Good Human Club

Let’s get this thing right!

Medievalists.net

The Battle of Ramla (1102): High-Watermark of the Egyptian Army

#The Battle of Ramla (1102): High-Watermark of the Egyptian Army

By Steve Tibble

The Fatimid Egyptian empire fielded one of the most overlooked forces in the crusading period.

By the beginning of the twelfth century, its army was the largest in the region. It was a regular, standing force. Apart from the Byzantines, who could show only an occasional presence, and even then just for short periods of time, the Egyptian army was the closest thing to a modern, well-trained and equipped standing force. It was never as large as the more fantastical exaggerations of some medieval chroniclers, but it was almost always larger than the armies it opposed.

The Unexpected Enemy

In May 1102 a huge Egyptian army poured out of Ascalon and onto the plain of Sharon. The invasion was a complete surprise. Advanced elements attacked Ramla and tried to flush out the Frankish garrison. The local bishop, Robert of Rouen, took the opportunity to send word to King Baldwin at Jaffa that Egyptian troops were close at hand. As far as we know, this was the first warning he had of the attack.

The bishop had seen enemy scouts raiding around his monastery in Lydda. And he had seen the fires from the burning fields around Ramla. He could be forgiven for thinking that this was just a few units from the Ascalon garrison trying, as they often did, to keep the Crusaders off balance. If the bishop’s message implied that this was just a raiding force, however, he was very much mistaken, and the consequences of that mistake were severe.

Baldwin was never a man to be wracked with self-doubt. Personally brave, remorselessly energetic and aggressive to a fault, he moved quickly to respond to the threat. In pursuit, as he thought, of mounted raiders, he gathered a largely cavalry force around him and set off at speed.

Some claimed, after the event, to have counselled caution. Arpin of Bourges, who became a monk on his return to Europe, would later say that he had suggested a more measured approach, but got only humiliation for his trouble. The king told him bluntly, ‘If you can’t face a fight, go back to Bourges’, or words to that effect.

The Battle of Ramla depicted in a 15th-century manuscript. Medieval sources claim that the Fatimids had 20,000 soldiers, but historians believe a more accurate number was 4-5,000. Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 5594 fol.109

‘You Can’t Argue With a Confident Man’

Baldwin did not realise, but was soon to find out, that this was more than just a few raiders. It was the main Fatimid army, the largest professional military force in the entire region. Al-Afdal, the Egyptian vizier, had sent both the army and navy on a combined operations invasion of Palestine, commanded by his son, Sharaf al-Ma’ali. As always, numbers are vague but, judging by previous battles, a force of almost 20,000 men might be feasible.

Numbers on the Frankish side were far more limited, reflecting their underlying demographic difficulties. We are told that Baldwin’s force consisted of between 200 and 700 knights, most probably towards the lower end of that range. The latter figure is very high, relative to what we know about manpower in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem at this time, but the recent influx of crusaders had temporarily added numbers to the local contingents. Albert of Aachen and the Arabic sources estimate the Crusader cavalry to have been 700 strong. Fulcher of Chartres, who was there at the time, and is probably more credible, put the total at 200.

As Baldwin moved down towards Ramla, he and his knights blundered into the full Egyptian army – it lay spread out in front of them, flags fluttering, silver-topped regimental guidons glittering in the harsh sunlight. It covered the sky with dust and stretched out far beyond either flank of the tiny Crusader force. The Franks realised their mistake, but by the time they became aware of the full enormity of the disaster that was staring them in the face, it was too late to do anything about it – the Fatimid forces were so close that the knights could neither manoeuvre nor disengage.

Baldwin charged, hoping to fight his way through, but his men were massively outnumbered and outflanked. Once the Egyptian troops had absorbed the initial impetus of the charge, the Frankish cavalry were slaughtered. Many crusading celebrities died on the field, including the poignantly named ‘Geoffrey who was small in stature’ (or Geoffrey I Jordan of Vendôme as he probably preferred to be called). The local Frankish nobility were decimated.

A rare 1698 view of Ramla by Dutch artist Cornelius de Bruijin Wikimedia Commons

Escape From Ramla

The king and perhaps 50 other survivors made it to the rudimentary refuge offered by the fortified tower at Ramla, pursued closely by Fatimid cavalry. The Egyptians quickly put them under siege and by nightfall they were completely surrounded.

During the course of the night the full horror of their predicament gradually sank in. Half of the kingdom’s heavy cavalry, and many of its leaders, lay dead on the battlefield. Even for the survivors, things did not look good: the watchtower they were crammed into had been built as a base for a tiny garrison, and as a temporary refuge for local civilians. It would never withstand a siege. They were trapped.

King Baldwin was by nature inclined towards the kind of reckless lifestyle that would be rejected by Hollywood scriptwriters for its sheer implausibility. He decided to break out before the blockade became even tighter. Mounted on Gazelle, his favourite horse, he and his squire, Hugh of Brolis, charged out through a breach in the wall of the courtyard. Three knights went with them, acting as a kind of suicide squad to buy time for their escape. Baldwin, dazed and disorientated, eventually staggered into the safety of the Frankish port of Arsuf a couple of days later.

The Egyptian troops, meanwhile, had smashed their way into the courtyard and began to mine under the tower itself. When it was apparent that the end was approaching, the defenders of Ramla charged out in a final act of desperation and defiance. Conrad, the Imperial Constable, was at the forefront of this last charge and his frenzied fighting was sufficiently impressive for him to be captured and ransomed. Similarly, Arpin of Bourges was identified as someone potentially useful because of his connections with the Byzantine administration. Beyond that, however, casualties were devastating. Those who were not killed in the fighting were beheaded immediately afterwards.

The lesson was clear. The Fatimid army was easy to underestimate, but it was the largest and best-resourced military force facing the Crusader States at that time.

It could not be ignored.

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His recent book The Crusader Strategy (Yale 2020) was received to critical acclaim and short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s Military History Award. It is our current featured book.

Steve is the author of  Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale, 2023) and The Crusader Armies, Yale 2018. He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2024. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on X/Twitter or Instagram.

Subscribe to Medievalverse

# Good Human Club

LEAVE A RESPONSE

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *