Mongols

  • <p><b><p></b> <b><p></b> <b><p></b> <b><p></b> <b></b> Si j'étais à côté de toi je te jure je t'aurais foutu une claque monumentale pour te réveiller, et ensuite on serait sorties dans la rue avec la musique à fond en riant et braillant comme des mongoles pour s'changer les idées.<br/><p/><b></b> Mais j'suis pas à côté de toi.<p/></p><p/></p>
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Mongol Fail — The Invasion of Indonesia

Looking back into Medieval history it may seem like the Mongols were an unstoppable force, defeating diverse enemies from Chinese soldiers to heavily armed knights in Europe.  However, the Mongols were not invincible, and in fact the Mongols were often vulnerable to those who used terrain to their advantage, or a good dose of sly trickery. Throughout history there were four major Mongol conquests which failed miserably; two invasions of Syria and the Levant (defeated by the Egyptian Mamelukes), two invasions of Japan, three invasions of Dai Viet (Vietnam), and the invasion of Java.

Java is an island in what is now modern day Indonesia, and the Mongol invasion of Java was easily the most remote and far flung Mongol military operation in history.  In 1289 Kublai Khan sent an envoy to King Kertenagara of Singhasari demanding tribute.  The Mongols held a very self centered view that the Great Khan was owner of the world, and the people who inhabited it were all subjects of the Mongol Empire.  Typically it was customary for a Mongol envoy to arrive, inform the native people that they were living on the Great Khan’s land but that they were willing to forgive them for their ignorance of the Great Khan’s magnificence, and that from then on they could either swear fealty to the Khan, pay him rent, or be slaughtered.  When the Mongol envoy arrived at the court of King Kertenagara, he was so offended by such a ridiculous proposal that ordered the envoy be branded on the face with a hot iron and his ears cut off.

Enraged by the treatment of his envoy, in the year 1292 Kublai Khan sent an invasion force to Java consisting of 30,000 Chinese, Uyghur, and Mongol troops with 1,000 ships.  When the Mongol Army arrived they found that events had changed considerably.  King Kertenagara  had been killed and replaced by Jayakatwang, one of his former nobles.  The Mongols decided to go after Jayakatwang, and they found an ally to help them; Prince Raden Wijaya, son-in-law of the late King Kertenagara.  Wijaya provided the Mongols with maps, scouts, provisions, and the aid of his guerilla army.  Little did the Mongols know that Wijaya was playing both sides and planning a stunning double cross.
After a 19 day campaign the Mongol Army easily defeated Jayakatwang’s 100,000 man army.  Jayakatwang was quickly captured and executed.  Raden Wijaya returned to his headquarters and asked the Mongols to send an envoy so that he could negotiate tribute terms with the Great Khan.  The Mongol envoy arrived escorted by 200 troops, and were immediately seized and massacred.  Wijaya then ordered his army to attack.  By then, the Mongol Army was beginning to suffer the effects of tropical disease.  Those who weren’t sick were drunk off their asses after several days of celebrating their victory.  Wijaya’s army attacked without warning, killing 3,000 and sending the Mongols fleeing in confusion and panic. 

Over several days disorganized Mongol troops fled across the island while being picked off by pursuing Wijaya soldiers.  The Mongols boarded their ships and attempted to return home, but fierce monsoon winds forced them to wait 6 months on a remote island while suffering from disease, starvation, and attacks from ruthless headhunters and cannibal tribes.  Only a fraction of the 30,000 man army returned home. In the meantime, Raden Wijaya set up his own kingdom, taking the regal name  Kertarajasa Jayawardhana and founding the Majapahit Empire, which would rule over most of Indonesia until the 16th century.

Genghis Khan understood the importance of horses and insisted that his troops be solicitous of their steeds. A cavalryman normally had three or four, so that each was, at one time or another, given a respite from bearing the weight of the rider during a lengthy journey. Before combat, leather coverings were placed on the head of each horse and its body was covered with armor. After combat, Mongol horses could traverse the most rugged terrain and survive on little fodder.

