First Crusade: Battle of Dorylaeum

6/12/2006 • Military History

The Turkish cavalry seemed to be everywhere at once as the Norman Crusader commander, Bohemond of Taranto, tried to form his disorganized and surprised troops into battle order. The Turkish attack had begun at dawn, as many of the Crusaders were just awakening, and the intense assault had caused thousands of Christian casualties as volleys of arrows arced into their crowded camp. Bohemond’s knights had quickly mounted, but their piecemeal attacks, while sporadically successful, did little to dissuade the Turkish warriors thirsting for total victory over the invaders.

Suddenly, the Turks were riding through the camp itself, killing noncombatants and foot soldiers unable to outrun their mounted opponents. Bohemond ordered his knights to dismount and form a defensive line, behind which the unarmored foot could find shelter. Hopefully, the messengers he had dispatched to Raymond of Toulouse’s wing of the Crusader army would bring help before it was too late. Grimly, the Normans sent their horses to the rear and faced the enemy cavalry, vowing to use their lives to buy time for their companions until help arrived…if it did at all.

In the 29-year period between 1066 and 1095, Western Europe endured serious expansionism not only from aggressive Normans, but also from the noble houses of France, Germany and Spain. In the midst of the wars that raged throughout Christendom, the power of the church was disputed by the powerful successors to Charlemagne, the Holy Roman emperors, who sought to expand both their spiritual and political influence.

Fledgling feudal rulers increasingly took sides in the escalating power struggles between emperor and pope. Caught in the middle of that confusing contest for loyalty was the warrior, who had to choose whether to fight for his military leader, as had been the soldier’s decision for thousands of years, or to ignore the secular leader and follow the spiritual head of the church. Pope Urban II’s call for a holy crusade in 1095 convinced great numbers of European warriors to transcend the interminable local warfare and, under God’s divine protection, march to the East. The soldiers of the First Crusade would fight not just for material wealth or power, but for the salvation of their souls. With God’s grace and their nobles to lead them, victory seemed assured.

Tales of pagan depredations had long roused bitter hatred among Western Europeans privy to the tales brought back by pilgrims. The Christians who sought to travel to Jerusalem were reportedly subjected to all manner of mutilation and torture if captured by local Muslim warlords. These reports and tales from survivors–most of which were exaggerations or outright lies–gave Pope Urban II the powerful ammunition he needed to persuade the proud princes of Europe to give up their personal vendettas and come together to fight the Infidel.

Religious warfare was not that new. The Muslims themselves had swept across the Middle East and North Africa through their own jihad, or holy war. As early as 1080, Pope Gregory VII had asked the Norman leader Robert Guiscard, whose holdings in Italy were extensive, to mount a military campaign against the East and return the rebellious area to Roman Christian rule. Robert turned toward the East all right, but ended up waging a stalemated war against the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire, while Pope Gregory became bogged down in controversies with the Holy Roman emperor, Henry IV, spending all his resources and energy defending Rome from his opportunistic German adversary.

By 1086, many European knights had taken up arms against the Muslim Moors in Spain, but the Spanish Christians fought among themselves as much as they did against the followers of Islam. In 1089, the Byzantine emperor had asked a knight returning from Jerusalem to take a message to Rome, asking for an expedition to help fight against the encroaching Seljuk Turks. The request was relayed to Rome and the church replied that it was more than willing to lend its support and turn the warlike tendencies of the Western knights toward the Muslims in the East. It would be another six years before concerted efforts would be made to implement the request.

Urban II’s tour of Europe in 1095 initially had no great hopes of ending the fighting among the Western feudal warlords. But as the pope preached to increasing numbers of followers in town after town, a current was building. Urban’s climactic, dramatic speech at Clermont was extraordinarily powerful as the pope told his awed and captive audiences of the tortures, eviscerations, decapitations and forced circumcisions of pilgrims. He went on to scold the knights of Christendom for their feuding and oppression of helpless women and children. He urged them instead to ‘advance boldly, as knights of Christ….On whom…is the task of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you [on whom] God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily energy, and the strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you….Expel that wicked race from our Christian lands!’

The exhortations filled the Western knights with shame and then rage, until they burned with a desire to destroy the accursed perpetrators of such depredations. Urban then offered the knights eternal salvation as a compensation for ‘taking the cross.’ He reaffirmed the Truce of God and granted papal protection of the lands and possessions of any warrior joining the holy crusade.

