Monday, March 31, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War I: Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: Germany’s colonial guerrilla warrior?

On 2nd March 1919 the Germans who had returned from East Africa marched through the Brandenburg gate to be greeted by members of Germany’s new post war government. A victory parade was held in their honour and their commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was awarded the ‘pour le merite’. Unlike the rest of the German army, von Lettow and his ‘Schutztruppen’ had avoided defeat and only surrendered when news of the armistice finally arrived from Europe on the 25th November 1918. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the German army in East Africa numbered only 218 Europeans and 2,542 askaris, divided into fourteen field companies. Cut off from Germany, von Lettow was almost entirely reliant on what he could get from within the colony. The German commander never had more than 15,000 soldiers whereas the Allies eventually fielded a force of 160,000 men in an effort to pin down and destroy the German presence in East Africa. Beyond his own country, von Lettow came to be venerated as a master of guerrilla warfare. The origins of this interpretation lie with the South Africans who had fought him in 1916. The Boers among them, sensitive to their own performance in the Boer war fifteen years earlier, were happy to accept the notion that they had influenced von Lettow’s strategic outlook. As a result of these ideas as well as the protracted length of the campaign, East Africa has received more attention than the other sub-Saharan theatres of World War I.



Von Lettow surveying British troop movements on the Kilomanjaro front, March 1916.


From the outset, the British had the military advantage with control of the sea and larger military forces. However, they received a severe blow when a British and Indian force failed to capture the port of Tanga in November 1914. There was serious fighting in the Kilomanjaro region and German flying columns damaged the Uganda railway. However, by early 1916, the Germans had been forced to retreat south towards the central railway line. Von Lettow managed to stage a tactical retreat into southern Tanganyika, always one step ahead of Allied attempts to trap his forces. Although outright victory was never a possibility for the dwindling German forces, von Lettow hoped to force the British to commit disproportionate forces to pursue him and thereby keep those forces away from other fronts in the war.

Despite how he is remembered, arguably von Lettow was never really a practitioner of guerrilla warfare in mindset nor tactics. Had he truly adopted the tactics of the guerrilla, considerably more could have been achieved in disrupting the Allied colonies in East Africa. From the outset of war, von Lettow’s own operational priorities remained those of the classic German military doctrine in which he had been trained. Professor Hew Strachan argues that von Lettow’s memoirs contain no theory relevant to the guerrilla. Instead they illustrate his desire for ‘envelopment, encirclement and the decisive battle’. His own instinct was to give battle rather than shy away from it. This he did on several occasions. However, it should be remembered that fighting for fighting’s sake both depleted his ammunition and endangered the lives of the irreplaceable European officer and non-commissioned officers that formed the core of von Lettow’s army.

Von Lettow himself was critical of those subordinate commanders who did exercise a form of guerrilla warfare. In January 1917, Max Wintgens led his column across the Allied lines of communications, and up to the central railway near Tabora. Wintgens sick with typhus, surrendered on 21 May, but Heinrich Naumann, his successor, held out until 2nd September. This was a classic guerrilla operation. Naumann’s men marched 3,200km between February and September. They had operated behind Allied line and drawn up to 6000 men away from the main battle. Von Lettow criticised the operation for undermining the principle of concentration of forces. Such independence smacked of insubordination rather than initiative.

It was only with von Lettow’s entry into Portuguese territory that his style of operations began to conform with that that of a guerrilla leader. His supply position had forced him onto the defensive. He fought to feed his troops and subsequently, the war in East Africa became one of movement as the Germans searched for fresh sources of supply with the British in hot pursuit. At Ngomano on 25th November 1917, the Germans surprised 1,200 Portuguese troops and captured 600 rifles and 250,000 rounds of ammunition. Three more forts were taken in December, and the Schutztruppen were able to keep themselves supplied. Von-Lettow and his column were successfully able to exploit the weakness of Portugal’s colonial administration and poor military organisation.

