Chapter 21: The Hell of Walaja
The people would say in those days,
"In the month of Safar,
Is killed every tyrant ruler,
At the junction of the river."1
The news of the debacle at the River inflamed Ctesiphon. A second Persian army had been cut to pieces by this new and unexpected force emerging out of the barren wastes of Arabia. Each of the two Persian army commanders had been an illustrious imperial figure, a 100,000 dirham-man. And not only these two, but two other first-rate generals had been slain by the enemy. It was unbelievable! Considering that this new enemy had never been known for any advanced military organisation, these two defeats seemed like nightmares-frightening but unreal.
Emperor Ardsheer decided to take no chances. He ordered the concentration of another two armies; and he gave this order on the very day on which the Battle of the River was fought. This may surprise the reader, for the battlefield was 300 miles from Ctesiphon by road. But the Persians had a remarkable system of military communication. Before battle they would station a line of men, picked for their powerful voices, at shouting distance one from another, all the way from the battlefield to the capital. Hundreds of men would be used to form this line. Each event on the battlefield would be shouted by A to B; by B to C; by C to D; and so on. 2 Thus every action on the battlefield would be known to the Emperor in a few hours.
Following the orders of the Emperor, Persian warriors began to concentrate at the imperial capital. They came from all towns and garrisons except those manning the western frontier with the Eastern Roman Empire. In a few days the first army was ready.
The Persian court expected the Muslims to proceed along the Euphrates to North-Western Iraq. The Persians understood the Arab mind well enough to know that no Arab force would move far from the desert so long as there were opposing forces within striking distance of its rear and its route to the desert. Expecting the Muslims army to move west, Ardsheer picked on Walaja as the place at which to stop Khalid and destroy his army. (See Map 10.) 3
The first of the new Persian armies raised at Ctesiphon was placed under the command of Andarzaghar, who until recently had been military governor of the frontier province of Khurasan and was held in high esteem by Persian and Arab alike. He was a Persian born among the Arabs of Iraq. He had grown up among the Arabs and, unlike most Persians of his class, was genuinely fond of them.
Andarzaghar was ordered to move his army to Walaja, where he would soon be joined by the second army. He set off from Ctesiphon, moved along the east bank of the Tigris, crossed the Tigris at Kaskar, 4 moved south-west to the Euphrates, near Walaja, crossed the Euphrates and established his camp at Walaja. Before setting out from the capital he had sent couriers to many Arab tribes which he knew; and on his way to, Walaja he picked up thousands of Arabs who were willing to fight under his standard. He had also met and taken command of the remnants of the army of Qarin. When he arrived at Walaja he was delighted with the strength of his army. Patiently he waited for Bahman who was to join him in a few days.
Bahman was the commander of the second army. One of the top personalities of the Persian military hierarchy, he too was a 100,000 dirham-man. He was ordered by the Emperor to take the second army, when ready, to Walaja where Andarzaghar would await him. Bahman would be in over-all command of both the armies, and with this enormous might would fight and destroy the Muslim army in one great battle.
1. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Dar Abi Hayyan, Cairo, 1st ed. 1416/1996, Vol. 6 P. 421.
2. Tabari: Vol. 3, p. 43.
3. No trace remains of Walaja. According to Yaqut (Vol. 4, p. 939), it was east of the Kufa-Makkah road, and a well-watered region stretched between it and Hira. Musil (p. 293) places it near Ain Zahik, which, though still known by that name to the local inhabitants of the region, is marked on maps as Ain-ul-Muhari and is 5 miles south-south-west of Shinafiya. The area of Walaja, now completely barren, was then very fertile.
4. This was the place where Wasit was founded in 83 Hijri. In fact Kaskar became the eastern part of Wasit.
Bahman moved on a separate route to Andarzaghar's. From Ctesiphon he marched south, between the two rivers, making directly for Walaja. But he left Ctesiphon several days after the first army, and his movement was slower.
The Battle of the River had been a glorious victory. With few casualties to themselves, the Muslims had shattered a large Persian army and acquired a vast amount of booty. But the battle left Khalid in a more thoughtful mood; and only now did he begin to appreciate the immensity of the resources of the Persian Empire. He had fought two bloody battles with two separate Persian armies and driven them mercilessly from the battlefield, but he was still only on the fringes of the Empire. The Persians could field many armies like the ones he had fought at Kazima and the River.
It was a sobering thought. And Khalid was on his own. He was the first Muslim commander to set out to conquer alien lands. He was not only the military commander but also the political head, and as such had to govern, on behalf of the Caliph in Madinah, all the territories conquered for Islam. There was no superior to whom he could turn for guidance in matters of politics and administration. Moreover, his men were not as fresh as on the eve of Kazima. They had marched long and fast and fought hard, and were now feeling more than a little tired. Khalid rested his army for a few days.
