There once was a man who saved the civilized world in October of 732, on a battlefield outside of Tours, France. After that, the conquering hero was nicknamed “Charles the Hammer” or, “Martel”, in French. “As a hammer of iron, of steel, and of every other metal, even so he dashed and smote in the battle all his enemies.” So wrote Denis the Chronicler.
To the losers, the same event was called the “Battle of the Highway of the Martyrs”. This fanciful name morally papers over an aggressive war of expansion. The conflated term “martyr” mistakenly implies the fallen invaders were fighting for a just cause. Historically it was a drubbing that changed the course of history. It checked forever the thrust of Islam into Medieval Europe. Tours effectively ended the Golden Age of Islam by diminishing its fighting force. At Tours, Charles Martel’s force lost only 1,500 men while the invading Arabs had mass casualties of 375,000. It’s effective power spent, the invading armies receded to lick their wounds and look elsewhere for easier prey.
A quick look at the medieval world tells the story. Over the hundred years after the death of Mohammed, Islam was spread by warfare throughout Eurasia. A world map shows a tidal wave flowing outwards in all directions. Islam had enjoyed easy victories as most of Europe was ill equipped to repel such invaders. The Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, had been overrun in seven short years. The Arabs set their sights northward to France. Along the way they burned cathedrals, and ravaged the towns and countryside. This war of expansion led by Abd-al-Raḥmân was comprised mainly of Berbers, light cavalry on horseback. They were from the Barbary coast of North Africa - recently converted to Islam and more commonly known to us as the “Moors”.
The Moors were lightly armoured, and their fighting tactics were to rush their enemy in a series of lightning skirmishes. They generally tried to break through the ranks and come at their enemy from the rear so as to engulf them. The Moors had one strategy: attack. They had no idea of defence. Up until that point, they had not needed it.
The Franks had a different mentality. On reaching manhood, every boy was symbolically given a shield emblazoned with a Cross. Their leader Charles Martel had the foresight to gather and train a standing army that by 732 was already hardened and disciplined. Some of the troops had been with Martel for a decade, and their loyalty and sense of purpose ran deep. They were fighting to defend hearth and home, and it was well known that a loss would mean death, their wives raped and their children taken as slaves. “The fury and the cruelty of the Moslems towards the inhabitants of the city were like the fury and cruelty of raging tigers.” was the boast of one Arabian historian of the times. The Franks harboured no false ideas and they were hot with moral indignation at the depredations of Islam. “So dreadful and so widespread were the ravages throughout Gaul (medieval France), that it must have been impossible to restrain for any length of time the indignant ardor of the Franks. …Charles could not persuade his men to look tamely on while the Arabs stormed more towns and desolated more districts.”
The Moors had been emboldened by easy victory but were also weighed down with a cumbersome parade of booty taken in war. New converts to Islam were those easily flipped by promise of such personal gain if they joined the invaders. Theirs was the mentality of bandits, whose beliefs were malleable to the moment and drawn from a shallow moral well. They were brave only when assured of easy victory. As a predatory force, Islam was in constant need a of a new host. Once a people was conquered and ravaged, expansion was the only way to feed the empire. Aggressive warfare was its only means to perpetuate this vicious cycle which sought to live the high life on the backs of those defeated.
En route to Tours, they met with the unexpected. Charles Martel had taken the battle to the enemy. Avoiding the main routes which Muslim armies used, he had maneuvered his troops through forests and over mountains to meet the invading forces at a strategic location of his own choosing. He placed his men on a hillside peppered with trees. Two rivers converged behind them, blocking any attack from the rear. The wooded hill successfully neutralized the momentum of men on horseback, who would have to charge uphill into a forest. While victory generally favoured a cavalry charge, Martel had narrowed the advantage. To their detriment, the invaders also had no idea who they were facing, nor how many men Martel had hidden in the trees. Their forces outnumbered the Franks two to one but they did not know it.
The field of battle... a hillside with trees.
The two armies squared off, neither side willing to start the battle. This inertia persisted for seven days. Martel grouped his men in a defensive phalanx formation, knowing he could wait things out. The North Africans on the other hand, were badly dressed for the weather and the nights were getting colder. They either had to press on to Tours, or go home. Finally Abd-al-Raḥmân led a charge against the Franks.
