April 23, 2005
Days of Empire
Genghis Khan would have applauded the US use of shock and awe to take Iraq. And why not — it worked for him 750 years ago
If history repeats itself, the story of Baghdad is perfect evidence of it. Nothing much has happened there recently that the ancient city has not seen before.
The military methods used by its latest conquerors two years ago were exactly the same as those employed when it was first taken almost 750 years earlier. Like the Mongols and their Christian allies, who conquered Baghdad in 1258, the Americans and their friends converged on it in several columns, overwhelming anything that was sent to meet them with hugely superior mobility and firepower. With token support from a few cautious Shia, they slipped into the suburbs, surrounded the city and softened it with a devastating bombardment before making their final assault. But the similarity does not end with a general summary of their strategies. The tactical details were identical, too.
In 1927 Britain’s leading strategist, B. H. Liddell Hart, wrote that the tank and the plane were the heirs to the Mongol horsemen. In his view the same tactics applied; and there were many, including Germany’s Heinz Guderian, the father of blitzkrieg, who agreed with him. Before long the campaigns of Genghis Khan were being studied in British, French, German and American military academies, just as they had always been in Russia. The Second World War began with blitzkrieg, a mechanised version of the swift, crippling attacks carried out by the Mongols in the 13th century; and in the course of the war two of the leading tank commanders, Rommel and Patton, acknowledged that they were students of Genghis Khan.
Like all soldiers of the steppes since the days of the Parthians more than 2,000 years ago, the Mongols were mounted archers. By timing the release of their arrows to come between the footfalls of their horses, they could maintain their accuracy even at the canter, just as stabilisers enable guns to keep their aim while the bodies of their tanks roll up and down. But none of their commanders used this skill as devastatingly as the Great Khan.
The characteristic which made Genghis Khan the most successful conqueror in history was his genius for organisation. He mustered his army in multiples of ten, subjected it to regular and rigorous training, issued it with standardised equipment, including long-range, short-range and armour-piercing arrows, and selected and promoted his officers entirely on merit, not breeding.
There was little about his army that would not have been familiar to any modern professional soldier. His capacity to manoeuvre was so bafflingly brilliant that most of his enemies assumed that his armies were much larger than they were. Using an exaggerated version of a traditional steppe tactic, the feigned retreat, he could lure an entire army into a prepared position, suddenly surround it with huge formations of mounted archers and then destroy it with his withering firepower — just as Patton’s tanks were to do with part of the Afrika Korps.
A modern army advances on a broad front. So did the Mongols. But the Mongols were the first to do it. When Genghis Khan moved west towards Samarkand his right flank was in the desert north of the Aral Sea and his left was more than 800 miles southeast of it in the Pamir Mountains. When his sons invaded Europe, their front was even broader, with its right on the Baltic and its left in Transylvania.
For a 20th-century general, command and control of such a front are made possible only by modern communications, but the Mongols managed equally well with what were then leading-edge communications of their own. By day they kept contact over short distances with flags — the Mongols invented semaphore — and over longer distances their network of mounted couriers and staging posts was faster than the Pony Express.
On the invasion of Europe, the first objective was the conquest of Hungary and the destruction of its army, which had assembled to the west of the Danube. But the Mongol flanks were threatened by large armies in Poland and Transylvania. In consequence, when the Mongol centre reached the east bank of the Danube it halted and waited. On April 6, 1241, after learning that the threatening armies on its flanks had been located, it turned and started to retreat. Next day the Hungarians set out after it. On April 9 the Polish army was annihilated at Liegnitz, On April 10, 500 miles to the south, the Transylvanian army was defeated at Hermannstadt. On April 11 the Mongols in the centure turned and routed the pursuing Hungarians. Their co-ordination was perfect. They could not have done better if they had been issued with radios.
One of the most familiar images of the recent fighting in Iraq was that of troops or tanks crossing a bridge with their artillery firing over their heads to push back the Iraqis on the other side. Once more the Mongols were the pioneers. The first record of a “rolling barrage” appears in the chronicles of that battle with the Hungarians, when the Mongols began by crossing a bridge unopposed while their trebuchets (huge mechanical slings) lobbed smoke bombs and explosive grenades over their heads and pushed back the Hungarians “to the accompaniment of thunderous noise and flashes of fire”.
At the end of that terrible day the Mongols opened a gap in their encirclement, allowing the Hungarian survivors to escape. Then, just as the allies attacked the Iraqis when they withdrew from Kuwait in 1992, the Mongol mounted archers swarmed in on either side of the desperate column; and for 30 miles, according to the chronicles, the road back towards the Danube was strewn with corpses “like stones in a quarry”.
Genghis Khan has suffered even more than most conquerors at the hands of Hollywood. His undoubtedly spectacular atrocities have been given much more emphasis than his genius; and he has been the victim of the most ludicrous miscasting — John Wayne and Omar Sharif, for heaven’s sake! One can only hope that a new drama-documentary by the BBC will go some way to straightening the record.
This time, at last, the film is shot in Mongolia with a mostly Mongol cast; and it depicts the Mongols’ transformation from tribal warriors to professional soldiers. If George W. Bush ever gets to see it, it may come as a surprise to him — and a delight to his critics — to learn that he and his generals have so much in common with Genghis Khan and his warlords. The differences between a mounted Mongol horde and a modern mechanised army are all differences in technology, not technique.
The Devil’s Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe, by James Chambers (Phoenix, £9.99; offer £8.49 from Books First, 0870 1608080) .Genghis Khan, BBC One, Monday, 9pm
Genghis Khan: fighter, lover
# Genghis Khan (1162-1227) was orphaned at 13. He began with a mere handful of followers, united the Mongolian tribes, and rose to become the most successful conqueror in history.
# His empire was the largest ever conquered by a single commander. It included the lands now known as Mongolia, northern China, most of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
# At its height, in the reign of his grandson Kublai, it was the largest continuous empire in history, stretching east from the borders of Hungary, through Russia, the Middle East and reaching the Pacific Ocean.
# The Mongol empire was the first to know religious tolerance. In the capital, Karakorum, churches, mosques and temples stood side by side.
# In his empire, women had equal rights with men, even among subject peoples.
# His laws prescribed the death penalty for merchants who allowed themselves to go bankrupt for a third time.
# He had 500 wives and concubines.