Nevertheless, this incursion into Portuguese territory could be viewed as a lost opportunity to wage a much larger war against the Allies than von Lettow and his forces could have waged on their own with the limited resources available. Portugal’s major concern was with the internal order of its colony. The northern regions had never properly been pacified, and in the south the Makombe in Zambezia rose in revolt in March 1917. The Portuguese turned Ngoni auxiliaries onto the Makombe and suppressed the rising by the end of 1917. The Portuguese condoned inter-tribal fighting and slavery as a means to retain control of the region. However, von Lettow did not fan these flames for his own ends. Whilst marching through the area he paid for goods with worthless paper currency and German doctors attended to the sick. But he continued to regard Africa and Africans as neutral bystanders in a wider conflict.

Von Lettow justified his entire campaign in terms of the number of Entente soldiers committed to the East Africa theatre. Almost 160,000 British and Belgian troops, including naval forces were engaged during the course of the war against the Schutztruppen. However, few of these if any would have been available for the western front. British policy was that by and large, Africans should take the burden for fighting the land campaign in the African colonies. Von Lettow’s real diversionary achievement was to be measured in the maritime, rather than land effects. In 1917/18, with U-boat warfare at its height, the length of the voyage round the Cape to Dar es Salaam tied up merchant vessels on long-haul voyages where they were desperately needed elsewhere. The need for more ships, rather than to defeat von Lettow, underpinned British war policy against the remaining the remaining German African colonies.

When von Lettow and his men finally surrendered at Abercorn at the end of November 1918, he still had a fighting force of 155 Europeans and 1,156 African askaris armed with thirty-seven machine guns, 1,071 British and Portuguese rifles and 208,000 rounds. The real restraint on what could have been achieved by those forces lay not in the possible efforts of the Allies, but in von Lettow’s own reluctance to embrace a more revolutionary strategy. Had von Lettow considered using local political difficulties to his advantage than perhaps the war in East Africa might have been a much larger headache for the Allies. Instead it turned into a case of chasing the Germans across the continent after the German colony itself was overrun in November 1917. Nonetheless, Von Lettow was without doubt an officer of resource and determination. His Schutztruppen were the embodiment of the German army’s own notion of invincibility, leadership and determination against all the odds. However, he remained an old-school soldier trained in the manner of the German General staff. His attitude and tactics clearly demonstrate that von Lettow was no guerrilla fighter.


Hew Strachan, The First World War’ (London, 2003)

Hew Strachan, The First World War in Africa (Oxford, 2004)

Edward Paige, Tip and Run’ (London, 2007)

Michael S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global history (Harvard, 2006)

David Killingray, ‘The War in Africa’ in the Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War ed. Hew Strachan (Oxford, 1998)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Military History and Warfare: 'Kolberg' - A Nazi Epic

On 30 January 1945 ‘Kolberg’ premiered simultaneously in bomb ravaged Berlin as well as to the besieged sailors and soldiers surrounded at La Rochelle in western France. ‘Kolberg’ was the last major film of the Third Reich and told the story of siege the East Prussian town by Napoleon’s forces in 1807. Involving entire army units as extras and with a budget of eight and half million Reichsmarks, it was also the most expensive film the Nazi regime ever produced.

As a result of policies brought into force in February 1942, the entire German film industry was put under the ownership of a government holding company. Film distribution was centralised and ownership of theatres was severely restricted. At the same time, the Ministry of Propaganda took complete control of film content whilst film critics were given clear instructions as to how films should be reviewed.

On 1 June 1943 Goebbel’s wrote to the leading film director Veit Harlan as follows:

“I hereby instruct you to produce a major film ‘Kolberg’. The aim of the film is to demonstrate on the basis of the example of the town which give the film its title that a nation which is united at home and at the front can overcome any enemy”

At the beginning of the war, Goebbels had insisted upon the production of documentaries that chronicled German military successes. However, by 1942 the reversals on the Eastern Front and the entry of the Americans into the war meant that these kinds of films were no longer possible. Goebbels resigned himself to the production of entertainment films arguing that occasional escapes from the realities of the home front would prepare the German people for a war of attrition that lay ahead.