According to Marco Polo, the horse also provided sustenance to its rider on long trips during which all the food had been consumed. On such occasions, the rider would cut the horse’s veins and drink the blood that spurted forth. Marco Polo reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that a horseman could, by nourishing himself on his horse’s blood, “ride quite ten days’ marches without eating any cooked food and without lighting a fire.” And because its milk offered additional sustenance during extended military campaigns, a cavalryman usually preferred a mare as a mount. The milk was often fermented to produce kumiss, or araq, a potent alcoholic drink liberally consumed by the Mongols.

In short, as one commander stated, “If the horse dies, I die; if it lives, I survive.”

Mobility and surprise characterized the military expeditions led by Genghis Khan and his commanders, and the horse was crucial for such tactics and strategy. Horses could, without exaggeration, be referred to as the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the thirteenth century.

—  “All the Khan’s Horses” by Morris Rossabi. Natural History, October 1994
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Tran Hung Dao and the failed Mongol invasions of Vietnam.

In the 1960’s the United States became bogged down in fierce guerrilla warfare, jungle fighting, political turmoil, and bad military policy.  For the first time in the 20th century, the mighty US military had been halted in its tracks by an army of peasant fighters with inferior supplies, training, and weaponry.  The legacy of Vietnam today is a legacy of tragedy and failure, a dark chapter in American history that still affects the American psyche today.  However the Vietnam War was not the first time the people of Vietnam would stand against a major superpower.  Over 700 years before the Vietnam War the Vietnamese successfully repelled not one but three invasions by the great superpower of the day; the mighty Mongol Empire. 

By the 13th Century the Mongols had built one of the largest and most powerful empires in world history, ruling over a realm that spanned over Russia, China, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.  The Mongol Army was the best in the world, a perfect combination of discipline, lightning tactics, toughness, and ruthlessness.  In 1260 Kublai Khan, grandson of the famous Genghis Kahn, ascended to the throne as Great Kahn of the Mongol Empire and proceeded to continue the Mongol conquests.  In the sights of the Great Kahn was a small kingdom to the south called Đại Việt (Vietnam).

The Kingdom of Dai Viet was well accustomed to invasion from the north, over hundreds of years the Chinese had harassed the small kingdom in an attempt to absorb the small country into their own empire.  By the time Kublai Khan gained power the Mongols had already attempted an invasion of Dai Viet under the leadership of Mongke Kahn.  Kublai Kahn was determined more than ever to conquer the small kingdom.  Kublai raised a large army to conquer the kingdom of Champa (South Vietnam) and demanded Dai Viet permit passage through their kingdom.  The Vietnamese refused.  Unbothered by this, Kublai ordered his 100,000 man army to invade Dai Viet, a mistake he would soon regret.  At first the Mongolian Army would see great successes, even conquering the Vietnamese capitol of Thăng Long (Hanoi).  When it seemed that all was lost, the Vietnamese turned to a great general named Trần Hưng Đạo to repel the invaders.  Knowing that he could not fight muzzle to muzzle against the mighty Mongol Army with a force of untrained, poorly equipped peasants, Tran Hung Dao devised a campaign of guerrilla warfare to slowly weaken and destroy the Mongols.  

First he evacuated the north, burning all villages and crops so they would not fall into enemy hands.  Whenever the Mongols advanced they conquered nothing but ashes and ruin.  This was devastating as the Mongol Army depended on foraging and pillaging of food for survival. Secondly Tran devised a series of tactics that negated the power of Mongol cavalry.  The backbone and strength of the Mongol Army remained with its cavalry forces.  Born to nomadic tribes in the Gobi Desert, Mongols were said to learn to ride a horse before they could even walk.  As a result Mongol horsemen are among the greatest cavalrymen in history.

