Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Bloodiest Day of the Third Crusade – Richard I and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf

by Charlene Newcomb

Richard I of England
King Richard I and his allies successfully secured the city of Acre in July 1191, and the second phase of the campaign to free Jerusalem from Saladin’s forces began. For years, scholars have debated whether Richard and his crusader army could have taken and held Jerusalem, which had been captured by their enemies in October 1187. One issue most Western scholars agree on was the need for Christian control of towns along the coastline south of Acre to Jaffa and the need for a secure supply route from Jaffa to Jerusalem—over 30 miles—to replenish the army for what was expected to be a drawn-out siege.

On the 22nd day of August, the Lionheart's army marched from Acre. Estimated to be 15,000-20,000 strong, the troops advanced slowly at first, 2 or 3 miles a day.

Marches began well before sunrise. As the men became acclimatized to the heat, they covered 10-13 miles a day, usually halting by midday and often resting a day. Between August 25 - August 30, 36 miles were covered. By September 5th, they'd advanced another 23 miles of the 80 mile trek between Acre and Jaffa.

The Holy Land in 1191-92
Saladin wasted no time: his cavalry harassed the crusader army every step of the way. The Muslim chronicler Baha' al-Din wrote that Saracen drummers and trumpeters played as their troops charged the Franks, a term they used for all European Christians. The Muslims would cry out 'Allah huwa Akbar' and fall on the crusaders in one cavalry charge after another. King Richard was wounded slightly during a skirmish on September 3rd, but he fought all the more fiercely. The author of the Itinerarium writes:

"...the wound was only a touch and actually incited him to attack the enemy as he was greedy to seek revenge for the pain of the wound."

The march was grueling. In the west, armies could live off the land, but the size of Richard’s army, the terrain, and Saladin’s scorched earth policy made this impossible. Miller suggests the typical man-at-arms carried over 30 pounds of food and his weapons. He might wear padded gambesons, hauberks, and chausses in the scorching August and September heat.

In addition to physical challenges, the men had to traverse a 12-mile stretch of the Forest of Arsuf. Rumors spread that the Saracens would set fire to the forest whilst the crusaders passed. Per Ambroise:
The unbelieving black-faced brood,
Had hid themselves in Arsur wood,
Which that day they would set on fire,
Kindling it to a blaze so dire
And fearsome that 'twould burn and roast
Our army.

Much to their relief, the army marched through the forest without incident. The way was narrow and Saladin's troops could not shadow them and had skirted further to the east. The crusaders emerged from the forest near the banks of the River Rochetaillie. Saladin's army was camped on the south side of the river. And there they rested two nights within sight of each other, each watching the other's campfires burn throughout the night.

The Battle of Arsuf, 7 Sept 1191

At sunrise on 7 September, King Richard ordered his men to move out. He had given the troops strict orders not to break rank no matter what the Saracens did. The crusaders' baggage train rumbled along the western flank nearest the sea. The infantry lined the eastern flank armed with shields, crossbows, and lances to ward off attacks and to protect the knights' horses. The knights themselves were divided into five divisions with Templars at the vanguard and Hospitallers in the rear.

Three hours into the march, the Saracens attacked the rearguard in what began the fiercest battle of the Third Crusade. An estimated 25,000 Saracens met the crusader army on a 1-2 mile wide plateau that skirted the Mediterranean Sea. (Other estimates claim the Saracens outnumbered the Crusaders two-to-one.)

Salāh al-Dīn
Saladin's strategy aimed to draw the crusaders out of their tight formation, but Richard knew that with each attack, Saladin's men and their horses would grow weaker. Had Saladin been successful and forced a gap between the crusaders' van- and rearguards, the battle would have played out much differently.

