Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Bagrevand (775)


Wikimedia |

When Arab armies moved out of Arabia in the 630s and utterly wrecked the Roman-Persian balance of power that had defined western Asia for centuries, you could make a strong case that nobody, apart from the Romans and the Persians, felt it more acutely than the Armenians. The Kingdom of Armenia had long been a buffer between the two great powers, with dynasties ruling as Roman or Persian (first Parthian, and later Sasanian) clients, and coming and going often at the whim of one of the two empires. This changed in the fourth century, when the Romans and Sasanians partitioned the ancient kingdom into two parts: so-called Lesser Armenia, which became a Roman province, and Persian Armenia, which held nominal independence for a time before becoming a Sasanian domain in the early fifth century. The events described here primarily affected Persian Armenia; Lesser Armenia, along the southern coast of the Black Sea, remained in Roman hands until it was taken by the Seljuq Turks in the late 11th century.

Having suffered through the push-and-pull Roman-Persian relationship for the better part of a millennium, the Armenians now had to face a new upheaval with the destruction of the Sasanian Empire and the arrival of conquering Arab armies in the Caucasus as early as the late 630s, not even a decade after Muhammad’s death.

Source: Today in Caucasian history: the Battle of Bagrevand (775)

Today in South Asian history: the First Battle of Panipat (1526)

Map - India - Mughal Expansion 1526-1605

Early Mughal expansion (you’ll see Panipat there in the upper middle area)

As I think we’ve mentioned before, Panipat has seen three major battles since the 16th century. I don’t think I’m doing the other two battles a disservice if I say that this first one was the most significant of the three, because it established the Mughal Empire in northern India, where, with the exception of a brief interlude it would remain, in one form or another, until the 19th century. This First Battle of Panipat, on April 21 1526, is generally accepted as the starting point for the Mughal Empire. The battle is also a pretty stark example of the potency of 16th century gunpowder weapons, which allowed a heavily outnumbered Mughal army (estimated around 12,000 men) to pretty easily defeat the army of the Delhi Sultanate (which various estimates put somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 strong).

The Mughals were commanded by their founder, Babur (d. 1530), who was heir to a very illustrious tradition of Central Asian conquerors but, ironically, had decided to march over the Hindu Kush into India in part because he was tired of getting his ass kicked in Central Asia so much. Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Wahhabi sack of Karbala (probably 1802)


The Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala today (Wikimedia)

Wahhabism has always taken a dim view of Shiʿism–really, denigrating the Shiʿa is at the core of the movement’s origins. Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) based his teachings in large part on those of the very influential 13th-14th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyah, and apart maybe from philosophers Shiʿa were pretty much Ibn Taymiyah’s least favorite people in the world. One of the things Ibn Taymiyah condemned was the practice, common among but certainly not limited to Shiʿa, of visiting the shrine of a respected religious figure (a “saint,” for lack of a better term) to venerate that figure and ask the him or her to intercede on one’s behalf with God. Ibn Taymiyah saw such practices as unequivocally shirk (placing someone or something on the same level with God, i.e. polytheism), and his condemnations are the intellectual justification for Salafis in modern times who, for example, destroy shrines of prominent Sufi figures (though, I should note, Ibn Taymiyah was himself a Sufi).

Ibn Taymiyah also really hated the Shiʿa pilgrimage to Karbala to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn b. Ali, who was killed there in the Battle of Karbala in 680. He didn’t disagree that Husayn was a martyr, but he argued that martyrdom was a blessing, not something to be mourned. And anyway, as I say, he rejected the act of making pilgrimage to someone’s tomb and paying homage there as shirk, which is really the most heinous crime one can commit under Islamic religious law.

Ideologically, Wahhabism takes the embrace of God’s oneness and avoidance of shirk as its main point of emphasis, so it’s no wonder that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab embraced what Ibn Taymiyah had to say about the treatment of saints and their shrines. He went further though, arguing that Shiʿa were guilty of elevating their imams over Muhammad and even of placing them on the same level with God. And under the so-called “First Saudi State,” which lasted from 1744 to 1818 and grew to control most of the Arabian peninsula during its brief lifespan, these tenets of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching were made state policy.