The story of the heroic decisions of the town of Kolberg to resist the French invasion despite the surrender of the local government authorities, appealed to the Reich propaganda minister who saw it as useful in rallying the German people should the German army be forced onto the defensive.

‘Kolberg’ falls into the category of propaganda film which was direct and involved historic individuals and events designed to carry a message about the current situation. Goebbels had previously commissioned ‘The Great King’ (Der Grosse Konig) about Frederick the Great of Prussia triumphing against all the odds through raw determination during the Seven Years war.

A small sample of the dialogue between the mayor of Kolberg and the garrison commander Gneisenau reveals the running theme of the film;

“No we’re not going to give up now. And even if we have to dig our nails into the grounds of our town, we’re not going to give up…I’d rather be buried…than surrender. Gneisenau, Gneisenau, I have never bent my knee before to anybody. But I’m doing it now, Gneisenau. Kolberg must not be surrendered, Gneisenau!”


It is especially fascinating to consider the sheer amount of effort that went in to making the film at a time when resources were growing increasingly scarce. Goebbels made it clear from the start of the production that the unconditional support of the Wehrmacht was expected. As such, 180,000 soldiers were diverted from the front at a time when Soviet forces were about, or towards the end of the shooting had already crossed into East Prussia. Despite a shortage of ammunition on the Eastern front, factories worked overtime to produce blank bullets for the film. Goebbels clearly saw this film as a work that future generations of Germans would go to see and regard as an expression of the resilience and success of the Nazi regime.

In spite of logistical difficulties, shooting started in the actual location of the city in East Prussia. The film was shot in expensive Agfacolour film with more than 3000 metres and 110 metres length. By the end of the shooting, ninety hours of unedited footage had been collected. Putting the film together was a painstaking process at the UFA studios of Neudabelsberg in Berlin. Editing of the film took place at a time when the city had been paralysed by air-raids and resources of any kind were difficult to obtain. Despite these problems, the film appeared in UFA’s progress report of autumn 1944 as having entered the last stages of production and would be ready for release by November 1944. Goebbels postponed the film’s release until he had had a chance to personally review the material. He asked for a shortening of the battle sequences in favour of more character development. As a result the film was only ready for release in January of 1945 when few German cities still actually possessed functioning cinemas. Ironically by this stage, the town of Kolberg itself was about to fall into the hands of the Soviets.

The production and release of ‘Kolberg’ summarise the total loss of contact with reality which became the most prominent feature of the Nazi leadership and Hitler and Goebbels in particular during the final months of the war. Director Viet Harlan later summarised his own views on the motivation of the regime in releasing such a film so near the end;

“Hitler as well as Goebbels must have been obsessed with the idea that a film like this could be more useful to them than even a victory in Russia. Maybe they too were now just waiting for a miracle. And what better way to make miracles than to utilise the ‘dream factory’ that is film.”


Nazism 1919-1945, vol.4 ‘The German Home Front’ in World War II, ed. Jeremy Noakes (Exeter, 1998)

Aristole A. Kallis, Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War (New York, 2005)

Scott Spector ‘Was the Third Reich Movie-Made?’ Interdisciplinority and the Reframing of Ideology” in The American Historical Review vol. 106, No.2 (April 2001)

David Weinberg, ‘Film in the Third Reich’ in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.19, No.1 in Historians and Movies: The State of the Art Part 2 (Jan. 1984)

Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (London, 2001)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War II: Why did the German Ardennes offensive of 1944 fail to achieve its goals?

