CDG 49 – Saladin vs. Crusaders, 1187
In this Command Decision Game, you will play the role of Saladin, sultan of the Ayyubid Muslim dynasty and leader of the Saracen army on July 1, 1187.
In 1187, control of the Middle East region of Palestine was contested by the military forces of two medieval antagonists, Crusaders and Saracens. The former were European Christian knights, soldiers and settlers, while the latter were the indigenous Muslim population.
By the fourth century A.D., the Holy Land, encompassing much of Palestine, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other locations associated with the life of Jesus Christ, was populated largely by Christians. However, after the Islam religion gained adherents in the Middle East in the seventh century, Muslim armies burst forth from the Arabian Peninsula and from 622-750 A.D. swept across and conquered the Middle East, Anatolia, North Africa and southern Spain. The Crusader invasion of Palestine, therefore, was principally in response to a call from the pope in 1095 to European kings, princes and knights to restore Christian control of the Holy Land. This was largely accomplished in the First Crusade, 1095-99, and the Second Crusade, 1147-49.
The Crusaders gained control of much of Palestine, including Jerusalem, a city considered holy by both Christians and Muslims. Now, in 1187, Crusaders occupy much of the Holy Land, most notably Jerusalem, Christendom’s holiest city and Islam’s third holiest city after Mecca and Medina. They exercised control of their domain through a network of numerous fortresses built at strategic locations in cities and along key caravan trade routes.
Although open warfare was often interrupted by periods of uneasy peace, by mid-1187 it was clear that the most recent truce between Crusaders and Saracens had been shattered. Saracens became enraged by Crusaders’ ill treatment of Muslim pilgrims, constant interference with trade routes (often, Crusaders demanded exorbitant “taxes” to allow caravans to pass safely or simply seized the trade goods outright), and increasing incidents of Crusaders robbing and killing members of the local Saracen population. Some small-armed clashes between Crusaders and Saracens also occurred. By June 1187, the main Crusader army had assembled in Acre, the major Crusader stronghold on the Mediterranean coast, and moved 20 miles southeast to Sephoria. This belligerent act was an unmistakable signal that open warfare between Crusaders and Saracens was on once again.
In 1174 you, Saladin, became sultan (leader) of the Ayyubid dynasty. Since then, you have steadily consolidated your reign from Damascus to Egypt, thereby confining Crusaders’ Middle East inroads to the territory they currently control in Palestine. Significantly, your sultanate is the first to consolidate Saracen domains in the region under one ruler.
Your mission, as sultan and commander of the region’s combined Saracen forces, is to defeat the Crusader army now encamped in the fortress at Sephoria, about midway between Acre and the Crusader fortress at Tiberias. Although your army outnumbers the enemy army, the Crusaders’ European mounted knights are formidable opponents. Charges by these armored heavy cavalrymen on their powerful warhorses have often shattered Saracen ranks. Yet to regain control of Palestine – most importantly, the Holy City of Jerusalem – you must re-establish your Saracen army as the region’s pre-eminent military power by defeating the Crusader army.
The Crusader Army
The Crusader army encamped at Sephoria is led by Guy de Lusignan, a noted French knight who last year received the title “King of Jerusalem.” Guy’s 20,000-man army is built around a formidable core of heavy cavalry – about 1,200 armored knights mounted on powerful warhorses and armed with maces, lances, swords and battle-axes. The Crusader army’s lighter cavalry comprises about 4,000 mounted men-at-arms, while its foot soldiers, armed with swords and axes, number about 14,000. Rounding out Guy’s army are several hundred archers and crossbowmen, some mounted.
Crusader battle tactics are well known and therefore predictable. When preparing for battle, the Crusader army typically forms into three groups: a center force, a left wing and a right wing, each consisting of a core of 300-400 heavy cavalrymen surrounded by several thousand infantrymen. The infantrymen protect the mounted knights from attack until, when the moment seems right, the knights launch a powerful heavy cavalry charge to disrupt and overwhelm the attackers. The best way to counteract these battle tactics is to surround and vigorously harass each of the three components (using bowmen to target the knights’ warhorses), with the goal of breaking them into smaller and smaller elements that can be defeated separately.
Your 30,000-strong Saracen army outnumbers the Crusader army 3-to-2. The majority of your force, approximately 20,000 men, are foot soldiers armed with spears, swords and battle-axes. Of these, about one-third are mamluks, elite infantrymen of Turkish origin with unmatched fighting skill; one-third are professional standing army infantrymen; and one-third are unskilled local levies recently gathered for the sole purpose of fighting in this campaign. Your cavalry force numbers about 10,000 men, half heavy cavalrymen armed with lances and swords and protected by chain mail armor (although not as heavily armored or as well mounted as Crusader knights), and half unarmored light cavalrymen, many carrying superb “Turkish” composite bows capable of driving arrows through plate armor at close range. Your army also includes siege engineers highly skilled at building siege engines and using them to carry out operations to reduce and capture fortresses.
Your excellent logistical support system offers your army a significant advantage over the Crusader army. Food and supplies have been stockpiled for future use at key locations, and each of the all-important scarce wells and watering sites in this desert region are well known to your army and under constant surveillance by your scouts and spies.
Council of War at Cafarsset
In June, when open warfare with the Crusaders became inevitable, you sent out the call for the entire Saracen army to assemble under your personal command as quickly as possible. On June 30, you led your army to Cafarsset, a small village about seven miles southwest of Tiberias and 10 miles east of the Crusader army encamped at Sephoria.
At Cafarsset, your army is in an excellent position to maneuver in any direction to carry out whatever battle strategy you devise to defeat the Crusader force.
