Vocabulary and the Definition of a Medieval ‘Strategy’

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

VOCABULARY AND DEFINITION

We need to be clear about the language we use.

The word ‘strategy’ has come to mean so much that it now means almost nothing. Definitions of strategy are surprisingly vague. They are also desperately misused. The word ‘strategic’ in modern usage often means something a little more specific than ‘important’. Or just ‘big’. Or something that you would like to achieve (which, incidentally, is really an ‘objective’).

Similarly, there is a continual tendency to confuse and conflate a series of related words, all of which are used interchangeably (and incorrectly) far too often: aims, goals, tactics, strategy, a continual stream of vague but important-sounding descriptors that litter our self-help books and business manuals.

What is ‘Strategy’?

For the sake of clarity, therefore, we shall define certain phrases as follows:

– ‘Strategy’ (and ‘strategic activity’) is designing and implementing the forms and structures of warfare needed to pursue the policy goals of a given society. If our goal is to conquer Egypt, for instance, how can that be best achieved? Strategy is thus the direction of warfare above the level of the battlefield, as the military expression of statesmanship, policy, and the objectives of the state.
– ‘Operational activity’ is the conduct of campaigns that see that strategy played out on the ground (mustering troops, organising logistical back-up, long-distance maneuvering, and so on).
– ‘Tactical activity’ is maneuvering and fighting on the battlefield or in a siege—the sharp end of the military interface.

What Strategy is Not …

But if we define what strategy is, we also need to understand what it is not. It is not, for instance, the objectives, or the objective setting: it is about how to achieve things rather than trying to establish what those things might be.

Neither can all military activity be viewed as solely directed towards the solution of a bigger problem. It would be entirely unrealistic, for instance, to look at every castle and assume it is part of a single, unified strategy. Similarly, there were many localised and ad hoc calls on the military, which one would never expect to be part of the policy of the state. These were diffuse and decentralised societies, many of whose rudimentary economies were not even operating on a monetary basis. A tight control of resources was never entirely feasible, even under the strongest king: ‘strategy’, insofar as it existed in a medieval state, needed to be implemented with the lightest of touches.

At its core, ‘strategy’ is an overarching solution to a problem (in this case a military or political problem: how to conquer an enemy state, how to survive an invasion, and so on). It should also, if possible, have an institutional aspect to it, demonstrating thinking that is not just the passing fancy of one person or a single clique, but rather a coordinated plan of activity that transcends immediate requirements (i.e. something that is neither just a ‘good idea’, nor purely reactive or opportunistic).

Layered Warfare

There are different layers of warfare, each with its own flow and purpose. There is policy: the purpose and objectives of warfare. There is a strategy: warfare off the battlefield. And there are tactics: warfare on the battlefield. Strategy can thus be seen as the middle of the process of war. Policy and statesmanship are at the top, and they set overall objectives. Tactics, such as how best to launch a charge or the minutiae of castle design, are the implementation of that policy and how it is played out on the ground. Strategy is the process in between, the thinking that links the two. They are all different from each other, but they all need to be in harmony.

Policy-making is at the top of this decision-making pyramid, and we should be clear that strategy is not a synonym for policy. Strategy tries to fulfill the policies of the state or society for which it is created, but its aim is to be a vehicle to bring those policies to fruition, rather than to create them. One of the main paths toward defining strategy properly lies in understanding what policy is and the relationship between different levels of military and political decision-making. The crusader strategy developed to attempt the conquest of Egypt, for example, could only exist in the context of an agreed policy with this goal at its center.

Clausewitz wrote of strategy as ‘the use of engagement for the purpose of war’, and in doing this, he was explicitly not describing politics or policy. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not even about violence (or at least not necessarily so). The details of armed struggle may be the actions at the sharp end of strategy, but they are ultimately just a means by which strategy is conducted.

Given that strategy is closely related to ‘policy’ and, indeed, only exists to further the aims of policy, it raises the question of how (if at all) medieval states might develop such policies and how they might be converted into a strategic plan.

‘Random’ Medieval Responses?

Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, crusader military decision-making was rarely ‘random’. There were many significant examples of strategic intent, including:

– the policy of aggressive castle building to cut off Muslim strongholds in places such as Tripoli and Ascalon;
– building fortresses to project force in vulnerable border areas (with examples such as the castles of Belvoir, Banyas, and Jacob’s Ford);
– extended periods in which diplomatic initiatives were designed to support the needs of military strategy;
– the setting of bigger-picture objectives across different decades and different regions, with, for instance, the pursuit of policy goals in Egypt through pressure on Ascalon and a series of invasions into Eastern Egypt stretching over most of the central part of the twelfth century.

