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Saladin the Strategist: An Underappreciated Commander

Posted May 26th, 2018 at 01:00 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga
Updated May 30th, 2018 at 07:05 PM by Lord Oda Nobunaga

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"Salah ad-Din" Yusuf ibn Ayyub, Sultan of Egypt and Syria

Was it strong and grizzled knights with combat experience what dominated Medieval wars or was it their skilled commanders? It could be that the two were indistinguishable in the Medieval period. At least in the cases of Saladin he was a more scholarly and strategically minded commander with a skill for organization. Even so he comes off in the historiography as a very underappreciated commander. More focus is given to his crusader opponents. Despite Frederick Barbarossa's victories against rebellious lords in Germany or against the forces of the Duchies in Poland, the city-states of Italy, the Byzantines and the Anatolian Turks he suffered crippling defeats in Italy proper given the fact that he was forced into protracted conflict. Barbarossa was only able to salvage the situation and reclaim territory using diplomacy. Richard the Lionheart as well was unable to seize significant territory in France. During the crusades he won notable tactical victories over Saladin in the Holy Land but failed utterly in his goal to take Jerusalem. This was despite having a significant advantage in troops over Saladin, with regards to quality and possibly quantity.

Saladin was not an incompetent military commander, as one might claim from solely a focus on tactical engagements such as at Montgisard, Tyre, Acre, Arsuf and Jaffa.
Strategically he was an extremely skilled commander, due to his strategies he was able to wipe out Guy de Lusignan's army at Hattin. Tactical ability was not a huge factor in this campaign since the Crusaders were hungry, thirsty, demoralized and suffering from extreme heat. This campaign led to his besieging and taking Jerusalem without opposition from any force in the field.
His strategy at Arsuf would also have provided him with a very high chance of winning the battle of Arsuf, despite the fact that he ultimately lost that battle tactically. Saladin's battle plan at Arsuf was quite ingenious and involved drawing Richard in through skirmishing and harassing with mounted archers and light infantry. Ultimately this plan failed because Richard noticed and exploited the flaw in his plan. Namely that Richard did not permit himself to be drawn in a charge and open his flanks to encirclement. Then Saladin's army went against the plan and tried to charge Richard's defensive square formation, playing into Richard's hands and being defeated in combat. Thus Saladin lost the major engagement of the Third Crusade. For this reason Saladin changed focus to strategic containment and a flexible defense, carried out through maneuver.

Saladin's strategies and flexibility outside of the battlefield prevented Richard from reaching Jerusalem. Saladin used scorched earth and harassment to subvert Richard's march and force him to retreat towards the coastline. Generally Saladin's priority being placed on the overall strategic objective allowed him to achieve success on his campaigns. It cannot be denied that he lost battles and some could be seen as being quite embarrassing but the truth is he won a fair share of battles as wells. More importantly though he succeeded in conquering and ruling Egypt and expanding his territory into every direction. Even if he wasn't a tactical mastermind that doesn't make his strategic, logistical, organizational or operational skill any worse. For instance his serving as chancellor for the defeated Fatimid Caliph in Egypt and then gradually expanding his power to the point that he could dethrone this Caliph and crown himself Sultan of Egypt. These actions also allowed him to remove himself from Nur ad-Din's rule and gain favour with the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad by supplanting the Shia rule in Egypt. More impressive was his capitalizing on the death of his former lord Nur ad-Din Zengi to invade that ruler's territory in Syria and Upper Mesopotamia. He did this systematically and methodically, chipping away at Zengid territories and using both military force, diplomacy and political scheming carried out from an understanding of feudal politics within Islamdom and the tribal politics of the various peoples of the region. By seizing control of Egypt and Syria he was able to take control of key trade routes, conquer key territories within the Middle East as well as attack the Kingdom of Jerusalem from two sides. Therefore Saladin's career could be divided into three periods: his conquest of Egypt and his consolidation as a ruler, his expansion into Syria and the removal of the Zengids and his legitimization of his position within Islam by conquering Jerusalem. At the time of his death Saladin was perhaps the most powerful and prestigious ruler within Islam.

