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A Decisive Battle? Richard the Lionheart vs Saladin at Arsuf

By Andrew Latham

On 7 September 1191, the approximately 20,000-strong crusader army of King Richard the Lionheart met the 25,000 or so fighters of Saladin’s army on a 1-2 mile wide plateau that skirted the Mediterranean Sea near the town of Arsuf. Richard’s forces, fresh from taking the city of Acre from Saladin, had been marching southward toward the port city of Jaffa. Their plan: take the port city and use it as a staging area from where they could either strike inland toward Jerusalem or continue along the coast to Ascalon, a fortified city that dominated the vital road linking the two main parts of Saladin’s Ayyubid empire.

Saladin, having failed to stop Richard through the use of harassing tactics, had finally decided to bring the crusader host to battle. On the advice of two of his most trusted emirs, he settled on the plateau outside the town of Arsuf as the place where this potentially decisive battle should take place. On September 7, a few hours after King Richard had had his men break camp and resume their march on Jaffa, Saladin ordered his army to attack.

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This is not the place to deliver a blow-by-blow account of the day’s events. Suffice it to say, that after enduring several hours of attacks by mounted and unmounted archers, the Crusaders finally launched a cavalry charge that caught the Ayyubids by surprise and sent them into a headlong retreat. The tide of battle then ebbed and flowed as each side counter-attacked in turn. At the end of the day, Saladin’s forces had failed to achieve their objective of driving Richard’s men into the sea. Indeed, the Sultan’s army had been forced to retire from the field of battle with losses numbering in the thousands. Richard’s army, which had suffered far fewer casualties, remained in possession of the field and in a position to continue its march south (which it did on September 9).

Given the outcome, the Battle of Arsuf has sometimes been judged as one of the greatest victories of the crusades. Verbruggen describes it in The Art of Warfare as “one of the outstanding feats of the crusades.” Others have called it “the greatest fighting march in history”, a “decisive victory”, and “a great victory.” But is this so? Was Arsuf really such a “great” victory?  And how should we go about assessing battles like this in the first place?

In the remainder of this column, I will attempt to answer these questions. Specifically, I will evaluate the Battle of Arsuf on three levels: the tactical (having to do with individual and small unit fighting techniques), the operational (having to do with the way individuals and small units are organized and employed to fight a battle), and the strategic (having to do with the way in which battles are used to realize overall campaign objectives). My conclusion: While Arsuf was a tactical and operational success (the latter almost by accident), it was far from “decisive” – or even very significant – on the strategic level.

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Imaginary encounter between Richard I and Saladin, 13th century manuscript
Imaginary encounter between Richard I and Saladin, 13th century manuscript

Arsuf: A Tactical and Operational Success

On the tactical and operational levels, Richard and his crusader host won a clear and unambiguous victory at Arsuf.  Tactically, the battle pitted the principal weapon of the Franks, the armored knight, against that of Saladin’s army, the mounted archer.  The Franks, being more heavily armed and armored than their Ayyubid opponents, favored the cavalry charge. If properly timed, such a charge allowed them to close quickly with the lightly armed and armored Turkish horse archers and bring them to battle with lance, sword, and mace. The shock effect of this tactic, coupled with the comparative advantage conferred by heavier arms and armor at close quarters, meant that if the Frankish horse managed to maintain discipline and time their charge correctly, they were almost unbeatable.

The Turkish horse archers, on the other hand, being less heavily armed and armored, favored a different tactic. Taking advantage of the speed and agility of their mounts, they typically sought to keep their distance from the Frankish knights while raining arrows on them. Except at close range, the Turkish bow did not have the power to send an arrow through the mail armor of the crusader knights. But this was not their primary objective.  What they really sought to do was to provoke the crusader knights into charging. If the Franks lacked an adequate infantry screen – i.e. one that could keep the Turkish horse beyond effective range – or were undisciplined enough to be goaded into such an attack (as they often were during this era), the Turks would use their superior agility to scatter before their attackers, leaving the crusader charge to spend itself against thin air. The now dispersed and exhausted knights would then be subject to a devastating Turkish counter-attack.

Given this “correlation of forces”, victory-in-battle could generally be expected to go to the side that managed to execute its tactical game plan better than the other. As Thucydides, Clausewitz, Machiavelli and many other masters of strategy remind us, of course, factors like chance, morale and leadership always have a role to play in determining the outcome of battles. All things being equal, however, if the crusader knights could execute their “heavy-cavalry-charge” game plan (hold their ground, not be goaded into an ill-timed charge, then strike when the moment was ripe), they would carry the day. If, on the other hand, Saladin’s forces were able to execute their “provoke-and-scatter” game plan (mounted archers provoke a charge, then scatter, then attack the dispersed/spent crusader knights), then they would be victorious.

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Map of Third Crusade campaign focusing on the Battle of Arusf – Wikimedia Commons

At Arsuf, Richard’s operational plans and preparations enabled him to execute the “heavy-cavalry-charge” game plan more effectively than Saladin could execute his “provoke-and-scatter” game plan. Since leaving Acre, Richard had arranged his mounted forces into three divisions, their left flank protected by an infantry screen and their right flank by the sea (which they controlled). He had also issued strict orders to his most disciplined units (the Templars and the Hospitallers, whom he placed in the crucially important positions of van- and rear-guards) not to break formation or launch an attack without his explicit command.

