Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The 1st Battle of Yarmouk - Battle for the Middle East

Sassanid Persian Armored Cataphract

Islam on the March
Battle for the Middle East Part V

Here we are in Part V 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.  Muslims made a 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.

Part IV  -  Battle of Ajnadayn 634. The Romans were dug in at Daraa in Syria and were successfully holding off the invading Muslim army. Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia. 

Battle of Babylon (May 634)

Map from The Great Arab Conquests by General Sir John Bagot Glubb

The Romans were not the only target of the invading Muslim armies - the Persian Empire was also ground zero. The Arabs were fighting a war on two fronts.

In December 633 the Muslim General Khalid withdrew half of the Arab army from the Persian front in order to re-enforce the Arab forces facing the Roman Army in Syria.

At this stage the Muslim commanders in Medina may have looked upon Persia as a secondary front because they left a rural Bedouin chief, Al-Muthanna ibn Haritha, in charge of the remaining forces. Whatever his modest background Muthanna was a brave fighter who prepared his smaller force to take on the army of the Persian King of Kings.

The boy king, Yazdegerd III, had but recently assumed the throne. He prepared to signalize his accession by driving away these Arab invaders. Muthanna offered battle near the ruins of ancient Babylon.

The Persians under Hormozd Jadhuyih wanted to test the Muslim forces after Khalid left for the western front. In May, 634 the Persians arrived with an elephant which led the attack. The Arabs were not sure how to deal with this early version of a "tank" attack, and the elephant caused some consternation in the ranks. 

Accompanied by a few fellow tribesmen Muthanna himself attacked and brought down the elephant. Deprived of its help the Persians gave way and the Arabs were left the victors in the battle. The defeated Persians fled the region to the safety of Ctesiphon.

We do not know the numbers of troops involved or the casualties. What we can observe is the rather feeble response of the Persians to a rather weak Arab army. This can only be explained by the years of civil war anarchy inside Persia after their huge defeat by the Romans.

From a greater theater of war point of view the failure of the Persians allowed Arab armies facing the Romans on the Palestine and Syrian fronts to remain in place. A victory by Persia would have forced the shifting of Arab troops back to the Persian front and allow the Romans time to reorganize.

A War Elephant was used as a "tank" by
the Persians against the Arab invaders.

Hassau chieftains in 1941 Chad. The Arabs facing the Romans might have looked much like these horsemen.

Prelude to Battle

Personally I break out laughing when I run across so-called "history" books where the authors have not a clue about the Muslim invasions. These clowns treat the Roman loss at Yarmouk in 636 as a simple single battle conducted by a weak Byzantine Empire that could not defend itself.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Battle for the Middle East series that I am doing shows years of campaigns and multiple battles by Roman and Persian armies against the Arabs over hundreds and hundreds of square miles.

Up to early 634 the Arabs had totally failed to dislodge and defeat the main Roman Army at the Daraa Gap fortifications (see map below).

Emperor Heraclius sent a second army down coastal Palestine with the support of the Roman Navy. The goal was to defeat the smaller Muslim army at Beersheeba and then block the lines of communications to Mecca of the Muslim army at Daraa forcing them to retreat back to Arabia. 

Instead the Muslims at Daraa sent most of their army on a rapid 200 mile forced march to the south to join with the Beersheeba force and do battle with the Romans at Ajnadayn in July of 634..

The Romans were defeated and their troops 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.

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. 

In 2017 and for the first time in about 1,500 years, a full turma of Roman cavalry, the Roman name for a 30-strong cavalry unit, was brought together to perform some of the manoeuvres that would have been done at the time of Hadrian. The Eastern Roman Cavalry that faced the Arabs inherited the centuries long traditions of the army.

Map from The Great Arab Conquests by General Sir John Bagot Glubb
The prepared Roman positions in the Darra Gap were protected on the left by the deep gorges created by the Yarmouk River and on the right by the lava mountains of Jebel Hauran.

1st Battle of Yarmouk (September 634)

The titanic years long, multi-nation Battle for the Middle East drives a historian mad. On the Byzantine side proper histories of events are nearly nonexistent while the "histories" on the Muslim side were written long after events by those who knew nothing about what happened first hand.

We can accept aspects of the Muslim stories as oral traditions of events passed on like tales told around the campfire. But a better guide is to follow troop movements and battles. A military historian can read between the lines to try and put together reasons for events.

After the Campaign of Ajnadayn in July 634 the victorious Arabs in coastal Palestine did not move north.  Instead they retraced their steps and returned to their old positions to the east at the Daraa Gap.


There can be only one real reason why the Muslims did not march north. That choice of retreating from the battlefield of their victory says a lot about the weakness of the Arabs and their fears of the remaining Roman Army. We can deduce that significant Roman forces may have still been active in the coastal zone as well as large garrisons of Romans behind the walls of cities throughout the region.

That brings us to the the Daraa Gap and the 1st Battle of Yarmouk.

