|Three Arab warriors with rifles standing and sitting in the desert during the Arab Revolt 1916-1918. The invading Arabs the Romans faced might have looked much like these soldiers.|
Islam on the March
Battle for the Middle East Part IV
Battle for the Middle East Part IV
Here we are in Part IV of the titanic Battle for the Middle East.
In 629 AD the Roman Empire was enjoying a much deserved period of peace after a brutal 26 year long war of all wars with the Persian Empire. Finally there was peace. No one in Constantinople had any idea that a fresh invasion from the southern deserts would happen in a matter of months.
Part I - In Part I of this series we saw the first military contact between Romans and Muslim Arabs at the Battle of Mota (Mu'tah) in the Roman province of Palaestina Salutaris. A force of Romans and their Christian Arab allies mauled the invading Muslim army forcing them to return to Medina.
Part II - In Part II we saw the Muslims turn their attention to a weakened Persian Empire. Muslims defeated the Persians in a series of battles. The Muslims marched up the Euphrates River through Persian Mesopotamia finally coming within 100 miles of the Roman frontier at Firaz. Firaz was at the outermost edge of the Persian Empire but it still contained an undefeated Persian garrison. There the Persians joined forces with the local Roman garrison and with Christian Arabs to take on the invaders. They were soundly defeated.
Part III - In Part III we have the Emperor Heraclius organizing the defense of Palaestina Salutaris. A Muslim wide flanking movement of hundreds of miles through waterless deserts to threaten Damascus failed when confronted by Roman armies. The Romans held their own in Syria and had dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications in eastern Palestine. But the Romans were defeated in southwest Palestine allowing Muslim forces to fan out reaching as far north as Lydda and Jaffa.
So here we are at about April of 634 and there is a stalemate on the Palestine front.
The Roman army at Daraa has totally blocked the Muslims from moving north. Plus the Muslim column in the Gaza area is not strong enough to make any significant advances north. Protected by their walls Roman cities in Palaestina Salutaris were able to hold out against the Muslims preventing them from moving further north. The Arabs did not want armed Roman garrisons in their rear ready to attack.
The Emperor Heraclius was a battle tested front line general who had personally marched into Persia crushing their empire. He had also traveled over and knew the geography of Syria and Palestine. He organized the defense of Damascus and the Roman troops dug in at the Daraa Gap fortifications east of the Sea of Galilee.
The Emperor now gathered a second large army to drive the Muslims out of Roman territory. The question is why did he not personally command the army in his counter attack against the Muslims?
The Health of Heraclius
It was said that health was the reason Heraclius did not command troops against the Muslims.
At this point Heraclius was passing the threshold of 60 years of age as he confronted the massive Muslim invasions. Even if he had been ten years younger he would have been challenged to hold things together. To command armies in the field at this age with all the rigors involved is nearly unheard of in military history. Consider that Napoleon was just 46 years old when he failed at Waterloo.
The Emperor may have been intermittently unable to function efficiently while at other moments he could handle decision making very capably. He appears to have suffered from "dropsy" and mental problems. Less clear he may have had Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) from protracted exposure to combat and related strains.
At the end of the Middle East campaign we see the mental issues come forward. He left Syria, returning to his capital, tired and exhausted. Reaching the Bosphorus, he suddenly had an inexplicable aversion to the sea. He even hid in a side room of one of the imperial palaces on the Asian shore, unable to proceed to Constantinople, ignoring the urgent pleas of the city’s representatives. He became paranoid, believed rumors about a conspiracy by his nephew and a bastard son, and ordered their noses and hands to be cut off before sending them into exile.
After a few weeks, his wife Martina and members of the court found a solution. Patriarch Nicephorus, who wrote a Breviarium or Short History, reports that a large number of boats was tied together, as if it were a bridge, to which they added a “wall” of tree branches and leaves, so that the emperor would not have to look at the sea. It worked: the emperor passed the sea on horseback as if he were traveling on land.
