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Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Battle of Dorylaeum

Two weeks ago, in his first guest post, Rand Brown looked at the start of the First Crusade. Today he examines the first important battle of that military campaign.

For reasons not entirely clear from the sources, the Crusader lords decided to divide the army into two columns – a smaller vanguard and a larger main body – as they marched through the inhospitable Anatolian plateau.  This plan may have been determined according to sound contemporary military practice in Europe where dividing one’s force allowed for more efficient foraging.  Although the vanguard was the smaller, it benefited from the military experience of Bohemond who commanded overall as well as the reinforcement of his highly competent Italio-Norman forces.  Accompanying him were the equally competent Duke Robert Curthose of Bohemond’s ancestral Normandy, the son of the famous William the Conqueror, and Duke Robert of Flanders along with their forces and thousands of pilgrims, including women and children.  Also joining them was the Byzantine advisor, Tatikios, and his nominal force which really amounted to a glorified bodyguard.  The main body contained the rest of the army and was led by Count Raymond, Duke Godfrey, and Bishop Adhemar.  Although the two columns were separated by about a half-day’s march distance (about 5km according to John France’s estimates), almost all the chroniclers attest to vast amounts of pilgrim stragglers strung out between them, perhaps thinking that they could retreat to the safety of either if attacked.

The Anatolian Plateau is still characterized by a labyrinthine network of ridges and valleys that considerably impact the passage of large forces.  In the late 11th Century, army movement through this region would have been tortuously slow.  Additionally, the chroniclers attest to the harsh conditions of the dry and barren climate, noting that the suffering among the many non-combatant pilgrims was already taking its toll and perhaps weighed heavily on the Crusader lords’ minds.  While there is still room for debate about the actual location of the first epic engagement of the First Crusade, Dr. France has made a very convincing argument for a patch of ridge-flanked valley about 4km north of the modern Turkish city of Bozüyük and 45km northeast of the site of the Dorylaeum outpost.  At this particular site, the west-to-east valley takes a decided turn southwards after passing through a thin passage that forms an excellent choke-point.  It is not hard for one to imagine that this choke-point would serve as an excellent place for Kilij Arslan to spring an ambush.
On 1 July, 1097, the sun rose over the makeshift camp of Bohemond’s vanguard column that had just spent the night somewhere near the Bozüyük choke-point.  It is not unreasonable to assume that a commander of Bohemond’s considerable experience would have chosen a site that at least took advantage of whatever defensible terrain features existed at the time – which, according to the chroniclers, included a slight hillock on the site itself and a marsh on one flank.  Surrounding them were tiny ravines and trails that led down from the surrounding ridges, impossible for large armies to traverse, but perfect for small parties.  It was still early when word of first contact came back from Crusader scouts who reported brief skirmishes with Seljuk counterparts in the valley leading south.  The intensity of these skirmishes probably alerted Bohemond that these were more than mere local raiders and that Kilij was lurking somewhere nearby, waiting for the right moment to spring his trap.  Realizing the precarious nature of their position, Bohemond halted the many knights from impetuously chasing after the small parties of Turkish harassers with the help of Robert of Normandy.  Maintaining strict command and control over his isolated column would be essential to surviving this engagement as the Seljuks triumphed when they could divide and scatter their more heavily armored foes.

Bohemond quickly ordered all knights in the camp to dismount and form a solid rank facing southwards, reinforced by the thousands of common infantry behind them.  At about the same time, the first elements of Kilij Arslan’s mounted horde began streaming down from the many paths and ravines from the surrounding hills.  Fulcher of Chartres and the anonymous author the Gesta Francorum offer vivid descriptions of the engagement and may have been personally present for it.  They both recount the terror and chaos in the vanguard camp as the first clouds of Seljuk arrows crashed among them, wounding both soldier and non-combatant alike.  However, the ranks of the dismounted knights stood firm, bolstered by the iron discipline imposed by Bohemond and his fellow lords along with the superiority of their armor.  Ralph of Caen, a Norman chronicler of the First Crusade, bore explicit testimony to this when he wrote, “The enemy were helped by their numbers – we by our armor.”  Although many unarmored pilgrims suffered grievously from the Turkish attack, the real priority of the Crusade – the armored knightly professionals upon whom the entire effort relied – weathered the storm well and stood as a wall against the chaotic Seljuk maneuvering.

According to all the chroniclers, this initial phase of the fight lasted for an extremely long time – at least a six hour stretch from dawn until sometime around 12 noon.  This would be consistent for an action where the Western forces entrenched into an almost “wagon fort” stance while the Turks raced about, loosing arrow after arrow and probing for weaknesses to exploit.  While they still possessed ammunition, the Seljuks had little reason to engage in close quarters fighting.  However, this rapidly changed as arrow reserves began to run low with no real impact on the solid ranks of knights and footmen.  Steadily, bands of Turks attempted to charge through into the Western camp.  Many of the chroniclers describe this moment as their most desperate, with a few Turks making it inside the camp to strike terror into the women, priests, and wounded within.  However, wherever the Turks got close the initiative then swung in favor of the heavier armored Latin knights and infantry who were far more skilled at melee combat than their foe.  Also, the terrain benefited Bohemond’s force, as the elevated ground forced the Turks to charge upwards and the marsh on the west flank bogged down the Turkish riders who ventured into it and become easy targets for Crusader infantry.  Kilij must have begun to sense that these Latins were a vastly different breed than the disordered mob Peter the Hermit had led to the slaughter a mere year ago.  As more and more Turks were forced to charge in for close combat, the situation began to embarrass Seljuk overconfidence.  Around the noon hour, horns were heard in the hills to the west and announced that the Turkish situation was now hopeless.

