Chapter 35: Yarmuk
"Did you not see us victorious upon the Yarmuk,
The way we prevailed in the campaigns of 'Iraq ?
The virgin cities we conquered, as well as
The Yellow Meadow, on our galloping steeds.
We conquered before that Busra, which was
Impenetrable even to the flying crows.
We killed those who stood against us
With flashing swords, and we have their spoils.
We killed the Romans until they were reduced
Upon the Yarmuk, to emaciated leaves.
We smashed their army as they rushed headlong
To the Neck-Breaker, with our sharp steel.
By morning they tumbled into it, reaching
The mysterious matter that defies the senses."
[Al-Qa'qa' bin Amr, commander in Khalid's army]1
At dawn the Muslim corps lined up for prayers under their respective commanders. As soon as the prayers were over, every man rushed to his assigned place. By sunrise both armies stood in battle order, facing each other across the centre of the Plain of Yarmuk, a little less than a mile apart.
There was no movement and little noise in the two armies. The soldiers knew that this was a fight to the finish, that one of the two armies would lie shattered on the battlefield before the fight was over. The Muslims gazed in wonder at the splendid formations of the Roman legions with banners flying and crosses raised above the heads of the soldiery. The Romans looked with something less than awe at the Muslim army deployed to their front. Their confidence rested on their great numbers, but during the past two years the performance of the Muslims in Syria had instilled a good deal of respect in the hearts of the Romans. There was a look of caution in Roman eyes. Thus an hour passed during which no one stirred and the soldiers awaited the start of a battle which, according to the chroniclers, "began with sparks of fire and ended with a raging conflagration", and of which "each day was more violent than the day before." 2
Then a Roman general by the name of George emerged from the Roman centre and rode towards the Muslims. Halting a short distance from the Muslim centre, he raised his voice and asked for Khalid. From the Muslim side Khalid rode out, delighted at the thought that the battle would begin with himself fighting a duel. He would set the pace for the rest of the battle.
As Khalid drew near, the Roman made no move to draw his sword, but continued to look intently at Khalid. The Muslim advanced until the necks of the horses crossed, and still George did not draw his sword. Then he spoke, in Arabic: "O Khalid, tell me the truth and do not deceive me, for the free do not lie and the noble do not deceive. Is it true that Allah sent a sword from heaven to your Prophet ? … and that he gave it to you ? … and that never have you drawn it but your enemies have been defeated?"
"No!" replied Khalid.
"Then why are you known as the Sword of Allah?"
Here Khalid told George the story of how he received the title of Sword of Allah from the Holy Prophet. George pondered this a while, then with a pensive look in his eyes, asked, "Tell me, to what do you call me?"
"To bear witness", Khalid replied, "that there is no Allah but Allah and Muhammad is His Slave and Messenger; and to believe in what he has brought from Allah."
"If I do not agree?"
"Then the Jizya, and you shall be under our protection."
"If I still do not agree?"
"Then the sword!"
George considered the words of Khalid for a few moments, then asked, "What is the position of one who enters your faith today?"
"In our faith there is only one position. All are equal."
"Then I accept your faith!" 3
To the astonishment of the two armies, which knew nothing of what had passed between the two generals, Khalid turned his horse and Muslim and Roman rode slowly to the Muslim army. On arrival at the Muslim centre George repeated after Khalid: "There is no Allah but Allah; Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah!" (A few hours later the newly-converted George would fight heroically for the faith which he had just embraced and would die in battle.) On the auspicious note of this conversion began the Battle of Yarmuk.
Now came the phase of duels between champions and this suited both sides, for it acted as a kind of warming up. Scores of officers rode out of the Muslim army, some on instructions from Khalid and others on their own, and throwing their individual challenges, engaged the Roman champions who emerged to fight them. Practically all these Romans were killed in combat, the honours of the day going to Abdur-Rahman bin Abi Bakr, who killed five Roman officers, one after the other.
1. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Dar Abi Hayyan, Cairo, 1st ed. 1416/1996, Vol. 7 P. 20.
2. Waqidi: p. 133
3. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 595
This duelling went on till midday. Then the Roman Commander-in-Chief, Mahan, decided that he had had enough of this and that if it went on very much longer, not only would he lose a large number of officers, but also the moral effect on his army would be quite bad. He would have a better chance of success in a general battle in which sheer weight of numbers would favour his army. But he was rightly cautious, for a false step at the beginning of battle could have far-reaching effects on its course. He would attempt a limited offensive on a broad front to test the strength of the Muslim army, and if possible, achieve a breakthrough wherever the Muslim front was weak.
At midday the 10 forward ranks of the Roman army, i.e. one-third of the infantry of each of the four armies, advanced to battle. This human wave moved slowly forward, and as it came within range of the Muslim archers, was subjected to intense archery, which caused some casualties. The wave continued to advance and before long struck the Muslim front rank. Soon the Muslims had dropped their bloody spears and drawn their swords, and both sides were locked in combat.
But the Roman assault was not a determined one, and the soldiers, many of whom were unused to battle, did not press the attack, while the fury with which the hardened Muslim veterans struck at them imposed caution. On some parts of the front the fighting was more violent than on others, but on the whole the action of this day could be described as steady and moderately hard. The Muslims held their own. The Romans did not reinforce their forward infantry, and at sunset the action ended with the two armies separating and returning to their respective camps. Casualties were light on this day, though higher among the Romans than the Muslims.
The night was spent in peace. The Muslim women greeted their men with pride, and wiped the sweat and blood from their faces and arms with their head coverings. The wives said to their husbands: ''Rejoice in tidings to paradise, O Friend of Allah!" 1 The Muslims now felt more confident for they had inflicted worse punishment on the enemy than they had taken themselves, and prayers and recitation of the Quran continued for most of the night. During the night, however, a few Roman parties came forward into the no-man's-land to pick up their dead and this led to some patrol clashes, but otherwise there was no engagement to disturb the peace of the night.