Back to Syria. Instead of being in the front lines the Emperor spent his time in the city of Homs some 150 miles away or in Edessa or in Antioch. These were important communications and supply centers. At these cities Heraclius was more easily able to stay in contact with Constantinople and follow events in Anatolia, supervise Roman troops still inside Persia as well as oversee combat to the south.
But let me say at this point there was no real reason for the Emperor himself to be with the army.
The Eastern Empire's military machine had decades of recent combat experience against the Persians and Slavs in the Balkans. Virtually the entire officer corps would have either fought at the side of the Emperor on campaign or been in combat in other theaters of war.
Going into the Battle of Ajnadain there was no reason to think that well trained Roman generals and their professional troops could not put down untrained desert invaders.
|Byzantine Cataphract Attempt|
From 400 AD on Eastern Roman Cavalry units would mirror their Persian enemies and would grow to become the mailed fist of the army in combat.
Cataphract armored horsemen were almost universally clad in some form of scale armor that was flexible enough to give the rider and horse a good degree of motion, but strong enough to resist the immense impact of a thunderous charge into infantry formations.
The primary weapon of practically all cataphract forces throughout history was the lance. They were roughly four meters in length, with a capped point made of iron, bronze, or even animal bone and usually wielded with both hands. Cataphracts would often be equipped with an additional side-arm such as a sword or mace, for use in the melee that often followed a charge..
The historian Procopius said: "They are expert horsemen, and are able without difficulty to direct their bows to either side while riding at full speed, and to shoot an opponent whether in pursuit or in flight. They draw the bowstring along by the forehead about opposite the right ear, thereby charging the arrow with such an impetus as to kill whoever stands in the way, shield and corselet alike
having no power to check its force. Still there are those who take into consideration none of these things, who reverence and worship the ancient times, and give no credit to modern improvements."
In 634 there is no way to measure the size of the Muslim armies invading Palaestina Salutaris. The Muslims divided into three columns. One column marched to Gaza on the coast, and the two other columns worked their way north on the right side of the Jordan River.
Perhaps the lack of water in the desert forced them to move in separate detachments. Also with no system of supply this could have made it easier to live off the land.
There was an additional fourth army of about 3,500 men that invaded Persia.
To round off numbers the three columns in Palestine might have initially had 10,000 to 15,000 men. When the Persian invasion force under Khalid ibn al-Walid failed in its wide flanking attack against Damascus his thousands of troops fell back to reinforce the other Muslim troops at the Daraa Gap.
So there may have been 15,000 plus Muslim troops in east Palestine and a smaller force of perhaps 3,000(???) near Gaza.
In total there could have been 20,000 Muslim soldiers in the Palestine area under assorted commands.
|Click to enlarge|
The Roman Army had perhaps 109,000 men at this point. But those troops were spread out over Asia, Africa and Europe in multiple sub-theaters. Gathering a sizable force in one spot was a major challenge.
Historian Warren Treadgold places the strength of the Roman army at this point at 109,000 men.
But those troops were stretched thin. If troops were taken from one area then that part of the frontier would be weakened in the face of enemy forces and invite invasion on yet another front.
A factor in moving troops was local reluctance to comply. Heraclius was unsuccessful when he ordered that troops be moved from Numidia to assist in the defense of Egypt against the Muslim threat. Egypt lacked a large permanent garrison. The Empire was hard-pressed to find enough troops to reoccupy and monitor the huge areas from Egypt to Anatolia that had been evacuated by Persian armies.
Meanwhile in Syria, on Easter 634 at the Battle of Marj Rahit we saw Roman troops and their Ghassanid Christian Arab allies field about 8,000 men to defeat the Muslims in Syria.
Some miles south at the Daraa Gap fortifications the rather large Muslim force could not dislodge the dug in Roman army. We can assume the Romans at Daraa had at least as many troops there as the Muslims facing them.
So if the Muslims had some 15,000 men around Daraa then the entrenched Romans may have had roughly the same. Add in the thousands of Christian Arab allies just above Daraa and there is a sizable Roman army on hand that has totally blocked the Muslims from marching north.
