Acre, the City for which the World Contended Part II

During the rest of the season the relieving army was involved in only two battles, though both were hard. A fortnight after the destruction of the siege towers by the garrison the Franks came under a heavy attack from Saladin’s army. But after an eight-day battle Saladin had not made a dent in the great defence works. His army was not at full strength – the siege of Beaufort still tied down a large number of men, and others had been sent north in preparation for the coming of the Germans. But nothing suggests that even at full strength the army had either the imagination or the determination to solve the problem of trench warfare posed by the Frankish position. Perhaps at this stage Saladin’s objective was to contain the threat at Acre until the northern danger had been dealt with. In June a large Egyptian fleet fought its way into Acre harbour with supplies, but the situation in the Christian camp was also improving. In July it was reinforced by a large French force commanded by Henry of Champagne. Later that month, however, the northern divisions of the Muslim army won a crushing victory over a body of thousands of Frankish foot who attacked against the advice of their officers. Thousands were killed, among them, to the astonishment of the Muslims, a number of women who were not recognised until their corpses were being stripped of their valuable chain mail. It was the last major encounter that summer.

The city’s defenders can hardly have been satisfied with the slackening off in the army’s efforts, especially as their hold on the sea route was weakening. In June an Egyptian fleet had pushed into the harbour by sheer numerical superiority, but the average small squadron had to expect a rough passage. In September, Saladin had watched tensely with his army as three ships battled furiously against a Christian flotilla. At the last moment the wind changed in their favour, and to wild cheering from the garrison, echoed by shouts from the distant army, they made their way to safety. The supplies they brought were vital, since the Christians were still receiving new recruits. In October 1189 the remnants of the German army reached the camp. As we have seen, the mere rumour of their coming had been enough to divert important divisions from Saladin’s army; their arrival under the command of Frederick of Swabia, the dead emperor’s son, raised the spirits of the besiegers. New machinery, including a massive battering ram, was deployed in the heaviest attack mounted on the city to date. A few days later Baldwin, archbishop of Canterbury, marched into the camp at the head of a well-equipped force of Englishmen.

Like other new arrivals before him, Baldwin was shocked by what he found. The free and easy social fraternisation between Muslim and Christian when they were not actually fighting was barely credible to the European mind. To a churchman the morals in the Christian camp were outrageous. The army in which ‘there was neither chastity, sobriety, faith nor charity’ was ‘given up to shameful practices’ which, if we are to believe the Arab historians, is hardly to be wondered at. For a few months previously ‘there had arrived by ship 300 lovely Frankish women, young and beautiful, assembled from beyond the sea and offering their bodies for sin.’ Archbishop Baldwin was not alone in being shocked that crusaders should behave like this. ‘Imad-ad-Din the chronicler was piously appalled by this further example of Frankish depravity. As to the girls themselves, they were clearly fascinated by the set-up. They announced that they too were serving the Cross by being served by its soldiers and ‘could make no finer sacrifice to win the favour of God than to dedicate as a holy offering what they kept between their thighs’. But what really worried ‘Imad-ad-Din was that ‘a few foolish mamluks and wretches’ from his own side ‘slipped away under the fierce goad of lust and followed the people of error’. These diversions apart, conditions in the Christian camp were slowly deteriorating. As with any medieval European siege army, the overriding and largely unrecognised danger was the total lack of hygiene and the resultant endemic camp fever. In October it killed Queen Sibylla, perhaps the most important single person in the Christian camp. King Guy owed his throne to his marriage with her, and when Conrad of Tyre won the struggle for the hand of her half-sister, Isabella, who was now the heiress of the royal family, the old political divisions were widened.

The marriage of Conrad and Isabella took place at Tyre in late November, and, to the anger of many Christians, Conrad had taken a number of ships to escort him up the coast. Because Guy refused to relinquish any of his kingly rights Conrad stayed sulking at Tyre while his co-religionists faced an atrocious winter of famine and disease. Wheat fetched 100 gold pieces the sack, and eggs were selling at six dinars each; knights slaughtered their costly war horses; the foot soldiery scavenged in the middens for the rotting entrails or fed off the grass; and even the gentry were reduced to thieving. In February, when morale was at its lowest ebb, Saladin got a relieving force into the city. It was to be his last success. As the spring came and the weather eased, supply ships managed to get through, and then, in April, King Philip II of France arrived with six ships. Richard of England too was at last in Eastern waters, and Saladin’s hopes of wearing down the Christians had slipped away. The only way to victory now was straight defeat on the field of battle or the overwhelming of the Christian defence works which had stood unbreached for eighteen months. The prospects of such victories were slight indeed.

