The Crusade

Why are we here in this foreign land if not to fight? The Devil’s horde, Saracen and Turk, posses Jerusalem and we will not wrest it from them with honeyed words.

A truism of military science, frequently attributed to General Omar Bradley, is that amateurs study strategy, but professionals study logistics.

Certainly, the technological demands of modern warfare make careful logistical planning absolutely critical to any military campaign. Guns need ammunition, tanks need fuel and spare parts, aircraft need frequent servicing by highly trained specialists, and if these necessities are not available at the right time, in the right place, in the right quantity, no amount of courage, grit or righteousness will make up for it.

Modern supply lines can stretch for hundreds or even thousands of miles, with precisely manufactured materiel crossing continents and oceans to reach the soldiers on the front line. If those supply lines are cut, or if they fail to operate according to plan, the front line soldiers are doomed.

Before the modern age, an army was a much more autonomous creature. Supplies would be carried on carts and pack animals, and as they were used up they would be replaced from the local area. This could be done by means of compulsory purchase  (legal in principle, but rife with corruption), extortion, or straight up theft. Pack animals would graze on fields or eat locally-acquired fodder, soldiers would scavenge or appropriate their food, and whatever ammunition and spare parts the army was likely to need could be carried along with it. An army’s survival in the field did not depend on a long supply train to a distant homeland.

The corollary of this was that an army that could not supply itself would collapse. Sometimes this happened inadvertently, such as in the Thirty Years War when parts of Germany were picked over again and again by different hordes of unpaid, disaffected mercenaries until there was nothing left to scavenge. And sometimes it was deliberate, when an army would destroy crops and poison wells to prevent an enemy’s advance onto its territory. These scorched earth tactics, as they became known, have a long and inglorious history, from the nomadic Scythians defending their homelands from the Persian army of Darius the Great, to the Russian’s successful defence against Napoleon in 1812. Such tactics are prohibited now by the Geneva Conventions, as they are so devastating to the civilian population. (A few countries, such as the United States, Israel, Iran and Pakistan, have failed to ratify this protocol. Not that they’re likely to get involved in any wars.)

We can see these points in action in the Third Crusade, when King Richard I of England (alongside Philip II of France) led his army to the Holy Land. Jerusalem and most of the surrounding region was under the control of Muslim forces led by the Islamic hero Saladin. The fall of Jerusalem had prompted the leading Christian rulers of Europe to muster great armies and attempt to regain the Holy City and reverse this religious calamity.

Map of the Third Crusade

Map of the Third Crusade. Click to enlarge. (image credit:

This was a massive undertaking. Never before had an army of such size travelled such a distance by sea. Over a hundred ships, carrying 14,000 people, 5,000 horses, armour, weapons and miscellaneous baggage as well as food and water, travelling for over five months. The sheer financial chicanery required just to finance this vast fleet was a once-in-a-generation activity, not to be readily repeated.

But Richard’s real problems started when he got to the Holy Land. Saladin undertook a scorched earth strategy, designed to limit the crusaders’ movements and ability to fight, and to encourage them to slink off home to Europe. His forces poisoned wells, burnt crops and stripped the region of food for both man and beast.

Issues of supply and logistics thus dominated Richard’s campaign from the start, and they would only get worse. After fighting a victorious battle to retake the coastal town of Acre, returning it to crusader hands, Richard had to secure the key port of Jaffa in order to keep his army supplied for any subsequent advance on Jerusalem.

This involved a long march down the barren coast, stripped bare by the Muslim forces. Richard’s conduct of that march was one of his major military successes. The key strength of the crusader armies was the heavy mounted knights, attracted by the opportunity to combine religious pilgrimage with bloody slaughter. The Muslim forces under Saladin were light skirmishers, unable to directly withstand the full force of the European cavalry, but more than capable of picking them off piecemeal through fast, harrying manoeuvres. To the heavy knights, fighting these lighter forces was like trying to punch a cloud of mosquitoes with a fist.

True to form, Saladin’s forces continually harassed the crusaders as they marched down the coast, attempting to draw them inland and destroy them. But Richard was wise to this, and kept his army moving in strict formation with iron discipline.

This would have been impossible, for all Richard’s undoubted force of personality, if the army had not been able to sustain itself in inhospitable surroundings. Richard’s answer was to have a fleet of ships sail down the coast, keeping pace with the army on land. These were able to keep Richard’s army supplied, and the crusaders not only took Jaffa, they were able to rout Saladin’s army along the way when it tried to mount a decisive assault at Arsuf.

Once Jaffa was secured, Richard had a key strategic decision to take. Should his army attempt to retake Jerusalem as well, or consolidate its gains in the coastal towns? Again, logistics was the key consideration. Marching inland to Jerusalem would cause increasing problems of supply the farther the crusaders got from the port of Jaffa, but even so there was a reasonable prospect of reaching Jerusalem and fighting a successful battle there. The political pressure was on Richard to take the Holy City back from the Muslims, and if supply of provisions had been his only problem he may well have taken the chance.

However, an attack on Jerusalem posed a logistical problem unique to the Crusades. Although the crusading knights were by no means the whole of the army – the  footsoldiers and archers were commoners following their lords on the campaign – they were a critical component of its strength, and the common soldiers were tied to their particular lords and would come and go with them. This meant that any mediaeval king on campaign had to keep his nobility on board, or see his army evaporate.

The problem was that the crusading knights were primarily interested in reaching Jerusalem and praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which they believed stood on the site of Christ’s crucifixion. Once that was done, it was mission accomplished as far as they were concerned. Their crusading oath would be fulfilled, and they could return to their own lands back home. Most of the knights had no desire to stay in the Holy Land any longer than necessary, as a long absence could see their own estates go to ruin in their absence.

So taking Jerusalem was a possibility, but holding it was not. Richard could expect the bulk of his forces to scurry off home as soon as they had performed their Christian duties, and his victory in Jerusalem would be short-lived indeed. He might achieve a symbolic victory, but Saladin would ensure that the city fell again to the Muslims in short order.

So instead, Richard remained encamped at Jaffa, engaged in a protracted series of negotiations with Saladin. The discussions were wide-ranging, at one point even including the suggestion that Richard might marry his own sister to Saladin’s brother in return for substantial territories in Palestine and the return of the True Cross. In the end, a deal was done that allowed Christians limited access to the Holy City, Richard strengthened the defences of the coastal towns, and the crusaders sailed off home.

The Crusader States – Outremer – limped on for another century, but these fundamental logistic problems meant they could never really secure themselves or flourish. If transport from Europe to the Holy Land had been faster and cheaper, if more knights had been willing to settle permanently instead of returning home as soon as they could manage to excuse themselves, then the history of the Middle East might have been very different. As it stands, however, these fundamental technological and political limitations would prove to be more important than any great leader or famous victory in battle. As the professionals know, logistics will always win out in the end.


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