Victory and Defeat at Damietta

They would say of King Louis IX that he was a man who rarely showed emotion, that he maintained in his everyday life the calm of a prayerful man, and that he never spoke ill of anyone unless he was a traitor or an infidel. All this was true of the outer man, who always succeeded in maintaining his royal dignity, but the inner man was in constant turmoil: his desire for sanctity was at war with his desire to be remembered as a warrior and as a prince who governed well.

All the evidence goes to show that he believed the abandonment of Damietta came as a result of his own generalship and in answer to his prayers. He was not surprised or even elated; it was what he had expected all along. What he did not know was that the city was a trap; and he fell into it.

He made his solemn entry into Damietta on June 6. The great gates opened on a city from which everyone had fled. The houses, shops, and palaces were intact; the granaries were filled with wheat, barley, and rice; the armories were filled with weapons; the oil vats were full of oil.

Within a few days Damietta was transformed into a Christian city. The king lived in the sultan’s palace, the papal legate lived in the nearby fortress of the former military commander, the great mosque was transformed into a church, and fifty-three Christian prisoners found in the dungeons were given their freedom. The army was lodged outside the city, because the king feared an imminent attack by the sultan. For a few days there were no attacks except by marauding Bedouin who galloped up to the city at night in the hope of acquiring a few Christian heads, the sultan having promised ten bezants for every head presented to him. But the Christians were on guard, the crossbowmen generally kept the Bedouin at a distance, and, when too many of them succeeded in passing the guards, the king ordered a palisade to be erected around the camp. Later the palisade was transformed into earthworks, and the camp became a small fortress.

The Nile was about to overflow, as it always does in June. Between June and September, fighting in the Nile Delta was very nearly impossible. The king decided to dig in for the long summer and prepare for an attack on Cairo, which was over 100 miles to the south of Damietta. The count of Brittany and most of the barons would have preferred to besiege Alexandria, where there was an excellent port, so that provisions could be brought to the army whenever needed, but Robert, Count of Artois, the king’s brother, was adamant that they should march on Cairo. The king relied heavily on this brother, who regarded himself as the military expert in the family. The decision to march on Cairo would turn out to be suicidal and would lead to the destruction of the entire Christian army.

The long summer itself, after its brilliant beginning, became a nightmare. The tremendous heat, the snakes, the insects, the sense of isolation in a foreign land, all these affected the foot soldiers cooped up behind the earthworks. The knights, of course, could enter the city at will. The lords lived well, the soldiers complained bitterly; by the time the king began to march on Cairo, he was commanding troops whose morale had been shaken by nearly five months of enforced inactivity, boredom, and misery.

Robert, Count of Artois, reasoned that the best way to kill a snake was to smash its head. This statement might have made more sense if accurate maps had been available. The Crusaders did not know how to reach Cairo, the political head. But the capture of Cairo would have been of little use to them, since in any event the real head was the Egyptian army, which was lying in wait for them at Mansourah, and which they would have to destroy before they could reach Cairo. In the plans of the king and his brother there was no element of surprise, no feints, no cunning. The huge, unwieldy Christian army was ordered to move southward among the canals and rivers; it was visible to spies, who were able to report all its movements. As it marched further and further into marshy land, there was the possibility that at any moment retreat would be cut off.

And always, there were delays. Just as they had wasted a winter in Cyprus and a long summer in Damietta, so they allowed the autumn to pass, and it was winter again when they left Damietta, leaving Queen Marguerite and the patriarch of Jerusalem in the walled city with a small garrison to protect them. A few days later they received news that the sultan was dead. They also heard that the sultana and Fakhr ad-Din had assumed power, while waiting for the arrival of the heir to the throne, the sultan’s son Turanshah, who was viceroy in the Jezireh. Turanshah was a long time coming, and this too portended good fortune for the Christian army. King Louis could not bring himself to believe that a woman could rule Muslim country, though he was perfectly content to let his mother, Blanche of Castile, rule over France in his absence.

They left Damietta on November 20, and another month passed before they reached the main defensive positions of Mansourah. There were the usual skirmishes on the way. The king gave orders that skirmishes were to be avoided wherever possible, but when five hundred Egyptian cavalry fell on the Templar vanguard, the Templars in their fury decided to teach them a lesson. Their horses were fresh; the Egyptian horses were already weary; and in the general charge no Egyptians survived, for they were either cut down or they fell into the river and were drowned.

In such forays, involving small numbers, the Templars always gave a good account of themselves. They were assault troops, trained for sudden raids, improvisations, hit-and-run attacks. Their chief fault was that they defied the rules, while the chief fault of the king was that he obeyed the rules even when they were absurd.

On February 8, 1250, in a grey misty dawn, the Templar vanguard, with Robert, Count of Artois, in command, was to cross a ford, thereby outflanking the Egyptian position before Mansourah. The ford had been conveniently pointed out by a renegade Muslim, who was rewarded with fifty bezants for his pains. For once there would be the element of surprise. The knights would make their way over the ford and then wait for the main army under the duke of Burgundy to come up. They were to hold the bank, while the bowmen came running over a pontoon bridge. Until the whole army had crossed over, there must be no movement, no sallies, no attempt to engage the enemy. The king wanted to be sure that the attack against the enemy would be a massive one, carefully choreographed.