The Ardennes offensive of December 1944 is often regarded as Hitler’s last throw of the dice. In a final effort to turn the tide of the war on the western front, Germany launched a surprise offensive designed to catch the Allies off guard and retake the vital strategic port of Antwerp. Initially, the offensive went well and succeeded in advancing sixty miles into Belgium, taking thousands of US prisoners in the process as well as shattering Allied myths regarding the continued fighting capabilities of the Wehrmacht. However, by Christmas day of 1944 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam. Allied forces began a series of counterattacks that eventually drove the Germans back to their start line by the middle of January 1945. Devastating German losses destroyed any future hopes of Germany retaking the strategic initiative. By March 1945, the Allies had crossed the Rhine and annihilated the remnants of the Wehrmacht in Western Europe. However, had the Ardennes offensive succeeded in achieving its goals the situation might have been very different. The attack followed the same route as that of the 1940 German invasion four years earlier. The potential consequences of the offensive succeeding would have seriously undermined the Allied strategy for ending the war by 1945. Given the large scale German preparations for the offensive and the initial success of the attack, it is important to examine what exactly the goals of the German Army were and why they failed to break through and achieve their objectives.

The battles in Normandy and the rest of France following D-Day had seriously depleted the Wehrmacht’s fighting strength. However, the shortcomings of Allied supply logistics as well as the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944 gave the German army much needed breathing space to reorganise and rebuild. From September Hitler began to gradually assemble a strong force of panzer divisions. On 22nd October 1944, the German commander in the West, Gerd von Rundstedt and the commander of Army Group B, Field Marshall Model, were informed of the Fuhrer’s plans. These called for a major offensive from the Eifel and across the Ardennes by three re-equipped armies. Sixth SS Panzer under Sepp Dietrich, Fifth Panzer under von Manteuffel and General Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, all supported by some 1,400 aircraft of the Luftwaffe. The plan was to strike a heavy blow against the Allies in the West, splitting their forces in two, inflicting heavy losses and capturing their main supply base, the port of Antwerp. The attack would smash through the US First Army in the southern Ardennes and drive north-west towards Antwerp, crossing the River Meuse between Liege and Namur.

Each of the armies involved had a definite task. In the north, Dietrich’s SS Panzer Army was to capture Monschau and Bugenbach and then pass three infantry divisions though to hold the northern flank of the attack east of Liege. The 1st and 12th SS would then thrust west for Malmedy and Stavelot, whilst an advanced striking force commanded by SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, disguised with captured American uniforms and equipment would rush west and seize the Meuse bridges. In the south, Hasso von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army would thrust for the key road junctions at St.Vith and Bastogne, cross the River Our and drive on for the Meuse. To protect these advances, Brandenberger’s Seventh Army would provide a flank guard from Arlon to Luxembourg.

In theory, the plan held some merit. The thick forest and natural valleys of the Ardennes forest were almost impenetrable to Allied aerial surveillance. This would allow the Germans to build up large forces and supplies without arousing the suspicions of Allied intelligence and gain the advantage of surprise. To ensure absolute secrecy, Hitler forbade the use of wireless traffic in the area during the weeks before the attack. To give the impression that any forces detected were for defensive purposes only, the plan was codenamed ‘Wacht am Rhein’, later changed to ‘Herbstnebel’ (‘Autumn Smoke’). On the 16th December 1944, the Germans managed to throw eight panzer divisions, twenty infantry divisions and two mechanized brigades into the offensive. This totalled 200,000 men, initially supported by 500 tanks and 1,900 guns and mortars. Despite these preparations, Rundstedt and Model thought the plan for a thrust on Antwerp was ill-advised and too ambitious. They proposed an alternative plan aimed at damaging the forces opposite the Ardennes rather than trying to destroy them. Hitler refused to accept anything other than an all-out offensive and their plans were rejected.

Hitler hoped that a major defeat in the West would impel the Allies to the conference table. Even if the attack failed, Hitler considered that it might give Germany some useful time to produce more of its new technologically sophisticated weaponry and turn the tide of the war. German industry was finally starting to produce large numbers of jet-fighters that might yet curb the bomber offensive. The German navy could also renew its U-boat offensive on Allied convoys with the newly developed schnorkel submarine. In addition new V-weapons could be used in increasingly large number on British and continental cities inflicting casualties and sapping enemy morale.

