THE CRUSADES: A POLITICALLY INCORRECT HISTORY

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This is the Part One of Deadliest Blogger’s look at the religious and military phenomenon known as the Crusades. At best, considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades; one which removes the politically correct filters often placed by modern scholars. 

Following their disastrous defeat at Battle of Manzikert (in Armenia), the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus appealed to the Frankish west for help in turning back the Turkish invaders. This appeal made to Pope Urban led to the sermon at Clermont, where the Pope called upon the military class of western Europe (Christendom) to put aside their petty squabbles and unite in a holy endeavor: drive the “infidels” (Muslims) from the Holy Land where Christ and his Apostles had walked.

Thus was put in motion the First Crusade.

The response was far greater than either the Pope or the Emperor expected. While Alexius had requested military aid in the form of fighting-men to be enlisted as mercenaries in Byzantine service, his call for help set in motion nothing less than a mass movement. Not only did many of the great lords of France and the Holy Roman Empire march east, leading their own vassals and household warriors; a “People’s Crusade” of peasants and minor nobles, led by Peter the Hermit, actually set out in April 1096 months ahead of the departure of the great lords. From the highest to the lowest, the men and women of western Europe were filled with crusader zeal.

This First Crusade was not about aiding Byzantium in its struggle with the Turks, though that may have been Pope Urban and the emperor Alexius’ original intent. To the men (and no few women) who embarked across a continent this was about regaining the Holy Land, occupied by Muslims since the 7th century, for “Christendom”. Secondarily, it was about the maltreatment of Christian pilgrims by the Seljuks. It was in this cause, and with promises of spiritual reward in the afterlife that Pope Urban excited the knights of Christendom to travel to the Holy Land and defend both pilgrims and the holy places from the Turks:

“The Turks, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God… has invaded lands of Christians and his depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire… On whom therefore is the labor of avenging the wrongs of recovering this territory incumbent, in not upon you?”

But far from being an unprovoked act of aggression against the “peaceful” Muslim peoples and lands of the Middle East, as it is often portrayed in college history courses today, the First Crusade was a much-belated response to centuries of Islamic attacks upon and conquest of Christian lands. Lands which included most of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. It was also in response to Turkish banditry and to protect and keep open the pilgrim routes from Europe to the holy places.

“The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions” [1] 

In response to the sermon at Clermont many of the leading princes of the day “took the cross”. They came, for the most part, inspired by religious duty. These were not penniless adventurers looking to enrich themselves (another politically correct myth). Many were the among the wealthiest and most powerful men in Western Europe, who had much to loose on such a far-flung venture. Europe in the 11th century was a place of conflicting loyalties and allegiances, questionable borders, of old feuds and ancient grudges. Leaving one’s lands unattended invited rival claimants to seize them from the absentee. Only a deep belief in the righteousness of their cause and a chance to be part of one of the great movements of history motivated the powerful princes of Europe to leave behind their domains and march east.

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THE LEADERS

Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine (later called the Low Countries), was a descendant of Charlemagne. Tall, blond and handsome, he was considered the perfect Christian knight. Godfrey mortgaged or sold outright most of his lands to finance his participation in the Crusade. With this he outfitted a force of several thousand knights and footman. As a commander he was indifferent at best, and wisely followed the counsel of more apt captains, such as Bohemond and Raymond. He traveled in the company of his brothers, Baldwin and Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and was effectively leader of the men of the Low Countries and northeastern France.

Raymond of St Gilles, Count of Toulouse (also known as the Count of Saint-Gilles), Margrave of Provence and Duke of Narbonne was one of the wealthiest men in Europe. A great magnate of both the Holy Roman Empire and France, he was the oldest of all the leaders and the one most favored by the Papacy for the role of commander. However, he was unable to gain acceptance in this role, and  instead was a leading voice in the council of commanders that led the crusading contingents. He traveled to Constantinople in the company of the Papal Legate, Ademar, and led the south French contingents.

Baldwin of Boulogne was Godfrey’s younger brother. Even taller than his brother, he was an accomplished knight and proved a better commander than any of the other Crusader leaders. He would lead the future Kingdom of Jerusalem to  victory in later years.

Robert Duke of Normandy, called “Curthose” (“Short-Pants”, presumably because of his shorter-than-normal legs) was the eldest son of William the Conqueror and commanded the paramount warriors of Europe, the Normans. Like other leaders he mortgaged his duchy to his brother William Rufus, the King of England, for the sum of 10,000 marks to finance his participation in the Crusade. He came with his cousin, Robert Count of Flanders and his brother-in-law, Stephen Count of Blois (father of the future king of England of that name). Though nominally leader of all the Normans, Bretons, and Flemings he was a weak leader and in practice let Bohemond of Taranto take command.

