Prelude to Hattin I



Battle of Cresson: Saladin’s Ayyubid Force Defeats Crusaders


The Franks were small in numbers and they needed to maintain a reputation for ferocity and success. Saladin had united Egypt and Syria in an empire with huge resources. In the early 1180s, he ravaged the kingdom savagely. The crusader leadership, notably in 1183 under Guy of Lusignan as Regent, responded with Fabian tactics – staying close to Saladin’s army and checkmating it. This was not the earlier tradition when, even under Baldwin IV, confrontation had been the rule, and Guy was bitterly criticized. Fabian tactics had a high price in destruction of the land, but an even higher price in the erosion of the Frankish reputation for ferocity and success in war. By 1187, when Saladin came again, many Franks must have felt the need to reassert themselves. Their heavy equipment made them masters of close-quarter warfare, which was the essence of battle tactics at this time, and they seem to have come to a good understanding of the limitations of the Turkish horse-archers. The consequence was that their tactics relied heavily on close formation. Clearly, they were somewhat at a disadvantage when it came to manoeuvre in the open lands of the Middle East. When faced with the necessity of making a long journey in the presence of the enemy, the crusaders formed themselves into a tight packed column for a fighting march through the enemy forces. It is not the least tribute to Richard I’s military genius that he was able to establish and hold precisely this formation in the march from Acre to Arsuf, which led to the victory at Arsuf in 1191. On this occasion, Richard ordered his cavalry in three divisions and threw around them a cordon of footsoldiers and crossbowmen, who held off the enemy. As infantry tired, so they retreated to the seaward side of the march, where the fleet shadowed their progress. Conventional Frankish tactics, emphasizing mass and close order, with cooperation between infantry and cavalry, were brought to new heights in the Holy Land. This was possible because this was a heavily militarized society, whose members must have served together time after time. These methods served the crusaders well and so they were not radically altered.

Much ink has been spilt on one other component in the Frankish armies – the Turcopoles – because they do seem to represent an adaptation of Frankish methods to Syrian conditions. They formed a substantial unit in the army of Roger of Antioch which was defeated at the “Field of Blood”, were “innumerable” amongst the Franks at Hattin and even accompanied Louis IX in 1252. In the early twelfth century, Albert of Aachen and Raymond of Aguilers both described Byzantine Turcopoles as the children of mixed Turkish–Christian marriages. As a result, some historians see this as a name given to any kind of native soldiery enlisted under the crusaders, while others think that it refers to light cavalrymen. It is fairly certain that they were light cavalry employed to raid, harass and ambush enemy forces. In major battles, they seem to have been amalgamated with the traditional Frankish heavy cavalry. Usamah unequivocally calls them the “archers of the Franks”, and other evidence bears out the suggestion that at least some of them were mounted archers. The balance of the evidence by the end of the twelfth century suggests that they were light cavalry and often mounted archers, sometimes of native and sometimes of Frankish origin, used in special roles, as scouts, messengers and above all raiders who harassed the enemy. However, they were not numerous enough in pitched battle to face the light cavalry and mounted archers of the Turks, and so were used simply as a supplement to the heavy cavalry. This probably explains why the Templar Rule distinguishes between them and mounted sergeants, while associating the two in time of war. Conditions in the Middle East favoured the use of light cavalry, and the Frankish Turcopoles were a useful adjunct to the Frankish army.

There is no doubt at all that contemporaries were impressed by the power of the Frankish cavalry. At Marj as-Suffar on 25 January 1126, the forces of Damascus had pushed the Franks into retreat, but they turned on their enemies and defeated them with their “famous onset”. In the fighting around Damascus on the Second Crusade, we find the Frankish cavalry “delaying to make their famous onslaught until the opportunity should be offered” and seeking a “clear field for their own charge”, while in 1149 at Inab the Franks “made their famous charge”. Their horses were much admired – to Ibn alQalanisi, they were “magnificent” even in death. The importance of cavalry arose from the general conditions of fighting in open empty land characteristic of much of the Middle East. This tactic of the massed charge was a necessary riposte to the greater range of tactical expedients open to the Muslims. Tight formation could hold off envelopment, but eventually mounted bowmen could take a toll of even the most closely knit formation. The Franks, therefore, needed infantry; bowmen to hold the enemy at a distance and spearmen to protect the archers, because their relatively low rate of fire would expose them to being ridden down. This involved a high degree of discipline by all, and in particular the knights had to time their charge to the point where the enemy offered a good target, a formation whose defeat would be decisive. At the same time, they had to be able to mount small-scale attacks to counter enemy movements, all without upsetting their basic formation. It was a fundamental condition of this kind of war that Frankish armies had to hold together even when surrounded.

This fast-moving warfare was very different from European warfare and represented an impressive development of Western tactics. It depended on discipline and coordination within the Frankish field-army of a very notable kind. The formidable nature of the Frankish army can be judged by the respect conceded by their opponents. In the great campaigns of 1182 and 1183 Saladin, although enjoying superiority of numbers, was very wary about risking battle: the Franks for their part were prepared to checkmate him by shadowing his army, although many disliked this and reviled Guy for it. But the fact was that for the Franks a stalemate campaign was a success: it was Saladin, not they, who needed to conquer. However, by the mid-1180s the charms of these Fabian tactics must have been wearing thin, as the cumulative effect of enemy raiding and major expeditions imposed enormous costs on a nobility that was already in difficulties. In addition, the accession of Guy had divided the kingdom: he had many enemies prepared to criticize whatever course of action he took. The Battle of Hattin was an occasion when all of the military and political factors went wrong and destroyed the Latin Kingdom.


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