Battle of Ascalon: Crusaders Defeat Egyptian Relief Army

 
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Battle of Ascalon: Crusaders Defeat Egyptian Relief Army

Today in Military History: August 12, 1099

Today's historical account rings down the final curtain on the First Crusade – the only expedition to the Near East which actually accomplished its goal.

Background

After capturing Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, most of the European crusaders felt their mission was completed. Many of them began to make preparations to leave for their homes. Others decided to stay in the Holy Land, and made arrangements for who would rule the newly-captured lands in the Levant. On July 22, Godfrey of Bouillon was appointed "Guardian of the Holy Sepulchre." He refused the title of "King of Jerusalem, because he said he could not wear a crown of gold in the same city where Jesus wore his crown of thorns.

Shortly afterwards, ambassadors from Fatimid-ruled Egypt arrived, demanding that the "Franks" leave Jerusalem immediately (as the Fatimids were the previous rulers of the Holy City). The Muslims were totally ignored. However, in early August, scouting reports indicated that a large Fatimid army was closing on Jerusalem. This same army had been reported on the way to the Holy City during the month-long siege.

Robert II, Count of Flanders

Preliminaries to Battle

On August 10, Godfrey gathered his forces and marched westward to the port of Ascalon (today known as Ashkelon), where the Fatimid army was reported to be encamped. Robert Count of Flanders and his troops also accompanied Godfrey, as did Arnulf of Chocques – a cleric recently appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem – who carried a relic of the True Cross, discovered in the Holy City on August 5, in the front of the crusader force. Another cleric carried the Holy Lance, discovered in Antioch the previous winter. During the march the crusaders met the forces of Tancred of Hauteville and Godfrey's brother, Eustace Count of Boulogne.

Not all of the European forces accompanied Godfrey and his troops. Raymond of Toulouse and Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy (and eldest son of William the Conqueror) stayed behind. There is some dispute about the reason for their hanging back. Both men were rivals of Godfrey over the rulership of the Holy City. There is also speculation that the two nobles were also waiting to hear from their own scouts about the position of the Fatimid army. When the Egyptian army's position was confirmed, Raymond's and Robert's retainers departed the next day to join the rest of the Christian army.

Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy

On August 11, as the crusaders approached their target, they discovered a huge herd of animals, which included camels, sheep, goats, and oxen, calmly grazing outside the city. Prior to joining the main European army, Tancred had taken some local Arabs as captives. These prisoners explained that this herd was being used to bait the "Franks" to disperse and begin pillaging the countryside, thereby making them prey to a quick attack and defeat by the Egyptian host. Instead, the crusaders gathered the animals and herded them along as they marched. Later that day, Godfrey's scouts reported that the Fatimid army was camped just outside of the port. Apparently, the enemy had no inkling that the "Franks" had struck out from Jerusalem, and were equally unaware that the crusaders were so close.

The Two Armies – Egyptian Fatimid vs. European Crusader

The Egyptians were being led by al-Afdal Shahanshah, vizier (prime minister) of the Fatimid caliph. He commanded an army variously estimated by modern authorities to have been between 20,000 and 30,000 effectives, possibly up to 50,000. [One of the European chronicles, the "Gesta Francorum," states that the Egyptian army numbered 200,000, clearly an exaggeration.] It consisted of Seljuk Turks, Persians, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, and Sudanese (although these last were referred to as "Ethiopians," which was unlikely but not impossible). It is interesting to note that al-Afdal, who was determined to retake Jerusalem from the "Franks," had no siege machinery to attack the Holy City.

Seljuk Turk horse archers (photo courtesy of Perry Miniatures)

The Fatimid army units were generally separated along ethnic lines, thus the Arabs were usually the light cavalry and skirmishers (javelinmen or slingers), while the Turks would be the horse archers or heavy cavalry (known as Mameluks), and the black Africans, Armenians, and other Arabs generally acted as the heavy infantry and foot archers. Other groups – such as Kurds – were likely mercenaries, serving as either light horsemen or heavy cavalry. This army has been described as one more closely resembling the "Arab conquest" armies of the mid-seventh century.

