In 1214 John of England, Richard the Lionheart’s brother and successor, engineered a large-scale invasion of France. He drew together a coalition including his nephew Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, and Ferdinand, Count of Flanders, to launch a two-front offensive. John was to land in Aquitaine and advance on Paris from the southwest, while the others marched on Paris from the north with a large army of Flemish and Imperial troops. This would allow one of the two armies to seize the capital, or keep King Philip II’s forces so divided that they could be beaten in detail. It was a textbook, if rudimentary, example of multi-front strategy.
Inevitably, execution proved difficult. John was an unpopular king and did not have the support of the English barons. He was forced to hire mercenaries and seek out help from local nobles in Aquitaine, but still managed to launch his campaign before the start of spring. He enjoyed some initial success and managed to draw the French away from Paris. The Imperial forces were slower in mobilizing, however, and did not reach France’s frontiers until the height of summer. Philip soon learned of the threat to his north and countermarched to face it, leaving his son, Prince Louis, with some troops to contain the English. Louis succeeded in driving John back, while his father met Otto in full strength at the Battle of Bouvines, where he roundly defeated the coalition: the emperor was unable to remain in the field, and John was forced to return to England with his tail between his legs.
John’s invasion of France, just two decades after Saladin and Richard clashed, shows the pitfalls of high-level strategy in the Middle Ages. Planning such a complex operation required coordinating with allies and raising the armies many months in advance. Once in the field, it was very difficult to synchronize their attacks: communication lags over large distances made it impossible to coordinate their actions. This made the campaign unavoidably inflexible, creating trouble as soon as it ran into snags. For all that, John’s plan was workable in principle and very nearly succeeded; but any appreciation his contemporaries might have had for his higher-order strategy was eclipsed by Philip’s victory, a seminal moment in French history which brought an end to Angevin domination.
Strategy, as it is conceived today, is an inheritance of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Centralized states, drawing on the complex financial networks which emerged in the Renaissance, were able to deploy larger armies than had appeared in Western Europe since Roman times, and keep them in the field for years at a time. As these armies increased in size, they became much more sophisticated: the officer corps grew more professional, and the introduction of standardized drill made it easier to exercise command and control. The explosive growth in numbers also meant that logistics had to be planned in much greater detail: the size and quality of roads, the quantity of forage available in a region, and the locations of river-crossings had to be meticulously studied in order to plan march-routes and magazines—all this before a general could even contemplate battle. Planning itself became correspondingly more precise, aided by maps, clocks, and modern accounting techniques. Seizing a crucial supply depot, capturing an important fortress, or destroying a vital bridge could make an army’s entire position untenable, sometimes ending a campaign without any major battles—today’s somewhat caricatured view of eighteenth-century warfare as an almost ritual affair reflects generals’ implicit understanding of these factors. In sum, these changes made it possible to study strategy as a formal art, and the basic vocabulary of military science—campaigns, theaters, operations, lines of communication, even strategy and tactics—dates to this period.
Against this, the strategists of the Middle Ages faced many disadvantages. In the first place, it was difficult merely to field a substantial army: although every power of any note maintained a fulltime complement of household troops, these were too expensive to maintain in large numbers. At the other extreme, a warlord could raise large numbers of peasant levies to fill out his ranks for a campaign, but untrained and disorganized soldiers were just as often as not a liability. The feudal system was the medievals’ way of splitting the difference, employing soldiers who received grants of agricultural lands in return for annual periods of service. These were not full-time professional soldiers, but rather a warrior caste which spent much of its time in other activities; they maintained a high level of individual proficiency at arms and were often capable of fighting well in larger formations, but were not necessarily trained to the latter. Some variant of this existed in both the Islamic and Western worlds, and although there were substantial differences between the fief and the iqta, the essence was the same.
