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This week in history: The Battle of Tours

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One of the most significant battles in the history of Western civilization was fought on Oct. 11, 732 A.D., near Tours, France. The Battle of Tours (or Poitiers) pitted a largely horse-bound army of Islamic invaders against the infantry-dominated forces of the Franks, who fought to protect their Christian religion and homeland. The Frankish victory ultimately ensured the continuing development of Western civilization.

Unlike the Jewish and Christian traditions, which saw worshipers persecuted for centuries before their religions were tolerated or entered the mainstream, Islam proved a dynamic and powerful movement within the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. Within decades of his death, Islam had spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

In 711 A.D. the first Islamic Moorish armies crossed the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. Within a few years, virtually all of modern Spain and Portugal were subjugated by the Islamic forces. Just as the Persian army centuries before and the Mongol army centuries after, Moorish striking power derived from its horse troops. The surprise cavalry provided, as well as its ability to scatter undisciplined foot soldiers, made for a powerful and often decisive weapon.

When Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi crossed the Pyrenees, he commanded a cavalry force of perhaps as many as 50,000 horsemen, though the numbers are disputed and difficult to confirm with any great degree of accuracy. However many men he commanded, this was a huge force threatening the Frankish way of life.

France at this time was a region in transition. The ruling Franks were a community of Germanic tribes that held to their traditions even as they adopted those features of faded Roman society that appealed to them. This mixture of cultures — German and Roman — was key to the formulation of an entirely new civilization. Indeed, today we regard France as the cradle of Western civilization for precisely these reasons.

Charles Martel (also known as Charles the Hammer), whose title with the Frankish court was mayor of the palace, acted as essentially prime minister to the Frankish Merovingian kings. Given the largely ineffectual power of the Frankish kings by this point, Charles was the de facto ruler of the Franks, and after his death his family would create its own royal dynasty, the Carolingians. After fighting a series of wars against European enemies such as the Saxons and the Frisians, Charles realized that a great threat approached from the south and began to rally the disorganized and bickering Frankish tribes.

In his book “A History of Warfare,” the late historian Sir John Keegan notes the unique fighting style that had evolved among the Franks: “The cultivated lands of western Europe could support a horse population of no large size, and the feudal armies that answered the summons to arms resembled a horse people's horde in no way at all. The difference derived in a great measure from the distinctive military culture of the Teutonic tribes, which encouraged face-to-face fighting with edged weapons, a tradition reinforced by their encounters with the Roman armies before they had lost their legionary training.”

To meet the Moorish horse army, Charles Martel assembled a force believed to number around 30,000 troops comprised almost exclusively of heavy infantry. Here the Franks held several advantages. They knew the Moors were coming and had prepared to meet them, negating a horse-bound army's usual advantage of surprise. More importantly, the Franks were not an army of poorly trained conscripts who would break at the first sign of the enemy. Rather, it was an army of citizen volunteers who understood the necessity of absolute discipline on the battlefield.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson writes in his book, “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power”:

“What was it like in the confused fighting at Poitiers? The Franks were large and physically formidable, well protected with chain-mail shirts or leather jerkins covered with metal scales. Their round shields, like those of the old Greek hoplite, were nearly three feet in diameter, curved, made of heavy hardwood, stoutly constructed with iron fittings, and covered with leather. … A small conical iron helmet protected the head, ideal for warding off downstrokes from horsemen. Each Frankish infantryman lumbered into battle with nearly seventy pounds of arms and armor, making him as helpless in open skirmishing as he was invulnerable in dense formation ….”

The wall of Frankish infantry would not be trampled under the foot of Islamic cavalry. Hanson said that when the Moors' usual trick of charging the enemy failed to make a breakthrough in the Frankish lines, they would fall back and launch uncoordinated volleys of arrows, having just as little effect upon the heavily armored Franks.

When a rumor spread among the Moorish troops that the Franks were threatening their baggage train and all of the loot they'd stolen in their march across southern France, they broke off the engagement. The next day, as the Franks prepared to battle again, the Moors had retreated, heading back to Spain. A legion of dead littered the field, including the Moorish commander, Rahman Al Ghafiqi.

Historian Rodney Stark writes in his book, “God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades,” "that Muslims in Spain learned from their defeat that the Franks were not a sedentary people served by mercenary garrison troops, nor were they a barbarian horde. … The Frankish host was made up of very well trained citizen volunteers who possessed arms, armor and tactics superior to those of the Muslims. Indeed, when the Muslims tried to invade Gaul again in 735, Charles Martel and his Franks gave them another beating so severe that Muslim forces never ventured very far north again.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com