Is Genghis Khan the Greatest Ever Commander? Stephen Barker Argues His Case

Stephen Barker is an independent Heritage Advisor – currently working with Oxfordshire County Museums Services, the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum and with Oxford-Brookes University.

He has recently curated two First World War exhibitions. Stephen was a trustee of the Battlefields Trust for several years – working particularly on its educational materials.

He has written a number of successful Heritage Lottery Fund projects including the establishment of a battlefield trail and archaeological survey of the Edgehill battlefield with Dr Glenn Foard.

Stephen gives talks about the British Civil and First World Wars to local history organisations. In 2009, he published Lancashire’s Forgotten Heroes – a history of the 8th East Lancs during the Great War.

Here, he argues the case for why Genghis Khan is the greatest Commander of all time.

"Be of one mind and one faith; that you may conquer your enemies and lead long and happy lives" - Genghis Kan

“Be of one mind and one faith; that you may conquer your enemies and lead long and happy lives” – Genghis Kan

As a Commander, Genghis Khan created the greatest land empire in history, spanning almost all of Asia from China to Afghanistan, into Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The territories were acquired solely through his military prowess and were far larger than those acquired by the Romans at the height of their powers.

Khan’s success resulted from his superior capabilities as a strategist, a tactician and an organizer of men. His conquests were the most impressive in history and the administration of those lands efficient and just.

Genghis’ achievements were built upon his personal attributes and experiences; he had great charisma and was able to motivate and inspire those around him. As a young man he had known much hardship and understood the privations of soldiers – frequently going into battle with his men. Unlike other Captains, Khan surrounded himself with talented Generals; sharing the spoils with loyal supporters he knew that they would work harder for his cause. He never stopped learning about new cultures; the technologies, practices and even religions of those he subjugated. Consequently, his armies, strategies and will to succeed never stagnated.

What set Genghis Khan apart from other commanders was his single mindedness. He had one purpose in life. He was never distracted by a desire for possessions, personal ambition or wealth – even as he became more powerful. He never forgot that his goal was bigger than he was ­- uniting his people to conquer the known world.

Genghis’ military skill and ability to form alliances – combined with a well-trained army of 80,000 soldiers – made it possible to unify warring tribes and form the first cohesive Mongol nation. These major achievements were based upon manoeuvre and terror; the point of any strategic assault nothing less than the total suppression of the opposing population. He was a meticulous planner, often setting up several strategic schemes and traps before engaging the enemy.

At the Siege of Samarkand in 1220, the Turkish garrison sent 50,000 veteran troops against Genghis’ army. The Mongols pretended to withdraw piecemeal; the Turks were drawn into a trap, flanked on both sides, enveloped and shot down in huge numbers. This illustrates the way that offensive action was characterized – by concentration of forces, manoeuvre, surprise and simplicity. Khan employed innovative spy networks to these ends and was quick to adopt new technologies from his enemies. An illiterate man, nevertheless he became an expert in battlefield communication and organisation.

The building blocks of Genghis’ army and strategy were his tribal levies of mounted archers and the vast horse-herds of Mongolia. This was an army forged in his own image and militarily ahead of its time. He transformed the rough and disorderly Mongolian warriors into a potent force; imposing strict training and discipline. Fighting on horseback gave the Mongols mobility, agility and speed, making them superior to their opponents.

Khan paid much attention to detail. Each archer had at least one extra horse, thus the entire army could move with incredible rapidity. Moreover, since horse milk and horse blood were the staples of the Mongolian diet, horse-herds functioned not just as his means of movement but also as his logistical sustainment. It can be argued that he conceived of ‘total war’ six hundred years before Clausewitz.

When comparing him with others, it is worth noting that Genghis Khan never lost a military engagement. By any objective measure – and despite his neglect by Western historians – he is in my view the greatest Commander of all time.

Is Stephen right that Genghis is the greatest Commander of all time? Comment below. 

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One Response to Is Genghis Khan the Greatest Ever Commander? Stephen Barker Argues His Case

  1. Marc Rikmenspoel says:

    I did some research on this for my university paper The Superior Mongol Army. Temujin the Genghis Khan deserves most of the credit for the Mongol success. But he may not have done it without the help of his general Subedoi (a non-Mongol from the forest people north of Mongolia, who supplied the Mongols with weapons).

    Twenty five years after the great Mongol conquests, Temujin’s grandsons were eager to try an invasion of Europe. They convinced old Subedoi to be their general, and he led them to conquer Kiev and then Hungary. They were contemplating a further advance to the west, when word came that Ogedai, Temujin’s son and successor, had died. The princes had to return to Mongolia to sort out the succession. Kublai finally emerged as the Great Khan, and turned his attention to China.

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