As we remember and thank our modern warriors for the incredible sacrifices they make to preserve our lives and freedoms, I am also inspired by those of our ancestors in another time and place.
The year was 732 AD in southern France near Tours…
One hundred years earlier Mohammed had died. His followers had taken the offensive in gathering to Islam lands, wealth and converts. In their wake were devastation and death. Their military leader, Abd al-Rahman, had his eyes on Rome and the destruction of Christianity. At the southeastern end of the Pyrenees Mountain range, one man stood between him and his goal; his name was Charles Martel.
The prophet Muhammed was born in the western Arabian town of Mecca in 571 AD. While Christianity was the predominant world religion, Zoroastrianism and Judaism existed in smaller areas and the Roman Empire had been splintered and overrun by barbarians. The Persian Empire was continually warring with the Byzantines and there was constant fighting over territories and trade routes. With the migrations and influx, various peoples and philosophies began streaming through the Arab world. Jews and Christians brought new tools, ideas and technologies flooded the area along with change and turmoil. On the sparsely settled Arabian Peninsula, nomads and a few farmers made a living. Their identity and survival depended on loyalty to their tribes. Mecca was a small town along a trade route, it had a constant stream of income from visitors journeying to see the Black Stone, a meteoric rock believed to have been found by Abraham and dating back to Adam and Eve. It was there that Mohammed received his prophetic call. The pagans of Mecca worried that he might disrupt their lifestyles and Mohammed fled to Medina where he became a leader and warrior. He returned to, and conquered Mecca, where he died; the last prophet. The new religion spread quickly as his followers expanded the empire by word and by the sword.
Islam has many honorable tenets: faith, family, honesty. Moslems believe there is only one God, Allah, and that Muhammed was His prophet. Daily pray, care for the needy, self-purification and a Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca or Makkah were among the practices of the Moslems. In less than one hundred years after its founding, the caliphate had spread from China to the Atlantic, from the Black Sea to eastern Asia and from northern Africa to the Iberian Peninsula and included most of the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. The Byzantine Empire watched with horror has the seemingly unstoppable military forces of Islam spread and stood against the fragmented kingdoms of central and western Europe.
The Islamic culture was at its pinnacle in the arts and sciences and technological and cultural advancements that were inspired by the Greeks and Persians. But soon the West pushed forward with achievements in culture, government, science and technology. Religious reasoning brought thoughts of self and representational government guaranteeing religious and personal freedoms. Islam’s Sharia or Holy Law did not allow for personal freedom or expression. Every aspect of life was regulated: religious, commercial, civil and criminal. Mankind had no need for creating or changing laws as there was no separation of church and state. And only two states of being existed: one was either a slave or not.
At first, Islam denounced elitism, but within a few generations aristocracy and privilege in the hands of a few had returned and it became evident that Muslim men would have cultural advantages not extended to slaves, women and nonbelievers. In modern times slavery has been abolished, but women continue to be exploited sexually. Military might and powerful tribal connections were and are today the instrument of conversion as are the more desirable points of the gospel of Islam.
The value of education was not recognized and evolution of culture and government was non-existent. Research and inquiry ceased and the canon of acquired knowledge stagnated. Meanwhile advances in Europe in the sciences, arts, technology and industry were taking place rapidly. And because Europe and Christianity were intertwined, The Islamic empire watched with skepticism and suspicion. And the decision was made, Christianity and European culture must be made to bow to the supremacy of Islam.
Warfare and gain were attractive recruiting points for potential troops. Although the scriptural basis for confronting and destroying “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians, was unclear, it was understood that if they were spared, they were to be second-class citizens, subservient and tax paying to the dominant Muslim masters. Pagans and polytheists had less-attractive options: enslavement, conversion or death.
Individual glory and the promise of great heavenly rewards contributed greatly to the morale of the fighters. Armed with broadswords, bows and arrows, they traveled light and fought hand-to-hand. Having survived for centuries before on pillage and assault, Arabs converted to Islam had the dilemma of looking for new sources of wealth outside of their fellow Muslims. By combining the concept of the holy war or jihad, they were motivated to move to new territories to convert or dispatch unbelievers. In their eyes, the whole world was waiting to adopt the faith or submit to their governance.
As the cities of Syria and Jerusalem fell, The Byzantine and Persian Empires, weakened by outbreaks of bubonic plague and infighting, were ripe for the picking. Egypt was invaded in 639 and at some point the unfortunate victims lost instead of only their fighting forces, the entire populations of targeted cities. They turned north and east, taking areas of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, then on to Pakistan where they defeated a Chinese army fighting under a Korean commander. They turned west out of Egypt and into North Africa where they met their first defeat. Angered and emboldened, they fought harder and this time conquered adding untold numbers of slaves, especially young girls that were sent to Medina.