The feudal system was a workable solution for an age in which centralized control was difficult, but it brought problems of its own. There was never any guarantee that vassals would show up promptly, fully manned, and enthusiastic, and sometimes they failed to show up at all. It was difficult to plan a campaign without knowing one’s own strength, and even harder to coordinate more complex actions. Saladin faced this several times during desperate fighting with the Crusaders, when his Jaziran vassals were delayed or failed to show up at all. His family members were more reliable than distant emirs reluctantly roped into his grand enterprise, but blood alone was no guarantee—Taqi ad-Din’s desertion of the holy war in pursuit of his private ambitions in the spring of 1191 may well have doomed Acre. Only a more centralized and professional organization such as the navy could be held to stricter timelines, allowing Saladin to conduct his 1182 attack on Beirut or his multiple reliefs of Acre.
Feudal terms of service also created problems at the tail end of a campaign. Although iqta-holders did not typically have strictly-defined periods of service as their Western counterparts did—they were obligated to fight whenever their master called on them—it was generally expected that they would be allowed to attend to their affairs at home during the winter months. This often caused problems when crucial strategic objectives could only be attacked late in the season when the men were pressing to be released. Leaders often had to bribe, cajole, or threaten their levies to stay on longer, and even this depended on the prospects for plunder, the troops’ morale, the general’s own charisma, and how much gold and political capital he could afford to spend. This created an inherent tension between political and military objectives which often posed a terrible strategic dilemma—commanders had to decide whether to press ahead and run the chance of mutiny, or risk missing a fleeting window of opportunity. This was exactly what Saladin faced at Tyre in the last days of 1187, when it became apparent that the siege would be a long, miserable slog. He concluded that the militarily correct course of action would impose an unacceptable political cost, a decision which had serious consequences for the war. These problems often made mercenaries an attractive expedient—one which Saladin resorted to several times during the Third Crusade—but they were expensive and were far less tolerant of delays in payment. Only by leveraging the full manpower of the Ayyubid Empire, which could be cycled into theater by phases, allowed Saladin to maintain adequate force in the field throughout the year.
Once on campaign, feudal armies posed yet more problems with command and control. Troops were of varying quality and enthusiasm, and iqta–holders were responsible for raising and training their own contingents, making them jealous of their own authority and sometimes reluctant to obey orders. Moreover, these troops were not necessarily practiced in fighting in large formations: orders passed by standards, trumpets, and runners were not always heeded by inexperienced troops in the din of battle. Turkish swarm tactics permitted some slack in the reins, allowing each company advanced and withdrew as it saw fit, but Frankish knights put themselves in grave peril if they lost their discipline—some of the Crusaders’ worst defeats came when cavalry formations acted on their own initiative. Even for Saladin, the breakdown of centralized control brought him to the brink of disaster at Arsuf, when he was unable to rally the separate divisions of his army. So too at the Battle of Acre in October 1189, when the fleeing Diyar Bakr troops left a giant hole in his center—only the superb performance of various other contingents saved the day.
Another difficulty was logistics. Smaller forces were able to live off the land, and Ayyubid raiders often returned from Palestine laden with sheaves of grain, but by the last decade of Saladin’s career he was fielding tens of thousands of men for weeks or months at a time within a confined area. This inevitably brought him up against supply constraints which limited his ability to operate. Before a major campaign, he could pre-stage supplies in a favorable location such as the Hauran, which allowed him to concentrate his forces several weeks in advance; once things got underway, however, he could not feed his army for more than a few days in the same area, something which led to the stalemates of 1182 and 1183. Similarly, during the siege of Acre his army was supplied from depots at Haifa and Shafar’am, to which he shipped grain from Egypt and gathered provisions from all of Palestine. This allowed him to maintain an enormous covering force for two years straight without any reported food shortages, but these arrangements came back to bite him during the march down the coast: he lacked the pack animals to bring any of it with him, and so much of Palestine’s harvest had been gathered at Shafar’am that the countryside could hardly sustain his army. On other occasions, supply problems were entirely outside human control: the drought afflicting Syria and Palestine got so bad by 1180 that the Christians and Muslims agreed to call off all fighting for two years.
