The Sword of Allah - Khalid Bin Waleed (Ral)

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Chapter 34: The Eve of Yarmuk

 Part III: The Invasion of Iraq

 

Page: 6

The most significant feature of the battlefield was the existence of the two ravines-the Wadi-ur-Raqqad and the Yarmuk River. Both had banks 1,000 feet high, and while the steepness of the banks was sufficient to make the ravines serious obstacles to movement, they were made even more frightening by the precipices which lined the banks along most of their length. These precipices were sometimes at the bottom, sometimes at the top and sometimes half-way up the bank and created sheer, vertical drops 100 to 200 feet in height. Near the junction of the two ravines, the banks became steeper and the precipices higher-a fearful prospect for anyone who had to cross in haste.

The only dominating tactical feature on the plain of Yarmuk was one named on maps as the Hill of Samain, 3 miles southwest of the present village of Nawa. There was also the Hill of Jabiya, north-west of Nawa, but it lay outside the battlefield and was to play no part in the battle. The Hill of Samein, 300 feet high, so dominated the area around it, and gave such excellent observation over the entire plain, that no general would fail to occupy it should he be the first to deploy his forces on this part of the plain. As a result of this battle the hill was named the Hill of Jamu'a (gathering), because part of the Muslim army was concentrated on it. There was no other dominating ground on the plain of Yarmuk.

The plain itself was generally flat, sloping gently from north to south with a certain amount of undulation. One stream which formed an important tactical feature was Allan, running southwards across the plain to join the Yarmuk, and in the last 5 miles of its journey this stream also formed a ravine with steep sides though it was not such a serious obstacle as the bigger ravines. The battlefield was ideal for the manoeuvre of infantry and cavalry and, except for the southern portion of Allan, offered no impediment to movement.

Mahan deployed the imperial army forward of Allan. He used his four regular armies to form the line of battle which was 12 miles long, extending from the Yarmuk to south of the Hill of Jabiya. 1 On his right he placed the army of Gregory and on his left the army of Qanateer. The centre was formed by the army of Dairjan and the Armenian army of Mahan-both under the command of Dairjan. The Roman regular cavalry was distributed equally among the four armies, and each army deployed with its infantry holding the front and its cavalry held as a reserve in the rear. Ahead of the front line, across the entire 12-mile front, Mahan deployed the Christian Arab army of Jabla, which was all mounted-horse and camel. This army acted as a screen and skirmish line, and was not concerned with serious fighting except as its groups joined the army in front of which they were positioned.

The army of Gregory, which formed the right wing, used chains to link its 30,000 foot soldiers. 2 These chains were in 10-men lengths, and were used as a proof of unshakeable courage on the part of the men who thus displayed their willingness to die where they stood. The chains also acted as an insurance against a break-through by enemy cavalry, as has been explained in the chapter on The Battle of Chains. All these 30,000 foot soldiers had taken the oath of death.

Although the imperial army established a front of about the same length as the Muslim front, it had the advantage of having four times as many troops and Mahan exploited this numerical superiority by establishing a whole army (Jabla's) as a forward screen and achieving much greater depth in the solid, orderly formations. The Roman ranks stood 30 deep.

1. In terms of present-day geography, the Roman line started from about two miles west of Nawa, and went south-south-west to just west of Seel, then over Sahm-ul-Jaulan to the Yarmuk bank forward of Heet. Of course, these villages probably did not exist then as there is no mention of them in the narrative of this battle.
2. There is also talk of a deep ditch here, but I cannot place it or see its significance, as the Romans are said to have deployed forward of it rather than behind it. It may have been an anti-retreat measure.