But the main reason for why Saladin lost in those battles was perhaps one in the same as the reason he succeeded as a conqueror. This was because of his means and method. Namely it was due to the feudal Turkic nature of his military force. The composition of his armies being a wide range of light cavalry and infantry and slightly heavier infantry. Due to these reasons Saladin's tactical options were quite limited when faced with opponents such as the Crusader states which could field extremely powerful heavy knights that essentially melted the majority of units in Saladin's army in close combat. However due to the light composition of Saladin's army this gave him a huge strategic advantage against the Crusader states which was a far more mobile force in the terrain of the Middle East with a wide array of flexibility as well as operational and strategic options. Saladin's army could not even compare to the Crusader armies since in terms of training his troops he would be at a disadvantage, though this is not to say that most of his soldiers were not professional soldiers. As Saladin's army was mostly made up of Kurdish and Turkish mercenaries (which were reorganized into feudal formations) as well as Mameluke slave soldiers and then filling up the ranks with Arab recruits (both professional soldiers and militias). The Arabic troops however were considered to be rather poorly equipped and of poor quality and mostly used for garrisoning cities or as light infantry. As the armies of the area were dominated by Turkish troops and doctrines. In terms of armaments his mostly Turco-Kurdish force was still at a disadvantage as they lacked the strong armour and complex equipment such as the Arbalest. In fact Saladin opted to purchase equipment from Frankish merchants when he had the chance. The whole of his campaign plans hinged on quickly raising a large force (his army having a core of elite veterans and filled up with weaker infantry and cavalry through feudal and militia levies) and moving rapidly through the terrain to attack a city or army at a strategic disadvantage. As his army could maneuver to create for these strategic options and avoid the weaknesses which affected the Crusader armies in this terrain. He was rather successful and led to many armies being caught off guard or encircled (Hattin, Arsuf, multiple battles against the Zengid Emirs).

Saladin experienced large amounts of success against the Zengids despite many cities being able to hold out in long sieges. Compared to the rather logistically strained Crusader armies which were limited to traveling along the coast and only moving in rough terrain from one source of water to the other. Certainly the Crusaders had to travel on a north to south axis due to the geographic position and topography of their states. But very rarely did the Crusader armies successfully invade Syria or broke out of Palestine. The Second Crusade was an utter failure when it came to capturing Damascus. Even during the First Crusade the Crusader armies were starving as they traveled through Anatolia and of course famous examples such as the Crusader defeats at the hands of Nur ad-Din Zengi at Bosra, Damascus, Inab and Aintab (in Syria) and at the hands of Saladin at al-Babein, Marj Ayyun, Jacob's Ford and Hattin (despite the fact that Hattin was within their own territory inside of Palestine near the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River). Saladin knew this and exploited it and achieved operational and strategic victories. When it comes to Saladin he and his army were not limited to campaigning within Palestine and Jordan as his military operations also ranged to Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Northern Iraq and Arabia. That is what Middle Eastern armies of the time were for, rather than campaigning against European castles littered across a small area.

He was clearly capable in maneuvering his troops and defeating his enemies operationally. The simple fact is that the average Turco-Kurdish feudal soldier was no match against the average knight; in battle Saladin was always at a disadvantage against them even if he could bring numerical superiority to bear. Judging by the First Crusade and its aftermath or the other battles of the Third Crusade where Saladin did not take part and it appears very much the same. The Crusaders were unbeatable juggernauts compared to the Middle Eastern armies. The strategic realities of the time in the Crusader States against Muslim Emirates was tactically different but strategically similar from an Emir against another Emir scenario.
If anything the fact that Saladin recognized these defects and worked within his strategic limitations, as well as his accomplishments, proves that he was quite good.

There are different types of military commanders and not all of them are best suited to front line command or fighting battles.
Most would agree that Saladin was not a military commander such as King Richard, who led his troops into battle, Saladin was more the chess player who orchestrated large scale strokes. But that aside a handful of battles are not enough to say that a commander is a failure. The expansion of his realm and ultimate success shows quite the opposite. Even if a particular tactical engagement showed a commander's limitations that does not mean that they would not improve or learn from their mistakes. The Battle of Montgisard in itself, fought against King Baldwin the Leper, was the result of Saladin's baggage train being bogged down and then his army being taken completely by surprise. Had Saladin's army been in a compact formation there is nothing that Baldwin could have done but due to the circumstances there is very little which Saladin could have done save for abandoning his baggage train and retreating or trying to protect the baggage train, there were no other options under those circumstances. Even in that case Saladin moved forward on his horse and attempted to reorganize his formations mid-battle, to create a front line against the attacking forces of King Baldwin.

The concept was mostly that of maneuverability on and off the field of battle and had lots of emphasis on projectile weapons such as arrows and javelins. Tactics such as those used at Arsuf were tried and tested methods which Saladin used before (however most of his tactics seem more in line with Hattin, that is to say indirect and unorthodox) and which the local Emirs had employed successfully against the Crusaders (such as Nur ad-Din Zengi). Technically Saladin had the advantage that he had more control over his forces and vassals as compared to the rather less cohesive forces of Jerusalem and the Crusaders. Saladin increased the size of his coffers and army meaning that he could train his forces over time and had a very good core of troops. Saladin also tried to follow European standards of armaments and armour to make heavier troops and equip them with things such as crossbows. That said their cavalry definitely lacked the powerful punch of Knights and were mostly used to attack a flank (usually attacking the enemy's left flank) but not before trying to wear down the enemy with projectiles so that they would crumble before the cavalry charge.

