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The Ravages Of Wars

As the Byzantine Empire was reaching the peak of its cultural and military power in the 7th century, deep within the deserts of Arabia a power was stirring that would change the face of the religious world forever. From the Byzantine point of view, the desert tracts of Arabia offered little in the way of rewards for conquest so, as with their Persian contemporaries, the eastern Romans made no effort to control the area. Arabia's only wealth lay in a few merchant towns, Mecca and Medina among them, that lay astride trade routes in the south. Into this world of Arab merchants and pastoral herdsmen was born Mohammed, the prophet of the religion of Islam, and a man destined to change the face of the world.

Beginning with a small band of zealot followers who started raiding the caravan routes, Mohammed forged the beginnings of an Arab army that within 100 years controlled all the territory from the Indus to the Atlantic along the North African littoral through Spain to the border of southern France. The armies of Islam, propelled by the Jihad belief that to die for the faith gained one paradise in the next life, gathered converts by the thousands wherever they marched. By 732, a century after Mohammed's death, the armies of Islam had destroyed the Persian Sassaniad empire, rolled back Byzantine power in the east to the Turkish border, incorporated all of Spain into the imperial realm, and narrowly missed overrunning France.

No one could have foreseen this staggering degree of military success, because for 300 years Arab armies were hardly armies at all. The early followers of Mohammed were desert tribes and clans called to the banner of the faith who fought in no organized formations. The idea of individual glory drove warriors to feats of great bravery, but at the same time made them impossible to organize as fighting units. For more than a century Arab soldiers fought with primitive weapons -- the personal sword, dagger, lance -- and wore no defensive armor or helmets. These conquering forces had no staff organization, no siegecraft capabilities, and no logistics trains. Tactics were almost nonexistent as these armies relied upon small hit-and-run raids, the razzias, and ambushes as their primary tactical maneuvers. Mobility was limited as most of the army moved on foot and fought as infantry accompanied by small contingents of camel cavalry. Even their size was small. The force that attacked and subdued Egypt (640-642) numbered no more than 4,000 men. But such corps of armed men could and did count on their numbers growing into the thousands as converts flocked to their cause along the line of march.

Fierce Warriors

As long as there have been civilizations, there have been unending wars for power and land. These wars have produced some of the the world has ever seen. Men who are not only exceptional at hand to hand combat but who were also great leaders and brilliant strategists.

Richard I was given the nickname Lionheart (or Coeur de Leon) for his exceptional fighting ability and courage. The duke of Normandy and the Count of Anjou, he ascended to the throne of England in 1198 after defeating his father Henry II with the help of his powerful mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard took the cross in 1188 when he heard of Saladin's successful conquest of Jerusalem. He raised funds by selling official titles, rights and lands to the highest noble bidder. He left for the Holy Land in 1190 along with French King Philip II and most of the military forces of Christendom. After being waylaid first in Sicily and then in Cyprus, Richard and Philip arrived in the Holy Land in June 1191. The joint forces first took Acre and then moved onto Arsuf before fortifying Ascalon. Arguments between who was to become King of Jerusalem escalated and Philip quit the Crusade and returned to France. Richard pressed on but when he realized he had no way of securing Jerusalem even if he had managed to capture it, he signed a peace treaty with Saladin and returned to Europe. He spent his final five years reclaiming his throne from his brother John and fighting against Philip's advances into Normandy.

Saladin is known to the western world as the antihero of the Third Crusade, he is revered in the Middle East as the hero who returned Jerusalem into Muslim hands. The Kurdish Sultan was born in 1138 in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and grew up during the First Crusade. He was trained as a soldier by his uncle Asad al-Din Shirkuh and early in his military career he worked on uniting Arab forces under his control first in Egypt then in Syria and Palestine. He then set his sights on Jerusalem and conquered King Guy de Lusignan at the Battle of Hattin. The battle was a tremendous success for Saladin as his army almost wiped out the Crusaders in the Holy Land. The city of Jerusalem fell into his hands when he came to terms with Balian of Ibelin who defended the city after the capture of Guy. His capture of Jerusalem influenced King Richard of England to join forces with King Philip of France and set out for the Third Crusade to the Holy Land. The Christian forces made their way to Ascalon when Richard fell ill and signed a peace treaty with Saladin that left Jerusalem in Muslim hands as long as Christians would be able to safely make their pilgrimage. His reign of Jerusalem was short lived however as he died of a fever on March 4, 1193. Saladin is most often recognized as much for his generosity and chivalry as he is for his impressive military accomplishments.

Arab military development was strongly influenced by experience and contact with other military cultures, most particularly by their wars with the Byzantines and Persians. In 635, an Arab chieftain, Khalid Ibn al-Walid, reorganized the Arab armies along Byzantine lines and created small combat units to replace the tribal levies. Whereas the tribal formations had deployed in long lines only three men deep, al-Walid created dense infantry formations after the Byzantine pattern. These new formations were organized into archer, infantry, and lance cavalry units and placed under the command of proven combat leaders who replaced the tribal and clan chiefs. He created the first Arab quartermaster corp, and even organized the women to carry knives and short swords to be used for stripping and dispatching the enemy wounded.

