A Flippant History of the Crusades – The First Crusade – Dorylaeum down to rest.

When last we left our intrepid Crusaders they had just marched out from Nicaea after driving off an initial attack by the Turks. Numerous as they were, to march all down the same route would have been impossible so the army split into two parts. The vanguard, led by Bohemond of Taranto, his nephew Tancred, Robert Curthose, Robert of Flanders, and the Byzantine Tatikios, whose troops had been least involved in the battle in front of Nicaea, moved south eastwards through the valley of the Thymbres river, eventually finding themselves around a week later camped on a meadow by some marshy ground down the valley, not too distant from the ruins of the settlement of Dorylaeum. Many miles behind them, with the remaining three fifths of the Crusader army was Godfrey of Bullion, who had set up camp further up the valley and had his soup pots on a steady simmer as the aromas of gently cooking vegetables wafted through the tents.

Meanwhile, Kilij Arslan, Sultan of Rum, was preparing an ambush near Dorylaeum. His scouts had been shadowing Bohemond’s army for some time, believing it to be the entire Crusader force, and didn’t realise that Bohemond had twigged onto his shadows and was well aware that Kilij was in the area. Flanked by the hills and mountains to the north and the marshy floodplain of the river to the south, this seemed the best place to camp and await the rest of the Crusader army.

The Sultan was insulted by this lack of decorum. How dare these foreign invaders stop there and not walk neatly into his well laid ambush. Infuriated he ordered his troops to muster up and started marching up the valley. Estimates vary on the size of the forces involved here. Scholars generally agree that Bohemond’s forces numbered around 20,000, while Godfrey’s were around 30,000. The Turks are far harder to number as the Crusader accounts tend to overestimate their numbers considerably. Most modern estimates put them at around 8,000 – 9,000, up to a theoretical maximum of around 20,000, though it’s clear that they were much less numerous than the entire Crusader force, and likely still smaller than Bohemond’s vanguard even.

As the Turkish dust cloud appeared on the horizon on a bright clear day at the start of July 1097, Bohemond ordered his men to muster down the valley from the camp in a solid battle line to face the enemy advance. He sent messengers back to Godfrey asking for aid, but new that help would be half a day away at best. Resigned to a long and grueling battle, he bolstered the men with prayers and rousing words.

The Crusader army lined up with a solid line of infantry behind and a line of knights in front. Bohemond was on the left flank, Robert of Normandy in the centre and Tancred and the other minor princes made up the right. The Turkish army consisted of a core of heavy cavalry, the Askar and Ghulam, under Kilij himself, as well as two large wings of light horse archers made up of Danishmendids from north eastern Anatolia, under Gazi Gümüshtigin. Gazi’s father, also gassy, had founded the Danishmendid dynasty after giving the Byzantines a bloody nose and Manzikert, and had no desire to see Christian marching boots on what was now Turkish soil again.

Turks were expert horse archers, able to run away and shoot at the same time!

The Turks rushed forward unleashing an endless hail of arrows at the solid lines of the Crusaders. Enraged, the Christian knights charged them yelling their battle cries in the face of the devilish shouts of the enemy and this “Allah Ahkbar!” they seemed so fond of. Well Mr Ahkbar would be getting his taste of Christian steel, ally or no. Yet as the boisterous boyos in the glittering mail charged ragtag into the cloud of Turks, the cloud seemed to dissipate. A knight would no sooner skewer a pagan with a well aimed spear throw or lance thrust than find himself surrounded by nothing but dust and air. This continued a while, throwing the knights into greater disarray only for the dust to clear and the sun to glint off the well ordered line of heavily armoured Turkish cavalry that were now charging down at them.

Vicious melee ensued as the disordered knights fought to regain some momentum, only to break and run back towards friendly lines. The formed up infantry, seeing the noble and valiant knights hurtling towards them with their tails between their legs formed up in close order with a firm “Nope” and refused to let them through. The knights now milling about in disarray in front of their own lines finally found a scrap of nobility and formed up again. This was aided in no small part by Robert of Normandy removing his helmet and shouting “Deus Vult” and “Normandy” while wildly waving his golden banner about. Perhaps the gold of the banner reminded the knights about all the gold awaiting them in the Turkish camp just beyond that line of fearsome cavalry.

The Turks, no doubt laughing at the silly Europeans, held back and kept pinging them with arrows while the bulk of the army, on their fast, light horses, swept wide around the flanks of the Crusader line, unperturbed by the rough terrain, and started descending on the Christian camp.

As the sounds of devastation from the camp behind them reached the army, Bohemond took a contingent of knights back to see what all the fuss was about. He found to his horror, the Turks in the camp, looting, pillaging, and generally making a nuisance of themselves killing helpless old men, washer women, children and, heaven forbid it, even priests!

