The Battle of Arsuf was the first full-scale engagement of the Third Crusade and the first time Richard I of England and the Sultan Saladin met on the battlefield. While the outcome was clear, the significance is still debated to this day.
On August 25, the entire crusader army made up of men from every corner of Christendom set out from Acre under the overall command of King Richard of England. The eventual goal was an assault on Jerusalem, but Richard wisely chose to follow the coastal route as far as Jaffa (the closest port to Jerusalem) rather than striking inland. This meant that the crusaders had one flank "anchored" on the seaward side and only had to fear attack from landward. Furthermore, Richard's fleet could sail down the coast, keeping pace with the army as it advanced. The fleet carried food, fodder, supplies, and munition, while also offering a safe place for the wounded to receive rest and medical care.
Although the crusaders were marching through what had been the heart of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and would pass through such important cities as Haifa and Caesarea, this region had been overrun by Saladin's forces in 1187. The inhabitants had been slaughtered, enslaved or driven off. No Saracen settlers had been sent to replace them. The fields lay fallow and the vineyards had been broken down, the gardens left to go to seed. In short, the crusader army was crossing fertile but unproductive countryside, which meant they were dependent on the food supplies they could carry with them by land or sea. On the other hand, the horses could obtain fodder in the fallow fields and abandoned pastures, and both wells and aqueducts were still serviceable (usually after modest repairs) as opposed to being completely destroyed. Apparently, expecting to take full control of the area later, the Saracens had abstained from destroying economically valuable structures.
On the other hand, the Sultan's forces controlled the entire interior of the country and could move and deploy at will, which meant they could attack at the time and the place of their choosing. As a result, the crusaders had to advance in battle formation, prepared to fight every foot of the way south. King Richard organized his forces using a variant of standard crusader tactics. Namely, he placed the baggage train on his right flank, next to the sea (which was controlled by his fleet), placed the knights to the east/left of the baggage train, and the infantry on the outside, eastern/left flank of the entire formation. The infantry could thus protect the vulnerable horses of the knights, while the entire formation advanced steadily at the pace of the infantry -- until the moment came for the knights to deliver a knock-out charge.
Richard's objective was to reach Jaffa, where he hoped to establish a defensible stronghold and bridgehead for the assault on Jerusalem. He had no interest in a full-scale battle with Saladin during the march from Acre to Jaffa because Saladin controlled the entire hinterland and could always withdraw, recuperate and regroup. Saladin, on the other hand, wanted to prevent the crusaders from gaining another city with strong walls and a good port. His objective was to bring the crusaders to battle while they were out in the open and use his superiority in numbers and his highly effective mobile archers to crush the Franks before they could entrench themselves in another fortress city.
The pattern was set the very first day. Saladin's cavalry struck the moment the baggage train of the rear-guard became separated from the rest of the army. The vanguard and central divisions (those composed of Richard's vassals and the natives of Outremer) had moved too far too fast, while the French baggage train, at the very tail of the long column of march, failed to keep up with the French knights when going through a narrow defile. The Saracens came close to splitting the French baggage off from the rest of the army, but the French knights turned back in time and drove the Saracens off. Thereafter, march discipline was increased and there was no repeat of this near disaster. Nevertheless, the army was harried by mounted archers almost continuously, which resulted in steady losses without a halt in the progress. The pace of advance was determined by the ability of the ships to keep pace and the imperative of camping where there were ample supplies of water. Richard of England was no Guy de Lusignan!
On September 1, the crusaders passed through the ruins of Ceasarea, and on the following day the intensity of the Saracen attacks increased notably, but Richard doggedly pressed ahead rather than being drawn into a futile charge. Arab sources report that some crusaders kept marching despite having ten arrows embedded in their shields or armor itself. The Franks, however, had sufficient troops to regularly rotate troops between the exposed outer flank facing the enemy and the baggage train, inside the protection of the knights. Likewise, despite fears that Saladin would attack the crusaders while passing through the forest of Arsuf, it was only after the successful passage through the woods that Saladin made his move.
On September 7, with the crusaders still a short day's march from the ruined city of Arsuf, Saladin drew up his forces en masse and the crusaders realized that they were about to face more than the harassing tactics of the previous days. Richard, however, remained determined to continue the march. He gave very clear orders for the knights not to charge the enemy until he gave a trumpet signal from the van, center and rear at the same time. He did not want the power of the Frankish charge dissipated in uncoordinated attacks by small forces, and he reserved the exclusive right to decide if and when it was right to loose the heavy cavalry that was the Frank's best offensive weapon.
The Sultan ordered the attack at 9 am, after the Franks had already been marching for several hours and he appears to have hoped he could break through the Frankish line, separating the van, led and commanded by the Templars, from the center, nominally under the command of Guy de Lusignan. In any case, as expected, the ferocity of the attacks this day exceeded all that the crusaders had experienced up to then. For the first time Saladin sent in massed infantry attacks composed of Nubians and Bedouins against the Franks. These troops pressed in closely, causing considerable casualties. When the Turkish cavalry that followed also pressed in more closely, the attacks became even more lethal. Particularly the horses of the crusaders, that did not have much armor, became casualties of the missiles hurled at close range.
