May 18, 2005

If the great shoes fit

Swear to God: overheard conversation this morning, between two young, apparently apolitical women at my local Tim Horton's:

"Did you hear? Belinda Stronach joined the Liberals."
"Is she the attractive one?"
"Yeah, you know, the dipstick."

Sexist misogynists.

Posted by BruceR at 03:22 PM

Readers write

Reader thoughts, and my responses, on a couple recent pieces on Conservative military policy and Kingdom of Heaven:

Darren M. writes:

I was very interested to read your account of the "real" Balian d'Ibelin.

Did Balian and Raymond of Tripoli cut deals to escape Hattin?

According to the Wargames Research Group book "Armies and Enemies of the Crusades 1096-1291" by Ian Heath, Raymond of Tripoli was with the vanguard at Hattin and was called on by Guy to deliver the first charge about midday on July 4th:

"Taqi ad-Din had opened his ranks to avoid the impact and so let them through, though inflicting heavy casualties on them as they passed (Raymond himself receiving 3 wounds and one of his sons being captured). Seeing how hopeless the situation was and that he could not get back to the army, Raymond rode from the field and withdrew to Tyre. It was probably at this stage that Prince Reynauld of Sidon and Balian d'Ibelin escaped from the rearguard, as did a small number of Templars."

A couple of points I would be interested to get your response to.

1. A general failing of historical and fantasy movies is to have too many combatants. According to the sources I looked at, the Crusader army at Hattin was 25-30 000 men. How many men were there in the film? Way too many I reckon. I will have to wait for the DVD to make a better count. The Lord of the Riings would be the worst offender. The Uruk Hai army that marches to Helms Deep was 10 000 strong in the book. In the movie it is more like 1 million. It is understandable if movie-makers want to increase the spectacle but in real life it was very difficult to supply or command armies much over 50 000 men. So the movie -makers are doing violence both to the historical facts and the reality of battles in those times.

2. Movie-makers show no regard for armies' formations, tactics and weapons. Eg when Balian's little band make their suicide charge they charge with drawn swords, the lances they do have are too short, they look for a moment like they are correctly going to form a wedge and then spread back out again. Excuse me but lances were always used in the first charge. Lances, heavy armour and big horses were the reason the crusader knights were so dangerous on the charge were they not? You get no indication of the basic difference between the Islamic and Crusader armies ie skirmishers vs heavy knights. Was this time period too early to see the knights riding Destriers aka Military Clysdales?

3. The biggest false note of Kingdom of Heaven to me was the overly familiar relations between the commoners like Balian and the Nobles. What happened to the tugging of forelocks and bowing and scraping by the commoners, and where was the arrogance of the nobility (besides the buffonish Guy of Lusignan)? What was the etiquette of that time? Where were all the pages, esquires, and heralds? I have no doubt that feudal manners are an affront to our modern sensibilities but to me they are vital to get a real feel for the period (and besides pageantry and rarefied manners are cool). How should the scenes before Balian is ennobled have really played out?

BruceR replies: As I hinted in the original entry, the official story of the severely wounded Raymond of Tripoli's remarkable solo escape from the Hattin massacre, the only knight allowed to reach the life-saving water, strains credulity. The man was a walking ransom payment, with thousands of well-mounted archers in the vicinity... for him to just walk away from a battle like that implies that some Saracen, at some level, said, "let him go." He had to have been a recognizable figure, and there's no doubt the Muslims generally considered him a fair man. The historical Balian d'Ibelin's escape from Hattin is even less well understood... but the simple fact is the leaders of the only two feudal domains that had opposed both war with Saladin and the current king of Outre-Mer did not die or get captured, and nearly all of those who had supported the king did. Either it's the greatest act of poetic justice in military history, or there's something there we don't understand.

I think it might be a little early for Clydesdales, and it's possible the prevalence of lances might be overstated a little... what would be ubiquitous in a joust, or a prepared battlefield, with retainers to accompany you and carry the thing, might not work on an ad hoc encounter on the Jordanian plain. (Those things are heavy). Lots of cavalry through history have done very well with just swords. I also think the reliance on skirmishing and the bow, at least with Arab armies, may be overstated a bit. Certainly it was the central feature of Turkish and Mongol armies of the time, but the original Arabs of Muhammad were not horse archers... the hammer blows of the first jihads were delivered by mounted lancers.* There's no doubt that the Crusaders had to deal with horse archers, too, but there's ample evidence that the Arabs didn't mind mixing it up in a melee when the circumstances were right, as well. You're right that the actual tactics of that charge are nonsense (why do they split into two groups, again?) but I didn't think the weapons choices of both sides were wholly indefensible.

One point that Sir Ridley seems to have seized upon was the relative egalitarianism of the "frontier" of Outre-Mer in the 1180s. And there is no doubt there was a little bit of a "Wild West" atmosphere to the place, and a significant degree of social mobility and relative personal freedom unseen in Western Europe at the time. I think he overplays this aspect (for instance in the confrontation between Reginald and the King that I commented on) but in that context I understand his decision to downplay the forelock-tugging. Outre-Mer, like early America (or Canada or Australia), was a classic labour-scarce market... to some degree, personal freedoms rose out of the need to treat your people fairly, or lose them to some other employment. So I find it at least plausible that the nobles would get their hands dirtier, and put up with a little less social distance, than their peers might back in Europe. Ditto the movie's relative absence of retainers and pages... I imagine keeping any kind of large retinue, at least a wholly Christian one, would have been very difficult given the labour conditions (any promising squire, for instance, would always be looking at his chances with the Hospitallers or Templars, or in the army of a raider like Reginald)... Muslim retainers, on the other hand, should have been fairly plentiful.

Dave T. writes, about the same story of putting soldiers in Goose Bay I commented on:

I'm speechless. I'd say it's so implausible that promising it constitutes a lie. Surely the DND brass would never accept this. I'm no expert by any means, but here are just a few issues that come to mind:
- lack of sane road connections to other military bases and facilities with which the battalion would have to interact;
- lack of easy access to a full-service, all-season port facility;
- inability of the local economy to absorb spouses seeking a wide range of jobs to match their skills;
- needless isolation of families during separations while personnel are on mission assignments that could be six months (or more);
- substantial increases in costs of operation without any sort of actual advantage or necessity;
- climate and topography completely different from anywhere the unit is most likely to be sent and so it's useless for training.

If I were a member of the CF and heard this plan, I'd run like heck away from the Conservatives at full speed.

If they're prepared to buy a seat in Labrador with the needless misery of hundreds of Forces families, needless waste of resources, and decreased operational abilities,...well...Belinda may be on to something.

BruceR writes: Yup. I once said the Tories were "fundamentally unserious" about defence issues. They still are. My choosing to vote for them or not is entirely unrelated to their position on questions of military policy, which is no stronger in any real respect than the ruling party's is.

*I'm not saying that the Crusaders didn't face mounted bowmen... they certainly did. But it was just one mode of Arab warfare at the time. Toledo and Damascus did not get their reputation as possessing the greatest sword-makers in the Western World for weapons that were purely ornamental, after all.

UPDATE: I forgot to add my entire agreement with Darren's statement concerning the movie Kingdom's careless use of army-size numbers. I have no idea where the quarter-million man army of Saladin came from: not from any history I've read. A similar problem annoyed me the other night watching the otherwise passable series Battlefield Britain, when it repeated Tacitus' claim (not the blogger, the historical one) that Boudicca's army vastly outnumbered the Romans under Suetonius. Delbruck said all there was to say on how far to trust a winning side's chroniclers on the size of barbarian armies well over a century ago.

Posted by BruceR at 09:49 AM