CDG 49 – Saladin Vs. Crusaders, 1187
The March 2012 issue of Armchair General ® presented the Combat Decision Game “Saladin vs. Crusaders, 1187.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Saladin, sultan of the Ayyubid Muslim dynasty and leader of the Saracen army in medieval Palestine. Saladin’s mission was to defeat the Crusader army gathered at the fortress of Sephoria, midway between Acre on the Mediterranean coast and Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Muslims and Christians had clashed intermittently over dominance of the Palestine Holy Land ever since the Muslim Conquest captured the then largely Christian region in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the 11th century, calls from the Pope to regain the Holy Land led to the First Crusade (1095-99) and Second Crusade (1147-49), which left Christian settlers and Crusaders (European knights and princes) in control of much of Palestine, including the Holy City of Jerusalem. Saladin’s rise to power in 1174, however, consolidated surrounding Muslim domains and united Saracen armies under one powerful, charismatic leader for the first time in centuries.
- Subscribe to Armchair General Magazine
- Subscribe online and save nearly 40%!
In July 1187, Saladin’s 30,000-man Saracen army was poised to seize control of Palestine by defeating Guy de Lusignan’s Crusader army encamped at Sephoria. The 20,000-strong Crusader army was built around a formidable core of heavy cavalry – 1,200 armored knights mounted on powerful warhorses – and defeating it required a Saracen commander of unusual strategic vision and tactical skill. Saladin proved that he had those rare qualities in abundance.
After gathering the Saracen army at Cafarsset, Saladin decided that the most promising strategy was to lure Guy’s outnumbered force out of the fortress at Sephoria and into the waterless, open desert, where the Saracens’ advantages – larger numbers and greater mobility – could be put to best use (CDG COURSE OF ACTION ONE: BAIT AND ATTACK). On July 2, 1187, Saladin led part of his army to besiege the Crusader garrison at Tiberias, while his main force remained at Cafarsset. His besiegers stormed Tiberias’ main walls that day, capturing most of the garrison except for a small Crusader force that held out in Tiberias castle’s “keep” (a centrally located, heavily fortified tower serving as a castle garrison’s last place of refuge).
News of Saladin’s attack on Tiberias soon reached Guy at Sephoria. After a spirited debate among Crusader leaders about what to do, Guy decided to march his army to relieve the Tiberias garrison – thus he had taken Saladin’s bait. On July 3, Guy led his army eastward across the desert toward Tiberias. Meanwhile, Saladin moved his main Saracen army to a blocking position just west of Tiberias and dispatched a smaller force of light troops to slip behind the Crusader army to continuously harass and disrupt its rear guard and baggage train and cut off the Crusaders’ retreat route back to Sephoria.
At midday on July 3, Guy’s army reached the spring at Tur’an – the last water source between Sephoria and Tiberias not held by the Saracens. Shortly after arriving at Tur’an, Guy made the fatal mistake of deciding to push on to Tiberias that afternoon, leaving behind his army’s last certain source of water. The Crusader army, however, made little progress, as it was slowed to a crawl by the Saracen light forces’ attacks on its rear guard and baggage train. Moreover, as the Crusaders left Tur’an, Saladin immediately sent a strong force to seize it, thereby denying the Crusaders the opportunity to withdraw back to the spring while also blocking their retreat. Guy was forced to set up camp the night of July 3-4 in the desert between Nimrin and Lubia, where no sources of water were available. (See Saladin vs. Crusaders map.)
July 4 brought disaster and defeat to Guy’s army as the parched, exhausted Crusaders – strung out and fragmented into smaller, vulnerable contingents by the debilitating, waterless march and constant Saracen attacks – staggered toward the Horns of Hattin. Saracens set fire to the desert brush, and clouds of smoke added to the Crusaders’ misery while also screening Saladin’s archers, who launched showers of arrows at Guy’s soldiers and horses. Surrounded by the Saracen army, the beleaguered Crusaders attempted several uncoordinated, unsupported heavy cavalry charges, but each was turned back. By the end of the day, Saladin had won a stunning victory, killing or capturing 17,000 of Guy’s 20,000-man army. Among the captives was Guy himself.
Saladin’s victory at Hattin opened the way for his army’s conquest of the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, which fell October 2. Although the Third Crusade (1189-92), led by England’s King Richard I Lionheart, won back much of the Holy Land, Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands for the next 700 years. (See Battlefield Leader, January 2012 ACG.)
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION ONE: BAIT AND ATTACK, or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of medieval desert warfare. (See “After Action Report.”) COA One drew the outnumbered Crusader army out of the formidable Sephoria fortress, exhausted it through a forced march over waterless desert terrain, and left it out in the open and vulnerable to attack by the larger and more mobile Saracen army.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FORTRESS ASSAULT struck the enemy force where it was strongest – behind the formidable defenses of a Crusader castle. Directly attacking such a fortress risked costly casualties that could have caused the Saracen army to lose its numerical advantage. If the direct attack failed, the Saracens likely would have had to resort to a lengthy siege that could have seriously depleted their army and would have been at risk of being broken and defeated by a Crusader relief force.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: AMBUSH was too complicated for a medieval army with a large number of unskilled local levies to successfully accomplish. It also relied on split-second timing that would have been difficult to achieve given the era’s primitive battlefield communications, and it placed the Saracen army in a vulnerable position between Crusader forces that could have sallied forth and attacked it from two strongholds, Sephoria and Acre.
AFTER ACTION REPORT
Key Points for Medieval Desert Warfare
- Avoid the enemy army’s strengths – fortresses, heavy cavalry – that could weaken your army.
- Use deception to draw the enemy force into the open, making it vulnerable to attack.
- Seize and maintain control of vital water sources, denying the enemy army use of them.
- Exhaust the enemy army through forced marches over difficult, waterless terrain.
- Target the enemy force’s mobility – warhorses, supply wagons – with long-range arrow fire.
- Avoid the enemy army’s heavy cavalry charges that could shatter your army.
- Maneuver to fragment the enemy force, then destroy its separate parts one by one.