Ars Bellica

Battle of Poitiers

17 October 732

Charles Martel defeats Abd al-Rahaman blocking the Muslim expansion into Europe.


The two commanders

Abd al-Rahman (? - 732)

Arab historiography does not give to this Muslim leader a large space, except to recognize him qualities in universally human and Government. Excepting this, he is mentioned for the fact that in the year that invaded France to get to Poitiers, had just been elected Governor of Spain and, according to one of the greatest historians of the Islamic world, Ibn Abd a-hakam, «suffered martyrdom for islam after many victories and booties in 115° year of the Hegira (see Muhammad)», "our" 733-734 CE; while Christian historians indicates his death at the battle of Poitiers. The bloody defeat of the army of Abd al-Rahman has certainly convinced the Umayyad rulers that cannot expand the boundaries of their empire over the Pyrenees, but the confrontations between Franks and Muslims did not finished until Franks conquered the outpost from which radiated all Arab expeditions aimed at Europe, namely Narbonne. A more careful historiography however, stressed that the regression from the Pyrénées to the South of the Muslim armies coincides eerily with the formation of two very powerful fleets, one destined for the Gulf of Lion, the other for the Bay of Biscay by "ownership" of Pepin III and Charles Martel, thus giving to Abd al-Rahman the responsibility of the Arab expansion.

Charles Martel (689 - 22 October 741)

Charles Martel

Charles Martel was born in the castle of Heristal, on the river Meuse in present-day Belgium, around 689, fruit of the union of Pepin II and Alpiade, his concubine. His father was the "majordomo" (or Minister) of Austrasia and Neustria, nominally reigned by the "Roi fainéant" (literally "do-nothing king") that practically had delegated all the power of those regions into the hands of the "majordomo" as Pepin II.
At the death of Pepin II, the legitimate heirs were too young to govern with authority, so Neustria rebelled with the support of another State, the Aquitaine, in South-Western France, and in the meantime, the Germanic peoples were approaching dangerously on the edge of the Kingdom. In this dangerous situation, both exterior and interior, was requested the help of Charles (as known as Charles Martel), that, with an immediate action, vanquished enemies in Neustria, and the Germans that were pressing upon the Frankish lands. Although not legally (he was the son of a concubine of Pepin II) Charles was the only true "majordomo" of the French territories, and take advantage of the victory of Poitiers to secure control of all States of the ancient Roman Gaul. Despite the brilliant military victories, Charles realized that it was not enough simply to win armed citizen armies than the Islamic ones. In fact, even if it cost him the dislikes of the Roman Church, Charles confiscated some goods from local clergy to donate them to his "vassals", as they undertook to maintain equipment and training (as well as a horses) in a almost professional way. In addiction, he required an oath of allegiance, which would put his men at the service of who had "donated" those funds as well.
Although without the church approval, Charles Martel strengthened his power from the military point of view, but he also laid the groundwork for a new era that was to open: the feudalism age.



Islamic civilization

The Arabs, before the battle of Poitiers and the rise of Muhammad, were divided into various tribes, dedicated to paganism and always very engaged in internal feuds erupted for futile motives of pride, which is rooted in Arab culture. Among them weren't real conquerors, since the external invasions were generally concentrated on the coast and had never progress in the most difficult part of the Arab territory: the desert.
The lives of these people then scrolled in a slow monotone way and punctuated by small war actions against enemy tribes, that the poets referred to Ayyàm al-'Arab, the days of the Arabs, but that all had to have a meaning somewhat meager.
The Prophet Muhammad pushed on the pride, which has always flaunted by his people, so to unite it in one monotheistic religion and make it tight, in battle as in religion, respectful of other religions, but also greedy of worldly goods. The death of the Prophet in 632, did not change much in the now changed mentality of his people that, in the absence of his spiritual guide, held, in later centuries, the rules written by Muhammad in the Qur'an (a kind of "Arabic Bible" which describes the rules to follow by the Muslims in political, military, and civilians matters).
In this book it's underlined that there is a brotherhood among all muslim, or between all believers in true God regardless of race or language; all the faithful to Allah (God in Arabic), in fact, constitute a single community, the Ummah, which coincides with the "House of submission" (Dar el-Islam), which involves the obligation of mutual assistance and protection.
For the "Muslim" there was, in the Koran, the obligation of spreading the faith through preaching and respect others ' religions, as well if they respect the law of Allah. In the latter case hypothesis does not occur, i.e. the ruler of a country does not allow the spread of Islam, the jihad, better known as the holy war, became lawful and committed to destroy all resistance of the enemies of Allah.
In theory, then, the "House of war" (Dar Al-Harb) was to be used only in cases of real emergency, but in practice, upon the death of Muhammad, all territories that were outside the "House of submission" were automatically submitted to the "House of war" and conquered by force of arms, completely ignoring the part of preaching and respect teached them by the Prophet. The jihad essentially became the religious justification to looting for those Arab tribes, that have already done from long time, even outside of their boundaries, so the loot gained assumed a role of religious dignity, increasing the motivation of Arab expansion.

