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Muslim conquests from Hispania
The Umayyad troops, under Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, the governor-general of al-Andalus, overran Septimania by 719, following their sweep up the Iberian peninsula. Al-Samh set up his capital from 720 at Narbonne, which the Moors called Arbūna. With the port of Narbonne secure, the Umayyads swiftly subdued the largely unresisting cities of Alet, Béziers, Agde, Lodève, Maguelonne, and Nîmes, still controlled by their Visigothic counts.
The Umayyad campaign into Aquitaine suffered a temporary setback at the Battle of Toulouse (721), when Duke Odo of Aquitaine (also known as Eudes the Great) broke the siege of Toulouse, taking Al-Samh ibn Malik's forces by surprise and mortally wounding the governor-general Al-Samh ibn Malik himself. This defeat did not stop incursions into old Roman Gaul, as Muslim forces, soundly based in Narbonne and easily resupplied by sea, struck eastwards in the 720s, penetrating as far as Autun in Burgundy in 725.
Threatened by both the Umayyads in the south and by the Franks in the north, in 730 Eudes allied himself with the Berber emir Uthman ibn Naissa, called "Munuza" by the Franks, the deputy governor of what would later become Catalonia. As a gage, and to seal the alliance, Uthman was given Eudes's daughter Lampade in marriage, and Arab raids across the Pyrenees, Eudes's southern border, ceased. However, the next year, Uthman rebelled against the governor of al-Andalus, ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân, who quickly crushed the revolt and directed his attention against Eudes. ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân had brought a huge force of Arab heavy cavalry and Berber light cavalry, plus troops from all provinces of the Caliphate, in the Umayyad attempt at a conquest of Europe north of the Pyrenees. According to one unidentified Arab, "That army went through all places like a desolating storm." Duke Eudes (called King by some), collected his army at Bordeaux, but was defeated, and Bordeaux was plundered. The slaughter of Christians at the Battle of the River Garonne was evidently horrific; the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 commented, "solus Deus numerum morientium vel pereuntium recognoscat", ("God alone knows the number of the slain"). The Umayyad horsemen then utterly devastated that portion of Gaul, their own histories saying the "faithful pierced through the mountains, trampled over rough and level ground, plundered far into the country of the Franks, and smote all with the sword, insomuch that when Eudo came to battle with them at the River Garonne, he fled."
Eudes' appeal to the Franks
Eudes appealed to the Franks for assistance, which Charles Martel only granted after Eudes agreed to submit to Frankish authority.
It appears as if the Umayyads were not aware of the true strength of the Franks. The Umayyad forces were not particularly concerned about any of the Germanic tribes, including the Franks, and the Arab Chronicles, the history of that age, show that awareness of the Franks as a growing military power only came after the Battle of Tours.
Further, the Umayyads appear not to have scouted northward for potential foes, for if they had, they surely would have noted Charles Martel as a force to be reckoned with in his own account, due to his thorough domination of Europe from 717: this might have alerted the Umayyads that a real power led by a gifted general was rising in the ashes of the Western Roman Empire.
Advance toward the Loire
In 732, the Umayyad advance force was proceeding north toward the River Loire having outpaced their supply train and a large part of their army. Essentially, having easily destroyed all resistance in that part of Gaul, the invading army had split off into several raiding parties, while the main body advanced more slowly.
The Umayyad attack was likely so late in the year because many men and horses needed to live off the land as they advanced; thus they had to wait until the area's wheat harvest was ready and then until a reasonable amount of the harvest was threshed (slowly by hand with flails) and stored. The further north, the later the harvest is, and while the men could kill farm livestock for food, horses cannot eat meat and needed grain as food. Letting them graze each day would take too long, and interrogating natives to find where food stores were kept would not work where the two sides had no common language.
A military explanation for why Eudes was defeated so easily at Bordeaux and at the Battle of the River Garonne after having won 11 years earlier at the Battle of Toulouse is simple. At Toulouse, Eudes managed a basic surprise attack against an overconfident and unprepared foe, all of whose defensive works were aimed inward, while he attacked from the outside. The Umayyad forces were mostly infantry, and what cavalry they had never got a chance to mobilise and meet him in open battle. As Herman de Carinthia wrote in one of his translations of a history of al-Andalus, Eudes managed a highly successful encircling envelopment which took the attackers totally by surprise — and the result was a chaotic slaughter of the Muslim forces.