When Philip and Richard at last arrived, the siege entered its final phase. Philip reached the siege lines on 20 April and for a time the Christian attacks had new heart and determination. His engineers built new siege machinery and managed to drive a zig-zag rampart out from the camp to within an easy bow-shot of the walls. The dangerous and laborious work of filling in the fosse pressed inexorably forward. Earth, debris, the bodies of dead horses and even men were thrown in – some of the dying bequeathed their corpses to this pious purpose. Yet the upsurge in morale seems to have died slowly away, and the optimists among the defenders looked back on the happy omen of the ‘white falcon’. Soon after his arrival, Philip had been riding down the battle lines, his favourite falcon on his fist, when the bird unexpectedly flew off over the walls of the city. It was a magnificent white bird, bigger than the species common in the Middle East, and the jubilant citizens sent it as a present to Saladin. There could hardly have been a more brilliant augury. It faded in the light of the bonfires which greeted the arrival of Richard of England seven weeks later.

Considering how little interest the Muslims generally showed in the European background of their enemies, Saladin was well informed on the relative standing of the two monarchs whose arrival was to decide the fate of Acre. He knew that the king of France, who was to assume the supreme command, was ‘one of their mightiest princes’; he also knew the king of England ranked lower, but that ‘his wealth, reputation and valour were greater’. The Angevin empire Richard had inherited from his father, Henry II, comprised half of France as well as England, so that though he was technically the feudal subordinate of Philip of France the realities were as Saladin’s agents reported them. Richard’s fame as a soldier had gone before him. ‘He was a man of great courage and spirit,’ commented Baha’-ad-Din, ‘and showed a burning passion for war’ – and the conquest of the Byzantine island of Cyprus made a deep impression on Saladin, whose alliance with the emperor had, at one time, been intended to prevent just such a union of interests between Christian states in Cyprus and Palestine.

On the night of 8 June trumpets brayed through the Christian camp at Acre and fires blazed along the beaches to welcome the king. The crackling flames lit up scenes of wild jubilation, and they also illuminated for the anxious lookouts in Saladin’s army the huge supplies of weaponry and stores being unloaded from the twenty-five ships of the English fleet. For weeks past, Frankish officers enjoying safe-conduct passes into the Muslim camp had been bragging about the brilliance and drive of the king of England and how they ‘were only waiting for his arrival to put into effect their plan to besiege the city with more vigour’. Richard’s coming, we are told, ‘put fear into the hearts of the Muslims’. They had reason.

Richard had struck his first blow in the Holy War even before he came in sight of Acre. Sailing down the Palestine coast on Friday, 7 July, he had sighted a galley heading past Beirut en route for Acre. A patrol gig sent out to investigate reported back that the ship claimed to be French. The ruse had worked before, but not this time. Richard ordered up a warship in pursuit. In addition to armaments and stores, the ship had 650 veteran troops on board, heading to reinforce the garrison at Acre, and they fought fiercely. The Christian forces fell back until the king sent the word along that if this prize escaped any Christian not killed in the action would die on the gallows. A team of swimmers dived under the enemy ship and lashed the rudder round. But still the Turkish galley thrashed on and its troops continued to repel all boarding parties. Eventually Richard resigned himself to the loss of the cargo and gave orders to prepare to ram. But the Turkish captain had come to the same conclusion, and even as the enemy galley came in for the kill he scuttled his ship rather than let her strategic cargo fall into enemy hands. Of almost eight hundred soldiers and sailors on board only thirty-five survived the systematic slaughter that followed – they comprised emirs who were good ransom prospects and a team of military engineers.

That night Richard anchored off Tyre, and the next day made his grand entry to the camp at Acre. Within hours he went sick with camp fever, but from his bed he was soon directing the construction and placing of yet more siege engines. Little more than a month later Acre was once more a Christian city. The Muslims believed that the loss of the supplies in the ship sunk by Richard was to blame. But the siege, under Richard’s direction, had become overpowering. The bombardment was ceaseless, and a new ballista built to the king’s specification was lobbing its missiles into the very heart of the city – the stone could kill twelve men. The defenders had to service their artillery, man the walls, clear the fosse, and man the ships in the harbour with reduced forces and on twenty-four-hour stand-by, while the enemy fought in shifts and so could maintain an offensive for days on end.

Late in June reinforcements joined Saladin but, as was soon to be obvious, he needed more than numerical strength. The walls and trenches that the Franks had begun nearly two years before were now perfected and were effectively impregnable to Muslim attack. To relieve Acre Saladin’s soldiers had to overrun these walls, and it was at last obvious that this they would never do. The credibility of the sultan’s army as a relieving army collapsed conclusively on Wednesday, 3 July. The day before had been hard fought. The Franks’ attack had been announced from the city by the agreed drum-roll signals, and for the rest of the day Saladin was at the front. He galloped back and forth among the battalions, urging his men on with the battle cry ‘For Islam!’ his eyes swimming with tears and turning again and again to the bitter fighting on the distant city’s walls. He ate nothing all day and drank only the medicine which his doctor had prescribed. The next day he led the attack once more, but was called away to hear the latest dispatch brought in by swimmer from the city. Its contents were shattering.