Arab territorial expansions

The Arab expansion begins a year after the death of his Prophet, but above all, coincides with the victories versus the Byzantine Empire and the Persian one, that, while fighting each other (603-628), had weakened and become easy preys. Arabs in 637, near Baghdad, destroyed the Persian army, while in 674, mu'awiya, the fifth Caliph (the fifth "successor"), besieged Constantinople without success, as well as unsuccessfully ended the second siege of the city occurred in 717 (but we have to notice that after these two attacks the Byzantine Empire did not recover any more).
However, despite these two defeats, the brave Knights Arabs conquered all the territories to the East up to India, to North at the territories of Syria, Persia and Palestine, while the West conquered all Northern Africa, until settling in Spain in 711, where they put their eyes on the fertile plains of the French territories.



Muslim historiography links the first vision of the Prophet in 610 when, he says, he had forty years. So, is easy to set the year 571 as the date of birth of Muhammad - "the praised one". In the period following his visions, Mohammed, like many Christian ascetics, got into the habit of taking the fate of retreats at a cave on Mount Hira (near Mecca), where he devoted himself to meditation.
It was in this cave that the Muslim Prophet had the first of his visions. Surrounded by a strong light, the Archangel Gabriel spoke to him saying, «you're the envoy of God, the Prophet of Allah». The first messages that arrived were actually fierce attacks on the wealthy merchants of Mecca, who were urged to be more generous and humble by donating a portion of their profits to those who had nothing. Obviously this type of exhortation ran against the ideals of the more affluent classes, creating around the Prophet an initial aversion. Very soon, however, he created around himself a core of believers, writing all the visions and words taken "from the heaven", and then to form the famous Quran (Cur-'an: recitation").
During the preaching, his faithful were called Muslims (from muslimun: "those who entrust his soul to God") and persecuted because they went against the traditional polytheistic religions. In 622, Muhammad was forced to flee Mecca to settle, in exile, in Yathrib (by this moment, called egirà "emigration", Muslims begin the new era), where they were allocated various nomadic tribes that, thanks to the preaching of "holy war" (the war moved to all those who do not accept islam), recruited many followers organized politically and militarily. After a series of wars, captured Mecca and destroyed all its ancient symbols, proclaiming it the Holy City of islam.
Muhammad died in 632, but the Arabs were now united by religion and under the leadership of the Caliphs (successors), conquered huge territories ranging from Spain to India.


The Roman-barbarian kingdoms


During the 5th century the Roman Empire was convulsed by a series of invasions by the Germanic people. The kingdoms that formed after the fall of Rome was a mixture between local populations (now Latinized) and the new invaders. Among the most important kingdoms that sprang from these facts there is undoubtedly the Kingdom of the Franks.
Its population was not from a single strain, within the Kingdom of the Franks were the ethnicities of the Salii, Ripuarii and Sciambri, which occupied the northern part of Gaul.
The first historical King of this people was Clodwig (Clovis) who, after having conquered the Kingdom of Sigario, defeated the Alamanni, subdued the Burgundians and ousted the Visigoths over the Pyrenees. Also converting to Christianity in the Catholic form instead of the arian one, he secured the sympathies, not only of the Roman Church, but also of the local Celtic peoples, building with clever politics a Kingdom so powerful to counteract the Visigoths in Spain and the Ostrogoths in Italy.
As was customary of the Germanic peoples, however, the Kingdom was to be divided among all the sons (in this case four). This weakening the central power and fractionating frankish forces. Instead of the old Roman Gaul were formed 4 kingdoms:Austrasia at Northwest, Neustria at North-East, Aquitaine in South-Western France and the Burgundia in the Southeast. These "regions" were supported by Ministers called "majordomo" (from latin maior domus) officially subjected to the Merovingian kings but virtually independent rulers of the kingdoms and vast estates land owners.
In 687 Pippin of Heristal II, which was already the Austrasia's majordomo, defeated Neustria and was appointed as Minister to the region. After his death the power accumulated by him will pass into the hands of his son Charles Martel.


