Asian Geographic - - Heritage -

By the time of Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 – al­most 50 years after the death of Sub­o­tai – the Mon­gol Em­pire had split into four sep­a­rate khanates, each with its own in­ter­ests

Jelme and Sub­o­tai were out­siders: Not only were they not Bor­ji­gin, they were not even Mon­gols. They weren’t no­mads, and they couldn’t even ride. But Jelme’s per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Genghis stood the brothers in good stead, and young Sub­o­tai was al­lowed to stand guard at the en­trance to Genghis’ tent, lis­ten­ing in to ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion. As a re­sult, he learned ev­ery­thing there was to know about Mon­gol mil­i­tary tac­tics: what had worked, and what had failed.

The Bor­ji­gin were just one of a large num­ber of clans roam­ing the Mon­go­lian steppe. Genghis Khan – the Great Khan – had yet to earn that moniker. The clans were con­stantly war­ring: They fought to con­trol the best pas­tures, and pos­sess the best horses, and blood feuds were rife. These small-scale con­flicts gave young men like Sub­o­tai the chance to prove them­selves.

The rise of Genghis was not smooth, and in 1203, he and his fol­low­ers – in­clud­ing Sub­o­tai – were al­most wiped out. Genghis’ for­mer al­lies com­bined their forces into one vast army, killing 17,000 of his 20,000 troops. When a Mon­gol leader was de­feated, it was tra­di­tion for his fol­low­ers to pledge their al­le­giance to the win­ner. But, for some rea­son, Genghis’ sur­viv­ing troops did not de­fect. In ex­change for their sup­port, he agreed to share the spoils of war.

Genghis’ forces were a frac­tion of their for­mer size, and crip­pled by low morale. Their pre­vi­ous strate­gies had failed; Genghis needed fresh ideas. Thanks to his fa­ther’s black­smithing, and his years spent lis­ten­ing at the door, Sub­o­tai had de­vised a num­ber of mil­i­tary in­no­va­tions, and Genghis al­lowed him to test them out. Sub­o­tai over­saw the man­u­fac­tur­ing of weaponry in the camps, the train­ing of troops, and their de­ploy­ment on the bat­tle­field.

ARA­BIA The rise of Genghis was not smooth, and in 1203, he and his fol­low­ers – in­clud­ing Sub­o­tai – were al­most wiped out IN­DIA ti­bet korea

Work­ing to­gether, with Genghis as the clan leader and Sub­o­tai as his gen­eral, they were able to sub­due and unite all the Mon­gol clans into a sin­gle fight­ing force. They then turned their at­ten­tions to China, be­fore mak­ing their way along the Silk Road, where the prin­ci­ple cities of the pe­riod – and there­fore the rich­est tar­gets to plun­der – were lo­cated.

The Mon­gols’ prin­ci­ple weapon was the bow and ar­row, but un­til that point, the tech­nol­ogy was prim­i­tive. Ma­te­ri­als were poor and work­man­ship was in­con­sis­tent. Sub­o­tai recog­nised these short­com­ings, iden­ti­fied the best de­signs and ma­te­ri­als, and started to stan­dard­ise pro­duc­tion.

Sub­o­tai’s bow of choice was the re­curve com­pos­ite bow, which was far bet­ter suited to horse­men than a long­bow. He spec­i­fied that bows be made of bam­boo stiff­ened with horn, with an­i­mal sinews on the out­side. This com­bi­na­tion of ma­te­ri­als made the bow more pow­er­ful, qua­dru­pling the archers’ fir­ing range to a re­mark­able 400 me­tres. Bows of this de­sign were still in use in Mon­go­lia in the 1940s.

The short bow made it pos­si­ble for horse­men to fire their ar­rows whilst rid­ing. The prob­lem re­mained, how­ever, that when they gal­loped, vi­bra­tions from the thud­ding hooves caused havoc with their aim. Sub­o­tai re­alised that there’s a brief pe­riod when all four hooves are sus­pended off the ground when the vi­bra­tions stop, so he trained his archers to fire at that ex­act mo­ment, cir­cum­vent­ing the is­sue.

