Hunh. Finally caught up again. WHAT a ride!!
Not over yet.
Part LXXVII: Armageddon (1554-1555)
As the summer of 1554 began, the Khandarhid Caliphate would finally assemble in all its might to meet the Romans on the field of battle. No longer would David and his men defeat the badly-trained and badly-led armies and militia of northern Syria: Now they would face the strength of a proper armies many times their own size, blessed with a fury against the outsiders and led by men determined to win or die trying. Had the window of timing and fortune that had allowed the Romans to come this far closed while they were still in it?
The armies which had been routed at Nizip, Aleppo and at Iskandarun were pale shadows of the full military might of the Khandarhid Caliphate, composed of local recruits and trained to varying degrees by the commanders of far northern Syria, who more often than not were local nobles chosen for political reasons. Not so were the caliphal armies proper, which were formed and led by hardened warriors who had worked their way up from the lower officer corps, possessing both little political danger and a great deal of strategic and tactical skill. Though predominantly infantry like the armies of the northern vassals, the caliphal armies also possessed a number of Bedouin and mamluk cavalry near equals to the qizilbash and Latins that the Romans fielded, and moreover the vast ranks of footmen were professional soldiers of quality. And, most importantly, there were tens of thousands of them, far more than the Romans or some upstart in Damascus could ever hope to field. Their fleet, while not exactly up to snuff, was far larger than any force which could hope to match it, even outnumbering that of Venice in sheer number of hulls, and would possess de facto naval superiority in the regions they would be operating in. In short, the Khandarhids held far more advantages than the Romans did, and as Ibrahim drew up his plans he had no qualms about using them to their full extent.
It was absolutely imperative that the Romans and the Damascenes, who were assumed to be their de facto allies, not be allowed to pass beyond the hilly country north of Mount Carmel, as there was a possibility they could use their superior mobility to evade Ibrahim’s men and make for Egypt. As such, they would be caught up in the mountains and killed like dogs. A fleet of a hundred and forty-six ships would put out from Alexandria, carrying 5,000 men and supplies for countless more, which would speed the march of the Egyptian armies by alleviating their dependence on foraging and caravans for supplies. The main force, an army of 35,000 footmen and 10,000 cavalry under the caliphal regent himself, would advance along the coast to Hayfa, which had been refortified by al-Hakim years prior. There they would wait until the secondary force, 20,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry under Qadir Tlass, the commander of the largest expedition into Nubia and a man known for merciless triumphs, arrived near the Sea of Galilee. Tlass would take the initiative, pushing up along the coast to take the ports which the Roman advance elements had already captured, while Ibrahim would follow at a distance. The hope was that David would offer battle with Tlass, who would then pin him down until the main force could strike, but if the Romans failed to take the bait then Tlass would take the initiative and engage. Their arrival was scheduled for August, and they began to move out in April. All signs were promising.
Just as the first Khandarhid battalions were leaving the Egyptian delta, things were coming to a head outside the walls of Beirut. After spending the better part of a year knocking their heads against the city’s ramparts, the Romans were becoming increasingly exhausted, and the memories of the victorious wave that had carried them there had begun to fade. Supply issues were becoming increasingly evident, and the morale issues that always followed were close at hand. Attempts to batter down the walls came to nothing, and though one of the outer walls had been destroyed, the locals had rallied to the Ma’anids and held the ruins against the subsequent assault. David was beginning to feel the tide turning against him, and felt that he would have to either move on or eventually destroy himself via attrition. There was no room for error when the stakes were this high. With direct assault having failed terribly, in late March he decided that deception was his best chance at crippling Beirut and thus being able to move on. Over the next week he made a big show of abandoning the siege, withdrawing into the mountains beyond the defender’s view. On 7 April, the Romans finally left their winter siege camp, leaving their casualties in shallow graves and much of their camp intact, because of a disease outbreak that had occured over the winter. While the Ma’anid soldiers were busy combing through the camp for anything of value, a small group of Roman spies scaled an abandoned section of the wall and crept down into the city. A few hours later, a series of explosions ripped through the city, destroying several key gates, destroying an interior wall and starting fires in the more-run down parts of town. A number of diseased body parts were also tossed down wells and into storehouses. As David had hoped, this delayed the Ma’anids long enough for disease to take hold, and soon Beirut was under a new siege, an effective quarantine.
Even so, David didn’t want to leave a trail as he forged onward into the Holy Land, needing to make up for all the time he had lost outside the walls of Beirut. He abandoned the coastal road and moved into the hills, following the gorges and ridgelines to bypass the numerous fortresses that still dotted the region and hone in on Jerusalem. The country was difficult, but with local guides it was manageable. By May, the Romans had reached the Awali Valley, gone south out of it and reached Jezzine, a minor fortified town in the highlands where several dozen bandits proclaimed themselves supporters and were promptly inducted into the scouting corps, and less than a month later they had taken the old Beaufort Castle and moved into the Litani Valley. They were forced to wait in the region for a time due to supply issues, but reached the plains west of the Golan Heights around the Upper Jordan by late July 1554. David made camp here once again, planning to resupply his men for a few weeks until the weather became cooler--most of his men were from the Caucasus, and couldn’t move as efficiently in the region’s hot summer.