Rome vs Muslims
The Arabs moved like lightening through the deserts. The rapid movements of the Muslims are easily compared to Blitzkrieg warfare created by Heinz Guderian in World War II. The desert Arabs had no training, fought wildly, but also had no big baggage train or camp followers that slowed down Western armies.
The Eastern Roman military machine drew upon centuries of tradition, training and organization. The Byzantines had carefully organized administrative services, carts with entrenching tools, mills for grinding corn, supply wagons, an ambulance corps, doctors and more. This cause the army to move slower than their desert based opponents.
Tactical training was diligently carried out and books on the military arts were taught to the Roman officer corps. But the military manuals did not teach the officers how to combat wild, fanatical desert hordes motivated by religious fanaticism.
Battle of Ajnadayn (July 634)
The Muslim "victory" near Gaza at the Battle of Dathin in early 634 was minor one against a slapped together force of local Roman garrison troops. The Muslim army was so weak it could not exploit their opportunity.
The Muslims under Amr ibn al Assi raided and probed only a few miles to the north reaching Lydda and Jaffa. They were unable or unwilling to venture into the mountains of Judea and Samaria while Roman troops stood behind the walls of fortified cities.
Seeing this Muslim weakness around Gaza the Emperor, who was in Homs, was busy raising a new army for a major counterattack into southern Palestine. Heraclius was obviously confident the Roman fortifications at Daraa would hold. Otherwise he would not be sending an army so far away. By sending his new army south he resumed the initiative and would force the Muslims on the defensive.
The Emperor was no stranger to bold and aggressive moves. In the Spring of 623 Constantinople itself was under siege by the Persians and Avars. Heraclius left the city in the hands of others. He gathered to himself a corps d'elite of 5,000 men and sailed over 600 miles to the east landing at the Black Sea city of Trebizond. There he met up with an additional Roman army and eventually marched into the heart of Persia crushing their Empire.
The Emperor now used the same bold strategic methods against the Muslims that he had used against the Persians.
A bold plan of attack
Exhausted with mental issues or not, the Emperor recognized opportunity. Heraclius saw that the Muslim forces were divided into two parts: Their main force was sitting in place blocked by the Roman fortifications at Daraa in southwest Syria. A much smaller Arab force was floundering around southwest, coastal Palestine basically looting or doing nothing.
The Emperor gathered to him in Syria a new army. Estimates on the size of the army range from 10,000 to 20,000 men. I will split the difference at 15,000 men which is a normal size for many Byzantine campaigns.
Heraclius planned for his new army to march from Syria to the city of Tiberias on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. From Tiberias they would march to Caesarea on the coast where they would rendezvous with the Roman Navy for re-supply. Then they would march south with the navy following them offshore for support. The navy could land at Jaffa and Gaza as needed to provide additional supplies or troops.
The goal of this operation was to overwhelm the smaller Muslim army in the Beersheeba area and then push south to Aila (Aqaba) on the the coast.
From that strong point the Roman Army in the south would threaten the lines of communication with Mecca of the main Muslim force up at Daraa.
With a Roman army in front of them at Daraa and behind them at Aila the Muslims would be forced to abandon their position at Daraa and return south to Arabia.
It is rather difficult to march a 15,000 man Roman army from Syria south through Palestine and not attract attention. The Muslim commanders at Daraa got word of the troop movements and recognized at once the danger they were in.
The main Muslim army at Daraa was nearly 200 miles away from their smaller western counterpart. To make matters worse the mountains of Samaria and Moab were controlled by walled towns and cities manned by Byzantine garrisons. Any reinforcements sent to the west had to go far to the south and around the mountains.
With the Romans on the move it was already too late for the Arabs to march south and join with the Beersheeba army via the Aila (Aqaba) route. But if they did not act then they would be overwhelmed and defeated separately.
The Trans-Jordan Mountains form an almost impassable barrier of cliffs. To the north the Romans controlled Jerusalem and other cities. The only other pass that could take the Arabs to the plains of Beersheeba was south of the Dead Sea at Karak at the Moab Mountains. Even that pass was so steep that riders had to dismount their horses and camels and lead their animals over rocks and ravines.
