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The Crusades: Battle of Arsuf

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Battle of Arsuf - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Arsuf was fought September 7, 1191, during the Third Crusade (1189-1192).

Armies & Commanders

Crusaders

  • King Richard I the Lionheart of England
  • approx. 20,000 men

    Ayyubids

  • Saladin
  • approx. 20,000 men

  • Battle of Arsuf - Background:

    Having successfully completed the siege of Acre in July 1191, Crusader forces began moving south. Led by King Richard I the Lionheart of England, they sought to capture the port of Jaffa before turning inland to reclaim Jerusalem. With the Crusader defeat at Hattin in mind, Richard took great care in planning the march to ensure that adequate supplies and water would be available to his men. To this end, the army kept to the coast where the Crusader fleet could support its operations.

    In addition, the army only marched in the morning to avoid the midday heat and campsites were selected based on the availability of water. Departing Acre, Richard kept his forces in a tight formation with the infantry on the landward side protecting his heavy cavalry and baggage train to seaward. Responding to the Crusaders' movements, Saladin began shadowing Richard's forces. As Crusader armies had proven notorious undisciplined in the past, he began a series of harassing raids on Richard's flanks with the goal of breaking up their formation. This done, his cavalry could sweep in for the kill.

    The March Continues:

    Advancing in their defensive formation, Richard's army successfully deflected these Ayyubid attacks as they slowly moved south. On August 30, near Caesarea, his rearguard became heavily engaged and required assistance before escaping the situation. Assessing Richard's route, Saladin elected to make a stand near the town of Arsuf, just north of Jaffa. Arraying his men facing west, he anchored his right on the Forest of Arsuf and his left on a series of hills to the south. To his front was a narrow two-mile wide plain extending to the coast.

    Saladin's Plan:

    From this position, Saladin intended to launch a series of harassing attacks followed by feigned retreats with the goal of compelling the Crusaders to break formation. Once this was done, the bulk of Ayyubid forces would attack and drive Richard's men into the sea. Rising on September 7, the Crusaders needed to cover a little over 6 miles to reach Arsuf. Aware of Saladin's presence, Richard ordered his men to prepare for battle and resume their defensive marching formation. Moving out, the Knights Templar were in the van, with additional knights in the center, and the Knights Hospitaller bringing up the rear.

    The Battle of Arsuf:

    Moving onto the plain north of Arsuf, the Crusaders were subjected to hit-and-run attacks beginning around 9:00 AM. These largely consisted of horse archers dashing forward, firing, and immediately retreating. Under strict orders to hold formation, despite taking losses, the Crusaders pressed on. Seeing that these initial efforts were not having the desired effect, Saladin began focusing his efforts on the Crusader left (rear). Around 11:00 AM, Ayyubid forces began increasing the pressure on the Hospitallers led by Fra' Garnier de Nablus.

    The fighting saw mounted Ayyubid troops dash forward and attack with javelins and arrows. Protected by spearmen, the Crusader crossbowmen returned fire and began exacting a steady toll on the enemy. This pattern held as the day progressed and Richard resisted requests from his commanders to allow the knights to counterattack preferring to husband his strength for the right moment while allowing Saladin's men to tire. These requests continued, particularly from the Hospitallers who were becoming concerned about the number of horses they were losing.

    By mid-afternoon, the lead elements of Richard's army were entering Arsuf. At the rear of the column, the Hospitaller crossbow and spearmen were fighting as they marched backwards. This led to the formation weakening allowing the Ayyubids to attack in earnest. Again requesting permission to lead his knights out, Nablus was again denied by Richard. Assessing the situation, Nablus ignored Richard's command and charged forward with the Hospitaller knights as well as additional mounted units. This movement coincided with a fateful decision made by the Ayyubid horse archers.

    Not believing that the Crusaders would break formation, they had stopped and dismounted in order to better aim their arrows. As they did so, Nablus' men burst from the Crusader lines, overran their position, and began driving back the Ayyubid right. Though angered by this move, Richard was compelled to support it or risk losing the Hospitallers. With his infantry entering Arsuf and establishing a defensive position for the army, he ordered the Templars, supported by Breton and Angevin knights, to attack the Ayyubid left.

    This succeeded in pushing back enemy's left and these forces were able to defeat a counterattack by Saladin's personal guard. With both Ayyubid flanks reeling, Richard personally led forward his remaining Norman and English knights against Saladin's center. This charge shattered the Ayyubid line and caused Saladin's army to flee the field. Pushing forward, the Crusaders captured and looted the Ayyubid camp. With darkness approaching, Richard called off any pursuit of the defeated enemy.

    Aftermath of Arsuf

    Exact casualties for the Battle of Arsuf are not known, but is estimated that Crusader forces lost around 700-1,000 men while Saladin's army may have suffered as many as 7,000. An important victory for the Crusaders, Arsuf boosted their morale and removed Saladin's air of invincibility. Though defeated, Saladin quickly recovered and, after concluding that he could not penetrate the Crusader's defensive formation, resumed his harassing tactics. Pressing on, Richard captured Jaffa, but the continued existence of Saladin's army prevented an immediate march on Jerusalem. Campaigning and negotiations between Richard and Saladin continued over the next year until the two men concluded a treaty in September 1192 which allowed Jerusalem to remain in Ayyubid hands but permitted Christian pilgrims to visit the city.

    Selected Sources

  • Military History Online: Battle of Arsuf
  • History of War: Battle of Arsuf
  • Art of Battle: Battle of Arsuf

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