At Bordeaux, and again at the Battle of the River Garonne, the Umayyad forces were cavalry, not infantry, and were not taken by surprise, and given a chance to mass for battle, this led to the devastation of Eudes's army, almost all of whom were killed with minimal losses to the Muslims. Eudes's forces, like other European troops of that era, lacked stirrups, and therefore had no heavy cavalry. Virtually all of their troops were infantry. The Umayyad heavy cavalry broke the Christian infantry in their first charge, and then slaughtered them at will as they broke and ran.
The invading force went on to devastate southern Gaul. A possible motive, according to the second continuator of Fredegar, was the riches of the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours, the most prestigious and holiest shrine in Western Europe at the time. Upon hearing this, Austrasia's Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, collected his army and marched south, avoiding the old Roman roads and hoping to take the Muslims by surprise. Because he intended to use a phalanx, it was essential for him to choose the battlefield. His plan — to find a high wooded plain, form his men and force the Muslims to come to him — depended on the element of surprise.
Preparations and maneuver
From all accounts, the invading forces were caught entirely off guard to find a large force, well disposed and prepared for battle, with high ground, directly opposing their attack on Tours. Charles had achieved the total surprise he hoped for. He then chose to begin the battle in a defensive, phalanx-like formation. According to the Arabian sources, the Franks drew up in a large square, with the trees and upward slope to break any cavalry charge.
For seven days, the two armies watched each other with minor skirmishes. The Umayyads waited for their full strength to arrive, which it did, but they were still uneasy. 'Abd-al-Raḥmân, despite being a good commander, had managed to let Charles bring his army to full strength and pick the location of the battle. Furthermore, it was difficult for the Umayyads to judge the size of the army opposing them, since Charles had used the trees and forest to make his force appear larger than it probably was. Thus, 'Abd-al-Raḥmân recalled all his troops, which did give him an even larger army — but it also gave Charles time for more of his veteran infantry to arrive from the outposts of his Empire. These infantry were all the hope for victory he had. Seasoned and battle hardened, most of them had fought with him for years, some as far back as 717. Further, he also had levies of militia arrive, but the militia was virtually worthless except for gathering food, and harassing the Muslims. Unlike his infantry, which was both experienced and disciplined, the levies were neither, and Charles had no intention of depending on them to stand firm against cavalry charges (Most historians through the centuries have believed the Franks were badly outnumbered at the onset of battle by at least 2-1.). Charles gambled everything that ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân would in the end feel compelled to battle, and to go on and loot Tours. Neither of them wanted to attack - but Abd-al-Raḥmân felt in the end obligated to sack Tours, which meant literally going through the Frankish army on the hill in front of him. Charles's decision to wait in the end proved crucial, as it forced the Umayyads to rush uphill, against the grade and the woods, which in and of themselves negated a large part of the natural advantages of a cavalry charge.
Charles had been preparing for this confrontation since Toulouse a decade before. He was well aware that if he failed, no other Christian force remained able to defend western Christianity. But Gibbon believes, as do most pre and modern historians, that Charles had made the best of a bad situation. Though outnumbered and depending on infantry, without heavy cavalry, Charles had a tough, battle-hardened heavy infantry who believed in him implicitly. Morever, as Davis points out, this infantry was heavily armed, each man carrying up to perhaps 75 pounds of wood and iron armour into battle. Formed in a phalanx, they were better able to resist a cavalry charge than might be conventionally thought, especially as Charles had been able to secure them the high ground and trees to further aid breaking such charges. Charles also had the element of surprise, in addition to being allowed to pick the ground.
The Franks in their wolf and bear pelts were well dressed for the cold, and had the terrain advantage. The Arabs were not as prepared for the intense cold of an oncoming northern European winter, despite having tents, which the Franks did not, but did not want to attack a Frankish army they believed may have been numerically superior. Essentially, the Umayyads wanted the Franks to come out in the open, while the Franks, formed in a tightly packed defensive formation, wanted them to come uphill, into the trees, diminishing at once the advantages of their cavalry. It was a waiting game which Charles won: the fight began on the seventh day, as ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân did not want to postpone the battle indefinitely with winter approaching.
‘Abd-al-Raḥmân trusted the tactical superiority of his cavalry, and had them charge repeatedly. This time the faith the Umayyads had in their cavalry, armed with their long lances and swords which had brought them victory in previous battles, was not justified.