To save Amr ibn al Aasi the Muslims largely disappeared from Darra and marched day and night to the pass at Karak. Suddenly confronted by a torrent of wild camel-riders the people of Moab were happy to make peace with the Muslims and let them pass through. The local tribes were doubtless monophysite Christians with little love for the Greek Orthodox ruling class.
|Like Rommel's Afrika Korps the|
Muslim cavalry moved light lightening
through the deserts.
The nimble Bedouins had won the race to the battlefield. Mounted on camels, able to travel day and night with only a crust of bread to eat they had out marched the more ponderous Roman army weighed down with all of its civilized paraphernalia. The comparison to Erwin Rommel the Desert Fox moving like lightening through World War II north Africa is a good one.
Here is where the military historian pulls out his hair. The great Roman Army and Muslim forces meet at the Battle of Ajnadayn in the July heat of 634 and we have next to zero information on what happened.
We can speculate that between the western Muslim army and the force withdrawn from Daraa the Muslims might have put together a force equal to the Roman army of 15,000 men.
The Romans may have been commanded by the Emperor's brother Theodore. There was also a commander named Vardan who might have been the patrikios (commander) of Emesa. Vardan may have brought fresh reinforcements of Armenian troops that had been with Heraclius in Syria. The army may have also contained local Arab tribal levies.
The Arab army consisted of three separate contingents, with either Khalid or, less likely, Amr, as the overall commander.
With no meaningful information about the battle we can come up with any number of possible scenarios.
The July Heat
Most of the Roman soldiers would have come from the cooler climates of Armenia, Anatolia or even the Balkans. Cavalry or infantry, marching and fighting in the July heat of Palestine wearing armor would have been hard on the most experienced soldiers. The lightly clad Arab forces could have had an advantage.
Any number of battles have been lost when allies failed to deliver. In the Battle of Callinicum some 5,000 allied Roman Arab cavalry holding the right flank simply vanished without firing a shot. Something like this could easily have happened with several different ethnic formations fighting in one Roman army.
The lightening fast movements of the Muslim cavalry were like nothing the Romans had ever encountered before. Imperial forces were trained to fight traditional slower moving enemies like the Persians. Thoughts go back to the German invasion of France in 1941. The Germans were not better soldiers. The Germans were just organized differently and moved at a faster pace. That could have happened here with fast moving Muslim cavalry getting behind Roman forces causing a panic.
The result is what matters and the Romans were completely defeated.
What we do know is this was not an easy victory for the Muslims. The Arabs suffered heavy casualties, and many deaths among of Companions of Muhammad, including several members of the early Muslim aristocracy, who fell in the battle and were regarded as martyrs.
The Byzantines suffered a heavy defeat. The survivors were forced to retreat to Damascus or to other walled cities. It is significant that they were able to retreat. That means the retreat may have been more or less orderly and that the Muslims were in no condition to follow them.
The Muslim sources report that one of the two commanders, probably Vardan, fell in the battle, but that Theodore escaped and withdrew north where Heraclius replaced him with other commanders and then sent him to imprisonment in Constantinople.
Heraclius himself withdrew from Emesa to the greater safety of Antioch. His strategic counter-offensive was crushed and the troops available to fight off the invasion vastly reduced.
It is interesting that the victorious Muslims had no interest in moving up coastal Palestine or attacking the coastal or mountain cities. That tells me there were enough active Roman troops in the area or behind walls to worry the Muslim commanders. It may also say the Muslim victory may have cost them a lot more troops than we are told by Arab historians.
Instead the Muslims retraced their steps sending the bulk of their army back to Daraa in Syria to face the only intact Roman army still in the field.
More to come in Part V.
|Late Roman Empire Cavalry|
The Battle for the Middle East
Part I - Roman Empire vs Islam - First Contact
Part II - A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaderskk
Part III - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine
(livius.org) (books) (Great Arab Conquests-Bagot Glubb)