Of all the leaders of this First Crusade, only Bohemond Prince of Taranto, son of Robert Guiscard and leader of the Crusading Normans of Italy, was not particularly wealthy and intended to carve out a principality in the Holy Land. Unusually tall and well-built, he was a warrior’s-warrior. An experienced and able commander, he had warred in the past against the Byzantine Emperor Alexius during his father’s war in Greece. As commander of the Normans of Italy he led perhaps the most effective contingent of the Crusader army, with the most experience in warfare in the east. He was accompanied by his nephew, the wily Tancred. As the Crusade progressed, he became the leader of the Norman contingents.

Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy was the Pope’s legate and representative on the Crusade. Of a noble family, he was a fighting cleric as well as a skilled diplomat. A skilled tactician, he advised Count Raymond and may well be the brains behind the successful flanking attack at Dorylaeum. He did much to keep the rival leaders at peace with each other throughout the crusade.

Far from being more backward and “barbaric” than their Muslim enemies, as is often claimed, the Crusading princes of Europe and most of their knights were in nearly every way on a cultural and intellectual par with their foes; and in the case of the Turks, somewhat more civilized. These were the cultured elites of Europe, and though perhaps not as refined  or educated as a Byzantine or Muslim grandee they were far from “barbarians”.

THE COMBATANTS

The Seljuk Turks were a hardy but savage people only newly arrived off of the steppes of central Asia. They had converted to Islam in the 9th century, and quickly became the shock troops of the Abbasid Caliphate. Soon, like the Roman Praetorians, they came to dominate their masters. Under Alp Arslan they had expanded their realm from the Halys River to the Oxus. Their empire had recently fallen into chaos and disunity following the death (or assassination) of Malik-Shah I in 1092. By the end of the 11th century independent Seljuk emirs controlled the various Muslim petty-states from the Aral Sea to the Bosporus.

Though ruling over cities and highly developed agricultural areas, the Turks had not wholly abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Many still lived in clan groups, herding their sheep from pasturage to pasturage. These  lived in yurts, spent most of their life in the saddle, and (according to Western chroniclers) were, like most nomadic peoples, extremely unhygienic in their personal habits (even by the standards of the day). On the other hand, some at least had settled down on the conquered lands, taking feudal fiefs from their emirs, to whom they owed loyalty and military service. Far from the savages they were painted as in the west, the Turkish emirs of the great cities were as cultured as any in the world.

1374236Militarily, the Turks fought primarily as light horsemen. Their main weapon was the short composite bow. Like all horse archers throughout the ages, their principle tactic was that of a swarm of bees, stinging their enemies from a safe distance with a rain of arrows. When their enemy attempted to close the distance and fight at close quarters (where their lack of heavy armor and small ponies put them at a disadvantage) the Turks would merely turn their mounts and flee to a safe distance, all the time continuing to shoot at their enemies over their horse’s rump. Only once the enemy had fallen into disorder or were in flight would the Turks put aside their bows and charge home with saber, mace, or belt-axe.

The Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt was the other enemy of the Crusader army (though belatedly so). Their army was comprised of both Turkish mercenaries (and slave-soldiers, called ghulams) and native Egyptian and Sudanese forces. They relied less upon the skirmish tactics of the Turks and had a large and formidable infantry component. At the time of the First Crusade, they had wrested control of Jerusalem from the Turks. They had been at war with their Seljuk neighbors for over a generation and the Crusade caught them unprepared during a time of rebuilding.

In contrast to the light-cavalry skirmishers that were the backbone of the Turkish armies, the Crusading Franks (as western Europeans were collectively known in the east) relied on the charge of the their heavy cavalry to bring them victory. The Medieval western knight was the armored battle tank of his age. Riding the largest horses available (and stallions at that) and armed with a 10′-12′ lance, their primary tactic was a thundering charge. This was delivered in tight formation, with the stirrup of each knight touching that of his comrade to either side. It was said that the charge of a Frankish knight could “make a hole through the walls of Babylon!”[2]

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The Frankish knights on the First Crusade were supported by large numbers of foot soldiers, many of which were crossbowmen. Though their rate of fire was slower than the composite bow of their Turkish enemy, they fired a more powerful shot that could pierce armor at close range. The most useful infantry, however, proved to be dismounted knights and sergeant-at-arms. The large European chargers were vulnerable to the hot arid conditions of the Middle East, as well as to Turkish horse archery. On the Crusade, the knights and mounted sergeants had trouble finding remounts. However, fighting on foot they provided the foot (many of which were nothing more than religiously-motivated peasants or townsmen) with a stiffening of professional soldiers; and gave the remaining mounted troops a solid base to maneuver around. Being dismounted proved a blessing also in that  it prevented the sort of impetuous charges that the Turks were all so adept at evading and luring into ambush; a problem many later crusaders would encounter fighting the Turks.