 However the tropical landscape was nothing like the Gobi Desert, Middle East, Europe, or the Steppes, places where the Mongol cavalry had experienced great victories in the past.  With rolling hills covered in dense jungle, Vietnam was a horseman’s nightmare.  Tran’s army lived in the jungle and attacked from the jungle, breaking down the Mongol Army a piece at a time with hit and run tactics and surprise attacks from all directions.  The Mongols, accustomed to fighting in open plains, could do little to fend off the attacks or strike a blow against Tran’s army.  One of the most common tactics used by the Vietnamese was to draw Mongol cavalry into a thick swamp.  When the Mongol warriors became trapped in waist deep mud the Vietnamese jungle fighters would strike, impaling the helpless Mongols with bamboo stakes.  

Tran and his army also mastered the art of booby traps, setting up complex traps across trails and highways all over the country.  One common trap was the pitfall with punji sticks.  A small pit was dug around two to three feet deep.  Lined inside the pit were sharpened stakes made of wood or bamboo which were sometimes covered in poison or feces (to cause infection).  The pit was then covered over and camouflaged to avoid the notice of enemy soldiers.   When a soldier stepped on the pit, his foot would fall through becoming impaled on the sharpened stakes.  Often the stakes were barbed or pointed in a downward angle or, making it impossible for the wounded soldier to remove his leg without causing terrible injury.  700 years later the same tactic became a staple of Vietcong Guerrillas against the Americans during the Vietnam War.

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Eventually the mighty Mongol Army found itself trapped in the middle of Vietnam short of food and supplies, hampered by mud and dense jungle, and being nibbled to death by the guerrilla attacks of the Vietnamese.  Worse yet the army began to feel the effects of tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. By 1285 AD the “invincible” Mongol Army was forced to retreat after suffering terrible casualties.  The defeat did not discourage Khublai Khan, however, who gathered an enormous force of 500,000 soldiers in 1287 to destroy Vietnam once and for all.  This time Kublai Kahn created a new strategy, a two pronged attack designed to counter Tran Hung Dao’s scorched earth policy.  Rather than rely on pillaging the countryside for food, Kublai Khan had a massive fleet of 500 ships built which were to supply the Mongol Army.  

The second campaign would go much like the first.  The Mongol Army captured large areas to the north while Tran burned all crops and supplies to prevent them from falling into Mongol hands.  This time, however, the Mongol Army received fresh supplies from China via its massive supply fleet.  In 1288 Tran devised a brilliant plan to destroy the Mongol fleet and turn the tide of the war.  Tran ordered beds of iron tipped stakes placed on the bottom of the Bạch Đằng River.  With a small flotilla of boats the Vietnamese lured the Mongol fleet into the river.  The fleet retreated from the river just as the tide went down, and most of the fleet’s ships were impaled and trapped on the stakes.  Vietnamese archers fired on the ships from the shore with flaming arrows while small Vietnamese boats traveled ship to ship, setting each alight with flaming pitch or palm oil.  Those who abandoned ship were quickly dispatched by Tran’s army as they scrambled to swim ashore.  In one fell swoop the Mongol fleet was completely obliterated with a loss of over 80,000 men.

Without the supply fleet, the massive 500,000 man army was in an even worse situation than the invasion before, with over five times the number of mouths to feed.  The Mongol advance immediately halted as the army began to starve.  Seeing the Mongol weakness, Tran Hung Dao ordered massive counterattacks, harassing the Mongol Army and making its position even more precarious.  Eventually the Mongols were once again forced to withdraw with Vietnamese forces attacking it all the way back to China.  The Mongols suffered casualties and losses the likes of which they had never experienced in the history of their conquests.

The failed conquests of Vietnam, combined with the failed invasion of Japan and Java would humble the mighty Mongol Empire and mark the end of Mongol expansion.  Tran Hung Dao would be celebrated as a national hero, with his memory revived after the North Vietnamese victory in the Vietnam War.  He died on 1300 AD of natural causes, and was buried in a simple grave, refusing to be interned in a grand mausoleum or tomb.