Mahan had got nowhere. He called a council of war at which plans for the next day were discussed. He would have to do something different if success were to be achieved and Mahan decided to launch his next attack at the first light of dawn, after forming up during the hours of darkness, in the hope of catching the Muslims off their guard, before they were prepared for battle. Moreover, he would attack in greater strength. The two central armies would put in holding attacks to tie down the Muslim centre, while the two flanking armies would launch the major thrusts and either drive the flanking corps off the battlefield or push them into the centre. To have a grand stand view of the battle, Mahan had a large pavilion placed on a hillock behind the Roman right, from where the entire plain could be seen. Here Mahan positioned himself with his court and a bodyguard of 2,000 Armenians, while the rest of the army prepared for the surprise dawn attack.
Soon after dawn the Muslims were at prayer when they heard the beating of drums. Messengers came galloping from the outposts to inform the commanders that the Romans were attacking. The Muslims were certainly caught unawares, but Khalid had ordered the placing of a strong outpost line in front during the night, and these outposts caused sufficient delay in the Roman advance to enable the Muslims to don their armour and weapons and get into battle position before the flood hit them. Moreover, the speed with which the Muslims got into position was faster than the Romans had anticipated. The sun was not yet up on this second day of battle when the two armies clashed.
The battle of the central corps continued steadily for most of the day with no break in the Muslim line. Here, in any case, the Romans were not pressing hard as this was meant to be a limited attack to hold these Muslim corps in their position. Thus the centre remained stable. But on the flanking corps fell the heaviest blows of the Roman army, and these corps bore the brunt of the fighting.
On the Muslim right the army of Qanateer, consisting mainly of Slavs, attacked the corps of Amr bin Al Aas. The Muslims held on bravely and the attack was repulsed. Qanateer attacked for the second time with fresh troops, and again the Muslims repulsed him. But when Qanateer attacked for the third time, again using fresh regiments, the resistance of the now tired Muslims broke, and the bulk of the corps fell back to the camp, while part of it retired to the centre, i.e. towards the corps of Sharhabeel.
1. Waqidi: p. 133.
As the corps fell back in some disorder, Amr ordered his cavalry regiment of 2,000 horse to counter-attack and throw back the Romans. The cavalry went into battle with great dash and for some time checked the Roman advance, but was unable to hold it for long. It was repulsed by the Romans and turned away from battle, also making for the Muslim camp. As the horsemen reached the camp along with the foot soldiers, they found a line of women waiting for them with tent poles and stones in their hands. The women screamed: "May Allah curse those who run from the enemy!" And to their husbands they shouted: "You are not our husbands if you cannot save us from these infidels." Other women began to beat drums and sang an improvised song:
O you who run from a constant woman
Who has both beauty and virtue;
And leave her to the infidel,
The hated and evil infidel,
To possess, disgrace and ruin! 2
What these Muslims received from their women was not just stinging rebukes; they were actually assaulted! First came a shower of stones, then the women rushed at the men, striking horse and rider with tent poles; and this was more than the proud warriors could take. Indignant at what had happened, they turned back from the camp and advanced in blazing anger towards the army of Qanateer. Amr now launched his second counter attack with the bulk of his corps.
The situation on the Muslim left was only a little less serious. Here too the initial Roman attack was repulsed, but in a second attack the Romans broke through the corps of Yazeed. This was the army of Gregory, with chains, more slow-moving than the others but also more solid. Yazeed too used his cavalry regiment to counter attack and it too was repulsed; and after a period of stiff resistance the warriors of Yazeed fell back to their camp, where the women awaited them, led by Hind and Khaulah. The first Muslim horseman from the left wing to arrive at the camp was Abu Sufyan, and the first woman to meet him was none other than Hind! She struck at the head of his horse with a tent pole and shouted: "Where to, O Son of Harb? Return to battle and show your courage so that you may be forgiven your sins against the Messenger of Allah." 3
Abu Sufyan had experienced his wife's violent temper before and hastily turned back. Other warriors received the same treatment from these women as the soldiers of Amr had received from theirs, and soon the corps of Yazeed returned to battle. A few women ran forward alongside the horses and one of them actually brought down a Roman with her sword. As the warriors of Yazeed turned again to grapple with the army of Gregory, Hind took up her song of Uhud:
We are the daughters of the night;
We move among the cushions
With a gentle feline grace
And our bracelets on our elbows.
If you advance we shall embrace you;
And if you retreat we shall forsake you
With a loveless separation. 4
One may question the propriety of Hind singing such a provocative song, but she felt that she was young enough to do so. After all, she was not a day over 50!
1. Waqidi: p. 140.
3. Ibid: p. 141.
4. Ibid: p. 140.
It was now about midday. While the Muslim flanking corps were fighting their battle, Khalid was watching these actions from his position in the centre. So far he had done nothing to help these corps, and had refused to be drawn into battle with his central reserve before it was absolutely necessary. But as the corps returned to battle from the camps to which they had retreated, Khalid decided to launch his cavalry reserve to assist them and quicken the re-establishment of the Muslim positions.
He first turned to the right wing and with his Mobile Guard and one cavalry regiment struck at the flank of the army of Qanateer at the same time as Amr counter-attacked again from the front. Very soon the Romans, attacked from two sides, turned and beat a hasty retreat to their original position. Amr regained all the ground that he had lost and reorganized his corps for the next round.