Horses were rare in Arabia (although not unknown), and the early Arab armies relied upon corps of special racing camels for transport and cavalry. The wars with the Persians brought the Arabs into contact with the horse, and the warriors of Allah were quick to grasp the importance of the horse as a military asset. Since Arab horses were brought into regular contact with their camel corps, the smell of the camel had no effect on them. The presence of camel cavalry, however, often spooked the horses of the enemy and weakened the opponent's force.

The empire reached its geographic zenith with its defeat by Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. Its expansionist phase over, the empire settled down to seven centuries of relative tranquility punctuated by violent caliphate rebellions and border wars. The defensive cast of the empire during this period was marked by the decentralization of the empire into a number of rival caliphates and the construction of military towns, ribats, which garrisoned special units of religious warriors to protect the empire and the faith. (Modern-day Rabat, Morocco derives from one of these fortress monasteries). At the same time the Arab armies adopted more and more Persian and Byzantine equipment and practices. By the 10th century, the chronicler al-Tabari recorded that the Arab warrior carried the following items of equipment: mail armor, breastplate, helmet, leg and arm guards, complete horse armor, small shield, lance, sword, mace, battle axe, bow case with two bows, a quiver of 30 arrows, and two spare bow strings. Added to this military capability was now a first-rate siegecraft capability. In equipment and tactics, the armies of Islam had become indistinguishable from the armies of Byzantium.

The period from 800 to 1453, the high Middle Ages, was a period of violent transition that began with the end of the Dark Ages and ended with the Renaissance. When this period began Europe was still attempting after years of barbarization to reestablish an imperium along Roman lines (the dream that drove Charlemagne), and when it ended the idea of an imperium was dead, replaced by the quilt-like pattern of the national state system that has survived to this day. For 700 years (800-1453) Europe was wreaked by dynastic struggles, religious wars, renewed invasions from outside European borders, brigandage, guerrilla war, and national conflicts. The Viking invasions of the 9th century added such havoc to an already chaotic state of affairs that the Church conceived of the First Crusade (to be followed by seven others) as a mechanism for deflecting the war-like spirit of feudal combatants toward other targets outside Europe. For 700 years, Europe knew little respite from the ravages of war and destruction.

The centralizing efforts of Charlemagne resulted in the solidification of the new feudal order marked by extreme decentralization in all political, economic, social, and military functions. The next seven centuries may best be defined by the constant struggle between the forces of centralization led by would-be national monarchs against the forces of decentralization and peripheralization which characterized feudalism as a form of societal organization. In the end, the forces of centralization overcame feudal pressures but proved unequal to the task of reestablishing any form of imperial order encompassing national identity and loyalty. In this way Europe gave birth to the nation-state.

The military organization of the Middle Ages was a direct reflection of the political, social, and economic decentralization of feudalism. Most wars were fought not by nation-states but by rival monarchs who raised armies by levying requirements for soldiers and arms on subvassals. Accordingly, there were no centralized arms industries, no permanent standing military forces to speak of, and no efforts to maintain logistical organizations or to train armies. What few efforts were made in these areas were made by local vassals as they saw fit.

Military doctrine and tactics were almost nonexistent, and battles showed all the sophistication of armed scuffles and sword-swinging melees among groups of mounted men. It was, as one author has remarked, a period of squalid butchery. After each battle, the armies disintegrated as the knights returned home under the command of their local vassals. Tax collections for military purposes were highly sporadic, usually taken in kind, and, in any case, were left to local military commanders who were also the chief political officials. As the 14th century dawned, Europe was caught in a period of transition between feudalism and the rise of the embryonic national state.

The decentralization that characterized feudalism placed the armed knight at the pinnacle of the social and military order, and the form of mounted individualized combat at which the knight excelled had swept infantry from the field almost a thousand years before. Moreover, the development of infantry was further hindered by the nature of the social order that regarded it as the height of dangerous idiocy to arm the peasantry. The last time Europe had witnessed a disciplined infantry force was under Rome. The start of the Hundred Years War saw the supremacy of the mounted knight remain unchallenged. By the time this series of dynastic wars ended, new military forms had emerged which signaled the beginning of the end of that supremacy.

To counter the power of the mounted knight, the opponent had either to withstand the shock of a mounted assault against infantry or be able to deliver sufficient missiles from a distance great enough to inflict casualties on the mounted formation and prevent it from closing with the infantry. At the Battle of Laupen (1339) the Swiss infantry annihilated a force of mounted knights by the simple trick of reinventing the Macedonian phalanx complete with 18-foot pikes similar to the sarissae used by Alexander's infantry sixteen hundred years earlier. The Swiss infantry, pikes at the ready, stood the shock action of the cavalry charge. Swiss halsberdsmen and axe throwers attacked the knights by chopping off the legs of the horses and butchering the knights as they lay helpless on the ground. At Crecy (1346), the English reinvented the second solution for dealing with the cavalry charge by destroying a force of French knights at a distance with hails of metal-tipped arrows fired from long bows. In both instances, the solutions represented the rediscovery and reapplication of ancient, long-forgotten techniques used by Alexander, the Romans, and the Persians for defeating heavy cavalry. For the first time in a thousand years, disciplined infantry forces once again began to appear on the battlefields of Europe.



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