Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, who created the largest empire in the history of mankind, had three genius military generals – Mukhulai (Muqali), Zev (Jebe) and Subedei (Subutai). All three were neither members of Chinggis Khan’s family, nor his descendants. Because of these talented commanders from different Mongol tribes, Mongol troops won in all fronts and battlefields across the Europe and Asia.
One of the main reforms carried out by Chinggis Khan was the abolition of the custom where only dignitaries inherited to lead the military army. Instead, he began to appoint distinguished military commanders who are loyal to him and have extraordinary leadership skills, regardless of their tribe.
Therefore, anyone with talent, who puts efforts and hard work can be selected, regardless of their origin, and appointed to any position in his Empire. This new principle, which was nowhere else in the world during that time, was developed at the state policy level and surely it became one of the main advantages of Mongol Empire over many opponents.
Chinggis Khan put absolute trust in his generals, especially in Mukhulai, Zev and Subedei, and considered them as close advisors, often extending them the same privileges and trust normally reserved for close family members. He allowed them to make decisions on their own when they embarked on campaigns far from the Mongol Empire’s capital-Kharkhorum. While granting his generals a great deal of autonomy in making command decisions, Chinggis Khan also expected unwavering loyalty from them.
From the above, it is clear that the Mongol Empire was a meritocracy. But who were these three generals of Chinggis khan, and what were their military merits?
Mukhulai, from Jalair tribe, in his early days served as a slave to one of the enemies of Genghis Khan. When he was captured, Chinggis Khan (at that time Temujin) rewarded the defiant Mukhulai for his integrity and wisdom, and afterwards he was a loyal companion. At that time Mukhulai was only 15 years old.
Wise and courageous Mukhulai played a significant role in the unification of the Mongolian tribes under the banner of Genghis Khan. Therefore, during the coronation of Chinggis khan in 1206, he was given the title of Goo Van, which in the modern definition is more likely to equal to the Prime Minister.
Without a doubt, he was the founder of the military doctrine of the Mongol Empire.
Goo Van played a primary role in the Battle of Yehuling, the decisive battle during the first stage of the Mongol conquest of the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in northern China. The Jurchens, the ancestors of the Manchus, were, nomads like Mongols, and they had not only a strong cavalry but also a large Chinese infantry.
In that battle, Mukhulai managed to overcome the superior forces of an experienced adversary, who had a strong discipline and competent military commanders, with a skillful operational-tactical actions.
He led the troops very well and his Joint Staff could control all phases of the battle by applying pre-specified signals. At a certain signal, his troops could quickly maneuver, suddenly retreat and, then advance in a completely different place, thereby puzzling the enemy.
In addition, he gave a great importance to the exploring and studying their enemy and based on intelligence data, developed a clear concrete strategy for action. Especially, he liked to use the tactics called “Scattered Rice” which later was used by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian Generalissimo Suvorov for their cavalry.
The essence of this tactic lies in the fact that the troops pretend to be defeated and run away scattering in all directions and thus entice the enemy to leave the fortifications to pursuit. And when the enemy comes to a prearranged ambush, they attack from all sides and destroy them in parts.
In 1219, when Chinggis Khan decided to go to war with the Khwarezmid Empire, he gave control of all Mongol forces to Goo Van Mukhulai. Despite Chinggis Khan had taken most of the main Mongol forces away and sent to the West, Mukhulai was able to subdue most of Jin dynasty with his small force of around 20,000 Mongol warriors. In doing so, he used advanced units more than 50,000 enemy soldiers who surrendered, as well as the armed forces of opponents of Jin.
Goo Van Mukhulai also paid much attention to the training and modernization of the Mongol army. He constantly introduced new advanced armaments and the experience of conquered countries into the army. Thus, during the siege of one city, the enemy threw the blasting bombs through the walls, causing great damage to his troops. While taking the city, Mongolians captured many gunpowder bombs and Mukhulai immediately ordered to transfer some of them to the Mongol troops who fought against the Khorezmids. There, the powder bombs were successfully used for the first time for capturing cities and later Europe learned about these bombs from the Mongols.
While besieging another town of Jin in Shanxi Province of modern China Mukhulai became seriously ill and died in 1223. On his deathbed, Mukhulai declared with pride that he had never been defeated.
Given his undefeated record despite very limited resources, he is likely one of the greatest military commanders in history.
In 1201, during the Battle of the Thirteen Sides between Mongol tribes. Zev almost killed Chinggis khan. Chinggis khan was seriously wounded to the neck by an arrow. After winning the battle, he asked the defeated who shot his horse in the neck. Probably, in this way he wanted to hide that he was wounded, or to uncover possible false testimony.
The warrior Zurgaadai of the Taichud tribe voluntarily confessed that he had wounded him and said that he was ready to be executed, but if he would let him live, he would faithfully serve to Temujin. Temujin valued Zurgaadai’s honesty and valiance and pardoned him. After which, he gave him a new name, Zev, which means the arrow.
