In the popular imagination, the Grand Army of Islam that invaded Russia is an anachronistic polyglot horde, comprising almost every kind of soldier that has ever fought for the Crescent – from Arab to Zouave. Berber ghazis, jezail-wielding camelry, dervishes, even war elephants – all have made their appearance in the various fictional depictions of the European Jihad, not all of which were intended as fiction. Nor is this completely inaccurate. Even the Sultanate of Granada, the largest and wealthiest state in the world, could not mobilise half a million men without strain. In addition to its Spanish regiments, the Grand Army pulled in feudal relics, mercenaries, tribal musters, and plain bandits from all the dusty backwaters of the Muslim world, and the dedicated historian could probably find at least one example of anything in its ranks. It is certain that there were, in fact, two elephants in the invasion force, drawing the enormous siege bombard called the “Will of Allah”. The elephants died in the cold, and the bombard was abandoned outside Moscow, where its rusting remnants are still visible; for lack of fortifications strong enough to need its attention, it was never fired in anger.
Nevertheless, in spite of this undoubted diversity, the core and the greatest part of the Grand Army consisted, not of screaming fanatics wielding scimitars of Damascus steel, but of the regular regiments recruited in Castile, Aragon, and Galicia, armed with quite ordinary muskets – equipped, admittedly, with the innovation of ring bayonets; but bayonets and muskets alike were made of whatever pig iron the lowest bidder could scrape together. This was no handicap, for Russian muskets were made the same way. Indeed, after the fall of Kiev the Grand Army forced its gunsmiths’ guild to re-equip several regiments – inadvertently spreading the technique of ring bayonets, which made their appearance on the Russian side shortly after Kiev was recaptured. But it is not metallurgy that explains the superiority of the soldiers of Islam.
Discounting both Damascus steel and hordes of fanatics, we are left with the question: What did make the Grand Army of Islam so formidable? Formidable they doubtless were; man for man, they outfought the Russians everywhere they met, except at the very end of the Long Retreat, when supplies of gunpowder, food, horses, and everything else an army needs – except discipline – were running low. Even then, casualties were roughly equal. It is for this reason that such endless reams of words have been written about the European Jihad, and such a variety of compositions propounded: Every minor tribelet owing allegiance to the Sultan and capable of finding a chronicler for its deeds has attempted to claim that its two hundred men and five dogs were the elite of the Grand Army, and that if only they had had more men / had better weapons / not died like flies in the cold they would undoubtedly have won Moscow for Islam. Conversely, every half-literate memoir of a Russian officer who faced an enemy with cap badges made of bronze in place of brass claims that he fought in the decisive battle and broke the backbone of the invasion. Hence, for example, the jezail-wielding camelry mentioned above: They appear in one of the better memoirs, those of “Anatoliy Ivanov” – actually a pseudonym for Fyodor Theodorovich, a journalist and writer who never, as far as anyone knows, got within a hundred miles of the fighting. This detail did not prevent him from writing arguably the best contemporary fiction of the war, and certainly the only one that is still read; and in fairness, he did speak to many veteran officers in his social circle. The jezails and camels may well have been real, and fought in something like the action he describes as taking place on September 3rd, 1690, close to Pskov. But the war-winning qualities of their alleged accuracy at ranges well above a mile is pure fiction, as is the tactical genius of “Anatoliy Ivanov” which allowed him to get his muskets within range and thus win the war for the Czar. Likewise fictional is the cowardice he attributes to all the soldiers of Islam; it is true that there were units on the Spanish side more concerned with looting and pillage than with killing Russians, but that is hardly exclusive to Muslims. If anything, that reputation is more deserved by the Sultan’s Christian vassal-allies; the Venetian state at war has always been more noted for viciousness than valour. But mere truth could not stand against the combination of Fyodor’s genius for a telling phrase with the tide of Russian victory; all over the Christian world, “brave as a Spaniard” has been an epithet for cowardice ever since. Which does raise the question of how these cowardly villains reached the gates of Moscow in the first place; but propaganda is rarely sensible.