In one of the instances where medieval infantry stood up against cavalry charges, the disciplined Frankish soldiers withstood the assaults, though according to Arab sources, the Arab cavalry several times broke into the interior of the Frankish square. "The Muslim horsemen dashed fierce and frequent forward against the battalions of the Franks, who resisted manfully, and many fell dead on either side."
Despite this, the Franks did not break. It appears that the years of year-round training that Charles had bought with Church funds, paid off. His hard-trained soldiery accomplished what was not thought possible at that time: infantry withstood the Umayyad heavy cavalry. Paul Davis says the core of Charles's army was a professional infantry which was both highly disciplined and well motivated, "having campaigned with him all over Europe," buttressed by levies that Charles basically used to raid and disrupt his enemy, and gather food for his infantry. The Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 says:
"And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts of the foe."
The battle turns
Those Umayyad troops who had broken into the square had tried to kill Charles, but his liege men surrounded him and would not be broken. The battle was still in flux when Frankish histories claim that a rumour went through the Umayyad army that Frankish scouts threatened the booty that they had taken from Bordeaux. Some of the Umayyad troops at once broke off the battle and returned to camp to secure their loot. According to Muslim accounts of the battle, in the midst of the fighting on the second day (Frankish accounts have the battle lasting one day only), scouts from the Franks sent by Charles began to raid the camp and supply train (including slaves and other plunder).
Charles supposedly had sent scouts to cause chaos in the Umayyad base camp, and free as many of the slaves as possible, hoping to draw off part of his foe. This succeeded, as many of the Umayyad cavalry returned to their camp. To the rest of the Muslim army, this appeared to be a full-scale retreat, and soon it became one. Both Western and Muslim histories agree that while trying to stop the retreat, ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân became surrounded, which led to his death, and the Umayyad troops then withdrew altogether to their camp. "All the host fled before the enemy", candidly wrote one Arabic source, "and many died in the flight". The Franks resumed their phalanx, and rested in place through the night, believing the battle would resume at dawn the following morning.
The next day, when the Umayyad forces did not renew the battle, the Franks feared an ambush. Charles at first believed that the Umayyad forces were trying to lure him down the hill and into the open. This tactic he knew he had to resist at all costs; he had in fact disciplined his troops for years to under no circumstances break formation and come out in the open. (See the Battle of Hastings for the results of infantry being lured into the open by armoured cavalry.) Only after extensive reconnaissance of the Umayyad camp by Frankish soldiers — which by both historical accounts had been so hastily abandoned that even the tents remained, as the Umayyad forces headed back to Iberia with what loot remained that they could carry — was it discovered that the Muslims had retreated during the night.
Given the disparity between the armies, in that the Franks were mostly infantry, against Berber cavalry and armoured or mailed Arab horsemen (the Berbers were less heavily protected), Charles Martel fought a brilliant defensive battle. In a place and time of his choosing, he met a far superior force, and defeated it.
The Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 "describes the battle in greater detail than any other Latin or Arabic source". It says of the encounter that,
While Abd ar-Rahman was pursuing Eudes, he decided to despoil Tours by destroying its palaces and burning its churches. There he confronted the consul of Austrasia by the name of Charles, a man who, having proved himself to be a warrior from his youth and an expert in things military, had been summoned by Eudes. After each side had tormented the other with raids for almost seven days, they finally prepared their battle lines and fought fiercely. The northern peoples remained as immobile as a wall, holding together like a glacier in the cold regions. In the blink of an eye, they annihilated the Arabs with the sword. The people of Austrasia, greater in number of soldiers and formidably armed, killed the king, Abd ar-Rahman, when they found him, striking him on the chest. But suddenly, within sight of the countless tents of the Arabs, the Franks despicably sheathed their swords postponing the fight until the next day since night had fallen during the battle. Rising from their own camp at dawn, the Europeans saw the tents and canopies of the Arabs all arranged just as they had appeared the day before. Not knowing that they were empty and thinking that inside them there were Saracen forces ready for battle, they sent officers to reconnoitre and discovered that all the Ishmaelite troops had left. They had indeed fled silently by night in tight formation, returning to their own country.
Wolf (trans), Chronicle of 754, p. 145
Charles Martel's family composed, for the fourth book of the Continuations of Fredegar's Chronicle, a stylised summary of the battle:
Prince Charles boldly drew up his battle lines against them [the Arabs] and the warrior rushed in against them. With Christ's help he overturned their tents, and hastened to battle to grind them small in slaughter. The king Abdirama having been killed, he destroyed [them], driving forth the army, he fought and won. Thus did the victor triumph over his enemies.
