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Monday, February 27, 2023

Defence of the Realm : Mobile Defence

During the first century of Frankish presence in the Holy Land, the field army rather than its castles had been the Frank’s greatest military asset. This was the weapon that had enabled five crusader states to be carved out of hostile territory and spearheaded the expansion of Frankish-controlled territory beyond the Jordan and down to the Red Sea. 


 The field army of the crusader states differed significantly and in various ways from the contemporary feudal armies of Europe. In Western Europe, hilly and forested terrain cut by frequent streams and cultivated valleys made the deployment of large military forces difficult, while the fragmented nature of the political landscape made them largely unnecessary. Furthermore, large feudal armies composed of vassals called up for military service were notoriously unwieldy, undisciplined and ineffective. The men in a feudal levy were essentially farmers and farm managers (the knights), whose service could not exceed forty days, making them worthless for sustained warfare. For such a mediocre and temporary host, kings were usually reluctant to disrupt the economy, as happened when a feudal host was mustered.

Instead, Western leaders of the crusader era preferred to employ smaller, professional forces composed of two elements: on the one hand, the personal retinue or household of the king and his closest associates and, on the other, mercenaries. The former was primarily knights, and the latter were sergeants or men-at-arms and archers along with some siege specialists. Mercenaries were notoriously expensive, inhibiting the number of such men who could be engaged at any one time. This reinforced the overall tendency to conduct offensive military operations with small units of mostly mounted men and to withdraw inside stout walls when on the defensive.

Lastly, many conflicts in Europe of this period were subnational, between magnates, barons or local lords. Even bigger conflicts, such as that between the Plantagenets and Capets, were usually conducted in the form of short raids or surgical strikes directed against the enemy’s economic or strategic assets by small troops of professional soldiers. This kind of warfare between small bands of professionals fostered ‘an individualistic ethos which valued bravery and comradeship within the group, rather than discipline’.[i] In close combat, men fought one-on-one and face-to-face. These military factors ultimately led to an important social change: the emergence of the knight as a distinct social class, and with it, the cult of chivalry. The latter reinforced pride in individual prowess and class-consciousness at the expense of the infantry.

Fighting in the Near East looked completely different. The topography of the Near East was more open, flatter and less cultivated. At the same time, the enemies of the Franks were centralised states with vast resources that could deploy forces numbering in the tens of thousands. The Franks, in contrast, could rarely deploy more than a few hundred knights at any one time and needed to develop tactics to compensate for this numerical disadvantage.

Modern calculations of the size of Frankish armies are based primarily on a list of fiefs and their military obligations put together in the mid-thirteenth century by John d’Ibelin, Count of Jaffa. It allegedly catalogued the feudal obligations of vassals pre-Hattin and was presumably based on fragmentary documentation and contemporary memory. While it is a remarkable document, it is incomplete and not entirely consistent. Furthermore, in addition to the knights owing feudal service, most lords would have had household knights who would have mustered and fought with them. The ratio of retained knights to fief knights varied between 1:2 and 3:2. Due to vacancies, illness, injuries and minorities, however, it would never have been possible to field 100 per cent of the fief knights. Altogether, the fief knights of the kingdom numbered roughly 700, and a further 300 retained knights could be postulated. In addition, the County of Tripoli had 100 knights and Antioch another 700. However, the knights of Antioch rarely fought with those of Jerusalem, so the maximum effective force the Kingdom of Jerusalem could field with the support of Tripoli was 1,100 knights.  

Yet, knights were only one component of the armies of the crusader states. Yuvai Harari has demonstrated that mounted archers, on average, made up 50 per cent of the Frankish cavalry and sometimes as much as 80 per cent.[ii] This combat arm, unknown in the West, was recruited primarily from the native Christian elites, notably the Armenian and Maronite landowning class. It was deployed, for example, for reconnaissance, to make lightning raids against supply and relief columns of the enemy and to lend greater weight to a charge.

In addition, some fiefs were ‘sergeantries’, and cities and monasteries often owed sergeant service in specified numbers. Based on the list of John of Jaffa, the total number of sergeants that could be called up was 5,025. These men were well-trained, well-disciplined and well-equipped. Sergeants were deployed as mounted troops and as infantry. They were not serfs, but invariably free men, drawn from the Latin and Orthodox Christian yeomanry in rural areas and tradesmen and craftsmen in urban areas. Arab sources testify to the fact that, like the knights, they could withstand substantial quantities of enemy fire without sustaining injury, much less casualties, which demonstrates they had effective armour. They were also capable of carrying out complicated maneuvers while under fire, including fighting while walking backwards, and opening ranks simultaneously to permit the knights of the army to charge.

In an emergency, the king could also issue the ‘arrière ban’, a form of ‘levee en masse’, which drafted every able-bodied man into the army. Such troops, like the peasants of Western feudal armies, were generally of limited military value. Similarly, armed pilgrims, who arrived from the West in unpredictable numbers and remained for uncertain periods, often participated in military campaigns. They swelled the numbers but given their unfamiliarity with the enemy’s tactics, the terrain and climate, their value would have been uneven at best.

Naturally, the Frankish kings could also hire mercenaries; these were often crossbowmen from the Italian mercantile states. Yet, they could also be knights. Henry II deposited 30,000 silver marks with both the Templars and Hospitallers to support a future crusade, and the Templar portion was used to hire ’English knights’. Finally, as will be discussed in more detail below, the Franks could count on the support of the militant orders. 

