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The Crusades: The Battle Of Hattin
The Middle East During The Third Crusade
The Crusades pitted two very different military systems against each other. On the Christian side, the arm of decision was the heavily armoured cavalry, which could smash an enemy formation and ride down the broken remains, assuming it made contact. This knightly host was supported by infantry, spearmen and crossbowmen, who were not greatly valued by their social betters among the cavalry. The fighting style of the Christians tended to be undisciplined and badly coordinated, though aggressive and courageous.
Against this powerful but clumsy blunt instrument was ranged the lighter, more mobile and (usually) highly trained Muslim military system, which contained lighter troops for the most part but was better disciplined and organised than its enemy. Its cavalry component was largely made up of mail armoured askari from Egypt and Syria, armed with bows, lances and shields. They were skilled skirmishers as well as hand to hand fighters and well versed in hit and run tactics. The askari cavalry were paid regulars, and they were backed up by irregular cavalry drawn from local Bedouin, Kurdish and Turkish groups. The Saracen force also included a large infantry component. These were mostly bowmen or spearmen, who also carried shields. The Muslim forces also had the advantage of a unified command whereas the Crusaders came from all over Europe and answered to many rival leaders. Many Crusaders spoke different languages and could not communicate effectively with each other.
Reynald de Chatillon
The Crusades came about as a result of the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by the Seljuk Turks, otherwise known as the Saracens. This meant that Christian holy places were now in the hands of Muslims (to whom many of the same areas were holy). This offended Christian leaders in the West, and Pope Urban II called for a Crusade to take control of these important places. Several Crusades then ensued, interspersed with smaller expeditions. Some were truly inspired by religious fervour and others were little more than smash and grab raids. Most fell somewhere in between- however, for all of their supposed holiness, few Crusaders were above enriching themselves if an opportunity presented itself.
Naturally, these armed expeditions to capture areas of the Holy Land brought the Crusades into conflict with the current overlords of the region, and a series of sporadic wars then ensued. At times the Crusaders were strong enough to hold kingdoms in the Holy Land, and at other times their presence was all but removed. Treaties and agreements were made at various times, but here the disorganised nature of the Crusades made it unlikely that any agreement would last. No sooner had one group negotiated a deal than someone else would arrive and stir things up again. Conflict was inevitable even if those involved tried to honour their agreements. Quite often, they did not. The Battle of Hattin stemmed from such a disregarded treaty. In 1186, the Crusader leader, Reynald de Chatillon raided a caravan and captured a substantial amount of booty and prisoners. King Guy of Jerusalem was not impressed and ordered the return of both loot and prisoners. Saladin, leader of the Turks in the region, made a similar demand, Reynald declined. So Saladin declared war on the Crusaders and began gathering his forces.
The Knight Orders
A Coincidental Defeat
A Saracen reconnaissance force numbering 6500 was sent out to discover as much as possible about the Crusaders’ forces, dispositions and intentions. It achieved rather more than this, though mainly through a combination of good luck and Crusader stupidity.
The Orders of the Temple and the Hospital (the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller) were important and powerful among the Crusaders, and at that time the Grand Masters of both orders were in the field with just 140 knights and 350 infantry between then. They were there to resolve a dispute between King Guy and Count Raymond of Tripoli, but quickly decided to go looking for the Saracen force.
The Saracens were located at Kishon, and the Grand Masters decided to attack them. Vastly outnumbered, they left their infantry behind and plunged into the attack, 140 men against 6500. The result was predictable enough. Only three men, including the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, survived. The Saracen reconnaissance force went on with its mission, gaining information. The Christian garrison at Nazareth was overwhelmed and destroyed.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders were trying to organise themselves. Even though Reynald had betrayed the truce and unilaterally committed the Crusades to war, his fellows stood with him. They probably decided that they had no choice- Saladin had declared war on all the Crusades and not just Reynald’s people, and so they would have to stand together or be defended individually.
Whatever the motivation, the Crusaders decided to rally at Acre, and some 2200 knights made their way there. What was left of the Hospitallers and Templar joined the host, some 40 and 80 men respectively, along with 650-750 knights from the various Crusader kingdoms. The remainder of the Crusader strength was made up of mercenary knights or opportunists seeking their fortune in the Holy Land. They were professional fighting men of course, but less reliable than those who owed allegiance to the Crusader commanders. They were backed up by about 4000 Turcopole light cavalry, local warriors who had converted to Christianity, and around 32,000 infantry.