Fouracre,Continuations of Fredegar, p. 149
This source details further that "he (Charles Martel) came down upon them like a great man of battle". It goes on to say Charles "scattered them like the stubble".
The references to "rushing in" and "overturning their tents" may allude to the phraseology of the Book of Numbers, chapter 24, "where the Spirit of God 'rushed in' to the tents of Israel." The Latin word used for "warrior", belligerator, "is also biblical, from the Book of Maccabees, chapters 15 and 16, which describe huge battles.
It is thought that Bede's Historiam Ecclesiasticam Gentis Anglorum (Chapter XXIII) includes a reference to the Battle of Poitiers: "...a dreadful plague of Saracens ravaged France with miserable slaughter, but they not long after in that country received the punishment due to their wickedness".
‘Abd-al-Raḥmân was a good general and should have done two things he failed to do. Gibbon makes the point that he did not move at once against Charles Martel, was surprised by him at Tours as Charles had marched over the mountains avoiding the roads to surprise the Muslim invaders, and thus the wily Charles selected the time and place they would collide:
- ‘Abd-al-Raḥmân either assumed that the Franks would not come to the aid of their Aquitanian rivals, or did not care, and he thus failed to assess their strength before invasion.
- He failed to scout the movements of the Frankish army, and Charles Martel.
Having done either, he would have curtailed his lighthorse ravaging throughout lower Gaul, and marched at once with his full power against the Franks. This strategy would have nullified every advantage Charles had at Tours:
The invaders would have not been burdened with booty that played such a huge role in the battle.
They would have not lost one warrior in the battles they fought before Tours. (Though they lost relatively few men in overrunning Aquitaine, they suffered some casualties, losses that may have been pivotal at Tours).
They would have bypassed weaker opponents such as Eudes, whom they could have picked off at will later, while moving at once to force battle with the real power in Europe, and at least partially picked the battlefield.
While some military historians point out that leaving enemies in your rear is not generally wise, the Mongols proved that indirect attack, and bypassing weaker foes to eliminate the strongest first, is a devastatingly effective mode of invasion. In this case, those enemies were virtually no danger, given the ease with which the Muslims destroyed them. The real danger was Charles, and the failure to scout Gaul adequately was disastrous.
According to Creasy, the Muslims' best strategic choice would have been to simply decline battle, depart with their loot, garrisoning the captured towns in southern Gaul, and return when they could force Charles to a battleground more to their liking, one that maximised the huge advantage they had in their mailed and armoured horsemen. It might have been different, however, had the Muslim forces remained under control. Both western and Muslim histories agree the battle was hard fought, and that the Umayyad heavy cavalry had broken into the square, but agreed that the Franks were in formation still strongly resisting.
Charles could not afford to stand idly by while Frankish territories were threatened. He would have to face the Umayyad armies sooner or later, and his men were enraged by the utter devastation of the Aquitanians and wanted to fight. But Sir Edward Creasy noted that:
when we remember that Charles had no standing army, and the independent spirit of the Frank warriors who followed his standard, it seems most probable that it was not in his power to adopt the cautious policy of watching the invaders, and wearing out their strength by delay. So dreadful and so widespread were the ravages of the Saracenic light cavalry throughout Gaul, that it must have been impossible to restrain for any length of time the indignant ardor of the Franks. And, even, if Charles could have persuaded his men to look tamely on while the Arabs stormed more towns and desolated more districts, he could not have kept an army together when the usual period of a military expedition had expired.
Both Hallam and Watson argue that had Charles failed, there was no remaining force to protect Western Europe. Hallam perhaps said it best: "It may justly be reckoned among those few battles of which a contrary event would have essentially varied the drama of the world in all its subsequent scenes: with Marathon, Arbela, the Metaurus, Châlons and Leipzig."
Strategically, and tactically, Charles probably made the best decision he could in waiting until his enemies least expected him to intervene, and then marching by stealth to catch them by surprise at a battlefield of his choosing. Probably he and his own men did not realise the seriousness of the battle they had fought, as Matthew Bennett and his co-authors, in Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World (2005) says: "few battles are remembered 1,000 years after they are fought [...] but the Battle of Tours is an exception [...] Charles Martel turned back a Muslim raid that had it been allowed to continue, might have conquered Gaul."
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