All of this is to explain why, on April 21 in either 1801 or 1802, but more likely 1802, a Saudi army of about 12,000 men marched north to Karbala, destroyed the Imam Husayn Shrine (seen above in its modern form), and massacred between two and five thousand people in the process. Or, well, it explains their theoretical justification for carrying out that act. If you ask me, the reason for the raid on Karbala was much less about the One True Islam than it was about all the sweet treasure they were able to plunder. Continue reading

This Week in Middle Eastern history: the Second Battle of Gaza (1917)

Having noted the 100th anniversary of World War I’s indecisive First Battle of Gaza just a few weeks ago, I suppose it would be inappropriate to skip over the centennial of the slightly less indecisive Second Battle of Gaza, which was April 17-19. I say that both of these battles were indecisive mostly because each was a temporary Ottoman victories and both were followed up in early November 1917 by a truly decisive British victory in the Third Battle of Gaza. Britain’s second crack at capturing Gaza was a bit more decisive than its first because, for one thing, this time the British didn’t literally give victory away by retreating when there was no discernible reason to do so, and, for another, because it was a little over five months before the Brits would make another serious effort here, whereas their victory in the first battle only bought the Ottomans about three weeks of quiet before they were fighting again.

Map - Ottomans in WW I

WWI Middle Eastern Theater

The British commanders, Archibald Murray and Charles Dobell, having probably realized that they screwed up in their first effort to take Gaza, seem to have assumed that the second time would be the charm. Unfortunately for them, the Ottomans and Germans hadn’t exactly slept through that first battle, and so after it ended the Ottomans dispatched a large number of reinforcements to Gaza while the Germans sent enough aircraft to at least even the odds a bit with the Brits. Michael Collins Dunn has a new piece up on the battle and he offers the short and to the point version of what happened:

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.

The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Murray somewhat hilariously tried to pin the loss on Dobell (it probably helped that Dobell was Canadian, not British), but while Dobell was replaced Murray was also taken out of the field and put in command of a training center back in Britain. Because the Middle Eastern Theater wasn’t as glamorous as the Western Front, it took a while to find Murray’s replacement and he didn’t get there until June. The pick was a fellow named Edmund Allenby, who had recently been taken off the line because his former commanding officer blamed him for a costly stalemate at the Battle of Arras, in France. As it turns out, he was the right man for the job.

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Today in European history: the Fourth Crusade sacks Constantinople (1204)

The Fourth Crusade, as I’ve occasionally hinted at, is for me, in many ways, the Crusadiest of all the Crusades. Sure, the First Crusade actually achieved its goal, which you can’t really say about any of the others in any serious sense, and other Crusades produced quintessential Crusading figures like Richard the Lionheart and Saint Louis. But the Crusades were, to my admittedly cynical, agnostic eye, an enterprise that was marked more by petty infighting, poor planning, and a tendency to shoot (or stab) oneself in the foot than by dashing heroes or the triumphant “recovery” of the Holy Land for Christ. And the Fourth Crusade has more of that first list of stuff than any of the others. Any major military campaign that targets Muslims and instead brings down the longest-lived Christian kingdom in the world is worth special consideration in my book.

Source: Today in European history: the Fourth Crusade sacks Constantinople (1204)

Today in European history: the Battle of Mohi (1241)

Having already talked about the Battle of Legnica a couple of days ago, I suppose we should mention the larger of the Mongols’ two major April 1241 battles, the Battle of Mohi (also referred to as the Battle of the Sajó River) on April 11 (it technically may have begun on April 10, but close enough). If you’ve already read the story of Legnica then you know that this was a Mongol victory, one that you could argue, for a brief time at least, meant that the Mongols had conquered Hungary. But their “conquest,” such as it was, lasted less than a year before their forces withdrew east and Hungarian King Béla IV (d. 1270) was able to regain and begin to rebuild his kingdom.