With the Crusader army was the True Cross, supposedly the very cross upon which Christ had been crucified. Its presence inspired more devout men among the Christian force. An army marching behind the Cross was, it was claimed, invincible. Perhaps over-reliance on relics and divine power was one reason for the unwise strategy employed by the Crusaders.
What Exactly Were The Crusades?
How Jerusalem Fell Into Christian Hands In The First Place
- First Crusade: Siege of Jerusalem
An in-depth article that explains how the Christians captured Jerusalem about a century before Hattin.
More On The Crusades
The Saracens were threatening the fortress of Tiberias, which was held by the wife of Count Raymond. The castle was well defended, and though the nearby town was pillaged Raymond knew that his castle and his wife were safe for the time being. The Christians could afford to take their time, and indeed might be able to force the enemy to come to them, tiring themselves out in the process.
Unfortunately, Raymond’s wise counsel was ignored. King Guy was determined to bring the Saracens to battle and defeat them as soon as possible. The Christian army had camped at Saffuriya, about 6 miles short of Tiberias. The most direct route towards the enemy was across the barren, waterless plain of Toran. Attempting to march an army with thousands of horses and tens of thousands of men in heavy armour across such an arid region was folly. To do it in the face of a waiting enemy was more than stupid, more like stupid. Nevertheless, Guy decided to press ahead.
King Guy was heavily influenced in his decision by Reynald de Chatillon and Gerard de Ridefort, who urged him to throw caution to the winds and attack like a proper Christian knight. Guy’s only concession to survival was to advance using the Wadi Hamman, which might have water available but was not the most direct route. Nevertheless, Saladin’s scouts reported the move to him in time to counter it, and from then on the Crusaders’ fate was sealed.
As the Crusaders pushed up the wadi, the advance guard under Raymond, and the rear-guard, both came under attack from fast moving Muslim skirmishers. The only troops capable of countering these attacks were the Turcopoles, whose equipment was light enough, to allow fast countermoves. The Saracens therefore concentrated on destroying the Turcopoles, which would then expose the rest of the Crusader force to destruction at their leisure.
As the Turcopoles were driven off or destroyed, the Crusader column had no counter to the attacks of the Saracen skirmishers, except to keep the valuable knights and their horses inside a protective screen of infantry. Whilst still about 1.25 miles short of the intended battle area, the column was halted and preparations made to camp. There was no water available but the troops were too tired to carry on. Between the heat and the constant attacks of the skirmishers the powerful column had been nibbled to death. The rear-guard in particular was in a terrible state.
Having camped overnight without water, the Crusader army was in a desperate plight the following day. There was no possibility of going back, not through that wasteland with mounted skirmishers dogging every step. The objective lay just a mile ahead, and obtaining water was now a critical requirement. The only option was to go on.
The Crusader force gathered its resolve and set off early in the morning, driving onwards to try to reach the nearest source of water, which lay in the village of Marescallia. The exhausted troops were halted well short of their objective by Muslim forces, who had been resupplied by camel trains during the night and were in good shape to fight.
The Battle As Art
The Battle Of Hattin On Film
Kingdom Of Heaven
In 2005, a film called 'Kingdom of Heaven' was made that depicts the events of the Third Crusade, including the Battle of Hattin. The video above shows clips from the film, including its depiction of the battle. Note the large cross carried by the Crusader army, this is meant to be the true cross which Christ himself was crucified on.
The Battle Opens
In accordance with the ancient principle of not giving battle until you have already won, Saladin had allowed his enemy to exhaust himself, cut off his own retreat and then stumble to a disorganised halt in the face of relatively light opposition. And still Saladin did not commit to a decisive charge. He was a clever and patient man, who did not need dramatic results to know he had won. He would settle for quietly getting what he wanted at a lower price and always had an eye to the long term strategic situation.
