The Mongols, Masters of the Blitzkrieg
What Alexander was to the Macedonians, Genghis Khan was to the Mongols. The dynamics of the Mongol rise to the largest contiguous land empire in history was almost a textbook example of the evolution of a great military society.
Genghis Khan was born in 1162 in modern-day Mongolia, and displaying rare gifts of leadership and command, he rose through the ranks of minor chieftaincy to a position where he could begin uniting the various tribes and clans of the central Asian steppes. This was initially achieved through a combination of war and diplomacy, but as time progressed, it was found that war was quicker and more cost-effective.
As a military leader, Genghis Khan had excellent material to work with. Mongol tribesmen are perhaps the original people of the horse, and horsemanship was in those days not only a lifestyle, but a competitive sport. The use of horse-borne weaponry formed part of the evening, and a wild and fiercely individual attitude to campaigning prevailed. One particular Mongol weapon that often tipped the balance was the unique recurve bow that, when combined with a fast pony as a firing platform, could be utterly devastating.
Another shrewd reform that Genghis added to motivate his army was to open the seizure of loot to all and any. War therefore became both a sport and an industry, and was soon so intertwined with the Mongol self-image that military matters merged with affairs of state, and began to define the self-image of the empire.
In the field, a Mongol army was a formidable prospect. With a reliance on light cavalry, Mongol mobility was legendary. Each cavalryman moved with three or four horses, and could rotate his mount at will. Despite a tendency to individuality, Mongol fighting divisions were highly disciplined and well trained, thanks once again to the fact that so much of what they needed to know in war they learned as children. What they also learned on the steppes was survival under difficult conditions, and the ability to travel light and live off the land. Horses were typically milked and slaughtered for meat, which was a masterful tactic of mobility and survival.
Add to this surprisingly well-organized communications and supply, and the Mongol army proved unstoppable in almost a century of unbroken territorial advance.
What stopped the Mongol expansion, and in the end brought the whole edifice down was a disputed succession. As one great American president remarked, ‘a house divided cannot stand’, and as Genghis Khan’s descendants bickered over his legacy, that legacy simply fell apart.