The Council of Clermont had an amazing effect on the Western warriors. Robert Guiscard’s eldest son, Bohemond, immediately lifted the siege of Amalfi and swore an oath not to fight against Christians again until the ‘heathens’ were defeated. Thousands of other Christian warriors, eager to gain God’s blessing, joined Bohemond and others who flocked to Urban’s call.

Although the Crusades became a test of faith, many who fervently took the cross in the heady days of 1095-96 were ill-prepared for the enormous expense involved. The Clermont decree did not promise the Crusaders wealth. In fact, the Crusaders’ financial problems were only the beginning of their difficulties. Cost to a German knight serving in Italy in the 11th century is estimated to have been double his annual income. On that basis, four to five times his income would have been necessary to sustain him in the Holy Land. Money was raised as it is today, by taxing tenants and mortgaging lands. The very real problems of expenses, obtaining transport and provisions, as well as staff work, would delay the start of the military expedition for another year.

Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus expected to see a manageable number of Western mercenaries trickle into his capital, to be amalgamated into his imperial armies. The massed forces that appeared before the gates of Constantinople in 1097, however, most certainly did not view themselves as mere ‘helpers’ for Alexius! In fact, the Western Europeans had no great respect for the Byzantine military because of its disastrous defeat by the Turks at Manzikert in 1071, and Robert Guiscard’s victory over them at Durazzo 14 years after that. The foolish and poorly prepared earlier civilian Crusaders, led by the likes of Peter the Hermit, though attracting great numbers of disaffected adherents, had been destroyed long before reaching the Holy Land. It could only have been with profound amazement and dismay that Alexius found tens of thousands of elite Western warriors outside his walls, demanding provisions and shelter.

The newly arrived Crusaders marched under their regional military commanders: Raymond of Toulouse, Bohemond of Taranto, Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin, and Robert of Normandy with Stephen of Blois. The papal legate, Bishop Adhemar, ostensibly was in charge of coordinating and smoothing the relationships and political tempers of the diverse leadership. Pope Urban’s plan for a united effort was thwarted; four distinct regional armies, instead of one united one, marched at their own paces, each under its own separate secular heads, to the gathering point at Byzantium.

Alexius’ brilliance as a negotiator deserves mention: not only did he supply the large, unruly forces from Western Europe, but he also got them to swear their loyalty to him before they resumed their march into Asia Minor. The success of his efforts were soon realized; previous Byzantine possessions that had been lost to the Turks in Asia Minor were returned to imperial control as the Westerners liberated them.

The four Christian armies that assembled at Byzantium wasted little time in starting their march to Jerusalem. Size estimates of the crusading armies vary from a ridiculous 600,000, to an estimate made by Anna Comnena, Alexius’ literary daughter, of 12,000 horse and 70,000 foot. Though still too high, the latter figure cut by a third to a half would probably be fairly accurate. That was still an incredibly large number of men to attempt to cross hundreds of miles of arid, hostile lands with any number of unknown enemies contesting their progress.

The Crusaders soon plunged into the hostile territories of Asia Minor, held by the internally disrupted but powerful armies of Kilij Arslan’s Seljuk Turks. A small force of Byzantines accompanied the Crusaders as they moved into Turkish territory, as much to report on their progress and condition as to offer military assistance. Before long, the Crusaders would face a new, and to them strange, type of fighter–the mobile Turkish horse archer. The methods of fighting this adversary would be developed in the field, but for now, the fear of the unknown was dissipated by the religious fervor that accompanied the Christian armies as they moved East to promised salvation and glory.

The Crusaders first encountered the Turks at the Anatolian capital city of Nicaea in the spring of 1097. Kilij Arslan, the region’s Seljuk sultan, at first did not take the Crusaders seriously. He had easily destroyed Peter the Hermit’s rabble, and spies had sent him reports of problems among the leadership of the new Christian army. But he soon found that these warriors were different. They besieged Nicaea and bloodily repulsed a Turkish relief army that attacked them. The town held out for more than a month until the Byzantine fleet arrived, cutting off any additional supplies for the garrison, which then surrendered. The loss of this city was a double blow to Kilij Arslan, as both his family and his treasury were there.

The Christians dutifully turned the captured city over to the Byzantines, after receiving a substantial compensation from the grateful emperor. They then continued their march, confident after this initial success. The inhabitants of Nicaea had been spared the usual pillage and violence, though the Crusaders had tossed the decapitated heads of Turkish corpses into the town during the siege as a terror tactic. In fact, respect for their new enemies was growing and would continue to grow as they fought the Turks at Dorylaeum, where the Crusaders would first taste the full impact of the Eastern style of mobile, missile warfare.