Zev’s, innate talent of the commander made him one of the best general of Chinggis khan. In just three years he rose from the lowest rank to the top of the leadership of the Mongol army. and became one of the best generals of Chinggis Khan. Chinese Song dinasty’s emissary, Zhao Hong, noted that Zev was considered to have the same level of authority as a third tier governor and held command of elite troops in Chinggis Khan’s army.
During the first war against Jin dynasty (1211-1214) Zev commanded the left wing of Chingis Khan’s army and captured many chains of Jin fortresses by using a feigned retreat to lure out defenders. In winter 1211, he was sent to capture Liaoyang, when Mongol forces had barely secured the great plains around Zhongdu. As Frank J. McLynn wrote in his book “Genghis Khan: his conquests, his empire, his legacy” (2015), after riding several hundred miles away from the main battle front, Zev lured the defenders of Liaoyang on a feigned retreat that lasted over 100 miles and left a large amount of Mongol booty on the ground. The Chinese troops paused to plunder it, and using the long nights of the northern winter, Zev’s army rode 100 miles in 24 hours to rout the disorderly Jin forces and seize Liaoyang.
In 1218, Zev was tasked to defeat the perennial Mongol adversary Kuchlug and conquer Kara-Khitai in South-West. Given only 20,000 men, Zev conserved manpower by inciting and backing religious revolts between the ruling Buddhists and oppressed Muslims. His forces moved with incredible alacrity which allowed him to overwhelm Kuchlug and his 30,000 men. (Chris Peers. Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine, 2015)
Later he played one of the key roles in the invasion of the Khwarezm Empire and Kievan Rus. Zev likely died on his return from the conquests of the Kievan Rus approximately in 1223.
English military historian and military theorist Liddell Hart in his book “Great Captains Unveiled”, which was written in 1927, described Zev as “The greatest cavalry general in history” for his unorthodox and daring maneuvers.
Subedei was a commoner from Uriankhai tribe, the son of Jarchigudai, who was assumed to be a blacksmith. His elder brother, Zelme, joined the army of Chingghis Khan at the age of 17. Subedei followed his brother and joined the army when he was only 14 years old.
In Chinggis khan’s army, he became a military genius who directed more than twenty campaigns in which he conquered thirty-two nations and won sixty-five pitched battles, during which he conquered or overran more territory than any other commander in history.
He is the only general who served to the three khans of the Mongol Empire and had the opportunity to battle against elite armies of all types from west to east such as skillful Jurchen cavalry of Jin dynasty, the seasoned Qangli Turk cavalry of the Khwarezm, and the heavily armored knights of Georgia, Poland and Hungary and emerged triumphant in every campaign.
It should be noted that Subedei was an attentive commander who realized that the life of his own troops brings enormous value. He took incredible care of his army in his campaigns to minimize Mongol casualties. This care engendered great loyalty among his troops.
US historian Timothy May writes in his book “The Mongol Art of War” (2007), ”In the Battle of Mohi, Subedei ordered huge stonethrowers to clear the bank of Hungarian crossbowmen and open the way for his light cavalry to cross the river without further losses. This use of siege weapons was one of the first record of using an artillery bombardments against the enemy to disrupt their resistance while simultaneously attacking them. In execution, this usage functioned more akin to the creeping barrage of World War I, used to soften and disrupt enemy lines right before an attack.”
Canadian historian Richard Gabriel believes that Subedei was a major innovator in the art of war, and his later campaigns demonstrated an unprecedented level of complexity and strategy not seen again until World War II. In the invasions of China, Russia, and Europe, Subedei routinely coordinated armies of up to 100,000 men across frontages separated by 500-1,000 km and between 3 and 5 separate army groups. These maneuvers were highly synchronized despite the enormous distances: the Mongols defeated the main army of Poland and Hungary in separate battles two days apart in April, 1241.
Though unknown to the west for many centuries, Subedei’s exploits were first featured in the British Military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart’s book “Great Captains Unveiled” after World War I. Liddell Hart used the example of the Mongols under Chinggis and Subedei to demonstrate how a new mechanized army could ideally fight using the principles of mobility, dispersion, surprise, and indirect means. Though he gained little support in Britain, Liddell Hart’s books were read in Germany, whose armies in 1940’s during the invasions of France and Russia bore an astonishing similarity to the campaigns of Subedei, 700 years later. In particular, Erwin Rommel and George Patton were avid students of Mongol campaigns (International Encyclopedia of Military History).
However, Subedei-led campaigns were first analyzed by the Russian General Mikhail Ivanin in the 19th century. His work became a recommended text in the Russian military academics up until the mid 20th century and used in the Deep Battle doctrine developed by Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Mikhail Frunze, and G.S. Isserson in 1930’s. Deep Battle doctrine bore a heavy resemblance to Mongol strategic methods, substituting tanks, motorized troop carriers, artillery, and airplanes for Mongol horse archers, lancers, and field artillery (Richard Gabriel. “Genghis Khan’s Greatest General Subotai the Valiant”, 2004).
Later in the 20th century, American Military theorist John Boyd and some of his followers used Genghis Khan and Subedei’s campaigns as examples of maneuver warfare.
The great general Subeedei died in 1248 near the modern Ulaanbaatar at the age of 72 just after returning to his homeland from a successful campaign against the Chinese Song dynasty.