Last we left off count Emicho’s disastrous crusade had been smashed in Hungary and the French contingent of peasant Crusaders had been escorted under guard to Constantinople. Now it’s time we returned to Peter and his main force of peasant Crusaders in Cologne (Check this link for Peter’s story). By the time Peter was ready to depart Cologne, he had amassed some forty thousand followers. Most of them are untrained and unarmed, a small handful of them were lesser knights. His host included women, children, and the elderly and together they were going to retake the Holy Land!
They set off towards the end of April and made their way down to Hungary. This time, the king of Hungary was a little less interested in allowing Crusaders through his lands, but in the end, he basically said to Peter: “look, you guys can go through, but first you going to swear that you’re not going to kill anybody or break my things”. To which Peter, of course, agreed. All was going well until the crusade arrived at the very town that the French expedition had looted while waiting at the Byzantine border. Some of the present crusaders got into a dispute with a merchant over a pair of shoes. This dispute became a brawl, this brawl became a riot, a riot then escalated into a battle which culminated in one of the crusading knights leading a band of followers to storm the Citadel of the city. They then stole the city’s food, killed four thousand Hungarians, and then hightailed it for the Byzantine border before the Hungarian army could show up. But now the poor beleaguered Byzantine governor and Belgrade suddenly had 40,000 hungry, riotous peasants on his doorstep. He had heard of their behavior in Hungary, so he brought in a mercenary force to help keep the peace.
They were to make sure that the Crusaders crossed the Sava river in a slow orderly fashion. So the Byzantines could keep track of them and make sure that bands of Crusaders weren’t just wandering the countryside. But of course, the Crusaders felt that they weren’t crossing the river fast enough, so they decided that the best course of action was to attack the Byzantine troops that were ostensibly there to help! After routing or killing the smaller Byzantine force they then went pillaging and looting through the country until they got to Belgrade, which they pillaged, looted, and set on fire. The Crusaders then began to loot and sack their way towards Niš, the provincial capital. But our poor beleaguered Byzantine governor had been busy preparing the defenses of Niš while the ponderous Crusader army was on the March he had called in as many troops as he could, and when the Crusader force got there he met with Peter. He asked that Peter wait at Niš until a military escort could lead them to Constantinople Peter agreed, but only on the condition that the governor feeds his army while they wait. Now 40,000 people is no small number to feed in medieval times, and soon the governor was faced with the choice of feeding the Crusaders or feeding his people.
So, the governor just told them to go. Just head for Constantinople and leave him alone. But some of the German contingents decided to burn down a mill on their way out which then escalated and soon the governor had to call in the troops that had been gathering at Niš to suppress the out-of-hand Crusaders. He gave his troops instructions to take hostages rather than killing when possible. Peter made his way to the very back of his column to see if he and the governor could come to an agreement and maybe his crusade could be allowed to go on its way but by now the mob of Crusaders were really completely out Peter’s control. They attacked the city of Niš itself. The garrison turned them away but the defeated Crusaders just got a bigger mob together and attacked the walls of the city again. This time our beleaguered Byzantine commander had had enough. He told his men to attack the Crusaders before they destroyed the provincial capital. The Crusaders were of course no match for trained armed and armored troops and were decimated (or I guess you could say quartered) Peter fled to the hills and hid. But by the time what remained of his army found him, a quarter of it was missing their supplies and money had also disappeared during the route and so the bedraggled band of beggars dragged itself to Constantinople, hungry, tired, and broke.