As soon as this position was restored, Khalid turned to the left wing. By now Yazeed had begun a major counter attack from the front to push the Romans back. Khalid detached one regiment under Dhiraar and ordered him to attack the front of the army of Deirjan in order to create a diversion and threaten the withdrawal of the Roman right wing from its advanced position. With the rest of the army reserve he attacked the flank of Gregory. (See Map 21 below) Here again the Romans withdrew under the counter-attacks from front and flank, but more slowly because with their chains the men could not move fast.
While the Roman right was falling back, Dhiraar broke through the army of Deirjan and got to its commander who stood well forward with his body-guard. Here Dhiraar killed Deirjan. But soon after, the pressure against him became so heavy that he was forced to retire to the Muslim line.
Before sunset the two flanking armies of the Romans had been pushed back. At sunset the central armies also broke contact and withdrew to their original positions and both fronts were restored along the lines occupied in the morning. The Muslims had faced a critical situation but had regained their lost ground. The right wing of the Muslims suffered more severely than the other corps, as the most vicious fighting had taken place in the sector of Amr. However, the day's fighting ended with the Muslims winning this bout on points.
The night that followed was again a quiet one. The Muslim women got busy dressing wounds, preparing food, carrying water and so on. On the whole, Muslim spirits were high as they had been attacked by the bulk of the Roman army and had thrown the attackers back from their positions. The Muslims had remained on the defensive, the counter attacks being no more than part of the general defensive posture.
In the Roman camp, however, the mood hardened. Thousands of Romans had been slain on this day, and the Muslims had not only repulsed the flanking armies which had penetrated their positions but had actually attacked the Roman centre (Dhiraar's charge) and broken through, killing the army commander. This was a great loss, for Deirjan was a distinguished and highly esteemed general. Mahan appointed another general, one by the name of Qureen, to command Deirjan's army, and transferred the command of the Armenians to Qanateer, the commander of the Roman left. This was necessary, for in the next day's battle the major Roman effort would be made against the Muslim right and right centre.
The battle had got beyond the stage of 'sparks of fire'. It had not yet reached the stage of 'raging conflagration', but the fire was nevertheless burning with fearful heat as the battle entered its third day. This was to be, for the Muslims, a right-handed action.
The army of chains made no move on this day as it had suffered more heavily on the previous day than the army of Qanateer. The army of Qureen made a limited effort on the front of Abu Ubaidah as a diversionary measure to tie down Muslim reserves. But the Armenians and the left wing of the Roman army, both now under the command of Qanateer, struck with extreme severity at the Muslim right and the corps of Sharhabeel, selecting as the main point of attack the junction between Sharhabeel and Amr bin Al Aas.
The initial attack was again repulsed by Amr and Sharhabeel, but the Roman advantage of numbers, against which the Muslims could only put up the same tired soldiers, soon began to tell. Thus, shortly before midday, Qanateer broke though in several places. The corps of Amr fell back to the camp, and the right part of Sharhabeel's front was also pushed back, while his left still held firmly to its position. Several gaps now appeared in the Muslim front.
Again the Muslim women came into action with tent poles and stones and sharp tongues; and again the Muslims recoiled from them to face the Romans. One of these Muslims confided to his comrades: "It is easier to face the Romans than our women!" 1 The bulk of the two corps re-established a second line and held the Roman efforts to break through. Amr even took the offensive and struck at the Romans with his cavalry and infantry, intending to dislodge them from their forward positions, but had little success.
At the stage a Muslim lady came running to Khalid. She had suddenly got a bright military idea and wanted Khalid to get the benefit of it - just in case he did not know. "O Son of Al Waleed" said the lady, "you are among the noblest of the Arabs. Know that the men only stay with their commanders. If the commanders stand fast the men stand fast. If the commanders are defeated the men are defeated." 2
Khalid thanked her politely for the advice and assured her that in this army the commanders would not be defeated!
Now Khalid launched his cavalry reserve against the flank of Qanateer. At the same time Amr's cavalry regiment manoeuvred from the right and struck Qanateer in his left flank, while the infantry of Amr and Sharhabeel counter-attacked frontally. (See Map 22 below) This time the Roman opposition to the Muslim counter-attack proved much more stubborn and hundreds of Muslims fell in combat, but by dusk the Romans were pushed back to their own position and the situation restored as at the beginning of the battle.
1. Waqidi: p. 142.
This had proved a harder day than the day before. However, the losses of the Romans far outnumbered those of the Muslims, and at the end of the day's fighting Muslim spirits were even higher, while Roman morale had suffered a serious blow. The Romans were now getting desperate. All their attacks had failed, in spite of a heavy toll in human lives, and they were in no better position than at the start of the battle. Mahan upbraided his generals, who promised to do better the next day. The next day would in fact be the most critical day of the battle.
Khalid and Abu Ubaidah spent the night walking about the Muslim camp, offering encouragement to the tired Muslims and speaking to the wounded. Being wounded in this battle did not mean getting evacuated to the rear. A Muslim had to be badly wounded indeed before he could expect to rest from fighting. A moderate wound meant a few hours' rest, and then back to the front!
The fourth day of battle dawned with an atmosphere tense with expectation. The Romans knew that this day would prove decisive, for now they were going to make their greatest effort to shatter the Muslim army which had so far withstood all assaults. If even this attack failed, then all prospects of further offensive action would disappear. It was now or never.
Khalid also knew that the battle had reached a critical stage, and that this day's operations would give a final indication of success or failure. Thousands of Romans had been killed so far, and if on this day also the Romans were repulsed with bloody losses, they would be unlikely to take the initiative again. Thereafter the counter-offensive could be launched. The Muslim strength was now somewhat depleted. The archers, positioned in the front rank, had suffered the heaviest losses, and now only 2,000 of them remained in fit state for battle. These were re-allocated at the scale of 500 to each corps. The Muslims were also more tired than the Romans because of their fewer numbers, but courage was never higher in the Muslim army.
