The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Genghis Khan, Photo by Francois Phillipe

The Genius of Genghis Khan

So, he comes out of nowhere, and he and his heirs create the largest land empire in history.

It was not inevitable; horse nomads didn’t always win, they usually lost. At one point Temujin (his name, Genghis Khan is a title) chose not to attack the Chinese capital because he just didn’t have the forces.

Temujin was exceptional in many ways, and his life, especially his early life, reads like an adventure novel: He was exiled from his original tribe when his father died, killed his own older brother (ostensibly for hoarding food when the family was hungry), was captured by his enemies and escaped, rescued his kidnapped wife and refused to disavow the child she bore that may not have been his, and rather more. It’s worth reading.

Genghis Khan turned the Mongols into probably the most dominant military in history. They basically didn’t lose battles or wars during his life, and they weren’t defeated straight up until the Mamluks in Egypt, long after his death. The Mamluks did it by copying the Mongols, but it wouldn’t have worked against Temujin’s Mongols (I’ll explain why below).

The Nazis developed blitzkrieg, in part, by examining Mongol campaigns and strategy. The Mongols, in an era with no communication faster than a messenger, were able to coordinate multiple armies advancing hundreds of miles apart, so that they would meet at an agreed place on the same day. Temujin and his generals coordinated armies in a way contemporaries couldn’t. They were also startlingly fast: Mongol armies performed marches in the Russian winter which moved faster than WWII panzer armies over the same terrain.

The Mongols treated war and mass hunts the same: They couldn’t give a damn about glory or honor; they were there to defeat the enemy with the least losses possible, so they would regularly feint, withdraw before attacks while punishing them with bow fire, and so on. They gutted Eastern Europe’s chivalry just this way, and those who think that Europe could have stood up against the Mongols if they hadn’t withdrawn due the Great Khan’s death are simply fooling themselves. They defeated far more unified and dangerous opponents over as bad or worse terrain multiple times; the only terrain that ever stopped the Mongols was the Ocean (although it took them some time to conquer southern China due to terrain.)

Genghis Khan was ruthless. Because the Mongols were few in number, he would either recruit enemies into his ranks, or slaughter them outright. In cities that resisted, all men of fighting age would be rounded up, taken to the next city assault and forced to attack the walls. This is pitiless, to be sure, but the Mongols could not afford to leave populations capable and willing to rise up behind their lines.

When attacking a city, the Mongols generally offered quite generous terms–if the city didn’t resist. If it did, they would often destroy the city entirely. Part of this is because, especially at the beginning, they had almost no siege capability. Sieges took years the Mongols couldn’t afford, so they made surrender very tempting and the cost of resistance terrible.

Resistance in Afghanistan basically ended the Hellenic culture there. (But then, the Afghans killed Temujin’s emissaries when he asked for peaceful trade. Whoops.)

Khan was particularly good at espionage. He protected merchants, made friends with them, and used them as spies. When the Mongols invaded they would know their enemy’s weaknesses, including any vassals who were willing to rebel, any conquered and resentful minorities, and so on, and they used that information, often inspiring uprisings at the same time as their attacks.

All of this is very nice, and important, but the greatest aids to Temujin’s success were two things most people don’t concentrate on amidst all the slaughter, glory and rapine.

Genghis Khan was absolutely brilliant at sizing people up, and he was brilliant at inspiring loyalty.

Khan regularly took people who had been his enemies and made them his most important generals and administrators. None of them betrayed him.

One of the main causes of the Mongols’ later defeats is that after Khan and those who he had directly picked to administer and lead died, the genius was gone. The last truly great general, for example, was Subotai, who (as best I recall) never lost a battle (Subotai lead the attack on Europe).

Khan had genius subordinates, as competent as him or moreso at warfare and far better than him at administrating non-nomads. And they were loyal.

Khan certainly favored his family, but he didn’t do so to the extent of freezing out the truly talented. Competence and success were rewarded, in anyone, including, in notable occasions, in women. Relatedly, Khan, quite unusually for the time, enforced religious equality in his empire.

Once a population was conquered, they were taxed lightly, and the rule of law was enforced. One may quip the Mongols made a desert and called it peace, as with Augustus, but the Pax Mongolica was very real, and allowed travel from Europe all the way to China. The line is that, on Mongol patrolled routes, a virgin with a pot of gold was completely safe–including from the Mongols. You certainly couldn’t say the same virtually anywhere in Europe at the time (probably anywhere, but perhaps there were some small areas which were exceptions).

I bring all this up because Khan, of course, also killed millions and wiped entire cities from the map. The Mongols broke the flower of Muslim civilization, ending their Golden Age. (Anecdote: Upon conquering,  I believe, Baghdad, the Mongols, who had a taboo on spilling royal blood, locked the Caliph in his treasury with his gold to starve, commenting that he should have spent it on armies and defenses. They were not without a rough sense of humor.)

The historians I have read on the period often note that Mongol atrocities weren’t worse than most of the people they fought. Instead, the Mongols were just far more successful (but that doesn’t change the sheer scale of them).

So, why do I bring all this up?

Because Genghis Khan is far removed from our time. We have very few real emotional feelings about him (unless you’re Mongol, and some Chinese are still angry).

Genghis Khan was a great man. I don’t think there’s any reasonable definition of great that doesn’t conflate great with good, a criteria which he does not meet. He was extraordinarily competent, one of the most competent figures we know of in history. He was honorable, keeping his deals. He loved his wife greatly, there is no question of it; the romance and love of Borte and Temujin is one of the great historical romances. He was religiously tolerant in an age of violent religious bigotry.

