Battle of Montgisard: Baldwin IV, Leper-King of Jerusalem, Defeats Saladin's Invasion

 
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Battle of Montgisard: Baldwin IV, Leper-King of Jerusalem, Defeats Saladin's Invasion

Oil painting of "Battle of Montgisard, 1177" by Charles-Philippe Larivière (c. 1842)
Note King Baldwin – left of center – being carried on a litter
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 25, 1177

It has been a while since I presented a battle revolving around the Crusades, so allow me to present a battle which served as a prelude to the Third Crusade. It centers upon one of the time period's most notable Muslim rulers and military leaders, Salah ad-Din (better known to the people of western Europe as Saladin).

Background

After the capture of Jerusalem put an emphatic period on the First Crusade, the Crusader kingdoms had to endure nearly a century of attacks by their Muslim neighbors. The nearest of these enemies was Ayyubid Egypt, which launched near-annual invasions or raids bent on reducing the Frankish possessions in the Holy Land. Fortunately for the Europeans, the Egyptian armies consisted mostly of large numbers of unarmored foot archers, Arab light cavalry, and Seljuk Turk horse archers. The Egyptian forces more often than not did not contain large numbers of armored heavy cavalry who could match the Western knights and mounted men-at-arms, who were usually the mailed fist of the Crusader armies, sometimes bringing victory to the Franks with a single charge.

King Baldwin IV, ruler of Kingdom of Jerusalem (1174-1185), as; Portrayed by Edward Norton in the film Kingdom of Heaven (2005); Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.fr/explore/kingdom-of-jerusalem
King Baldwin IV, ruler of Kingdom of Jerusalem (1174-1185), as
Portrayed by Edward Norton in the film Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.fr/explore/kingdom-of-jerusalem/

By 1177, the Kingdom of Jerusalem faced two major crises, one from within and one from without. Internally, the issue involved who would succeed sixteen year-old King Baldwin IV, who, as a leper, could not produce any heirs and was not expected to live long. The most likely candidate was the child of his pregnant, widowed sister Sibylla. While the nobles of the kingdom sought a new husband for Sibylla, the situation was complicated by the arrival of Philip of Alsace.

Philip was also the Count of Flanders (part of present-day Belgium), and – in his own words – had come to the Holy Land as a pilgrim, not to stay. However, he was also the closest male relative of King Baldwin. The monarch offered Philip the regency of the kingdom as the Frankish army was preparing to invade Egypt. Philip demanded that Sibylla be married to one of his vassals, which was refused. Meanwhile, Baldwin formed an alliance with the Byzantine Empire with the goal of jointly striking at Egypt by land and sea.

The visiting count of Flanders also wanted something more from King Baldwin: Philip wanted to be made king of any lands conquered during the Egyptian adventure. This was rejected by Baldwin. In early October, Philip left Jerusalem to campaign in the north for the Principality of Antioch, participating in an unsuccessful siege of Harim (or Hama) before returning home to Flanders. Two more consequences of the Baldwin-Philip intrigue were: a) the tentative alliance with the Byzantines for the invasion of Egypt fell apart, as the East Roman fleet left for its bases in the eastern Mediterranean; and, b) a number of the nobles of the Kingdom of Jerusalem followed Philip north to the siege of Hama, removing themselves and their troops out of action for the battle to come.

Prelude to the Battle

While Baldwin and Philip schemed over Egypt, the sultan of Ayyubid Egypt, Saladin, began preparing to attack Jerusalem from his base in Egypt. Saladin had a very efficient intelligence network, and knew of the proposed attack on his domain, as well as the arrival of Philip. In mid-November, Saladin marched into Palestine at the head of an army guess-timated at 26,000 men by Christian chronicler William of Tyre. Though he initially lacked Saladin's numbers, Baldwin issued the traditional arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian in the kingdom to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm. As a result, infantry and likely turcopoles (light cavalry archers) began streaming to join him.

Crusader states between the 1st and 2nd Crusades (1099-1147); Image courtesy of https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/10/21/port-of-ascalon
Crusader states between the 1st and 2nd Crusades (1099-1147)
Image courtesy of https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/10/21/port-of-ascalon/

King Baldwin's goal was to mount a defense at the fortress-city of Ascalon, one of the first major cities on the main trade route between Egypt, Jerusalem, and the major cities of the eastern Mediterranean. [Ascalon was the site of the first battle between the Crusaders and Muslims about a month after the capture of Jerusalem.] As he was young and weakened by his disease, King Baldwin gave effective command of his forces to Raynald of Châtillon, an implacable foe of Saladin.

Baldwin and his army arrived at Ascalon, and no sooner was his force inside the city walls, when a detachment of Saladin's army quickly blockaded the Christians inside. Also accompanying Baldwin was the Bishop of Bethlehem, carrying a portion of the True Cross. The king somehow managed to get a message to the Knights Templar who were defending Gaza, asking them to basically abandon that city (Saladin had purposely bypassed it, save for a small force to blockade the town) and join his forces at Ascalon.

Crusader Army

The only known numbers of the Christian army include the approximately 450-460 heavy knights, about 80 of them Templar knights responding to the summons of Baldwin. We can speculate that at least an equal number of mounted men-at-arms and squires were also present, perhaps slightly more. Some historians estimate that about 4000 infantry – spearmen, swordsmen, axemen, and crossbowmen – were also present.

Crusader knights charging, lances couched; Image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com
Crusader knights charging, lances couched
Image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com

Finally, there is also the possibility that several hundred turcopoles were present. These native-born soldiers were mainly lightly-armored horse archers who provided harassing, mobile archery fire on the flanks of the Crusader armies of the period, as well as performing as scouts. If we add these up, King Baldwin's force probably numbered between 5000 and 6000 men. Considering that Saladin had invaded the Christian kingdom only a week previously, it was a herculean task to have mobilized this many men so quickly.

