The First Crusade: Perspectives

There can be no doubt that burning religious conviction underlay the success of the First Crusade. Time and again when all seemed lost, at Antioch and at Jerusalem particularly, the army rallied to God’s cause. The deep conviction that they were the servants of God underlay the boldness with which they tackled and surprised such formidable enemies as the Egyptians, when all rational calculation would have advised against it. Indeed, not the least of the factors which made for their success was the inability of the Middle Eastern powers to comprehend this all or nothing mentality. But burning zeal has to be controlled, disciplined and sustained. Ecclesiastical power alone was not enough, and as in Western society generally so on the crusade, power was exercised by an alliance of church, in the person of Adhémar, and state in the persons of the princes. When the ambitions, hesitations and doubts of the lay leaders disrupted the crusade and ecclesiastical authority collapsed with the death of Adhémar, the army was plunged into crisis from which it was rescued only by a zealot minority represented by Peter Bartholemew in alliance with the count of Toulouse. They owed their power to articulating the feelings of the overwhelming mass of the crusaders of all ranks, and when Peter was discredited Godfrey was able to harness this raw power. That religious zeal had a very narrow and material focus – to liberate Jerusalem. Later crusades would never suffer from such tunnel vision, but this enormously concentrated the efforts of the army in contrast to their successors in 1101 and 1147. For ideological cohesion was a rare phenomenon in the eleventh century, as Gregory VII had discovered, and it is hard to see how any wider objective could have carried the concentrated appeal of Jerusalem.

But their spirit and organisation could never have succeeded without help. Byzantine aid was of enormous assistance. At the siege of Nicaea it was very much in evidence, but thereafter it appeared to dwindle. This was a false perspective, for Alexius’s real service to the crusaders was to support them from Cyprus which formed an offshore base for the siege of Antioch and operations in North Syria. In addition, Alexius seems to have committed a sizable fleet to their assistance – far more important than Tatikios’s small contingent. Without Byzantine help it is difficult to see how the western fleets could have operated so successfully. The reason for this enormous Byzantine investment was that this was a joint enterprise. The whole Armenian strategy promised the restoration of Byzantine power in the old dominion of Philaretus and the collapse of the Seljuk dominion in western Asia Minor opened the way for the reconquest of the southern part of the sub-continent. So when it came to a dispute Alexius could rightly say that he had played his part but in the end the greatest prize eluded him, for the decision to turn back at Philomelium gave Bohemond his opportunity and a moral justification for the dislike of the Greeks which was never far below the surface amongst the Westerners.

And Byzantine help had its influence in another way. The crusade was enormously assisted by the divisions of Islam. Had the Seljuk dominion of less than ten years before still existed, it is impossible to see how they could have succeeded. Alexius almost certainly explained the problems of the Turks and the divisions of Islam to his allies, for we know it was his idea to send an embassy to Egypt. But it has to be said that the western princes took their cue skillfully and played the Egyptians well, and applied the idea to other Islamic powers. They were more pragmatic than the stereotype of the crusader in absolute and bitter opposition to all that is Islamic would suggest. The fanaticism which drove on the great expedition was an underlying force of enormous power but its influence upon events was continual rather than continuous. Nor should we forget that although the Islamic powers were divided, they were each individually very strong and that in every major battle the crusaders fought against odds. No matter how enthusiastic they were, nor how well supported, victory in the clash of arms was never inevitable and to understand that we must turn to more narrowly military factors.

The individual leaders exerted great control over their own armies. Robert of Normandy is one of the failures of history and this casts a shadow over him, but at Dorylaeum he rallied the troops at a crucial moment, and at Ascalon he was at the heart of a charge which swept all before it. This was military ability of a high order. Robert of Flanders was a brave soldier who organised the foraging and gathering of materials at Jerusalem. Godfrey was in the thick of the fighting at the siege of Jerusalem and this was important in an age when leading by example mattered. Bohemond was an able general whose aggressive tactics created the victories over Ridwan and Kerbogah. He made the crusaders use rear-guards – this was by no means an innovation in western war but it was a development which needed discipline and control, and such qualities became more evident in the crusader army as time went on. Bohemond’s genius lay in his aggressiveness – his determination to unsettle the enemy and take them unawares, and this characterises his victories over Ridwan and Kerbogah. He was not a tactical innovator – the real innovation was the use of infantry, and that arose from circumstance as they became better armed and more experienced. The battle against Kerbogah was an infantry battle perforce – it was only at Ascalon that the lessons of careful co-ordination were applied. But Bohemond’s real importance lay in the fact of his appointment as sole commander in moments of crisis. The divisions of the leaders, their determination to head their own armies and do jointly only what was agreed jointly, was the real weakness of this and almost all other crusades. It was their good fortune that when this co-operation was at its newest and their troops at their rawest, they confronted the weakest of their enemies, the Turks of Asia Minor. The nomads were ferocious fighters, but they were not numerous and Kilij Arslan’s tactics depended too heavily on the moral effect of sudden onslaughts. He allowed his men, whose genius lay in mobile warfare, to be caught in slogging matches where numbers counted; in 1101 the Turks would learn patience and close only with a demoralised enemy. It was luck too that when the leaders were at their most divided after the fall of Antioch, the Islamic world was demoralised and quite unable to exploit their problems, so that despite the fragility of their co-operation they pressed on to Jerusalem.