Perhaps the greatest factor limiting the scope of medieval strategy was the preponderance of the defense over the offense. Every hilltop castle was a threat to invading armies which, if left uncaptured, could imperil their lines of retreat and interfere with their foraging. Given the logistical limitations of the age, this often reduced warfare to a tedious back-and-forth of sieges and counter-sieges, as Saladin himself experienced on the plains around Jaffa. Such a drawn-out attritional struggle left little room for higher-order strategy, giving the advantage to whichever side could keep an army equipped, provisioned, and motivated for longer.
Yet despite these obstacles, there is an abundance of examples of complex and far-sighted planning throughout the Middle Ages. John’s invasion of France was but one: at the opposite end of Eurasia, Genghis Khan maneuvered armies over hundreds of miles to envelop and destroy his enemies. Mamluk sultans reformed the old Ayyubid military administration and developed their road and communications infrastructure, allowing them to shuttle forces across their empire for rapid and decisive campaigns. The following century, fighting between France and England broke out once more in the Hundred Years’ War. English armies executed massive raids across the entire length and breadth of France, while their adversaries used a combination of scorched earth and maneuver to stop them. For all the constraints of the age, generals conceived of warfare on a broad horizon when circumstances allowed.
This was done most explicitly by the most advanced state of the time, Byzantium. The empire had the resources and vision to execute campaigns on a grand scale, while its armies were tactically sophisticated and operationally flexible. They produced an extensive military literature over the centuries to instruct officers in their methods of warfare. These manuals discuss how to draw up the army for battle, how campaigns should be conducted, and when to risk battle without putting the entire war effort in jeopardy—they express a clear conception of the relationship between tactical, operational, and strategic levels, in other words, if not quite in those terms.
We occasionally see these ideas enunciated by less sophisticated armies as well. Records of Saladin and Richard’s many war councils show how the entire sweep of the war, from tactical minutiae to the highest geopolitical consequences, was discussed as an organic whole. Although generals of the age lacked a systematic method to discuss this in the manner developed by the eighteenth century, it was this vision, combined with their practical understanding of how to get sufficient forces to the right place at the right time, which allowed them to undertake much grander designs. And if medieval communications, training, and organization rarely allowed armies to conduct tightly-synchronized operations across broad fronts, they could still employ a succession of actions which, in combination, achieved their political objectives.
It is this which makes Saladin so interesting as a strategist. He spent his career—twenty-four years after becoming commander-in-chief in Egypt, nineteen as an autonomous sovereign—wrestling with a problem which had frustrated many of his predecessors. The Crusaders, for all their seeming vulnerability, proved able to absorb the heaviest blows from their adversaries. This became apparent under Zengi, the first great general of the long Muslim counteroffensive. His dramatic capture of Edessa in 1144 initially seemed to herald the rollback of Christian territory, but they were saved by geography. Unlike the exposed County of Edessa, the remaining Crusader states were protected by a wall of mountains and other obstacles which made subsequent progress slow. Zengi and his son Nur ad-Din inflicted several more battlefield defeats on their enemies, far worse than anything Saladin managed prior to Hattin, but they were never able to meaningfully exploit them—at most they could pry away a few border fortresses. Simply winning battles and sieges was insufficient, as the Crusaders’ resilience allowed them to bounce back whenever reinforcements arrived from overseas, and by the end of Nur ad-Din’s lifetime even tactical victories were hard to come by. Frankish armies had gotten much better at defensive operations and perfected the fighting march as a tool to head off enemy incursions. Like many frustrated generals, Nur ad-Din turned to a strategy of attrition in his later years, looking to Egypt for the resources and geographic position to grind down the Crusader states.