Throughout the Crusades, from the first to the last, victory in battle came to the side able to force the other to “fight his fight”. If the Franks were able to close with the Turks or Arabs, they usually won the day. Alternately, if the Turks or “Saracens” (the collective name given to non-Turkish Muslim warriors of the Middle East) could keep a safe distance while wearing down the Franks with missile weapons (or allowing the searing Middle Eastern sun to do that work for them), then they usually won the day. While Western mail was nearly “proof” against he short, light Turkish arrows the knight’s  unarmored horses were vulnerable to wounding and maiming.

THE FIRST CRUSADE

In August of 1096 the crusading princes marched east, leading individual armies which, according to Crusader military historian David Nicolle, amounted to approximately 35,000 fighting men (of which 5,000 were cavalry).

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They followed in the wake of the “People’s Crusade“, a movement of common folk who mistakenly believed that “the Lord” would provide both sustenance and victory over the Turk. In both of these they were disappointed, and this “Crusade” met disaster and destruction at the hands of the Turks upon their first encounter in Anatolia, near Nicaea in Bithynia.

The arrival of the prince’s armies at Constantinople caused no small amount of nervous apprehension within the unprepared Byzantine court.  The Crusader forces were in far greater number than the Emperor Alexius ever imagined, and the proud and prickly Frankish princes who led them poised a very real threat to the city and the Empire, should they get out of hand. It was only 15 years since the Normans of Apulia under Robert Guiscard had invaded the empire in an attempt to grab as much as they could lay hands upon; and the memory was still fresh. The Crusaders, for their part, found the Byzantines “oily” and untrustworthy, and in their dress and manner all too like the “Saracen” enemy they had come to fight. To prevent misunderstanding and suspicion from turning into violence, the emperor had the Crusaders quickly transported across the straits into Asia.

Once they had crossed over the Byzantines provided the Crusaders with guides, engineers and much needed supplies of food and fodder to the near starving armies. But not before the Emperor Alexius extracted oaths from each of the Crusader leaders (except for Raymond, who refused) that they would turn back over to the empire such towns and territories that they liberated from the Turk. The Frankish leaders considered this oath binding as far as any reconquered territory in Anatolia. But as the “Holy Land” (Syria and Palestine) had been for centuries under Muslim rule[3] the Frankish leaders did not consider these as rightfully Byzantine lands, and were thus not oath-bound to return to the emperor. This would be a “bone of contention” that would cause future discord between the future Crusader states and their Byzantine neighbor.

Marching (literally) over the bones of the People’s Crusade the army passed through Bithynia and laid siege to the Turkish citadel closest to and threatening Constantinople, Nicaea. This strong place was only captured after a 5 week siege and a failed attempt by the Seljuk Sultan, Kilij Arslan, to relieve the city. Nicaea surrendered in the end on June 18, 1097 to the Byzantines, rather than to the Crusaders; in order to avoid the inevitable sack if stormed by the Franks. Disgruntled at the loss of potential booty and what they saw a betrayal by the Byzantines, the Crusade marched on at the end of June with a small Byzantine force of 2,000 light cavalry under the veteran commander Tatikios to guide them.

Passing through the foothills of the western Anatolian mountains, the army marched in two (or perhaps three) divisions. The vanguard division was commanded by Bohemond of Taranto, and was composed of the Normands of Normandy (under their Duke Robert) and Bohemond’s of Italy; plus other north French contingents under Stephen Count of Blois and Robert Count of Flanders, as well as the Byzantine guides under Tatikios. Marching some 5 kilometers behind this van was the “main” under Godfrey of Bouillon, followed closely by the rearguard commanded by Raymond of Toulouse and the south French.

Marching towards ruined Dorylaeum along a tributary of the Sangarius, on July 1, 1097 the vanguard reached a bend in the river where it joined the Nana Dere. In the open valley beyond, Bohemond and his men beheld the army of the Sultan Kilij Arslan awaiting them, lining the low hills.

Kettle drums boomed from amongst the Turkish ranks, echoing from the surrounding hills and signally the largest battle to be fought between Christian and Turk since Manzikert.

Bohemond knew he could not fight them alone, with just the vanguard, but must hold until the rest of the Crusader army arrived. He ordered his foot to establish a “defensive camp”, while he and the mounted knights and sergeants formed up between them and the Turks, to buy them time.

