Underestimating your enemy and overestimating your own capabilities has been a major reason many battles and wars have been lost. The battle of Hattin in 1187 is a prime example of the mistakes to avoid when facing an enemy similar to the one we face today.
The Seljul Turks had defeated the Byzantine Empire, and the Holy Land was now under the control of the Mohammedans. Christian leaders were offended, and Pope Urban II called for a crusade to take back the Holy Land from the control of the Muslims.
There were several disorganized crusades and multiple raids, most used the opportunity to enrich themselves if the opportunity arose, despite moral purpose and intent.
Several groups carved out kingdoms and had established treaties with the Muslims. They were content and living in harmony, until a new group of crusaders would arrive and create mayhem. The Battle of Hattin was the culmination of a disregarded treaty. The leader of this particular crusade, Reynald Chatillon raided a trade caravan, capturing significant loot and prisoners. The Christian leader of the area, King Guy of Jerusalem, was unimpressed and demanded the return of the loot and prisoners. Saladin, the Muslim leader of the area made the same demand.
During the crusades, the Christian forces relied on heavy cavalry in the form of large draft type horses carrying heavily armored knights with heavy weapons. This type of cavalry could run through and destroy infantry formations, and run down the stragglers. They were supported by crossbow men and spearmen as infantry support.
A massed cavalry charge of heavy horses was an awesome weapon if there was discipline and if you can make contact with the enemy. The Christian knights lacked discipline and they were about to engage an enemy that was disciplined and had no intention of being run down by slow clumsy horses.
Unfortunately, the infantry was considered to be of a lower social class and insignificant by the aristocratic knights. This attitude invariably weakens the morale and loyalty of the lower classes, but the knights had confidence in their ability to defeat the enemy. No one doubted their courage, it was never in question; however, overconfidence can lead to mistakes in judgement and the Christian army made repeated mistakes in judgement.
The Mohammedans relied on a professional light cavalry from Egypt and Syria, they were well-trained, specializing in fast well coordinated manuevers. There was also an irregular cavalry of local Bedouin, Turkish, and Kurdish horsemen. They wore a lighter chain mail armor, rode lighter more nimble horses, and carried a shield with either a bow or lance. They were experienced with hit and run tactics and experienced in hand to hand combat, with a system of discipline and a chain of command.
The battle started out poorly. The Knights Templar and The Knights Hospitaller, both monastic orders of monk knights, were in the field with a total of 140 knights and the Grand Masters of both groups, along with 350 infantry men. Their mission was to resolve an issue between King Guy and Count Raymond of Tripoli.
Saladin sent out a reconnaissance force of Saracen cavalry numbering 6,500 to observe the Christan forces and determine their capabilities.
The two mis-matched groups ran into each other. Hungry for battle, the knights left their infantry group behind and charged the enemy recon group.
The result was inevitable, the warrior monks were annihilated, except for three men, including the Grand Master of the Knights Templar.
The Muslim recon force continued on with their mission.
Remarkably, the crusaders stood with Reynald, who had violated the treaty and left the peaceful crusaders vulnerable to unnecessary war. The Christians decided to stage their forces at Acre, just northwest of Jerusalem. There were 2,200 knights, including a remnant of Hospitaller and Templar knights, 650 local knights from various kingdoms, and an assortment of mercenaries who were seeking fortune and position. The mercenaries were professional fighters, but their loyalty to the commanders was dubious. There was a local cavalry of converted Christians called Turcopole numbering 4,000 and an infantry of 32,000.
The crusaders had a secret weapon, the cross that Jesus was crucified on was to be carried in front of the army. This particular relic was supposed to make the soldiers invincible. Whether it gave the crusaders over confidence or their stupidity overwhelmed the mystical qualities of the relic will never be known.
The Saracens had the castle of Tiberias under siege. The castle, under control of the wife of Raymond, was well-defended and in no danger of being overrun. Raymond knew his wife and the castle were secure for the immediate future. Time was on the side of the crusaders, they could afford to wait for the battle to be brought to them and have the advantage of a tired enemy.
Unfortunately, Raymond’s sage counsel was ignored. King Guy wanted to engage the Saracens immediately and defeat them as quickly as possible.
The Saracens were camped 6.2 miles away, across a waterless desert. King Guy insisted on marching thousands of horses and tens of thousands of men across the desert into a refreshed enemy; this was stupidity that bordered on insanity, but the plan was put into motion. King Guy did opt for pushing through a more indirect route through the Wadi Hammon, on the off chance that they might find water, against the voices of others who counseled that they should attack using the most direct route.