By now Khalid had organised an efficient network of intelligence agents. The agents were local Arabs who were completely won over by the generous treatment of the local population by Khalid, which contrasted strikingly with the harshness and arrogance of the imperial Persians. Consequently they had thrown in their lot with the Muslims and kept Khalid apprised of the affairs of Persia and the movements of Persian forces. These agents now informed him of the march of Andarzaghar from Ctesiphon; of the large Arab contingents which joined him; of his picking up the survivors of Qarin's army; of his movement towards Walaja. They also brought word of the movement towards Walaja. They also brought word of the march of the second army under Bahman from Ctesiphon and its movement in a southerly direction. As more intelligence arrived, Khalid realised that the two Persian armies would shortly meet and then either bar his way south of the Euphrates or advance to fight him in the region of Uballa. The Persians would be in such overwhelming strength that there could be no possibility of his engaging in a successful battle. Khalid had to get to Hira, and Walaja was smack on his route.
Another point that worried Khalid was that too many Persians were escaping from one battle to fight another day. The survivors of Kazima had joined Qarin and fought at the River. The survivors of the River had joined Andarzaghar and were now moving towards Walaja. If he was to have a sporting chance of defeating all the armies that faced him, he would have to make sure that none got away from one battle to join the army preparing for the next.
These then were the two problems that faced Khalid. The first was strategical: two Persian armies were about to combine to oppose him. To this problem he found a masterly strategical solution, i.e. to advance rapidly and fight and eliminate one army (Andarzaghar's) before the other army (Bahman's) arrived on the scene. The second problem was tactical: how to prevent enemy warriors escaping from one battle to fight another. To this he found a tactical solution which only a genius could conceive and only a master could implement-but more of this later.
Khalid gave instructions to Suwaid bin Muqarrin to see to the administration of the conquered districts with his team of officials, and posted a few detachments to guard the lower Tigris against possible enemy crossings from the north and east and to give warning of any fresh enemy forces coming from those directions. With the rest of the army-about 15,000 men-he set off in the direction of Hira, moving at a fast pace along the south edge of the great marsh.
If Andarzaghar had been given the choice, he would undoubtedly have preferred to wait for the arrival of Bahman before fighting a decisive battle with the Muslims. But Andarzaghar was not given the choice. A few days before Bahman was expected, the Muslim army appeared over the eastern horizon and camped a short distance from Walaja. However, Andarzaghar was not worried. He had a large army of Persians and Arabs and felt confident of victory. He did not even bother to withdraw to the river bank, a mile away, so that he could use the river to guard his rear. He prepared for battle at Walaja.
For the whole of the next day the two armies remained in their respective camps, keeping each other under observation, while commanders and other officers carried out reconnaissances and made preparations for the morrow. The following morning the armies deployed for battle, each with a centre and wings. The Muslims armies were again commanded by Asim bin Amr and Adi bin Hatim.
The battlefield consisted of an even plain stretching between two low, flat ridges which were about 2 miles apart and 20 to 30 feet in height. The north-eastern part of the plain ran into a barren desert. A short distance beyond the north-eastern ridge flowed a branch of the Euphrates now known as the River Khasif. The Persians deployed in the centre of this plain, facing east-south-east, with the western ridge behind them and their left resting on the north-eastern ridge. Khalid formed up his army just forward of the north-eastern ridge, facing the Persians. The centre of the battlefield, i.e. the mid-point between the two armies, was about 2 miles south-east of the present Ain-ul-Muhari and 6 miles south of the present Shinafiya.
Andarzaghar was surprised at the strength of the Muslim army. Only about 10,000 he guessed. From what he had heard, Andarzaghar had expected Khalid's army to be much larger. And where was the dreaded Muslim cavalry? Most of these men were on foot! Perhaps the Persian survivors of Kazima and the River had exaggerated the enemy's strength, as defeated soldiers are wont to do. Or perhaps the cavalry was fighting dismounted. Andarzaghar did not know that the Muslims who faced him were also surprised at their numbers, for they did not seem to be as many as they had been the day before. But the matter did not worry them. The Sword of Allah knew best!
The situation put Andarzaghar in high spirits. He would make mincemeat of this small force and clear the land of Iraq of these insolent desert-dwellers. He would at first await the Muslim attack. He would hold the attack and wear down the Muslims; then he would launch a counter-attack and crush the enemy.
When Khalid's army advanced for a general attack, Andarzaghar was overjoyed. This was just what he wanted. The two armies met with a clash of steel, and the men lost all count of time as they struggled mightily in combat.
For some time the battle raged with unabated fury. The agile, skilful Muslims struck at the heavily armed Persians, but the Persians stood their ground, repulsing all attacks. After an hour or so both sides began to feel tired-the Muslims more so because they were fewer in number and each of them faced several Persians in combat. The Persians had reserves which they employed to replace their men in the front line. However, the example of Khalid kept Muslim spirits undaunted. He was fighting in the front rank.
