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The Organization of Crusading Armies

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the July 1991, A.S. XXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The Crusades were a unique event in history, having a major effect in many fields, yet leaving no major influence on the course of events. In the military field, the Crusaders brought back with them new methods of fortification, totally changing the appearance and utility of castles everywhere. Yet, strangely enough, they left behind the lessons they learned about tactics and organization. This paper will explore what these lessons were and how they differed from standard European military thinking.

The Medieval army was composed broadly of three different groups. The first, and most important, were the knights and their retainers. The second was the common soldier, normally on foot, but some cases mounted. The last was the large motley of non-combatants that performed all the needed, or desired, services that an army in the field required.

This last group often made up close to half of a crusading army on the march, the usefulness of the various individuals ranging from critical to outright burden. Because of the spiritual allure of the Crusades, many old, sick, and extreme poor men, women, and children would join up with the army, despite discouragement from military and religious leaders. Sometimes they could be put to use as water-bearers, but more often were just so much baggage that had to be guarded. Also among this crowd were those with critical skills, such as the siege engineers, and the pyrotechnicians, whose province was Greek fire. Rounding out the throng were the more routine: the cooks, the laundresses, the physicians, and the disreputable: the prostitutes and the freebooters. The last acquired the name 'Tafurs' during the First Crusade.

The clergy had an ambiguous position within the army. While canon law prohibited them from fighting, many ignored it and took up arms. Nor did they restrict themselves to non-edged weapon so that they would not "shed blood". In 1250 Joinville, writing about the Tenth Crusade, recorded an incident in which his chaplain took a spear and attacked a group of Saracens.

While providing the bulk of the fighting force, the common soldier played a minor role in combat. Lightly armored, and usually armed with spears, pikes, axes, and short swords, their main purpose was to form a defensive ring from which the knights could charge out. While short bows were used, they were generally ineffective. The missile weapon of choice was the crossbow; the longbow did not enter into military use until after the main impulse of the Crusades had passed.

A common soldier of some mystery is the sergeant. He appears to be something of a cross between a knight and an ordinary soldier. His arms, armor and training are akin to that of a knight, but without the knight's status and position.

The core the Medieval army was, of course, the knight and his squires. Heavily armored, armed, and mounted; the knight was the Medieval equivalent to a tank, though not employed that way. Their preferred tactics were to form a line behind the defensive shield of foot-soldiers, charge though to break up the enemy formation, then take out the enemy knights in individual combat in one swirling melee. But in the Middle East, they had little chance to use it.

The writers of the Middle Ages had little regard for numbers or statistics. As a result the size of armies and casualties are but rough guesswork. Number of knights involved can be closely approximated as their names were written down in rolls of arms for their glory, though the lesser knights tended to be left out. As for everybody else, no one really knows. As an example of the discrepancies encountered, William of Tyre writing about the First Crusade said that Raymond of Toulouse's forces were 10000 infantry and 350 knights. While Raymond's chaplain put his forces at 12000 infantry and 1200 knights. Villehardouin reported that for the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians were contracted to carry 4500 knights, 9000 squires, and 20000 foot-soldiers. On the whole it seems that the ratio of knights to all other soldiers was roughly seven to one.

Casualty figures are just as unreliable, though present an interesting pattern. At the Battle of Dorylaeum, where the First Crusade was nearly halted, 4000 common folk were reported killed, but just two nobles. At the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, 5000 infantry were killed, while only two nobles lost their lives.

Conditions in the Holy Land required a major rethinking of tactics and organization for the Europeans. The Arabs' preferred weapon was the short bow while mounted. Their basic tactic was the hit and run, designed to draw out the enemy so he could be destroyed piecemeal. When faced with a heavy cavalry charge, they would scatter reducing its shock value, and leaving the knights separated from the main army and disorganized. This also left them away from the field of battle and vulnerable to being attacked individually.

The greatest problem the Crusaders had was a general lack of manpower. Except for the periods of the great Crusades, which tended to last only for a couple of years, all the Latin States could muster together a force of one to two thousand knights. And these were broken up into not always cooperative commands. The Kingdom of Jerusalem had around 600 to 700 knights. The principalities of Antioch and Tripoli had about 300 each. The great military organizations, the Templars and Hospitallers, accounted for the rest.

But to marshal this large of a force required stripping all the cities and castles of their garrisons. A defeat in the field would leave the strongholds no choice but to open their gates to the victors. Thus the crusaders tended to avoid pitch battles unless circumstances were largely in their favor. So campaigning in the Holy Lands resembled what would be later called wars of maneuver.

Thus the most common military action was the running battle, where the Crusaders were marching from one point to another with the Moslems, usually Turks, conducting hit and run attacks from horseback with bows. Crusader armor was generally heavy enough to withstand these attacks. The chronicles often mention how soldiers would come back looking like porcupines from all the arrows sticking in their armor.