The Roi fainéant

The last Kings of the Merovingian dynasty had now become mere symbols of power; in fact the real control was in the hand of famous "majordomo" who, if initially had to be only Kings Ministers, were now the true custodians of power. So the Kings from the Pippinids dynasty were nicknamed "lazy-kings", just because they were seen by their Ministers and landowners with contempt and sufficiency.
After the mid-7th century was in fact landed nobility who bore on his shoulders the duties of Royal power, in fact, with the Arab expansion in the Mediterranean the trade of Merovingians were limited, and then agriculture remained the only source of economic and social wealth, dominated by the landed nobility, particularly strong in the region of Austrasia, whose prosperity was based on the great fertility of its lands.
So The Kings were easily deprived of their powers for the benefit of those "majordomo" who could assign lands, administer royal goods and even enlisting troops. The last of the Roi fainéant was Childeric III, who died in 743, just a year before the birth of Charles the Great.


The reasons of the conflict

In 729, after the African Berber tribes replaced the Visigoths in Spain, was appointed as Governor Abd al-Rahman, exceptional military leader, who was soon committed to avenge detachments Arab troops massacred on French soil. He soon raised a great army, gathering troops from each region within its competence, by calling even the splendid Berbers horsemen from North africa, versus Aquitaine, where take place the alleged massacres.
The initial purpose was, almost certainly, the sacking of those areas. So, in 732, Muslims crossed the Pyrenees pillaging Aquitaine, at that time ruled by Odo. Even if in the past were rivals, Odo asked the help of Charles Martel (Austrasia and Neustria Governor at the service of Theodoric IV), who, conscious of the danger that it could represent the Arab invasion, collected armed men among the Franks, the Lombards of Italy and among the Saxons. For that battle he would gained the nickname "hammer" of Mars, the Roman god of war.


The army of the Franks

The formation of Germanic armies did not contemplate a massive use of heavy cavalry, as well as was in the feudal era. At that time only a few nobles had a horse and could afford the equipment and the costs for the maintenance; not only that, these few Knights did not use the Spears to shock (exploitable especially if they were in charge), but simple javelins or swords, limiting the role of the horse as a transportation of its rider.
As a result, and especially by imitation of the brackets used by Arab horsemen during their fast raids, Charles Martel introduced the use in his cavalry (now more numerous and organized) of 'shock cavalry' lance, a revolution that will change the art of war across Europe. We know that the Frankish and aquitanian chivalries played a key role in the battle of Poitiers, both in containing Islamic chivalries as in charges and pursuit them.
But the core part of the Frankish army consisted of 72,000 fierce infantrymen from different backgrounds. Most of them were armed with large and heavy kite shields and the famous throwing weapon, the axe called "francisca", which should always be recovered in battle since, losing it in a fight was considered as a grave dishonor. The allies of the Franks were distinguished as follows: descendants of Gepids were covered in bear-skins and armed in heterogeneous way; Alamanni and Bavarians had supplied long lance; the Saxons carried the enormous two-handed swords; finally the Germans of the more eastern forests, fighting without any protection, with the body completely painted black, brandishing large wooden bats.


The feudal Cavalry

Until the mid-7th century the Frankish army was almost restricted to use only the infantry, but, over time, the lack of mobility of made it easy prey for enemy chivalries. Alongside the infantrymen then, Franks had to deploy the Cavalry, well-trained and trustworthy.
But according to what we can call "military vision" of Charles Martel, the training or the amount of cavalries was not enough, something more needed. In fact he introduced, even in his horsemen regiments, the use, already present among Byzantines, Muslims, Visigoths and Lombards, to bring long stirrup that allowed the knight to take full advantage of the power of expressing by the galloping horse. A rider supported by stirrups was less likely to fall off while fighting, and could deliver a blow with a weapon that more fully employed the weight and momentum of horse and rider, this going to change completely the military tactics of the time.
For this new 'shock cavalry' was indispensable to combat with a new Knight equipment, which had to be more "heavy", more robust: shredded iron armor, a spear equipped with stop bar at the base of the steel spire, shield thinned down to facilitate the pan while riding.
Considering the costs of this new kind of equipment, military service was based considering the assets on which a warrior could count. Every free man who had at least four mansus (mansus was an agrarian unit and corresponds to 13 hectares), had to arm himself and fight as infantry at his own expense; the light cavalry consisted of those who had at least 12 mansus; beyond this threshold were those that could be heavy cavalry (a limited number) that involved the purchase and maintenance of a particularly expensive equipment.


