In 1099 the systemic problems within the Fatimid military had been compounded by complacency and diplomatic failure: Frankish intentions had been consistently misread, with catastrophic consequences. As a result, the disaster at Ascalon could be explained away as the result of a very particular situation: an event rather than a trend, triggered by a combination of bad luck and poor intelligence. Whilst clearly not the best start to the task of recovering Palestine from the crusaders, this initial failure could be attributed to unique circumstances.
The Fatimid army and navy therefore embarked upon a series of campaigns into the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the first decade of the twelfth century, with major invasions taking place in 1101, 1102 and 1105, alongside a series of increasingly large- scale raids. The first of these invasions, in the summer of 1101, looked particularly promising.
The First Battle of Ramla, 7 September 1101
Within a few months of the victory at Ascalon, the situation facing the Christians had deteriorated very significantly. One of the members of the army later wrote that they were mystified as to why the Muslims even permitted their state to exist. Baldwin I, who became king after the death of Godfrey in July 1100, faced an almost ridiculously bleak future. There was no army to speak of. A few small and scattered garrisons tried to hold on to Jerusalem, Jaffa and a couple of other settlements. But the field army, the troops available for mobile defence, was little more than a retinue. In total, including garrisons and policing contingents, the kingdom of Jerusalem could at one point muster only 300 cavalry and 300 infantry.
By the summer of 1101 it was clear to the Fatimid military that circumstances were now far more favourable. The spring and autumn sea passages back to Europe had been full of crusaders returning home. The poor performance of the Egyptian cavalry at Ascalon was being addressed by a programme of reforms, and the infantry regiments lost in battle were being replaced.
Once again, the Fatimid army seems to have taken about two months to muster and deploy in southern Palestine. Troops began to gather in late March or early April. By the end of May the main body of the army had arrived in Ascalon and began sending patrols north towards Jaffa, and eastwards towards Jerusalem. King Baldwin rapidly gathered whatever troops he could and moved down towards Ramla to block any potential Egyptian advance further north. Neither side marched straight to battle. The Frankish force was too small to confront the Egyptian army directly and they feared being drawn into battle close to Ascalon, where they might be surrounded by the enemy’s superior numbers.
The main body of the Fatimid army, perhaps awaiting further reinforcements or, as the crusaders optimistically thought, too nervous to advance, remained in the vicinity of Ascalon. For almost a month (24 May-17 June 1101), the stand- off continued. Some of the Egyptian irregular troops, perhaps disappointed at the lack of plunder, started to drift off. In the case of the Bedouin, it may even be that some of them offered their services to the crusaders. Certainly, Fulcher of Chartres, a participant in many of these events, was well aware of desertions from the Egyptian army, and ascribed at least some of these to supply problems on their side.
The crusader forces were not a regular army, however, and, like many of the Muslim forces, could not be kept in the field indefinitely. Manpower in the kingdom was stretched so thinly that many of the men needed to return to their lands, if only to carry out repairs to the fortifications of the newly captured towns such as Arsuf and Caesarea. For the important Galilean contingent of knights from Tiberias, the need to return to protect the eastern frontiers from the army of Damascus was also pressing. So on 17 June the Frankish army was forced to disperse, first retiring back to Jaffa to resupply and make contingency plans for how best to proceed, and then going their separate ways.
The long- distance stand- off between the Fatimids and the embryonic Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem continued for another two months (roughly from 17 June to 25 August 1101). By the end of the summer Baldwin was back in the capital, when news arrived that the Egyptian army was finally on the move. He mustered his troops around 25 August in Jerusalem, and they then marched down to Jaffa. He garrisoned the port as best he could, trying to create a refuge in the event that things did not go well on the battlefield. Tellingly, the royal family were moved there too. This was certainly prudent, but it was also the action of a commander whose limited forces gave an acute sense of the consequences and likelihood of failure.
As always, it is impossible to be definitive about the size of the opposing armies. On the crusaders’ part, it is clear that manpower was short. Short to the point of desperation. Fulcher, who was with the army when it mustered, said that the urgency of the situation was such that Baldwin required every man who had a squire to make him into a knight, and to arm him accordingly. Even once this was done, however, the numbers were pitiful. It was estimated that the Frankish army consisted of no more than 260 knights and 900 infantry. Contingents from the coastal towns of Caesarea and Haifa were gathered. In the event of disaster all hope clearly rested on the ability of Jaffa to hold out. Duke Godfrey had improved its fortifications shortly before his death and reserves were concentrated there as a final fallback position. It was never fully articulated, but the focus on the ports meant that there was an implicit understanding that a full- scale evacuation back to Europe, or to the northern crusader states, might become necessary. Planning was in place to abandon the entire kingdom.
