At the beginning of the third crusade, the Christian army won quite a few small battles but nothing significant to overthrow Saladin. By July 1191, Richard I of England took Acre and was slowly moving towards Jerusalem. He started marching towards Jaffa.
Saladin, instead of confrontation was sending battalions of archers with an aim to torment and provoke the Christian army.
“The Moslems discharged arrows at them from all sides to annoy them, and force them to charge: but in this they were unsuccessful. These men exercised wonderful self-control; they went on their way without any hurry, whilst their ships followed their line of march along the coast, and in this manner, they reached their halting-place.” — Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad
Richard was aware that he needed to capture Jaffa before making a move towards Jerusalem. He knew his greatest need was water and a direct march towards Jerusalem was not ideal. So he tolerated these small Muslim attacks and didn’t get carried away. The Christians had learned a lot from their defeat in Hattin back in 1187.
Saladin soon realized that these tactics won’t be able to stop Crusaders from marching towards Jerusalem. His only option was to attack the army with full force but he wasn’t ready so he continued these small hit-and-run attacks. At this time the Christians were about the cross the forest of Arsuf.
Here too Saladin sent small batches of archers to distract the Crusaders, but then again, there was little success and the Crusader Army successfully crossed the forest without any damage. At this point, the Crusaders were advancing in a defensive position. Saladin’s plan was to compel the Crusaders to break their formation so that his army would attack and drive Richard’s men into the sea. The Crusaders were about six miles from Arsuf.
On 7th September 1191 Saladin’s forces began their hit-and-run tactic but with an increasing number of troops. Annoyed by these attacks, requests were made to Richard from his sub-commanders to allow a counterattack. Although there very little damage to the crusader men themselves because of their strong armor, they were losing a great number of horses.
Saladin sent one final batch of archers with the hope that it would break the crusader formation. One sub-commander of the Crusader Army got frustrated with these attacks and without orders from Richard, charged forward with some knights and attacked the archers sent by Saladin. Richard was not happy with his commander’s move but he ordered the whole army to follow the attack, he didn’t want to risk losing his knights many of whom were accompanied that commander.
Richard himself was leading the attack. Saladin was not expecting such a reaction. He didn’t expect that Richard will launch a complete attack. This sudden attack from Richard was a huge blow to the Muslim Army. Saladin faced heavy losses. Although the exact number of casualties is not known, it is said, this completely destroyed the Muslim army and they were in a very weak position to defend Jerusalem.
Richard had taken Saladin by surprise resulting in a great number of Saladin’s army fleeing from the battlefield. Although Saladin himself ordered his army to retreat, Richard was able to inflict substantial damage before nightfall. One estimate says that the crusader army lost around 700 men and the Muslim army lost more than 7,000 soldiers. One Christian man took ten Muslim warriors hostage.
Although, Saladin faced a heavy defeat, he quickly recovered. Now he knew that he could not face the crusader army on the battlefield so he continued his small hit-and-run harassing attacks. Richard marched toward Jaffa and recaptured it successfully becoming Richard the Lionheart from Richard I.
In the next, many negotiations took place between Saladin and Richard until the two men made a treaty in September 1192 which allowed Jerusalem to remain in Saladin’s control but allowed Christians to visit the city. The main reason for this treaty was that Richard was facing resistance back in England. He had to go back and reclaim his throne.
Although, Jerusalem wasn’t recaptured, at the Battle of Arsuf Richard I avenged the Christian defeat in the second crusade. Saladin had a huge amount of respect for Richard, his bravery, and his battle tactics. Saladin once said, “There was no more honourable Christian lord than Richard.” — Saladin
Image shown is The Battle of Arsuf by Eloi Firmin Fero