We know for a fact that up to early 634 the Arabs had totally failed to dislodge and defeat the main Roman Army at the Daraa Gap fortifications. But now we see the Muslims deliberately seeking battle at this same location where they failed before.

Again why?

It is logical to conclude for the Muslims to fight again at this spot that circumstances had changed.

We do not know what changed, but we can speculate. An obvious conclusion comes from why the Muslims did not march north along the coast.

  • Perhaps they stripped the coastal zone of Muslim troops and sent them northeast to the Daraa Gap in a final effort to dislodge the Romans from their prepared positions. 
  • Another possibility is additional reinforcements from Arabia could have arrived.
  • Or a combination of both.

We know the Persian front had already seen the extra Muslim forces sent west. So help would not have come from that direction.

The prepared Roman positions in the Daraa Gap were protected on the left by the deep gorges created by the Yarmouk River above and on the right by the lava mountains of Jebel Hauran.

With no records of troops coming from Arabia I will assume the Muslim General Khalid ibn al-Walid was reinforced by troops from coastal Palestine. Khalid's army at Daraa might have grown to upwards of 15,000 men.

The Roman Army at Daraa must have been sizable to start with because they had defeated all Muslim attempts to capture the position. All numbers are a guess but the Romans might have had 7,000 or more men holding the fortifications.

On Easter 634 at the Battle of Marj Rahit we saw Roman troops and their Ghassanid Christian Arab allies fielded about 8,000 men to defeat the Muslims in Syria. These "extra" troops had not been at Daraa but were close by and available to reinforce the Daraa fortifications or protect the flanks.  That could push up Roman forces in the area closer to 15,000.

There is also the possibility that some retreating Roman units from the defeat at Ajnadayn may have joined with the garrison at Daraa.

No matter how you count, both sides were at full strength and ready to fight.

Another factor is morale. The Roman defeat at Ajnadayn may have depressed both the officers and the rank and file while that of the Muslims had been correspondingly exalted. 

Starting in August the fighting became more active in the Daraa Gap.

Near the end of August or early September the skirmishing evolved into a full battle. Historian Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb says the battle lasted for several days.

Once again we are witness to what had to have been a massive struggle and we have no details at all of what happened.

General Glubb previously wrote of the Roman's entrenched camp near Daraa in the gap between the Yarmouk's gorge and the lava beds. The Arabs would sometimes skirmish in front of this camp and then withdraw, but their lack of military science made it difficult for them to assault it.  How many other fortified Roman strong points there were we do not know.

The facts show that when the Muslims returned the Romans did not cut and run. They stood in place and fought for days. That says a lot about the level of training and discipline of the Roman Army.

During the height of the battle a letter came from Arabia relieving Khalid of his command. That information was kept from him until victory was achieved. 

The details of what happened are a mystery. We can imagine days of Muslim attacks on the entrenched Roman positions. Cavalry charges and counter charges. Attempts by the Muslims to work around the Roman positions to get to the rear.

The summer August desert heat may have been a factor. Many of the Roman troops would have come from the cooler climates of Anatolia or the Balkans. Fighting in armor in the summer sun might have worked against them. The Muslims would have been more lightly clad and used to the desert heat.

By the end of August or early September the Muslims appeared to have either broken into the fortifications or the Romans felt they were losing control of the battle. In any case the Romans began to withdraw and retreat north.


Daraa had fallen. The door to Syria had been forced open.

It should be noted that Muslim historians did not boast of this as a great victory. There is no flowery language of the slaughter of the Romans or prisoners taken.

As for the Romans they appear to have deliberately decided to pull out. Their army retreated north to Damascus and perhaps points beyond.

The Muslims may have opened the door to Syria, but victory was a long way off. There were Roman armies operating all over Palestine and Syria and holding walled cities such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre, Tripoli and Damascus. The coastal cities could also be resupplied and reinforced by the Roman Navy.

The Emperor Heraclius had not given up. More troops were being raised for yet another counter attack.

See you later for Part VI.

Legionnaires vs Bedouins

This clip is from the 1977 movie March or Die.  A detachment of the French Foreign Legion fights in Morocco with Bedouin revolutionaries.

The battle scene naturally features mostly modern weapons. But the battle gives you the flavor of what it must have been like in fight between the Romans and Arabs.

No modern soldier can begin to imagine standing in ranks shoulder-to-shoulder with 5,000 fellow Romans armed with but a shield, sword and spear. You stand there in armor in the desert heat waiting to receive a cavalry-infantry charge by 7,000 to 10,000 invading Arab soldiers that will result in vicious, slashing hand-to-hand combat.

Limitanei static frontier guard troops existed
through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.

The Battle for the Middle East
Read More:
Part I - Roman Empire vs Islam - First Contact
Part II - A Persian-Roman Army Fights Muslim Invaders

Part III - Muslims Invade Roman Palestine
Part IV - Battle of Ajnadayn

(Battle of Babylon)      (Great Arab conquests)

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