He also killed millions. Effectively destroyed civilizations. He was evil by any useful definition of evil. He was a great man, an evil man, an honorable man, a man who inspired great dedication and loyalty. He committed fratricide, something his own mother never forgave him for.

Bad man. Competent man. Honorable man. Great leader. Great general (though not the best Mongol general; note that Genghis Khan could secure the loyalty of men who were more competent than him).

I’m going to return to this theme at least one more time. In the meantime, Genghis Khan, great man, world’s greatest conqueror (you can quibble about Alexander, but I give it to Temujin), evil, genocidal bastard. Romantic.

All at the same time.

In the meantime, reading up on the Mongols and Khan is fascinating, can teach you a great deal due to distance, and can be disturbing as well.

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  1. V. Arnold

    The Khan was most certainly not worse than the current president.
    IIRC, the Mongols invented the stirrup; considered one of humans greatest inventions of the time (if not history).
    There is an excellent movie; Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan.
    Nice piece Ian; I’ve had a long fascination with this historical figure; and a degree of admiration.

  2. V. Arnold

    “The Khan was most certainly not worse than the current president.”
    The context of course, is our supposed state of advanced civilisation, not…

  3. Ian Welsh

    China invented the stirrup, which did them much harm and little good. 🙂

  4. V. Arnold

    Yep, I stand corrected.
    The use of paired stirrups is credited to the Chinese Jin Dynasty and came to Europe during the Middle Ages.

  5. markfromireland

    @Ian – I’d agree with you about him being the world’s greatest conqueror and his life does indeed read like a novel, if any of your readers is into historical fiction and hasn’t already read Conn Igulden’s 5-part Conqueror Series I urge them to do so.

    For those looking for a good biography of him I suggest you avoid the English language tranlsation Paul Ratchnevsky’s biography of him “Genghis Khan” published by Blackwell. It’s a not very good translation of the German original “Cinggis-Khan: Sein Leben und Wirken” and for some reason the editors not only chopped out some sections but also decided to include some of notes Ratchnevsky’s in the body of the text and to convert his footnotes to endnotes. There’s masses of ery useful and interesting information in there but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introductory text.

    For an introductory text I suggest that people new to the topic turn instead to Ruth Dunnell’s “Chinggis Khan which is part of the Library of World Biography Series. Chinggis Khan – Ruth W. Dunnell: it’s concise and well-written and far more importantly will help novices establish a mental map of the topic before plunging into more detailed works such as Ratchnevsky’s or Michael Biran’s.

    I disagree with you somewhat on this:

    “they couldn’t give a damn about glory or honor”

    I think it would be far more accurate to say they cared about it a great deal and that they regarded uneccessary defeat as dishonourable?

    Good soldiers care a great deal about honour and a good deal about glory. The honour about which they care the most is that accorded to them by their fellow soldiers while the glory about which they care the most is the respect and admiration accorded them by their fellows. The adulation of civilians comes a very distant second.

  6. markfromireland

    As a PS for when my link-laden comment gets out of moderation the “Secret History” is available free online if you do a little googling.

  7. What a great piece.
    I have always considered Genghis Khan the greatest conqueror and leader in history, up and above other great figures such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and most recently Joseph Stalin.

    I have been lucky enough to visit his mausoleum in Ordos, China. His life is the stuff of legends indeed.

    The world is in dire need of great leaders such as him.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Yes, Mark. Agreed. I was thinking of glory and honor as thought of by European chivalry of the time. Hotheads who charged ahead, wouldn’t obey orders, wanted individual combat even if ordered not to, etc., and a code of honor which was often militarily counter-productive.

    Perhaps the better way of putting it would be that the Mongols were disciplined and brave and didn’t think that their personal courage was impugned by faking a retreat, or even really retreating, or not fighting when the odds didn’t favor fighting. (Which is not to say they wouldn’t fight when outnumbered, they did. But if Genghis or Subotai or the general said not to, they didn’t.)

    Mostly unrelated aside, but interesting in light of women and individual combat, the undefeated Mongol wrestler princess (who did some amazing stuff in battle, too.)

  9. markfromireland

    @Ian – I’d wondered if that was the case – thanks for clarifying.

    I’d forgotten about Khutulun :-).

  10. anon

    Ian perhaps you could suggest a selection of readings on this topic, directing those of us with no knowledge of it, to some good titles..Thanks

  11. Dan carlin’ Hardcore History podcast on him is a fun overview. Plus the first of a multipart series on him. Richard Bulliet also has strong lectures covering the khan and the Mongols online for free.

  12. Claudia Egelhoff

    Another accessible account is “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford, 2004 ISBN 0-609-80964-4

  13. Ché Pasa

    @ V Arnold

    I saw a movie many years ago. I think it was called just “Genghis Khan”, Omar Sharif, James Mason, perfect casting (!?) Anyway, the key takeaway I recall is that the hero was captured and forced to serve as a slave by one of his father’s rivals or allies, and he was subject to the humiliation and abuse typical of Mongol slaves in those days, perhaps even worse, as he was a chieftain’s son. The premise was that his suffering as a slave served as a major motivation for his conquests after his escape from servitude.

    There may have been little else of historical accuracy in that movie, but that part rang true, and I’ve remembered it ever since. There is a lesson there.

  14. markfromireland

    Looking at what’s on my shelves and my notes on them I see I omitted to mention The Mongols – David Morgan it’s not all that long but is packed with information and is particularly helpful in that he puts the Mongol empire in the context of medieval European and Middle Eastern history. There’s also a superb bibliography for those interested in taking it further.

