Strategy and a Medieval State in Crisis: An Unwinnable War

Strategy and a Medieval State in Crisis

Raynald imprisoned at Aleppo (from a mid-14th-century manuscript of William of Tyre's Historia and its Continuation)

Raynald imprisoned at Aleppo (from a mid-14th-century manuscript of William of Tyre’s Historia and its Continuation)

These articles began with a question. Can a medieval state—and specifically the crusader states – truly be said to have understood, developed and implemented coherent plans of action? And can these plans legitimately be described as ‘strategy’?

The answer, with all the provisos we have discussed, is a resounding yes.

But that is not the same as trying to suggest that all their strategies were successful. Many failed, and we are still living with the consequences of that failure.

‘Just Like Soldiers Believe They’re In Control Of The War’
(OMD)

The fundamentals of life in the Middle East made Muslim forces resilient. Individual dynasties might come and go but they surrounded the crusader states; they were close to the heartlands of Islamic political power in Iraq, and the demographics of the region meant that the Christian states would always be vastly outnumbered. Above all, there was, for most practical purposes, an endless supply of hardened light cavalry coming off the steppes with which to fill the ranks of Muslim armies.

The position of the Franks, on the other hand, was intrinsically fragile. Although the local communities in most of the crusader states were still largely Christian, these were not highly militarised societies, particularly in Palestine. A major defeat for the Muslims was a temporary setback, but little more. But by the end of the twelfth century, a defeat for the Crusaders was a catastrophe, and one from which they would find it hard to ever recover.

The Roman empire in the fifth century, with a huge professional army, elaborate border fortifications and the scope for defence in depth across much of Western Europe, failed to halt a similar demographic deluge: nomadic societies collided with their sedentary neighbours, propelled by climate change on the steppes, and pushed aside all attempts to resist them. The Franks, with only a small fraction of the Roman empire’s resources, had no chance of stemming the same tide.

The crusader states could come up with sticking plaster solutions. Ultimately, however, they were confronted with primal demographic forces far beyond their capabilities or resources.

Stupid…Or Desperate?

We started our examination of crusader strategy with the battle of the Spring of the Cresson: ostensibly an outrageous example of foolhardiness and arrogance, the very antithesis of rational military thinking. And that is certainly true on one level. But there is another, more empathetic, way of interpreting it.

From the 1170s onwards the Frankish states were increasingly on the defensive, with no aggressive strategic options left. They hunkered down and tried to delay the inevitable. The frustration that this caused was profound. The crusader leadership was a warrior elite whose natural inclination was to take the initiative in the most assertive way they could.

The extraordinary naval campaign by Reynald of Châtillon in the Red Sea, the heroic but futile charge at Cresson and the vacillating decision-making at Hattin that ultimately destroyed the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem – they were all part of the same pattern.

All were acts of increasingly reckless desperation.

With no plausible long-term strategic path available to them, the Frankish military was forced either to dig in and wait for a slow death behind castle walls or to lash out and risk a fast one. The head dictated the former, but the heart of a brave knight sought the latter.

Strategy and the ‘Great Game’

Where demographics and geography were more favourable, the crusading movement could deliver long-term success. In the Western Mediterranean, for instance, far from the steppe nomads who dominated warfare in the Levant, the fightback was sustained and effective – areas such as Portugal, Spain, Sicily and southern Italy, which we now take for granted as being part of Europe, were recovered.

But circumstances were far more difficult in the East.

The crusader states developed rational strategies to address their profound geopolitical deficiencies. They pursued those strategies with consistency, focus and, by medieval standards, impressive efficiency. These policies ultimately failed to save the Christian states of the Middle East. But they did help to preserve the Frankish colonies of the hinterland for almost a century. And they deferred the moment at which the Muslim states could focus their full attention on the coastal cities.

Medieval statesmen and commanders had an instinctive understanding of strategy. Despite our modern prejudices, they also had the patience and focus to put their strategies into practice over extended periods, sometimes even decades. The Franks were extremely lucky that their leaders were generally of high quality – perceptive, committed and superbly dynamic in their defence of their people and the Holy Land.

The medieval ‘Great Game’ of the Levant was eventually, inevitably, lost by the Crusaders: it was an unwinnable war. But it was a game played with bravery, energy and intelligence, against increasingly long odds.

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble

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The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Strategy Defending the Holy Land by Steve Tibble
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Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Armies 1099–1187 by Steve Tibble
The Crusader Armies: 1099–1187 by Steve Tibble

SOURCES

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

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