Facing the Germans on the Ardennes front on the 16th December were 83,000 men with 242 Sherman medium tanks, 182 M-10 tank destroyers and 394 guns of various calibre. These forces had a long front to cover of some 104 miles. The 28th Division alone held a front of some thirty miles. In addition to being spread thinly the 4th and 28th Divisions had recently lost some 9,000 men in the Huertgen battles and the survivors were exhausted. The 106th Division had only been in the area for four days and the 9th armoured division lacked battle experience. These forces were woefully inadequate for the German onslaught.

The attack came as a complete surprise to the Allied forces in the area. Thousands of US prisoners were taken and the 106th Division ceased to exist as a fighting formation. By 21-23rd December the German advance had got to within four miles of Dinont on the Meuse. However, the US divisions encountered were still intact and the Meuse bridges were now securely held by the British. Crucially, the key road network at Bastogne was still held by the now besieged American forces. By Christmas Eve, the offensive had reached its highwater mark and Allied forces began counterattacking, ending German hopes of crossing the Meuse, let alone seizing Antwerp.

There were many factors involved in the failure of the German offensive. Although the US forces initially facing the Germans were overrun and destroyed, they had still managed to delay and inflict significant casualties on their attackers. The 28th and 106th US divisions had worn down the impetus of the German Panzer Divisions on the first day of the attack. The success of the German attack depended upon reaching the Meuse bridges and seizing them intact. Every moment of delay was critical for the Germans. Individual groups of US troops who held their ground contributed merely by slowing the German forces down for a few hours at a time and thereby allowing a counterattack to be assembled by US forces outside the ‘Bulge’. The successful deployment of the US 101st airborne division who arrived almost literally at the last moment in Bastogne, denied the Germans the use of the vital cross-roads and transport network that would have allowed them to deploy reinforcements with ease. US resistance at Bastogne tied up vital German resources at a time when they were desperately needed to support the forward elements of the advance. German difficulties at the start of the attack had been also increased by the fact that, in the interests of security, some units had been forbidden to carry out reconnaissance. Colonel Wilhelm Osterhold of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division claimed afterwards that ‘I never took part in an attack which was worse prepared’.

Throughout the battle, there was a large gulf between the performance of German armoured and infantry formations. The panzers and SS attacked with their usual energy and aggression. However, the supporting infantry displayed a shocking lack of enthusiasm, skill and training which made a significant contribution to German failure. Newly reconstructed German infantry divisions were not of the same quality as those that had been destroyed in Russia in 1942/3 and during the Normandy battles of late summer 1944. The 62nd Volksgrenadier Division contained many Czech and Polish conscripts from regions annexed to the Reich who spoke no German at all and belonged in sympathy to the Allies. The 352nd Volksgrenadier Division was rebuilt from airman and sailors and the 79th Volksgrenadier Division had been formed out of soldiers ‘combed out’ of rear headquarters.

By Christmas day, most of the lead Panzer units had ran out of fuel and had had to abandon their vehicles. The fuel reserves required had originally been calculated by the German High Command as being at 17,000 cubic metres. However, by the start of the attack only 50 per cent of the required fuel had been delivered. Therefore several armoured divisions only had fuel reserves for a distance of 60-80 km when they started because fuel consumption had been abnormally high during deployment. The success of the German offensive depended upon its lead elements capturing American fuel supplies as they advanced. German reinforcements simply could not reach the battle and make the required impact because of poor road conditions and above all, the lack of fuel. It is arguable that the fuel shortage contributed as much as Allied resistance to stopping the Panzers.

Tactically, the Germans made several errors which hindered their ability to exploit local successes and continue the advance. By the evening of the 17th December, Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army had become bogged down by US resistance. The Americans still held St.Vith and Butgenbach, so Model suggested to von Rundstedt that the weight of the attack and the available reinforcements, amounting to five divisions should be put towards Manteuffel’s attack in the south. Manteuffel’s Fifth Army was making good progress in the centre and requesting both support and fuel. Instead, Hitler insisted on trying to force a breakthrough on the southern flank with Dietrich’s Army. He decreed that the SS divisions should be sent to Dietrich in the north, whilst the remaining three armoured divisions would go Manteuffel. This division of reinforcements meant neither army received adequate support. On the evening of the 21st December, Manteuffel’s fuel supplies ran out stranding the 2nd Panzer Division at Teneville. Had Hitler agreed to switch his assets from the Sixth Panzer Army to the Fifth Army, it might have been very different. By contrast, the Allied commanders, having initially been taken by surprise, quickly worked out an effective strategy for blunting the offensive.

