Gengis Khan – the master of deception and psychological warfare
By Neeraj Mahajan
Chengiz Khan or Gengis Khan was a tribal warrior (Khan means king) and founder of the Mongolian Empire. Best known as the founding father of Mongolia Gengis Khan is one of the most loved as well as the most hated public figure in History.
Even though he came from a humble background and poor family, he was a good leader. He originally set about collecting a small group of tribals to avenge his father’s death, but managed to organize a force of highly motivated, fierce, and effective Mongols whom no army wanted to mess around with or attempted to resist. They used drums to instill fear and let the enemy know that “The Mongols are coming.”
The Mongol soldiers wore a heavy coat reinforced with metal plates and lined with fur and a leather belt at the waist to carry their sword, dagger, and axe. The coat was boiled and coated with varnish, to make it soft and waterproof. On top of it, the Mongols warriors wore a leather or metal Helmet and iron-plated neck guard. The Mongol cap was made of quilted material and earmuffs to keep them warm in winter. The material used in a soldier’s helmet depended on his rank and status. Below the coat, the Mongols wore a silk undershirt to protect them from the enemy arrows. Even if an arrow pierced their outer garment, the silk undershirt would wrap around it to reduce the damage and make it easier to remove. The Mongols also wore comfortable, heavy and heelless boots made from felt and leather which gave them an all-weather, all-weather fighting capability.
Each Mongol archer was equipped with a bow, arrows, shield, dagger, lasso, and a sword or battle-ax. The Mongol infantry and cavalry troops also carried crossbows. Each of the archers had at least two bows – one to shoot arrows from the horseback and another to be used when they dismounted on the ground. The Mongol archers could shower their extremely lethal arrows to kill or scare enemy troops and horses— 200 meters away. The quivers tied to the backs of the cavalrymen and their horses contained fifty to sixty arrows. They also carried multiple quivers and files for sharpening the arrows hardened by plunging them in brine and heating them till they were red hot. Apart from this the supply units followed close behind carried additional arrows, and heavy equipment.
Genghis Khan’s army had an extensive spy network for intelligence gathering and a communication system to send written messages and coded signals to and from the battlefield. The Mongol army was divided into highly mobile self-contained formations of 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 with a well-defined system of command and control. The Mongols attacked when the enemy was least prepared and didn’t expect them in the intense cold.
The Mongol officers and troops were highly trained, disciplined and totally loyal to their superiors. Even in the heat of the battle, there was a system to convey the orders of the leader down to the last man on the front line. If any soldier tried to run away from danger, he along with all others in his unit had to face the death penalty together. A bulk of the Mongol army comprised of light cavalry or archers on horseback and the rest were heavily armored and armed lancers. The typical Mongol battlefront had at least five rows—the first three rows comprising of archers on horseback, and the last two rows of lancers. The Mongol warriors traveled light and were trained to live off the land without any supply from the rear. Hence their main concern was only to find enough food and water for their horses.
In keeping with the saying—the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war — the Mongol troops were trained for virtually every possibility so that they could react accordingly even without supervision when the need arose. The Mongols generally avoided risky or reckless frontal assaults and used diversionary tactics to outflank or surround the engage the enemy. The Mongols were trained to protect their officers. Whenever possible, Mongol commanders perched themselves at vantage points from where they get a bird’s eye view of the entire battlefield, take tactical decisions, pass orders about any change in strategy and alert their troops about sudden attacks by sending signals using flags. The high ranking officers had the power to take appropriate decisions as per the need of the situation. In case the situation deteriorated on any front, they could order other echelons to divert and support them. They also had the authority to surrender and live to fight another day with better preparation or stage a feigned retreat as long as the enemy was defeated.
Each Mongol soldier maintained two to four horses and kept changing them – hence the Mongol horses could remain fresh longer in battle – without compromising on speed or mobility. Though relatively smaller, the Mongolian horses were extremely hardy and could survive in harsh climates. The sturdy Mongol horses allowed the Mongols to cover large distances quickly, often surprising the enemies who expected them to arrive days or weeks later. As a result, Mongol horsemen could cover up to 100 miles per day, without tiring their horses – something unheard of those days. The Mongols covered the horses with lamellar armor over every part of their body, including a special plate on each side of the neck. All horses had with stirrups that made it easier for the Mongol archers to shoot in all directions, including backward and release the arrows when the galloping horse had all four feet off the ground, ensuring a steady, well-aimed shot. This made them one of the fastest armies in the world, but also the most vulnerable to shortages of fodder. As a result, the Mongol army had to keep moving to ensure sufficient grazing grounds for their herd of horses.
