Another blog from the editorial team, with Tom Owen-Evans looking at the Siege of Damascus, 1148.

As military enthusiasts and historians know, performance on the battlefield is not the only factor that secures victory. There are other essential elements that must be taken into consideration, few more fundamental than logistics. The establishment and maintenance of key supply lines can make or break an army, a fact not lost on leaders and strategists throughout history, from Sun Tzu’s assertion that ‘the line between disorder and order lies in logistics’ to General Robert H. Barrow’s 1980 note that ‘amateurs think about tactics, but professionals think about logistics.’ History is littered with examples that illustrate this point and one of the best can be found in the Second Crusade.

The Siege of Damascus in 1148 AD is often viewed as the great betrayal of the Second Crusade and the key architect of its demise. Indeed, the Christian kingdoms of 12th-century Europe wasted little time in laying blame for this disaster, first at the feet  of  the ‘Syrian Franks’ and then God Himself, as was common practice when any Western army suffered defeat in the Holy Land. In truth, the disaster that befell the crusading forces that laid siege to the walls of Damascus was the result of neither treachery nor divine intervention, but of poor logistical foresight and an inability to protect key supply lines.


A crusader supply unit is ambushed outside DamascusA crusader supply unit is ambushed outside Damascus

There is no denying that the sheer size of the crusading army granted a distinct initial advantage over the defenders of Damascus. The 50,000-strong contingent that approached the city through the Shahura Valley on the morning of 24 July overwhelmed the Muslim forces arrayed against them. After ferocious fighting in the narrow, walled lanes and dense orchards of the Mazzawi region that blanketed the western approach to the city, the crusaders forced their way to the banks of the Barada River, where they crossed and quickly established a fortified position. Prolonged sieges demanded the constant maintenance and protection of open supply lines to provide the assaulting forces with the necessary resources to either overcome or outlast a defensive positon. Therefore, the crusaders’ chosen approach made logistical sense. With the richly fertile Mazzawi region secured at their backs, they would have ready access to food, water and timber – the basic supplies needed for the establishment of a camp closer to the walls of the city.[1]

Furthermore, it could certainly be argued that the hard-learned lessons of the previous year’s campaign across Anatolia proved an influential factor in the crusading army’s decision to approach from the west. Emperor Konrad III’s attempt to cross Anatolia before the winter of 1147 resulted in a disastrous rout in which the emperor himself was seriously wounded while attempting to protect his supply lines. King Louis VII of France suffered a similar fate in January 1148 while navigating the Kazik Beli Pass (Mount Cadmus). A breakdown in discipline and communication between the French army’s rear and vanguard exposed its cumbersome baggage train to an ambush by Turkish forces. These experiences would no doubt have been fresh in the minds of both kings as they planned the assault of Damascus.

The problem was that while access to the Mazzawi met the immediate supply needs of the crusading army, it allowed Turkoman mercenaries, Syrian villagers and ahdath militia (local militia) to mount a very successful guerrilla campaign. For as long as the walls of Damascus held, this campaign harried the crusaders’ exposed flanks and, ironically, threatened their ability to control their supply lines. The thick orchards and low stone walls offered the perfect positions for Muslim archers and crossbowmen to pick off isolated groups of crusaders and mercilessly harass the besieging army as it attempted to forage for food and water. While the crusaders successfully defeated a number of serious counter-attacks from the city itself, most notably one on 25 July in which Saladin’s brother, Nur al-Dawlah Shahinshah, was killed, the city held firm and the guerrilla attacks intensified to point where the crusaders lost control of the surrounding Mazzawi and thus their primary route of supply. That is not to say that the leaders of the crusading army did not try to counter this problem. As the situation became more desperate, scouting missions were sent to the more open southern and eastern plains with a view to shifting their fortified position. This ultimately proved ineffective as both the southern and eastern plains were largely barren and could not support an army of such a size.

As a result, on 28 July, trapped and broken, the forces of the Second Crusade simply abandoned the siege of Damascus and retreated. Despite their numerical advantage, the crusaders were defeated by an enemy that was able to hamper their supply lines. While the Mazzawi region was a good resource for a besieging army, the crusaders were never in complete control of it, and their position swiftly became untenable.

As von Clausewitz said, ‘there is nothing more common than to find considerations of supply affecting the strategic lines of a campaign and a war’, and the Siege of Damascus is just one example of the importance of logistics in warfare. As always, we would like to hear from you, the Osprey reader – what battles or campaigns stand out for you in this regard?

The illustration was taken from Campaign 204: The Second Crusade 1148. Other books looking at the Crusades can be found in the Medieval section of our store.

[1] It is worth noting that, while 12th-century Christian and Muslim sources undoubtedly exaggerate the true size of the crusading army that assaulted Damascus, any army numbering in the tens of thousands would require a bewildering amount of food and water to maintain combat efficiency even before accounting for the rigours of fighting in armour under the punishing summer sun.