The army was now very close to the walls of Mansourah. Robert rode across the ford with the Templars, saw the Egyptian cavalry in front of him, heard the horns and trumpets of the enemy, and with his retinue hurled himself against them. The Templars tried to stop him but, being unsuccessful, they decided to join him in order to protect his life. There was a wild skirmish.

Fakhr ad-Din was in his bath, having his hair dyed with fiery red henna. Hearing the dreadful noise, he jumped out of the bath, threw a robe over himself, leaped on a horse, and charged into battle, soon to be cut to pieces by knights in armor. But the Egyptians had prepared a trap by leaving one of Mansourah’s gates open. The open gate was altogether too inviting. The Templars and the count of Artois charged through it. It was a stupid and dangerous move. They soon lost themselves in the narrow streets, huge beams were thrown down on them, and they were unhorsed. Trying to fight their way out of the city, they were reduced to hand-to-hand combat with swords, maces, and knives, and were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Three hundred knights and nearly three hundred Templars were killed in the maze of Mansourah’s narrow streets.

The king could be seen fighting between Mansourah and the river, wearing a golden helmet and wielding a sword of German steel, and at one point he was surrounded by six horsemen and escaped by hacking at them with his sword. The French bowmen, for some inexplicable reason, had not yet crossed the river, while the Egyptian bowmen were busily killing off the French horses. The rest of the day passed in heavy skirmishing, until late in the afternoon, when the full force of the Christian bowmen came up and most of the Muslim cavalry retreated behind the walls of Mansourah. The king slept that night in the camp of Fakhr ad-Din, who had died in the battle. This was a victory of sorts, but small skirmishes continued through the night. That evening the king heard about the death of his favorite brother. With the knowledge that Robert of Artois had disobeyed him by his reckless ride into the city, and met a miserable death, all he could say was that God had been exceedingly good to him.

God, however, seemed to have forgotten the Christian army and failed to provide King Louis with military intelligence. A new leader had arisen to take the place of Fakhr ad-Din. This was Baibars al-Bundukdari, now a young Mameluke emir, who had been the officer in charge of the combined Egyptian and Khwarismian forces which had utterly destroyed the Christians at the battle of La Forbie. The defense of Mansourah was now in his hands, and he was more relentless and more pitiless than any Muslim commander had ever been. For the first time since Saladin, the Crusaders were confronted with a military commander of genius.

The king and his army remained outside the walls of Mansourah for eight weeks, hoping that another miracle would happen. It did not. Baibars was conserving his strength, hoping the French would perish of their own perversity. Sultan Turanshah, having at last arrived in Egypt from an extended holiday in Damascus, was nominally in command, but Baibars was already commander in chief of the army, and it seems to have been Baibars who organized the fleet of light ships which suddenly appeared in the waterways between Damietta and Mansourah, thus cutting off the Crusaders’ supply ships. Baibars’s ships were carried on camelback in sections, and were sufficiently well equipped when put together to form another army behind the Christian army.

The king should have fought his way back to Damietta as soon as the first ship appeared. He lost more than eighty ships, and on March 16 a convoy of thirty-two ships was intercepted. Now, the king’s army could neither move backward nor could it move forward. Adding to this in solvable problem, there came famine, and then pestilence. Scurvy, typhoid, dysentery were rampant. The plagues of Egypt had returned.

So many of the knights died that the grooms wore their armor and stood guard at points of danger; and so many priests died that there were not enough of them to minister at the altars. The king himself fell ill. He sent Philip of Montfort to the sultan, offering to surrender Damietta to the Egyptians in exchange for Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land that had recently fallen into Muslim hands. It was an offer that was too late by two months, for the Egyptians knew that he was in a hopeless position and that his whole army was at their mercy.

On April 5, the king at last gave the order for the retreat to Damietta. The Egyptians were on the alert. They attacked the Christians on all sides, massacring the defenseless, killing the knights weakened by pestilence, making prisoners of those who might be expected to pay heavy ransoms. They claimed afterward that they killed or captured fifty thousand men. The king escaped only because Geoffrey of Sargines, in charge of the bodyguard, succeeded in leading him to an abandoned village. Now very ill, the king lay in one of the village huts, while the chief of his bodyguard kept watch on horseback, charging along the village street at any Saracen who dared to show himself. The king was alone in the hut, and Geoffrey of Sargines was alone in the street: and those two lonely men symbolized the strange alteration that had come upon the great army that set out from Damietta.

A few days later, the king surrendered. At about this time disaster also struck the young Sultan Turanshah. He was weak and self-indulgent; he was afraid of Baibars’s Mamelukes, who had all the important positions in the army, and he was in the process of reorganizing the army and giving high commands to soldiers from the Jezireh when Baibars struck at him. On the night of May 2, while he was entertaining emirs in his tent, he heard a commotion outside, and a moment later Baibars burst into the tent at the head of a small group of army officers. Wounded in the hand, the sultan escaped to a wooden tower beside the river. Some of the emirs came with him.