To help you decide on a strategy, you have summoned your princes and emirs to gather for a war council. Although ultimately you will decide when and how to attack the enemy, your subordinate commanders are skilled warriors whose counsel you value. Once they have assembled, you proceed to explain the three courses of action you are contemplating.
Course of Action One:
BAIT AND ATTACK
“The first plan I am considering,” you begin, “offers our enemy irresistible bait – an attack on the Crusader fortress at Tiberias. Whether or not we capture the fortress is immaterial, for merely the threat of taking it serves this plan’s main purpose. Once word of our attack reaches the Crusader army, the enemy force will decamp from Sephoria and quickly march to relieve the Tiberias garrison. Having thus taken the bait and left the safety of Sephoria, the Crusader army will be on the march across the open plain, vulnerable to attack and annihilation by our entire army.”
Sweeping your arm in a solicitous gesture to the gathered emirs and princes, you announce, “You may now speak.”
Those present initially defer to one of your emirs, Muzaffar al-Din Gökböri, a trusted and experienced subordinate. “Sultan,” Gökböri says, “your plan to bait the Crusaders to move into the open where we can attack them is masterful. However, the open plain favors the enemy’s most powerful force, the mounted knights. This plan may fail if we are unable to withstand and overcome a fierce charge by the Crusader heavy cavalry.”
At this point, Prince Taqi al-Din, your nephew and a subordinate commander, offers his counsel. “I, for one, fully support this plan to draw out the enemy. Crusader knights and horses will exhaust themselves trying to race across land where water for men and animals is very scarce. Thirsty, exhausted and outnumbered, the Crusader force will be in no shape to launch a fearsome heavy cavalry charge. We will annihilate the it.”
Course of Action Two:
“The second strategy I am considering,” you continue, “is to move at once to assault and overwhelm the Crusader army in its fortress at Sephoria. This is the simplest and most direct way to defeat the outnumbered enemy army, which has so obligingly gathered in one isolated location. Our men can easily surround Sephoria, trapping the Crusader army inside and thereby depriving it of the ability to use its most dangerous force, the armored heavy cavalry of its mounted knights.”
Gesturing to your emirs and princes, you nod and say, “You may speak.”
Again, Gökböri speaks first. “Sultan, I applaud this excellent plan. The enemy clearly has made a grave error in concentrating at Sephoria. Granted, it is a fortress, but not so formidable as the one at Acre. Our army outnumbers the enemy force, and our siege engineers are highly skilled. Surrounded, trapped and unable to maneuver inside Sephoria, the Crusader army will be doomed to inevitable destruction.”
Hajib Husam, one of the mamluks in your service, enters the discussion. “Sultan, I humbly disagree with this plan. At Sephoria, the enemy has water, supplies and the protection of strong walls. If we attack, we risk incurring heavy casualties, thereby reducing the size of our force and perhaps losing our numerical advantage. And if we besiege the fortress, the enemy might hold out for weeks, months, or even longer. Moreover, at any time the Crusader heavy cavalry could sally forth to charge and break through our encircling force.”
Course of Action Three:
“My final plan,” you conclude, “is to lure the Crusader army into a carefully prepared ambush. Less than five miles northwest of Sephoria, the direct road to Acre passes through a narrow defile between two high ridges – a perfect place to ambush and annihilate the enemy army. To lure the Crusaders there, the nearly 10,000 men of our light and heavy cavalry will move boldly along the road in broad daylight as if to threaten Acre. This will greatly alarm the Crusaders, causing them to sally forth immediately in pursuit. When the enemy reaches the gap, the remaining two-thirds of our army, our 20,000 carefully hidden infantrymen, will launch the ambush while our cavalry force ‘lure’ suddenly reverses course and charges the enemy.”
Once more, you nod and invite your subordinates to speak.
Prince Taqi and the mamluk Hajib whisper to each other for a few moments. Taqi then steps forward and says, “Sultan, such an ambush is a brilliant scheme that capitalizes on surprise and our superior numbers. The Crusaders cannot ignore a threat to Acre and will certainly react to it immediately. When they reach the narrow defile, the close confines will prevent any effective maneuver such as a heavy cavalry charge. Suddenly surrounded by swarms of our hidden infantrymen and battered by our cavalry’s charge, the enemy will be completely destroyed.”
Gökböri appears anxious to have the final word. “Sultan, if this scheme works exactly as planned, then what Prince Taqi has said is most assuredly true. However, if the enemy should discover or correctly guess what we are up to, or if some of our inexperienced infantrymen try to spring the ambush too early, then the alerted Crusader army will be able to take great advantage of our force being split. Our individual elements will be at risk of being attacked and defeated by the full, concentrated force of the enemy army.”
With just a small movement of your hand, you end the war council. Sending the princes and emirs on their way, you say, “I now wish to reflect on what you have said. You will hear my decision shortly.”
You realize, however, that your time for reflection is limited. You must quickly choose a plan and turn your thoughts into action if your army is to defeat the Crusaders and recapture Palestine.
What is your decision, Sultan Saladin? Which of these three courses of action will you follow? Or has another option occurred to you during the council of war?
Click here to download the pdf of CDG #49, Saladin vs. Crusaders,1187. Submit your answer and you might win a prize from Armchair General!
This text is an abridged version of Command Decision Game #49, written by Andrew H. Hershey. The full text, with illustrations, appears in the March 2012 edition of Armchair General magazine, where you’ll also find additional interactive articles based on Heinz Guderian in Poland, 1939, and a counterterrorist drone strike in Yemen to take out a notorious al-Qaeda leader. On newsstands now.
Find earlier Command Decision Games by clicking here.
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.