The victorious Westerners were two days distant from Nicaea when Bohemond took his Italo-Norman contingents and separated from the rest of the army. Some chroniclers cite a quarrel between the factious leaders; others argue that supply problems dictated a dispersal of the army, forage being in great demand. Whatever the reason, for three days the armies marched in separate columns, several hours apart, with Bohemond’s force numbering at the most 10,000 Crusaders, the majority on foot, along with large numbers of noncombatants. Although of no military value whatsoever, the noncombatants were an ever-present ingredient in early Crusader armies, motivated by the same religious fervor driving the fighters.

Although separated on the march, the two Crusader forces remained within a few miles of each other, in mutual support range if either was attacked. Three days after splitting up, the Christian forces had still not encountered enemy resistance, and fully expected the Turks to shy away from a duel of arms with the soldiers of Christ. On the evening of June 30, 1097, Bohemond’s army made camp in grassy meadows beside a river. Bohemond set up his tents, put out his guards, and retired for the night after covering an incredible 85 miles in four days.

The Turks, numbering perhaps 30,000, approached at dawn on July 1, and Kilij Arslan launched a surprise assault on the sleeping camp. The tactics of the Turks caught the Crusaders totally off guard. As the chroniclers of the time reported, ‘The Turks came upon us from all sides, skirmishing, throwing darts and javelins and shooting arrows from an astonishing range.’ The Turks also ‘began to whistle and chatter and shout at the top of their voices, uttering a diabolical sound,’ so besides the terrific missile barrage, the Turkish attack was pressed forward with screams, battle cries and the relentless sound of drums.

Although caught sleeping or at breakfast by the furious morning assault, Bohemond gathered his available knights and, the chroniclers note, gave a short speech appealing not only for divine help, but to his troops’ base greed: ‘This day, if it pleases God, you will all have been made rich.’ The Normans had not lost their Norse proclivity for plunder, being the one group of Crusaders content to settle for land and wealth in Antioch rather than continuing on to free the holy city of Jerusalem. The Norman knights were professionals and as such reacted swiftly to the surprise attack, unlike their allied mercenary contingents and noncombatants. Bohemond managed to quickly organize numbers of noncombatants to carry water to the knights and armed foot soldiers. He had very little time to react and organize his men, however, as the Turks fired and then charged, cutting down numbers of dazed and disoriented Christians as they tried to form lines of battle.

Many of the Western knights were undoubtedly as frightened as the noncombatants. However, the deeply held concepts of honor and fidelity to one’s comrades and leaders overcame the base fears of the Normans. While the less honor-bound troops and noncombatants huddled together in the camp, fearfully singing, praying and confessing their sins as Turkish arrows cut them down, Bohemond formed up those knights he could rally and tried to blunt the Turkish attack. He also had to keep his brother, Tancred, and others from impetuously charging the elusive Turkish horse archers. Though of many languages and nationalities, Bohemond’s warriors were united in their reliance on each other for survival. With a tremendous show of courage, the Norman knights bought time for the rest of the army to form a cohesive defense.

Noncombatant helplessness and vulnerability to the terrific archer fire and slashing Turkish swords motivated Bohemond to utilize a defensive posture. Sending messengers out to find and warn the other Crusader army of his situation, the Norman leader sought to preserve his army in the face of the unrelenting Turkish assault. Minutes turned to hours as more than 2,000 men reportedly fell victim to horse archers’ arrows. Most of the casualties were unarmored foot soldiers and pilgrims. Bohemond’s army began to retreat toward the banks of the river.

The Turks found the Western European knight much tougher to kill than the less-armored foot soldier. The knights (who would later be called ‘iron people’ by the Saracens) would take numerous missile hits and still fight on. But the Turks had the Crusaders virtually surrounded and set up relays to keep their archers supplied with a constant supply of arrows. Even an armored knight could stand only so many hits.

Bohemond maintained a semblance of order in his ranks, even though the Turks had by now captured a good portion of the camp and were swarming around the Crusader army, cutting off individuals and small groups, and forcing the main body slowly back to the soggy riverbank. Throughout the clashes, the women of the camp continued to bring water to the front ranks, encouraging the warriors. Although Bohemond had ordered his knights to hold their positions, one rash commander and 40 followers charged the Turks, only to be cut to pieces, the few survivors returning wounded to rejoin their comrades. Time and again, small groups of mounted knights would break into futile charges, only to be forced to fall back, as the elusive Turks retired beyond reach of their swords and lances, still pelting them with arrows.