Khalid's greatest concern was for his right. However, he was reassured by the thought that the commander of the Muslim right was Amr bin Al Aas, who in generalship was second only to Khalid. Amr had so far seen the heaviest fighting of this battle and was destined to continue to do so. Anyway, known as the shrewdest of the Arabs, Amr was more than a match for any Roman general.
Mahan decided to start the day's operation with an attack on the right half of the Muslim front as was done the day before. Once this part of the front was driven back and Muslim reserves committed in this sector, he would strike with the rest of his army at the left half of the Muslim front. With this plan of battle, the two armies of Qanateer were set in motion, and the Slavs and the Armenians sprang at the corps of Amr and Sharhabeel. Amr was pushed back again, but not as far as on the previous day; this time the Muslims were not going to face the ire of their women! Some distance behind its original position, the corps of Amr held the Slavs; and here manoeuvre gave way to a hard slogging match in which the Muslims, led by Amr with drawn sword, gave better than they took and inflicted severe losses on their opponents.
In the sector of Sharhabeel, however, the Armenians broke through and pushed the Muslims back towards their camp. The Armenians were strongly supported by the Christian Arabs of Jabla, and this proved the most serious penetration of the Muslim front. Sharhabeel was able to slow down the advance of the Armenians but could not repulse it. Soon it was clear that the corps would not be able to hold out for very long. It now became necessary for Khalid to enter this sector with his reserve.
What Khalid feared most was an attack in strength on a broad front. In case the enemy broke through at several places, there would be no way of expelling him as the army reserve could not be everywhere at the same time. On the second day of battle Khalid had been able to restore the situation on both flanks by first striking at one and then at the other penetration; but if the Romans got through in strength at many places, this could not be done. Consequently, when he saw the initial success of the enemy against Amr and Sharhabeel, he ordered Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed to attack on their front and thus forestall a Roman attack on the Muslim left in case such an attack was intended. This was to be a spoiling attack. By mid-morning the corps of Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed had engaged the armies of Qureen and Gregory, and at the time when Sharhabeel's position became delicate, both these corps were pressing hard against the right half of the Roman front.
Khalid, feeling more assured about his left, decided to strike against the Armenians. He divided the army reserve into two equal groups of which he gave one to Qais bin Hubeira and kept the other with himself. Leading his own cavalry group, Khalid galloped round behind the corps of Sharhabeel and appeared against the northern flank of the Armenian salient. Now began a three-pronged counter attack against the Armenians and Christian Arabs: Khalid from the right, Qais from the left and Sharhabeel from the front. (See Map 23 below) The fighting became vicious in this part of the battlefield as the enemy resisted stoutly, and for several hours a bitter struggle raged between the Muslims and the Christians; but at last the Armenians broke under the blows of the Muslim cavalry and infantry and fell back to their own position, losing heavily in the process. In this action, which lasted the whole afternoon, the Christian Arabs proved the heaviest losers.
As the Armenians pulled back, Amr bin Al Aas renewed his efforts to dislodge the Slavs from the position which they had taken; and the Slavs, denied the support of the Armenians on their flank, also retired. The positions of Sharhabeel and Amr were now restored. But this action on the Muslim right was not completed till the evening; and while it was in progress an equally critical and more fierce battle was being fought on the left side of the Muslim front. What made the latter action so dangerous was the fact that the army reserve was heavily committed on the right and could do nothing to help Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed, who had to rely entirely on their own resources.
On the orders of Khalid, the two left corps had advanced to attack the Romans on their front and were in contact when Khalid moved the Mobile Guard to deal with the Armenians. Initially these corps enjoyed some success and the Romans were pushed back, but this action had not proceeded far when the Muslims found themselves subjected to a merciless barrage of archery. Thousands of Roman archers opened up on the Muslims, and so rapid and intense was the flight of arrows that according to some accounts, "arrows fell like hailstones and blocked the light of the sun!" 1 Many a Muslim was wounded by these arrows, the wounds varying from light to severe, and each of 700 Muslims lost an eye. From the sectors of Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed rose the lament: "O my eye! O my sight!" 2 Abu Sufyan also is believed to have lost an eye in this action. 3 As a result of this calamity, this fourth day of battle became known as the Day of Lost Eyes, 4 a tribute to Roman marksmanship. And this was undoubtedly the worst day of battle for the Muslim army.
The Muslims of the left now fell back. Their own bows were ineffective against the Roman archers because of their shorter range and fewer numbers; and the only way to avoid further casualties was to withdraw out of range of the Roman archers, which Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed promptly did. As the two sides disengaged, both fronts stood still and the Muslims wisely refrained from advancing again. There was in fact a certain amount of consternation among the Muslims as a result of the arrow wounds and lost eyes.
But Mahan and his army commanders, Gregory and Qureen, had seen how the Muslims had suffered and decided to exploit their advantage. The two armies now advanced to assault the Muslims before they could recover from their repulse and the two bodies of men clashed again. As a result of the Roman assault the Muslims fell back to their own position and here the Romans, knowing that this was the decisive day of battle, attacked with even greater fury. The corps of Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed were again pushed back a short distance, except for the regiment of Ikrimah which stood at the left edge of Abu Ubaidah's sector.
The fearless Ikrimah refused to retreat, and called to his men to take the oath of death with him, i.e. that they would go down fighting and not surrender their position. In response to his call 400 of his men immediately took the oath and fell upon the Romans like hungry wolves. Not only did Ikrimah repulse the Romans on his front but he also lashed out at the Roman regiments passing on his flanks. This position was never lost by the Muslims. Of the 400 dedicated men who had taken the oath of death, everyone was either killed or seriously wounded, but they accounted for many times their number of Romans. Ikrimah and his son, Amr, were mortally wounded.