Military art of islam

Initially the Arab tribes did not have a full-fledged military organization. Their tactics in battle were based on the impetus of the infantry followed by a sudden retreat (very risky tactic because they show rear to the enemy), which break down the compactness of the opposing ranks, thereupon the Cavalry charge, as in these conditions could have an easier task.
This combat technique originally belonged to the ancient people of the Scythians, who "passed" this usage to the Persians, after them at Parties, then to the Sassanids and finally to the Arabs, who had as "innate" this particular tactic. Unlike people who had preceded them, the Arabs through the use of one of the largest breeds of horses (the so-called "Arabian horse"), with great agility and robustness, introduced the use of supporting infantry units with the Cavalry ones, called kurdus, in the tactic called al-karr wa'l-farr, i.e. advance-retreat.
To ensure a perfect outcome of this ploy, however, was requested a perfect punctuality in the times of execution: the retreat had to be slow enough to give a semblance of reality, while the chivalries unit had to be rapidly, to not allow the enemy to reorganize their ranks. This need to give priority to the speed go to the detriment of the protection for dismounted soldiers.
The amount of troops recruited from Abd ar-Rahman at Poitiers had to overcome hundreds of thousands, according to Christian chroniclers, obviously exaggerating; realistically, the number of Muslims on the field must not exceed the 80,000 units. A great part of the Islamic army was almost surely formed by Berber Cavalry, as even by infantrymen and archers from the lands conquered by the Arabs in North africa, to whom it will be gave the difficult task of "take care" of the Frankish infantry.


The battle

1. Opposite deployments

The Christian army awaited the enemy through the confluence of two rivers, the Clain and Vienne, deployed in a single, robust and deep formation, consisting of a front line where there was heavy infantry prepared interspersed with small cavalry units. Other riders were positioned on the outer sides of the second line, leaving a vacuum in the middle to prevent a sudden outflank. In addition, on the left side, very backward and hided in a forest, there was Odo, Duke of Aquitaine with his cavalry.


The Arabs instead were deployed in this way: the left wing consisted of light cavalry nearby the river Clain. the central part, composed entirely of infantry and archers, was placed on the old Roman road, while the right-wing of the Muslim , composed as the left one of light cavalry units, was deployed on a low Hill. Behind each of the two wings there were placed two units of camels for transport: the Arabs in fact knew that the pungent odor of these animals could restive the Frankish horses dismounting their riders. The initial formation was in the typical crescent-shape, with chivalries more advanced than the infantries, ready for a pincer movement.

2. Muslim Cavalry assaults


After that (the armies had faced for a week) began the fight, from dawn to dusk. The Arabs launched the first attack with the Berber chivalries targeting the Christian infantrymen with a veritable thrown of javelins, concentrating repeated assaults in the areas where they believed the opposing front can open a gap.
The infantrymen of the frontlines first stood firm under the blows of the Muslims, forming the famous "wall of ice" emphasized by the Christian chroniclers of the time. Actually the immobility of the infantry was a choice, it was logical that the warriors would not due to move against the Cavalry, unless (when horses became exhausted) to pursue the retreating enemy.
The Christians infatrymen remained completely immobile until the Arab Cavalry were within the range of thier pikes (or axes or Saxons double-handed sword), when they can hit first the steeds and then, once dismounted, the Berbers knights, protected only by a light armor. The battle continued for hours with alternating assaults of Berber on horseback and African infantry, but against the frankish compactness there was nothing to do, not even the usual advance-retreat tactic worked. Charles Martel did not let go his warriors in pursuit of Arab troops in their typical "feint retreat", without falling into the enemy trap.

