Epilogue to ‘Saladin the Strategist’

The following is the epilogue to ‘Saladin the Strategist’, which can be purchased here. The introduction is available here.

In 1214 John of England, Richard the Lionheart’s brother and successor, engineered a large-scale invasion of France. He drew together a large coalition which included his nephew Otto IV, the Holy Roman emperor, and Count Ferdinand of Flanders to launch a two-front offensive. John was to land in Aquitaine and advance on Paris from the southwest; the others were to march on Paris from the north with a large army of Flemish and Imperial troops. This would either 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 nevertheless 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 soundly 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 actions. The campaign was 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—any appreciation of his higher-order strategy was eclipsed by Philip’s victory, however, 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 sophisticated financial networks which emerged in the Renaissance, were able to field larger armies than had appeared in Western Europe since Roman times and keep them in on campaign 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 regular 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 before a general could even contemplate action against an enemy. Military planning became increasingly precise, aided by clocks, maps, and modern accounting techniques. Seizing a vital supply depot, capturing an important fortress, or occupying a crucial bridge might make an army’s entire position untenable—today’s somewhat caricaturized view of eighteenth-century warfare as a formal, highly-ritualized 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 the distinction between strategy and tactics—dates to this period.

Against this, the strategists of the Middle Ages faced many disadvantages. It was difficult merely to field a substantial army in the first place. Every power of any note maintained a fulltime complement of household troops, but these were expensive and hard to maintain in large numbers. At the other extreme, a warlord could raise large numbers of unskilled levies to fill out his ranks for a campaign, but untrained and disorganized soldiers were just as often a liability. Medieval armies split the difference by employing soldiers who received grants of agricultural lands in return for annual periods of service—the feudal system. This was done in both the Islamic and Western worlds, and although there were substantial differences between the fief and the iqta, the essence was the same. 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.

This system was a workable solution for an age in which centralized control was difficult, but it brought problems of its own. Vassals sometimes refused to answer the call to arms and there was never any guarantee that they would show up promptly, fully manned, and enthusiastic. 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 vassals reluctantly roped into his grand alliance, but blood alone was no guarantee—Taqi ad-Din’s desertion of the holy war in pursuit of his private ambitions against Khilat in spring 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 expectation often caused problems when crucial strategic objectives had to be attacked late in the season when the men were pressing to be released. Leaders could often bribe, cajole, or threaten their levies to stay on longer, but this depended on the prospects of an extended campaign, his own influence over the troops, their enthusiasm, and how much gold and political capital he could afford to expend. This created an inherent tension between political and military objectives in every campaign, 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 the vast manpower resources of the Ayyubid Empire allowed Saladin to maintain an adequate force in the field by cycling soldiers through in phases.

Once in the field, feudal armies created still 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 Diyar Bakr contingents left a giant hole in the center when they took off in headlong flight—only the superb performance of various other subordinate commanders saved the day.

Another difficulty was logistics. Smaller forces in the field were able to live off the land, and Saladin’s raiders into Palestine often returned with pack animals laden with sheafs of the harvest, but by the last decade of his career he was fielding tens of thousands of men for weeks or months at a time within a small area. This inevitably brought him up against supply constraints which limited his ability to pursue his objectives. Before a major campaign, he could pre-stage supplies in a favorable location such as the Hauran, which allowed him to keep his forces concentrated for several weeks; once things got underway, however, he could not feed his army for more than a few days, leading to the stalemates of 1182 and 1183. Similarly, during the siege of Acre his army was supplied by 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 during the subsequent march down the coast, these arrangements came back to bite him: 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 Christians and Muslims called 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 foragers. 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 the side which could simply keep an army equipped, provisioned, and enthusiastic for a longer period.

Yet despite these obstacles, there is an abundance of examples of complex and far-sighted planning in 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 age, Byzantium. The empire had the resources and vision to execute campaigns on a grand scale, and 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 this 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 in the seventeenth century, it was this vision, combined with their practical understanding of how to get 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 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 disrupted 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 follow these up—at most they could pry away a few border fortresses. Simply winning enough 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 had 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: his conquest of Egypt was intended to give him the resources and geographic position to grind down the Crusader states, although he did not live long enough to reap the benefit—it was Saladin who fulfilled his former benefactor’s vision.

Although Saladin followed the basic outline 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 strategy to surmount the problems of large-scale warfare, refining his approach with every campaign. Whereas his predecessors aggressively sought out decisive action, just about every one 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 so that he could besiege Ailah. This paid off in a major way during his 1182-83 campaign against the Zengids, when his failure to take Mosul still delivered him Aleppo; even Hattin, his most successful campaign by far, had many other paths to victory if his preferred course did not materialize.

This approach 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 and promised enormous rewards if successful. His daring naval raid into Acre’s harbor almost seized that city, while his second siege of Kerak nearly destroyed the Crusader army. Any number of seasonal incursions could have led to decisive engagements had the Franks been less disciplined or less lucky, and even desultory raiding led to his victory at Marj Ayoun. The downside was that this entailed a huge amount of wasted effort. Chasing after opportunities required mobilizing his entire army and committing enormous resources in a 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 his limited 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 continue 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 took on 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 completely new 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. 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 this 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 commanding 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. His focus on the operational over the tactical seems in view of this not just a product of wisdom, but of temperament.

This inclination served him well only so long as he held the advantage. Once the reinforcements of the Third Crusade gave the enemy the initiative, Saladin needed tactical victories to wrest it back. The siege camp at Acre was too strong and Richard’s 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 them. 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 wherever he could—ambushes of foraging parties by 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 his endurance paid off when Richard began to move inland. Geography and logistics shifted the advantage back to the Ayyubids, ultimately bringing the two sides to peace in September 1192.

A final point must 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 in the face of constant frustration, an enormous expense which had to be met through the resources of his own lands and the contributions of vassals and allies. He always reinvested the dividends of his victories, compelling defeated Muslim powers to contribute to the holy war, and spent rare periods of peace turning Egypt into a profitable venture. The sheer extent of his resource base was sometimes enough by itself to achieve his political ends, as with his final campaign against Mosul.

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 the Zengids—even his occasionally troubled relations with his own family members. From these bare events, we catch a glimpse of Saladin’s diplomatic challenges, and his later difficulties give us more indication of the strain. The first hints of this appear 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 Jaziran contingents agitated to be released for the season. 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 orders in 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 outnumbered ranks 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.