Saladin’s forces advanced in a crescent formation, but stopped short of contact. Instead they poured arrows into the exhausted and disordered Crusader force. This placed the Crusaders in a terrible dilemma. The Crusaders could unleash their famous cavalry charge which, weakened as it was, still represented a tremendous amount of striking power. However, it was likely that the charge would hit only empty air as the Saracens faded away, shooting all the time. Alternatively the Crusaders could do nothing, and be steadily shot down. All the while their strength was being depleted by heat and thirst, and by arrows shot deliberately at the knights’ horses to rob the Crusaders of their main striking power.
It was all too much for the hard pressed infantry. Desperately thirsty, with the wasteland to their backs and thoroughly sick of being little more than walking archery butts, they tried to push on to the Sea of Galilee, which was visible not far away. The disorganised mob that had been the Crusader infantry was unable to break through to the shores of the sea and was deflected by elements of the Muslim force. The infantry took refuge on the slopes of the easternmost of two hills nearby, known as the Horns of Hattin. There they stayed, refusing or ignoring orders, pleas and demands to re-join the battle. Most were massacred after the battle proper. The rest were sold as slaves by their captors.
The Horns Of Hattin
More On The Battle Of Hattin
The Knights Attack
There was no option now but to attack and try to break through the Muslim force. Raymond, with about 200 knights of the vanguard, was ordered forward and made his gallant, if ultimately doomed, run at the enemy.
As had happened many times before, the Saracens declined to receive the Crusader charge, but melted out of the way, shooting at the knights from flanks and rear as they passed. Raymond was wounded in three places and had been unable to make contact with the enemy. His weakened horses were blown and there was no prospect of achieving anything but a fairly inglorious death, so Raymond led what was left of his force out of the death trap and headed for Tyre. Saladin seemed content to let him go.
The remainder of the Crusader knights also launched charges at the Saracen force. The result was much the same; the highly mobile Muslim force evaded the clumsy charges and shot down the knights and their horses, closing in to cut off small contingents that could be overwhelmed.
Some of the knights, perhaps 300 in all, were able to break free and reach Acre. The remainder were gradually driven onto the western Horn of Hattin where they were no better off than the infantry on the eastern one. King Guy had his tent pitched on the hill, marking the centre of the defensive position.
Saladin had already won, but the cornered Crusaders might still inflict heavy casualties on his force if he decided to charge in and seek a dramatic ending. Instead he was content to bottle the Crusaders up on their waterless refuge and slowly destroy them with archery.
The Crusaders defended the area around the king’s tent for as long as they were able, launching weak and abortive counter-attacks that had no chance of success. Even when the Saracens set fire to the brush, tormenting the thirsty Crusaders with smoke on top of all their other miseries, the knights held out as best they could.
Finally, though their strength gave out and the king’s tent was overrun. The survivors surrendered, among them King Guy, Reynald and Gerard as well as about 150 knights. The Saracens took so many prisoners that they could not find enough rope to secure them all.
Kingdom Of Heaven
Victory For Saladin
Saladin had his most implacable enemies executed: Reynald and every Knights Templar or Hospitaller he could find. He also massacred the surviving Turcopoles, who were seen as traitors by their countrymen. Thousands of Crusader soldiers were sold into slavery, causing such a glut in the market that the price dropped considerably. Saladin did show mercy, however. King Guy was spared, as was Raymond’s wife. She had to surrender the castle, but was allowed to depart unharmed. Guy was freed upon payment of what was literally a king’s ransom. Saladin’s victory at Hattin was partly due to failures of logistics, planning and common sense among the Crusaders, though it also owed a lot to the patience and cunning of Saladin himself. One of the great military axioms says ‘do not interrupt the enemy while he is making a mistake’ and Saladin was clever enough to let his foes hang themselves before he even considered joining battle. When he did fight it was with good tactics and sound logistics, a potent combination on any battlefield.
The Aftermath Of Hattin
Hattin was the beginning of the end for the Crusaders. More Crusades would be launched and some successes would be scored, but the days of the great Crusader kingdoms were more or less over. Some 30 Crusader castles fell within the year, and Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin. This was in addition to the 11 cities handed over to Saladin’s control as the ransom for King Guy.
The struggles for the Holy Land would go on, of course, but it was at Hattin that the Crusaders threw away all their advantages, and perhaps their chances of winning in the long term.
© 2012 James Kenny