March 31st, 627 AD | The Battle of the Trench

There have been quite a few scraps over the years; barely aday goes by where we can’t go back in time, look at that day in history, and find one country beating up another country for: reasons. But sometimes these dust ups carry with them history defining moments where the success or failure of one side over the other – quite literally – dictated everything to come after it, and had the tables been turned, the world that we live in today would be very different.

The Battle of Actium would be one such example: Anthony and Cleopatra were to rule Rome from Alexandria and he had already started to demonstrate particular favor for Egyptian religion. Had he not been beaten at Actium – had he won it – the entire Roman Empire would have fallen under Egyptian influence.

I believe that the Battle of the Trench is another example, because this guy was on the side that was drastically outnumbered:

Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim, at your service.

Wait, who?

Maybe you know him better as Muhammad. Yeah, the prophet of Islam. And it doesn’t really matter whether you regard him as the founder of Islam or the bloke who restored the faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets in Islam, because the net result is if he had died during the Battle of the Trench, well, the whole unification of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam and bringing Arabia into a single Muslim religious polity … yeah … that wouldn’t have happened.

Back then, the Arabian Peninsula looked like this:

And if you’re looking at that thinking “wow, that looks like a bum fuck,” well, you’d be correct. But it was also a rock strewn, arid hell hole. No, I’m serious; this was a blasted, arid, VOLCANIC landscape; so further down when I post a map that says “lava fields,” I’m serious. Naturally, growing anything around here is impossible, unless you happen to set up shop near an oasis or natural spring, which meant that little settlements and towns dotted the landscape like a bag of spilt jelly beans.

Life was tough for the indigenous people, and tribal grouping was essential to survive the desert conditions. Two large settlements grew out of this: Mecca – an important financial center for the surrounding tribes – and Medina – which was all kinds of awesome-sauce in the agricultural department.

Gods or goddesses were protectors of individual tribes, their spirits being associated with sacred trees, stones, springs and wells.

And in the middle of all of this, in the fine city of Mecca, out popped Muhammad in the year 570 AD. Now God didn’t talk to Muhammad straight away, oh no, he kept that card up his sleeve for much later in life. So he whiled away the time being a merchant man, occasionally disappearing into a cave for a while to offer up prayers and generally get his hermit on.

It was on one of these field trips that the angel Gabriel popped in for a cup of tea and a natter. From these little heavenly conversations, the Quran was born, and Muhammad went home and told his mates. Granted, he was a little concerned that every one would think that he was a right nutter (although most religions started with some bloke saying “hey, me and God just had a chat, and he’s made me his voice here on earth … so this is how it’s going down.” I’m not sure how they get away with this, but there you go.)

And all of this must have been true, because he started telling people about how there were rewards for worshiping the one true Lord, punishment if you didn’t (of course), and how all the other gods were false and shouldn’t be worshiped any more. So: totally legit.

But it’s not easy to be the word of God on earth, so when he went out into the local park to start preaching the good word, he was largely heckled and ridiculed. Haters are gonna hate. But people did drift to him; the disenfranchised, the unprotected foreigners, the younger sons and brothers of great merchants; who were never going to achieve the first rank in their respective families so they may as well throw in with some kooky new religion and the bloke talking to God.

And at this point he started to earn himself a few enemies, because you can’t just climb out of a cave one day, exclaim “I’m the voice of God!”, and grow a fan-base, without someone, somewhere getting a little bit pissed off.

Muhammad started to threaten to overthrow the traditional religion of Mecca, the Ka’aba, and this threatened the existing powers that be and their pocket books. And it always comes down to control and money in this world.

And this is when the persecution and ill-treatment of Muhammad and his followers kicked in. Won’t renounce Islam? Spear to the face. Won’t convert back to a decent religion? How about we crush you under a rock.

Muhammad himself was spared from harm, because he was some kind of “made man” in his tribe, but when this protection was later removed, he kinda figured that it was time to get out of Mecca, before a heavy rock was planted on his face.

His new home was: Medina (then called “Yathrib,” but “Medina” is cooler and doesn’t sound like I’m clearing my nose.) Pilgrimages started to Medina to see and meet the Prophet and his followers from all over migrated to the region.

Mecca grew alarmed and started to confiscate the possessions of those leaving the city for Medina, in response to which Muhammad sat down with Gabriel, had a quick heart to heart, and then promptly wrote into the Quran that beating up on Mecca was okay and it was God’s will.

And to prove that point, he gathered up a small army and went over there to kick a superior force in the ball-sack. Religious freedom: exercised.

Muhammad and his followers saw this victory as a sure sign that God was on their side, and Muhammad himself made it clear that they had an invisible host of angels fighting in the battle with them. Which sounds totally legit.