Although it was Saladin who ultimately executed and reaped the benefits of Nur ad-Din’s grand strategy, he set about it in a very different way. After taking bold risks to establish himself in Syria, he developed a far more considered approach to the problems of large-scale warfare, refining his method with each campaign. Whereas his predecessors aggressively sought out decisive action every time they took the field, just about all of Saladin’s victories came from probing for weakness and imposing dilemmas on the enemy. He preferred to keep his options open and expose himself to lucky breaks, while persevering long enough to exploit his strategic advantages. We already see this in his first expedition to southern Palestine, when his feint-within-a-feint around Gaza and Darum paralyzed the Crusader army long enough that he could besiege Ailah. The same approach paid off immensely during his 1182-83 campaign against the Zengids, when his failure to take Mosul still delivered him Aleppo. Even Hattin, his greatest triumph, had many other paths to victory if his preferred course of events did not materialize.
This strategy required meticulous planning which occasionally allowed Saladin to transcend the limits of medieval warfare. His attack on Beirut was a masterpiece of coordination across vast distances: he moved his army into position in the Beqaa in time for the fleet’s planned arrival, then crossed the Lebanon Mountains as an Egyptian corps launched a well-timed raid into southern Palestine. This, following his invasion of Galilee earlier that summer, kept the Crusader army confused long enough for a land-sea assault on Beirut. Although Saladin never again tried anything so complex—his failure seems to have dissuaded him—the entire campaign was characteristic of his style of warfare, probing multiple lines of attack while leaving his options open.
Such an approach always ran a high chance of failure, but posed little risk of loss and offered enormous rewards when successful. Any number of seasonal incursions could have led to decisive engagements had the Franks been less disciplined or less lucky: his fleet’s daring raid into Acre’s harbor almost captured that city, while his second siege of Kerak nearly destroyed the Crusader army in the wastes of Oultrejourdain—even desultory raiding in Galilee led to a major victory at Marj Ayoun. The downside was that this entailed a huge amount of wasted effort. Chasing opportunities required mobilizing his army and committing enormous resources for an entire season, often just to see the operation fizzle out in a disappointing anticlimax. His three campaigns against the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the early 1180s bore no tangible fruit, while the gains from his second campaign against Mosul came in spite of his military performance. Saladin’s grand strategy depended in large part on his ability to keep putting armies in the field year after year.
There was another downside to this approach: it left him unprepared to deal with his own success. The war with the Crusaders assumed a very different character after Hattin, one which favored rapid and aggressive action. The destruction of the Frankish army left him a fleeting window to sweep up the major strongholds of the coast before reinforcements arrived; Saladin’s response to this novel situation demonstrated flexibility and skill, but also highlighted some of his weaknesses as a general. He very quickly transitioned to a campaign of rapid conquest and swept up nearly all the towns and fortresses of Palestine in about three months, but made the critical error of prioritizing the militarily irrelevant Jerusalem over the key port of Tyre—and once he did besiege Tyre, he was unwilling to see it through to the bloody end. So too during the Third Crusade: once forces from Europe started arriving, he had every incentive to crush their beachhead as quickly as possible, irrespective of his own losses. His failure to do so forced him to commit an unprecedented amount of energy and resources to fighting the Franks for three years straight, without ever managing to precipitate a decisive engagement which could stop the expedition cold.
Much of this came down to a tactical problem. In marked contrast to the Franks, whose fighting style was geared toward decisive melee combat, Saladin’s own army was simply not prepared to close with enemy forces until they had first been disrupted or critically weakened. Solving that problem would have meant reequipping and retraining a large part of his army, an unrealistic prospect even if he had wanted to. Accounting for this, there were often many good reasons not to press his advantage: better opportunities elsewhere, lack of provisions, or a plainly adverse tactical situation. In several instances, it is questionable whether he could have motivated his men to fight had he tried—the outright disobedience he faced at Acre and Jaffa suggests he was sometimes wise to relent.