The Mongols invaded Hungary ostensibly in pursuit of the Cumans, a people that had once co-controlled, along with the Kipchaks, a khanate in the Eurasian steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas and stretching into Central Asia as we think of “Central Asia” today. The Cuman-Kipchak Confederation, as it’s often known today, lasted for a bit over three centuries from the 10th-13th centuries. They caused grief for the Byzantine Empire, Kievan Rus’, various Persian-speaking kingdoms that began to develop in Central Asia as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, etc. We’ve actually encountered a byproduct of the Cuman-Kipchak Confederation in the form of the Mamluk sultanate that took over Egypt and Syria in the middle of the 13th century. The slave soldiers who were imported to Egypt under dynasties that went back to the 10th century and eventually took power for themselves came (at this point–later Mamluks came from the north Caucasus), from the Kipchak steppe and were sold into slavery by merchants operating in the Cuman-Kipchak Confederation.

Anyway, we don’t need to go into much detail about the Confederation because by this point it was pretty well kaput, destroyed by the Mongol expansion. The Cumans themselves fled west, where they joined an anti-Mongol confederation in the early 1220s but were bribed to abandon it by the Mongols, who then promptly attacked them anyway after they’d dispatched the rest of the confederation. The Cumans then joined up with the Rus’ to face the Mongols at Kalka in 1223, where it’s said that their innovative tactical decision to flee before the battle really started was instrumental to the decisive Mongolian victory. They basically kept on fleeing into Hungary, and the Mongols saw the Hungarians’ decision to shelter them as a cause–or, maybe, a convenient justification–to invade.

Map - Mongol Invasions of Europe

You’ll see Mohi on the left side of this map amid all the red lines

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Today in European history: the Battle of Legnica (1241)

The double-envelopment, or pincer movement, is such a tried and true military tactic that the guy who literally wrote the book on war, Sun Tzu, discussed it in his book on war. It involves, as the name suggests, outflanking an enemy on both sides in order to encircle it completely. Sun Tzu actually argued against employing this tactic, because if carried through to completion it leaves the enemy no opportunity to retreat, and he believed that an enemy with its back against the wall like that would fight harder than one whose fighters saw a chance to get the hell out of Dodge. That’s not bad reasoning, but with all due respect to Sun Tzu the historical evidence suggests that he may have gotten this one wrong. There are problems involved in attempting a pincer movement, including complexity and the vulnerability of your army’s center, which has to engage the enemy and hold out while the flanks do all their outflanking maneuvers, but in major engagements in which it’s been successfully implemented–Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BCE, the Seljuks at Manzikert in 1071, Daniel Morgan at Cowpens in 1781–the army using the pincer has won decisively, generally with heavy casualties on the other side (the Romans lost well over 50,000 men at Cannae, which was a massive number for a battle in the ancient world).

It’s likely that no army has ever made more use of the pincer movement than the Mongolian army, or I guess the several Mongolian armies because there were always several of them out campaigning at any one time. They used a variant of the pincer movement that (Sun Tzu would approve) generally didn’t envelope the enemy from the rear and thus left them a way out if they could get back the way they’d come. They also, usually, didn’t anchor the fighting with the center of their line while their flanks maneuvered around the enemy position. Instead, the Mongol forces, primarily made up of highly maneuverable mounted archers, would “retreat” at the center in order to get the enemy army, or at least part of it, to chase them and basically envelop itself. This is an incredibly difficult tactic to pull off, because a feigned retreat–which has to look like a retreat to pull off the deception, so it can’t look like an orderly movement–can turn very easily into a real retreat if you’re not careful. But the Mongols were experts at it.


This helpful visual representation of a feigned retreat comes from here, where you can see representations of a couple of other favorite Mongol tactics as well

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