Egyptian / Turkish heavy infantry (photo courtesy of Perry Miniatures)

The crusading Europeans' numbers are equally speculative, though one of the chroniclers cites their strength as 1200 knights and mounted sergeants (see below), with 9000 infantry, which is probably about right. These riders would probably have closely resembled they Norman mailed knights that helped William of Normandy conquer England almost 35 years previously.

Crusader knights (photo courtesy of Perry Miniatures)

The footmen were predominately spearmen (see below), with a mixture of bowmen and crossbowmen as well. Usually, spearmen were placed in the army's forward position, with archers and crossbowmen either behind the spearmen or interspersed with them. When the time was judged appropriate, the infantry would open and allow the cavalrymen to charge the enemy. If the knights were repulsed, they would retire behind the spearmen to regroup.

Armored Crusader spearmen (photo courtesy of Perry Miniatures)

The Battle

Early in the morning of August 12, the crusaders' scouts reported that the Fatimid camp was quiet, with no idea that their enemy was bearing down on them. Godfrey quickly gave orders for the European forces to deploy into battle formation. During the march the crusaders had been organized into nine divisions: Godfrey led the left wing, Raymond the right, and Tancred, Eustace, Robert of Normandy and Gaston IV of Béarn made up the centre; each wing was further divided into two smaller divisions, and a division of foot soldiers marched ahead of each. This arrangement was also used as the line of battle outside Ascalon, with the center of the army between the Jerusalem and Jaffa Gates, the right aligned with the Mediterranean coast, and the left facing the Jaffa Gate.

As the "Franks" approached the Egyptian camp – probably just after dawn – the Fatimid pickets saw a tremendous cloud of dust approaching. In addition to their horses and footmen, the crusaders also had the herd of animals they had taken the previous day. Whether this was a deliberate tactic to frighten the Egyptians is not known for certain; it accomplished that task anyway. By the time the crusaders had arranged their battle line, some of the Fatimid soldiers had regained their courage and began to don their armor, arm themselves and get into line.

Both armies fired several volleys of missiles – arrows, crossbow bolts, sling stones, javelins – hoping to harass or disrupt the opposing line. Then, the infantry of both lines charged their enemy. The Sudanese heavy foot attacked the crusader center, giving as good as they got. A portion of the Fatimid forces – probably light cavalry and horse archer – outflanked the European line and attacked the rearguard, mainly spearmen and probably some clerics with the relics. Fortunately, Godfrey of Bouillon led some of his horsemen from the left wing to counter this attack.

Several contemporary histories say this battle was over very quickly. Probably the suddenness and surprise of the crusader attack was too much for the Egyptians. Also, the Fatimid heavy cavalry apparently could not deploy in sufficiently large numbers to make a difference. By mid-morning, the Egyptian army had had enough; the survivors left the battlefield and headed pell-mell for the port of Ascalon.

Aftermath

As with many battles of this period, casualty figures are purely speculative. The crusaders probably did not lose a great many men, due to their sudden attack. Fatimid losses have been estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000 men. The crusaders spent the night in the abandoned Egyptian camp, taking as much plunder as they could, then burnt the rest. The army returned to the Holy City the next day. Many of the major knights, feeling their crusader vows fulfilled, left for their homes. Within months, there would be few than 200 knights in Jerusalem.

Footnote #1: Despite winning the battle, the city of Ascalon itself remained in Fatimid hands. It would finally be taken by the forces of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1153.

Footnote #2: Godfrey would die in July of 1100. Depending on the chronicler, he either died while besieging the city of Acre, from poisoning, or a prolonged illness.

Footnote #3: The crusaders would continue to hold the Holy City until it fell to Saladin in 1187. 

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