Between the August 2018 (WI370) and November 2018 (WI373) issues of Wargames illustrated magazine, we have been running a series of articles by Dr Steve Tibble entitled ‘Reimagining the Crusades’, in which Steve discusses some of the concepts in his recently released book The Crusader Armies, and (crucially!) discusses how they should affect our wargames.
Dr Tibble concludes his series with this web article in which he introduces us to a little know Crusader battle which presents several interesting challenges for the wargamer.
As wargamers, we tend to focus on the high profile battles and particularly on the cataclysmic battle of Hattin in 1187, which led to the destruction of much of the crusader states. But the defence of the Latin East was always hanging on a knife edge. The consequences of battle were perennially skewed: the defeat of a Muslim army might buy a little respite, but the defeat of a Frankish army could have catastrophic consequences for the entire population. The collapse of 1187 came as a surprise to those in the west, but perhaps the most surprising thing is that it had not happened sooner.
The battle of as-Sennabra is much less well-known than that of Hattin, but its consequences could have been every bit as destructive, and it makes an unusual ‘what if’ wargames scenario.
The second decade of the twelfth century saw a series of invasions of the crusader states by the armies of Baghdad (led by Mawdud, the lord of Mosul), and whatever local Muslim allies could be persuaded to put their local rivalries temporarily to one side.
In 1113, in conjunction with the Damascenes (under their ruler Tughtigin), Mawdud launched a major invasion of Palestine. Alarm bells were soon ringing in Jerusalem.
King Baldwin immediately sent messengers to Antioch and Tripoli asking for help. They began to muster troops as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, he set about raising as many troops as he could from his own lands. The armies of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem were still extremely small and dispersed in this period. The Egyptian army in Ascalon needed to be watched, several coastal cities were still in Muslim hands, and the Frankish colonisation of the hinterland was in its infancy. Manpower was extremely tight.
King Baldwin knew that his forces would be heavily outnumbered, particularly until reinforcements arrived from the north. He was desperate to muster the maximum number of men, and ‘called together all those who were in the region around Jerusalem and from all the towns which he occupied, and assembled some 700 cavalry and 4,000 infantry’.
As a sign of his desperation, he also conscripted a ‘pilgrim army’. The core of this ‘army’ was a band of 1,500 pilgrims who had stayed in Jerusalem to celebrate Easter, and who, a few weeks earlier, Baldwin had saved from attack by the Muslim garrison of Tyre. Some of the pilgrims may have been well armed and experienced soldiers but the military effectiveness of the group as a whole was questionable. Far from being an independent military asset, when they had first arrived, the king had been forced to assign a body of 300 infantry to help protect them on their travels.
There were two traditional ways in which a crusader king could respond to an invasion. On the one hand, he could hold back, and keep his forces far away from the Muslim armies until help arrived from the other Christian states further north. This was the safer military option, but gave the enemy a free hand to ravage the Christian communities of Galilee (and elsewhere) without hindrance. The other course of action was to try to engage the enemy as quickly as possible, without waiting for reinforcements. This would limit the damage the invaders could inflict, but increased the potential risks of any military encounter.
In the event, Baldwin tried to find a compromise which, he hoped, would give him the best of both courses of action. He moved quickly to set up a forward base by the River Jordan, close to the enemy’s anticipated centre of operations. By establishing a strong camp in a location with abundant water supplies, he would not be obliged to offer battle until the northern crusader armies arrived. This, in theory at least, would allow him to restrict Mawdud’s freedom of movement (and hence the amount of damage his men could inflict). The plan was not without its own logic, and reflected the inherent tension any medieval king faced when fending off invaders: trying to protect his vassals and their lands, while at the same time attempting to maximise the chances of success in the field.
Things did not unfold as Baldwin had hoped, however. His ‘forward base’ was both too far forward and too quickly overrun to be established as a defensible position. He misjudged the proximity of the main Muslim army. And, most importantly, the troops available to him were neither professional enough nor sufficiently numerous for what he needed them to do.
The ‘pilgrim army’ were presumably given weapons from the king’s armoury before joining the expedition. King Baldwin must have recognised that they had limited value as mobile troops, but perhaps envisaged that in a static position behind field defences, they could fulfil a defensive function while awaiting the arrival of veteran troops from the north.
As well as being of dubious quality, however, the crusader army was considerably outnumbered. The army of Mosul was described as being ‘a huge force’. Mawdud also had large numbers of nomadic mercenary tribesmen with him, recruited with subsidies from Baghdad. The Damascene army was also substantial in its own right, but had been boosted by additional contingents from Homs, Hamah and Rafaniya. A native Syrian chronicle suggests that the Muslim force outnumbered the Franks by about three to one.