The answer, as often happens outside of fiction, is conventional: The Spanish regiments were just damn good soldiers. They recruited mainly from a class of smallholding farmers, whose second and third sons could not expect to inherit land; taking the Crescent offered a respectable career path and a reasonable chance at prosperity. The officers were landlords and squires, usually from the same district as their men and not enormously wealthier; captain, sergeant, and private might have grown up within three miles of each other, swum in the same millponds, and lusted after the same girls. Of such bonds is unbreakable loyalty made. The Sultan’s regiments were not much given to formality, but their discipline was the class of the world, and well they knew it. Even in the Long Retreat they always sold their lives dearly. The power of the Spanish Sultanate lay in its ability to field no less than three hundred regiments of such men, perhaps a quarter million soldiers all told. They were largely ignored by the chroniclers of the war, who preferred exotica, the feudal and tribal odds and ends that swirled colourfully around the solid Spanish core. But it was they who forced the Russians back and back, from the Danube to the Volga. Until Moscow they could claim, with Alexander, that they had never besieged a city without taking it; and even after the Winter of the Faith it was their truthful boast that no human foe had ever defeated them.
In all the world there was no finer infantry than the soldiers of the Sultan. The claim is sometimes made that the Jaguar Knights, trained almost from birth to arms, were deadlier killers; but even if this is true, and even ignoring the dubious worth of personal skill at close combat in an era when wars were settled by massed musketry, the Jaguar Knights were a small elite, at most ten thousand men – a drop in the enormous sea of the Incan armies. Russian conscript serfs, in any case, were not even in the running; nor the English “scum of the Earth, enlisted for drink,” nor the black-clad Norse armies, notoriously the worst-disciplined fighting men in the world. The Winter of the Faith is not named for the armies that opposed it; as always, Russia’s best generals were called January and February. The Russians killed their thousands, but winter its tens of thousands. The army that retreated across the Danube were half the number that had crossed it going east; and the casualties had fallen most heavily on the county regiments of Spain, the uncomplaining soldades who were first in every attack and last in every retreat.
The Peace of the Bear was a victor’s peace, signed at the bayonet’s point; only desperation could have forced the proud Sultans, the conquerors of Africa and of France, to sign such a treaty. That desperation was brought about by the knowledge of what a toll the invasion had exacted on the Grand Army of Islam. Of three hundred regiments, not one, as the muster was taken for the campaigning season of 1691, was at even half its paper strength of a thousand men. More than a fourth were reduced to a hundred or fewer, with “Lieutenants taking companies and Captains taking Wings” – but then, the “companies” of which these officers were in charge were reduced well beyond the thirty men that had been considered suitable for a Lieutenant’s commission in the days of peace. The Romans, brutally unique among peoples, had a word meaning “to kill every tenth man”, and ten percent casualties is usually thought sufficient to stop any attack; what, then, is one to say of units that fought on with one man in every ten alive?
In these circumstances there was no dissent in the Sultan’s court: Even the humiliating loss of the entire Caribbean as well as Central France was better than trying to fight All The Russias with the shattered remnants of broken regiments. In the end, these wealthy provinces were still imperial possessions, border marches, whose loss did not strike at the wellsprings of Spanish power. Better to cut the losses, lick the wounds, and rebuild the Army of Islam; next time – of course there would be a next time – they would not be so foolish as to fight in Russia in winter.
Their decision saved Spain from a full-bore Russian invasion, not counting the pinpricks of seaborne raids by English armies; it could not save Spanish hegemony in Europe. It was one thing to refill the treasury, to fortify the harbours, even to stamp new regiments out of the unconsidered earth; an empire with all of Africa to draw on could never be short of fighting men for very long. It was quite another matter to revive the tradition of service whose carriers had died in Russia. Frostbite, starvation, and dysentery did not make an army career attractive, as the chance of loot, women, and land had done in peacetime; and in any case all of Spain had been emptied of second and third sons. What had been lost was not soldiers, not even trained veterans, but a living tradition, a chain of respect and expectation handed down through generations. The Sultan could conscript new armies, but he could not make the sons of smallholders serve him willingly and with pride; the disaster of the Russian Invasion was too vivid. Too many young men had seen elder brothers march off in fine uniforms, and come back as crippled beggars, or not at all. Soldiering has never been a safe profession, and a light scattering of deaths and cripples was expected; in earlier wars men had held funerals and paid for pensions, and gone on with their lives. But the scale of the Winter of the Faith overwhelmed all such institutions, and almost with one voice, the smallholders of Andalucia cried out: No more! Not my sons!
The Sultanate remained the largest state on Earth, and the wealthiest measured by agricultural output; in 1715 its restored armies numbered three-fourths of a million, half again what they had been at the beginning of the Jihad. But it was never the same again.
From Cross and Crescent: Religious Conflict in Europe from 1204 to the present.