To help counter these tactics, the Crusaders recruited native troops, called Turcoples, who were similarly armed to act as a screening forces. They were also used as a reconnaissance force.

The crusaders quickly learned that to break ranks was fatal, and severely punished those who did, often treating it as desertion. The great military crusading orders had numerous regulations dealing with discipline. Since the crusaders quit charging out to attack the Saracens, and the Saracens beings lighter armored refused to close, warfare in the Holy Lands was merely a series of sieges with occasionally harassing attack as the crusader armies moved from siege to siege.

Another difficulty the crusaders faced was that, unlike home, their force was multinational and multilingual making communication and cooperation difficult. The army naturally broke itself into groups of similar culture and nationality, to be further subdivided by kinship or fealty. While this made for manageable tactical groups, coordination between groups was still fraught with danger. On more then one occasion would one group prevent others from exploiting a breakthrough lease they share in the glory. Cooperation between knights and foot-soldiers was often non-existent, separated by social status and viewpoint. This lack of togetherness was often the cause of much of the Crusaders' ineffectiveness.

The natural tactical unit was the squadron, composed of roughly 100 to 150 knights. On most occasions these squadrons were brigaded into three divisions and a reserve. How these divisions were positioned on the field of battle is subject to much speculation, the terms used in the chronicles are vague and ill-defined. Common formation appears to have been in column, abreast, in echelon, and in one instance, apparently in a square. Flanks were usually anchored on some natural obstacle. And the reserve was detailed to counter any breakthroughs, or attempts by the Moslems to circle around and attack from the rear.

There is some controversy about how much Bohemund of Taranto, the commander of the First Crusade, developed the basic crusader tactics, and how much was adapted form Byzantine practice. The Emperor Alexius Comnenus had adapted tactics similar to that of the Crusaders in the years just prior to the First Crusade.

In general the leaders of the various Crusades understood the need for military discipline, but were often unable to effectively enforce it. Joinville reports that when Louis IX learned of the death of a knight who had gone out to fight the Saracens alone, he said "that he would not care to have a thousand men like Gautier, for they would want to go against his orders as this knight had done."1

A good example of what could be achieved with discipline of leadership is when Richard the Lionhearted marched south after taking Acre. His army marched in three columns down the coast. On the seaward side was infantry carrying baggage. In the middle column rode the knights. The third column was more infantry protecting against Moslem harassing attacks. Periodically the two infantry columns would trade off. In the middle was a cart carrying a large banner on a tall pole, which acted as a mobile headquarters. Despite constant provocation they kept ranks. Only when the Arabs became reckless did Richard let the knights charge out, using their favorite tactic. The Battle of Arsuf was a resounding success for the Crusaders.

The results of the converse, lack of discipline, can be seen in two different battles. The first, the Battle of al-Babein, occurred when the king of Jerusalem, Amalric, was campaigning to control Egypt. In pursuit of the Moslem forces, the knights, in their zeal, pushed ahead of the foot-soldiers. When the Moslems turned to fight, it was on ground selected to minimize the effectiveness of the Crusader charge. By selective withdrawing a part of his forces, the Arab commander, Shirkuh, was able to dissipate the charge and cause the knights to be broken up into small groups. While the battle was a tactical stalemate, the knights lost one third of their number and the opportunity to smash the Arab army and take control of Egypt.

In the second battle, that of Marj 'Ayyun, the initial charge easily defeated a number of returning raiding parties. Lulled by this success, they broke their formation to loot the Moslem camps and were in turn easily defeated by the main army.

The two key lessons of military operations in the Holy Land were the need for the knights and the foot-soldiers to coordinate and support each other, and the need for the army to maintain formation despite what the enemy did to provoke an ill-considered response. Why these lessons did not translate to the European battlefield is an interesting question. The most probable answer is that this mode of operation was only reluctantly used by the Crusaders in response to Moslem tactics in sheer self-preservation. When back in Europe, no longer facing these tactics, the former Crusaders reverted to older habits.



1. (Joinville et al. 209). ^



Ambroise. The Crusade of Richard Lionheart. Trans. M.J. Hubert. New York: Octagon Books, 1976.

Beeler, John. Warfare in Feudal Europe, 730-1200. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Finucane, Ronald C. Soldiers of the Faith: Crusaders and Muslims at War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Joinville, Jean de, and Geffroy de Villehardouin. Chronicles of the Crusades. Trans. Margaret R. B. Shaw. New York: Penguin (Classics) Books, 1963.

Prawer, Joahua. The World of the Crusaders. New York: Quadrangle Books, Inc., 1972.

Smail, RC. Crusading Warfare, 1097-1193. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

William of Tyre. A History of Deeds done Beyond the Sea. Trans. Emily A. Babcock and A.C. Krey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.


Copyright © 1991 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.


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