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  • Adrian J. Boas

On a Narrative of Failure


Destroyed U.S. helicopters in Iran, 1974. موسسه مطالعات و پژوهش های سیاسی / Public domain

One of the most potent modern images of failure, almost as powerful as that of the Air America helicopter evacuating American citizens on a rooftop in Saigon in April 1975, was a photograph of the shell of burnt-out U.S. navy Sikorsky helicopter in the Iranian desert following the failed attempt to release Americans taken hostage by the fundamentalist Iranian regime (Helicopters so often produce poignant images of failure. One recalls another burn-out helicopter in which were the bodies of Israeli hostages, victims of a failed rescue mission by German police snipers at Munich airport in September 1972). Of the eight helicopters that took part in Operation Eagle Claw only five managed to arrive in working condition at Desert One, the first staging area of the operation, and after the decision was made to abort, one of them crashed into a Hercules transport plane. The failure of the mission cost not only the lives of eight members of the task force aboard the destroyed aircraft but ended the presidency of Jimmy Carter and left the 52 members of the embassy staff to face an additional eight months before they were released from captivity.


There is no comparative dramatic image of the failure of the Second Crusade. But failure it was, and much more the outcome of ill-thought-out actions, with a little treachery thrown in, than Eagle Claw, which was perhaps more a case of bad luck than mismanagement. It came as a response to the first great territorial loss of the crusader period - the conquest of the County of Edessa in 1144 by the atabeg of Mosul, Imad ad-Din Zengi. The city of Edessa was briefly recovered by Joscelin II in 1146, but he failed to take the citadel and Zengi's successor, Nuradin retook the city later that year.


As a response, the Second Crusade was a disaster. Instead of a concerted effort to recover Edessa (or to take Aleppo, the seat of power of the Zengid dynasty), the crusade was detoured to Damascus, a city that had actually allied with the Franks. This change in plan was decided upon only after all the contingents had arrived in the Holy Land, at a council at Palmaria, south of Acre on 24 June 1148. Participating in the council were a large number of royals, bishops, dukes, barons and others, among them the German Emperor Conrad, Louis VII of France, Baldwin II of Jerusalem and masters of the military orders.


Damascus was not an entirely unlikely choice if Edessa were not to be the focus, though it would be interesting to know the precise reasons for the council's decision not to attempt Edessa's recovery. Baldwin and the Templars appear to have been the driving force for this detour, though it is probable that neither Conrad nor Louis had any great desire to take on the more substantial and distant targets of Aleppo or Edessa. Possibly the dwindled size of the crusading army was also a factor in the diversion. William of Tyre only tells us that Damascus was "a city of great menace to us."*


On 25 May the united armed forces moved east to Tiberias, from there north to Banias and then to Daria on the outskirts of Damascus. Baldwin and his army were in the lead, the French under Louis in the middle and Conrad and the army of the Germans at the rear. The aim was to take the surrounding countryside with its orchards and fields. This was regarded as vital, as the city was dependent on its surrounding lands for food and water. The subsequent blockade was expected to weaken the city to the point that it would fall into their hands like ripe fruit. However, when they arrived, the Christians found that the dense orchards, the narrow paths through them and well defended towers within made their advance extremely difficult. William of Tyre suggests that the attack on the city was directed from the north. If so, having approached from the south the army must have skirted the city. Ibn al-Qalanisi, the Damascene chronicler, wrote that the Franks arrived first at Manazil al-'Asakir on the south and from there to al-Mizza on the south-east.** Presumably, they then continued to the north. Conrad and his troops managed to gain control over the Barada River which flows from north-west. This gave the Franks control over the food and water of the region. Everything at this point was going as planned and it appeared that victory was assured. But then the crusaders made a disastrous decision. They decided to move down to the southern side of the city. This was the result, according to William, of the treachery of some Franks who were "led on by avarice" and in league with the Damascenes.*** They persuaded the king and other leaders to make this move by pointing out than on that side there were no orchards and the approach to the walls would be easier. This was a fatal error. What it in fact meant was that the crusaders now found themselves without the food and water that they had had in plenty on the north. As they had expected a short campaign, they had brought few supplies with them. Once they made the move, they were unable to return north as the Muslims were quick to regain control of the orchards and to strengthen their defences. The decision to move had been a disaster and when they realised this, they understood that there was no point in continuing the siege. And there may have been other factors at work. Al-Qalanisi suggests that the main fear of the Franks was due to having received word of the approach of vast Muslim reinforcements.**** The siege was lifted, and the crusaders returned home.

One wonders, who were the traitors that had led Baldwin and the Western leaders astray and what they had received from the Muslims for their treachery? Sadly, William gives us no clue. Others claim the traitors were the Templars who had received substantial bribes from the Muslims.


This great international effort, the first crusade led by royalty, went down in history as a dismal failure. Not only did it put a damper on the idea of the infallibility of a great international crusade. It strengthened the Zengids and eased the way for Nuradin to expand his control over Syria and to take Damascus in 1154. Its only substantial achievement had taken place before the armies had even arrived in the Holy Land. A contingent from the British Isles that had been forced ashore near Porto due to bad weather, joined the forces of King Alfonso I of Portugal in attacking Moor-held Lisbon and recovering it for the Christians. Another European effort of the crusade was attacks by Saxons and Danes against the pagan Welds in the Baltic region, but that ended in nothing more than insubstantial truces.

The Second Crusade was not the first crusade to end in failure. That distinction perhaps goes to the Crusade of 1101, or to the Peasants’ Crusade of 1096. Nor was it by any means the last failure. And it was not the only one to lose direction. The crusades of Louis IX have that distinction. But failure it was, and without even the consolation of that other famed detour - the Fourth Crusade, which at least established a brief-lived empire and was a major territorial achievement for the Venetians.

* William of Tyre, Chronicon, 17.2, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. Emily A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, New York, 1943, vol. 2, p. 186.

**The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades, extracted and translated from the chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi, H.A.R. Gibb, New York, 2002 (first published London, 1932), p. 283.

***William of Tyre, p. 191.

****Ibn Al-Qalanisi, p. 286.

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