Long before the US Marines were known as the “first to fight”, the Knights Templar had earned that honor during the Crusades. Admired and feared by allies and enemies alike, one Arabic historian, El-Fadhel, went so far as to change the Persian-Arabic word for Templars to the same word as the demon gods of Zoroastrianism in his writings. In light of their tenacity and ferocity on the battlefield, it’s easy to see why.
SHOCK TROOPS: FIRST TO FIGHT
Every Templar Knight came from the nobility. It was a stipulation for admission to their ranks. Only someone who had already received the lifelong training that secular knights and nobles did could hope to be effective as a Knight in combat. They could be identified by their white uniform with the red Templar cross of martyrdom emblazoned on it. Compared to the membership as a whole, however, they were in the vast minority, comprising roughly 10% of the Order. Even at the Order’s height, they would have numbered no more than 2000 at any given time. On the battlefield however, the Knights were their primary fighting force and, along with the other military orders, were the shock troops of the Crusades.
Templar sergeants, sometimes called serving brothers, filled every other position necessary for the functioning of the Order. On the battlefield, if they were there, they acted in a supporting role such as light cavalry or infantry. Their uniform also featured the red Templar cross but they wore a black surcoat with the Templar cross on the front and back.
Before battle Templar Knights were organized into squadrons. Once the battle commenced, Templar Knights could not break formation or charge out ahead of their squadron. Absolute discipline was required. This served the purpose of military cohesion, but also reinforced the Templar ideal of humility; wherein the Order took precedence over the individual. The only time it was acceptable for a Templar Knight to act on his own initiative was when it meant saving the life of a Templar or a Christian.
The Templars were known to always be among the first to seek engagement with the enemy. Once the battle trumpet sounded, the Templars would sing the Templar motto (and Psalm 115): “Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed Nomini tuo da gloriam” (Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name give the glory). Then, they charged; unleashing carnage on the enemy line and fighting until either the enemy or they were vanquished.
The overwhelming impact of a Templar charge allowed the Templars and their allies to confront even numerically superior forces successfully. Sometimes it was so effective that it left little time for support troops to follow before the Knights found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Such was the case at the battle of Hattin in 1187. The Templars succeeded in charging Saladin’s army but the rest of Frankish forces did not follow them. Surrounded, the Templars fell by the hundreds. Those not killed in battle were executed by Saladin’s men afterwards. The “Horns of Hattin” became known as the most devastating defeat ever suffered by crusader forces.
In battle, the Templar banner held a place of extreme importance. It was called the Baucent, meaning “piebald horse”. It was so called for its black and white colors. The black half represented the darkness of sin that the Templars had left behind. The white represented the purity of the Order. Sometimes it also bore the red Templar cross; a symbol of martyrdom. To die fighting for Christ was among the greatest honors a Templar could achieve.
Not only did the Baucent have a guard of 10 men, but often the Templars brought a second folded banner along, should anything happen to the first. Under no circumstances could anyone use the banner as a weapon. If they did, they would be placed in irons after the battle.
As the banner still flew, the Templar Knights were not allowed to retreat. This held true even if they were unarmed or wounded. In the case of the latter, they could only quit the field if their commander gave them permission.
If the banner did fall, or they were separated from their brothers, they were to rally to the banner of the Knights Hospitallers and failing that, to support any Christian banner still standing. Only once all Christian banners had fallen, could they abandon the fight. Any Templar Knight who deserted the battlefield before this could be expelled from the Order. Only non-fighting sergeant brothers, if they saw there was nothing they could do, were allowed to retreat. This was to save the Order’s equipment so that it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
Yet, even in retreat the Templars fought on to allow other Christian forces to withdraw. This led to heavy losses for the Order when crusader forces were defeated, but it gained them the reputation as being among the most stalwart of warriors; fighting on against impossible odds even long after a battle had turned.
FEARED AND ADMIRED BY THEIR ENEMIES
Likewise, their courage and stamina on the battlefield earned them both respect and dread from their enemies.
A witness of the battle of Montgisard in 1177 tells us how 84 Templar knights under their commander, Odo de Saint-Amand, forced Saladin to flee and the reluctant admiration Saladin felt as a result.
“Spurring all together, as one man, they made a charge, turning neither to the left nor to the right. Recognising the body of troops in which Saladin commanded many knights, they manfully approached it, immediately penetrated it, incessantly knocked down, scattered, struck and crushed. Saladin was smitten with admiration, seeing his men dispersed everywhere, everywhere turned in flight, everywhere given to the mouth of the sword. He took thought for his own safety and fled, throwing off his mail shirt for speed, mounted a racing camel and barely escaped with a few of his men.”
But Saladin also hated them for the same reason. After all, the Templars were responsible for inflicting immense damage to his army. So great was his disdain for them that after the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 he granted mercy to the Christians left in the city but he executed every Templar and Hospitallar he could find.
Both admired and feared, the Templars were a force to be reckoned with during the Crusades. When they charged, one could only pray they were on your side.
Barber, Malcom. The Trial of the Templars. Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Frale, Barbara. The Templars: The Secret History Revealed. Translated by Gregory Conti, Arcade Publishing, 2009.
Nicholson, Helen. Knight Templar: 1120-1312. Osprey Publishing, 2004.
Ralls, Karen. The Templars and the Grail. Quest Books, 2003.