There they met up with the French contingent that had left the West before them, and Peter along with the leader of the French force, Walter Sans-Avoir, were summoned by the Emperor. Despite everything, the Emperor counseled them to wait for the real force of knights which the Pope had assured him was on its way. But, if they really wanted to go attack the Turks, he wasn’t going to stop them. He would find some boats to ferry them across the Bosphorus. Of course despite, the warnings the Crusaders wanted to cross into enemy territory, so after five days of feeding 30,000 unexpected guests, the Emperor assembled his boats and ferried them into Anatolia Once across they began to pillage town after town until they made it to Nicomedia. And remember: this was Byzantine territory a few short years ago! These are the very towns that Emperor Alexius had petitioned the Pope to help him get back! But beyond that there is no question: these towns were Christian. But that distinction seemed lost on the Crusaders and so pillage and loot they did. But once they reach Nicomedia, a quarrel broke out and the army fractured. The French contingent of the army stayed under the extensible leadership of Peter but the German and Italian portions broke off and elected to follow a knight named Rainald instead. From there the two groups continued to pillage until they both ended up occupying the fortified coastal town of Civetot. Peter urged them to hold up there until the main crusading force arrived. But by this point, he had long since lost control.
The two groups started making forays into the surrounding countryside literally egging each other on. Each time one group would return from a raid they boast and talk about how much braver they were, how much more they were doing for the cause. This would then inevitably lead to the other group doing something rasher, stupider, and more foolhardy to show how much braver they were and how much more they were doing for the cause… Peter, unable to control this, decided to leave the Crusade and head back to Constantinople to ask for the Emperor’s help. But while he was heading back the French forces decided that it would be a good idea to attack the local Turkish capital. They couldn’t get through the walls so instead, they pillaged and butchered everything around it with atrocities ranging from the systemic massacre of civilians to children being tossed on a fire.
They considered this a job well done and headed back to the base with more than the usual amount of self-congratulation. The German contingent, not to be one-upped, then went to help to capture a nearby castle. The garrison there was light and the German Crusaders were successful but they forgot to check if the castle had any water stored up. Of course, the Turkish forces by this point had been mobilized and they knew full well that the castle had no water reserves and that the nearest well was way outside its walls. So the Turkish army pulled up and parked itself outside the castle. After a few days of drinking the blood of donkeys and their own urine, the Crusaders surrendered. Upon surrender, the Turks demanded that the Crusaders either convert to Islam or be put to death. While many Crusaders refused to abandon their faith and were put to the sword, brave sir Rainald, leader of the band, never a man to be outdone, surprised even the enemy commander when he only offered to become a Muslim but also offered to join the Turks and make war against the Christians if they spare his life. Meanwhile word probably intentionally spread by the Turks filtered back to the French Crusaders that the German group had not only captured a castle but actually captured the Turkish capital as well! An argument broke out in the camp: some thought that they should wait for Peter to return (which he never would) while others thought that if they waited they miss out on all the good looting. Soon the faction supporting looting won out because of course, it did, and every single remaining Crusader, about 20,000 of them, marched out of their base toward the Capitol under the leadership of one Geoffrey Burel.
About three miles from the Crusader base, in a narrow wooded valley, the full might of the Turkish forces lay in wait. The disorganized Crusaders, rushing up the road in an effort to make it to the capital in time for plunder, didn’t even notice the trap. As a hail of arrows poured out of the woods the Crusaders began to rout almost immediately. Turkish horsemen thundered out of the woods chasing down the Crusaders almost to a man. Of the 40,000 peasant Crusaders who had left western Europe, only 3,000 following their brave leader Geoffrey Burel managed to flee fast enough to escape. Those three thousand managed to hold up in an old abandoned castle until the Byzantines came to rescue them. So let’s just review the Crusade scorecard now :
Hungarian citizens killed? Thousands.
Byzantine citizens killed? Also thousands.
German Jews killed? again, thousands.
Crusaders killed? Tens of thousands.
Christians killed? Tens of thousands.
Turks killed? a few, most of them civilians…
Massive economic disruption to the eastern Roman Empire? Check!
Eastern roman forces who the Crusaders were supposed to be helping attacked? Check!
Potential allies in Muslim territory ransacked? Check!
And Holy Lands retaken? No!
And thus the First Crusade began…