It happened today - July 8, 2016

On July 8 of 1099 some 15,000 starving Crusaders marched piously around besieged Jerusalem to, one imagines, the bewildered amusement of its Muslim defenders. It was a predictably pitiful culmination to a pitiful venture though with one unexpected twist.

It began with an appeal from Pope Urban II for Western Europeans to go help the Christian Byzantine Empire, which was under relentless attack by the Seljuk Turks. (Muslims often portray the Crusades as an unprovoked attack, a totally unjustified attempt by Christians to get back by force things Muslims had innocently seized by force. But even in the narrow sense it is untrue.)

Whatever else it was, the First Crusade was poorly organized. Various waves of soldiers and hangers-on showed up in uncoordinated fashion over several years unreasonably short of equipment, discipline, unity, supplies or all of the above. The “People’s Crusade” under Peter the Hermit was lucky even to reach the Holy Land. Or not, given how they were slaughtered once they did.

Other crusaders then wandered in, having massacred Jews along the way. But they forgot to bring food. They nevertheless managed to capture Nicaea in Anatolia after a long siege, and behaved reasonably well. They then marched on to Jerusalem. Or trudged or something. Including bickering.

It took them two years to cross the few hundred miles in between. On the other hand, they did pick up something dramatic along the way. Plague. Some are also credibly reported to have engaged in cannibalism. Even though they only ate pagans, it’s hard to believe it’s the sort of thing Urban II had originally intended.

Finally in early June 1099 they staggered to within sight of the walls of Jerusalem. Short of food, water, hope or reinforcements, demoralized, quarreling and weak in numbers as well as physically as individuals, fearing a Muslim relief expedition might arrive at any moment, they decided on an immediate assault for want of a more plausible plan.

It failed, of course. And then a priest had a vision, or said he did, that if they fasted then marched round the walls barefoot the city would fall, more or less on the Joshua-Jericho model.

Well, I guess it’s easy to fast when you have no food. And a lot of them were probably running out of decent footwear. So they decided what the heck, let’s. After fasting for three days they did, doubtless to pointed fingers, laughter and jeering from the walls, winding up at the Mount of Olives where Peter the Hermit, who was still alive and still around, preached to them.

So here’s the weird bit. The bickering factions then made up and, hearing that the feared relief expedition was headed their way from Egypt, they threw themselves into another desperate attack on July 13. And two days later they took the city.

The First Crusade did end rather badly, at least in that the Crusaders massacred many Muslim and also Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. And although they managed to establish a variety of Crusader states, and build the famous castle at Krak, in the end they did not manage to hold any territory there in the face of relentless Muslim counter-counterattacks.

Still, this successful starving-barefoot-march-outnumbered-attack-like-maniacs plan proves one thing. The old saying at my chess club long ago that a bad plan is better than no plan, because with a bad plan you can get lucky, applies far more widely than just in chess.

Oh, and it includes really terrible plans as well as merely bad ones.