As well as being heavily outnumbered, however, the crusaders were far less manoeuvrable than their opponents.The Muslim force seems to have been almost entirely made up of cavalry, well suited for a long range raiding campaign such as this, while the Frankish army consisted primarily of infantry, many of whom were relatively low grade pilgrims. Baldwin could muster approximately 700 cavalry, perhaps including some mounted sergeants or Turcopole light cavalry archers, but these would not be enough to see off the Muslim invaders on their own.
Intelligence gathering during the course of the campaign was surprisingly poor on both sides. King Baldwin had a reputation for efficient scouting and reconnaissance. And one would normally expect a Muslim force largely consisting of nomadic light cavalry to be well informed of the enemy’s movements, particularly an enemy consisting mainly of slow moving infantry and pilgrims. Neither army seems to have been aware of the other’s exact movements, however, or, crucially, just how close they were to each other.
The Franks intended to march to the bridge at as-Sennabra, a main crossing point of the Jordan, just south of the sea of Galilee. This was potentially a very strong location for Baldwin and his army. It was well watered and supplied. It controlled one of the main jumping off points by which an invader could enter Galilee. And it had some useful defensive features, being ‘so secure that anyone located there could not be attacked because of the narrow entrances at the bridges’. If he could establish camp at as-Sennabra, Baldwin must have thought that he could restrict Mawdud’s ability to ravage the kingdom, while at the same time refusing battle until reinforcements arrived.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Muslim army held similar views about the attractiveness of the position and had also chosen it as a good place to set up their camp. Bizarrely, however, neither was aware of the other’s proximity. This situation could not last long. Soon after the Christian camp was set out, but before it had been protected by ditches or any makeshift earthworks, contact was made with foraging parties of Turkic light cavalry.
The Christian chroniclers were convinced that this was part of a well coordinated Muslim trap: the traditional feigned retreat and ambush. The Muslims, they suggest, organised a trap as soon as they became aware that the Franks had pitched their camp at as-Sennebra. They ‘sent out 2,000 [cavalry] and ordered 1,500 of this number to hide in ambush. The remaining 500 were to go on farther in a careless manner so that the king and his men would be led to pursue them.’
Baldwin, faced with the opportunity to destroy what he probably thought was a stray group of Turkic foragers, chased after them, taking the cavalry with him. This left the camp in the hands of the infantry, and separated the two main arms of his force. According to the Christian chroniclers, the nomadic light horse cleverly drew the king away from the camp and his own impetuosity led him and his cavalry to disaster in the ambush that followed.
In fact, however, the truth was far more prosaic, and much more in line with the incompetence that bedevilled both sides. There was no carefully planned Muslim ambush. The foraging party that Baldwin and the Frankish cavalry charged after was just that: a group of Turkic cavalry, probably from Mawdud’s contingent, looking for supplies. Baldwin had moved so quickly that the Muslims were entirely unaware that the crusaders were nearby.
The retreat of the foraging party was anything but feigned. With the entire cavalry muster of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem bearing down on them, they fled back to the main army as quickly as they could. None of the Muslim accounts make any reference to an ambush, successful or otherwise, although they would generally be keen to show how a clever stratagem had succeeded at their enemy’s expense. Instead, it was actually a frenetic encounter battle where Baldwin led his cavalry too far in pursuit of the enemy.
The king’s force of some 700 cavalry now found themselves isolated and outnumbered, perhaps by as much as ten to one. Tughtigin and Mawdud were quick to take advantage of his mistake. The full Muslim army entered the battle and Baldwin was far too committed to be able to extricate his men safely.
The Franks, on horses already half-blown from their pursuit of the foragers, defended themselves as best they could and fought off three enemy charges. But the outcome was inevitable: the Christian cavalry fled. As one would expect, losses were heavier in the rout than in the fighting itself, as troops were scattered and discipline lost, particularly amongst the elements of the Frankish cavalry with less good armour and mounts. Muslim accounts described a period of intense fighting, as ‘both sides held firm’, followed by a rout in which ‘the Franks turned in flight and many of them were either killed or taken prisoner’.
The rout, once started, was complete. The Frankish cavalry fled back to the camp, but that was quickly overrun and the Christian infantry were swept away in the chaos that followed. The knights were inevitably at the forefront of the fighting, and at least thirty were killed.
The scale of the defeat was immense. Muslim forces initially believed that they had captured Baldwin himself, and that he had been relieved of his weapons before he found a way to escape in the confusion. As always, the loss of the baggage train gave some respite to the fugitives, as the nomadic horse were delayed in plundering it, and the Frankish cavalry were generally able to make good their escape.