Baibars and his fellow conspirators followed. Greek fire was hurled at the tower, which burst into flame. Turanshah jumped down and ran along the riverbank, until someone hurled a spear, which caught him in the ribs. Trailing the spear, he threw himself into the river, and the conspirators went swimming after him, while bowmen fired arrows at him. He was already dying when Baibars himself leaped down the bank and plunged a sword into him. The Arab historians who describe the event observed that he died three deaths: by fire, by iron, and by water.

The strange thing was that the death of Sultan Turanshah was observed by John of Joinville and by King Louis, who were being held on a galley moored in the river. A few minutes later a Mameluke general, Faris ad-Din Octai, came on board the galley, his hand blood-stained, for he had just cut out the sultan’s heart. Addressing himself to King Louis, he said, “What will you give me? For I have slain your enemy who, had he lived, would have slain you.” The king answered with a long silence.

A little while later some thirty Mamelukes came on board the galley, drawn swords in their hands and Danish axes hanging from their necks. The prisoners imagined they would be put to death. Instead, they were thrown into the hold where they were packed in tightly.

The next morning most of the prisoners, all of them knights or great officers of state, were released in order to discuss the terms of an armistice. Before King Louis would agree to the treaty, a good deal of time was spent in wrangling about the nature of the oath to be sworn by the Egyptian emirs. It was necessary that the oath should be binding on the Egyptians, and with the help of Nicholas of Acre a curious diplomatic formula was decided upon. The emirs agreed that they would carry out the terms of the armistice or they would be as dishonored as a Muslim who eats swine’s flesh, or goes uncovered on a pilgrimage to Mecca, or leaves his wife and then comes back to her again, for according to Muslim law such a man may not return to his wife unless he has seen her in another man’s arms.

When the terms were arranged to the satisfaction of the emirs, it was agreed that Damietta should be surrendered to the Egyptians and that the Christians should pay 400,000 livres tournois as an indemnity, half to be paid in Damietta, and half when the king reached Acre. The French for their part would receive all their siege engines and all their supplies of salted pork and their ships; the prisoners would be restored to them; and they in turn would surrender the few prisoners in their power. The king asked for Jerusalem in exchange for Damietta, which was held by a small garrison force aided by Genoese and Pisan sailors. Characteristically, the king refused to swear an oath. The Egyptians were incensed, and to punish the king they tortured the patriarch of Jerusalem by tying him to a post and binding his wrists in such a fashion that his hands swelled to the size of his face. The eighty-year-old patriarch faced the ordeal bravely, and at last they untied him and let him go free.

The torturing of the patriarch in front of the king was idle malice, for the Egyptians knew that the king would not change his mind. They were half in awe of him, and they considered giving him Jerusalem. There were even some who thought that, if he were converted to Islam, he would be a worthy sultan of Egypt. All through those confused negotiations we are aware of the king’s calm decisiveness, his passionate self-abnegation.

He had cause for self-abnegation, for he knew that the disaster at Mansourah was due to his own follies, and most especially to his caution, the long weeks and months during which he ordered the army to stay put in Cyprus, in Damietta, and outside the walls of Mansourah. Because of him, perhaps fifty thousand men had died of pestilence or were butchered on the battlefield. A vast treasure had been squandered, and a huge ransom was being paid, equal to the entire yearly revenue of the king of France. The worst was the carnage: the canals swollen with the dead, the fields carpeted with the dying. None of this would have happened if he had been a better soldier. He found consolation in the thought that the dead would be received in heaven by a merciful God, but there were times when he fell into long fits of depression.

He was wretchedly ill, sometimes he had to be carried about by a servant, and for a while, until someone gave him a rough gown to hide his nakedness, he had no clothes. Later the Egyptians gave him a gown of silk and miniver, so that he could attend the meetings of the armistice commissioners in proper attire.

Damietta was surrendered to the Egyptians. There was no difficulty in raising half the ransom money, but the king’s brother, Alfonso, Count of Poitou, had to remain at Damietta as surety for the remaining half of the ransom, which was to be paid in Acre. When at last, early in May 1250, the king and his retinue of knights sailed for Acre, he was carried on board the galley on the same mattress he had used in prison. He was still very ill, but the sea air seemed to revive him. Once, while on shipboard, he saw some knights gambling at backgammon; he was so angry that he threw the board into the sea and gave the knights a sermon on the sin of gambling on a Crusade.

The king, of course, was the greatest gambler of them all. He had gambled with human lives on a prodigious scale, recklessly and imprudently, with little understanding of the enemy or of the geography of the Nile Delta. His monumental ignorance of the enemy and the enemy’s land was fatal to his cause, and in his own way he contributed to the final defeat of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Scorn for his misbegotten endeavors imbues this ironic Arab poem:

May God reward you for having brought to death the adorers of Jesus the Messiah.

You came to Egypt with the idea of conquering this kingdom,

And you believed you would meet here only hautboys and cymbals,

But instead by your imprudence you have led your men to the gate of death!

Fifty thousand men, and there is not one of them who is not dead, wounded, or in prison

God be merciful to you for such an enterprise!


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