On the 20th December, Eisenhower had confided command of operations against Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army on the northern part of the Bulge to Field Marshall Montgomery. In the south, Patton had already began to move his armoured divisions to counterattack the German southern flank. The Allies were by now fully aware of German intentions since the Germans had broken radio silence and their intelligence codes had been broken. Montgomery brought British troops down from northern Belgium and secured the Meuse bridges. Having shored up the defensive line, American armoured divisions were by now in place to launch counterattacks. After Christmas Day the weather improved significantly enough for the Allied tactical airforces to begin bombing German positions. The Luftwaffe were unable to provide adequate support to German ground forces. Instead, Goring wasted his remaining assets and the fuel reserves of his air force by launching an all-out attack on Allied air fields on New Year’s Day 1945. It was clear by now that the German offensive had run out of steam.

The fighting in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ continued for much of January. By the end of the battle the offensive had cost the Germans between 80,000 and 100,000 casualties as well as hundreds of tanks, armoured cars and artillery. US casualties were 80,987 men, making the Bulge the most costly battle the Americans fought in North-west Europe. The Allied advance into Germany was only delayed by seven weeks and the Germans had lost irreplaceable forces. These resources would have been better spent preparing for the Russian offensive on the eastern front which eventually took the Russians all the way to Berlin.

From the outset it was difficult to envisage the Germans succeeding. The forces assembled for the offensive lacked the power to sustain such an ambitious operation in the face of overwhelming superior Allied forces. The Allies were able to move forces around the battlefield with their huge fleet of logistical vehicles and almost unlimited fuel. For the German army to succeed in its aims would have required a combination of extremely favourable circumstances. Foggy weather hindering Allied airpower, usable roads and the absence of any tactical mistakes would all have been necessary for the offensive to succeed in reaching Antwerp and surrounding some thirty enemy divisions. The objectives of the operation were hugely ambitious for the limited resources available to the Germans in late 1944.


Robin Neillands, The Battle for the Rhine 1944 (London, 2005)

John Keegan, The Second World War (London, 1997)

Heinz Magenheimer, Hitler’s War (London, 1998)

Max Hastings, Armageddon: the Battle for Germany 1944-45 (London, 2004)

Richard Holmes, Battlefield: Decisive Conflicts in History (Oxford, 2006)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Crusades: The role of the Military Orders in the defence of the Crusader States

The success of the First Crusade in 1098/99 led to the establishment of the Crusader states centred around the kingdom of Jerusalem. Once Palestine had been conquered the majority of the crusaders made their way back to Europe. Fulcher of Chartres, a chronicler who recorded the events of the First Crusade and the events that followed, wrote that in 1099 only three hundred knights and the same number of infantry remained to guard Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramle and Haife. However, these newly acquired territories on the frontiers of Christendom remained surrounded by hostile Muslim neighbours and needed far more troops to guard them than were usually available. Despite the seasonal influxes of armed pilgrims arriving in Outremer (the Frankish name for the region) each year, the core foundations of the new states rested on slender pillars. The annual arrival of knights on pilgrimage provided a constant trickle of much needed reinforcements, yet many of these visitors departed within a few months leaving only a limited pool of defenders for the states to drawn upon. Even at their height in the 1180s, the Latin settlements never numbered more than an estimated 250,000 Europeans. War and disease in the early years of the twelfth century had helped to prevent the emergence of a stable knightly class. It is in this context that the contribution of the military orders to the defence of the Holy Land must be examined.