Ayyubid Army

The composition of the Saladin's Ayyubid Egyptian host is much more problematic. Only the Christian chronicler William of Tyre gives the number of 26,000 men in the invasion force. But he does not give a breakdown of the army. Once more, we are forced to speculate…

Seljuk Turk horse archers, image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com
Seljuk Turk horse archers, image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com

At least two-thirds of Saladin's invasion force likely consisted of mounted men, probably half heavy cavalry (the famed Mamluks, slave troops highly trained and disciplined), and the remainder light horse archers. The remaining third of the Ayyubid force consisted of armored spearmen, swordsmen, and foot bowmen. Saladin's personal bodyguard were Mamluks heavy horsemen, dressed in yellow tunics and numbering 1000 men strong.

Battle of Montgisard

Saladin believed, with Baldwin and his forces blockaded in the city of Ascalon, that the remainder of his invasion was a sure thing. [A number of smaller towns had small garrisons, but even the garrison of Jerusalem was inadequate for the job of protecting the Holy City.] Therefore, the Egyptian sultan made a serious mistake; he loosened the usually tight discipline he exercised on his army, and allowed his mounted regiments to begin raiding and looting the countryside. The towns of Ramla, Lydda, and Arsuf were attacked and looted, collecting food, horses, and sheep.

However, the Crusader force had left Ascalon a few days earlier, eluding the small blockading force, and began to pursue the Ayyubid army, following the line of destruction left  behind them. Finally, in the vicinity of the city of Ramla, near the modern-day village of Tell al-Safi, Crusader scouts spotted a large remnant of the Egyptian army, which included Saladin and his Mamluk bodyguard. Many of the Muslim units were still widely scattered, and would take a long while to reassemble them. Many other regiments were worn out from the long march. In addition, the Egyptian baggage train – carrying the army's accumulated plunder – was bogged down in recently-harvested, muddy fields trying to cross a nearby stream.

Apparently, the approach of the Crusaders gave Saladin sufficient warning to recall some of his troops. He managed to arrange a center division – probably his Mamluk bodyguards, with some supporting infantry – and right and left wings of cavalry placed slightly forward of the center. One of the wings was commanded by Saladin's nephew, Taqi ad-Din.

King Baldwin hastily arranged his battle formations, and asked the Bishop of Bethlehem to bring forward the piece of the True Cross. After being helped down from his horse, the monarch got on his knees before the relic, and prayed for victory. His entire army followed suit, cheering as their leader rose and re-mounted his horse.

A scene from the film Kingdom of Heaven, depicting the battle of Montgisard; Photo courtesy of http://defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com/the-victor-of-montgisard.html
A scene from the film Kingdom of Heaven, depicting the battle of Montgisard
Photo courtesy of http://defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com/the-victor-of-montgisard.html

Charging the Ayyubid force from the north, the Crusader army was led by King Baldwin himself, flourishing his sword in his left hand. [The first symptoms of leprosy were detected in Baldwin's right arm, and it had subsequently become useless to the teenage monarch.] He was supported by the entire force of heavy knights – fighting in a flying wedge – which impacted the center of the hastily-assembled Muslim force. Despite his youth and his condition, King Baldwin was in the thick of the fighting. The remainder of the Frankish army hurried to catch up to the rampaging knights.

The initial impact of the Frankish knights was like a whirlwind, shattering the Ayyubid formation and breaking the morale of the invaders. Saladin's bodyguards fought valiantly to protect their leader, and the Egyptian sultan came close to death or capture a number of times. If not for the courage of his Mamluks, Saladin might have died.

Despite his efforts to rally his troops, Saladin made a dash for the Egyptian border, riding on a swift camel. Seeing their sultan leaving the battlefield, many of his men followed him. It is likely that some portion of the Ayyubid force continued fighting the Franks, hoping to cover the retreat. Finally, all semblance of cohesion in the Egyptian force broke down in the late afternoon. The invaders sped to follow their sultan, and the Crusaders began a pursuit that lasted until nightfall. The battle of Montgisard was ended…

Aftermath

Like most medieval battles, casualties for both sides only vaguely stated. Historians estimate that only 10 percent of Saladin's invasion force managed to return to Egypt. [If the stated figure of 26,000 Ayyubid soldiers in the original force is even close to correct, that means that less than 3000 Muslim fighters survived.] It took Saladin 10 days to return to the safety of Egypt. The remnants of his army were harassed all the way across the Sinai Desert, in addition to suffering through 10 days of deluging rain.

The leader of one of the knightly orders stated that 1100 Crusader soldiers were killed in the fighting, and about 750 were wounded. If these figures are accurate, then something like 30-35 percent of the Frankish force was put out of commission. In the long run, the Kingdom of Jerusalem could ill-afford such Pyrrhic victories. They would need a steady stream of western adventurers to journey to Palestine to continue safeguarding the existence of the various Crusader states.

Footnote #1: Saladin was in a precarious position as the Ayyubid sultan. He was not a native Egyptian, being an ethnic Kurd from an area which is now part of the modern-day nations of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. He sent messages back to Egypt to alert his followers that he was still alive and would soon return to resume his rule. Saladin even spread misinformation that the Crusaders had lost the battle. He would continue his attempts to wipe out the Crusader states over the next decade.

Footnote #2: Baldwin memorialized his victory by erecting a Benedictine monastery on the battlefield, dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day fell on the day of the battle.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.