The size of the Egyptian army is more problematic. Fulcher, who saw the army arrayed, and later experienced it at far closer quarters than he wanted to, estimated that it consisted of 11,000 cavalry and 21,000 infantry. This seems somewhat on the high side, but other Christian sources give even more implausible estimates, ranging from between 40,000 to 200,000 men. The Muslim sources are silent on the size of the Fatimid army, possibly because of embarrassment, given the outcome of the battle. Fulcher’s estimate of cavalry numbers is perhaps broadly realistic, as they seem to have taken relatively few casualties at Ascalon. The army was certainly large given that this was their big opportunity to avenge that defeat and retake Palestine before reinforcements for the crusaders could arrive from Europe. Whatever the exact numbers, the Franks were very significantly outnumbered, probably even more than when they faced the Egyptians in 1099.
We are not entirely sure who commanded the Egyptian force. One Muslim chronicler calls him al- Qawwasi, `the archer’, while two others call him al- Tawasi, `the eunuch’ (hardly inspiring but not quite as depressing as it sounds to modern ears: it could also mean `first class cavalryman’ at the time). As we have seen, with an unusual sense of gallows humour, the Damascus chronicle implausibly refers to him as al- Qawamisi (`General Disastrous’). Whatever his name, the Egyptian commander eventually realised that the crusaders were not going to be enticed into attacking him near Ascalon. He blinked first. He realised that he had to do something with the large force he had been given, and was acutely aware that feeding such an army into the autumn and winter was going to pose significant logistical problems, given the limited naval facilities offered by the port of Ascalon. Perhaps the earlier desertions had continued or even worsened.
Either way, the Egyptian army started to move slowly out onto the plains around Ramla at the end of August. On 6 September the crusader army left Jaffa and marched out towards them. The Fatimids were a substantial force and were not manoeuvring at speed. Maybe they thought that the tiny Frankish army would not want to meet them in the field. Or perhaps, given that their two most likely eventual targets were the cities of Jaffa and Jerusalem, they had heavy siege equipment in the baggage train, slowing down the army as a whole.
Before battle was joined, King Baldwin gave a speech to the troops. Normally, surviving pre- battle speeches from the classical or medieval periods are little more than homilies: the kinds of thing that appeal more to the clerics who write them, or make them up, than to the scared and adrenaline- filled soldiers they are supposed to be aimed at. In this case, however, there is a faint echo of reality in our record of the speech, an attempt to show genuine camaraderie with the men he was leading into battle, and a roughness of style that might ring true. The usual religious exhortations are relatively brief but focused on the things uppermost in men’s minds at that moment: if you die, you will be blessed and the Kingdom of Heaven awaits; if you live, you will have everlasting glory. His short speech ended with an all too plausible message from one soldier to another, tinged with a stiff dose of sardonic humour. `And remember, if you feel like running,’ he is reported to have said, `France is a very long way away.’ Fulcher, who was there at the time, dryly commented that after he had finished, `we all agreed with him’.
The three divisions of cavalry which constituted the front line of the crusader forces charged the centre of the Fatimid army in waves, or at least in echelon. Their impact was hindered by two factors. The Egyptians’ superior numbers in the centre enabled them to absorb the initial shock and also meant that they were deployed on a wider frontage, allowing a natural outflanking process to take place once the first impetus of the charge was over. Fulcher describes his dismay at the sheer weight of numbers on the Muslim side and the way in which they `swarmed’ over the Christian cavalry like `a mass of birds’.
This was the moment when the knights had to justify all their privileges and social status. The first unit of Frankish cavalry was led by a nobleman called Bervold. He and his men crashed into the Fatimid lines but the initial impact was held. Bervold was killed. His contingent was almost wiped out. One knight escaped but even he had lost a hand in the fracas. The second wave charged in, led by Geldemar Carpinel, who had recently been given Haifa and so was presumably leading his retinue and the local contingent. They too were quickly overwhelmed, however, and almost completely destroyed. Geldemar was killed, together with most of his men. Only two knights, named William and Erkengold, managed to escape.
