Khalid ibn al-Walid ... strategy, tactics, battles
Picking up where we left off in Part One ...
... Mobility and use of concealing terrain were signatures of Khalid's generalship, and he would regularly find himself outnumbered. Using what you might call an army-level version of traditional Arab raiding tactics, he would often attempt to pin the enemy into position without fully engaging ... in order to outmanoeuvre and envelop the enemy - compensating for numerical weaknesses with local advantages. We see this in the Arab civil wars, and in the wars against Persia. It should come as no surprise that this is what we see at Yarmuk ...
Early career: Uhud ... the battle of the mountain ...
March 625 ... the Arab Wars: the Muslims were fighting the Meccans for supremacy. Khalid is commanding the Meccan cavalry wing. A lot of the details of this battle seem mythical, but it is clear that, though outnumbered, the Muslims were able to drive the Meccan main divisions backwards. The Muslim left flank was held by a body of archers on a hill. As victory neared, those archers, rather than hold their position guarding the flank, instead chose to take the opportunity to raid the Meccan baggage, leaving the flank open. Khalid was able to move his cavalry unseen and unopposed around the flank and fall on the rear of the main body.
Legends recount how, before this battle, a number of duels occured around the Meccan standard bearers, costing many of them their lives. The victories of their champions bolstered the morale of the outnumbered Muslims - and dulled the enthusiasm of their enemies. It is evident from the accounts of battle in other theatres in this period, as well, that the duels were more than just romanticisations by story tellers. The men in the ranks were clearly affected by these challenges such that commanders could not simply pass over them (it seems a challenge had to be responded to ... and that the outcome was important).
I have borrowed this plan from Wikipedia. As above, the accounts of the battle don't allow me to verify much of the detail on the plan, but it may help you understand the broad position ...
The battles of Khalid's campaign against the Sassanids are marked by his clear superiority in manoeuvre over larger but more ponderous enemy forces. Swift movements allowing Khalid to choose either to hit unexpectedly or to draw battle out over several days to wear the enemy down and strike when the advantage was secured.
At the Battle of the Chains (so called, because we are told that the men of the Persian centre were linked together by chains), April 633, Khalid made a series of marches and counter marches in the days before the battle in order to tire and confuse the enemy. Marked by Kazimah on the map, battle was joined only when Khalid was satisfied with the propects for victory. As he would do in later battles, Khalid deployed with the desert forming a safe zone behind him, and repeatedly attacked the fatigued Persian flanks until they were forced to withdraw, exposing the immobile centre. The centre was destroyed.
Next, at the Battle of the River (near the Euphrates at Uballa), April 633, Khalid was able to strike more rapidly than the Persians expected as they assembled a new army in the aftermath of defeat at the Chains. The Persians had the river to their rear, on which they were transporting recruits and supplies for the army. Khalid moved quickly to battle this time while he had the opportunity to trap the enemy against the river.
The duels that preceded the battle are interesting to consider ... all 3 Persian commanders were apparently killed .. Against the commander of the enemy centre, Khalid allowed his place to be taken by a champion swordsman*, following his victory, the commanders of the wings rode forward and, again, we are told both the Persian leaders fell. Assuming the stories to be true, and judged with knowledge of the outcomes, to describe this bravado by the senior Persians as foolhardy seems an understatement.
The Battle of Walaja: May 633 .. the Persians were able to regroup, and massed 2 armies to defeat the Arabs ... each nearly twice the size of Khalid's expedition. Khalid moved quickly to prevent the armies combining - intending to take out the army at Walaja first.
Realising that he needed to anihilate the force at Walaja, Khalid risked weakening his outnumbered force by separating 4,000 of his best cavalry from the army, 'disappearing' them into the undulating landscape so that when he had drawn the Persians into an attack, they could appear from concealment behind the enemy's flanks. A hybrid double envelopment by ambush, if you like ...
