Sunday, December 14, 2014

Battle of Kephissos: The Catalan Company Pays Back Stingy Employer

Today in Military History – March 15, 1311 The late 12th and early 13th centuries were times of constant warfare in the Mediterranean basin. After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Western forces of the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Empire fragmented. There separate Byzantine successor states controlled western Greece, western and northwestern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and the northeastern coast of Asia Minor around the port of Trebizond. In addition, the Bulgarians, Serbians and Seljuk Turks were pressuring the borders of the old Byzantine Empire constantly. Further, several Crusaders states – similar to ones set up in the Holy Land after the success of the First Crusade – were established in Greece. The three major contenders were the Principality of Achaea (southernmost Greece), the Duchy of Athens, and the “Latin Empire,” which covered most of the Greek peninsula and the northwest coast of Asia Minor, including the former imperial capital of Constantinople. In 1308, the Duke of Athens died and the duchy was passed to his son, Walter V of Brienne, a French knight. In mid-1310, Duke Walter was looking to hire some mercenaries to help him in his fight with the Nicaeans and Epirotes, as well as the re-emerging Byzantines who were rattling their sabers to reclaim Greece for the empire. Duke Walter was approached by Roger Deslaur, commander of the Catalan Great Company. These men were a group of Catalan-Aragonese sellswords who had recently been “discharged” from the service of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus. [don’t you just love these Greek names?] Duke Walter accepted their offer, which included paying their asking price for employment. The company had fought in a variety of conflicts from Sicily to Asia Minor, and had a knack for turning friends into enemies. After several years of service, the Company had become a greater liability to Emperor Andronicus than an asset. Within six months of their hire by the duke, the Catalan Company had recaptured 30 villages, towns and castles for Athens. However, Duke Walter had only paid the entire Company for two of the six months they had been in his service. He began to fear the consequences of their continued employment by him, knowing their past history. Consequently, the duke hit upon a unique plan. 
Late in 1310, Duke Walter selected a small portion (200 horsemen and 300 infantry) of the Company, paid them their full wages, gave them lands and titles, and retained them in his service. He then informed the rest of their comrades that he was discharging them – without so much as a silver penny! Obviously, this did not go down well with the Aragonese. Demanding their full pay, the Duke said he would instead give them the gallows. The Catalan Company vowed to take what was owed them. They fled the environs of Athens, setting themselves up in fortifications they had recently captured in Thessaly, and began making plans. [And now, this short historical footnote…] The Catalan Great Company, originally founded in 1281, was composed of men from Catalonia, mostly Catalan, Aragonese, Majorcan and Navarrese. They were principally spearmen called almogavars, carrying a short thrusting spear called an azcona, two heavy javelins, and a weapon called a colltell, a combination knife and butcher’s cleaver for close combat. They wore no armor save an iron helmet, dressed in a tunic and sleeveless sheepskin coat, and tough sandals that strapped up the ankles. At this battle, their strength stood at about 4000 infantrymen. By the time of this battle, the Company had acquired some cavalry, namely about 900 javelin-armed jinetes (Spanish-style light horsemen) and 1100 Turkish light cavalry and turcopoles. This last batch of recruits joined the Company during their time with the Byzantines. Turcopoles were lightly armored (leather jerkin and steel helmet) and lightly armed (bow and javelin) horsemen who served as mounted archers and scouts. They were either mixed Christian-Turkish individuals or, by this time period, simply locally recruited horsemen who were adept at riding and shooting a bow. There is also the possibility that a few heavy knights may have been in the Company’s force, but this is unconfirmed by the sources. [Now back to our regularly scheduled history lecture…] Duke Walter began to muster his forces, even sending to Naples to get reinforcements. By March of 1311, he had assembled a force which he intended to use to chastise the recalcitrant Aragonese. He had over 6400 cavalry, including 700 Frankish knights from various crusader lands, the remainder being Greek light or medium horsemen. The duke’s infantry contingent has been estimated at between 8000 and 24,000 light and medium infantrymen. Most were likely recruited from throughout the duchy, probably mostly spearmen. However, their quality was not even close to that of the Catalan Company (which was one of the reasons the mercenaries were hired in the first place). He also had the small force of former Catalan Company men, bought and paid for (or so he thought). The Catalan Company occupied a position near the river Kephissos. They lined up in a marsh with a large area of clear grass within it. They drew up in a dense line several ranks deep, with their Turkish-turcopole auxiliaries arrayed nearby in separate formations. (The Turks were convinced that this whole scene was a plot by the Company and Duke Walter to eliminate them.) As an additional precaution, the Aragonese diverted water from the river, making the area in front of their position a fearsome bog. On the eve of the battle, the former Company men retained by the duke had pangs of conscience; they confronted their paid employer, stating they were rejoining their fellows. The Duke of Athens was not concerned about the loss of 500 men from his force. According to one of the battle’s chroniclers, the Duke told the 500 men “to go, and bad luck go with them, that it was well that they should die with the others.” He still outnumbered them at least three to one, if not more. The next morning, March 15, 1311, when the two sides lined up, the Catalan Company was somewhat discomfited by the size of the Athenian force. They tried to parley with the duke, but he refused them. He was determined to personally eliminate the Company once and for all. Consequently, Duke Walter placed himself and his personal standard in the forward position of his force. To open the battle the Duke of Athens led a charge of 200 French knights – said to all be wearing golden spurs – straight at the enemy line, with his infantry following close behind. Very quickly the charge was disrupted by the morass surrounding the almogavars, which had escaped detection by the Athenians. The Company began raining javelins down on the enemy as they traversed the mire. As the Athenian forces came to grips with the Company’s line, the battle became a slugging match, a close quarters hack ‘em up. The almogavars had learned their fighting skills in over four centuries of combat with Muslim invaders in Spain, and against heavily armored horsemen in Sicily and in Asia Minor. As the fighting continued, it is likely that as the Catalan hacked down their tiring and disrupted foes, they shouted, “Aur! Aur! Desperta ferro!” (“Listen! Listen! Wake up, iron!”) One chronicler said the Catalan Company fought “like desperate men,” while another said, “the battle was very hard.” Finally, the almogavars began to seize the upper hand in the fight. Seeing the tide of battle beginning to turn against the Athenian forces, the Turkish/turcopole horsemen launched themselves at the enemy. The onslaught of the Turks caused panic in the Athenian army, routing it from the field. Casualty numbers for the Catalan Company and their fellows are unknown, though must have been heavy. For the Duke of Athens’ forces, it was a total annihilation. Nearly all of the 700 heavy knights were killed (though one chronicler says only two escaped; another historian said two others were later ransomed), as were all of the native horsemen. Amongst the duke’s infantry, 8000 to 20,000 were also dispatched. Duke Walter of Brienne was also killed in the fighting, possibly at first contact with the enemy. As a result, the Catalan Company became the new de facto rulers of the Duchy of Athens, recognizing the King of Aragon as their lord and master. They would remain in command of the duchy for the next 75 years. For the next several months, they consolidated their control of the duchy, but also raided and pillaged rebellious areas – after all, they were still owed four months wages!



by Siggurdsson
March 16th, 2010

first published at Burnpit legion

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