The Galilean contingent was next in, led by their young lord, Hugh of Tiberias. They charged again into the centre of the Egyptian line. Hugh seemed to be making some headway but eventually he and his troops were also ground down. The attack stalled. Unlike the first two waves, Hugh and a few survivors of his division were in a fit state to withdraw as a unit, but they had been severely mauled.
This was the critical point of the battle. The Fatimid centre had been temporarily weakened, but their flanks were still strong and two of the three vanguard units of the Frankish army had been all but wiped out. Baldwin’s choice was to either try to gather the remnants of the army together for a fighting retreat back to Jaffa; or to gamble all on a final charge on the centre of the Egyptian line, hoping that it would break and take the rest of the army with it. Baldwin decided on the latter. Higher risk but high reward. And a fighting retreat against an enemy with superior numbers was certainly full of risk too.
The True Cross was in the rear division of the army, carried by a certain Bishop Gerard and an elite guard of ten armoured soldiers. Baldwin paused to make a (presumably extremely brief) confession to the bishop and to take what he probably thought would be his last Holy Communion in front of the True Cross.
He had kept the two last cavalry units with him in reserve. The first of these, the contingent from Jerusalem, were ordered to charge once more into the centre of the Fatimid line, presumably through the wreckage of the three previous Frankish cavalry units. As the Jerusalem contingent began to falter, Baldwin personally led his last remaining cavalry reserve into the fray, a final throw of the dice. In a scene of suspiciously high drama, he rode on his famous charger, Gazelle, towards the leaders of the Egyptian army, hoping, as Alexander the Great had done at Gaugamela and as Robert of Normandy had done at Ascalon, that their death or flight would cause the entire enemy army to collapse.
Baldwin charged at one of the Egyptian commanders and ran him and his horse through with his lance. The blow was so severe, we are told, that the white pennant at the tip of Baldwin’s lance lodged in the dying emir’s stomach. This all sounds far too choreographed and dramatic to be realistic. And yet, bizarrely, there seems to be an element of truth to all this. Several Muslim accounts mention that al- Qawwasi (or al- Qawamisi, `General Disastrous’) died in the centre of the Egyptian army towards the end of the battle, as he fell from his horse. The death of its commander, coming after the intense fighting between the Egyptian centre and the successive Frankish cavalry charges, was enough to push the core of the Fatimid forces into rout.
There was some pursuit of the defeated Egyptians, even as far as the outskirts of Ascalon. Given the scale of the Frankish casualties, however, particularly among the knights, much of this pursuit must have been undertaken by the mounted sergeants and other light cavalry while the infantry moved to pick off enemy stragglers on foot, and the walking wounded.
Some apologists for the Fatimid army have tried, unconvincingly, to claim the battle as a draw. The Muslim sources which they use to support this thesis are confused and vague, but even they admit that the Frankish forces crashed into the centre of the Muslim army and killed its commander. After two years’ preparation, on ground of their own choosing and with vastly superior numbers, the Fatimid army still failed to beat the Franks.
From a Frankish perspective, it was clearly a strategic success, albeit a hard-won battle on the day. Manpower in the crusader states would never be at such a low point again. Settlers and pilgrims were starting to arrive, and relationships with the local Christian communities were being strengthened. If the Fatimids were ever going to recapture Palestine, this was arguably their best opportunity.
It was also a tactical victory for the crusaders, at least in the technical sense of the term. They had killed the enemy general, routed the main Fatimid army and remained in possession of the field. On the ground, however, it can hardly have felt like that. Of the 260 knights who had started the battle, 80 were dead by its end and few of the survivors were still in a fit state to fight. If wounded are also included (and these are usually more numerous than fatalities in a victorious army, as the wounded are less likely to be killed in the aftermath of battle), the majority of the crusader heavy cavalry must have been casualties.
So, if this was victory, it was clear that the crusaders could not afford too many more like that. On the day itself, as Fulcher said, `no one knew the outcome of the battle’. But Baldwin would never have been able to disperse his troops for two or three months in the face of a Turkic army: they were far more aggressive and effective than the Fatimid cavalry. With an Egyptian army he felt able to do so. The Franks had eventually prevailed, they had survived, and their military resources would continue to grow.