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On Track and Focused
on November 22, 2003
Compared to Dr. David Nicolle's earlier volumes for Osprey, which while scholarly written have tended to digress on esoteric archaeological issues, his volume on the First Crusade is on track and focused. Dr. Nicolle's summary of the amazing First Crusade is enhanced by the structure provided by J. France's Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade (1994). Dr. Nicolle is also wary of earlier narratives of the Crusades that slighted the role of the Byzantines and provided minimal perspective from the Turkish and Fatimid points of view; indeed, this summary is notable for its consistent attention to historical balance (some readers may feel that the Crusaders themselves get overly short shrift).
The First Crusade begins with a 6-page section on the origins of the campaign and a detailed chronology for the years 1095-1099. As Nicolle sees it, the First Crusade was primarily in response to the weakness of the Byzantine Empire after the disaster at Manzikert in 1071 - theories that the Crusades could have also been motivated by domestic or religious factors in Europe are not seriously entertained. The sections on opposing leaders, opposing armies and opposing plans is adequate for a volume of this size, but the lack of any attempt to construct at least a bare-bones order of battle for the Crusaders is annoying (others have tried). The centerpieces of the volume are the three 3-D "Birds Eye View" maps (the Battle of Dorylaeum, the Siege of Antioch, and the seizure of Jerusalem) and the three-color battle scenes (the Battle of Dorylaeum, the Battle outside Antioch and the Massacre in Jerusalem). The subjects of these color maps and illustrations are well chosen and convey some of the vital highlights in the campaign. There are also five 2-D color maps: the Christian and Islamic Worlds in 1095, the Crusaders' routes to Constantinople, Operations in Anatolia, campaigns in Syria and Palestine, and the Battle of Ascalon. The author also provides a decent bibliography and a section on touring the battlefields today.
Dr. Nicolle's campaign narrative is 57 pages long and covers the Crusader's operations from Constantinople to the Battle of Ascalon, a period of about 28 months. As usual, Dr. Nicolle is generally effective in detailing the facts behind a historical incident, but he is unable to instill much drama or passion into a campaign that was clearly driven by intangible factors of willpower and zeal. Indeed, on the objective level, the First Crusade should have failed due to poor logistics, poor knowledge of local conditions and insufficient military advantages over the indigenous forces. One puzzling omission is why Dr. Nicolle rarely makes references to troop strengths or casualties in this account; for example, many accounts estimate that the Crusaders suffered about 4,000 casualties at the Battle of Dorylaeum - but why is that omitted here? Without much reference to numbers (even estimates), the reader may not realize that the Crusaders lost about 70% of their troops in the course of these 28 months, or that they were usually outnumbered 3-1 or worse.
Perhaps Dr. Nicolle's most interesting observations for modern readers is the author's assessment that the Crusades were initially met by apathy in the Arab world, which goes a long way toward explaining how such a poorly-planned military expedition could pierce so deeply into a sea of enemies. Nicolle notes that, "it took a long time to motivate a counter-jihad to mirror the enthusiasm of the Crusade," and that for several years after the end of the First Crusade, the Crusader conquests were held by only a handful of professional troops. It is clearly amazing that neither the Turks nor Fatimids were able to annihilate such a tiny European force in their midst, and a force that did not receive substantial reinforcement for more than a decade. It is interesting to contrast this protracted Arab apathy then, with today's Islamic fundamentalist portrayal of the Crusades as such a cathartic event. Perhaps it might be useful for modern Islamic societies to remember that foreigners were only able to intervene militarily because of inter-Arab divisions (even in 1097, the Sunni-Shia split was an open wound) and foolish leadership. In military terms, the Crusades should have been a non-event; the Fatimid navy dominated the eastern Mediterranean and the Seljuk Turks dominated central Turkey with a large, powerful army. However the greatest result of the Crusades, as noted by Nicolle, was a Sunni Muslim revival that "resulted in a hardening of attitudes to non-Muslims" and "less tolerance of Shi'a Muslims". We are still feeling the results of this revival to this day.