And this, apparently, was all that was needed for the remaining Medinans to get behind this dude being the Prophet of God, because how else could he win a fight without an army of invisible angels and the Almighty himself watching over him?

Muhammad was now sitting pretty in Medina, and after he exiled any disbelievers and curried a little support from surrounding tribes, life looked good.

Of course, the Meccans were not just going to sit there and be quiet while all of this was going on, so they did what anyone would do: they gathered up an army to make things right. Muhammad once again rode out to bring down the holy hammer of righteousness, but maybe the other side was praying harder or something, because the Meccans beat him and his boys back to Medina with absolute ease.

Now Muhammad was in a little bit of a quandary: why did God not help this time? Where were the invisible angel warriors?

Thinking on his feet, Muhammad quickly wrote into the Quran that God was punishing them [for insert reason here] and was testing their faith. Which … well … it’s genius, really. Everyone was happy with that explanation, and they proceeded to curb stomp all of the surrounding tribes until they were compliant, dead, Islamic, or righteously pissed the fuck off. And he managed to stir up a right hornets’ nest in the process.

A small Confederation of tribes under the tribe of Quraysh of Makkah, led by Abu Sufyan, together raised a total of 10,000 men and 600 cavalry to finally put an end to this “Muhammad nonsense,” which was going to be more than enough, because over in Medina Muhammad only had 3,000 defenders.

So when he got wind that 10,000 unholy fists of face-smashing were heading his way, he rubbed his chin in deep thought and devised a cunning plan …

Medina was surrounded on three sides by mountains, hills, lava flows and such, so it had some great natural defenses. The catch was that the side the 10,000  swords were coming from was to the north … where there was nothing but flat desert. So, yeah, they were kinda in a pickle. Except this is when the cunning plan kicked in: they dug a trench between the opposing army and Medina, and used the soil to create an embankment on their side.

Now, you’d be justified if you were sitting there now thinking “hold on, a trench? Just throw down some planks or something and move over it … or fill it in, shit, they were doing that back when the Romans were fighting the Gauls.”

Except here in Arabia, siege warfare was pretty uncommon, so anything to do with defenses and such was also uncommon. So when – on March 31st, 627 AD - the 10,000 Confederate forces arrived and saw 3,000 umad? troll faces staring back at them from the other side of a ditch, they literally didn’t know what to do. The entire army STOPPED and for TWO WEEKS they did nothing other than hurl insults at the Medians. A total of 8 soldiers died during this period of time. Because of a ditch.

But here’s the deal, during those two weeks, the Confederates realized that they hadn’t really planned this little shindig very well at all: they hadn’t brought enough food (uh oh!), the Medians had harvested everything in the area to deny the attackers any chance of foraging off the land (gasp!), and they had forgotten how cold the desert gets at night (Doh!). So they spent two weeks huddled in useless tents that were torn away by the wind, trying to stay warm next to fires that kept blowing out, gently freezing their bollocks off and getting increasingly hungry. As attacks go, they could have thought it through a little better, I’m just saying.

The Quraysh veterans grew increasingly impatient with this silly little exercise, and they decided to sort things out for themselves under the leadership of ‘Amr ibn ‘Abd Wudd, who was a really hard case; I’m talking about a dude who was so throat-crushingly good in a scrap, that everyone tended to regard him the equivalent of 1,000 men, and if you have that sort of rep., well, clearly you are a tough customer.

Under his leadership, they thrust across the trench, got past the defenders, and stood before the Sala Hill upon which Muhammad’s main war camp was positioned. Here, ‘Amr stood forward and – placing his big huge balls on the ground – he challenged the Muslims to “come and get some if you think you are hard enough.”

Battles back then, man, man-o-mano duels … we should bring that shit back into vogue.

Anyway, the Muslims kinda shuffled around all nervously, because ‘Amr was clearly going to fuck some fool up. But this is when Ali Ibn Abi Talib stepped forth (for the record, he totally looked like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Honest.)

The two of them locked themselves into a full on, testosterone-fueled, duel to the death, all the time under the watchful gaze of several thousand men. And that’s just an awesome fucking scene in my head. Dust kicked up, the duel became obscured, and suddenly there was a scream: one of them had taken a mortal wound!

Both sides shuffled nervously, until the cries of  “Allahu Akbar” pierced the air; the victor was Ali. Some will tell you that “Allahu Akbar” means “God is good,” but back then it meant “yeah, mother fuckers, now who wants some?”