Sub­o­tai was also re­spon­si­ble for the de­vel­op­ment and adop­tion of siege en­gines. Amongst con­quered forces, Sub­o­tai iden­ti­fied Chi­nese siege spe­cial­ists and Per­sian engi­neers. In­stead of killing them, he ab­sorbed them into the Mon­gol Army. He took their ex­ist­ing de­signs for siege en­gines and field ar­tillery, in­clud­ing cat­a­pults and gi­ant cross­bows, and strength­ened their wooden con­struc­tion with the ad­di­tion of metal struts and brack­ets.

Sub­o­tai took great in­ter­est in bal­lis­tics, too. He tested shoot­ing Chi­nese-made fire­works into on­com­ing troops to trig­ger mass panic. Al­though the Chi­nese were al­ready us­ing gun­pow­der and flamethrow­ers in their army, these were hand­held de­vices; Sub­o­tai’s were larger and had greater range. He also had his men fill clay pots with naptha (a volatile hy­dro­car­bon akin to lighter fluid) and pieces of shrap­nel, and made use of duyao yan­qiu – “the ball of smoke and poi­son” – a com­bi­na­tion of sul­phur, potas­sium ni­trate, aconite, and oil.

Thanks to their no­madic her­itage, the Mon­gols were used to be­ing on the move, and as they had no lands to farm, or prov­inces to ad­min­is­ter, they could re­main on cam­paign year-round. Sub­o­tai had at his com­mand a pro­fes­sional army. He could de­velop tac­tics, teach them to his men, test them in bat­tle, and im­prove them.

Sub­o­tai also pi­o­neered the use of a feint re­treat. He’d send a small cav­alry force into bat­tle, fir­ing ar­rows into the op­po­si­tion’s front­line. This wasn’t in­tended to an­ni­hi­late them, but to draw troops out. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing silently with a rudi­men­tary form of semaphore – which ap­peared like black magic – Sub­o­tai would sig­nal to stop fir­ing and re­treat. Think­ing this was their op­por­tu­nity to strike, the en­emy would be drawn out onto open ground (which horse­men can cross far faster than foot sol­diers). It was easy to sep­a­rate them from each other and from their sup­ply chain. The Mon­gol cav­alry would ride in from ei­ther side, and the en­emy would be trapped. It was like shoot­ing fish in a bar­rel.

If this ap­proach sounds fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause it was re­vived, with sim­i­larly dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects, in the 20th cen­tury. Break­ing through front­line de­fences, and dis­rupt­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions and sup­ply lines such that the of­fen­sive can be sus­tained over a pro­tracted pe­riod, is known as deep bat­tle. It was used by the Red Army and then the Sovi­ets, then shared with the Ger­man Army, re­sult­ing in the Nazi’s Bl­itzkrieg doc­trine.

Sub­o­tai led the Mon­gol forces in 65 ma­jor bat­tles across 23 coun­tries. He took a small, disil­lu­sioned band of no­mads, and over the course of 30 years, fought and won against the forces of the Jin Dy­nasty in China, the Kara-ki­tan Khanate and Kh­warezmian Em­pire in Cen­tral Asia, and the KievanRus fed­er­a­tion of tribes in Eastern Europe. He de­feated the Knights Tem­plar on the banks of the Sajo River and even ad­vanced through Bo­hemia into the heart of the Holy Ro­man Em­pire. It is Sub­o­tai we must thank – or blame – for the birth of mod­ern war­fare. ag

The Mon­gol Em­pire, 1294 AD

Be­low Two sol­diers with bows and spears from a ce­ramic at the Perg­a­mon Mu­seum, Ber­lin right A cel­e­bra­tion mark­ing the 800th birth­day of the Mon­gol Em­pire in Tov Prov­ince, near Ulaan­baatar

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