3. The winning attack of Charles Martel


When a large part the Saracen cavalry was now lost on the shields, and especially against the Christian infantry pikes, Charles Martel gave a signal. From the woods where he was hiding, the Cavalry of Odo charged the right flank of the Muslim, overwhelming and routing it. The impact force of frankish cavalry was frighteningly higher than the Berber one. Meanwhile began the advancing infantry that compact, abandoned starting positions and swept everything that was in front of it. The Muslim infantry, without armour, could not withstand the body-to-body combat against rough Northern warriors, heavily armed. Confrontation is then passed to the carnage, which lasted until sunset when Abd al-Rahman was killed by an axe-blow, an axe perhaps thrown by the same Charles Martel. Once aware their commander was died, the Arabs fled quickly, leaving wounded survivors on the ground and even their tents in whiche there was most of the booty captured during all raids in Aquitaine. Arabic historiography gaves us a different description of the progress of the battle, but coincides in the end. In fact it describes how the fighting would be suspended at dusk and resumed at dawn; in the new day the Berbers Knights would managed to breach in the middle ranks of the Franks, but suddenly, spread the rumor that some enemies were directed at Arab camp to seize booty. At this point, many Muslims, worried about losing the fruits of their raids, moved to their own camp as to protect the spoils, but they lost cohesion giving a decisive advantege to the Christians. The real reason why the Arabs would have lost in Poitiers (according to the same Arab), was not attributable to the value of the Franks, but to the greed of Muslims themselves, which would have proven to be bad believers and then punished by divine justice.

4. Casualties

Christian Chronicles talk of about 1007 fallen among the Franks and even between 375,000 Arabs! Certainly these figures are excessive, but the fact is that the amount of the dead encountered by Arabs had to rely almost entirely on the departured contingent, considering that the clash is remembered by Arabs as: ma'arakat Balàt ash-Shuhadà - "Battle of the Palace of Martyrs".


Historical consequences

Rejected by the French regions, the Arabs kept the domain in Spain for many years, with a stronghold, Narbonne in the Pyrenees, which will be captured by Pepin III only 27 years after the battle of Poitiers. Narbonne was the Centre from where departed all the Muslims entrerprises against Christian Europe. From this battle, excluding Saracen pirates in the Mediterranean, the Arab expansion undergoes an abrupt stop and begins to retreat in his country of origin.
For Charles Martel is the time of the expansion, he conquered the entire Southern France unto the Gulf of lion. The outcome of the battle strengthened his belief that it was essential for a strong nation, a heavy cavalry, considering that the merger between commendatio and comitatus (respectively, late Imperial origin the first and Germanic the second) already pushed in that direction by the time of the Merovingians.
With the commendatio ("accommodation") a rural Lord could link to himself, temporarily or for life, their subordinates; with the comitatus, there had been more a bond of loyalty, enshrined by a solemn oath between the component of an armed unit and his commander. With the Knights of Charles Martel was born, although on an almost exclusively military way, a "relationship of vassalage", a new institute, that will be the real strength of the great Charlemagne, and that would have marked a whole era: the feudal one.


Poitiers as historical turning point?

The battle of Poitiers is described by the German historiography as one of the most exciting war events ever happened in history. As written in the "Monumenta Germaniae Historica": «the foot soldiers of Charles Martel had faced the brunt of enemy cavalry remaining firm as a wall and as a block of ice». So it's underlined that this victory was crucial in order to not distort the life and customs of a whole people, obtaining a nationalistic implication.
Modern historiography is more cautious towards this clash, while Islamic tends to emphasize more the defeats suffered in the Southern France, which forced the Arabs to give up to Narbonne and to remain confined at the South of the Pyrenees.
It's worth remembering that if Poitiers "rescued" from a Muslim invasion of France, no battle saved the Spain, that will need a long war of reconquista to return completely christian. But what make unique the battle of Poitiers in history, is the fact that had signed the first defeat of Islam in the West. Never again, since then, the Muslims were able to organize an expedition so powerful towards the heart of Europe.
For his part, Charles Martel, had proven to be a true leader, able to change radically the Frankish army (which stopped the bold Islamic cavalry), after decades in which the art of war seemed to be substantially blocked.


And if had won Abd al-Rahman?

The Arab expedition that had originated the clash at Poitiers had not the usual characteristics for conquest, but only those of exploration and search for easy loot.
Even supposing that the Franks had been defeated by the Arabs, it is not easy to believe that their permanence on the "other side of the Pyrenees" could last for a long time. Too much distance separated the motherland from these "new lands", whose peoples, considering the traditions, customs, racial distances and economic interests would hardly succumbed to Islam. The development process began in the North of France in those years, it would have only been slowed, while internal conflicts between the Umayyads and Abbasids would soon weakened and paralyzed the energies of Muslim empire, with the consequent loss of control in the most remote regions like the European ones.
Without the victory of Poitiers, however, the beautiful land of Sicily would have been "saved" from the Arab conquest, event that could not give life to the wonderful artistic union between Arab architecture, so delicate in its forms, and the "roughness" of mold typically Norman, which will be added later.