  15. Tom

    Stirrups were invented in India, not China, and appeared in 500 BCE and outside of horse archery they are useless. Its the saddle that keeps you on the horse during a lance charge, stirrups allow you to stand while drawing a bow on horseback and that is all.

    As for Genghis Khan’s successes. He hit the stage at the right time and the right place when all his enemies were fracturing into civil war. Even then the Khwarzemians wrecked three of his Armies and only a power struggle within the Khwarzemian Nobility enabled him to win.

    India under the Delhi Sultanate destroyed every attempt by the Mongols to enter India and even kicked them out of Pakistan. The Southern Song only fell when the Mongols resorted to bribery and just wrecked Mongol Army after Mongol Army before then. Burma and Vietnam sent the Mongols packing. Japan built a better navy.

    The Poles and Hungarian Kings were weak and ineffective leaders, their replacements killed any noble who disobeyed orders and wiped the floor with the Mongols afterwards.

    The Volga-Bulgarians defeated the first two invasions of their lands and only fell when they fought a civil war.

    The Mamluks used completely different tactics from the Mongols, had superior horses and technology and mopped the floor with the Mongols, inflicting lopsided defeats after lopsided defeats while fighting three other wars simultaneously.

    In addition, the cities the Mongols besieged before hitting Europe and the Near East had timber, clay, and earth fortifications, not stone. During the first Hungarian Invasion, all stone castles withstood Mongol siege and were impervious to Chinese Siege Weapons. All castles were relieved when the Mongols called off the attacks. The Klis Fortress for example was a slaughterhouse for the Mongols who besieged it. Also the fortified stone walls of Fehérvár, Veszprém, Tihany, Győr, Pannonhalma, Moson, Sopron, Vasvár, Újhely, Zala, Léka, Pozsony, Nyitra, Komárom, Fülek and Abaújvár withstood sieges and the Mongols could not approach due to heavy crossbow fire.

    Polish Stone Castles and fortified cities likewise successfully repelled Mongol Sieges. St. Andrew’s Church, and Wawell Hill in Kraków resisted all Mongol assaults while the wooden city burned around them.

    In addition Hungary and Poland had few Knights, yet they inflicted lopsided causalities on the Mongols who quickly feared them. If the Holy Roman Empire had entered the conflict, the fight would have swiftly ended in a curbstomp of the Mongols.

    Bela IV was a weak ruler, but he did realize fortresses were the key to beating the Mongols and built lots of them, he also hired more knights and crossbowmen. His successor enforced discipline and killed nobles who questioned him unlike Bela.

    And no the death of Ögedei Khan didn’t save Europe. Batu Khan refused to leave Europe and continued his campaigns, and thus the Kurulatai was delayed five years while Töregene Khatun ruled as regent.

    Finally the Mongols rode grass fed ponies primarily and in a straight up slugging match, they could not compete with grain fed horses which were faster and could carry heavier armor.

    The last Mongol attempt to invade Europe was an utter disaster. The Hungarians and Poles deployed infantry armies and won, despite being outnumbered.

    The Mongol Armies were disciplined and led by disciplined officers. Nothing special about them, but they fell apart quickly once Temujin died as he failed to implement a deep core of professionals to share his vision and produce new leaders and educate them like Rome.

    Also when they ran into equally disciplined armies they got their asses handed to them.

  16. V. Arnold

    Ché Pasa
    No, no; this movie is Chinese and not in English, but has subtitles.
    Sparse and very authentic in feeling.
    It features the Khan’s imprisonment and especially, his just treatment of all people under his command.
    It’s been a while and I just downloaded it again, just now, to watch it anew.
    What I have read about the Khan is accurately portrayed in this movie; IIRC. It also aligns with Ian’s thread here, to a large degree, IIRC.

  17. V. Arnold

    @ Ché Pasa

    Sorry for all the IIRC’s, but the stirrup thingy has brought in a degree of uncertainty re: my memory of things historical…

  18. Ron Showalter


    Good to know that your fetish for tasty strong man tube extends from the present-day – i.e., Trump – well into the past.

    Why toss some delicious strong man tube into the middle of this blog and you can almost heart the thirsty snarling coming from Mark and company as they all fight for a bite. Yikes.

    But tell us, does this fetish include leftist strong men, too?

    Pol Pot’s nuts roasting on an open tongue, that sort of thing?

  19. V. Arnold

    December 8, 2016
    Stirrups were invented in India, not China, and appeared in 500 BCE and outside of horse archery they are useless. Its the saddle that keeps you on the horse during a lance charge, stirrups allow you to stand while drawing a bow on horseback and that is all.
    Obviously you have never ridden a horse; which brings into serious doubt, the rest of your screed…

  20. Ian Welsh

    I was thinking, Jeez, I must have got it ALL wrong.

    So I went checking. Here is the Wikipedia version of the Mongol invasion of Europe.

    It includes the exact same fortifications which were not taken mentioned above, but unless Wikipedia has it all wrong (possible, I suppose), until the death of Ogedei Khan, which is when Batu Khan left, the Mongols were doing very well, thanks.

    In China, the Mongols did sieges for years, when necessary.

    By the time the Mongols got to Egypt, of course, Genghis Khan was dead and had been for a long time. Same with Japan, and the Japanese are not so sanguine that they would have defeated the second invasion fleet, absent the Kamikaze.

