10 October AD 732: Franks crush Arabs at Tours
The Islamic armies’ relentless advance is brought to a halt
In the first decades of the eighth century, the armies of Islam swept like a storm through the Iberian peninsula. By 716 they had taken the cities of Catalonia and were moving north towards the Pyrenees. Five years later they were besieging Toulouse, and by 725 they had reached Burgundy. In under a century they had conquered the Middle East, north Africa, Spain and Portugal. Now it seemed France was theirs for the taking.
At the beginning of October 732, advancing towards the city of Tours, the invaders were stunned to see tens of thousands of Frankish troops drawn up for battle between Tours and Poitiers. At their head was Charles Martel, duke and prince of the Franks, who had decided to stake everything on a set-piece confrontation.
For seven days the two armies sparred. At last, on 10 October, the Arab commander, Abd-al-Rahman, lost patience and ordered his cavalry to attack the Frankish infantry square. But, as an Arab chronicler later put it, “in the shock of the battle the men of the north seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs.”
When Abd-al-Rahman was struck down, the Arabs lost their nerve. The battle was lost and, over the next few years, Charles steadily drove the Arabs back towards the Pyrenees.
Centuries later, historians came to see the battle of Tours as a major turning point. As Edward Gibbon famously put it, had the invaders won, their ships might have sailed unchallenged into the mouth of the Thames. “Perhaps,” he mischievously wrote, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet”.
Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…
10 October 1361
Edward the Black Prince married Joan, the 33-year-old widow of Thomas Holland, 1st Earl of Kent. The chronicler Froissart described her as “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving”.
10 October 1780
A hurricane that passed over Barbados was thought to have killed over 22,000 people. British and French shipping in the region also suffered heavy losses.
10 October 1918
Josephine Carr becomes the first Wren to die on active service, one of 501 people lost when RMS Leinster is torpedoed off the coast of Ireland.
10 October 1899: The British are issued with a Boer ultimatum
Rivalry and discontent in South Africa triggers a declaration of war
Just after six o’clock in the morning of Tuesday, 10 October 1899, the most dynamic politician of the age was asleep in London. As colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain was master of the British empire. In the last few weeks, he had been absorbed by the situation in South Africa, where his agents were drawing a net around the gold-rich Boer republics. Chamberlain was awoken by a knock at the door, announcing an urgent message from the Colonial Office. He tore it open, and exclaimed: “They have done it!”
The news from South Africa was an ultimatum, in response to Chamberlain’s increasing pressure, sent by the Boers’ uncompromising leader, Paul Kruger. Probably drafted by the young Jan Smuts (a future South African prime minister), the message accused Britain of stirring up discontent inside the Transvaal, insisted that Chamberlain withdraw the troops massing on the border, and demanded that no British troops currently on the high seas should be landed in South Africa. It was designed to be a show of strength to put Britain on the back foot, but it had the effect of uniting opinion against the Boers’ so-called “insolence”.
To the next day’s papers, Kruger’s ultimatum was a joke. The Times mocked this “infatuated step” by a “petty republic”, while The Globe was scathing about the “impudent burghers” of “this trumpery little state”. And although The Telegraph was “in doubt whether to laugh or to weep”, there was no question about what Britain’s response should be: “There can be only one answer to this grotesque challenge… Mr Kruger has asked for war, and war he must have.”
On Wednesday, the ultimatum expired and the Boer War began. But it would be longer, bloodier and more difficult than anybody expected.