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The crusaders were not such incompetent zealots after all

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

The Crusader Strategy: Defending the Holy Land Steve Tibble

Yale, pp.353, 25

One of the strange effects that modernist, progressive society has had on what the French Annales school would refer to as our civilisation’s mentalité is the almost complete attenuation of memory about what the crusades were, why they were fought and what part they played in a multi-century struggle between two successful, expansionary and universal religions. Though this struggle is still being waged today, we’ve become expert at not noticing it.

Even at the level of military history, the crusaders have been written off with a hastily scribbled judgment that amounts to: ‘Invaded the Middle East and captured Jerusalem. Eventually driven into the sea by the brilliant generalship of Saladin.’ In 1954 Major General J.F.C. Fuller in his Military History of the Western World reminded his readers that the Byzantines saw the Franks (a collective term for crusaders, wherever they hailed from) as illiterate barbarians, and dismissively pinned their failure to capture Damascus on their ‘ignorance of strategy’.

Were the crusaders little more than incompetent zealots? Against this charge, Steve Tibble throws down the gauntlet. The author of previous scholarly works on crusader armies and on the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, he argues in his latest book that these ‘barbarians’ were also strategic thinkers — at least more often than not.

He is at pains to define his terms, carefully distinguishing concepts that describe various scales of action: ‘policy’, at the elevated level of setting political goals; ‘tactics’, at the ground level of building castles and fighting battles; and ‘strategy’, as the complicated decision-making layer connecting the two, a layer that makes policy real and tactics meaningful. By focusing on decisions and actions, Tibble argues persuasively that although the crusaders lacked the jargon and analytical apparatus of what we now (often incorrectly) call ‘strategy’, their ability to support policy by actions repeated over time and modified in the light of constraints properly amounted to just that.


Consider the ‘Ascalon strategy’ of the quarter century beginning in 1125. Twenty-three years prior to that date, a Fatimid army, numbering perhaps 20,000, marched out of the coastal fortress of Ascalon and into the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Misinformed that this was merely a raiding party, King Baldwin’s force of a few hundred knights met the invading army and was destroyed. Recognising the continuing danger presented by the fortress, the crusader state subsequently initiated

one of the most overt and institutionally consistent expressions of strategy in medieval history: building a series of castles to systematically isolate and threaten an enemy base over an almost 20-year period that encompassed the reigns of two kings.

This fortified encirclement worked: in 1153, after decades of patient effort, the knights took Ascalon.

Yet for all of the crusader leaders’ astute judgment, sharpened by experience, the wider correlation of forces was against them almost from the start — and it was a situation that got steadily worse. The First Crusade (which established the states of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem) had been a victory that few had expected, made possible in part by the Muslim world being in the midst of a struggle between the Egyptian Fatimids and waves of Seljuk Turks invading from the north east.

Into this maelstrom the crusaders burst — ‘no more nor less foreign than the Turks themselves’. But they became victims of their own success when many of their fighting men congratulated themselves on a job well done and headed home to their lands and families. Remaining Franks would face a situation that they could mitigate but never overcome — their states mostly hemmed in against the long Mediterranean coast, with too few forces to defend any given part on a permanent basis, and confronting enemies that every year grew more confident and less fractured.

Providence is on the side of the big battalions, as the French used to say. By 1187, Saladin was able to field four large armies in a multi-pronged invasion of the crusader states. A mere contingent from one of these was easily able to destroy the field force of elite Knights Templar cavalry deployed to block it. Help from Europe would have been years away, if it ever came at all. Tibble writes of what must have been a crushing awareness for the participants:

This was a vision of the future. A vision of all that the crusader states had to look forward to. A remorseless grinding down of their communities. No end in sight.

The crusaders eventually found themselves inexorably swallowed up by the territory onto which they had so bravely hurled themselves. Yet, as this compelling book demonstrates, while we may now have trouble identifying with the lofty — even zealous — goals those men set themselves, we can at least respect them for having played this desperate, high-stakes match with determination, resourcefulness and forethought. Against such odds, would we have done the same?

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