In particular, during this first phase of the battle, the Muslims gained further confidence from the thrilling spectacle of Khalid's duel with a Persian champion of gigantic proportions known as Hazar Mard, who was said to have been the equal of a thousand warriors. 1 This giant of a man stepped forward and extended a general challenge which was accepted by Khalid. After a few minutes of duelling, Khalid found an opening and felled the man with his sword. When the Persian's body lay quite still, Khalid sat down on his great chest and called out to his slave to bring him his food. Then, seated on this grisly bench, Khalid ate a hearty lunch! 2
The first phase was over. The second phase of the battle began with the counter-attack of the Persians. The experienced eye of Andarzaghar could see clear signs of fatigue on the faces of the Muslims. He judged that this was the right moment for his counter-stroke; and in this he was right. At this command the Persians surged forward and struck at the Muslims. The Muslims were able to hold them for some time, but the Herculean efforts that they were called upon to make placed an almost unbearable strain on their nerves and limbs. Slowly they fell back, though in good order. The Persians launched furious charges, and the Muslims looked to Khalid for any sign of a change in plan or anything to relieve the tension. But from Khalid they got no such sign. He was fighting like a lion and urged his men to do likewise. And his men did likewise.
1. In Persian, Hazar Mard means a thousand men, and this was an appellation given to especially formidable warriors in recognition of their prowess and strength.
2. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 560. Abu Yusuf: p. 142.
The Persians were paying heavily for their advance, but they exulted in the success that they were gaining. Andarzaghar was beside himself with joy. Victory was just round the corner. He had not reached the top rung of the Persian socio-military ladder, but now he saw visions of a 100,000 dirham-cap. The Muslims continued to fight with the suicidal desperation of wild animals at bay. They had reached the limits of human endurance; and some even began to wonder if Khalid had at last met his match. A little more of this and the front would shatter into a thousand pieces.
Then Khalid gave the signal. We do not know just what this signal was, but it was received by those for whom it was intended. The next moment, over the crest of the ridge which stretched behind the Persian army appeared two dark lines of mounted warriors-one from the Persian left-rear, the other from the right-rear. Cries of Allah-o-Akbar rent the air as the Muslim cavalry charged at a gallop; and the plain of Walaja trembled under the thundering hooves of the Arab horse.
The joy of the Persians turned to terror. While a moment before they had been shouting with glee, they now screamed in panic as the Muslim cavalry rammed into the rear of the Persian army. The main body of Muslims under Khalid, refreshed and strengthened by the sight they beheld, resumed the attack against the Persian front, at the same time extending its flanks to join hands with the cavalry and completely surround the Persians. The army of Andarzaghar was caught in a trap from which there could be no escape.
In an instant the disciplined Persians turned into a rabble. When groups of soldiers turned to the rear they were pierced by lances or felled by swords. When they turned to the front they were struck down by sword and dagger. Recoiling from the assaults that came from all directions, they gathered in an unwieldy mass, unable to use their weapons freely or avoid the blows of their assailants. Those who wanted to fight did not know whom to fight. Those who wanted to flee did not know where to go. In a mad urge to get away from the horror they trampled each other and fought each other. The battlefield of Walaja became a hell for the army of Andarzaghar.
The ring of steel became tighter as the furious charges of the Muslims continued. The very helplessness of the Persians excited the Muslims to greater violence, and they swore that they would not let the Persians and Iraqi Arabs escape this time.
In this the Muslims succeeded. A few thousand imperial warriors did get away; for no army can be so completely destroyed that not a single survivor remains, but the army as a whole ceased to exist. It was as if a vast chasm had opened under it and swallowed it up. While the armies of Hormuz and Qarin had suffered crushing defeats, the army of Andarzaghar was annihilated. The army of Andarzaghar was no more. (For a graphic illustration of the phases of this battle see Map 13 below.)
Andarzaghar himself, strangely enough, managed to escape. But the direction of his escape was towards the desert rather than the Euphrates, and having no desire but to put as much distance as possible between himself and the hell of Walaja, he went deep into the desert. In the desert the ill-fated man lost himself and died of thirst.
After the battle Khalid got his exhausted men together. He realised that this battle had imposed a terrible strain upon them. It had been the fiercest of the three fierce battles which they had fought in Iraq; and he wanted to make certain, that their spirits were not dampened by memories of the trial, for more trials awaited them.
He addressed the men. He started by praising Allah and calling His blessings upon the Holy Prophet. Then he continued:
"Do you not see the wealth of the land of the Persians? Do you not remember the poverty of the land of the Arabs? Do you not see how the crops in this land cover the earth? If the holy war were not enjoined by Allah, we should still come and conquer this rich land and exchange the hunger of our deserts for the abundant eating which is now ours." 1
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 559.
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