3rd Battle of Ramla: Latin Crusaders Defeat Egyptian-Turkish Army

 
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3rd Battle of Ramla: Latin Crusaders Defeat Egyptian-Turkish Army

Section of tapestry showing a clash of Muslim and Christian armies
Artist unknown, location unknown
Image courtesy of http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsMiddEast/CanaanOutremer.htm
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 27, 1105

For today's recounting of military history, we will take the WABAC Machine to the early twelfth century in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The young kingdom was still fighting for its existence, primarily with the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt. Constantly outnumbered by the Egyptians, the Latin Crusaders who remained after the capture of Jerusalem were on continuous alert against incursions by the Muslim inhabitants of the Middle East.

Background

After the Latin Crusaders captured Jerusalem in July of 1099, the Fatimid Muslims of Egypt launched almost yearly attacks into the newly-conquered Holy Land. The first Egyptian attack occurred several weeks after the fall of Jerusalem and the battle of Ascalon. [For more information on this conflict, readers are urged to read my BurnPit post from August of 2011: Battle of Ascalon: Crusaders Defeat Egyptian Relief Army.]

In 1101 and 1102, the Franks met Fatimid incursions at the crossroads town of Ramla (also spelled Ramleh). Ramla was about midway between Jerusalem and the port city of Jaffa. An ancient trade route that connected Egypt to Mesopotamia also passed through Ramla. This second road goes southwest to Ascalon. The First Battle of Ramla resulted in a Crusader victory, while the Second Battle was a disaster for the Crusader forces. In the second battle of Ramla King Baldwin I of Jerusalem received poor intelligence, and led a mere 500 knights against an Egyptian force of several thousands. Baldwin managed to make his way back to Jerusalem, and continued to lead the kingdom in its war of survival against the Muslims.

Prelude to the Battle

In the summer of 1105, Fatimid Egypt made another attempt to re-conquer Crusader-occupied Palestine. The Vizier Al-Afdal organized a force similar to armies of the past (see below for details), and assigned his son Sena al-Mulk Husein as the commander. To insure victory, Al-Afdal requested aid from the Turkish ruler of Damascus Toghtekin. Eager to make a contribution to the Muslim cause, Toghtekin sent a considerable force of mounted Seljuk Turk archers to the Fatimid army gathering at the Egyptian-held port of Ascalon.

Modern map of central Israel, showing locations of Jerusalem, Ramla (red dot), Tel Aviv (on the site of ancient Jaffa), and Ascalon (spelled
Modern map of central Israel, showing locations of Jerusalem, Ramla (red dot),
Tel Aviv (on the site of ancient Jaffa), and Ascalon (spelled "Ashqelon")
Map courtesy of http://www.weather-forecast.com/locations/Ramla

King Baldwin had received advance reports of the Fatimid military preparations. He had gathered most of the troops of the kingdom, with the garrisons of most major cities called to oppose the Egyptian invasion force. Baldwin gathered his forces at Jaffa in anticipation of the Fatimid's forward movement.

The Turko-Egyptian army left the port-fortress of Ascalon in mid-August, with an Egyptian fleet sailing up the Palestinian coast in support. When this fleet arrived at Jaffa, King Baldwin began moving his army to Ramla, the most likely place to intercept the enemy. The Crusader army probably camped southeast of Ramla, along the Jaffa-Jerusalem road. The topography of the area consisted of rolling plains, perfect terrain for the cavalry of both sides. Sometime around August 26, the Fatimid army arrived near Ramla. Muslim scouts detected the encamped Franks, reported their presence to Sena al-Mulk. He ordered his men to make camp just outside the town, and started preparations for an attack the next day.

3rd Battle of Ramla, Initial Positions [Image is author's own work]
3rd Battle of Ramla, Initial Positions [Image is author's own work]

Latin Crusader Army

According to chroniclers, the Crusader force consisted of 2000 infantry [E, F, G], mostly spearmen and some crossbowmen, and 500 knights and men-at-arms (also called sergeants) [H, I, J]. They were divided into the usual three divisions, or "battles," and arranged in echelon. This is a formation of troops in which each unit is positioned successively to the left or right of the rear unit to form an oblique or step-like line. If previous fights are an indication, the mounted troops in each division were placed behind the footmen.

