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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Need to be Up-to-Date

BELVOIR CASTLE (AVRAMGR [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

On Aug 22 1914 the French army experienced the greatest number of casualties in a single day by any army in the First World War. At Charleroi, the main contingent was forced into retreat in a narrow pass, at Rossignol the French troops were mown down by the well-deployed German troops and at Bellefontain the French lost one third of their troops. All in all, on that single day 27,000 French soldiers were killed and many were wounded or fell into captivity.

The cause of this disaster was the fact that in 1914 the French army were disastrously behind the times. The field regulations instructed French soldiers that after they faced fire they had about 20 seconds before the enemy could reload their rifles during which they could cover a distance of 50 metres. This ignored the fact that the German army was well-supplied with machine guns. A single machine gun was estimated to have the equivalent firepower of between 60-100 rifles. Yet, when war broke out in August 1914, while the Germans possessed some 12,000 machine guns, the French (like the British) had no more than a few hundred. This is only one example of how devastatingly, outmoded methods and materials could influence the outcome of a battle and there are many examples throughout history of armies unprepared to face the realities they confront. While success in warfare depends on many factors, possession of the appropriate equipment is high on the list, alongside intelligent leadership, tactical perceptiveness, good logistical capabilities, motivation and, of course, good luck.

The survival of the crusader states depended on the ability of their armies to face an enemy which had the capability of mustering much greater numbers in the field. With the exception of the few occasions when great crusader armies arrived from the West, this demographic handicap was a constant feature of conflict between the Frankish settlers and their Muslim opponents throughout the two centuries of Frankish rule. As they were incapable of changing this reality, the Franks applied their resourcefulness in creating innovative solutions. Among the greatest of these was the entirely original idea of the military order - an organisation that was designed to provide soldiers whose military training was part of a daily regimen and who possessed the very best equipment available. Another was the reliance on and development of the castle, the most iconic of crusader creations.

Crusader castles were like limpets clinging to the rock in an inhospitable and stormy sea. Their role was complex and varied, but a major aspect of it was that that through their strength they were able to provide a garrison of sometimes remarkably small size, the ability to hold out for a considerable period of time against a large attacking force. In order to do this they had to be appropriately suited to face the enemy and whatever equipment he might possess. In this regard, one of the best known of crusader castles, Belvoir, is an important lesson on the need that fragile entities like the crusader states have to keep their finger on the pulse of their opponent's capabilities and advances.

When the property at Belvoir was purchased by the Hospitallers in 1168 they no doubt had in mind to construct a state-of-the-art castle on this strategic site overlooking the Jordan Valley and the eastern frontier of the kingdom. They chose an ancient design, one that had already been employed in several other crusader sites - the so-called quadriburgium - an enclosure castle with projecting corner towers that enabled its garrison to defend the exterior walls from firing positions in the towers. To this design they added another long-established technique of concentric defensive lines, and at Belvoir this was done for the first time by enclosing one quadriburgium within another, thereby creating an almost symmetrical design with a perfection and intelligence never before achieved in any crusader castle.

In the late twelfth century and particularly through the thirteenth the crusaders went on to construct ever more complex and advanced fortifications. Any yet, having reached an apogee in castle design at Belvoir, they promptly abandoned it. With a single exception in a minor fortress in western Cyprus, nowhere else in the Latin East did the Franks return to the design they employed at Belvoir. The reason for this appears to be that at the very point in time when the Franks had achieved this perfection of design, it lost its relevance.

The quadriburgium was highly effective in its ability to limit the approach of an enemy by foot or on horseback, but the introduction of a new ballistic weapon which appeared in the Latin East at about the time Belvoir was under construction, radically changed the playing field. Through the use of a massive counterweight hoisted into the air and when required, suddenly released, the trebuchet, was far more powerful than any weapon previously employed. Such a machine, placed even some distance from the walls would leave Belvoir and castles like it exposed in their entirety to major damage.

The counterweight trebuchet necessitated a fundamental change in castle design. Higher and thicker walls would help, but would not be enough. The only effective means of defending a castle from these new machines was to build them in locations where they would be beyond the range of the machines and when this was not or was only partly possible, to make the defences significantly higher and more massive. The result was the construction of the great spur and hilltop castles of the thirteenth century, castles defended by steep slopes, distant enough from level positions to keep them outside the effective range of a trebuchet, and where they could still be approached, to employ construction of walls sometimes over thirty metres in height and up to ten metres thick.

The creation of Belvoir shows the Franks at the peak of their abilities of fortification design. Their immediate abandonment of this design shows them at the peak of their perspicacity.

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