10/14/2013 04:49 PM
There, in mid-October in the year 732, one of history’s most decisive battles took place, demarcating the extent of Islam’s western conquests and ensuring the survival of the West.
Prior to this, the Islamic conquerors had for one century been subjugating all peoples and territories standing in their western march—including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In 711, the Muslims made their fateful crossing of the straits of Gibraltar, landing on European soil. Upon disembarkation, the leader of the Muslims, Tariq bin Zayid, ordered the Islamic fleet burned, explaining that “We have not come here to return. Either we conquer and establish ourselves here, or we perish.”
This famous Tariq anecdote—often reminisced by modern day jihadis—highlights the jihadi nature of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750), the superpower of its day. Indeed, as most historians have acknowledged, the Umayyad caliphate was the “Jihadi-State” par excellence. Its very existence was coterminous with its conquests. Its legitimacy as “viceroy” of Allah was based on subjugating lands in the name of Allah.
Once on European ground, the depredations continued unabated. Writes one Arab chronicler regarding the Muslim northern advance past the Pyrenees: “Full of wrath and pride” the Muslims “went through all places like a desolating storm. Prosperity made those warriors insatiable… everything gave way to their scimitars, the robbers of lives.” Even far off English anchorite, the contemporary, the venerable, Bede, wrote, “A plague of Saracens wrought wretched devastation and slaughter upon Gaul.”
Strange anecdotes also find their way in the chroniclers’ accounts during this time. Muslim historian Abd al-Hakem reports that, after landing on an island off Iberia, one of Tariq’s squadrons discovered that the only inhabitants were vinedressers. “They made them prisoners. After that, they took one of the vinedressers, slaughtered him, cut him into pieces, and boiled him, while the rest of the companions looked on.” This incident resulted in a rumor that Muslims feast on human flesh. (Nearly 1300 years later, in the year 2013, a Muslim jihadi ate the organs of his slain enemy to surrounding cries of “Allahu Akbar”.)
At any rate, this must have been the picture the men to the north had of the invaders from the south—wild and insatiable madmen, possibly cannibals, mounted on swift steeds, not unlike, in this manner, the Huns of old, who, under the “anti-Christ” figure of Attila, came ravaging through Europe, only to be defeated, in part by the Franks, in the year 451 at the Battle of Chalons, also in modern day France, 150 miles east of Tours.
“Alas,” exclaimed the Franks, “what a misfortune! What an indignity! We have long heard of the name and conquests of the Arabs; we were apprehensive of their attack from the East [see Siege of Byzantium, 717-718]: they have now conquered Spain, and invade our country on the side of the West.”
Conversely, the Muslims, flushed with a century’s worth of victories, seem to have had an ambivalent view, at best, regarding Frankish mettle. When asked about the Franks, some years before the Battle of Tours, the then emir of Spain, Musa, replied: “They are a folk right numerous, and full of might: brave and impetuous in the attack, but cowardly and craven in the event of defeat. Never has a company from my army been beaten.”
If this view betrayed overconfidence, Musa’s successor, Abd al-Rahman (“Slave to the Merciful”) exhibited even greater haughtiness regarding those whom he was about to give battle. At the head of some 80,000 Muslims, primarily mounted moors, Rahman’s destructive northward march into the heart of France was greatly motivated by rumors of more riches for the taking, particularly at the Basilica of St. Martin of Tours. Rahman initially separated his army into several divisions to better ensure the plunder of Gaul. Writes Isidore, author of the Chronicle of 754: “[Rahman] destroyed palaces, burned churches, and imagined he could pillage the basilica of St. Martin of Tours. It is then that he found himself face to face with the lord of Austrasia, Charles, a mighty warrior from his youth, and trained in all the occasions of arms.”
Indeed, unbeknownst to the Muslims, the battle-hardened Frankish king Charles, aware of their purport, had begun rallying his liegemen to his standard in an effort to ward off the Islamic drive. Having risen to power in France in 717—the same year a mammoth Muslim army was laying siege to Byzantium—Charles appreciated the significance of the Islamic threat. Accordingly, he intercepted the invaders somewhere between Poitiers and Tours, the latter being the immediate aim of the Muslims. The chroniclers give amazing numbers concerning the Muslims, as many as 300,000. Suffice to say, the Franks were greatly outnumbered, and most historians are content with the figures of 80,000 Muslims against 30,000 Franks.
The Muslim force consisted mainly of cavalry, and was geared for offensive warfare. The vast majority being of Berber extraction, they wore little armor, though their elitist Arab overlords were at least chain-mailed. For arms, they relied on the sword and lance; arrows were little used.
Conversely, the Franks were primarily an infantry force (except for mounted nobles such as Charles). Relying on deep phalanx-formations and heavy armor—reportedly 70 pounds for each man—the Franks were as immovable as the Muslims were mobile. They also appear to have had a greater variety of weaponry: the shield was ubiquitous, and arms consisted of swords, daggers, javelins, and two kinds of axes, one for wielding and the other for throwing—the francisca. This notorious latter weapon was so symbolic of the Franks that either it was named after them or, quite possibly, they were named after it.
The chroniclers state that the two contending armies faced each other for 6-7 days, neither wanting to make the first move. The Franks made much use of the familiar terrain: they appear to have held the high ground; and the dense European woods served not only to provide better shelter but to impede the anticipated Muslim cavalry charge.
Winter approaching, supplies and foraging areas dwindling, and an Islamic sense of superiority all compelled Rahman to commence battle, which “consisted entirely of wild headlong charges, wasteful of men.”
Writes an anonymous Arab chronicler: “Near the river Owar [Loire], the two great hosts of the two languages and the two creeds [Islam and Christianity] were set in array against each other. The hearts of Abd al-Rahman, his captains and his men were filled with wrath and pride, and they were the first to begin to fight. The Muslim horsemen dashed fierce and frequent forward against the battalions of the Franks, who resisted manfully, and many fell dead on either side, until the going down of the sun.”
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