Crusader knights attacking with lances overarm; Image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com
Crusader knights attacking with lances overarm
Image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com/

The Latin spearmen and missile troops sought to blunt the charge of the enemy horsemen; then, the Crusader infantry would open up and allow the knights and sergeants to advance and counterattack the enemy. Or, the Western cavalry could launch the first assault. [There is also the possibility that the Crusader army included turcopoles, mounted native auxiliaries who provided scouting and missile fire in battle to counter the bow fire of Muslim mounted archers. However, no turcopoles are mentioned in the references I consulted for this fight, so I will not include them in my description.]

Egyptian-Turkish Army

Seljuk Turk horse archers shooting; Image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com
Seljuk Turk horse archers shooting
Image courtesy of https://www.perry-miniatures.com/

A Fatimid Egyptian army of this time period usually consisted of a large block of Sudanese archers [D] and contingents of Arab or Bedouin horsemen [B], providing the shock attacks to oppose the Frankish knights. However, the Fatimid Egyptian force is described as "well-equipped" by historian Steven Runciman in the second volume of his History of the Crusades (1952). This leads me to believe that the Egyptian center – in addition to the usual Sudanese archers – also contained several ranks of Sudanese spearmen [C]. The Fatimid portion of this Muslim army contained 5000 men. The Seljuk Turkish mounted archers totaled some 1300 men [A]. [I have divided this Damascene force into two contingents and placed them on the flanks of the Egyptian army; this is pure speculation on my part.]

3rd Battle of Ramla: First Phase

Before dawn on Sunday, August 27 the two armies began to deploy for battle. Just after sunrise, the Crusaders received an unexpected boost; the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Evremar of Choques, rode forth in his full ecclesiastical regalia carrying the True Cross along the entire front of the Latin army, giving his blessing and absolution to all the Crusaders.

Once the Patriarch finished his ride, King Baldwin ordered the Crusader horsemen to charge the enemy. The infantrymen parted, and the heavily-armed and –armored knights and sergeants rode forth [1]. [I can almost imagine these metalclad Men of Iron going full tilt toward their Fatimid enemies, shouting their battle cry, "Deus vult!!" (God Wills It!!)]

3rd Battle of Ramla, First Phase [Image is author's own work]
3rd Battle of Ramla, First Phase [Image is author's own work]

Apparently, as the Crusader right wing cavalry was approaching the Fatimid battle line, the Egyptian left flank Arab/Bedouin horsemen panicked and fled the field [2]. [According to Runciman, these men decided to ride northwest to the port city of Haifa – a distance of about 62 miles – and capture the city, as its garrison was likely at Ramla.] It is probably the Turkish archer contingent expanded their width to provide flank protection to the Sudanese center.

With their immediate objective in full withdrawal mode, King Baldwin almost certainly ordered his knights to attack the Sudanese center. The horsemen of the Frankish center also aimed for the enemy center, while the Crusader left probably targeted the Arab/Bedouin horsemen on the Egyptian right [3]. The Sudanese spearmen, supported by the large block of their bowmen, fought hard and drove off the first Crusader attacks, while the Arab/Bedouin horsemen on the right counterattacked and forced the Latin left wing to fall back in disorder and confusion [4]. The Crusaders reordered their ranks and prepared for another attack on the Fatimid army.

3rd Battle of Ramla: Second Phase

3rd Battle of Ramla; Second Phase [Image is author's own work.]
3rd Battle of Ramla; Second Phase [Image is author's own work.]

Over the next several hours, the Crusader knights and sergeants continued to attack the Fatimid battle line [5], but the Egyptian force was more disciplined than previous Fatimid invasion armies. A number of Frankish cavalry attacks were successfully beaten off by the Sudanese spearmen and the Arab/Bedouin horsemen [6].

Finally, the Seljuk Turks on each wing of the Fatimid army decided to take a hand in the battle. The Turks, after hours of apparently doing nothing but showering the Frankish horsemen with arrows, began to move forward [7]. The Seljuk archers on the Egyptian left had a more immediate objective closer at hand. They saw the right wing Crusader cavalry (probably flying King Baldwin's personal banner) redeploying in the aftermath of another unsuccessful attack on the Sudanese contingent. The Turks moved forward and struck Baldwin's knights and men-at-arms in a lightning attack that surprised the Crusaders [8].

The Turkish mounted bowmen on the Fatimid right apparently did not make a similar attack on the Crusaders' left wing cavalry, but decided to move out. Both bodies of the Seljuks were determined to outflank and surround the Latin army, and to eliminate the Crusader infantrymen [9].

