Genghis Khan and his generals were brilliant tacticians. Their armies of skilled horsemen made quick, nimble maneuvers possible, and their traditional strategies included:
- Spy networks that spent months before an attack scouting defenses, mapping roads and escape routes, noting supply sources, and gathering intelligence on local defense and infrastructure.
- Coordinated attacks that included ambush, hit-and-run, and wave attacks. One of the most successful strategies was the feigned retreat, in which Genghis’s troops would fake defeat and run, only to turn on pursuing enemies.
- Rapid communication that included using swift riders and a system of relay stations to pass messages to and from the battlefront.
But traditional Mongol weapons and tactics were no longer effective when attacking walled cities. So the Mongols adopted large siege weapons from the Chinese, Persians, and Arabs, and developed effective new strategies, including:
Siege of Beijing
© Mural by Yu Shan
An illustration of the siege on Zhongdu (later known as Beijing) in 1214 shows Genghis Khan’s army preparing to use several traction trebuchets to lob stones over the wall.
Mongols adopted the traction trebuchet from the Chinese. The weapon didn’t use a counterweight to swing the catapult. Instead, warriors grabbed the rope attached to the catapult arm and pulled it backward, propelling the lever forward to heave a projectile at the enemy.
- Catapulting large stones, diseased animals, and flaming naptha bombs over the walls.
- Isolating the city and cutting off supplies to starve inhabitants.
- Damming or rerouting a stream to flood the town.
- Lighting extra campfires and placing straw solders on spare horses to make the Mongol army appear larger than it was.
The Mongols became as efficient—and frightening—at siege warfare as they were at cavalry attacks, leaving entire cities in ruins and complete populations homeless.