Altogether, at the large, confrontational battles during the height of Jerusalem’s power, such as Le Forbelet and Hattin, the Franks fielded an estimated 3,000 cavalry and 15,000 infantry. However, in most engagements, from the early battles at Ramla to Montgisard, the numbers of knights involved were closer to 300, 400 and 500. Almost always, the Saracens outnumbered the Franks by two or three — and sometimes ten — to one.

Survival as the outnumbered force required sophisticated tactics. Rather than fighting as they had in the West, the Franks adopted two tactical innovations that contributed to their success: the fighting box and mounted archers. The fighting box was a formation in which the most vulnerable components of an army (baggage train, sick and wounded) were placed in the centre, surrounded by mounted knights, who were in turn surrounded by infantry with shields, pikes and bows. All of whom was protected by a screen of mounted archers. The main advantage of the fighting box was that it could defend stationary positions or move as a square across long distances in either advance or retreat. In a retreat, the Franks would take the dead, giving the enemy the impression there were no casualties at all. When holding firm positions, fighting strength could be maintained by rotating the front-line units, giving men a chance to rest and quench their thirst. There are also examples of fighting boxes being used to evacuate civilians from vulnerable territory.

However, the fighting box was not exclusively a defensive tactic. It was also the platform from which the Franks launched their greatest offensive weapon. The primary purpose of the fighting box was to protect the knights’ horses from attrition and thus enable them to be used in a cavalry charge at the appropriate time. When the commander judged that a charge could be effective, the infantry opened gaps through which the cavalry charged the enemy.

A charge of Frankish cavalry could destroy the enemy — but only if it was well-timed, well-led and coordinated. Given the enemy’s numerical advantage, small charges were worthless and a dangerous waste of precious resources. Only a massive charge had a chance of unbalancing, shattering or scattering the enemy. Critically, like a modern missile, a charge could only be used once. Once released, the knights became embroiled in close combat, dispersed, cut off from command structures and practically uncontrollable.

 The salient feature of this tactic is that it required discipline from all participants. Marching and fighting simultaneously are not easy. To be effective, the fighting box had to work as a single unit. Gaps between the ranks had to be prevented and progress maintained without tiring the infantry. It was important for the infantry to keep their shields locked together — more like a Spartan phalanx than anything common in medieval Europe. The fact that armies of the crusader states repeatedly used the fighting box throughout their history testifies to the remarkable discipline of these armies. The tactic both contributed to and reflected respect for infantry and the burgesses that comprised it. However, when the discipline necessary for effective use of this tactic broke down due to poor leadership, the result was utter obliteration — as at the Battle of Hattin. 

The other key Frankish innovation was the deployment of mounted archers, something completely unknown in Europe at the time. The crusaders encountered the superb horse-archers of the Turks as soon as they crossed into Asia, and they not only learned to respect them, they imitated them. Neither heavy cavalry nor infantry was suited to conducting reconnaissance, carrying out hit-and-run raids, providing a protective screen for their ‘fighting box’ or carrying urgent messages. Frankish horses, bred to carry fully-armoured knights, could not — one on one — escape the faster, lighter horses of the Turks. Heavy cavalry deployed on reconnaissance was more likely to be ambushed and eliminated than return with the intelligence needed. Light cavalry was also more effective in hit-and-run raids against enemy camps or territory because the faster, native horses carrying lightly-armoured riders armed with bows were more likely to surprise the enemy — and escape again; they were also more likely to succeed as couriers. Lastly, light cavalry wearing similar armour and weapons as the enemy with a fluent/native command of Arabic was invaluable for intelligence gathering.

The first references in the primary sources to Frankish mounted archers date from 1109. From that point forward, they played an increasingly prominent role in the Frankish military, in some cases operating independently, and in other cases in support of the infantry and heavy cavalry. Frankish mounted archers were misleadingly but consistently referred to as ‘turcopoles’ in the primary sources of the period. This designation has led to confusion and a common misconception that they were Muslim troops, Muslim converts or the children of mixed marriages. In his lengthy analysis of Frankish turcopoles, Yuval Harari demonstrates that all three assumptions are false. In the Frankish context, the term ‘turcopole’ simply designated a military arm — mounted archers — without any ethnic connotations. Most turcopoles were native (Orthodox) Christians. This explains why they performed poorly in early engagements before the native Christian elites had developed the necessary skills after centuries of ‘dhimmitude’, but performed highly effectively after several decades of Frankish rule enabled them to develop the required cavalry and archery skills.

 Although primarily deployed in light cavalry functions, turcopoles had two additional functions when accompanying the Frankish army on campaign. During the march/deployment, Frankish armies were almost always harassed by Turkish mounted archers that concentrated on the van and the rear in an attempt to (1) bring the column to a halt, (2) force the rearguard to slow down until a gap developed for exploitation, or (3) provoke an ill-timed charge that could be destroyed. Frankish turcopoles could neutralise Saracen archers by acting as a screen around the fighting box, forcing the Saracens out of bow-shot range. Finally, in a set-piece battle, the turcopoles were folded into the heavy cavalry and provided additional weight and numbers to the charge. 

[i] John France, ‘Warfare in the Mediterranean Region in the Age of the Crusades, 1095-1291: A Clash of Contrasts’ in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 72.

[ii] Yuval Harari, ‘The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopole: A Reassessment’, in Mediterranean Historical Review (London: Routledge, 1997), 79. See also: Steve Tibble, The Crusader Armies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 117-124.




The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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