    Nothing special and “largest land Empire in history” don’t go together well, though no doubt Genghis did have good conditions.

  21. Ian Welsh

    Ron Showalter.

    You missed the point of the post.

    I am tired of your comments, which have all of two notes. I would appreciate it if you did not comment here again.

  22. Ian Welsh

    Temujin was helped to escape by an old servant, and that servant and his wife, when he came to power, he sought out and treated well for the rest of their lives.

  23. V. Arnold

    Ian Welsh *
    December 8, 2016
    Ron Showalter
    You missed the point of the post.
    I am tired of your comments, which have all of two notes. I would appreciate it if you did not comment here again.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Ian. He’s such a boorish troll…

  24. realitychecker

    Golly gee, and I always thought the movie version which starred John Wayne as Genghis Khan was the authoritative version; now I feel like a progressive who had to witness the Obama years lol. (Oh, wait, I resemble that remark . . .)

    AND, I always assumed that stirrups were invented by a gynecologist; embarrassing to be wrong about that, but at least it proves I’m not a misogynist, doesn’t it?

    Can we be sure stirrups weren’t invented by a very short person?

    How mimsy can a borogove get?

  25. realitychecker

    “Ian Welsh permalink*
    December 8, 2016

    Ron Showalter.

    You missed the point of the post.

    I am tired of your comments, which have all of two notes. I would appreciate it if you did not comment here again.”

    BAD MOVE, Ian; somebody has to empty the spittoon. 🙂

  26. Ché Pasa

    @ V. Arnold
    Ah yes, the memory issue. Damn.

    But I do remember bits and pieces of that old Genghis Khan movie I saw all those years ago, probably in the mid-Sixties some time. It seemed to me that the focus of the picture, and thus the focus of GK’s life and ambition, was justice as he conceived it. Not as we might understand it, but as he did. And perhaps that’s why he’s regarded so highly by admirers despite all that bloody unpleasantness.

    I’ll see if I can find the newer version you mention.

  27. markfromireland

    Where stirrups were invented is controversial. There are (circa 200 bc) representations from sculptures of Sanchi in what is now Madhya Pradesh in Central India but these depict nothing more than a small leather loop into which the rider inserted his big toe to provide a modicul of stability.

    A stirrup along the lines of the early Indian invention would have been completely useless to riders on the central steppes who wore boots and for that reason I think that the Sanchi stirrup was an isolated development. My basis for thinking this is not only that there’s no evidence of the Sanchi stirrup spreading but also because even for Indian barefoot Indian riders it was of very limited utility in terms of stabilisation and completely useless as an aid in mounting.

    There are all sorts of theories about where the Central Asian and Chinese stirrups came one theory is that they were invented by the Sarmatians and rapidly adopted by steppe peoples who saw the advantages they offered not only in terms of speed of mounting but also in terms of how much easier it made shooting the difficult-to-draw bows used by the Mongols and other Asiatic steppe peoples.

    There are Chinese representations of single stirrups (for mounting only) that pre-date the Sarmatian stirrups and the first actual physical stirrup ever discovered which is thought to have dated from the fourth century was discovered in Xianbei in 1974 it consists of wood covered with bronze. A little cast stirrups were widespread throughout China and spread west fairly quickly. To give you an idea of how quickly they spread and how far there are cast stirrups from Sweden which date from the sixth century AD and their widespread adoption counts in large part for the rise of the Swedish Thegns and their domination of the Vendel era. A century later they were common throughout the entirety of the Eurasian land mass.

    Where were they invented? Tom is correct in the narrow sense but the subcontinental toe stirrup is an invention that was confined to one part of the subcontinent and has no connection to the Asian stirrup which is the easily recognisable father of the modern stirrup. As to where the Asian stirrup originated the short answer is that there a lots of theories but nobody actually knows.

  28. markfromireland


    If you haven’t already seen it Bodrov’s film Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan is available in full on YouTube and is an enjoyable enough way of wiling away two hours.

  29. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    @Ron: Now that you’ve been shown the door here, may I suggest:

  30. realitychecker

    @ MFI

    “As to where the Asian stirrup originated the short answer is that there a lots of theories but nobody actually knows.”

    Well, the very shortest people I know of are the African pygmies. Just sayin’ . . . 🙂

  31. wendy davis

    i’m not looking to derail this thread by being totally off-topic, but i wonder what you and your commentariat are thinking about the moves to convince any of the electors in the college to change their votes. the movement seems to be gaining some steam, but so far the only ones who’ve stated publicly that they will are Rs. now one R texican said he’s resigning from the electoral college rather than switch. as far as i’ve seen, the few are claiming they’ll instead vote for ohio gov. john kasich, which would serve to take votes from clinton, of course.

    absurdist (imo) democrat prez candidate-for-fifteen minutes lawrence lessig was recently at DN! and on the WaPo telling folks why it’s a constitutionally legal move (opinions vary, i’m agnostic), and principled due to the popular vote will of the people, etc.

    beyond the possibility that the House would decide in case of a tie, what do you or any of you imagine might ensue if clinton ended up w/ the magic number of delegates?

  32. Peter


    This is certainly OT, WD but it could be viewed as another example of Barbarians at the Gate.

  33. EmilianoZ

    With this post, you’ve just lost your Persian (Iranian) readership. They’re still sore at Genghis. Some historians argue that to this day Iran has not recovered from the Mongol invasion.

  34. Ghostwheel

    And yet, Captain Kirk beat him twice!

  35. markfromireland

    i’m not looking to derail this thread by being totally off-topic

    Says Wendy as she makes a totally off-topic interjection ignoring the fact that there are several threads on the front page for which it would not be totally off-topic.