NEAR DISASTER AT DORYLAEUM

The Frankish foot and camp-followers set up the tents beside the stream, with a marshy meadow protecting its rear and the stream its flank; with the mounted contingent standing to arms between them and the Sultan’s forces.

Kilij Arslan, smarting from his repulse at Nicaea, had come this time with allies: the Danismendid Turks, a rival power in central Anatolia alarmed as the Seljuks were at the coming of the Frankish Crusaders. Contemporary accounts put his numbers as high as 360,000 warriors, “all on horses and armed with bows”.[4]  The actual number was more likely a fraction of this inflated figure. However, they were highly aggressive and their tactics, new to the Franks, caused dismay as they pressed in on Bohemond’s defending knights and sergeants. Loose swarms of mounted Turks rode close to unleash a barrage of arrows, before wheeling their ponies and scampering away. Meanwhile, dismounted Turks crept around the left flank of the mounted guard, and assailed the foot setting-up the camp:

“The Turks crept up, howling loudly and shooting a shower of arrows. Stunned and almost dead, and with many wounded, we immediately fled. And it was no wonder, for such warfare was new to us all.” [5]

Only the maze of tents, stacks of supplies and equipment, and the obstacle provided by guy-wires helped keep the Turks from overrunning the camp in these confusing moments early in the battle.

 

While Frankish mail was for the most part “proof” against the light arrows of the Turks, their horses were not so fortunately protected. This would ever prove a problem for Franks fighting against Turkish horse archers: while their armor often rendered them relatively safe, their mounts were wounded or killed. To charge against their enemy was a natural response for western knights. But Turks on their light ponies would merely scamper away, all the while firing over their horse’s rump, till the knight’s charger was wounded or exhausted, and stumbled to a halt. At which point the Turks, like a pack of wolves would close in  for the kill.

Bohemond seems to have understood this and to have convinced his fellow leaders, Duke Robert and Count Baldwin of Flanders, to follow the lead of his Norman-Italians, dismounting their knights and standing with shield in front of their mounts, protecting the horses from Turkish arrows.  Standing firmly but idly against such assault took great discipline, and it is a testament to the Normans and to Bohemond as a leader that the knights did not attempt to mount and charge to disperse their tormentors. This would have been precisely what the Sultan hoped for, and would surely have led to disaster.

Meanwhile, another detachment of Turks swept around the Bohemond’s right, crossing to the opposite side of the stream in a likely attempt to surround the Crusader force. The camp, pitched now behind Bohemond’s mounted troops, prevented this (as well as the marshy meadow, unsuitable for horsemen). But this force were able to intercept and slaughter Frankish stragglers attempting to rejoin their comrades. Some of these escaped back the way they had come, and making their way to the second division under warned Duke Godfrey of the vanguard’s peril.

Kilij Arslan thought that he had the entire Frankish army trapped; and seems to have been unaware of the other two divisions approaching. This lack of scouting, even on the part of light horsemen like the Turks, was a common failing of armies throughout history. Soldiers tend to concentrate on the enemy in front of them, forgetting to scout their flanks or protect their rear. The immense clouds of dust that are thrown up during battle on a dry plain, particularly when large numbers of horses are involved, likely has a great deal to do with the tactical blindness exhibited by so many armies in history.

Whatever the reason, this lack of awareness was to lead to disaster for the Turks at Dorylaeum.

Focused on Bohemond the Sultan was surprised when Godfrey’s mainbody came up on his left, and deployed itself on the right of Bohemond’s line. Thus supported, the two Frankish leaders held fast against the Turkish attack.

Worse was to come for the Turks.

The rearguard, comprised of the south French under Raymond of Toulouse (advised by Bishop Adhemar, the Papal Legate), made its way by secret through the hills on the Turkish left. Debouching in the Turkish rear, the south French charged the Turks from behind. Giving the order to mount,  Bohemond and Godfrey then charged the Turks from the front as well.

Caught in this pincer movement, Turkish morale and resistance collapsed. The Crusaders didn’t pursue far (Tatikios may well have warned them that the Turks were most dangerous when they appeared to be fleeing). But thousands of Turkish dead littered the field, and the victorious Franks captured the Sultan’s baggage train, a rich haul indeed.

The Battle of Dorylaeum opened the way through Anatolia. For the next decade, the Turks treated Frankish armies with respect and caution. But it was “a near run thing”, and could well have ended in disaster, as later Crusades would under very similar circumstances. But for now, the Franks were able to continue on toward their objective: the Holy Land.