After decades of war and thousands of miles, they entered the Strait of Gibraltar with Spain in their sights. In 711, the first of the invading army sailed across the Strait and entered a place of political turmoil where a fight for power had followed the death of a Visgoth king. The raiders moved quickly seizing the opportunities and lands. Local leaders made treaties believing this was a one-time invasion, but they were mistaken, these invaders remained in Portugal and Spain for the next eight hundred years. Having a foothold in Europe, it is surmised that the invading forces considered extinguishing the remnants of Christianity in Gaul (France) and Italy to preach the gospel of Allah from the pulpits of the Vatican. From there, converting Germany’s barbarians then onto Greece and Constantinople, controlling the civilized world.
After their victory in Spain and Portugal, the next step was across the Pyrenees Mountains to reach the capitals of Europe. For several decades, raiding parties entered Southern France along the east side of the Pyrenees. In May or June of 732, the assault began. Forces numbered in the hundreds of thousands by Europeans or 80,000 by Arab chroniclers (probably more accurate) of Arab and Berbers invaded. Accompanied by their wives, children and belongings, the Muslim armies intended to conquer and occupy Europe.
Unfortunately for France, three hundred years of assaults by Germanic tribes following the fall of Rome had left the country divided in language, customs and governance. Civil wars and invasions by pagan hordes had weakened and unsettled the population and left the people disinclined to unite or defend one another. The dysfunctional condition of the people in Southern France practically ensured their defeat and destruction.
The Muslim armies employed the strategies that served them well in other invasions; raiding, burning and looting and feeling out the strength of the enemy and their defensive abilities. They were a united, strong and battle-hardened force with a well-organized infrastructure and a capable commander. They were also vengeful and converted to a cause that required the destruction or captivity of their conquests. In their eyes, resistance was futile and fatal.
As the armies entered towns and villages, burning looting and pillaging homes, abbeys, churches and fields, they were virtually unstoppable. Although hey they experienced occasional defeats, they soon controlled the important cities and much of the territory of eastern and southern Gaul.
The Count of Aquitaine, Prince Eudes confronted the invaders and was defeated. He withdrew to Bordeaux which was attacked, burned and sacked, the people killed and enslaved and treasures stolen. As Europe teetered on the brink, the birth of democracy and personal freedoms were close to being yoked or extinguished by Koran-wielding killers.
After Bordeaux was all but annihilated, Eudes tried a second defense which ended more disastrously than the first. He fled to Paris and sought out a long-time enemy, but fellow Christian, Charles Martel who acting as the mayor; an equivalent to Prime Minister. His king was not functioning in his office and Martel was the most powerful man in the area. Charles was an experienced warrior, having spent decades in the military fighting for power in Gaul and against the fierce pagan tribes from Germany. Having fought in a dozen major campaigns he had become a strong, courageous and experienced leader and had been nicknamed “The Hammer” or “Martel ” for his ability to crush his enemies.
Except for the fact that he had no standing army, Martel was a force to be reckoned with.
He had a small number of loyal fellow soldiers, all courageous, well-trained and experienced. After being briefed on the invasions of Abd al-Rahman, Martel summoned the men of the kingdom and surrounding areas to war which brought his comrades from earlier engagements and defenders from other areas that understood the Muslim threat to life, limb and property. Martel and his men were very aware that they represented the last defense of Christianity and Western Europe. Surprisingly the Church didn’t support his request for lands and money to finance their own defense and threatened to excommunicate him. Also convincing men to leave the comfort and security of home and farm to stop the invasion was not a simple task, but when they understood the danger facing their families and themselves, the men of the kingdom answered the call as reason prevailed and the army was raised, trained and financed.
Tours was the next attractive target for the Moors and Martel massed his army just south of the city. In October 732 Charles’ army stood on the ridges of the Pyrenees “like a wall” as the advancing armies of Abd al-Raman launched their attack. The outnumbered yet courageous Franks dressed in armour also hid in the trees and mountain crags. Martel’s men withstood the attacks as thousand on both sides died in battle. Al-Rahman was killed and in a brilliant stroke of military strategy, Charles sent troops behind enemy lines where they attacked the base camp. Unnerved, the Muslim invaders turned and returned south, never to menace Europe again, until recently when they attacked civilian targets without declaring war.
Martel considered chasing down the defeated army but learned that a German pagan force was attacking along the Rhine River. Eudes and his remaining troops and locals defended the towns against the retreating marauders. One account states that Abd al-Raman lost 375,000 men with about 1,500 Christians killed. The numbers can’t be substantiated but it is fact that the Muslim army was dealt a major defeat. Over the years, occasional raids would be made into southern France, but a major offensive attack against the Christians in Gaul would never again be attempted.
Memorial Day used to be known as Decoration Day and served as homage to the warriors of the American Civil War. Since that time, Americans have been involved in conflict around the world.
As American and Allied forces sacrificed thousands of their own lives on the beaches of Normandy to push back the tide of evil another great leader admonished: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Winston Churchill