Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Lion in the Desert - Part 3: The Coast Secured

            With Acre firmly in Christian hands, the great crusade could continue towards its intended goal.  However, Richard’s political problems – which would cast a long and dark cloud across his endeavor – were only just beginning.  The real trouble began almost before the dust from the Crusaders’ assault on Acre had settled.  Before the great Western host had even arrived in Palestine, the Franks in the Levant were divided into two camps – one that supported King Guy of Lusignan and another that favored Conrad of Montferrat, the hero of Tyre.  Conrad was an attractive figure for those dispirited by King Guy’s hapless sense of leadership and continual defeats.  The rift grew larger when Conrad openly defied Guy and refused to submit the rule of Tyre, the city he so steadfastly defended against Salah ad-Din when all else was falling before the Sultan.  Many Crusader nobles hoped that the arrival of the great Kings of the West would achieve a peaceful mediation between the two.  In reality, it merely exacerbated the conflict.  King Richard was inclined to support Guy due to his family being critical vassals of the Angevin Empire in Poitou.  Even though it is highly believed that Richard had little respect for the leadership (or lack thereof) of Guy, he could not afford to sour the relationship with his family back in the Angevin homeland.  Naturally, King Philip fostered a strong support for Conrad, if for nothing else but to plant yet another political thorn in Richard’s side.  At last, Philip could bear Richard’s shadow no longer.  Upon hearing that the heirless lord of Artois was among the casualties of Acre, Philip suddenly announced his intention to return home to secure Artois for his own throne.  Richard implored him to remain (if, for nothing else, to keep him away from scheming against his own realm), but Philip demanded half of Cyprus in return.  Richard refused and Philip sailed for France, leaving his French contingent under the nominal command of Duke Hugh III of Burgundy.  When rebuked by Pope Innocent III for abandoning the crusade, Philip claimed that it was due to Richard’s scheming and hence-forth began a non-stop propaganda campaign to blacken Richard’s name across all of Christendom.  In addition to this, Richard faced other troubles.
          After Emperor Barbarossa tragically died in Syria, the vast majority of his army returned home in despair.  A small core, however, remained and pressed on towards the siegeworks at Acre bearing their Emperor’s remains to inter in Jerusalem (as was his wish).  This detachment was led by a young relative of Barbarossa’s, Duke Leopold V of Austria.  Leopold took his new role with extreme seriousness and, though he was merely a minor noble compared to the two great kings, he now considered himself their peer.  This illusion was rudely shattered when, in the aftermath of the victory at Acre, Leopold’s knights attempted to raise the banner of Austria alongside the banners of Richard and Philip on the walls of the citadel.  Richard’s knights saw this as an affront and cut down the Austrian banner, hurling it from the walls.  When Leopold sought Richard out to complain, the English king brusquely ignored him.  Though he didn’t realize it at the time, this action would have grave consequences for Richard in the future and Leopold left the Crusade harboring a furious grudge against him.