(Map by Mohammad adil at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)
This mastery of the landscape seems remarkable, given that Khalid was operating on enemy territory (however, the Walaja army was arriving by ship, so may largely have been, in reality, no more 'local' than the Arabs are) ...
As the battle pressed on, Khalid is said to have ordered the centre slowly to fall back, while the wings held their ground, drawing the Persians into a killing zone. This is very reminiscent of Hannibal's tactic at Cannae ... It is normal to wonder whether such subtle movements are really so controlled - or whether fortuitous effects are recorded as planned and commanded with victor's hindsight. However, allowing the enemy to press forward, feeling they are on the brink of victory does seem a Khalid trademark.
Three further battles were fought in this phase of the conquest of Persia before Abu Bakr recalled Khalid and deployed him against Byzantine Syria/Palestine. At the battle of Ullais, Khalid defeated and killed Christian Arab tribal chief Abdul-Aswad in a duel. Reports suggest that thousands of Persian soldiers were beheaded when they were trapped by the river as they fled.
With Khalid sent West, the final victory over Persia would not be until 651 and the death of Yazdegerd III (grandson of the great Chosroes II)
Abu Bakr died in 634 and his successor Umar seems to have confirmed Khalid as supreme commander over the forces in Syria.
After a march through the desert and a decisive victory at Ajnadayn, where he united his force with several other, including Amr al As, Khalid finally attacked and conquered Damascus on 18 September 635. Learning from spies that the Byzantines were massing two huge armies to recover the lost teritories, in the Spring of 636, Khalid withdrew into the desert plateau above the Yarmuk river ..
We have discussed Yarmuk previously, so this will be a summary. Although, evaluated on its own, Khalid's victory seems unusual, surprising, very fortuitous etc. I believe, in the light of Khalid's previous victories, we should probably attribute more to judgement than to luck.
(my map of Yarmuk from the Great Battles of History book)
The pattern has a familair ring ... having drawn the enemy to a battlefield he has chosen, the fighting itself is drawn out over several days. Although the Byzantines try to avoid being pulled out of position, they find the battlefield opening up and are able to attack the Muslim camps, which pulls them forward. Fighting with the open space of the desert behind him, only when the Byzantines are fully committed, does Khalid deploy some of his reserve to hold the line.
The battle is preceded by a number of duels which go the Arab way, and in which the Byzantines lose a number of high-ranking officers. Khalid allows this to go on, and it forces the Byzantines to attack.
Although heavily outnumbered, Khalid had massed a significant proportion of his cavalry into a mobile reserve under his direct command. After several days of intermittent fighting, duelling and repositioning of forces, the mobile guard somehow disappeared into the landscape, and when the enemy was fully committed, they reappeared behind the enemy's open flank and were able to engulf them, isolating the infantry centre.
Attempting to withdraw, the mass of the Byzantine army found that Khalid's men had taken the key passages across the Yarmuk and have trapped them against the river (in this case, the steep ravine edge that descends to the river).
The road back to Damascus was open ... the Byzantine armies were smashed, as was the empire in the Levant.
Shortly after his epoch defining victory, Khalid was removed from command and, effectively, retired by Caliph Umar - apparently for fear of the development of a personality cult around the veteran war leader.
Khalid died in 642, and had remained undefeated in over 50 battles ... his victories were cornerstones of the rapid expansion of Islam in the Middle East and around the shores of the Mediterranean.
* according to legend, Khalid spurred up his horse to accept the challenge, but Maqal bin Al Ashi charged forward determined to get there first - recognising both his zeal and his status as a swordsman, Khalid chose not to recall him. Which seems very prudent ... especially if Khalid made enough of an effort for it to be clear to the soldiers that Maqal got there first due to his exceptional courage and fervour, rather than any reticence on Khalid's part. Or am I starting to sound cynical? At Walaja, Khalid himself is said to have fought the main duel, and won ... so he was clearly capable in this respect. I imagine, at Walaja, that Khalid was happy to run the clock a bit, in order to bring his flanking forces into play ..