Protagonists: Franks led by Charles Martel and the Ummayed Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Ghafiqi Governor-General of al-Andalus (modern Spain).
The result was a clear victory for the Franks. Not the decisive rout that some sources claim as the Ummayed army was able to retreat back to al-Andalus burning and pillaging as it went.
Despite the significance of this battle the exact location is not known although most historians think that it may have been where the rivers Clain and Vienne join between Poitiers and Tours. Likewise the size of the two opposing armies is unknown with estimates varying from 15000 to 80000 for the Franks and 20000 to 400000 for the Ummayed. What is for certain is that the Franks were badly outnumbered.
In order to avoid detection Charles Martel avoided using the main network of old Roman roads and instead used secondary roads. By doing this he was able to position his army on ground of his choosing and achieve total surprise over his enemy.
The Ummayed commander, Abdul Rahman Ghafiqi, was not even aware of the existence of the Frankish army drawn up in a phalanx formation on a wooded plain until he came across them barring his way north to Tours. The effect of the terrain was to negate the advantage of the Ummayed cavalry.
The two sides faced each other for the best part of a week while Abdul Rahman Ghafiqi waited for all his forces to arrive while also hoping to draw the Franks out of their defensive position. On the seventh day he attacked.
All contemporary accounts agree that the fighting was fierce with the Ummayed cavalry charging the Frankish phalanx time and time again. At one point they actually managed to penetrate the phalanx but Charles Martel and his personal guard were able to drive them back.
While this was going on Charles Martel had sent a force of militia to attack the Ummayed camp and try to free the slaves being held there. The main tactical reason for this was to try and draw off as many of the enemy facing him as possible. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Word of the attack on the camp spread amongst the Ummayed army and some started to withdraw back to their camp to protect their loot. More and more started to withdraw and soon a full scale retreat was under way. It was at this point while trying to rally his troops that Abdul Rahman Ghafiqi was surrounded by the Franks and killed.
It is a great testimony to the character of Charles Martel and the discipline of his troops that they did not break formation and rush off in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Instead they held their position. The next day they still held their position even though scouts reported that the Ummayed camp had been abandoned and much of the loot taken by the Ummayedd army left behind. Charles Martel rightly feared the possibility of an ambush and did not leave his position until absolutely sure that the enemy had indeed fled.
As with the sizes of the armies involved the number of casualties suffered by either side is not known for certain. Most reliable estimates put the Frankish losses at around 1100-1500 while the Ummayed losses are around 12000.
Another point worth mentioning is that Charles Martel won this battle without the use of cavalry, although he soon began using cavalry modelled on the Ummayed cavalry and resulting in more spectacular victories for him.
It was as a result of this battle that Charles became known as Martel or Hammer.
Historians have been and still are greatly divided on the significance of the outcome of this battle. From contemporary sources to the present many claim that it preserved Christianity in Europe and halted the advance of Islam in Europe.
Others argue that it was nothing more than the defeat of a large raiding force intent on plundering the Abbey of St Martin at Tours the richest shrine in Europe at the time.
To put things in some perspective Charles Martel’s victory in this battle did not end the Ummayad threat. Indeed in 735 Abdul Rahman Ghafiqi’s successor, Uqba b. Al-Hajjaj, launched an invasion of Provence, resulting in the capture of Avignon. His forces remained for four years raiding into Burgundy, Lyons and even Piedmont in Italy. In his campaigns of 736 and 739 Martel came to the rescue again and succeeded in recapturing most of the lands taken by Uqba bin Al-Hajjaj and by the time of his death in 741 Martel had confined them to Narbonne, which was finally recaptured in 759.
The real significance of the battle of Poitiers (Tours) is not that Charles Martel won but what might have happened had he lost. Victory for the Ummayeds would have destroyed the only effective, trained fulltime army in Western Europe along with the most talented military commander anywhere in Europe. This in itself would not have lead immediately to the Ummayed conquest of Europe but it is difficult to see who could have stopped them.
The world we live in today would be a very different place if Charles Martel had lost.
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