Usually Saladin employed two main commanders to lead his troops in battle (though he had many others): his nephew Taqi al-Din (son of his deceased eldest brother Nur ad-Din Ayyub) and his Kurdish general Gokbori, both of which were known for being highly aggressive field commanders. The most aggressive commanders were given control of the right flank as traditionally the right flank was used on the attack, while the left flank defended and the center provided support. Taqi ad-Din had been sent on campaigns into Cyrenaica, Libya and Tunisia. Gokbori for his part was also made governor over various areas in Syria and Iraq and even campaigned against the Zengids in the area of the Upper Euphrates. Saladin's older brother Turanshah was also a notable commander in his own right and Saladin had sent him off to campaign in Nubia, Tunis, Hejaz and Yemen. It is true that Nur ad-Din had sent Turanshah to Egypt to oversee Saladin's actions and in the hope that they would fight a civil war between them. Instead Saladin rewarded his older brother with a large fief and as Saladin was the main administrator and planner Turanshah did not contest his brother's rule. Turanshah went on to serve as a capable governor in Egypt, Yemen and Syria (he would die in 1181). Saladin's younger brother Sayf ad-Din was also capable. Sayf ad-Din had served his brother Saladin as a logistics officer, administrator and governor in Aleppo. Taking advantage of both feudal and Islamic politics he succeeded in overthrowing Saladin's son and grandson in Syria and then Egypt respectively. Sayf ad-Din also had to put down an attempt by the Zengids to restore their realm.

Indeed this family was essentially a military family of the time. Their father Ayyub and uncle Shirkuh had served Nur ad-Din Zengi and his father Imad ad-Din Zengi. Ayyub had been governor of Tikrit under Emir Shadhi and when he took up service with Imad ad-Din he was made a commander in the Zengid army. He commanded the rear guard in a battle against the Seljuks at Tikrit, thereby allowing Imad ad-Din and Nur ad-Din to retreat and saving their lives. He was then made governor of Baalbek and briefly defended that city before surrendering it to the Burid emirs of Damascus. Both Ayyub and Shirkuh negotiated the capture of Damascus from the Burids and Ayyub was made that city's governor. Later when Saladin and his uncle Shirkuh had conquered Egypt and Saladin made himself the vizier there, Ayyub joined him and was given Alexandria, Damietta and Damanhur as his fief. Being ethnically Kurdish and raised among Turks, Saladin was exposed to the warrior cultures of the Middle East. He developed his military abilities from his family and when on campaign with his uncle Shirkuh. However Saladin also displayed scholarly interests which both translated into his administrative and strategic ability. He was also said to have an inherent cunning to his character and this was noticed by Nur ad-Din who attempted to curb Saladin's growing power and thereby the influence of the Ayyubid family as well.

It is interesting to note that Saladin has been remembered within Islamic historiography as more of a trickster than a warrior. No doubt this impression comes from the manner by which he seized power in Egypt and for his turning against his Zengid overlords, ultimately overthrowing them. He was also ignored in favour of the more successful Rukn al-Din Baibars who defeated the declining Crusader states and defended Palestine from the Mongols at Ain Jalut in 1260. It is true that Saladin retook Jerusalem but his inability to reclaim the coastal cities was seen as a failure on his part by other Muslims. Regardless he became the foremost Islamic leader of his times and he did so as an officer in his uncle Shirkuh's campaign against the Crusaders, Byzantines and Fatimids in Egypt. By the end of his life he had conquered Egypt, Syria and Northern Iraq. His territories stretched as far west as Kairouan in Tunisia, as far south as Nubia and Yemen, as far north as Khartabirt on the far reaches of the Upper Euphrates and as far east as Irbil in Kurdistan. He had also conquered Jerusalem and Latakia from the Crusaders. In addition to this he had gained the political support from the theocratic Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and had made alliances and received tribute from the Seljuq Sultan of Rum and the Ortuqid beys of Diyarbekir, while also coming to an agreement with Emperor Isaac II of Constantinople. His dynasty persisted in its control of the Middle East until 1260, the Mameluke usurpers continued this state until 1517. Saladin's empire and successor state being only supplanted by another Turkish power which had learned the methods of gunpowder warfare (the Ottomans).
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