But the mass of the infantry were terribly vulnerable to the pursuing Turkic cavalry and suffered accordingly. Casualties were high and, as with the initial cavalry battle, were much more likely to come from the rout than from close combat. Altogether some 1,200-2,000 Franks died in the fiasco. Unable to outrun the Muslim light cavalry, many sought to escape by swimming, but ‘drowned in Lake Tiberias and the River Jordan and the Muslims took their goods and equipment’.
The Christian army was shattered but the remnants were gradually rallied, and hunkered down to wait for the arrival of reinforcements from Antioch and Tripoli. Baldwin was blamed, and no doubt blamed himself: the ‘disaster was ascribed entirely to the king, because he had not waited for the assistance that had been summoned’.
For the Frank’s, however, the defeat was not catastrophic. The fragile nature of Muslim armies of the period, based largely around nomadic mercenary bands, meant that they were unable to capitalise fully on their success. Baldwin was able to learn from defeat: he was a proud man, but not stupid. Once the northern armies arrived, he and his senior advisers effectively established a baseline military protocol which would stand the crusader states in good stead in many encounters during the rest of the century.
The Christian armies took up a strong defensive position on Mount Tabor, employing aggressive patrolling around Galilee to restrict the freedom of movement of the Muslim invaders but refusing to offer open battle. This medieval ‘passive-aggressive’ stance was never universally applied, and it was certainly unpopular with those whose lands were being systematically destroyed by enemy invasion, but it minimised risk and created an opportunity to ride out the storm. Mawdud was unable to advance too far into enemy territory with an undefeated army in his rear, and his many irregular troops could not be kept in the field indefinitely. After a month of raiding, he had little choice but to retreat into Damascene territory.
The other upside for the crusaders was that Mawdud’s triumph could not be allowed to go unpunished. The glory that he had gained by the battle opened up prospects for further military successes against the Franks, but it also made the possibility of enforced political unity (including subservience to the caliphate in Baghdad) all the more likely. And there were many Muslim leaders who valued their independence much more than they valued victory over the Franks. A couple of months after the Muslim forces left Palestine, on October 2, 1113, Mawdud was leaving the main mosque in Damascus in the company of his ally Tughtigin. A lone assassin attacked him and he died of his wounds shortly after. Tughtigin was the obvious suspect, and he may well have been guilty. But there were plenty of others who had good reason to want Mawdud dead. The Franks, however hated, were part of the balance of power, and it was that same balance of power which guaranteed the position of every Muslim warlord in Syria.
Wargaming The Battle of as-Sennabra
From a wargamers’ perspective, Baldwin’s actions were explicable, even logical up to a point. Establishing a forward base was a good way to restrict the enemy’s freedom of movement, and to create opportunities to pick off foraging parties and detachments whilst still refusing a full battle.
But his plan had also been risky and ill-judged, and its execution was deeply flawed. He had lacked knowledge about the movement of enemy forces, and this pointed to deficiencies in scouting and intelligence gathering. These same deficiencies also meant that Baldwin probably under-estimated the size of the enemy invasion force. Given the extent to which the Frankish army was outnumbered, it is debatable whether the camp at as-Sennabra would have been able to hold out long enough for the northern Franks to arrive, regardless of whether an encounter battle had been triggered or not. Many of the infantry were barely trained pilgrims, of limited use other than in the most favourable circumstances. And, on top of everything else, Baldwin had misjudged the situation with regards to the first Muslim cavalry he encountered. He had ended up separating his supporting infantry from the Frankish cavalry, over-committing his knights, and leaving the majority of his troops leaderless and demoralised when the rout became clear.
There are two other aspects of the battle which were fundamental to its outcome, but which are often difficult to replicate on the wargames table.
The first is how to recreate the chaos of a chance encounter, despite both commanders being experienced generals, one of whom was in possession very large numbers of excellent light cavalry. Some rule sets allow for this kind of random outcome but if not, we will need to generate the possibility ourselves: on the face of it an unlikely prospect but, in the event, entirely possible.
Secondly, there is the issue of mustering and getting troops safely together to meet the enemy: this is something very rarely addressed by wargamers, as it falls somewhere between a ‘campaign’ and a tabletop battle. Feudal armies were often relatively dispersed and communications were rudimentary in the extreme. In the face of invasion, with large numbers of nomadic light cavalry spreading out across the countryside, even bringing an army together was fraught with difficulty and danger. The crusaders got round this as best they could, partly by establishing informal protocols as to how to respond to an invasion: there was no need for detailed orders, because everyone knew what was expected of them. Local contingents gathered in sufficient strength to (hopefully) travel towards the front line in safety, and they then moved forward to one of the traditional mustering points, such as the springs at Tubania or Saffuriya.
Dr Steve Tibble is author of The Crusader Armies, Yale University Press, 2018.
All figures seen in this article are by Gripping Beast.