Furious he charged into the camp driving off the pagans and sent word to the rest of his army to fall back and defend the camp. The Crusader likes fell back in good order under a constant rain of arrows and formed a rough square of defensive lines around the beleaguered camp. Seeing the futility of any further charges, Bohemond ordered the knights to dismount and leave their horses in camp, then join the front lines of infantry to bolster them.

This served two purposes. Firstly, the heavy armour and fighting ability of the knights would make the infantry near impervious to an enemy charge and second, being unhorsed showed the rest of the infantry that the knights were here to stay and wouldn’t flee the field (again) when the going got tough.

Not all the knights agreed with this action. Tancred, which to be fair sounds like the name of a cage fighter, decided to take his mate Billy and a bunch of their louts on a little sortee against the Turkish forces, only to lose their banner and, in William’s case, his life. Bohemond was less than amused and told his wounded nephew to go to his tent and think about what a bad boy he is.

The Turks did what they’d always done and hung back turning the Crusaders into pincushions. Under cover of the shield wall, the Christians built what defenses they could, stakes and ditches, hasty palisades and barricades with wagons. Bohemond eyed the horizon anxiously, hoping not to be the one to join the Anatolian graveyards with the previous failed attempts at Christian invasion.

As the sun moved westwards a haze on the horizon seemed to coalesce into a dust cloud. Could it be? At last, after holding strong from dawn, through the searing heat of midday, exhausted, battered, pierced, help had arrived. Tearing down the valley like Ate hot from hell came Godfrey Almighty, with a heavenly host of sweaty men in tin cans with lances shining and pennants flapping behind them. The fresh knights tore into the Turkish lines, reaping destruction wherever they went. Though there were only fifty of them in that first assault, they were enough to break through and reinforce Bohemond, while the rest of Godfrey’s army arrived in successive waves as they caught up with Godfrey’s impetuous race to the battle.

Still the Turks proved resilient, and while surprised by the renewed ferocity of the Norman knights and their pious warcries of “Today, if it pleases God, you will all become rich!” they did not break immediately. Indeed it wasn’t until the Papal Legume (eh Legate), Adhemar de le Puy (lentil), who had been approaching the battlefield through the hills on the opposite side of the river was able to get past the Turkish forces and launch his own assault on their camp that the Turks finally threw in the towel and ran for the hills.

Kilij and his elite cavalry took refuge on a steep hill, driving back with arrows the knights who tried to dislodge him, unable to charge in the steep, rugged terrain. It wasn’t until the bulk of Godfrey’s army, the infantry who would have less difficulty assaulting the hill than the knights that turned Kilij away from the battlefield to flee to the hills. He would later extract petty revenge by making a point of selling any Greek boys he found into slavery, still under the impression these Franks were the same as the Greeks he was so used to dealing with.

Victorious, the Christians unleashed their holy fury on the camp of the Turks, pillaging it and, for a time, becoming rich off the loot from Kilij’s treasury and the Turkish dead, which contained much gold, silver, wine, weapons, houses, clothing and were particularly taken by the fine silk tents the Turks resided in. They also rounded up a large number of captives to sell to the Byzantine slavers following the army. By this time the Christians had started to look more like Greeks and Turks than Western Europeans as they adopted their dress and equipment, such as robes and turbans over armour to protect from the sun. Often times the only way the living could tell a Christian corpse from a Muslim one was from the crosses sewn into their garments, so similar were they in dress and arms.

Learning from their mistakes they traveled together in one large mass to avoid being defeated in detail again and reformed some of the practices of an army on the march to work better together, sharing food and loot in common to be distributed fairly rather than every man looting for himself.

With victory secured, the path through Anatolia was clear for the Crusaders. It would take them several months of hard marching through unforgiving terrain and climates, but they were able to do so without major engagement by the Turks beyond some harassment and resource denial actions. The Turks were now very wary of facing these “men of iron” and the Christians had a new healthy respect for these brave and determined pagans who “where they but Christians, would be the best of men”.

The Byzantines did well out if this too as a weakened Sultanate was easy pickings for the army of John Doukas, who moved down the coast of Western Anatolia, recovering formerly Greek cities into the Empire. The Turks were less concerned with cities than with available pasture land. The Turks lived and died with their nomadic herds and while cities were useful for tribute and storage, the herd was paramount, and it would be years until the Sultan’s herds grew again to a point that he’d be willing to face Christians in open battle.

Eventually, the Crusaders reached Antioch. But that’s a story for another time. Before I sign off I’ll finish with an anecdote from the battle. During the final attack the Christians claimed there was some divine intervention on their side. Two heavenly knights, clad in shining gold, were seen to be killing many Turks, impervious to any human weapons. It’s said these knights pursued the fleeing Turks to kill them far from the battlefield. Indeed after a few days rest when the Crusaders marched onwards, they would find dead Turks several days march beyond. A skeptic may suggest these simply died from their wounds, but the Crusaders felt emboldened by the aid of these angelic warriors.

Thanks for reading,

Matthew

P.S. if you want to see a refight of the battle with miniatures you can do so here.

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