Despite Richard’s orders, the Hospitaller commander Fra' Garnier de Nablus urged the king to order a charge. At one point, the infantry had to march backwards to stave off repeated Saracen attacks. Casualties were mounting. So many horses had succumbed to enemy arrows, de Nablus said they'd not be able to charge when the order did come down. By mid afternoon, Saladin broadened his assaults along the length of the army's eastern flank. Richard still would not bend, but men in the rearguard grew desperate. They broke rank and began the charge. There was no turning back. Trumpets blared the signal and the Templars, Poitevins, French, and Bretons joined the Hospitaller charge. The Anglo-Normans held back to guard the royal standard, and as a second line of attack.

Muslim chronicler Baha' al-Dīn writes:
. . . the sultan [Saladin] was moving between the left wing and the right, urging the men on . . . Several times I encountered him, when he was attended by only two pages with two spare mounts and that was all . . . while the arrows were flying past them both.

The enemy's situation worsened still more . . . They took their lances and gave a shout as one man. The infantry opened gaps for them and they charged in unison along their whole line . . . Our men gave way before them.

Surprised by the all-out assault, Saladin's troops pulled back to avoid being encircled by the crusaders. Regrouping, the Saracens charged a second time. Attack, counter-attack. Geoffrey de Vinsauf writes:
In truth, the Turks were furious in the assault, and greatly distressed our men, whose blood poured forth in a stream beneath their blows . . . For all that, the king, mounted on a bay Cyprian steed, which had not its match, bounded forward in the direction of the mountains, and scattered those he met on all sides ; for the enemy fled from his sword and gave way. . .

By nightfall the fighting ended. Seven thousand Saracens had died. The Christian losses were a tenth of that number. A deadly day.

It was the last full assault Saladin would attempt against Richard and his Crusader army. Saladin had now lost Acre and a significant number of men. His army was tired and demoralized. This was a major victory for the Crusaders. Jerusalem lay within reach.

Ambroise. (1976). The crusade of Richard Lion-Heart. (Trans. by M.J. Hubert.) New  York: Octagon.

Bohm, H., ed. (2004). Chronicles of the Crusades: contemporary narratives. London: Kegan Paul.

Evans, Mark L. (2001). "Battle of Arsuf: climatic clash of cross and crescent," in Military History, 18:3.

Ibn al-Athīr, 'Izz al-Din. (2007). The chronicle of ibn al-athīr for the crusading period from al-kāmil fi’l-ta’rīkh. (Trans by Richards, D. S.) Aldershot ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Ibn Shaddād al-Dīn. (2001). The rare and excellent history of Saladin, or, al-Nawādir al-Sultaniyya wa’l-Mahasin al-Yusufiyya. (Trans by Richards, D. S.) Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.

Latham, Andrew. (2015, Aug. 23) Analysis: Had the Crusaders Taken Jerusalem in 1192, Could They Have Held It? Retrieved from!ANALYSIS-Had-the-Crusaders-Taken-Jerusalem-in-1192-Could-They-Have-Held-it/c149s/55d9d2e90cf2083e080d4e55

Miller, David. (2003). Richard the Lionheart: the mighty crusader. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Nicholson, H. & Stubbs, W., trans. (1997). Chronicle of the third crusade : A translation of the itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis ricardi. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate.


Richard I of England by Merry-Joseph Blondel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the Holy Land, c2014 Dennis Lukowski, commissioned by the author and used with his permission.

"Schlacht von Arsuf" By Eloi Firmin Feron (1802-1876) (de:wiki) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Saladin By Domonic Camalleri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

[this post is an Editors' choice and was originally published on September 6th 2015]
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Charlene Newcomb is the author of the Battle Scars series, 12th century historical fiction filled with war, political intrigue, and a knightly romance of forbidden love set during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. She is currently working on a new medieval tale set during King John’s reign; and in summer 2020 will publish Echoes of the Storm, a sci fi/space opera filled with rebels and traitors and battles and romance in a galaxy far, far away (no, not Star Wars). Sign up for Char’s Newsletter for exclusives, including a free short story, and other special offers. Find her books on Amazon & connect with Char on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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