  36. Peter


    A long while ago I had an instructor named Col. Kahn who we affectionately called Ming the Merciless. He taught us some of the art of ballistic trajectories and how to drop small surprises on far away Mt Bulgaro.

  37. Korea developed the stirrup.

  38. to our off topic friend

    you can understand the immolation that was made to the electoral college, many many days ago.

  39. markfromireland

    @ Stirling S Newberry December 8, 2016

    Korea developed the stirrup.

    No evidence for this whatsoever. There are stirrups dating from the early fifth century found in royal tombs of North Yan which was Chinese not Korean. There are some Koguryeo dynasty stirrups that have a rounded and fairly complex design there are also Silla dynasty stirrups of similar type neither ever spread even within Korean proper and later Korean stirrups are of standard design. The only development away from the standard ring design was not in Korea but in Nara era Japan where an open cup design to prevent a rider who lost his seat or was shot off his horse remaining entangled and being dragged was common.

  40. Tom

    @V. Arnold

    I have ridden horses all my life. I even used Roman Saddles with no stirrups. I have also practiced horse archery with and without stirrups.

    So have re-enactors and historians. Stirrups do not keep you on the horse as they don’t secure you to the back of the horse, the saddle does. What stirrups do is enable you to stand which allows you pull back farther on a bow and lean into it, allowing more energy to build up.

    The saddle allows you to charge with a lance and absorbs the impact of the lance strike. Given armor technology, arrows killed few people in combat, and the famous battles of the 100 years war weren’t decided by longbows but by hammers, axes, and better English Discipline helped by poor weather and restrictive terrain. Who knew launching a cavalry charge on muddy ground against forces arrayed on the high ground is such a bad ideal?

    The Caroline Stage of the War was a decisive French Victory as the French King Charles V and VI didn’t act like morons, carefully chose the terrain of battle, and just wrecked the English despite being outnumbered in every battle with minimal losses against the overhyped longbows.

    Then Charles VI became insane and the Landcastrian Phase started with a string of English Victories till Joan came along.

    Back to the Mongols and primary research, not propaganda spiels.

    We know the Mongols constantly lost as we have plenty of documents that survived and we have weapons and armor recovered. Reconstructing the historical record, the following facts became clear:

    Men-at-Arms (Some of whom were knights) were professional soldiers who could afford armor and a horse. They were disciplined and the majority fought on foot, and were very practical fighters who weren’t above fighting dirty. Knights were a minority of the Men-at-arms and it was a social position, not an indication of one being a soldier.

    The bulk of Armies in the middle ages consisted of militias whose quality varied greatly.

    Arrows were not decisive factors in battles. Modern tests have repeatably shown that even at point blank range, regular flight arrows bounce off chain mail and armor piercing tips make only superficial penetrations and stop once they hit the padded underarmor. That was under optimal conditions without accounting for a shield.

    Cavalry was also not decisive in battles. Horses will not charge solid objects pointing sharp pointy things at them. If Infantry keep up a discipline shield wall or phalanx, cavalry can’t break them. Only when a route begins does the cavalry come into its own as gaps open up for horses to charge through.

    In addition the Mongols actually had poor logistics. Talabuga’s Army starved to death in winter while campaigning in Hungary because again, Mongols couldn’t seize the stone fortifications of Europe where the grain was and thus their usual planning of living off the land backfired.

    In addition the water table of Hungary meant it turned rapidly to mud in winter which limited forage and bogged down Mongol Mobility while the grain fed horses of Europe could move fine and allowed them to catch and destroy considerable portions of the Mongol Forces. In the first invasion of Hungary 80 Stone Castles and Cities held out for 18 months against Mongol Sieges and all were relieved when the Mongols withdrew in the face of an intractable guerrilla campaign. In addition the Mongols spent months trying the cross the Danube and only succeeded when it froze over.

    Also all Mongol raids in Bohemia, Moravia, Bavaria, and Austria were repelled quite handily by the HRE which mobilized its Army at Nuremburg and marched towards Hungary, stopping only when they heard the Mongols were withdrawing.

    Same story in Poland.

    The Mongols simply did not have the means to conquer Europe.

  41. Ultra

    Ugh. It doesn’t surprise me that someone who posts favorable articles about Trump also has a high opinion of Genghis Khan. The latter was a sociopath who caused far more harm in the world than good. Therefore, he was not a great man.

  42. Josh

    I look forward to Tom’s next post, in which he claims that the outcome of the Suez Crisis shows that the British navy of the 1890s was a paper tiger.

  43. markfromireland

    @ Ultra December 9, 2016

    Yet another one with abysmal reading comprehension. “Great” and “good” are not synonyms.

  44. markfromireland

    @ Josh December 9, 2016

    Tom is mostly correct when it comes to the Mongol campaign in Europe – we don’t actually know what would have happened had their campaign continued but the balance of probabilities is that even had they reinforced what was essentially a RIF (which given that they were heavily engaged against the Song is unlikely) that they would not have prevailed in Europe beyond the Hungarian plains.

    The Song incidentally gave the Mongols one hell of run for their money and their defeats of the Mongols at Luzhou, Xiang Fan, Xinyang, Da Ya Zhai, and their success at retaking Kuizhou
    are what make it unlikely that the European expedition would have been reinforced even had Ogedai lived.

    To put this in modern terms there’s a big difference between overrunning a territory and conquering it as your defeated armies in both Vietnam and Irak have learnt to their cost.