1. Waqidi: pp. 146, 148.
2. Ibid: p. 149.
3. We have already noted the loss of Abu Sufyan's eye at Taif. However, some sources indicate that this happened at Yarmuk and not at Taif.
4. Waqidi: p. 148.
The corps of Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed did not this time reach the camp. They did not have to, for the women themselves, many of them carrying swords, rushed forward and joined their men. Even the women understood that on this phase hung the fate of the battle. They came with swords and tent poles for the Romans and water for the Muslim wounded and thirsty. Among them were Khaulah and the wife of Zubair and Umm Hakeem, who shouted to the women: "Strike the uncircumcised ones in the arm!" 1 The women rushed through the Muslim corps to the front rank, determined to fight ahead of their men this time; and this proved the turning point in this sector.
The sight of their women fighting alongside, and some even ahead of them, turned the Muslims into raging demons. In blind fury they struck at the Romans in an action in which there was now no manoeuvre and no generalship - only individual soldiers giving of their superhuman best. Striking with sword and dagger, the valiant men of Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed hurled the Romans back from their positions, and the Romans retreated fast before the terrible blows of the infuriated Muslims. (See Map 23)
The battle of this day reached its climax along the entire front in the late afternoon. At this time all the generals were engaged in combat like their men, and every corps commander proved his right to be the leader of brave men. Several Romans bit the dust under the blows of Muslim women. Khaulah took on a Roman warrior, but her adversary proved a better swordsman and struck her on the head with his sword, as a result of which she collapsed in a heap with blood dying her hair red. When the Romans were pushed back, and the other women saw her motionless body, they wailed in sorrow and searched frantically for Dhiraar, to inform him that his beloved sister was dead. But Dhiraar could not be found till the evening. When he did arrive where his sister lay, Khaulah sat up, smiling. She was all right, really!
By dusk the days' action was over. Both armies stood once again on their original lines. It had been a terrible day - one that the veterans of Yarmuk would never forget and on which the Romans came very near victory. But many of them paid with their lives for a success which they were not destined to gain. The most crippling losses had been suffered by the chained men, the Armenians and the Christian Arabs. The Muslims had suffered more than on previous days, and those who were not wounded were fewer in number than those who were, but a glow of pride and satisfaction warmed their hearts, especially Khalid's who knew that the crisis was over. The tide had turned.
1. Waqidi: p 149. According to Balazuri (p. 141) these words were uttered by Hind.
One incident remains to be narrated before we come to the end of this account of the Day of Lost Eyes. During a pause in the fighting in Sharhabeel's sector, Khalid suddenly appeared deeply worried, and this surprised his men who had never seen him so. But they understood when he ordered the men to look for his red cap which he had dropped on the battlefield. A search was at once carried out and the cap found, for which Khalid was profuse in his thanks. There were some men who did not know about this cap and asked Khalid what was so wonderful about it. Thereupon Khalid told the story of the red cap:
When the Messenger of Allah had his head shaved on the last pilgrimage, I picked up some of the hair of his head. He asked me, "What will you do with this, O Khalid?" I replied, "I shall gain strength from it while fighting our enemies, O Messenger of Allah." Then he said, "You will remain victorious as long as this is with you."
I had the hair woven into my cap, and I have never met an enemy but he has been defeated by the blessing of the Messenger of Allah, on whom be the blessings of Allah and peace. 1
This is the story of Khalid's red cap - the one possession with which he would not part.
Darkness had fallen when Khalid sat on the blood-spattered earth at the left edge of Abu Ubaidah's sector. On one knee rested the head of Ikrimah, his nephew and dear, dear friend. On the other knee lay the head of Amr, son of Ikrimah. Life was ebbing fast from the bodies of father and son. Khalid would now and then dip his fingers into a bowl of water and let the water drip into the half-open mouths; and he would say: "Does the Son of Hantamah think we do not get martyred?" 2 Thus died Ikrimah and his son, in the dearly loved arms of the Sword of Allah. The man who for years had been the most blood-thirsty enemy of Islam earned final redemption in martyrdom. The greatest glory on the Day of Lost Eyes, a day such as the Muslims would never again see in Syria, went to Ikrimah bin Abi Jahl.
The night was spent in peace, if there could be peace for exhausted, wounded men who had driven their bodies to perform feats of strength and endurance which the human body was never intended to perform. Normally Abu Ubaidah would nominate a general as duty officer for the night, whose task it would be to go round the guards and the outposts and check the vigilance of the sentries. But on this night the generals themselves were so tired that Abu Ubaidah, kind and considerate as ever, did not have the heart to ask any of them to carry out this onerous task. Although his own sword dripped with the blood of several Romans and his need for rest was no less than that of the others, Abu Ubaidah decided to act as duty officer himself. Along with a few selected Companions of the Prophet he began his round. But he need not have worried. Everywhere that he went he found the generals up and mounted, going about and talking to the sentries and the wounded. Zubair was doing the rounds accompanied by his wife, also on horseback!
1. Waqidi: p. 151.
2. Tabari: Vol.2, p. 597. The Son of Hantamah was Umar, and by 'we' Khalid meant the Bani Makhzum.
Early on the fifth day of battle the two armies again formed up on their lines - the same lines which they had adopted before the start of battle. But on this day the soldiers did not stand so erect, nor look so imposing. Next to each unwounded man stood a wounded one. Some could hardly stand, but stand they did. Khalid looked intently at the Roman front for any sign of movement and wondered if the Romans would perhaps attack once again. But there was no movement, not for an hour or two. Then one man emerged from the Roman centre. This was an emissary of Mahan who brought a proposal for a truce for the next few days so that fresh negotiations could be held. Abu Ubaidah nearly accepted the proposal but was restrained by Khalid. On Khalid's insistence he sent the envoy back with a negative reply, adding: "We are in a hurry to finish this business!" 1
Now Khalid knew. He had guessed right. The Romans were no longer eager for battle. The rest of the day passed uneventfully while Khalid remained busy giving orders for the counter-offensive and carrying out some reorganisation. All the cavalry regiments were grouped together into one powerful mounted force with the Mobile Guard acting as its hard core. The total strength of this cavalry group was now about 8,000 horse.