As a result of these operational arrangements, the Turkish horse archers were not able to play to their strengths and their efforts failed either to break the cohesion of the crusader host or to lure the Christian knights into incoherent – and easily defeated – piecemeal attacks. To be sure, the crusader forces suffered terrible casualties, especially among the infantry which suffered from both Turkish arrows and the heat. But, the crusader column held itself together, continuing its dogged fighting march down the coast toward Jaffa.

Realizing that his attempt to harass Richard’s host into defeat was not going to work, Saladin then decided that he had no choice but to risk an all-out attack on the crusader column. This he launched on September 7, just as the Crusaders were approaching the orchards outside the town of Arsuf. Saladin appears to have concentrated his attack on the rear of the crusader column (the sources are unclear about this), unleashing waves of horse archers supported by infantry against the Hospitallers and their infantry screen. The Christian forces in the rearguard suffered terribly. In addition to mounting losses amongst the infantry, the knights of the Hospital were having their relatively lightly armored mounts shot out from under them at an alarming rate. But the crusader forces were inflicting serious casualties on Saladin’s forces as well, repelling their infantry attacks and preventing their cavalry from breaking through. As importantly, the rear of the crusader host held its ground, neither cracking under the weight of the Ayyubid attack nor being goaded into the kind of ill-timed charge that Saladin was hoping for.

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Then – perhaps out of desperation, but certainly with impeccable timing – the Hospitallers launched a devastatingly successful counter-attack. Richard’s operational plan, as mentioned above, had been to maintain strict discipline in the column, unleashing his knights only when he judged he could catch the Turkish horse off guard and bring them to close combat. As he waited for just the right moment, however, the pressure on the Hospitallers in the rearguard began to reach intolerable levels. Near the breaking point – and probably around the time when Richard was going to signal a general attack anyway – the Hospitaller commander took matters into his own hands, judging both that his men could not sustain much more punishment and that the time was ripe for a cavalry charge. His attack caught the enemy completely by surprise, perhaps because the rearguard’s infantry screen had not been moved aside as a precursor to attack. Seeing what was happening, and sensing that that was the crisis of the battle, Richard ordered the other divisions to attack in support of the Hospitallers.

Saladin and his forces were taken completely by surprise. Although the sultan managed to rally his forces and launch a counterattack, the battle climaxed with a series of timely and well-executed charges led by Richard and William des Barres. At the end of the day, the rout of Saladin’s army was complete. His forces suffered heavy casualties and were forced to flee the field in disarray. On the other side, Richard’s forces suffered relatively few casualties, were in possession of the field of battle, and were able to continue on toward Arsuf and then Jaffa.

Clearly, then, on the tactical and operational levels, Arsuf was a convincing victory for the Christian host – at least in the sense that Richard’s army prevented Saladin’s from achieving its goals, inflicted vastly disproportionate losses on its opponent, and forced the enemy to withdraw from the battlefield in very poor order. But was it truly “decisive”?

Strategic Assessment of the Battle of Arsuf

That, of course, depends on what one means by “decisive” – or, rather, what one means by “decisive victory”? According to Colin Gray, a victory is decisive “which decides the outcome to a campaign.” If we accept this definition, the question then becomes “did the victory at Arsuf decide the outcome of the Third Crusade?”

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The answer, of course, is “no”. While it is true that Richard succeeded in driving Saladin from the field and inflicting punishing and humiliating losses on the Sultan’s forces, the Lionheart failed to achieve – or even advance – his core strategic objectives. To be sure, Richard denied Saladin the victory he sought. And he also was able to continue the march on Jaffa, thus threatening both Jerusalem and Ascalon. But while merely surviving to continue the fighting march on Jaffa may have been necessary for winning the Third Crusade, but it was hardly sufficient. The necessary and sufficient conditions for such a victory included bringing Saladin’s field army to battle and destroying it as an effective fighting force. Unless and until this was achieved, Richard believed, Saladin would always be in a position to threaten the crusaders’ supply lines to the coast – and maybe even to surround and destroy the Christian host as they had done at Hattin in 1187.  Under these conditions, the Lionheart could never risk a serious siege of the Holy City and, therefore, could never achieve his key strategic objective.

A strategically decisive victory, then, would have required the complete destruction of Saladin’s field army. In this, it would have resembled the battle of Hattin, at which most of the Christian warriors in Outremer had been killed or captured, allowing Saladin to roll up almost all of the Christian territories in the Holy Land at his leisure. This, of course, is not what happened at Arsuf on that long-ago September day. In the fog of battle, and perhaps out of an abundance of caution, Richard misjudged the situation and failed to pursue and destroy Saladin’s defeated army in detail. As a result, while a brilliant tactical and operational victory, the battle was far from decisive on the strategic level. As Lyons and Jackson put it, after the battle “if it was still difficult for [Saladin] to win, the Franks could still lose. They had scored an undoubted success, but the Muslim rout was, in fact, little more than an undignified and expensive version of their usual [provoke-and-scatter] tactics….” Saladin and his army escaped to fight another day, denying Richard the operational freedom of maneuver the Lionheart believed he needed to reconquer Jerusalem and the rest of the Latin East.

My overall conclusion: Arsuf, while a convincing victory for the crusaders at the operational level – one that demonstrated that well-led crusader forces could leverage their tactical superiority to realize “victory-in-battle” over the armies of Saladin – was far from a “decisive victory” in strategic terms. Indeed, it was a strategic irrelevance.

Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

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Top Image:  Tile depicting Richard I of England, on display at te British Museum – Wikimedia Commons

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