The first military orders had their foundations as charitable organisations. The Templars were founded in 1118 to provide protection for travelling pilgrims. Their headquarters were based in the building identified by the crusaders as the Temple of Solomon. Within a few years of their establishment, the Templars had begun to go beyond merely protecting pilgrims and started to provide military forces against the Muslims. The Templars were formally approved by the Church at the Council of Troyes in January 1129 and their numbers and duties increased rapidly. Further privileges issued between 1139 and 1145 reinforced the papacy’s endorsement of the Templars. The order secured the right to elect its own master, the exemption from taxes payable to the local church and the right to collect revenues from their own lands.

The Hospitallers’ founding predates the First Crusade starting with the establishment of a hospice run by Italian traders from Amalfi who had arrived in Jerusalem around the mid eleventh century. The group followed a quasi-religious communal life and cared for sick pilgrims visiting the holy sites. In 1113 it became an independent order through a papal bull issued by Pope Paschall II. Finally in 1154, further papal privileges ensured that the Hospitallers would be free from the jurisdiction of local church authorities and received similar rights already granted to the Templars.
Other military orders such as the Teutonic knights and the Order of St.Lazarus would later join the Hospitallers and Templars in defending the Holy Land, but throughout the twelfth century it was the latter two who provided the most contributions in defending the Latin States.

The concept of the military order was a relatively new innovation to Christendom. It combined the concept of the physical prowess of the warrior knight with the spiritual discipline of the Cistercian monk. They were considered more effective as fighters because of this discipline and their monastic values. Like ordinary Cistercian monks, the brothers took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Unlike regular knights, the new breed of warrior monks were unfettered by civic duties such as the dispensing of justice and therefore had more time to train and perfect their combat skills. There were strict regulations for conduct in camp reinforced by the threat of severe penalties for disobeying orders in the field. In all leading orders the punishment for disobeying commands in battles was expulsion. Templars who launched an attack without permission lost their habit for a period.

Nonetheless, the idea of a warrior monk needed to be justified to those who believed that the very idea was a contradiction in terms. St. Bernard of Clairvaux helped to establish the concept into the mainstream of medieval religious and intellectual thought. The De Laude novae militae explained argued that the Templars were a new kind of knight who fought evil in the world and, through their faith and physical efforts would preserve the Holy Land for Latin Christendom. He set out the errors of secular knights in contrast to the ‘Knights of Christ’. In comparison to the worldly knights lust for glory and greed for material possessions, the Templars were ideologically pure.

Their significance to the defence of the Holy Land continued to grow throughout the twelfth century. In turn, the orders were given control of key frontier castles and defences. These castles were either given to them or sold by rulers and nobles who lacked the manpower or resources to defend them adequately. Local lords often had to depend upon local resources and in many cases could neither spare the troops nor money to garrison vital defence strongholds. In 1144, Raymond of Tripoli gave the Hospitallers a group of strongholds including the famous ‘Crac des Chevaliers’ located on the eastern borders of the county. By 1180, the Hospitallers were responsible for the defence of twenty-five castles in the East. The Templars controlled roughly the same number. Unlike the majority of secular rulers who had handed them over, the Military Orders could afford to keep these castles defended. There were few institutions in Medieval Europe that could match the financial resources of the Templars and Hospitallers. In the decades that followed their founding, the military orders were able to build up institutions in both the Latin east and in Western Europe. The scale of endowments, donations and exemptions from ecclesiastical taxation meant that the both the Hospitallers and Templars had access to substantial resources across the West. The Hospitallers alone possessed 18,000 manors in Europe. In essence the military orders were able to exploit the resources of the West for the benefit of defence of the East.

The importance of the military orders to the overall political and defensive structure of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was ascertained by the presence of the Grand Masters of the Orders who held privileged seats in the High Courts of the Latin states. It is estimated that by 1180, the knightly orders provided 50% of the Kingdom’s defences. Together the Hospitallers could field six-hundred ideologically committed mounted knights. This gave the Grand Masters a huge influence over policy and personal access to the leadership of the Latin states. By 1187, the military orders were the chief landowners in Outremer. Such was their influence that princes acknowledged that their treaties with local Muslim rulers would not be valid without the approval of the Grand Masters.