The next day the sword of vengeance would flash over the Plain of Yarmuk.
The sixth day of battle dawned bright and clear. It was the fourth week of August 636 (third week of Rajab, 15 Hijri). The stillness of the morning gave no indication of the holocaust that was to follow. The Muslims were now feeling more refreshed, and knowing of their commander's offensive intentions and something of his plans, were eager for battle. The hopes of this day drowned the grim memories of the Day of Lost Eyes. To their front stretched the anxious ranks of the Roman army - less hopeful but still with plenty of fight in them.
As the sun rose over the dim skyline of the Jabal-ud-Druz, Gregory, the commander of the army of chains, rode forward, but from the centre of the imperial army. He had come with the mission of killing the Muslim army commander in the hope that this would have a demoralising effect on the Muslim rank and file. As he drew near the Muslim centre, he shouted a challenge and asked for "none but the commander of the Arabs". 2
Abu Ubaidah at once prepared to go forth. Khalid and the others tried to dissuade him, for Gregory had the reputation of being a powerful fighter, and looked it too. All felt that it would be better if Khalid went out in response to the challenge, but Abu Ubaidah was adamant. He gave the army standard to Khalid, and with the words, "If I do not return you shall command the army, until the Caliph decides the matter," 3 set out to meet his challenger.
The two generals met on horseback, drew their swords and began to duel. Both were splendid swordsmen and treated the spectators to a thrilling display of swordsmanship with cut, parry and thrust. Romans and Muslims held their breath. Then, after a few minutes of combat, Gregory drew back from his adversary, turned his horse and began to canter away. Shouts of joy rose from the Muslim ranks at what appeared to be the defeat of the Roman, but there was no such reaction from Abu Ubaidah. With his eyes fixed intently on the retreating Roman, he urged his horse forward and followed him.
1. Waqidi: p. 153.
2. Ibid: p. 153.
Gregory had hardly gone a few hundred paces when Abu Ubaidah caught up with him. Now Gregory, who had deliberately controlled the pace of his horse to let the Muslim overtake him, turned swiftly and raised his sword to strike at Abu Ubaidah. His apparent flight had been a trick to throw his opponent off guard. But Abu Ubaidah was no novice; he knew more about sword play than Gregory would ever learn. The Roman raised his sword, but that is as far as he got. He was struck at the base of his neck by Abu Ubaidah, and the sword fell from his hand as he crashed to the ground. For a few moments Abu Ubaidah sat still on his horse, marvelling at the enormous size of the Roman general. Then, leaving behind the bejewelled and gold-encrusted armour and weapons of the Roman, which he ignored with his habitual disregard for worldly possessions, the saintly soldier turned and rode back to the Muslim front.
On the return of Abu Ubaidah, Khalid galloped off to join the cavalry which had been positioned behind the corps of Amr bin Al Aas. As he arrived at his place he gave the signal for the general attack and the entire Muslim front surged forward. The Muslim centre and left engaged the Roman armies on their front but did not press the attack. On the right the cavalry galloped round to the flank of the Roman left. From here Khalid despatched a regiment to engage and hold the Roman cavalry of the left, and with the rest of the Muslim cavalry struck at the flank of the Roman left wing (the Slavs) at the same time as Amr assaulted their front with extreme violence. The Slavs were stout fighters, and for some time defended themselves courageously, but getting no support from their cavalry and assailed from front and flank, they at last gave way. Recoiling from the blows of Khalid and Amr, they fell back into the centre -the Armenians.
As the Roman left wing crumbled, Amr moved his corps forward, swung it to the left, and came up against the left and now exposed flank of the Armenians, in whose ranks there was considerable disorder as a result of the disorganised arrival of the broken Slavs. Meanwhile Khalid wheeled his cavalry and engaged the Roman cavalry of the left, which had been held in check by the regiment he had detached a little earlier. The second phase of the Muslim offensive began with Sharhabeel attacking the front of the Armenians while Amr assailed their flank. Then Khalid struck at the Roman cavalry of the left and drove it back from its position. This cavalry group, having got a severe mauling from Khalid, galloped away to the north and to safety. It had had enough of battle. (See Map 24 below)
I shall not attempt to explain Khalid's plan as it will become evident to the reader as we proceed with the course of the battle. But one point that needs especial mention is Khalid's intention with regard to the enemy cavalry. He had determined to drive the Roman cavalry off the battlefield so that the infantry, which formed the bulk of the Roman army, would be left without cavalry support and thus be helpless when attacked from flank and rear. In fast-moving operations the cavalry was the dominant partner, and without it the infantry would be at a great disadvantage, unable to move fast or to save itself by a rapid change of position.
At about the time when the Roman cavalry of the left was being driven away by Khalid, Mahan had concentrated the remainder of his cavalry into one powerful, mobile army behind the Roman centre to counter attack and regain lost positions. But before the massed Roman cavalry could start any manoeuvre, it was assailed in front and flank by the Muslim cavalry. For some time, urged on by the intrepid Mahan, the Romans fought gallantly; but in this type of fluid situation the regular, heavy cavalry was no match for the light, fast-moving horsemen of Khalid who could strike, disengage, manoeuvre and strike again. At last the Roman cavalry, seeing no other way of survival, broke contact and fled to the north, taking with it the protesting Mahan. In this manner the Roman cavalry abandoned the infantry to its fate. With Mahan, altogether 40,000 mounted troops got away, consisting partly of regular Roman cavalry and partly of the mobile Christian Arabs of Jabla bin El Eiham.