“The hearts of Abd-al-Raḥmân, his captains and his men were filled with wrath and pride, and they were the first to begin to fight… In the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs.” (Isidore of Beja’s Chronicle) At one point in the battle, Charles was surrounded but, “he fought as fiercely as the hungry wolf falls upon the stag. By the grace of Our Lord, he wrought a great slaughter upon the enemies of Christian faith.” (Denis the chronicler)
The Muslims charged again and again but were unable to break through the disciplined ranks of the Franks. The disadvantage in numbers was however, taking its toll. In a desperate move, Charles flanked the battle and sent troops to attack the baggage train and encampment of the Moors.
This bold move changed the course of the day. Because the attackers had little taste for a drawn out battle, they turned their attention to the fear that they would loose the booty they had accumulated thus far. Some rode back to the camps to ensure their loot, and others, thinking this was a retreat, followed after. The Franks, seeing their chance rushed forward down the hill and engulfed the fleeing army, slaying them to the man. The decisive victory changed the course of European history.
“Each Frankish soldier, with shield upraised, would lodge his spear into either the horsemen’s legs or the face and flanks of his mount, then slash and stab with his sword to cut the rider down, all the while smashing his shield — the heavy iron boss in the centre was a formidable weapon against exposed flesh. Gradually advancing en masse, the Franks would then continue to trample and stab fallen riders at their feet — careful to keep close contact with each other at all times.”
The loss was a picture of moral character. The perfidy and greed of the invaders was their own undoing. I contrast the Moorish army with the disciplined defence of the Franks. The Moors attacked with “wrath and pride”, two of the seven deadly sins. Their incentive for battle was peppered with a few more. Lust, greed, envy and gluttony. The Franks on the other hand were sustained by some of the Christian virtues that Paul recommends in the book of Galatians; forbearance, faithfulness, and self-control.
Quran 9:5 directs Muslims to “slay the unbelievers wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war”. As religious instruction, these predations could only be passed off as God’s will if they were mirrored by success. Charles’ triumph at the right time in history inexorably damaged this taste for Jihad. Sometimes there is a moral victory when two sets of ideas square off against one another. Where wrath, pride, greed and lust pit themselves against forbearance, faithfulness and self-control, I will put my money on the Christian virtues every time.
Sometimes the opportunistic gains of evil will endure for a season, but on occasion that aggression will be manfully opposed. Sometimes history will deliver up a man with such moral fibre that he will be called “the Hammer” ever after, and the endless battle between good and evil will take a turn for the better.
Footnotes on the fighting methods of the Franks:
Their particular genius allowed foot soldiers to be a formidable opponent against men on horseback. The two weapons which levelled the playing field were a short throwing axe called a Francisca, and the other weapon, a barbed spear called an Angon. The barbed spear, once employed could not be withdrawn. It also was clad with metal along a fair length of the shaft so that the head could not simply be cut off. The strategy in battle, was for a soldier to hurl his throwing axe. It would destroy the enemy’s shield. The exposed man would be maimed by the spear and cut down from horseback by sword.
Here, some historical accounts of the battle tactics which allowed the Franks to overcome and to prosper. The grandson of Charles Martel, was Charles the Great... Charlemagne, who was made emperor to the Christian Frankish kingdom.
“Each man carried a sword, a shield and an axe. Now the iron head of this weapon [the axe] was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides, while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus to shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men.” (Procopius)
“The military equipment of this people [the Franks] is very simple. They do not serve on horseback except in very rare cases. Fighting on foot is both habitual and a national custom and they are proficient in this. At the hip they wear a sword and on the left side their shield is attached. They have neither bows nor slings, no missile weapon except the double-edged axe and the angon which they use most often. The angons are spears which are neither very short nor very long. They can be used, if necessary, for throwing like a javelin and also in hand to hand combat, the greater part of the angon is covered with iron and very little wood is exposed. Above, at the socket of the spear. some points are turned back, bent like hooks and turned toward the handle.”
“In battle the Frank throws the angon. If it hits an enemy the spear is caught in the man and neither can the wounded man nor anyone else draw it out. The barbs hold inside the flesh causing great pain and in this way a man whose wound may not be in a vital spot dies. If the angon hits a shield it is fixed there, hanging down with the butt on the ground. The angon cannot be pulled out because the barbs have penetrated the shield. Nor can it be cut off by a sword because the wood of the shaft is covered with iron. When the Frank sees this situation he quickly puts his foot on the butt of the spear, pulling down so [his enemy] falls, his head and chest left unprotected. The unprotected warrior is then killed either by a stroke of the axe or a thrust with another spear.” (Agathias)