  45. markfromireland

    One final point re: Europe. The Mongol army that probed European defenses was most emphatically NOT the same army as that led by Genghis Khan. Genghis rose to his position on sheer ability and had four generals who were at least as brilliant as him and who served him with fanatical devotion. You can’t say the same about Ogedai whose formative years were spent in a royal court. Furthermore the composition of the armies wasn’t the same. Gengis’ armies consisted almost entirely of Mongols whereas by Ogedai’s time the Mongol army was a coalition army and as with all such armies it suffered from weak command and less than optimal organisation. Lastly by Ogedai’s time the Mongols were rich and few things remove the fighting edge from an invading force more than the desire to enjoy the good life back home.

  46. V. Arnold

    @ Tom

    …and appeared in 500 BCE and outside of horse archery they are useless.

    That is what I took issue with and heartily disagree.
    History does not support your assessment of the effectiveness of the long bow against chain-mail.
    In 1066, the English archers with their long bows, defeated their Enemy in the Battle of Hastings.
    I have other quibbles, but this is off topic, so the end.

  47. Ian Welsh

    Very well, I will concede the field. Conquest unlikely, overruning very much the case. 🙂

  48. Tom

    @ V. Arnorld

    Longbows had no practical effect at Hastings. The English were on the high ground and the arrows either bounced off shields or overshot.

    William the Conqueror used feigned retreats to draw portions of the English Shield Wall down hill where he could cut them off and destroy them piecemeal. Even the arrow that killed Harold came well after he lost and hit him in the eye where he was unprotected by armor.

    Body Armor is not useless and the Romans lasted as long as they did because they could consistently armor their soldiers well enough to survive battles.

    Genghis Khan leading an Army against Europe would have made no difference, even the Romans of Caesars time would have defeated him, hell Anthony even wrecked a far more powerful Cavalry Army led by the Parthians than Genghis Khan ever fielded and Attila had far greater siege capabilities and failed against a weakened Roman Empire on its deathbed.

  49. markfromireland


    In 1066, the English archers with their long bows, defeated their Enemy in the Battle of Hastings.

    There’s only one Battle of Hastings that I know of and that would be the Battle of Hastings in which the invading Normans defeated a Saxon defending force. Killed their king and started their conquest of England and Wales.

    And if you’re going to start talking about the English longbow you might like to note that it’s at its most effective en masse and that it was the Norman conquerors who organised the English archers into local levies that could be further organised into larger formations at need.

    If instead of Hastings you were thinking of Agincourt, Crecy or both, both those battles were battles were one side did everything wrong and the other did everything right. To give just one example it’s easy to kill an up-aroured horse because the creature can no longer gallop. All you need to do is to send a few archers in a flanking movement and literally bombard their flanks. A thrown knight if full armour is NOT getting up without assistance and is easy prey for your dagger and hammer men. Killing a dismounted knight or a man at arms trying to go up a muddy and slippery slope is also easy all you have to do is put them off their balance although knocking them over is best putting them off their balance will suffice. Once they’re either down or off balance they are easy prey for your dagger and hammer men.

    To cut a long story short in both those battles the Longbow acted more like a Pilum than anything else and the real slaughter was carried out by the dagger and hammer men, Which is why when you examine French plate armour from those battles very little of it has holes in it. The hammer man would knock over or stun his opponent the dagger man would insert his dagger usually at the neck join but stabbing through the eyeslits was also a very good way of killing an immobilied man wearing armour.

  50. Tom

    @Ian Welsh

    Not even overrun. Once the HRE Army hits the field, its over for the Mongols as it was a crack professional army under Fredrick II who bitchslapped the Pope and made him eat a shit sandwich. He also was a religious skeptic and banned trials by ordeal as utterly irrational garbage. He also thought the whole conflict with Islam was stupid and hired Muslims to fight in his armies and compose his bodyguard.

  51. markfromireland

    @ Ian

    It’s a balance of probabilities thing. I think the balance of probabilities is heavily weighted in favour of them ultimately defeating the Magyars but losing everywhere else. Then again they just didn’t let up so I could be very wrong they weren’t averse to taking a defeat or two in their stride, biding their time and engaging in long long campaigns.

    FOrtunately for Western Europe we’ll never know. I suspect that even defeating them would have so devastated Western Europe that we would only now be beginning to emerge from a centuries long dark age.

  52. markfromireland

    This one could run and run 🙂

  53. zot23

    I’ve surveyed the field, this comment wins:

    “Can we be sure stirrups weren’t invented by a very short person?”

  54. Stormcrow

    You’re wrong about the genesis of the blitzkreig.

    Its evolution has been tracked fairly closely.

    The roots were in “mission orders”, which grew in the fertile intellectual climate fostered by the Prussian General Staff when it was at its height (1860s-1870s).

    Infiltration, deliberately avoiding strongpoints and/or masking them with smoke, with the intent to work back into artillery parks and other rear areas, was pioneered by “Hutier tactics” in the Eastern front of WW I. Bruce Gudmundsson makes a strong case that much of the innovation going on there was “bottom up” rather than “top-down” change.

    Heinz Guderian put on the finishing touches, by coordinating armor/infantry attacks at “critical points” with air support. A classic “blitzkreig” attack began with reconnaissance units which conducted probing attacks to discover weak points that classical battlefield intelligence (captured documents, POWs, listening posts, aerial photography, signals intelligence, etc.) could not uncover. Once these were located, they’d be struck with armor supported by tac air along very narrow frontages. Think of a blow delivered through the narrow end of a steel punch, rather than by the blunter broader strike of the hammer’s working face. Breaches created this way were rapidly exploited, with infantry sent in to consolidate and complete the envelopments these made possible. People writing on the subject of maneuver warfare use the terms “auftragstaktik” and “recon pull” to describe this type of operation.

