Crusading Warfare: Friction and the Fog of War

Friction and the Fog of War

Carl von Clausewitz, while in Prussian service, painted by Wilhelm Wach in early 1830s.

Carl von Clausewitz, while in Prussian service, painted by Wilhelm Wach in early 1830s

Crusading Warfare

Strategy, Clausewitz suggested, is continually undercut by reality. Even the best-resourced and most modern armies suffer enormously from the two interrelated factors that detract from their ability to implement strategy: the ‘fog of war’ and ‘friction’.

Decision-making and the Fog Of War

The ‘fog of war’ is a fundamental limitation on the actions of any general. It lies at the heart of Clausewitz’s ground-breaking philosophical analysis of strategy and warfare, largely written in the 1820s. It was a feature of strategy that was instinctively understood by the Franks and factored into their planning.

Clausewitz wrote that ‘war is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty’.

This ‘fog of war’ represents a continual limitation and can lead, at one extreme, to a paralysis of decision-making (where, for instance, one remains unaware of enemy intentions or potentialities); conversely, at the other extreme, it can lead to the most appalling overconfidence or miscalculations.

The Crusaders were all too aware of this ‘fog’ and of the consequences it could have at both ends of the spectrum. Like any sedentary society, their armies had huge difficulty in fighting enemy forces, which consisted largely of nomadic heritage cavalry. Intelligence gathering in the face of masses of light cavalry was so difficult that it was extremely hard to assess their intentions.

Combined with the common Turkic tactics of feigned flight and swarming around the flanks and rear of their opponents, caution was a necessary default mode in most circumstances.

Fog and Caution: The Raid on Bethgibelin

At the end of a Muslim raid on the settlement at Bethgibelin in 1153, for instance, one of the participants wrote:

The Franks are the most cautious of all men in war. They climbed up a hill [as we retreated] and stayed there, and we climbed a hill directly across from them. Between these two hills was an open space where our comrades, who had been separated from us and those who led the extra horses crossed right beneath them. The Franks didn’t even send one horseman down against them for fear of some ambush or trick. If the Franks had just come down, they would have captured our comrades down to the last man . . . [we were saved by] their exaggerated sense of caution.

The tone of the account was crowing, but the Frankish behaviour was borne out of experience rather than cowardice. These were veteran Hospitaller troops. They knew the penalties for recklessness in the face of the enemy all too well. They had seen the raiders off, killed the stragglers and recovered most of their plunder. The Franks were happy to quit while they were still ahead.

Confident…but Not Too Confident
Baldwin I of Jerusalem

Baldwin I of Jerusalem

Overconfidence could bring far harsher consequences with it. King Baldwin I of Jerusalem was an effective general. He was also recognised, under normal circumstances, as someone who used intelligence sources well and had a good instinctive grasp of strategic issues.

In May 1102, however, a large Egyptian army marched north to invade the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and he made an error of cataclysmic proportions. Having defeated the Fatimid military just a few months earlier, he was feeling cocky. Even more dangerously, the ‘fog of war’ reared its head in the form of ill-informed and misleading reports coming in from the countryside.

These reports led him to seriously underestimate the size of the Fatimid forces. Gathering just a couple of hundred cavalry around him, he charged towards the enemy without waiting for any infantry to join him. By the time he realised his mistake (and the scale of his mistake was huge: he was outnumbered by perhaps twenty to one), it was too late to do anything about it. He was committed. In the ensuing charge and the inevitable pursuit, the cream of Frankish knighthood was wiped out.

Interestingly, in the aftermath of the battle, Baldwin was blamed for all the right reasons – for fighting without the correct cooperation with any infantry support, for recklessly attacking without waiting for an effective muster of the local troops, but mostly for moving forward rashly in the absence of proper intelligence. The fog of war was identified – correctly – as being responsible for the crucial mistake.

Next time the Franks did things properly. A cautious muster of the kingdom’s forces took place over the following days, and the Egyptians were soundly beaten before the end of the month. Even when they were breaking the rules of war, the Franks at least knew what rules they were breaking.

Friction and Resourcing

The ‘fog of war’ also contributed significantly to one of Clausewitz’s other main precepts: the idea of ‘friction’. Clausewitz wrote that:

Everything in war is very simple, but [even] the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war . . . Countless minor incidents – the kind you can never really foresee – combine to lower the general level of performance so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.

Even if there is a moderately accurate sense of what the enemy is capable of, or likely to do, the ability to deploy forces efficiently is always compromised, to a greater or lesser extent, by the accidents and eventualities of real life. Friction creates the difference between war as it might be, with all the absolute violence that that implies, and war as played out in reality: how potential is converted into imperfection.

‘Friction’ explains why the theoretical performance of military assets – an army, say, or a unit of spearmen – is degraded before they even get into battle. In the crusader states, friction always loomed large. Even basic tasks, such as gathering troops together, were often appallingly difficult and dangerous operations.

Friction and Disaster

In 1170, for instance, Saladin’s armies invaded the south of the Latin Kingdom, partly destroying the southern castle of Darum. A number of the younger members of the colonial militia from the Frankish settlement at Magna Mahomeria were late in joining the muster.

The royal army had retreated, having tried – and failed – to stop the Muslim advance. The isolated militia unit took refuge in Gaza. The Templar castle there survived the siege that followed, but the young men were trapped in the town and almost wiped out.

Similarly, in 1183 we know that a large body of troops from the lordship of the Oultrejourdain (the Transjordan) were intercepted on the way to a royal muster point and wiped out. With poor transport links and even more rudimentary communications, even getting to a battlefield was a dangerous business.