If nothing concrete was done to relieve the pressure that day, wrote al-Mashtub and Karaqush, they, the commanders, would offer the Franks the city in return for their lives and those of the garrison the following day. This, after a day’s fighting, twenty-four hours without food, and a sleepless night, hit Saladin so hard that his officers at first thought he would die. The news was the more bitter as al-Mashtub the Kurd and the Cairo emir Karakush were two of his oldest friends and best trusted officers. At this point he must surely have known that Acre would be lost. Yet his valiant spirit recovered, and after an hour of prayer he prepared to rally the troops for yet another assault on the grim fortifications round the enemy camp. ‘But on that day the army did not support him, for the enemy infantry stood like an unbreakable wall with weapons, ballistas and arrows behind their bastions.’ The news that the army would no longer follow even Saladin was enough for al-Mashtub: before nightfall he had begun truce talks with the enemy.

Acre was saved for a few more days when the Franks refused to guarantee the lives of the garrison in the event of a capitulation. That night three emirs took a small boat out of the harbour and slipped past the end of the Christian siege lines to reach Saladin’s camp before dawn. Two had the good sense to disappear while the third was, on Saladin’s orders, thrown into prison. The next day the army refused Saladin’s order for a frontal assault. Shortly afterwards three emissaries arrived from Richard of England. They had come to propose further peace negotiations – they also visited the camp market to buy snow and fruit. Their report on the low state of the army’s morale can only have strengthened Richard’s determination to yield nothing.

The city held out for another week, and the army still made some effective diversions. For the whole of one day a group of Kurdish emirs, among them the brother of al-Mashtub, made attack after attack on the enemy trenches, and at the height of the battle they were joined by ‘Izz-ad-Din Jurdik, once one of Nur-ad-Din’s staunchest mamluks but now devoted to Saladin. Nevertheless, despite such acts of herosim, and despite the arrival of yet more reinforcements, few of Saladin’s commanders really believed the city could now be saved. The search was on for peace terms to save the lives of the garrison. The Franks carried on negotiations with the city and the army simultaneously. The negotiators at Saladin’s camp were offered the city, its armoury and stores and the return of the True Cross. But they insisted, probably on King Richard’s instructions, that all former Christian cities be returned as well as all Frankish prisoners. Conrad of Tyre acted as mediator in dealings with the city. The terms finally agreed by al-Mashtub and Karakush were sensational. They yielded the town and its contents, and in addition all the ships in its harbour, 600 prisoners, including 100 nobles listed by name by the enemy, the True Cross, and a ransom of 200,000 dinars. Conrad received a fee of 4,000 gold pieces for his part in the transaction.

When, on Friday, 12 July, a swimmer got news of the terms to Saladin he was nonplussed. His own offers had proposed nothing of substance. To him the ‘True Cross’ was merely the gaudy fetish of a pagan culture, while the military arsenal in Acre, valuable though it was, could not be saved once Richard was in the city. The fleet, on the other hand, could possibly have been fought to safety, and would in any case have taken a heavy toll of the Christian shipping. As to the ransom, such a sum would beggar his already overtaxed war chest. But it quickly became apparent that his view of the terms held only academic interest. Even before he began to draft his refusal of the terms the Christians’ banners were seen breaking out on the walls of the city and on the minaret of the great mosque.

The shock of losing the great city seems to have overbalanced Saladin’s military judgement. He persuaded himself that even at this stage the Christians might be lured from their entrenchments into an open battle, if the inducement was big enough. The main army was ordered to fall back while the sultan, with a small force, remained in an open and clearly vulnerable position. But the Christians had no need to rise to this bait, while Saladin’s advisers pointed out that unless he confirmed the surrender the garrison would certainly be lost. He agreed. He arranged to pay the 200,000-dinar ransom in three instalments. On 11 August he delivered the first payment and a group of the stipulated prisoners. But King Richard was less interested in money at this point than military advantage. The defenders of Acre, who had won the respect of the Christians with their skill and courage, were, in his eyes, too numerous to be guarded and too professional to be returned to the enemy. On 20 August he had them systematically slaughtered on the plains outside the city, in full view of Saladin’s army. It was a barbarity which far outdid the ceremonial killing of the Templars at Saladin’s orders years before, and it added a new dimension to the terrible name of Richard the Lionheart.

In military terms Richard could argue that he was eliminating a fighting force which otherwise would have to be held, at his expense, with the permanent possibility of escape back into friendly territory. Saladin’s Christian prisoners could be and often were sent off to the slave markets. Indeed, the fact that the war was fought on his territory gave Saladin a permanent and priceless advantage, for Richard was bound to go home at some point. The massacre also meant that Saladin’s men were ever after loath to garrison any city threatened by a siege from Richard.

Henceforward Saladin would often retaliate in kind by slaughtering his prisoners. Neither monarch regarded the other as a ‘war criminal’, the concept had yet to be born. Kings lived above the plane of ordinary beings. All Christians were equal in the sight of God; all Muslims in the sight of Allah – but on this earth the rule of man more usually prevailed. The courtesies of courtly life between the camps would recover; though Saladin never agreed to a meeting with the king.

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