    But the whole thing relied not only on radio communication, but on very experienced reconnaissance units that commanders at the corps and army levels were trusting to infinity. Once attrition started to work on the prewar force quality (i.e., those highly experienced people getting killed off or otherwise rendered unfit for service), this type of operation became much less practical. And if you didn’t have that sort of force quality to begin with (USSR, US), you had to rely on other methods right from the start.

  55. wendy davis

    @ Peter and Stirling S Newbury: thank you, but a bit too enigmatic for me (smile). i was about to write up this ‘faithless electors’ and ‘hamilton electors’ trend as it’s been toastin’ my cookies. so i’d been hoping for some hints as to what any of you might imagine could/would ensue if the ovien queen were crowned after all. but it occurred to me this a.m that the electors will vote a mere ten days from now, so i dunno if there’s enough momentum on either side to make a significant difference. comically, the Rs say they’re really bothered by T’s ‘foreign support’ (never mind clinton’s); but you know what the clintonistas say.

    @ mfi: how adorable of you to be the hall monitor here; i reckon ian doesn’t even have to pay you, as you seem to relish the position so much. now i dunno how anyone would have seen my question on an earlier thread, but i will say that ian kindly took mine out of moderation, so he must have considered it okay enough to stand.

    but oh, yes, how familiar i am w/ your bullying, as you dogged my trail plenty at my.firedoglake, along with a couple of your sidekicks. when someone asked at a watercooler once why you were allowed to engage in such flagrant attacks on FDL denizens, they were told that miz jane hamsher accorded you the status of ‘special guest’, thus granting you apparent impunity. now, wuddn’t that just special of her?

    mind you, it does seem that most of the commentariat here like your attacks on those who would dare to dissent over the burgeoning trump support here, so you’re not about to stop it.

  56. Stormcrow


    Then Charles VI became insane and the Landcastrian Phase started with a string of English Victories till Joan came along.

    If France had not been almost in a state of civil war by 1415, thanks to the aforesaid insanity, Henry V would either not have decided to attempt the conquest of France in the first place (high probability), or would failed disastrously (assumes Henry’s grasp of military affairs has been overestimated, which I doubt myself).

    Arrows were not decisive factors in battles.

    Does that include the arrow strike at Hastings that reportedly killed Harold Godwinson? Didn’t think so.

    And an arrow strike that prompts a bunch of armored knuckleheads to attempt a mounted charge across impossible ground, which is how the French disaster at Agincourt got rolling, would be “decisive” in my book.

    Cavalry was also not decisive in battles.

    They’re decisive if the infantry freaks out and tries to flee. Which they often did, prior to Bannockburn and Courtrai.

    And Comanche light cavalry tied absolutely everybody in west Texas and northern Mexico into knots, until first the Republic of Texas, and then the United States Army, developed skill at light cavalry warfare themselves. The poor Mexicans never did manage that trick, which doomed northern Mexico to terror and slaughter for more than 30 years, and helped set up Mexico for the 1846 war that cost them about half of their entire country.

    In addition the Mongols actually had poor logistics.

    As long as they could advance across steppeland, they didn’t really need good logistics that much. Their horses could forage.

    Of course, once the steppeland ended, so did their “railway”.

  57. Peter

    We have what I thought was a family myth/story about an ancestor who was in William’s army at the Battle of Hastings and he may have been what Mark describes as a dagger and hammer man.

    His name was Lamore Loyale and the fact that he was there in 1066 would have been enough of a family history story spanning a thousand years. The story doesn’t end there and goes on to show that a common foot soldier’s actions can change the course of history. Accounts of the Battle of Hastings note that William was unseated from his mount during the battle and as Mark explained a Knight in armor is in dire straits off his mount. Accounts of the battle also note that the battle could have turned as Williams army lost cohesion because their leader was down and presumed dead. William reappeared on his mount and the rest is history but he was near death because he was suffocating in the mud probably stunned from being knocked off his mount. The family story says that LL pulled William from the mud and gave him ‘air’ then helped him to remount and moved on.

    This is a great family story to pass down through the generations as it has been for a millennia but it was just an oral history until a few years ago. My eldest brother was touring the UK mostly looking for information on the Scottish side of our family but he also toured some of the Anglo-Norman cathedrals and at one, I’ve forgotten which one, he found LL buried in a Knight’s family crypt. His knighted family name was Eyre (air), William didn’t forget that gift, and this crypt was marked by a strange and somewhat macabre coat of arms which was actually a representation of a severed leg in armor.

  58. brian

    I wonder what it is that inspired the people, followers, to loyalty.

  59. DMC

    Re: The blitzkieg. Gurdarian and the rest of the armored guys on the General Staff were all reading J.F.C. Fuller.

  60. nihil obstet


    I found John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle very interesting. It basically asks, “Why don’t men just run away instead of going into battle on command where many of them will be killed or wounded?” Agincourt is one of the battles he looks at.

  61. Josh


    One final point re: Europe. The Mongol army that probed European defenses was most emphatically NOT the same army as that led by Genghis Khan.

    Yes, this is the source of my snark.

  62. Stormcrow


    Re: The blitzkieg. Gurdarian and the rest of the armored guys on the General Staff were all reading J.F.C. Fuller.

