The Expeditions into Palestine, 1101-5: Second and Third Battles of Ramla

The Second Battle of Ramla, 17 May, and Jaffa, 27 May 1102

The second battle of Ramla, only a few months later (17 May 1102), showed just how differently things could have gone. The primary problem seems to have been one of poor intelligence on the crusaders’ part, combined with an unsustainable level of overconfidence on the part of the king. Whereas the previous two Fatimid campaigns into southern Palestine had been well monitored by the Franks, and their movements contested by aggressive scouting, the invasion of 1102 seems to have come as a complete surprise.

Seemingly unaware of the size or location of the enemy forces, King Baldwin foolishly advanced too close to the Fatimid army with a force of just 200 Frankish knights and little or no infantry support. They were surrounded and almost totally destroyed. Thankfully for the crusaders, however, Baldwin escaped the debacle and the Egyptian military paused for several days to argue about what to do next. This allowed the Franks to muster a small army at Jaffa, and march out to confront them.

The battle was over quickly, and Christian losses were light. Frankish sources claimed that there were 3,000 Egyptian casualties which, allowing for natural exaggeration, hardly sounds like a massacre. The Fatimid cavalry had fled relatively early on, and thus left the battlefield more or less intact as they did at Ascalon three years before, while their infantry, stationed in the centre where the Frankish cavalry charges were focused, and far more vulnerable to pursuing cavalry during a rout, bore the brunt of the casualties.

The battle of Jaffa did not reflect well on the Fatimid army. They had displayed indecisiveness at the highest levels of command. This was commented on even by Muslim sources, and it allowed the crusader armies to regroup and recover. Incoherent strategy in the face of the newly gathered Frankish forces at Jaffa, neither enforcing a close siege, nor retiring to Ascalon, was also unimpressive from a command perspective.

Tactical performance was similarly weak. Despite outnumbering and outflanking the Frankish army, the Fatimids found themselves once more unable to hold the line against an aggressive crusader cavalry charge. That casualties were not higher is attributable more to the early flight of the Egyptian mounted arm and the relatively small numbers of crusader cavalry than to any great tactical skill.

Ultimately, despite the disaster at Ramla a few weeks earlier, the crusaders did not even pay the Egyptians the compliment of trying to develop a new tactical response: they just fought the battle in the same way as before, but this time with the infantry support that should have been there in the first place.

The Third Battle of Ramla, 27 August 1105

In the aftermath of their defeat outside Jaffa, the garrison at Ascalon were reduced to carrying out raids and patrols. These were useful in maintaining morale, but they could only delay the inevitable. By 1105 it was increasingly clear that if the Fatimids were not to abandon Palestine altogether, they would need to act decisively.

The Egyptians certainly knew that they needed to make changes if they wanted to break the pattern of tactical weakness that was apparent whenever they faced the Franks on the battlefield. The basic issue was that, despite numerical superiority, under most circumstances regular Fatimid troops could not withstand a charge from Frankish knights. Their cavalry on the flanks could not destroy the crusader infantry or baggage train quickly enough to stop the main body of the Egyptian army being routed, and the battle lost.

Their answer to this tactical problem was probably the correct one: try to recruit Turkic mounted archers to envelop the flanks of crusader armies more quickly and aggressively, and to destroy them before the Fatimid centre caved in. But this was easier said than done. The supply of Turkic mercenaries getting down to Egypt had largely dried up since the Egyptians first started fighting the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. The results on the battlefield reflected this lack.

Once attempts to establish direct recruitment of Turkic mercenaries had failed, the Fatimid government had to swallow its pride. They approached Turkic-run Damascus to provide mercenary or allied troops for their invasion of southern Palestine in 1102. Although these requests were rejected, by 1105 even the Damascenes were becoming more aware that the crusader states might pose a long- term problem to everyone. Putting their distaste of the Shi’ite regime in Egypt to one side, they were persuaded to provide mounted archers for an invasion of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1105.

Preparations for the campaign began early in 1105, starting with negotiations with Damascus and the provisioning of the regular army. The mustering process took place in June-July 1105, with the Fatimid regulars and a large force of Bedouin gathering at Ascalon in August, and the Egyptian navy present in support.

This force, numbering about 5,000-10,000 regular cavalry and infantry, plus a similar number of irregular troops, were joined by 1,300 Turkic horse archers under the command of the Damascene general Sabura. The Egyptian infantry are described by the Franks as `Ethiopians’, suggesting, as in previous battles, that they were drawn predominantly from the Black regiments, while the regular cavalry were mainly Armenian or Arab. The crusaders thought they were facing an army approximately 15,000 strong which, including Turkic cavalry and irregulars, may not be too much of an exaggeration.

The first warning of a major attack came when the Fatimid navy began to blockade Jaffa. Realising that this presaged a full-scale invasion by land, Baldwin began to muster his forces at Jaffa, leaving only small garrisons in the other cities. By coincidence, the Franks also had their own Turkic horse archer contingent, showing how local politics and personal interests could cut across seemingly intractable religious lines. These light cavalry were provided by a disgruntled son of the previous Damascene ruler, eager to get Frankish support so that he could retake what he saw as his inheritance. Though his Turkic contingent was smaller than that provided by the Damascenes for the Egyptian army, it may at least have gone some way towards counteracting the impact of the Fatimids’ new Turkic allies.