Yet these reasons alone seem insufficient. Saladin’s decisions throughout his entire career reflect a consistent aversion to gambling everything on a single decisive battle. After facing the brunt of the Frankish cavalry under his uncle at al-Babein and fighting two hard-fought engagements against the Zengid coalition, he showed a consistent reluctance to press the attack against a well-ordered or entrenched enemy. His standoffs with the Frankish army during the campaigns of 1182 and 1183, his multiple sieges of Tyre, Aleppo, and Mosul, several attempts to break through the lines at Acre—all were missed opportunities of strategic significance. His victories evince a similar hesitance: he won Marj Ayoun and Hattin more through careful preparation than any bold action on the field of battle, and he declined to vigorously pursue the fleeing enemy at the Horns of Hama and Tell as-Sultan. Likewise, his worst defeats were not the result of overcommitment but of laxness: he was caught unawares at Montgisard, and at Arsuf he allowed his troops to get careless and dismount in front of the enemy. In view of this, his focus on the operational over the tactical seems not just a product of wisdom, but of temperament.
This inclination served Saladin well only so long as he held the advantage. Once the reinforcements of the Third Crusade gave the enemy the initiative, he needed tactical victories to wrest it back. The siege camp at Acre was too strong and Richard’s fighting marches were too disciplined to be defeated through maneuver alone—only a well-executed assault of the entrenchments or stiff resistance at a river crossing could have checked the Crusaders. Saladin somewhat compensated for the inadequacy of his operational approach with his remarkable tenacity: for three straight years he rotated troops through a narrow stretch of land in order to maintain pressure on the enemy, not once leaving the area himself. He constantly harassed them and stole the initiative whenever he could—ambushes of foraging parties around Acre, multiple attempts to precipitate a general engagement, a determined attack at Arsuf, continuous raids on the coastal plain, and a final strike against Jaffa. This alone could not defeat the Crusaders, but sheer persistence kept him in the fight long enough to exploit his advantage when Richard finally moved inland. Geography and logistics stymied any further Frankish conquests, ultimately bringing the two sides to peace in September 1192.
A point must also be made about the role of statesmanship in Saladin’s grand strategy. The focus of this study has been on his generalship, but his military successes rested just as much on his administrative and diplomatic abilities. His strategic vision required fielding armies year after year, an enormous expense which could only be sustained through the revenues of his own lands and the contributions of vassals and allies. He was a careful steward of his resources, reinvesting the dividends of his victories, compelling defeated Muslim powers to contribute to the holy war, and spending rare periods of peace turning the Egyptian state into a profitable venture. The sheer extent of his resource base alone was often sufficient to achieve his political ends, as happened in his final war against Mosul—it was the prospect of enduring another campaign, more than any imminent threat of military defeat, that compelled Izz ad-Din to settle.
It took great diplomatic skill to navigate the waters of the twelfth-century Syria-Jazira, although many of details are invisible to us. The precise events surrounding Saladin’s seizure of Damascus are somewhat obscure, and the chronicles allude to several conflicts in later years which are not fully elucidated—his feud with Ibn al-Muqaddam, his arrest of Gokbori, his tensions with Baghdad, and even his occasional troubles with his own family members. From these bare outlines we catch a glimpse of Saladin’s diplomatic challenges, and his later difficulties give us more indication of the strain. This was visible at the end of 1187 when his commanders debated whether to continue the siege of Tyre, and these tensions resurfaced the following year when the Jazirans agitated to be released for the season in sight of Antioch. Protests grew more overt during the Third Crusade: Saladin faced defection at the end of 1190 and some of his troops flat-out refused to obey his orders the following year—even Taqi ad-Din did not return to the fight that spring. Nevertheless, the army held together even in the face of Acre’s surrender and kept fighting until the very end, when only their refusal to charge Richard’s diminished ranks at Jaffa convinced the sultan to make peace at last. And in a final tribute to Saladin’s immense prestige, the princes of the Jazira waited until just after his death to openly revolt against Ayyubid authority.
Against all this, how can we judge Saladin’s accomplishments?
For the rest of the epilogue, see here.