    It was pretty much just Guderian. By 1930, the German General Staff was a pale sick shadow of what it’d been just 70 years prior. Too much dabbling in politics. IIRC, Guderian had to go over their heads, to Hitler, to see to it that his first-generation panzers were equipped with main guns that could take on enemy tanks.

    The J.F.C. Fuller connection is both tempting and feasible since Guderian was fluent in English, but is also undocumented. This is one of the places where military historians don’t appear to have come to a consensus.

  63. markfromireland

    @Peter: It sounds like he was a foot soldier who made good (William the Conqueror knew that rewarding people who rendered good service was a winning strategy). Your severed leg in armour wasn’t meant to be macabre – heraldry used standard symbols, colours, designs, and layouts to represent particular things such as ancestry and personal qualities. For someone such as your ancestor the symbol chosen was particularly important as it proclaimed which virtue they had in such abundance that they were knighted for it. A leg represented strength, stability, and expedition. Which if you think about it is entirely appropriate because if he hadn’t been so expeditious in rescuing and remounting William, William wouldn’t have been around to conquer England and the expedition would likely have ended in ignominy.

    If you have a photo or the chance to go and take look at that armorial for yourself you now know what it’s saying:

    “I started out as a common soldier but I rendered such a major service to my lord that he elevated me from the commons to knighthood”

    In short bestowing arms = awarding bragging rights.

  64. markfromireland

    @ brian December 9, 2016

    I wonder what it is that inspired the people, followers, to loyalty.

    Gratitude for the chance to better themselves their sense of honour and the need to be seen as honourable by their peers.

    The honourable man was protected by the code of conduct. You couldn’t just pick a fight with him the coward, the traitor, and the dishonourable man on the other hand were all outcast – and therefore he and his family were lawful prey.

  65. Here’s a book for you…since you mentioned Temujin’s attitude toward women…

    The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire
    A 2010 book by Jack Weatherford, about the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and Mongol queens such as Mandukhai the Wise and Khutulun.[1] The book references Mongolian, Central Asian, Persian, European and Chinese sources such as Altan Tobchi, Erdeni Tobchi, Erdenyin Tunamal Sudar, Tarikh-i-Rashidi, Tarikh-i Jahangushay-i Juvaini, and Ming shi in addition to various secondary sources in English, Mongolian, and German.

    Weatherford also analyzes the role of Mongol women in the Mongol Empire and how they influenced the Mongol nation, modern Mongolia, and most of the modern world.
    Lot’s of interesting facts, mostly unknown but provable nonetheless.


  66. Peter


    Your explanation of the armorial may be accurate, I have seen arms used to display strength and prowess on CoA’s but not legs although I haven’t examined more than a few dozen. What made this display seem unusual to me was my brother’s description of a crudely severed stump protruding from the top of the leg armor which led me to speculate that LL had lost a leg either at Hastings or at a later battle. The Doomsday Book might show what rewards LL received as a one legged Knight.

    This new mystery from an old story may die with the story because oral history isn’t being passed down, my father was the last real storyteller in our family. I’ve never found another reference to this story in any accounts of the battle so it’s quite amazing that it passed through more than thirty generations of my family and multiple languages and still appears accurate and not subject to the telephone effect.

  67. markfromireland

    @ Peter – A one-legged knight wouldn’t have survived. Arms and legs both symbolised strength but legs represent as I mentioned above strength, stability, and expedition. Arms on a coat of arms represented strength but under the heraldic conventions followed by the Normans they were pretty much reserved for people who’d served in a senior (command) position. Which, as a foot soldier, your ancestor would not have.

  68. DMC

    Wikipedia: Fuller’s ideas on mechanized warfare continued to be influential in the lead-up to the Second World War, ironically less with his countrymen than with the Nazis, notably Heinz Guderian who spent his own money to have Fuller’s Provisional Instructions for Tank and Armoured Car Training translated.[8] where the citation is to
    Atkin, Ronald (1990). Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. p. 26. ISBN 1 84158 078 3.

    Really it came down to who listened to Fuller and who listened to Liddell-Hart(except for the Russians, who had a whole unique system on both the offense and the defense). Fuller was the first (at Cambrai) to come up with the notion of using tanks as “an armoured fist” rather than as infantry support.

  69. colm

    Genghis Khan’s decision to save the child, Jochi, who was not his changed history of Europe.

    Long story short, when the Great Khan Ogodei decided to destroy Europe by going there, a counselor successfully argued that Europe was the responsibility of the Golden Horde, who was led by Batu, the son of the above mentioned Jcchi.

    So the Khan’s force never went to Europe, and only the reduced forces of the Golden Horde invaded Europe, reaching Liegnitz in Germany (which Poland is now occupying).

    Also Jochi had the last laugh. While Genghis’ direct line was eliminated by the Manchus around 1660, Jochi’s bloodline made it to the Mary of Teck (long, long story), and to the Kings of England after George VI.

  70. realitychecker

    I still think the stirrup was invented by a very short person.

    So there. 🙂

  71. Nick

    Didn’t see much mention of the sizeable tactical advantage of the mongols horse culture. Small resilient horses capable of foraging twigs and shit feed, enduring long dry stretches and even providing the small mongols enough blood to keep them alive in crossing vast wastelands were a major part of their success.
    In a way its similar to the later vikings mastery of the longboat and superior ability to survive and thrive in the wilderness. Both were groups of primal barabarians who knew not or cared not for the sensibilities of civilization and that gave them advantages their adversaries were blind to.

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