In the cavalry actions of this morning there was no sign of Dhiraar. The Muslims missed the familiar sight of the half-naked warrior in the kind of battle in which he would have revelled. They did not know where he was; and Khalid would not tell!
Meanwhile the Armenians were stoutly resisting Amr and Sharhabeel's attempts to crush them. The two Muslim corps had made some headway but not much; and this is understandable, for the Armenians were very brave fighters indeed. 1 Abu Ubaidah and Yazeed were also attacking the Romans on their front (though their role was as yet secondary- a holding operation), but were held by the army of Qureen and the army of chains. It was at this stage that Khalid, having driven the Roman cavalry from the battlefield, turned on the Armenians and charged them in the rear. (See Map 25 below) In the face of the three-pronged attack the Armenians disintegrated. Abandoning their position, they fled to the South-West-the only direction open to them, and were much relieved and surprised that the Muslim cavalry made no effort to interfere with their movement as it could easily have done. They travelled in the direction in which they saw safety. Unknown to them, this was also the direction which Khalid wanted them to take.
As the Armenian army collapsed, and mingling in a confused mass with the survivors of the Slav army of Qanateer fled towards the Wadi-ur-Raqqad, the remaining Roman armies realised the hopelessness of their position. Their flank and rear were completely exposed. Consequently they also began to withdraw, and with discipline and good order made their way westwards. Here again the Roman movement was not intercepted by Khalid.
1. Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, describes the Armenians as "the most warlike subjects of Rome"
The sun had not yet reached its zenith when the Roman infantry was in full retreat- part of it fleeing in panic and part withdrawing in good order. It made for the Wadi-ur-Raqqad. After the retreating Romans came the Muslim corps, now reformed into orderly lines with shorter fronts. The Muslim cavalry moved to the north of the Roman army so that none may escape in that direction, though before this escape route could be fully sealed, thousands of Slavs and Armenians did manage to get away. In this manner the Muslims closed in on the already defeated Army of Caesar. 1
As the Romans fled the field of battle, their only desire was to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Muslims. They knew that the northern escape route was closed by the Muslim cavalry; but another channel of escape was available where the Raqqad was crossed, at a ford, by a good road. Towards this ford the officers guided their men. As the leading regiment arrived at the ford, it rushed down the eastern slope of the ravine and began to cross the stream. The eastern slope was not so bad here as in other parts of the ravine; but the western slope was much steeper, and near the top it became precipitous on either side of the road, creating a bottleneck where a few brave men could hold up an army.
Overjoyed at their escape from the Plain of Yarmuk, the men in the lead laboured up the road on the western bank of the ravine. It was only when they got near the top that they noticed a group of Muslims standing above them with drawn swords. At their head stood a lean, young warrior, naked above the waist!
During the night Khalid had sent Dhiraar with 500 horsemen from the Mobile Guard to make a wide detour of the Roman left, get behind the Wadi-ur-Raqqad, and occupy a blocking position on the far bank of the ravine. Dhiraar, guided by a Christian Arab named Abu Jueid, 2 had carried out the move with admirable efficiency. Unknown to the Romans-who had considered the crossing of the Raqqad too far back to be of tactical significance - he had secured the western bank of the ravine and concealed his men near the ford. Now Dhiraar stood with his men on top of the western bank, looking down at the tired, panting Romans (See Map 26 below)
Soon a volley of stones hit the Romans. A few of them managed to get to the top, but were cut down instantly, Finding themselves under a hail of stones, the leading elements fell back on those behind them, these on those behind them, and these again on those behind them. As Dhiraar charged at the Romans, they went sliding down-a screaming, twisting, rolling avalanche-to the bottom of the ravine.
The Romans still on the eastern bank stopped when they saw the horror that had befallen the leading regiment. It was clear that this escape route was also closed. Nothing could be done to dislodge Dhiraar because of the narrowness of the crossing which allowed no room for manoeuvre; so the Roman army turned to defend itself against the impending attack from the east. The generals who still remained with the army hastily deployed the regiments for defence with their backs to the Wadi-ur-Raqqad and their right flank resting on the Yarmuk River. They were caught between two calamities-the ravine and the Muslims-and could not decide which was worse!
1. The statement made by some later Western writers that the Roman defeat was due to Khalid's exploitation of a violent sand storm which blew in the faces of the Romans is utterly incorrect. No Muslim historian has mentioned such a storm. Gibbon (Vol. 5, p. 327) states that there was "a cloud of dust and adverse wind", but only a child would imagine that the Muslim army, which still numbered about 30,000 fit soldiers, deployed on an 11 mile front, could be thrown into action so quickly, in such a superbly conceived manoeuvre, merely to exploit a dust storm. And this in the days when communication was by horse-rider! This is nothing but a proud Western historian's attempt by to find an excuse for the Roman defeat.
2. Waqidi: p. 152.
In the late afternoon of this sixth day of battle, began the last phase of the Muslim attack. (See Map 27 below) Only a third of the Roman army remained in this crowded corner of the Plain of Yarmuk; against it the Muslims were arranged in a neat semi-circle, with the infantry on the east and the cavalry on the north. The Muslim strength here was less than 30,000 men. The time for generalship and manoeuvre was over. The skill of the general had placed the troops in the ideal situation for combat, and it was up to the soldiers to fight and win. The generals drew their swords and became warriors like the rest, as the lions of the desert moved in for the final kill.
The attackers struck with sword and spear at the confused, seething mass in front of them. At places the Romans were too closely packed for elbow-room to use their weapons; but their front rank fought with heroic, if futile, courage to stem the tide. Soon it was struck down, and the next rank and the next, as the Muslims advanced-cutting, slashing, stabbing, thrusting. In the dust and confusion the Romans ran into each other, and those not agile enough fell and suffered a painful death under the trampling feet of their own comrades.