ANATOLIAN ORDEAL 

After their victory at Dorylaeum, the Crusaders marched south into central Anatolia. Once the breadbasket of the Byzantine Empire, two decades of Turkish depredation had reduced the area to a desert. Gone were the farms that once supported the hardy Eastern Roman soldier-peasant who had been the backbone of the armies of the old themata. The Turks had systematically destroyed the farmland and turned it into pasturage for the their sheep. These, in turn, had devoured what grass remained till only dry soil was left to bake in the harsh Anatolian sun.  Across this scorching plain the Crusaders passed in August and September. Many baggage animals perished, along with the priceless destriers whose size and strength gave the Frankish knights an added advantage in combat.

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Buoyed only by by faith and Tatikios’ assurance that conditions would improve, the Crusaders pushed on. East of Heraclea, the army divided. The mainbody turned east into Cappadocia; while a smaller force under under Bohemond’s resourceful nephew,  Tanced and Godrey’s brother Baldwin, pushed directly south though the Cilician Gates.

In Cappadocia, the Crusaders defeated a local Turkish chieftain near a place called Augustopolis. Pushing on, they came to a town in a fruitful valley, likely Pinarbasi, famous for its healthy water springs; under siege by the local Turks. .

“Going out of Cappadocia we came to a certain very beautiful and exceedingly fruitful city which the Turks had besieged for three weeks before our arrival but had not conquered. Immediately upon our arrival there it straightway surrendered into our hands with great pleasure.” [6]

As with many isolated Christian towns and cities throughout Anatolia, this one had not yet fallen to the Turks after Manzikert, and was only too happy to surrender to a Christian army. Like others the Franks captured in Anatolia, it was turned over to the Byzantines and soldiers from Tatikios escort were left to protect it.

The Crusade then turned south at Caesarea Mazaca (modern Kayseri), formerly capital of the Byzantine Theme of Charsianon; but now held by the Danismandid Turks. The Crusaders moved on through the Taurus and Anti-Taurus  mountains. Here the local Armenians welcomed their fellow Christians, and the Franks were resupplied before continuing on.

Forbidding peaks of  the Taurus Mountains near Kahramanmaraş  (ancient Caesarea Germanicia). Crossing these mountains cost the Crusaders more casualties and supplies than did the Seljuk Turks.

However, in the mountains between Göksun and Maraş (Germanicia Caesarea in Roman times), the Crusade came to terrible grief crossing the high passes. The anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum recounts:

“We entered a diabolical mountain… which was so high and steep that none dared try passing another on the narrow trail… horses fell headlong, and one pack animal pushed over another.”

Celebrated historian Sir Steven Runciman wrote: “The mountains… took more live than ever the Turks had done.” It was an exhausted and depleted force that marched on to Antioch.

Meanwhile, the detached force under Tanced  and  Baldwin had pushed directly south from Iconium though the Cilician Gates, capturing the various towns and ports of the Cilician plain and clearing the Crusades’ western flank of Turkish garrisons. Among those towns captured was ancient Tarsus, in Roman times a great city and seat of the provincial governor (and birthplace of St. Paul the Apostle).

At Tarsus the two leaders fell out, their forces nearly coming to blows. Tancred withdrew in a fury, returning to rejoin the main Crusader army via Alexandretta (Iskenderun); arriving in time to join the siege of Antioch in October. Baldwin, for his part, received an invitation from Thoros, Armenian ruler of Edessa in northern Mesopotamia. There Baldwin was adopted as Thoros’ son and successor.[7]

Next: The Siege of Antioch

  1. Stark, Rodney: “God’s Battalions”, 2009, Harper One publishing
  2. Anna Comnena
  3. Though Byzantine forces had recaptured much of the Syrian coast during the 10th century, they had lost it again after the disaster at Manzikert. Antioch, in particular, was a point of contention between the empire and the Crusaders, as till Manzikert it had been the second city of the empire.
  4. Fulcher of Chartres
  5. Idid
  6. Gesta Francorum
  7. When Thoros was assassinated in March of the following year, Baldwin became the first Frankish Count of Edessa, soon marrying Arda, the daughter of Thoros. He was ruling Edessa when called to Jerusalem to succeed his dead brother, Godfrey as king in 1100.

For an in-depth history of the Crusades, I recommend the following works:

 

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

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2 Responses to THE CRUSADES: A POLITICALLY INCORRECT HISTORY

  1. Pingback: THE CRUSADES: A POLITICALLY INCORRECT HISTORY (PART TWO) | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  2. Pingback: THE CRUSADES PART 3: BATTLE OF ANTIOCH AND THE MARCH TO JERUSALEM | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

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