Unfortunately for them, Tless’s army was moving ahead of schedule and arrived in the same region less than a week later, with little to no warning. His men were exhausted by the long march, but he had the good sense to withdraw southward, trying to draw the Romans after him while he sent requests for support westward towards Ibrahim’s army, which had just reached Hayfa. While somewhat beleaguered by heat and casualties thereof, the regent was eager to finally settle this once and for all and moved to intercept, rushing eastward across the hills of the region. David, meanwhile, found himself suddenly having to break camp and flee, but having exhausted his supply routes to the north east and with little room to maneuver to the north and west.
Had Ibrahim been faster or Tless decided to attack alone, this could have been the end of the Roman army, but fortunately for them, Ashraf intervened first. He regarded David and the Romans as little more than a temporary nuisance that would eventually have to withdraw, and so had every intention of letting his two enemies bleed each other. However, a third of the Khandarhid force off by itself was too tempting a target to pass up and he decided to attack it before reinforcements could arrive. On 2 August, a Damascene army forded the Jordan and attacked Tless’s supply train on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Rather than being caught between two enemy armies, Tless decided that Ibrahim could handle the Romans himself and moved to engage, pursuing the Damascenes eastward and into the country of the ravines.
This opened up just the window David needed, and the Romans broke camp and fled into the hill country to the west. Ibrahim attempted to pursue, and the two armies spent the rest of the year in the rough terrain of the region, the Romans seemingly always only a few days’ march away. The Egyptian forces were growing increasingly split and seemingly ragged, although this was in fact a deliberate effort by the regent to bait the Romans into standing and fighting long enough for the main force to close and engage. David, meanwhile, was able to stay just ahead of hsi pursuers by judicious use of local scouts and fast-moving cavalry patrols and raids that kept his army in supply for just long enough to find more supplies. However, unlike the Egyptians, the Roman morale was in near perpetual decline. What were their chances of victory if they were constantly in flight? Where had their victories of the previous years gone? Why persist in what was obviously a doomed effort? They had beaten the Kurds, hadn’t they? And then the Syrians? Why put their lives on the line for cities that they probably couldn’t even hold? David’s forceful personality kept things together for a time, but the doubts began to spread, and as the apportioned date drew closer and closer the basileus himself began to crack. In October, Evangelos and several of the other generals approached David and begged for him to give it up before more good men died. David refused, babbling on about how God would not allow them to fail so close. Then, as winter began to set in in November he appeared in a hagged fuge before all his men, who by now barely numbered 20,000, and promised that they would withdraw by the end of March.
He kept to his word: As February 1555 came, the Romans marched out of the hill country and towards Jerusalem. The Egyptians moved to intercept, and the two armies met on the plains east of Lajjun.
Battle was joined on 17 February, a clear day that was relatively warm for the time of year, around 60*F with no breeze. The attitude in the Roman camp was surprisingly good, as David appeared to have returned to his ‘normal’ state, and it seemed as if they were once again going to win a spectacular victory, buoyed by a half-dozen speeches over the preceding days and the ministrations of dozens of priests who had descended upon the camp. Constantinople and Jerusalem would be reconquered under the same ruler! What state David was in, let alone his thoughts on the predicament he had placed himself in are unknown. In the Egyptian camp, meanwhile, the soldiers were also confident of victory, eager to at last crush the enemy who had taunted them for so long and to avenge the insults their country had suffered before in Syria.
The Romans positioned themselves in a line stretching across the plain, with its left flank anchored by the heights around OTL Migdal HaEmek, and its right shielded by the depression of OTL Kfar Baruh Reservoir, making any attempt to cross the depression effectively suicide. Irrigation ditches stretching out beyond the right made any attempt to flank it unlikely, but just in case a small cavalry force was held in reserve. The bulk of the cavalry, around 4,000 men, was positioned in the foothills of the northern ridge, while the main line was split into the standard three groups, 8,000 in the center and 5,000 in each wing. Again, what David’s ultimate strategy was is unknown, but he himself commanded the center with Evangelos on the left and a moirarkh named Ralleis on the right. The Egyptians, meanwhile, formed up on the plain opposite them, spreading out into three divisions of 10,000 each plus the reserve, with cavalry mixed in on the edges of the divisions. Ibrahim’s plan was to pin down the right and center, then swing around, drive back the Roman right and roll up the center and left.
Battle was joined at noon, artillery roaring to life as the first units began to move forward, cannonballs tearing bloody trails through ranks of men. The Egyptians held a numbers advantage, but many of their guns had been accidentally set up out of range, while the Roman guns on the northern ridge were nearly impossible to hit and could fire down with impunity, giving the Egyptians the worst of the exchange. Trying to minimize losses, Ibrahim ordered his advance elements forward at a run, soon coming to within range of the arquebusiers within the Roman ranks but taking few losses because of their speed and the heavier armor of the advance elements. Deafening shouts and war cries filled the air as the two centers joined, gunners getting off their last shots before the charging Egyptians hit the wall of pike. They had moved so quickly that many of them had lost formation, and with the weight of men behind them the Khandarhis struggled to reform, instead being swept forward into the defenders by the rush of men behind them, killing hundreds and marking the field with mounds of the dead before the order to pull back and reform was given. During this window the surviving Roman horsemen charged forward onto the field, slamming into the Egyptian right and cutting deeply into their ranks, but as they wheeled and pulled back the leading edge of the formation turned to meet them, forming into a pike wall as the cavalrymen turned and charged again, and once again the weight of numbers carried them forward to their deaths. The flower of Roman cavalry was torn asunder and the survivors forced to flee the field in disarray, outnumbered and pursued by the Khandarhi cavalry.
