Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

How the Crusaders Fared in Damietta

The army being thus established in the town of Damietta, there was much debate as to what should be done. The King was set upon assailing the enemy without delay. "It is by delay," he said, and said truly, "that these enterprises have been ruined heretofore, for not only does an army grow less and less with every day by sickness—keep it as carefully as you will, such loss must needs happen—but the first fire of zeal begins to burn low." To such purpose the King spoke to his counsellors, nor could they gainsay his words. Yet they had to urge on the other part reasons so weighty that they could not be resisted.

The truth is that there could not have been chosen a worse time for the waging of war in Egypt than that at which the King arrived. Whereas other rivers overflow their banks in the winter season, the Nile overflows his in summer, and this he does because his stream is swollen, not by rains that fall in the land of Egypt, for such rains are more scanty than in any other country of the world, but by those that fall in countries far inland and, haply, by the melting of snows. So it is that in that part of Egypt which is nearest to the sea the river begins to rise in the month of June, and that for a quarter of a year or so thereafter an army must rest perforce. The King was very ill served in his ministers when he was suffered to remain in ignorance of these things. Nevertheless, the case being so, he had no choice but to accept the counsel of delay. It was agreed, therefore, that the army should tarry in Damietta till the floods of the river should have ceased. And this delay, though it could scarce fail to work mischief in many ways, nevertheless had this advantage, that by the time the army should be ready to march there would have come the King's brother from France, bringing with him the reserve of the army, some twenty-five thousand men.

It should be said that some of the army abode in the town, and others in the camp on the other side of the river. Before many days were passed there came a great army of the Turks and made an assault on the camp from the landward side. It would be more truly said that they threatened it, for they came not near, nor had the Christians suffered much loss save for their own rashness. But they had a contempt for their enemy, than which there can be no more dangerous thing. Then it was that a few knights, or even a single knight, would ride forth and put himself in great peril of his life. So it happened to a certain Sir Walter of Autreche. When he heard that the Turks were near to the camp he bade his squires arm him. And when he was armed he rode forth alone. But he did not do much or deal a blow at the enemy, for his horse threw him to the ground in the space between them and the camp. When this befell, four Turks rode out of the line and struck him with their clubs as he lay upon the ground. As for Sir Walter's horse, it galloped straight forward into the lines of the Turks, carrying with it his shield. When this was seen from the camp the constable of the King, and some of his officers, made all the haste they could to save him. This they did, so far as to bring him back to the camp, but he was hurt beyond all skill of the physicians to heal, so that he died the same night.

The camp also was but ill kept by the watchmen. Every night some Turks would creep into it and slay such as they found sleeping. It was their custom to cut off the head of any one whom they killed in this way, for the Sultan gave a gold piece for every head of a Christian that was brought to him. It was also an ill-advised thing that the watch was kept not by sentinels on foot, each with his own beat, which he would pace backwards and forwards, but by troops of horsemen. The Turks would wait listening to the sound of the horses' hoofs; when they had gone by them, they would steal into the camp, no man seeing them. But when this came to the knowledge of the King he commanded that the watch should be kept thereafter by foot soldiers. The King also caused the camp to be fortified with great ditches dug all about it.

About the end of August came the Earl of Poitiers with the reserves. Not many days after the floods of the river began to abate. It was agreed on all hands that when this abatement took place the army should begin its march. And, indeed, it had suffered not a little by the delay. Idleness is bad for all men, but for soldiers worse than for others.

And now there was high debate as to the place which it would be more profitable to attack. The greater part of the barons were for laying siege to Alexandria. They said that the town had a good harbour, to which ships from the West had easy and safe access, so that the army would never want for victuals. On the other hand the Count of Artois, brother to the King, was urgent that they should march against Cairo. "This," he said, "is the chief town in the kingdom of Egypt, and if you would kill the serpent, you must break his head." The King gave his judgment according to his brother's counsel.

In the beginning of the month of December the King set out for Cairo with his army. Now the Sultan had sent five hundred of his knights, the bravest warriors and the best mounted that he could find in his whole army, to the end that they should harass the King's army as much as might be. Now the King being very careful of the lives of his men, as knowing that a soldier lost could not be replaced, had given a strict commandment that no one should presume to leave the line of march and charge the enemy. When the Turks saw this, or, haply, had learnt from their spies that the King had given this commandment, they grew bolder and bolder, till one of them, riding up to the line, overthrew one of the Knights Templars. This was done under the very eyes of the Master of the Temple, who, when he saw it, could no longer endure to be quiet. So he cried to his brethren, "At them, good sirs, for this is more than can be borne." So he spurred his horse, and the other Templars with him, and charged the Turks. And because their horses were fresh and the horses of the Turks weary, they bore them down. It was said that not one of the five hundred escaped, many being ridden down, and the rest being drowned in the river.

After this the King encamped between the two branches of the Nile, that which flows by Damietta and that which is the next to it towards the sunsetting. On the other side of this branch was ranged the army of the Sultan, to hinder the Christians from passing, an easy thing seeing that there was no ford, nor any place where a man might cross save by swimming.

Then the King bethought him of making a causeway across the river by which the army might pass over, and so engage the enemy. It was in truth an impossible task, for how could men dam up a stream in which there was so great a force of water? But the King set his heart on it, and the barons, either for lack of knowledge or because they were unwilling to set themselves against him, held to the same opinion. And to protect the workers, for much earth had to be carried and stones also for the making of the causeway, he commanded that two movable towers should be made. From these towers there were sent showers of darts and other missiles with which it was sought to keep the enemy in check. Besides the towers there were also eighteen other engines. But the Saracens also had engines with which they discharged missiles against the workers. The Crusaders on the one hand, and the Saracens or the other, contended with these engines. But the King made no way, and could scarcely hold his own; as for making a causeway over the river, that was manifestly impossible. So much, indeed, can be seen from this device of the enemy. They made great holes on their side of the river into which they caused the water to flow, so that when the causeway had been made for a score or so of yards, there yet remained as great a space as ever to be traversed. What the King's men had accomplished in three weeks' time, that the enemy undid in a single day.

St. Louis


As for the engines, great and small, the Saracens burnt them with Greek fire. This fire is a most fearful thing, especially to them that see it for the first time. So bright is the flame of its burning that the night is as clear as the day. Nor is it less terrible to hear than to see; not thunder itself makes a greater din. When the French knights first had experience of it, they fell on their knees with one consent and prayed aloud, as thinking that God alone could help them in such a danger. Nor, as may well be thought, was any one more intent than the King in these exercises of prayer. For some time, it is true, the engines escaped destruction in a marvellous way, but in the end they all perished. And when the engineers, with great labour, had brought up much timber from the ships, and built thereof new engines, these also were destroyed in the same way, and that on the very day of their finishing. Nothing therefore was done towards the making of the causeway, and the army still tarried by the riverside, not without daily loss.