Baldwin was not going to repeat the secular or spiritual mistakes he had made at Ramla three years earlier: this time he gathered all his resources carefully. Leaving behind a garrison of 300 men, he marched his army out of Jaffa on Friday, 25 August, and moved down to Ramla. He arrived there on Saturday, 26 August, and waited for the arrival of the patriarch of Jerusalem, who was en route with temporal help in the form of 150 extra infantry and the crusaders’ spiritual weapon of last resort, the True Cross.

In the meantime, the Fatimid army had moved up from Ascalon, and camped at Ibelin, just a few miles from Ramla. Battle was deferred by the Christians until the following day, to maximise the spiritual benefits of fighting on the Lord’s day. On the morning of Sunday, 27 August, the army of the Latin Kingdom received the blessing of the patriarch and celebrated mass with the True Cross. The Franks then advanced towards Ibelin. The Fatimid army, warned by scouts of their approach, likewise set off to meet them halfway.

Baldwin organised the army into five divisions. He himself gathered a force of 160 cavalry and kept them with him as a mounted reserve. Fulcher of Chartres, who may have been with the army and certainly had the chance to discuss the battle with many participants, describes the size of the Frankish forces as being about 500 knights and 2,000 infantry. He also mentions an unspecified number of other mounted troops, which may be a reference to the small contingent of Turkic mounted archers and to the early use of Turcopoles.

After the battle, the Franks came to believe, presumably on the basis of discussions with high- ranking prisoners, that the original Egyptian battle plan had been to move towards Ramla with the smaller part of their forces, thereby pinning the crusader field army. The main Egyptian army, meanwhile, was to proceed towards Jaffa, where it would link up with the Fatimid navy, cut the crusaders’ supply lines, and put the city under siege. This was an ambitious plan, probably far too ambitious in light of the recent track record of the Fatimid army, but not entirely irrational given their superiority in numbers. The advance of the crusader army on the morning of 27 August pre-empted any ideas of such strategic sophistication, however, and the two armies met between their respective camps at Ibelin and Ramla.

The sequence of events in the battle itself is confused, though a couple of features seem clear. The Franks charged into the centre of the Egyptian line in the usual manner, smashing into its leaders, capturing several senior emirs and causing severe casualties to the `Ethiopian’ infantry posted there. The Turkic light cavalry, although only a relatively small part of the Egyptian army, seem to have been disproportionately effective, outflanking and surrounding parts of the crusader army. Tellingly, not only were the Turkic troops described as excellent archers but, once they had finished softening up their Frankish adversaries with missile weapons, they were not afraid to move in with swords and take the fighting to close quarters. It was only the vigorous actions of the reserve cavalry division commanded by King Baldwin himself that kept them at bay long enough for the main body of the Egyptian army to be routed, ensuring that the Turkic cavalry had no option but to break off the engagement.

Casualties on the Egyptian side were heavy, and included the commander of the garrison at Ascalon, Jamal al- Mulk. Although one of al- Afdal’s sons was in at least nominal command of the expedition, Jamal al- Mulk and other regular army commanders had a very significant role to play in the leadership of the army. The emirs of Arsuf and Acre were also captured, suggesting that the Egyptian centre had been hit hardest, and had broken.

The religious, ethnic and political factionalism that was rife within the Egyptian army always degraded its cohesion and effectiveness. This was played out to the extreme at the point where decisions were being made as to whether to rally or to rout, whether to opt for fight or flight. Interests quickly diverged. The Sunni Turkic horse archers left the rest of the army and rushed back towards Damascene territory. The Bedouin irregulars, ethnically and culturally distinct from the other groups, were fighting for booty and cash payments: they had little motivation to stay. The Armenian cavalry seem to have fled back to Ascalon. The Black infantry regiments were on their own: slow and isolated, they took the brunt of the casualties.

On the Christian side, losses were significant but not heavy: Albert of Aachen claimed that there were 100 fatalities, with only one eminent knight, Reinard of Verdun, among them. Fulcher of Chartres wrote that there were only 60 killed in the entire Frankish army. Muslim sources, on the other hand, suggested that Christian casualties were of the same order as their own. Given the disproportionate number of casualties that are sustained in the rout phase of a battle, this does not seem likely, though there is no reason to doubt that the battle was intense and bloody for both armies.

The battle was a hard- fought but conclusive defeat for the Egyptian army. Once again, the Fatimid forces seemed to have had everything in place. They had a large naval contingent to support them and to blockade Jaffa. A significant number of high- quality Turkic horse archers had joined the ranks. They outnumbered their enemy. And they were a well-provisioned regular army, supported by numerous irregular cavalry and volunteers, fighting on a battlefield they knew well. It must have felt as though, despite their every effort, it was still never enough. Morale plummeted. Significantly, this was the last Fatimid field army to enter Palestine for almost two decades.

What went wrong? As always, one gets the impression of an army which lacked energy and coordination at a strategic level, and which did not have the élan to compensate for this on the battlefield. The crusaders, in this as in most of their encounters with the Egyptian army, seem to have held the initiative at the critical points of the battle: disrupting the Egyptian plans to move the majority of their army towards Jaffa, and pinning the centre of their army with repeated and devastating heavy cavalry charges to which they seem to have had little response.

The Turkic mounted archers were a very welcome addition for the Fatimids, but they were merely temporary allies and, given their limited numbers and the presence in the crusader army of other Turkic archers and possibly Turcopoles, they could not make a battle- winning difference. The Fatimids never solved the issue of how to deal with a Frankish heavy cavalry charge. The lack of a solution to this fundamental problem was militarily debilitating.