The thunderous artillery duel continued as the battle raged, but a lucky shot destroyed one of the Roman powder stocks, blowing a half-dozen cannons sky high and scattering much of the rest of the battery. By now the Egyptians had reformed and plunged back into battle, their sheer mass making itself felt as they pushed forward into the Roman ranks, fighting raging hand-to-hand as dozens were killed every minute, two bristling walls of pikes rushing into each other, life or death depending on the length of its handle. The Romans began to be pushed back, bending but not breaking as the wall of men and steel thrust forward, and after three hours of fighting Ibrahim deemed that the Roman reserves had to be committed, and gave the order for his left wing to strike.
They charged forward like an unstoppable force, racing over the uneven ground with the strength of a typhoon and slamming into the Roman right with the force of ten thousand men and their arms. The din and the roar were epic, deafening out any individual shout or cry into a single impenetrable storm as men waded through the soaked fields and into the slaughter, bodies falling left and right and the ground turning red with the fallen, masses of the dead rising up and giving footing as they fought on atop the plateau of corpses. The strength and number of the Romans had been depleted as men had been pulled back to reinforce the other two divisions, and suddenly the cannon shells were falling among them as the Egyptian cannons were moved up and joined the frey for the first time, but still they held, standing there as sturdy as the mountainside as the sea of flashing metal rose up to meet them, and the orders were gone now, everything was gone now except for the will to survive and the need to stand firm. Any man who ran was dead, any man who ran was dead, and the Egyptians were surging towards them, a screaming mass of fanatics, and the line wavered but then rallied and they fell back, and any man who ran was dead, and here they came again. The Khandarhis roared up the mound, crashed down like a breaking wave and then fell back. A wave of cavalry swept across the plain, angling towards the depression, and the horsemen in the reserve realized it was now or never and the order to charge was given and they hurtled out of the rear and into the pit, catching the enemy there and falling upon them like lions upon a stag and the whole center of the left was in confusion, and the Egyptians were wavering, and Ralleis sounded the clarion to charge and the bloodied veterans hurdled downwards screaming O STAVROS NIKA, and struck the Egyptians like a tidal wave, stronger and fiercer than anything they had faced, and the Khandarhis wavered and began to route….
….and in came the enemy reserves. The Egyptians rallied, shoring up the line and then beginning to turn back, and the Romans were exhausted and couldn’t hold a wall like that on level ground but fought to their last, knowing they were already dead but trying to buy time and then the Khandarhis broke through, charging up the mound unopposed and swinging around behind the Roman lines. David needs to swing around, where’s David?, goddamnit! Where is he? A shout went up the line that David had been killed, and the morale of the Romans finally broke. Men turned and ran for their lives, only to find the enemy closing in on them like the devil’s jaws, which only worsened the panic, and soon the whole army was streaming away to the north-west. Only the left remained, Evangelos’ section of the line, but he knew he was beaten and shifted his forces to cover the hillock as he began to pull back. It was dusk now, and the left regiments were able to fade away into the darkness, escaping as the Egyptians ran down those from the center and right.
The Battle of Lajjun, as it would be known, was an absolute charnel house. Of the 20,000 Romans and 45,000 Khandarhis that took the field, an estimated 18,000 Romans and 10,000 Khandarhis were killed. The battle exhausted Ibrahim’s army, and he withdrew south confident in the knowledge that the enemy could not advance further.
This was a saving grace for Evangelos, who suddenly found himself the general of his own force and likely the emperor in his own right, stranded more than a thousand miles from the frontier and nearly five hundred from the nearest neighbor who wouldn’t reflexively kill him with less than 3,000 exhausted and demoralized men. He would fade away into the countryside, gradually moving north into the Lebanese foothills and becoming a bandit in all but name to keep his men fed, embracing every hardship which they came across to prove himself worthy as a leader and a comrade and to try and stop the desertions that plagued his army. After three months on the brink of starvation, hunted like beasts in the forests and mountains, the surviving 2,183 Romans (all would be granted titles later) reached Tarabulus, which by some miracle had not yet been retaken. Evangelos sold off everything of value within the town, including all of his personal goods except for his sword and a tunic, to hire ships to carry his men back to Kayqubadabad. Including the garrisons of Nizip and Rumikale, which wisely fled into the mountains when word reached them, only 4,000 of the 30,000 men who had followed David across the Euphrates would escape back to the Empire.
Evangelos would arrive in Trapezous to find a situation worse than he could’ve imagined….
THE UNDYING EMPIRE WILL RETURN IN SEPTEMBER 2021