On this date, in AD732, Charles Martel led the Franks against Muslim invaders near the city of Tours and turned back the tide of Islamic advance at the Battle of Tours (sometimes called the Battle of Poitiers).
In the preceding 110 years, Islam, thanks to the diligent efforts of polite young men in white shirts and neckties on bicycles going out two-by-two, had spread from its origins in the Arabian peninsula through south-central Asia and across the north of Africa, and up into the Iberian peninsula.
Did I say polite young men in white shirts and ties on bicycles going out two-by-two? Just kidding. That’s Mormons. The Muslims did it by going out conquering and to conquer, slaughtering everyone who would not submit, in a tide of blood across all their conquered lands.
It seemed that Muhammed and his successors did not understand that “Jihad” meant internal struggle over oneself and that “Islam” meant “peace” and the meaning of “submission” was one’s own submission to Allah. They apparently thought “Jihad” meant real war against unbelievers, using real swords and spears, leaving real dead and mutilated bodies in its wake and the “submission” was forcing those not in Islam to submit to it. But what did they know? They only founded the religion or followed in the footsteps of the founder.
Muslims of the Umayyad dynasty, chiefly Berbers, invaded the Iberian peninsula (really, it was a military invasion, not a lot of missionaries on bicycles. Besides, the bicycle hadn’t been invented yet). Within a decade they had essentially conquered the Iberian peninsula and were expanding across the Pyrenees into what would eventually be part of southern France.
In the spring of 732, these Umayyad Muslims defeated Duke Odo at the Battle of the River Garonne, thus setting the stage for what was to come.
Odo, surviving the battle, asked the Franks for help. Charles Martel, “Mayor of the Palace” (Ruler in all but name but it would wait for his son, Pepin the Short, for his line to officially claim the throne) would only promise aid in return for Odo submitting to Frankish authority.
While this was going on, the Umayyads, in apparent unconcern about possible Frankish might, advanced toward the Loire river. Lax in scouting and unconcerned, they did not note the power massing to oppose them.
The Umayyads were mostly cavalry. Charles, according to accounts, was mostly infantry, but heavily armed and armored infantry. One of the Franks main weapons was the Francisca, a heavy-headed, short-handled throwing axe. The Byzantine historian Procopius (c. 500–565) described the axes and their use thus:
…each man carried a sword and shield and an axe. Now the iron head of this weapon was thick and exceedingly sharp on both sides while the wooden handle was very short. And they are accustomed always to throw these axes at one signal in the first charge and thus shatter the shields of the enemy and kill the men.
And at the time of Charles Martel, the axes were still in common use. It would be some time yet before the Frankish forces converted to being primarily cavalry under the successors to Charles Martel.
When the Umayyads reached the Franks and their allies, they faced off with skirmishes while waiting for their full force to arrive.
Finally, the forces were all ready and the day of battle arrived. Abd-al-Raḥmân, the leader of the Umayyad forces, trusted to the strength of his cavalry and had them charge repeatedly at the Frankish infantry lines. The incredibly disciplined infantry stood its ground staunchly despite (according to Arab sources) Umayyad cavalry breaking into their formation several times.
A charge of Umayyad broke through, attempting to reach Charles reasoning, probably correctly, that if they could kill Charles the Frankish army would break. However Charles’ liege men surrounded him and held off the attack.
While the battle still raged, rumors went through the Umayyad forces that Frankish scouts were threatening the Umayyad baggage train and threatening to carry off the loot they’d already gathered in their march northward. Arab reports indeed claim that this was the case (in a second day of battle where Frankish reports say it only lasted one day).
This, apparently was too much for many of the Umayyads. Fight them on the field of battle. Throw axes at them. Stab at them with spears and slash at them with swords. All good. But threaten their loot? No way.
However, they didn’t appear to make clear to their compatriots what exactly they were doing and why. The others saw them heading back the way they’d come and thought they were in retreat. And “if he’s retreating, maybe I should be too” is a thought soldiers have shared many a time throughout history. The result was the Umayyads went into full-fledged retreat. Abd-al-Raḥmân tried to stop the retreat and, as a result, was surrounded and killed.
The next day, Charles, fearing the possibility of an ambush, kept his troops in formation in their relatively secure position. He did, however, send out extensive reconnaissance which discovered that the Umayyads had abandoned not only the field of battle but their own camp so fast that they’d left their tents behind, heading back to Iberia as fast as their horses and wagons could carry them taking what loot they could carry with them.
Had to protect that loot.
The Umayyads retreated south back over the Pyrenees and that remained the end of Muslim advance into Europe. Further attempts into the European heartland were made but they came to naught in the end. Charles Martel and his forces had broken the back of the Muslim conquest of Europe for many centuries to come.
How Charles Martel would weep to see Europe inviting in a new generation of invaders with open arms.