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The Crusades: Battle of Ascalon

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The Crusades: Battle of Ascalon

Battle of Ascalon

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Ascalon was fought August 12, 1099, and was the final engagement of the First Crusade (1096-1099).

Armies & Commanders:

Crusaders

  • Godfrey of Bouillon
  • Robert II, Count of Flanders
  • Raymond of Toulouse
  • approximately 10,000 men

Fatimids

  • al-Afdal Shahanshah
  • approximately 10,000-12,000 men, possibly as high as 50,000

Battle of Ascalon Overview:

Following the capture of Jerusalem from the Fatimids on July 15, 1099, the leaders of the First Crusade began to divide the titles and spoils. Godfrey of Bouillon was named Defender of the Holy Sepulchre on July 22 while Arnulf of Chocques became the Patriarch of Jerusalem on August 1. Four days later, Arnulf discovered a relic of the True Cross. These appointments created some strife within the crusader camp as Raymond IV of Toulouse and Robert of Normandy were angered by Godfrey's election.

As the crusaders consolidated their hold on Jerusalem, word was received that a Fatimid army was en route from Egypt to retake the city. Led by Vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah, the army encamped just north of the port of Ascalon. On August 10, Godfrey mobilized the crusader forces and moved towards the coast to meet the approaching enemy. He was accompanied by Arnulf who carried the True Cross and Raymond of Aguilers who bore a relic of the Holy Lance which had been captured at Antioch the previous year. Raymond and Robert remained in the city for a day until finally being convinced of the threat and joining Godfrey.

While advancing, Godfrey was further reinforced by troops under his brother Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and Tancred. Despite these additions, the crusader army remained outnumbered by as much as five-to-one. Pressing forward on August 11, Godfrey halted for night near the Sorec River. While there, his scouts spotted what was initially thought to be a large body of enemy troops. Investigating, it was soon found to be a great number of livestock which had been gathered to feed al-Afdal's army.

Some sources indicate that these animals were exposed by the Fatimids in the hope that the crusaders would disperse to pillage the countryside, while others suggest that al-Afdal was unaware of Godfrey's approach. Regardless, Godfrey held his men together and resumed the march the next morning with the animals in tow. Approaching Ascalon, Arnulf moved through the ranks with the True Cross blessing the men. Marching over the Plains of Ashdod near Ascalon, Godfrey formed his men for battle and took command of the army's left wing.

The right wing was led by Raymond, while the center was guided by Robert of Normandy, Robert of Flanders, Tancred, Eustace, and Gaston IV of Béarn. Near Ascalon, al-Afdal raced to prepare his men to meet the approaching crusaders. Though more numerous, the Fatimid army was poorly trained relative to those the crusaders had faced previously and was composed of a mix of ethnicities from throughout the caliphate. As Godfrey's men approached, the Fatimids became discouraged as the cloud of dust generated by the captured livestock suggested that the crusaders had been heavily reinforced.

Advancing with infantry in the lead, Godfrey's army exchanged arrows with the Fatimids until the two lines clashed. Striking hard and fast, the crusaders quickly overwhelmed the Fatimids on most parts of the battlefield. In the center, Robert of Normandy, leading the cavalry, shattered the Fatimid line. Nearby, a group of Ethiopians mounted a successful counterattack, but were defeated when Godfrey assaulted their flank. Driving the Fatimids from the field, the crusaders soon moved into the enemy's camp. Fleeing, many of the Fatimids sought safety within the walls of Ascalon.

Aftermath:

Precise casualties for the Battle of Ascalon are not known though some sources indicate that Fatimid losses were around 10,000 to 12,000. While the Fatimid army retreated to Egypt, the crusaders looted al-Afdal's camp before returning to Jerusalem on August 13. A subsequent dispute between Godfrey and Raymond regarding the future of Ascalon led to its garrison refusing to surrender. As a result, the city remained in Fatimid hands and served as a springboard for future attacks into the Kingdom of Jerusalem. With the Holy City secure, many of the crusader knights, believing their duty done, returned home to Europe.

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