Friction by Time

Less obviously, but often just as damaging, there was also friction over time. In the absence of anything other than the most rudimentary communications technology, by the time troops were gathered, it was often too late to stop the enemy from doing its worst. Particularly as Muslim armies grew increasingly larger in the second half of the century, it took longer and longer for the Franks to pull their scattered penny packets of garrisons together.

As a consequence, even when relief forces gathered, it was often too late. At the siege of Jacob’s Ford in 1179, for instance, the Frankish field army which should have come to their aid was delayed in mustering at Tiberias, and they also had to wait to include groups of crusaders who had recently arrived in the East. By the time they were ready, the Templars’ vital new castle had been overrun.

These delays were not necessarily due to any negligence or cowardice – though the size of Saladin’s armies was certainly enough to discourage the faint of heart. In the latter decades of the twelfth century, gathering forces of sufficient critical mass to meet the enemy with any degree of confidence inevitably took longer.

Shortcuts for Survival

In an era of such chronically poor communications, shortcuts had to be found. The Franks went to great lengths to make decision-making, policy formulation and strategic responses as quick and seamless as possible.

Over time – remarkably quickly in fact – the different crusader states arrived at ways to develop policy in tandem. They established a methodology that allowed them to act swiftly together in times of emergency. One of the main ways they did this was through the development of informal protocols which guided behaviour and responses.

These created default responses to specific situations, bypassing the need to send detailed and specific instructions every time a new military threat emerged.

Protocols and Procedures

Protocols can create a military shorthand – tactical and operational responses that allow simple or dispersed societies to react quickly, almost instinctively, to military emergencies. To a large extent, these loosely defined doctrines embody much of the DNA of the army. They allowed best practices in military matters to be transferred quickly from generation to generation but were particularly important in the crusader states.

They provided a speedier, easily replicable response to habitual events, such as mutual support in the event of enemy invasion. They also created an instinctive ‘welcome pack’ and induction programme for newcomers as they arrived, either as part of formal expeditions – such as crusades – or as small groups of pious warriors or individual pilgrims.

Warfare in the East was so different, so much more intense, that newcomers needed to hit the ground running if they were to have any chance of survival.

At the highest level, there were widely understood protocols about the need for each of the crusader states to offer each other support in the event of invasion, regardless of personal animosities or rivalries. Help was usually led by the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem whose pre-eminence was generally recognised and acknowledged, albeit sometimes uncomfortably. These duties were serious and onerous. The kings of Jerusalem spent much of their reigns riding to the rescue of their northern neighbours. This was dangerous, often unappreciated, work. But it had to be done.

Protocols – Help Thy Neighbour

King Fulk, for example, spent most of his time in the north, knocking heads together among the fractious Frankish nobility as well as helping them stave off Muslim invasion. He worked, usually successfully, to defend their lands but frequently had to remind even his own vassals that their mutual interdependence required continual commitment and self-sacrifice.

Regardless of petty internal disputes, there was a shared interest in maintaining a common front and, at a basic level, ensuring each other’s existence. The County of Edessa, for instance, provided a buffer for the other crusader states for as long as it survived. Once it had definitively collapsed (in 1150) the danger just moved further south, threatening the remaining crusader states still more. Neighbours might be irritating but no one wanted them gone.

Protocols – Where to Meet in a Crisis

At an operational level, having well-established mustering points also helped. These were ideally well watered, and close enough to likely points of enemy incursion. But they also had to be far enough back to allow manoeuvrability and a degree of safety for troops approaching from different locations. While men were mustering at these points, messengers would be sent to the other crusader states to ask for immediate assistance. The springs at Cresson, Saffuriya and Tubania met these criteria for the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem’s Eastern borders and were often used as bases for the field army.

On a smaller scale, the men of each lordship or region knew where to gather at short notice, often before setting off together towards the main army muster. The other crusader states similarly had their own customary gathering points. In the days leading up to the disastrous engagement at Ager Sanguinis, for instance, Prince Roger of Antioch was correct in asking for help from the other crusader states and gathering his men at an appropriate mustering point. His mistake lay only in moving camp and marching towards the enemy before that help arrived.

Another form of protocol, the arrière-ban or temporary mass conscription, was never popular but was occasionally necessary. It was usually only required in a state of emergency, such as a major invasion by the enemy. In the single-minded pursuit of vital strategic interests and opportunities, however, exceptions could be made. In January 1126, for instance, a general muster of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was called to invade Damascene territory. William of Tyre wrote:

The king and the lords gave orders that all the people, from the least even up to the greatest, be assembled. Through every city of the realm, these orders were proclaimed by the voice of the herald. Thus within a few days, the entire military strength of the kingdom was levied and the entire body concentrated near the city of Tiberias, prepared to invade the land of Damascus.’

But the precedents for the raising of the arrière ban were always jealously guarded. Regardless of the need, it was only in the era of Saladin, when even the most conservative subject had to confront the seriousness of the military situation, that it could be called on regularly.

Reduced Strategic Options – But Faster Responses

Protocols and other standard responses to specific military situations were inevitably a blunt instrument. They channelled activity down predictable avenues, and this helped the Franks’ enemies in making their plans. They limited the range of options available to crusading generals, at least in the early stages of any campaign. And, in some cases, they may have encouraged lazy thinking.

But they were also sensible and, given the circumstances, probably even unavoidable. They speeded up response times enormously. They allowed the Crusaders to bypass a lot of the more lengthy decision-making processes. And, in a relatively simple society which valued tradition and consent above innovation, it gave the strategic and operational activity the veneer and credibility of custom.

For under-resourced states living permanently on the edge of catastrophe, anything that reduced the fog and friction of war had to be grasped.

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2020). The Crusader Strategy. Yale University Press.

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