3rd Battle of Ramla: Final Phase

King Baldwin and his mounted contingent were momentarily stunned by the sudden attack of the Seljuk mounted archers; these troops seldom became involved in hand-to-hand fighting, usually standing off at a distance, showering enemy formations with clouds of arrows, *then* charging into contact to disperse opposing troops. Despite the Turkish assault, Baldwin took decisive action. Quickly reorganizing his knights and sergeants, the monarch then took his battle standard into his own hands, and led his mounted men in a furious counter-attack as the Turks were riding to surround and annihilate his army [10].

The Seljuk archers, who seldom wore any substantial armor, were taken in the rear by the heavily armored Frankish knights and sergeants. The Western horsemen essentially rode over and through the archers, destroying their formations and their morale; very quickly the Seljuks decided it was time to leave, and they rode northward back to Damascus. Their brothers from the right flank, probably seeing the disintegration of their companions' formation, took the hint and joined them in their withdrawal [11].

3rd Battle of Ramla; Final Phase [Image is author's own work.]
3rd Battle of Ramla; Final Phase [Image is author's own work.]

After breaking up the Seljuk archer units, Baldwin ordered his own formation to circle back to their previous position. Still brandishing his battle standard, he directed the Frankish cavalry from the center and left to make a final charge at the wavering Fatimid battle array [12].

By this point, it was nearly sunset, and both armies were probably near exhaustion. The Fatimid army, after enduring numerous attacks by the Crusader cavalry and sustaining heavy casualties, finally lost cohesion and routed toward their camp near Ramla [13]. At about the same time as the Egyptian formations were breaking up, the Arab/Bedouin horsemen who had left the battlefield earlier in the day, returned to the area [14]. However, viewing the entire Fatimid army retreating in extreme disorder, the Arab cavalry decided discretion was the better part of valor, and started down the road to Ascalon, with the rest of the Egyptian army hot on their heels.

With the Fatimid army now on the run, the entire Crusader army began a pursuit, which ended with the looting of the Egyptian camp [15]. The third battle of Ramla, which had lasted almost the entire day, was over.

Aftermath

We have no definitive numbers for the casualties of this battle. Since it lasted nearly an entire day, and the Sudanese contingent of the Fatimid army apparently absorbed several charges by the Crusader heavy cavalry, historians believe the Egyptians sustained heavy losses (50 percent or more, perhaps). Several Egyptian commanders were captured and eventually exchanged – for healthy ransoms, of course.

The Crusaders apparently also suffered rather heavy casualties. This is drawn from the fact that no heated pursuit of the fleeing Fatimid forces occurred. Baldwin no doubt decided that he could not afford to risk further casualties in a pursuit, or the garrisons of the various Crusader strongpoints throughout the Holy Land would be badly understrength.

Footnote #1: This fight was the last full scale attempt by the Fatimids to re-conquer Palestine. However, for a number of years afterwards, the Egyptians would launch raids into the Crusader territory.

Footnote #2: Baldwin I ruled the Kingdom of Jerusalem until 1118, when he died from food poisoning, eating too many of the local fish while campaigning in Egypt.

Footnote #3: The Crusaders fostered a great disregard for the military prowess of the Fatimids. Not until Saladin combined Egypt and Syria under his rule did the Franks finally began to fear the Muslims on the battlefield.

Footnote #4: There is a cemetery near Ramla, which contains graves of many British Commonwealth soldiers who died in between The Great War and the Second World War. One of the British soldiers buried at Ramla is…Harry Potter.

Inscription on tombstone, and photograph, of Pvt. Harry Potter, Located in Commonwealth Cemetery, Ramla, Israel; Image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1333853/Grave-real-life-Harry-Potter-killed-71-years-ago-A-tourist-attraction-fans.html
Inscription on tombstone, and photograph, of Pvt. Harry Potter,
Located in Commonwealth Cemetery, Ramla, Israel
Image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1333853/Grave-real-life-Harry-Potter-killed-71-years-ago-A-tourist-attraction-fans.html

Private Potter left his home at age 16, lied about his age, and enlisted in the Worcestershire Regiment (29th Regiment of Foot). He was part of British forces providing military security to the League of Nations mandate over Palestine. He was driving an armored car when Arab bandits ambushed the vehicle, and Harry was killed. He was 18 years of age. Fans of the Harry Potter wizarding world – mainly from Israel and the Middle East – make excursions to see his tombstone, since at least 2005.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.