The Frankish cavalry, however, did not respond to the provocation and by noon parts of the advance guard had reached the well-watered orchards north of Arsuf, the designated camping ground for that day of march. By now, however, the Saracens were focusing their attacks more upon the rear guard than the van and center, trying to slow it down enough to cut it off and annihilate it. By mid-afternoon the situation in the rear-guard (which on this particular day was held by the Hospitallers) became desperate. More knights were walking than riding. The Master of the Hospital rode forward to Richard of England pleading for permission to attack before all the horses were slaughtered. Richard said 'no.'
Returning to the rear, the Master of the Hospitallers found that his men were now pressed so hotly that they were marching backwards. For a second time the Master of the Hospital rode forward to Richard to beg for permission to attack. The answer remained the same.
Then, without warning and certainly without the sounding of trumpets, the Marshal of the Hospital broke out of the ranks of the crusaders charging at the Saracens shouting "St. George." He was promptly joined by a knight from Champagne, and then all along the line the cavalry broke through the infantry screen.
The Itinerarium (a pro-Richard account of the crusade) makes much of the fact that Richard had not ordered the attack and so it was mistimed. Other scholars have followed his argument that the decisive victory that might otherwise have been achieved -- if only the undisciplined (!) Hospitallers had waited for Richard's signal -- slipped through the fingers of the crusaders.
The Saracen eye-witness Baha ad-Din, on the other hand, describes the Frankish charge as superbly timed and well-coordinated. Certainly, claims that King Richard could have won a decisive victory here are ill-informed. Saladin's troops had complete freedom of movement and infinite space to withdraw and regroup. The terrain on the coastal plain of the Levant was not suitable for pinning down and trapping an enemy -- unless it was pinned against the sea -- and that was where the crusaders, not the Saracens, were. In other words, only Saladin had a very real chance to surround, overwhelm and push his opponents into the sea, eliminating them in a single crushing blow; the best the crusaders could hope to achieve was survival in tact as a fighting force.
This is exactly what they did achieve. The effect of the charge led by the Hospitaller Marshal and supported promptly by other (though not all) cavalry contingents of the crusader line was to throw the enemy back with very heavy losses. Indeed, the Muslim sources stress that the army fled in complete panic and was completely routed. King Richard, however, wisely stopped any pursuit by his Frankish knights, rallying the crusader cavalry to resume their position inside the infantry shield and proceed toward Arsuf.
Significantly, at the moment of the Hospitaller Marshal's attack, many mounted Turkish archers had dismounted to improve their aim, evidently lulled into a sense of security by the apparent unwillingness of the Frankish knights to leave the protection of their infantry. Equally important, King Richard was at this point with the van of his army. In any battle, there are moments when a small unit commander close to the action senses what the strategic commander in a distant command post cannot. The fact that the charge was initiated not by a rash crusader fresh from the West but rather by the most senior military commander of the Hospitallers, a man with decades of experience in fighting the Saracens, suggests to me that the attack was no mistake. The Marshal of the Hospital didn't "lose his nerve" (as some accounts suggest), but rather realized that the time was right for the charge. The Marshal, not Richard, recognized this simply because Richard was, at that moment, too far away.
Richard the Lionheart notoriously fought from the front (as many of my earlier entries emphasize), and I'm not suggesting that Richard was shirking or otherwise negligent of his duties. He was in the van, leading, and while he undoubtedly rode up and down his front, no man, not even Richard the Lionheart, can be in two places at once. I strongly suspect that while he was with the van, the Hospitaller Marshal noticed the Turkish archers starting to dismount and recognized that this was the moment to strike. There was no time to send for permission -- and no doubt the Marshal didn't want to risk another "no" either. Instead, he charged, sweeping (as he no doubt expected) the bulk of Christian chivalry with him -- including Richard the Lionheart, who joined the fray with his household knights and, as usual, fought with elan and exceptional success.
The Battle of Arsuf was thus a significant Christian victory and a serious blow to Saladin's prestige. He had committed his whole army (Syrians, Egyptians, Turks, Kurds, Nubians and Bedouins were all engaged), and he had singularly failed to repeat the success of Hattin. He had neither crushed the crusading fighting forces nor halted their advance. In this sense, Arsuf was more a Saracen defeat than a Christian victory.
But Saladin also notably rallied his troops and elite units were able to launch no less than two more attacks on the Christian rear even after main body of troops had been routed. While these attacks were also driven off by King Richard and his knights, they clearly demonstrate that Saracen morale had not broken.
Nevertheless, the crusaders were able to camp in peace outside of Arsuf and to return to the field to collect their dead and plunder the enemy. Yet the crusade continued. For Saladin, arguably, the most important outcome of Arsuf was that he had learned the measure of King Richard. The cunning Saladin shied away from a direct confrontation with the English King thereafter.
The Battle of Arsuf is an important episode in “Envoy of Jerusalem.”
Caesarea: In ruins again.
The fertile coastal plain of the Holy Land today.