Okay, I know, “Martel” means “Hammer.” but having a nickname that awesome deserves to be repeated. That’s actually cooler than having “Danger” as a middle name.
This man was at a pivotal point in history. He was there to shape Europe as it emerged from the Dark Ages, he stopped Muslim advances into France and helped form one of the most powerful nations in Europe. He was a mover and a shaker to put it lightly.
First, I have to explain that Europe at this time didn’t have knights in shinning armor, jousting, or courtly romantic poems. This was a very brutish, violent and dynamic world. It was a Europe filled with emerging nations that still had vague, half formed memories of the Roman Empire and every two bit despot was trying to recreate it. Byzantium had done a heroic job of stopping the spread of the Islamic Empire in the east but in the west the Muslims had taken most of Spain and were looking to take summer homes in France. Oh, he was also Grandfather of Charlemagne.
He was born in December, 688 which makes him a Sagittarius, which means he was awesome at birth. Also, he was a royal bastard. I don’t mean that in some insulting way, he was literally born a bastard which in those days was no marks against him. In fact, his father the king was one as well. However, he wasn’t in place to inherit the Merovingian throne because a six year old and his mother held it. So he became “Mayor of the Palace” which was a Medieval term for “He basically controls everything.” Some people didn’t like this and this started a little civil war in which Charles started pretty poorly. Despite some brilliant leadership, he got his butt kicked for a while. Eventually though, he managed to win and gained control of Gaul. (It wasn’t called “France” back then.)
After getting defeated, Charles ran up to the mountains, gathered an army of rednecks, found the victorious army returning home, fell upon them and slaughtered them by showing up when he was least expected, after being defeated and at midday, which just didn’t happen back then. It was bad manners to attack at midday, it was their tea time. Doing the unexpected, bold move will become his trademark. That’s a lesson learned: Don’t underestimate him. Ever.
After this he did a lot of securing his power by defeating rivals and unifying the Franks. Oh, he also had time to go up north and woop up the Saxons for a bit. Also, a thing to remember was that the Frankish Empire covered parts of France and Germany. The Franks were originally a Germanic tribe and at this point they still had ties and lands in Germany. Germany and France together? Weird.
All this securing power was just in time. He knew that there was trouble brewing in Spain. The Moorish leaders there were “Performing military exercises along the boarder” and basically preparing for a big fight. Charles read the newspapers and knew the Muslims were looking to expand their turf.
Another thing we must look at now is the nature of the Frankish army. At this time the armies of Europe were armored thugs fighting and busting knee caps for which ever local warlord gave them money. Charles decided to do something more. He built up a highly trained professional army the kind of which hasn’t been seen in Western Europe since the Romans.
Well, the Umayyad Empire was used to fighting filthy hordes of barbarians and weren’t expecting actual armed and trained resistance.
This invasion of France by the Umayyads was not their first attempt to taking France. It had been tried earlier but a guy named Odo the Great had stopped them. Now they were trying it again with a much bigger army with more horesmen and archers. Odo was defeated pretty badly and came to Charles for help. Charles said “Sure, I’ll defeat these guys if you make me your king.” Odo quickly agreed and Charles took his armies and Odo’s army to go put a stop to this invasion.
It’s become the popular trend for historians to say “Oh, the Muslims didn’t really plan to invade France. This was…just a raid. Yeah, just a raid. This battle wasn’t really important.”
I’m not a professor but I call “BS” on this theory. The Spanish Caliphate had conquered all of Spain and were constantly pushing into France as they were constantly pushing into Greek lands in the east. Show me a place where they didn’t try to expand and then maybe I’ll consider this theory. As of now, I must agree with most historians in that this was a historically pivotal battle which saw the halt of Muslim expansion in the West. If the Muslims had won and defeated the Franks here, they may have gone on to control all of France and Germany and history would have turned out to be very different.
Most historians say that the Muslim force was anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 troops. Charles Martel’s force was about 30,000. He was outnumbered.
So the Muslim army is going around the scenic French countryside looting towns and cities as they went without much to stop them. “Hey, this is great fun! We should do this every year!”
But then suddenly they come across a large army of heavily armored and armed professional soldiers. This took them a little off guard. The Franks formed themselves into a large square of heavy infantry, a very Roman thing to do. They waited seven days with just some minor skirmishing and name calling. The Muslims were trying to figure out how strong this army was and Charles was waiting for his veterans to arrive, veterans that had been kicking but for decades.
The Muslims were used to warmer weather and with the coming winter, decided to attack.
Martel’s forces were in a square up on a hill, with trees on their flanks. They also used something like a traditional Phalanx formation with a large shield wall and long pikes to fend off the Muslim cavalry. The Muslim army was made for fast, rapid assaults in which they’d charge, hit hard, run away and repeat. This made them pretty untouchable…unless they came against heavily armored shield walls with pikes and protected flanks. This is how Charles earned his name “The Hammer” because like a hammer, his huge block of heavy, unmoving, unwavering infantry was like an unstoppable hammer in which the Moors repeatedly bashed themselves against.
Then when the Muslims thought that Charles’ scouts were about to attack their rear camp, they broke away to go protect their camp. Now, they didn’t care about the tents or the expensive camping gear they bought from Cabela’s, they cared about all that loot they’ve been stealing across France. So, instead of standing and fighting, the Muslim forces broke and ran to run back to grab their stashes.
Charles had sent a small force to go rescue the slaves the Muslims had captured, but when the Muslim army saw a few people run back to camp, they thought it was a full scale retreat and soon the entire army was running away. Many were killed in the retreat but Charles did not pursue, thinking that battle would start again the next day. This wasn’t a mistake on Charles’ part, he couldn’t move his force from its protected position because the retreat could have been a faint to lure them off the hill and thus be promptly surrounded.
This was a huge defeat for the Muslim forces. They tried again a few years later but Charles beat them again and again.
Charles knew that if he lost that battle that there was no other significant force in Europe to stop the Caliphate of Spain. They would be unopposed and would have free reign to do as they pleased. This man, because he spent a decade preparing his armies for battle, stood up to a much larger force and protected his lands and his religion.
“Sure I am this day we are masters of our fate, that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us.” -Winston Churchill.