Richard's knights hack down Leopold's banner from the citadel at Acre.
Lastly, there was the matter of over 3,000 Muslim captives – the remainder of the besieged garrison that Salah ad-Din had abandoned.  Richard had hoped to use these as additional bargaining chips with the Sultan, as was the usual custom of the time in Medieval warfare.  Contrary to many modern portrayals, Richard had no interest in needless bloodshed and was forever seeking means to reach a diplomatic détente with his opponent.  Richard’s terms to Salah ad-Din were simple – the return of the relic of the True Cross captured at the disaster of Hattin, the return of 1,500 captured Christians, and a payment of 200,000 dinars in return for the lives of the garrison.  However, unbeknownst to Richard, Salah ad-Din was experiencing grave internal troubles that prevented him from meeting these terms.  To raise such a sum and assemble that many prisoners would require the Sultan to put even more pressure on unreliable emirs who were even less inclined to lend assistance to a leader who just allowed such a severe defeat upon Islam. Instead of communicating these difficulties with Richard, Salah ad-Din dithered and demanded his own set of counter-terms.  Both sides went back and forth, tensions rising all the while.  Writes John Gillingham, “Neither side trusted the other and so both were looking for guarantees which the other would not give.”  Finally, in August of 1191, an ugly rumor reached Richard that the Christian captives had been massacred.  In one of his more impetuous moments and under pressure from rogue factions within the crusading army, Richard assembled his entire army on the plains outside Acre and ordered the summary execution of around 2,600 of the 3,000 prisoners.  While modern historians perhaps focus their strongest attacks on this single event, many of Richard’s contemporaries (to include his political enemies) saw this as the result of Salah ad-Din’s duplicitous dealings and betrayal of his own people.  Lastly, while this holds little moral weight, there were sound tactical justifications for Richard’s actions.  With Philip’s departure, the army was not large enough to sufficiently garrison Acre and provide security for so large a body of prisoners.  To leave them behind with a small guard force would have been extremely risky.  He could have simply freed them, but then his credibility would have been demolished in an army that already possessed its fair share of detractors.  All in all, the massacre did little to severely alter the relationship between the Franks and the Muslims, contrary to what pundits today will have their audiences believe.
Finally, on 25 August 1191, Richard found himself in sole command of perhaps the greatest crusading army ever fielded in Palestine and the time had come to advance towards the final goal.  Numbering around 20,000 men, the army of the Third Crusade - while still heavily outnumbered by their Syrio-Egyptian foes - was vastly superior to the crusading armies that had come before it.  While the previous hosts had been primarily composed of vast numbers of common pilgrims held together by a tiny core of knights, Richard’s army was a sleek offensive force comprised of crack military professionals from all over Christendom and the Christian Levant.  While the forces from Europe fielded both large bodies of mounted knights and professional infantry, the army also included contingents of the elite Military Orders of the Temple and the Hospital along with veteran troops from the estates in Outremer, hardened by years of fighting in the Levant.  Maintaining effective control over the discipline of this force would be a key element in Richard’s overall strategy as he pressed the initiative against Salah ad-Din.
Good detail of the critical coastal cities that Richard sought to win back.
Strategically, Richard would again focus his priorities on the seizure of the Palestinian coast and the crucial port cities that would be essential in supplying a resurgent Frankish Kingdom.  Setting out on 25 Aug, Richard resolved to strike south from Acre and conduct a “fighting-march” down the coast towards the ultimate goal of the fortress of Ascalon, liberating the cities of Arsuf and Jaffa along the way.  By seizing Ascalon, Richard would be able to sever Salah ad-Din’s vital supply lines from Egypt and hopefully bring the Sultan to the negotiating table.  Perhaps most unique of all in this march was that Richard had his fleet of Italian warships shadow the army from the sea as they progressed down the coast.  This integration of naval support and maritime maneuver into a land campaign was virtually unheard of in Medieval warfare and belied a tactical acumen in Richard that was possibly centuries ahead of his time.  However, the march would also carry his small army straight into hostile territory where his arch-enemy was already waiting for him.
Not long after leaving Acre, Richard and his army began to be continually harassed by small parties of Turkish horse-archers and skirmishers.  The key to Muslim tactics of the time was constant maneuver and speed.  As Gillingham notes:

“At Acre, the Franks had faced military problems essentially the same as those they would have faced in any siege of a similar town in Europe.  They had been safely entrenched behind their own line of fortifications and the renowned Turkish cavalry had never had a real opportunity to demonstrate its skill.  But from now on, the men of the West would be facing something quite different … The Turks used the speed and agility of their horses to stay at a distance while sending a rain of arrows upon their enemies … Only when their archery had reduced the enemy to a state of near helplessness did the Turks shoulder their bows and ride in for the kill.”

However, the iron discipline of Richard’s men began to pay off.  Issuing strict orders to hold their ranks, Richard prevented his men from splitting up and being drawn in by the faster skirmishers, maintaining their steady progress down the coast.  Elements within the army would trade places between the lead, center, and rear columns – the rear being the most vital.  All along the flanks of the formation, Richard deployed crack archers and crossbowmen who could keep the Turkish archers at a comfortable distance and provide cover for their own knights in the center.  Also, the superior armor of the crusaders severely frustrated the impact of the Turkish archery.  I saw some of the Frankish foot-soldiers with from one to ten arrows sticking in them,” wrote the Muslim chronicler, Baha al-Din, “and still advancing at their usual pace without leaving the ranks … One cannot help admiring the wonderful patience displayed by these people, who bore the most wearing fatigue without any share in the management of affairs or deriving any personal advantage.”
Illustration of the Turkish sipahi cavalry that Richard and his army faced.
            As the crusaders steadily advanced towards Jaffa and showed no signs of giving into the bait offered by the skirmishing parties, Salah ad-Din realized that he had to face Richard on the field directly.  While it is apparent that this was not the Sultan’s first choice, the political pressure from his own shaky coalition was mounting and his inaction was beginning to look like weakness to his rival emirs.  Hastily assembling a force of 25,000 Turkish cavalry and Nubian skirmisher auxiliaries, Salah ad-Din waited for Richard alongside the coastal road outside Arsuf.  Taking up a position among the low-lying hills on the inland side, his hope was to ambush Richard and pick apart his army while pinning them against the sea.  As the crusaders came into view on 7 September, Salah ad-Din launched his horse archers towards the column.