Bohemond’s great gamble had been to hold just long enough with his vanguard for the much larger main force (at least two to three times the van’s size) to link back up with him.  By brilliantly executing superb command and control over his forces, he had been able to do just that despite nearly being surrounded by Seljuk attackers.  As the mounted forces of Godfrey, Raymond, and the rest of the Crusader host crested the ridge to the west, the Turks had nearly run out of ammunition and were hopelessly pinned against Bohemond’s dismounted lines.  

What followed was a mass charge that smashed into the confused Seljuk ranks and scattered them, while Bishop Adhemar held high the white banner of St. Peter he had received from Pope Urban.  What must have begun as a confident ambush turned into a complete disaster for the Seljuk warlords and, with the arrival of the main body, the situation for Kilij Arslan was unrecoverable.  The surviving Turks vanished back into the surrounding hills, individual chieftains undoubtedly giving into self-interest at the expense of any unified effort for Kilij’s sake.  Almost as quickly as it had begun, the first true battle of the First Crusade was over.


Although the Crusaders held the field on that July day, they did so at a frightful cost.  Even though there had been few casualties from among the knights and professional soldiers, thousands of unarmored pilgrims had fallen to Turkish arrowfire and skirmishing.  Some of the largest numbers came from those pilgrims who had been straggling in between the two columns and who were virtually defenseless against bands of Seljuk riders.  Also, while many of the chroniclers attest otherwise with figures that beggar belief, the Crusaders are thought to have actually outnumbered the Seljuks in this fight.  Somewhere about 200,000 is thought to be the total head count for the Latin host, with around 50,000 of that number being actual knights and professional fighters.  Kilij Arslan would have been lucky to raise even 20,000 fighters in his hasty rush to intercept the Latin host.  However, they knew the land far better and, with the division of the Crusader columns, had possessed a golden opportunity to destroy them piecemeal – an opportunity they utterly failed to seize.

Kilij Arslan fled back into the depths of Anatolia with the shattered remnants of his forces and his reputation.  According to the Anonymous, the would-be sultan had to lie to the remaining garrisons of Anatolia, telling them of a “great victory” just so they would open their gates and let him pass through.  Never again would Kilij Arslan pose a threat to the movement of the First Crusade.  As the Latin host proceeded, city after city would submit and return to Byzantine control.  However, the reconquest of Asia Minor was not the goal of the great Western effort – much to Byzantine frustration.  After recovering from their desperate first engagement, the united Crusader army rapidly made their way southwards towards the friendlier territory of Armenian Christian Cilicia, where they could conserve their strength before pushing towards the great city of Antioch – where Asia Minor and Syria met and where the Latin host would need to pass in order to gain access to the Levant and, ultimately, Jerusalem.

Dorylaeum represented the first real clash of arms between the Western forces of the First Crusade, teaching them lessons of warfare in the Near East that would prove invaluable as they drove ever closer to their ultimate goal in Palestine.  It also allowed the various Crusader lords – formerly only experienced in European warfare – to see just what exactly they would be facing and how to defeat it.  If any credit is given for the Latin victory there, it would be rightly bestowed upon the superior armor and melee skills of the Western knights.  Later on in the Crusades, Islamic chroniclers would refer to the Latin knights as “the men of steel” whose far superior armor could almost negate the impact of their mounted archers.  However, this capability was only effective if Latin commanders could keep their troops in strictly ordered ranks and refused to let them become scattered chasing after bands of mounted archers feigning retreat.  Here is where Bohemond’s skill as a military leader paid off in dividends for the Crusade.  With his experience fighting in the East, he knew how imperative strict command and control was when facing the rapid fluidity of the Seljuk fighting style.  Had he not been in command of the vanguard, it is very probable that it would have met the same fate as the pitiful People’s Crusade and the First Crusade as a whole might have ended in bitter disappointment.  The victory at Dorylaeum allowed the Crusade to continue with enhanced momentum toward their final objective and even tipped the scales within Asia Minor back in favor of the beleaguered Byzantines for at least a time.

Sources Referenced:

John France.  Victory in the East – A Military History of the First Crusade.  Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

_______.  Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades 1000-1300.  Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Fulcher of Chartres, et al.  The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials.  Ed. Edward Peters.  Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

Rand L. Brown II is a co-founder of Real Crusades History.  He possesses a MA in Military History from Norwich University and currently serves as a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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