A strategy was certainly being enacted, if we cared to look for it.

‘At Least We’ll Die With Harness On Our Back’ (Macbeth)

The battle of the Spring of the Cresson (1187), the catastrophic battle that preceded the battle of Hattin, may seem like the antithesis of strategy. A tiny band of crusader knights (perhaps some 130 men) hunted down and then bravely charged a force of several thousand Muslim cavalry who were rampaging through the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The result, inevitably, was a massacre.

It was certainly a disaster, and a disaster that sprang largely from a failure of Frankish leadership. Gerard of Ridefort, the ranking crusader field commander, was colossally arrogant. He was not a man over-encumbered by sentimentality, self-reflection, or the ability to acknowledge his own mistakes.

It is clear from letters written to the West shortly after the battle that, despite having squandered the lives of almost all his men, Gerard (one of only a handful of survivors) was just as concerned about how to replace their equipment: he complained that he had ‘suffered serious losses of horses and arms, quite apart from the loss of men’. His comrades paid all too dearly for his capacity for self-deception and poor decision-making.

Gerard of Ridefort, as illustrated by Maître de Fauvel in 1337

Gerard of Ridefort, as illustrated by Maître de Fauvel in 1337

Gerard of Ridefort – A Templar Outlier

What is generally overlooked, however, was that every other Frankish leader on the field had argued forcefully (and entirely correctly) that the best solution lay in retreat rather than a headlong charge. Although Gerard was capable of launching an unsupported charge in the face of an overwhelming number of enemy troops, his gung-ho world of excessive piety and military machismo was by no means typical.

The other crusader commanders that day, including high-ranking members of both of the supposedly fanatical military orders (the Templars and the Hospitallers), argued for a more cautious and rational approach.

Gerard was an outlier in terms of Frankish generalship—a figure so extreme that he was more of a caricature than a genuinely representative of crusading warfare. The charge he launched on that sweltering day in May 1187 was not unprecedented, but it was by no means normal. It was no more typical of Frankish military thinking than the charge of the Light Brigade was of the Victorian British army; it was spectacular but also an aberration.

Brave But Not Suicidal

The Franks often behaved in an audacious way, but rarely unthinkingly so. The strategies required to achieve the objectives that the crusader states set themselves were always fraught with risk, always a long shot. But a small chance of success was better than none at all. And that dichotomy was at the heart of the conundrum facing the Franks.

Although they might behave with due caution on a tactical or operational level, they did not always have that luxury when it came to strategy. To do nothing meant certain defeat. To fight against the enemies that surrounded and outnumbered them meant trying to implement strategies that had sound objectives and clear war aims, but they often had little chance of success.

The core of the strategic problem in fighting an enemy that surrounded and outnumbered them so decisively was always demographic, economic, and geographic rather than purely military. And a postscript to the battle of the Spring of the Cresson demonstrated the point to a shocking extent.

Scraping the Barrel

A small Frankish contingent, led by Balian of Ibelin, was belatedly riding to join Gerard of Ridefort and the ill-fated Templar cavalry. They eventually arrived (luckily for them, far too late) outside the castle of La Fève.

It was deserted.

The entire castle had been stripped of people, including the walking wounded, militia, tradesmen, and other non-combatants. And this was to raise enough of a mobile force to see off a Muslim incursion that was believed (falsely in the event) to be a raiding party rather than the army that it turned out to be. The manpower available to the Franks was so small that their strategic options were profoundly limited.

The deserted castle of La Fève is a graphic indicator of the deteriorating military situation in 1187. But it is also a broader metaphor for the defence of the crusader states.

On May 1, 1187, no fewer than three Muslim armies invaded different parts of the crusader states, and the force that destroyed the Templar squadrons on that day was just a large contingent from one of them. In the face of simultaneous incursions on several fronts, Balian, one of the most senior local commanders, was left trying to work out what had happened based on the testimony of two delirious invalids.

The Strategy of Desperation

The Franks were permanently scraping the barrel. As the twelfth century progressed, they were increasingly setting priorities and implementing strategies that were the least bad rather than the best.

It is this struggle that characterizes the tenacity and strengths of the European colonies of the medieval Middle East: the chances of success were always slim, but they were better than nothing. And, as we shall see, the strategies they developed were played out with a determination based on the most profound desperation.

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RECOMENDED BOOKS

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