun the lute-player—both destined to become divisional commanders of armies that would campaign across thousands of miles of the steppe, mountains, and desert.

  5. Sons: by the time Chingiz began his world conquests he was already in his fifties and was the father of young men like Juchi, Chagatai, Ogtai, and Tuli. His famous grandson Kublai acted as a nominal administrator of the tribal homeland when his elders were away on the conquest of Turan and Iran.

The campaigns of these sons and generals were to come later. For the moment the quiet but steady emergence of the Borjigin Mongols had alarmed their Tayichud enemies. Their leader Targoutai received word that the Mongols were moving from the summer grazing grounds to the area of their winter pasture—this was a golden opportunity to crush forever the growing power of Chingiz! The Mongols would be hampered by their cattle and their families in the slow-moving carts and, if they chose to ride out and fight the Tayichuds, would be overwhelmed by superior numbers.

Chingiz had under his command 13,000 warriors while Targoutai, as befits a leader of confederate tribes, had almost 30,000. Targoutai quickly collected his warriors and galloped across the rolling steppes towards the Mongol caravan winding its way through the hills. The Mongols received word of their approach and quickly armed in self-defense. Chingiz led his warriors to a plain blocked on one side by thick forest—on the other side were placed the Mongol carts with the women and children who were given bows and arrows to shoot down anyone who came close. Into this enclosure of carts were driven the cattle. With his column of warriors, their flanks protected by the trees and the carts, and the hills covering their rear, Chingiz fought the aptly named Battle of the Carts.

Against this superb defensive position, the traditional steppe maneuvers were impossible. Targoutai had wished to overwhelm the smaller Mongol force in the open plain—slightly taken aback at the sight of the defensive formation, but still confident of his superior numbers, he launched the attack. While his heavy cavalry built up momentum for a charge Targoutai sent forward the light archers and spearmen to cover this advance. At the critical moment this cloud of skirmishers fell back and armored horsemen, formed into squadrons of 500 men, charged all along the Mongol front. Chingiz had formed his smaller army into a charging column with heavier squadrons of 1000 men. These cavalry squadrons rammed through the Tayichuds opposite them and began shooting arrows at the lightly armed soldiers in the rear. While the rest of the Tayichuds found their path blocked by the carts, the Mongols who had ridden clear through in a column of steel, drew their swords and turned around their compact squadrons at the stationary enemy, killing off a quarter and scattering the rest!

Credits: As posted on Military History of India blog, by Airavat Singh

Asia in 500, showing the Rouran Khaganate and its neighbors, including the Northern Wei and the Tuyuhun Khanate, all of them were established by Proto-Mongols. The image was created by Thomas Lessman based on the map of Eastern Hemisphere in 500AD

  1. Although this point is controversial, especially concerning the Aryan Theory, there seems to have been simultaneous domestication of animals across different regions. The development of wheels, chariots, and reins took place in civilized areas, while saddles and stirrups were used first among the horse-riding steppe peoples. ↩︎

  2. Mongol is said to be derived from Mangkhol. It was a linguistic group later split into tribes…going further east or west the similarity in languages diminished and the tribes mingled with the neighboring Sinic or Turkic peoples respectively. ↩︎

  3. His birth name was Temujin but since he is known to history by his adopted name Chingiz, this name will be used throughout the article to avoid confusion. And for the same reason the word Mongol will be used throughout for the army of Chingiz even though in this early period his men were only one clan among the Mongol-speakers. ↩︎

  4. In his immortal words, “ to go as a beggar with empty hands is to arouse scorn, not fellowship .” Chingiz was determined to first build-up his strength before he negotiated with other powers. ↩︎

  5. At a young age, Chingiz had expressed an interest in marrying the daughter of a strong chieftain of the Khongiraad tribe, friendly to his father. But all this while Chingiz had held off since he did not have the resources to start a family. ↩︎