The Muslim cavalry, rejoined by Dhiraar's detachment, pressed the Romans farther into the corner where they lost all freedom of action. Khalid's horsemen now began to use the knees and hooves of their horses to knock down the exhausted defenders. The screams of the Romans mingled with the shouts of the Muslims as the last resistance collapsed, and the battle turned into a butchery and a nightmare of horrors. For the last time the Romans broke and fled in disorder. Those who still retained a desire to fight were carried away by their panic-stricken comrades, especially in the army of chains in which groups of 10 fought, moved and fell together.
Moving like stampeding cattle, the Roman rabble reached the edge of the ravine. The view to the bottom was terrifying, but so was the last wild charge of the Muslims. Those coming in the rear pressed blindly against those on the edge of the ravine, and rank after rank, the Roman army began to fall down the precipice. The blood-curdling screams of some continued until they hit the bottom, while the screams of others were cut short as their bodies crashed against jutting rocks and then continued their descent as shapeless, bloody lumps.
It was almost dark when the last of the Romans ceased to move. The day of 'the raging conflagration' had ended. Khalid's greatest battle was over. 1
Early next morning, while the rest of the army gathered the spoils of war and buried the martyrs, Khalid set off with the Muslim cavalry on the road to Damascus in the hope of catching up with Mahan. The Roman Commander-in-Chief, heartbroken at the annihilation of his army and not for a moment suspecting that a pursuit would be launched by the Muslims, was moving without haste. Some time in the afternoon Khalid overtook the Romans a few miles short of Damascus, and at once attacked the rear-guard. Mahan rushed to the rear-guard to supervise its action, and here the King of Armenia, the Commander-in-Chief of the imperial army, was killed by a Muslim horseman. Soon after his death, the Roman cavalry broke up into groups, and riding away to north and west, escaped the clutches of Khalid.
The people of Damascus now came out to greet Khalid. They reminded him of the pact which he had made with them on the surrender of the city two years before, and Khalid assured them that they were still under its protection.
The next day Khalid rejoined the Muslim army on the Plain of Yarmuk.
The Battle of Yarmuk was the most disastrous defeat ever suffered by the Eastern Roman Empire, and it spelled the end of Roman rule in Syria. The following month Heraclius would depart from Antioch and travel by the land route to Constantinople. On arrival at the border between Syria and what was known to the Muslims as 'Rome', he would look back towards Syria and, with a sorrowing heart, lament: "Salutations to thee, O Syria! And farewell from one who departs. Never again shall the Roman return to thee except in fear. Oh, what a fine land I leave to the enemy!" 2
As an example of a military operation, the Battle of Yarmuk combined many tactical forms: the frontal clash, the frontal penetration, counter-attack and repulse, the flank-attack, the rear-attack and the outflanking manoeuvre. Khalid's plan of remaining on the defensive until he had worn down the Romans had worked admirably. During the defensive phase, lasting four days, every offensive blow by Khalid had been a limited tactical manoeuvre to restore his defensive balance. Only when it was certain that the Romans were badly hurt and no longer capable of fighting offensively, did he launch his counter-offensive, on the last day of battle. On this day he had rolled up the Roman position from a flank, but only after he had separated the cavalry from the infantry and rendered the latter helpless. Then he had driven the Roman infantry into the corner formed by the Wadi-ur-Raqqad and the Yarmuk River, having already positioned Dhiraar at the crossing of the ravine so that none might escape, and launched his last, all-destroying assault. Against the anvil of the Wadi-ur-Raqqad the Muslim hammer had crushed the Roman army to powder.
1. There is a disagreement about the two basic points in this battle: the strength of the opposing forces and the exact location of the battlefield. For an explanation see Notes 12 and 13 in Appendix B.
2. Tabari: Vol. 3, p. 100; Balazuri: p. 142.
It is known that the Muslims lost 4,000 men in this battle, and those who did not carry wounds on their persons were few indeed; but the Roman casualty figures vary. Waqidi's estimate is exaggerated to an unacceptable degree. Tabari, in one place, 1 gives the Roman dead as 120,000 but elsewhere quotes Ibn Ishaq's estimate of 70,000. 2 Balazuri also gives the Roman dead as 70,000. 3 This last figure appears to be reasonable-about 45 per cent of the Roman army. Of these 70,000 about half fell on the plain and half fell into the ravine. Some 80,000 men got away, most of them horse and camel-mounted, including those who escaped before the Muslim ring was closed. Many may even have succeeded in crossing the Wadi-ur-Raqqad at places where it was not so precipitous.
The Battle of Yarmuk was a glorious victory for Islam; and the Plain of Yarmuk and the Wadi-ur-Raqqad provided ample, if gruesome, evidence of it. Tens of thousands of Roman bodies lay scattered, singly and in heaps, on the plain and at the bottom of the ravine. The worst signs of carnage were visible at the corner of the plain and in the ravine itself. Broken, maimed and mutilated bodies could be seen everywhere, lying in grotesque shapes and postures. Blood-covered bodies without limbs lay on the blood-spattered earth, staring with sightless eyes at the eternity of death. Thousands of Romans sprawled with broken swords in their hands, true to the oath of death which they had taken on the eve of battle. And mingled with the soldiers, lay countless priests, still clutching their crosses. The nauseating stench of decaying flesh rose and poisoned the air over the Plain of Yarmuk.
A vast and heroic battle had been fought; a great and terrible victory had been won.
1. Tabari: Vol. 2, p. 596.
2. Ibid: Vol. 3, p. 75.
3. Balazuri: p. 141.