The leaders were able men who managed to work together, though only just. Their real ability showed at its best in sieges. Nicaea, Antioch and Jerusalem were large and well-defended cities such as few westerners had seen before, but the army set about their reduction systematically. Probably the siege of Nicaea helped the leaders to settle a raw army, though at a terrible price in lives. Full credit has never been given to a leadership which perceived the problems of the siege of Antioch and tackled them with enormous persistence and eventual success. The experience at Antioch was an intensification of what they were used to in the West – war of position rather than the formal investment experienced at Nicaea – the strangling of an enemy rather than assault against fortifications. The siege of Jerusalem exemplifies the skills of what was now a highly experienced and coherent grouping of armies, though the passiveness of the defenders contributed. It was not technological innovation which made their sieges so successful. All the instruments they used seem to have been known to their enemies. The western approach to war which favoured systematic and often clumsy preparation also favoured good performance in this area. Success was the product of organisation and command above all.

The Franks enjoyed no technical advantages over their enemies. Their western horses may have been rather larger than those of the nomad Turks but probably not significantly so, and they soon died anyway. The Turks, an element in all the armies that they faced, had the short bow which dictated their tactics and which the Franks found difficult to counter. They may even have had a form of quick-firing crossbow unknown to the West. The Franks probably had rather better armour, but in general their weapons were very like those of their enemies.

The outstanding factor on the battlefield was the tactical skill of the Turkish horsemen firing their arrows from horseback. They were always relatively few and this was critical in Asia Minor. In the Caliphate they were the cutting edge of armies and supported by diverse and adaptable forces. The Franks had no technical answer to the problem and their response was precisely what one would expect – the tactical expedient of solidity of formation. This is always desirable in both cavalry and infantry, but very difficult to achieve when there was no formal system of training. In their first battle the Franks found themselves fighting in close ground near Nicaea, which frustrated Turkish tactics. At Dorylaeum the enemy was free to manoeuvre and attacked skillfully, cruelly exposing the Franks who lacked any overall command. But the chances of topography and direction of attack, and the determination and skill of the leaders held the armies together. Thereafter the crusader host became a more coherent group of units and Bohemond was able to use this experience and skill to great advantage at the Lake Battle. Against Kerbogah the same cohesiveness was seen amongst the infantry who were also refined and trained by the experience of war and the lessons of this were applied at Ascalon where a complex marching formation was adopted, and the classic pattern of infantry protecting cavalry marked the final deployment. This was not innovation as such, for similar formations had been used in the West but here it was used with great success.

It is this growth of the coherence and experience of the crusader host as a whole which was the key to their military success. In many ways their overall organisation and weapons were inferior to those of their enemies and they were ‘away from home’ in a strange climate. But the divisions of their enemies meant that their weaknesses were never exposed fully and they were given time in which they became more and more experienced. Crucially the Turks of Asia Minor failed to stop them. Thereafter what had been a relatively incoherent host, within which some armies were better ordered than others, became more coherent and experienced, and more successful.

In a military sense the crusade was a success. It may not have achieved all that Urban wanted it to achieve in terms of friendship with the Eastern Empire. Its success was limited in that it established bare outposts with poor communications with the West and uncertain relations with Eastern Christendom, but that is our viewpoint blessed as we are with hindsight. There was no single will directing the crusade; it was the product of many wills interacting with circumstances, and all that gave it a precarious unity was Jerusalem. To free it was the task they set themselves and to have achieved that was remarkable.

The crusade had little immediate impact on western armies at this time. The twelfth century would see the rise of two distinct tactical developments: the mass charge by cavalry, using couched lances for the maximum shock impact, and the rise of highly effective infantry. Discipline and clearly articulated command structures were vital to these developments. Launching a cavalry charge was so difficult even for the Templars with their background of order and discipline that they felt the need to write it all down in detail. These developments were only possible because the monarchies of the West more and more used mercenaries and professional commanders who were able to impose an appropriate discipline on the more ‘regular’ forces which formed the cores of their commands. This, combined with the development of the heavier horses, created the classic medieval cavalry charge, and one of its antidotes – disciplined infantry, who in any case became more and more necessary as castles grew more complex. The conditions of the crusade replicated the conditions of common service and experience which made these armies so efficient. Conditions in the crusader states continued to demand constant military activity which had much the same effect, hence the high prestige of the armies of Outremer in the twelfth century. It is possible that the glory and the prestige of the First Crusade helped to impress upon western commanders the need for discipline and coherence in their armies. In 1106 Robert Curthose found himself brought to bay by his brother Henry at Tinchebrai, rather as he had been by his father at Gerberoi in 1079. As then, he decided to risk battle, on a single coherent charge, but he was heavily outnumbered. However, Henry of Huntingdon says that Robert’s forces fought well and pressed the enemy hard relying on the fact that they were ‘well trained in the wars of Jerusalem’. It was indeed a hard training which produced coherent armies and ferocious fighters. It was this, their belief in God and themselves, and their able commanders which gave them the victory in the East.


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