The Mongols were experts in the art of deception and psychological warfare to spread terror in the enemy camp. The Mongols used the art of deception to surprise the enemy, and used every trick to confuse, outflank and surprise the enemy and win wars. In many battlefield situations they would appear out of nowhere – from the left, right or rear – at times from where the enemy was least expecting them. This made the enemy flee, surrender, or agree to provide manpower and other services to the Mongol army. In case the enemy refused to buckle down, the Mongols would invade and destroy a few adjoining cities or towns. This won them the reputation of being ferocious, savage and barbarian invaders who could make the enemy run away— at times even without fighting a war.
One of their most favorite tactics was to feign retreat or disappear before pouncing back in full force. The feigned retreat is perhaps the most difficult battlefield tactic that can backfire and turn into a real flight. In the heat of the battle, the Mongols would suddenly appear to panic and run—pretending disarray and defeat but attacked in full force the very next moment when the enemy was unprepared or withdrew to join the main formation.
Another tactic used by the Mongols was to tie tree branches behind their horses to a raise a lot of dust and make it seem to the enemy that a much larger Mongol army was heading towards them. While camping at night, each Mongol soldier would light many fires to confuse the enemy spies and make them report a larger number of Mongols than they actually were. Alternatively, the Mongol soldiers would let prisoners and civilians ride their horses to falsely exaggerate their manpower hence make the enemy surrender or flee.
Before invading an area, the Mongols carefully did their homework in advance and studied the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses– even divert the rivers, cut off food supplies or killed some people, and drain the resources of the city due to sudden influx of refugees. After conquering an area, the Mongols offered the people to join their army. But despite this integration, the Mongols were never able to gain long-term loyalty from the people they conquered.
Most historians depict Genghis Khan to be an extremely cruel, brutal and satanical man who wiped out China’s population by half, three-fourths of Iran’s population, over 40 million people in Eurasia, and erased the Khwarazm Empire. But despite all his shortcomings unlike other conquerors, Genghis Khan looked after his subjects and respected all religions. He exempted Buddhist monasteries from taxation and banned Islamic practices like Halal which he believed didn’t serve any purpose. He respected women and sought the advice of his mother and wives.
At the peak of his regime which lasted over 20 years, he controlled – more than twice the land – 23 million square km – the largest land empire– than anyone else ever controlled in world history. His kingdom covered a large part of Asia and China from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian Sea; from the Pacific Ocean to the Persian Gulf. He controlled over 12 million square miles of land from Korea to Poland. At the time of his death in 1227, the Mongol Empire was four times the size of Alexander the Great’s, and twice the size of the Roman Empire and the Muslim Caliphate.
For Genghis Khan- the sky was the limit and he didn’t leave any territory unconquered. He wanted to rule over the whole of Asia and persecuted the Muslims, Christians, or Jews from China, Korea, Persia, Afghanistan, Arabia, and Europe even to the verge of extinction. But despite conquering practically all of northern China and many kingdoms on the banks of River Indus – Genghis Khan, did not invade India. There is no rational explanation, why Genghis Khan’s Mongols kept off India even though they could have easily defeated the disunited Sultans in Delhi. Gengis Khan had reached Afghanistan but decided to turn back. There is no logical explanation about what deterred him from invading the Indian subcontinent under Shams-ud-din Iltutmish the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate in those days. Was the Indian climate unsuitable for Mongol men and horses? If so, why didn’t it deter other invaders – Greeks, Turks and Moguls – even Genghis Khan’s own descendants, Tamerlane and Babur from invading India?
Some historians say that the seemingly impossible task of crossing the inaccessible Himalayas on his return might have been the reason behind Gengis Khan’s retreat, while others give credit to Iltutmish’s diplomatic skill in dealing with Genghis Khan Messengers and escaping his rage. After Genghis Khan’s death, his grandson, Kublai Khan took over the Mongol army and founded the Yuan dynasty with its capital at Dadu (present-day Beijing).