However, the growing influence of the Orders was not well received by all. Papal bulls granted by the church combined with the large military and financial resources available to them meant they were under no obligations to follow the commands of the secular leadership of the kings of Jerusalem. The historian Stephen Runciman has argued that the independence of the Orders can be characterised as uncontrollable states within the state and therefore a contributing factor towards the weakening process that eventually led to the loss of the Crusader settlements. In 1159, the orders refused to contribute their resources towards a proposed attack against Egypt. As a result the attack had to be called off. On numerous other occasions, the rivalry between the Templars and Hospitaller disrupted military plans. William of Tyre also records several incidents of the Templars refusing to follow instructions from the secular authorities. In 1173 Templar knights killed Assassin envoys travelling under a royal safe conduct after negotiating a truce with King Amalric of Jerusalem. It seems that the Templars did not approve of such dealings with a Muslim power. The king was extremely angry and demanded that the perpetrators be handed over to him for justice. In this instance, King Amalric was able to use his authority to seize and imprison the ringleader. William of Tyre goes on to say that had the king lived longer he would probably have challenged the independence of the Order. He also describes an incident at the siege of Ascalon when a group of Templars breached the walls ahead of the main army and allegedly refused to let the rest of the army join them for fear of having to share the booty. The Templars were soon trapped in the town and eventually massacred for their efforts.

John of Salisbury, writing in the twelfth century was even more critical of the Templars rebutting Bernard of Clairvaux’s assertions and arguing that knightly and clerical functions were incompatible. He suggested that the Templars’ privileges encouraged pride and avarice. The monk, Issac of L’Etoile, expressed similar ideologically concerns of what non-Catholics might think of the Christian Church encouraging violence rather than gentleness. By engaging in military activities, the participants made themselves vulnerable to evil and sin.

Despite these criticisms it is clear that the Military Orders were widely feared and respected by the enemies of the Crusader states. The Arabic chronicler Ibn al-Athir described the Hospitaller castle of Crac des Chevaliers as ‘as a bone in the gullet of the Muslims’. Their strict training and vocation to fight Islam made them highly formidable battle-field opponents. It was therefore customary to kill Templars and Hospitaller captured after a battle. Saladin’s secretary Imad ad-Din described an incident after the Battle of Hattin in 1187 where the Sultan sought out knights captured from the both orders. ‘I shall purify the land of these two impure races’. He offered fifty dinars to every man who had taken one of them of them prisoner and immediately the army brought forward some one hundred captives. All were then beheaded. Saladin clearly viewed the Templars and Hospitallers as dangerous enemies to Islam and saw it as a crucial to kill as many of them as possible.

The orders were generally praised for their work in defending the frontiers of Christendom against the resurgence of Muslim strength in the latter half of the twelfth century. They took on the burden of defending numerous castles at no additional cost to the kingdom and often provided determined and stout resistance when attacked. The Hospitaller castle of Belvoir held out for more than a year after the Battle of Hattin and Saladin was also unable to take either the Crac de Chevaliers or Margot. William of Tyre also had to acknowledge the crucial role which the orders played in the defence of the kingdom. Even if the Templars and Hospitallers were determined to pursue their own policies, the purpose of their entire existence was tied up within the defence of Latin Christendom within Outremer. Practical necessity dictated that they be given large tracts of land that they were willing and able to defend. The combination of monastic lifestyle and warrior training gave them a formidable reputation. There was no doubt in the minds of both Islamic and Christian contemporaries that the orders fielded better soldiers than the average Western knight. Given the limited resources and manpower available to the Frankish settlers there can be little doubt that the military orders were crucial in maintaining and defending the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its successor states in the Latin east.


Alan Forey, ‘The Military Orders 1120-1312’ in The Oxford History of the Crusades ed.

Jonathan Riley-Smith (Oxford, 2002)

Jonathan Philips, The Crusades (Harlow, 2002)

Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187 (Cambridge, 2002)

Hans Eberhard Meyer, The Crusades (Oxford, 1988)

Jean Richard, The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291 (Cambridge, 1999)

Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh, 1999)