Lacking the numbers to decisively check the encircling Turks, Bohemond dismounted his knights and formed them in a large circle, protecting the panicked noncombatants from the murderous Turkish archer fire; the marshy riverbanks protected the Crusaders from any mounted cavalry assault. Bohemond placed the thousands of women and children along the banks of the river, protected by the reedy marshland. The Crusaders were stuck, with no chance of retreat, and surrender out of the question. Meanwhile, the mailed knights sweltered in the hot sun.

Bohemond could only watch as his army died slowly from the ‘arrows and javelins…falling as thick as hail, the savage, piercing shrieks of the enemy, and the diabolical swiftness of their cavalry, constantly darting in to the attack and then away again,’ as the chronicler described the situation. The Crusaders were losing heart. Fulcher of Chartres wrote: ‘We were all indeed huddled together like sheep…trembling and frightened, surrounded on all sides by enemies so that we could not turn in any direction…we had no hope of surviving.’

Just as Bohemond’s men were being pushed back into the river shallows, the relief forces began to arrive. Bohemond’s messengers had gotten through the encircling lines. The relief force’s vanguard was reportedly led by two warriors in shining armor, seemingly impervious to the Turkish archer fire. One of those figures would later become part of Crusader mythology identified as St. George, returned to help the Christians in their hour of need. The claim of divine intervention would become a mainstay of the Crusader legend. The reality of the situation was that the very ferocity of the knights’ shock assault caught the Turks by complete surprise.

The first impetuous attack by the relieving Crusaders at Dorylaeum drove into the Turks and took most of the pressure off Bohemond’s beleaguered forces. The Turkish commander, Kilij Arslan, later described the charge: ‘When they draw close to their adversaries…they charge with great force like lions which, spurred on by hunger, thirst for blood. Then they shout and grind their teeth and fill the air with their cries. And they spare no one.’

The first phase of the battle had lasted throughout the morning and the early afternoon. Bohemond’s army had held out for seven hours. The second phase lasted perhaps another three to six hours, with the Turks taking heavy losses as they tried to stand up to the Christian knights. A crusader was impressed by the character of the Turks: ‘No one could have found more powerful, braver or more skillful fighters than they.’ The Normans had no desire to taint their hard-won victory by having it described as being over an unworthy foe. As at Hastings, 30 years before, a victory over a strong and brave opponent enhanced the glory of the victor.

Although the initial Christian attacks had caught the Turks off-guard, they had rallied, reorganized, and were back on the offensive when Bishop Adhemar, the papal legate, led a crushing flank or rear attack against the Turkish army. This finished the Turks. They began to flee, for the last time. The chroniclers recorded that the Turks abandoned their camp and treasure, which the Crusaders proceeded to loot. Apparently, that plunder was the first inkling the Western common man had of the vast wealth of the East. The Crusader Fulcher wrote that the Turks fled for three days, so terrified were they of the Crusaders.

The chroniclers leave no doubt as to who was responsible for the victory. Fulcher wrote that the sins of the Crusaders had caused the initial Turkish success, but when they confessed their sins and prayed, God restored their strength and courage, enabling them to route the enemy. Many Crusaders firmly believed that divine judgment finally granted them victory. Little praise or even acknowledgment of the brave defense by Bohemond or the well-timed attacks of the crusading warriors on the more numerous Turks appears in the Christian chronicles. Bishop Adhemar received scant mention, with only Raymond of Toulouse giving him any credit for the battle-winning attack at Dorylaeum. Other than that, the chroniclers give the victory to God’s intervention.

The Crusaders did not pursue the fleeing Turks for long–they could not catch them. Also, the riches in the abandoned Turkish camp attracted all but the most sorely wounded or ardent fighters. Moreover, they were deep in enemy territory and exhausted after the daylong battle.

Bohemond helped create a myth with his dogged defense in the face of overwhelming odds. From that point on, the Crusaders would press on toward Jerusalem believing they were under God’s protection. The Crusaders were soon on the march toward their next major obstacle on the road to Jerusalem, the fortress city of Antioch–Bohemond’s future home.

Further Reading: R. C. Smail’s Crusading Warfare, 1097­1193; Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades Volume I; Fulcher of Chartres’ Chronicle of the First Crusade; and Robert Payne’s The Dream and the Tomb.

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