Saladin’s scouts reported the route and his cavalry began to harass the front and rear guards of the crusader convoy using his fast and mobile mounted skirmishers. The only defense was to deploy the Turcopoles; their equipment and horses were light enough to counter the harassing strike and run attacks.
Saladin concentrated his forces to exhaust and destroy the Turcopoles, leaving the rest of the crusader force to be destroyed at leisure by the Saracen cavalry.
After the Turcopoles were killed or driven away, the only defense was to keep the knights and their horses in a protective ring of infantry. They were still 1.25 miles from the intended battle area and a source of water when they decided to camp without water. It was lunacy to stop without water, horses require at least five gallons of water and the men required at least a liter, but the troops were too exhausted to continue. The formidable column had been whittled down to the point of barely being a fighting group.
The Mohammedans were resupplied by camel trains during the night, and were refreshed the next morning.
The Christians gathered their resolve and pushed toward the village of Marescallia with its wells. The Muslims set up blocking forces to keep the Christians from reaching water once again.
Saladin had executed the perfect battle plan, don’t commit to a battle until the enemy has exhausted itself and victory is assured. The Christians were exhausted, they were too far forward to retreat, and were effectively neutralized by lighter, supposedly inferior forces. Saladin was patient, he knew he would achieve victory, but he desired victory with minimum cost. The elements of battle were now under his control, and he let the Christians continue to destroy their own army.
The Christian infantry grew tired of being nothing more than targets for the mounted archers, their frustration and thirst drove them to run for the Sea of Galilee, visible on the horizon.
Again, the Muslims blocked their desperate bid for water. They retreated to two hills called the Horns of Hattin and refused to rejoin the knights and the main battle.
Raymond was ordered to attack the enemy and try to break through with two hundred knights. In theory, this was the only option, and it would have worked if the enemy was stationary, but the Muslim horsemen just faded away from the force of the charge and sent barrages of arrows into the knights.
Raymond was wounded in three places and had not been able to make contact with the enemy. The horses were exhausted, an inglorious death seemed imminent. Raymond led the remnant of his army toward Tyre, and Saladin seemed content to let him escape.
The remaining knights charged the Saracens and had the enemy fade to the Christian flanks and reward the foolish gallantry with a continuous barrage of arrows. Some of the knights reached Acre, possibly as many as 300, but the rest were driven onto the Horns of Hattin with the remaining infantry. King Guy pitched his tent in the center to establish a command center and a defensive position. The Christians were still capable of inflicting casualties, if the Saracens charged, but Saladin was content to let them feel the full measure of their thirst and exhaustion.
The Saracens set fire to the brush on the hillside and compounded the misery of the Christians, but they held their position and launched an occasional ineffectual counter attack.
Eventually, they were overrun and King Guy surrendered, along with Reynald and 150 knights. There were so many prisoners, they ran out of rope to secure them. Saladin executed Reynald and all the Knights Templar and Hospitaller he could identify. The Turcopoles were all executed as traitors. The remaining soldiers were sold into slavery, causing a glut and depressed prices on the slave market.
King Guy was ransomed for a king’s ransom and Raymond’s wife was spared after she surrendered the castle.
The victory was complete, and serves well for those who study military tactics. The old adage of, “Do not interfere with your enemy while he is making a mistake,” still holds true today. In our own multiple wars being waged without a strategic plan for victory or even success, we seem to be willing to arm our enemies to fight foreign leaders our politicians disapprove of, just to install those who only want to destroy us and consolidate positions of power. Presumably, we want to curry favor with our enemies, while they wait with bemused patience like old Saladin; they are content to watch, while we make multiple mistakes and hasten our own defeat and demise.
Epilogue: During the past few weeks, I have been researching the genesis of the American cowboy and his horse. It has been a wild ride, and I think I have learned more information about horses than I ever dreamed was possible. My study has included styles of riding and stock handling of the old world and cavalry tactics from the Greek and Roman eras to modern times. I have a lot of material for new articles and a few surprises, like a theory on why specific horse breeds and riding techniques controlled or directed the course of history for the last 2,500 years. I hope you enjoy the history. There will be discrepancies on numbers of troops and reasons for situations, but in general, the history is fairly accurate.
A professional horseman for over 50 years, Skook continues to work with horses. Skook has finished an historical novel, Fifty Thousand Years, that traces a mitochondrial line of DNA from 50,000 years ago to the present. The story follows a line of courageous women, from the Ice Ages to the present, as they meet the challenges of survival with grit and creativity. These are not women who whimper of being victims, they meet the challenges of survival as women who use their abilities without excuses or remorse, these women are winners, they are our ancestors.