            These attacks were far more intense than anything yet experienced on the march south and the arrows flew thick around Richard and his men.  However, Richard knew from his advisors among the Outremer veterans what these attacks sought to achieve and he reiterated his orders forbidding any unit to break ranks.  Again, he deployed his archers and crossbowmen to the flanks and a furious exchange of missile fire began between the Christians and Muslims.  Casualties mounted on both sides, but the Frankish army held firm.  Turkish cavalry then escalated to rapid charges and retreats against the rear column, commanded by the Master of the Hospital, Garnier de Nablus.  While the Turks would suffer a few casualties, they would withdraw before the Hospitallers could form a counter charge.  Garnier sent several runners to Richard asking for permission to break out, but the king denied him and ordered him to hold.  While his orders provoked feelings of frustrations within his knights, Richard knew that to charge out piecemeal would mean the end of his army, and Hattin would not be repeated this day.  Also, Richard knew that the longer he let the Muslims wear themselves out against his force, the sooner they would be low on ammunition and they would expose themselves to a devastating counter-charge.  Finally, a Turkish charge to the rear crashed in a bit deeper than intended and the impatient Master of the Hospital couldn’t resist any longer.  While the Muslim cavalry was still trying to reform themselves, the Hospitallers burst out behind the banner of Garnier.  Upon seeing this, the French knights in the center also charged out and Richard realized that he had to support them or they would be lost.  He formed up his English and Norman infantry on the beach as a reserve and ordered a mass counter-charge from all the knights in the army.  Whether he realized it or not, this order could not have come at a more perfect moment and caught Salah ad-Din’s army right as the Turkish riders were dismounting to form up with the Nubian footmen.
The Crusaders charge the hills at Arsuf, Sept 1191.  Richard can be seen
rallying his men on the extreme left.
            The powerful western knights smashed into the disorganized Muslim army and pressed their charge clear up into the inland hills.  One by one, the Muslim right, center, and left collapsed in a rout.  All afternoon, the crusader knights pursued Salah ad-Din’s fleeing troops across the hills clear back to their richly-laden camp.  A few Muslims tried to resist in small isolated pockets, but Richard had inflicted yet another severe blow to the military reputation of the great Sultan, who ignominiously fled the scene.  While Muslim losses were substantial – Richard de Templo records 32 Turkish emirs among the Muslim slain, Salah ad-Din’s army was not destroyed and was able to regroup with their Sultan farther inland due to Richard personally calling off the crusader pursuit as the sun began to set.  Three days later, Richard and his army seized Jaffa, the closest port city to Jerusalem.  Out of pure desperation and under significant pressure from his subordinate emirs to defend Jerusalem at all costs, Salah ad-Din ordered the demolition of the fortress of Ascalon.  While deeply humiliating, the Sultan would at least deny it to Richard.  When word reached the king, he hastily assembled the other crusader nobles and petitioned them to strike for Ascalon while Salah-ad-Din’s depleted forces were tied down with demolition work.  However, in what would become a tragic theme for his crusade, the other nobles vehemently disagreed and demanded that the army remain in Jaffa to prepare for a march on to Jerusalem.  While Richard’s course of action was the far better strategic choice (and many of his chroniclers recognized this), his army was also made up of thousands of knights and nobles who had come seeking to fulfill their pilgrimage vows.  This conflict of interest would later come to define the outcome of Richard’s campaigns in Palestine, as will be seen in the next installment of this series.
To be continued ...

Sources used:
Ambroise, L'Estoire de la guerre sainte, 1195AD.
Bahā' al-Dīn, The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, 1229AD.
John Gillingham, Richard I, Yale University Press, 1999AD.
Richard de Templo, Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, 1192AD.