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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Chivalry of an Enemy

Field Marshal Radomir Putnik (1847–1917) served as Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian army during the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. When, on 28 July 1914, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, Putnik was in Budapest. Yet Emperor Franz Josef, persuaded perhaps by his chief-of-staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, allowed him safe passage back to Serbia where he reluctantly (being ill at the time) took command of the Serbian army. In August and September, the vastly outnumbered Serbian army defeated the Austro-Hungarians in an exceptional campaign, and by December had driven them out of Serbia. This brought a period of relatively quiet to Serbia, but in the autumn of 1915, the combined Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian armies opened a new, major offensive. The heroic resistance of the Serbs was in vain and the Serbian army was forced to retreat towards Kosovo. Finally, following a disastrous defeat between 19 and 24 November 1915, in a battle at the Field of the Blackbirds (also site of a famous fourteenth century battle), Putnik ordered a full retreat through Montenegro into Albania. Ill and morally broken, he was dismissed in January 1916, and died in Nice on 17 May 1917.

What is somewhat odd in this story is the decision of Emperor Franz Josef, allowing the highly regarded and decorated military leader of the country he was about to invade to return home and lead his country to war. This has been regarded by some historians as an act of chivalry on the part of the emperor. Another, and perhaps more realistic assessment is that, because of Putnik's age (67) and ill health, the emperor and his chief-of-staff did not regard him as a real threat. The initial outcome of his return - Serbia's highly successful resistance in August-September and Austro-Hungary's shameful withdrawal - may have made the emperor regret having permitted it.

Perhaps Saladin, in the early stages of his siege of Jerusalem, may have harboured such regrets for a somewhat similar act. Following his decisive defeat of the Frankish army at the Battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187, while he was besieging Tyre shortly after having taken the kingdom's second city of Acre, a highly regarded Frankish knight, Balian of Ibelin, sent the sultan a petition. He requested an escort and safe-conduct so that he might to go to Jerusalem where his wife and children were located, and return with them to Tripoli. Saladin certainly must have known that there were few capable knights left to defend Jerusalem, most having fallen or been taken captive at Hattin. If Balian would lead the defence, he would certainly prove to be a formidable opponent. Nonetheless, he permitted the knight to return.

If there are some doubts regarding Franz Josef's motivation, few historians doubt that, with regard to Saladin it was indeed a matter of chivalry. And we can hardly regard the conditions that he demanded of Balian as by any means lessening this. He required that Balian take an oath that he would spend only a single night in the city. He must have taken into consideration that Balian might decide, or be persuaded, to remain in the city in order to defend it. And indeed that was what happened. The patriarch of Jerusalem absolved Balian of his oath, and he remained in Jerusalem and led its defence when Saladin began his siege on 20 September. He did so quite effectively, considering that it was pretty much a lost cause. He managed to more or less force Saladin to agree to leave off taking the city by force, and reach an agreement with the Franks on terms of surrender, thereby saving most of the population from death or captivity.

On more than one occasion Saladin displayed what at least appears to be chivalrous behaviour, something rather less characteristic of Franz Josef, and it is hardly surprising that historians tend to give the sultan rather better press that the emperor.

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