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Impact of Turkmen Mounted Archers on Modern Warfare

By Dr. Begench Karayev, Fulbright Scholar, Indiana University.

The history of war includes many examples of the appearance of new weapons, revolutionizing tactical methods and overthrowing of empires and political systems.

The Greek phalanx, the Roman legion, the armoured lancer, Greek fire, gunpowder, self-propelled armoured vehicles and nuclear missiles all spring to mind. The impact of the mounted archers from the steppes of Asia was probably as great as any of these.

The above reflections belong to the British Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha, who spent 36 years in the Middle East. In 1920 he was posted to Iraq, where he lived among Arab Bedouins and studied their language and culture. After serving (1926-1930) as administrative inspector for the Iraqi government, Glubb was transferred to Jordan and attached to the Arab Legion, of which he assumed command in 1939. A trusted friend and personal adviser of King Abdullah, he made the legion the best-trained force in the Arab world. However, during the Arab-Israeli War of 1956, public opinion forced his dismissal.

John Glubb deeply studied the political and military strategy of Turkmens, especially of the rulers of the Seljuq dynasty. The lessons thus obtained later appeared to affect some aspects of the emerging warfare tactics, successfully used during the last century by the mobile partisan groups against well armoured army divisions.

The Turkmen tribes were said to live, eat and sleep on the backs of their horses; at any rate their way of life made them the finest horsemen in the world, wrote Glubb. Their special weapon was the bow and from early infancy they spent their time practicing archery.

Almost all their shooting was done on horseback and at full gallop. Englishmen are proud of the longbow-men who earned immortal fame at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt but their skill can scarcely be compared with that of the horse-archers of Asia. The longbow would have been too cumbersome for use on horseback and the Turkmens used short bows, which consisted of a core of wood, reinforced by strips of horn and sinew. Thus strengthened, the Turkmen bow could be made small and maneuverable without loss of strength.

The Turkmen carried his short bow in a case hung at his belt. His quiver was attached in the same manner on the other side. The number of arrows carried seems normally to have been twenty-four, but some reports refer to as many as sixty. In addition, he bore a sword and, in some cases, also a mace. These, however, were subsidiary weapons, for use against an already disorganized army. The Turkmen's killing weapon was the bow.

When the nomad horse-archer was about to attack, he placed one arrow on his bowstring and held two mere in his left hand, which grasped the bow. He then advanced at a hand-gallop, leaning slightly forward, the reigns, which had been knotted, being dropped on the horse's neck. Just before reaching effective range, the horse was spurred to full gallop and the archer stood up in his stirrups and discharged his three arrows at the enemy when galloping at full speed and from a range of about seventy yards. It is alleged that it took him only a few seconds to shoot his three arrows.

Then he wheeled away, (presumably steering his horse with his legs as he had no hand for the reins) and in doing so drew another arrow from his quiver which he shot back at the enemy over his horse's hindquarters. The extraordinary equestrian and manual dexterity required performing all these operations within a few seconds of time and at full gallop.

The Turkmen horse-archers had many and varied types of arrows at his disposal. There were light arrows for long-range "barrage" fire and heavy arrows used to pierce armour at ranges of less than a hundred yards. A number of different arrowheads provided the archer with a wide choice of missiles for different purposes.

Unfortunately we appear to have no detailed information as to the tactical formations used by large bodies of horse-archers. The discharge of four arrows in a gallop and wheel sounds comprehensible, but it is not clear how this method was employed by armies consisting of five or ten thousand horse-archers. Pack animals accompanied the army, laden with bundles of arrows, but we lack information as to the method of sending forward and distributing this reserve ammunition during a prolonged engagement.

The Turkmens wore armour consisting of a breast- and a back-plate and a helmet, made of leather hardened with lacquer. As rations, they carried salted meat or a bag of dried milk, which could be made into liquid by the addition of water. If completely deprived of all food, it is said that the Turkmen of the steppes would open a vein in the leg of his horse and drink the blood.

One of the tactics of Turkmen was that they concealed their horses behind some wooded slopes overlooking the road up which the opposing army must pass the next day. While enemy's division was leading the march when suddenly all the plain and the spurs of the hills on either side of the road were covered with Turkmens who, uttering loud cries and encouraged by a constant roll of drums, poured down upon the column. This tactic was unknown to western armies in the age of Crusades, usually used to fighting on the front. The Crusaders were entirely nonplussed by these tactics. "Such a war was completely unknown to any of us," admits Fulcher of Chartres, who was present in the battle in July 1097 near Dorylaeum, the modern Eskishehr.

The Crusaders' idea of a fight was to pitch camp while the mounted knights drew up in battle order ready to confront the enemy's formation. But when knights did this, the Turkmens did not form up in front of them. A swirling mass of horsemen raced round the knights and the camp, discharging streams of arrows into them at full gallop. If the knights attempted to charge, the enemy opposite them fled, drawing them on and away from their comrades, whereupon they surrounded them, pouring in their arrows from every direction. The Turkmen mounted archers - they had no infantry - continued to gallop round the Crusaders, shooting their arrows into the perimeter from every angle. Then wheeling away with empty quivers, they would gallop off to get more arrows, while other groups took their places.

A fact which reveals during this ages, that the Turkmens, well nigh irresistible in the field with their swift-shooting archery, were still ignorant of how to take walled cities. In 1050, Isfahan revolted against Tughril Beg, who thereupon laid siege to the city. The inhabitants resisted for a year but were eventually starved into surrender. Tughril Beg then moved his headquarters to Isfahan, which he occupied after knocking down most of the walls.

"Only the weak want walls," commented the Turkmen chief contemptuously. "My walls are my sword and my men."

Referred source: The Course of Empire. The Arabas and their successors. John Bagot Glubb (Glubb Pasha), Published Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Note: The spelling in the quoted source is 'Turkman'. It has been changed to 'Turkmen' in this commentary to conform to the modern usage.

About the author: Dr. Begench Karayev is currently on Fulbright Scholarship at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. He holds a Ph.D. from Moscow on political theory and is the author of monographs: 'Traditional and modern in political life of the contemporary Central Asian society. Experience of political analysis' (in Russian, 218p., Moscow, 1996) and "Policy analysis: problems of theory and methodology. Experience of researches of contemporary Central Asian society" (in Russian, 176 p., Moscow, 1994). Before joining the Fulbright Scholar Program Dr. Karayev served for more than seven years as a senior diplomat in the Foreign Service of Turkmenistan.

Published at www.newscentralasia.com on July 18, 2004

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