The entire fucking army that had successfully forged across the trench kinda looked at each other with a “what the fuck now?” expression, shuffled on the spot a little, got scared when they saw Dwayne Johnson strutting at them, and they fucked off back to the other side. The whole incident had accomplished nothing.

But as the siege wore on, things were not all peachy in the Medina camp. Food was running low, and news was reaching them that their ally to the south – the settlement of Banu Qurayza – had been approached by the Confederates and had agreed to join them. No ditch had been dug down there and no thought had been given to this as a possibility; Medina was now in serious trouble.

And this is when the siege was won without killing a soul; it became a game of manipulation and trickery.

Muhammad sent an envoy to part of the Confederate forces and offered them a sack full of figs if they’d just “fuck off.” They asked for two sacks, to which Muhammad agreed. The whole deal eventually fell through when someone pointed out “hey, they’re my figs, go and get your own, you bastard,” but the fact that the Ghatafan tribe had been willing to agree to the deal started to sow discord among the entire force arranged against Medina.

He then sent out Nuaym ibn Masud, an Arab leader who was well respected by the entire confederacy, but – unknown to them – he had converted to the Islamic faith. Nuaym headed south to the traitorous  Banu Qurayza and told them that the Confederated forces were going to trick them; if the siege failed, he told them that they were going to be given over to Muhammad and left to his mercy. He advised that they demand from the Confederation hostages from their own ranks, thus securing the terms of the alliance. The Banu Qurayza thought that was a really smart idea.

Nuaym then rode to the Confederation, where he told them that the Banu Qurayza were about to ask for hostages, but they planned on turning these hostages over to Muhammad, “so whatever you do, don’t give them any!” The Confederate forces were very appreciative for this little tip.

Then Nuaym rode off into the night, rubbing his little crafty hands together and giggling like a school-girl.

Of course, Banu Qurayza and Confederate forces met to hash out the details of the joint attack, and the Banu Qurayza demanded hostages. The response they got was not a polite one; something about “camels,” “mothers,” and “where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Nuaym had - quite literally - stopped the entire southern attack single handedly.

With horses, camels, and soldiers dying from exposure and hunger, dissent among the Confederation grew rampant. Entire tribes started to wonder why they were there in the first place, others realized that they didn’t actually dislike Muhammad, they just wanted phat lewts from all of the plunder; now an “easy fight” looked like “a lost cause.”

And in a single night, the entire Confederate army fucked off home. Just like that. Muhammad woke up, stretched, peered out across the desert, and the entire enemy camp was gone.

With the battle won, Muhammad turned southwards, pointed at the Banu Qurayza, and said “okay, you little bastards, you’re going to get yours.” He had an army handy – and now not doing anything – so he rode south, besieged their settlement, and – when they surrendered – he had EVERY SINGLE MAN BEHEADED; he dug a trench, lined them up, and beheaded 900 dudes. Talk about being pissed off.

Oh, and one woman, because apparently in the siege, she had dropped a millstone onto someone’s head, thus killing him. So, yeah, they didn’t like her much.

The rest of the women and children were spared.

I kid, I kid; they were all enslaved and divided out as booty. ‘Cos that’s how they rolled back then.

The failure of the siege marked the beginning of Muhammads political ascendancy and the downfall of the Meccans, who immediately lost face and their trade with Syria. Muhammad himself died five years later from illness, but in those five years, the entire Arabian Peninsula converted to Islam. Imagine how different things would be had he not survived at Medina and the Confederate forces had sacked the city and killed the inhabitants.

That’s why I love military history.

More People Fucking with Each Other:




Hart Island has been many things: a prisoner of war camp multiple times; in the mid-19th century, it housed confederate POWs; in the mid-20th, it held POWs from World War 2. The island has also been home to a womens’ asylum, a boys’ workhouse, a drug rehab, and a NIKE missile base. But if the average person knows anything at all about Hart Island, it is likely the fact that, since 1869, the island has served as New York’s sixth potter’s field. Approximately 800,000 bodies are buried on the island, making it the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.  The bodies are buried in simple pine boxes, the adults in trenches that hold up to 200 coffins; the infants, in trenches that hold up to 1,000.  Since the island is owned by the New York City Department of Corrections, and the burials performed by inmates, nobody is permitted to so much as land a boat on the island.

In 2008, Marie Lorenz and I set out at about 4:45 in the morning and landed a boat on the island.  In the roughly 4.5 hours I had to photograph the island before Marie got jittery and wanted to leave, we came across many amazing things.  The top photograph depicts the view from a window on the top floor of the White Dove building, originally part of an 1880s lunatic asylum for women, and last used as a drug rehab.  (Here’s a post showing the interior.)  In between the wings is a pit covered in plywood.  This was a half-filled mass grave for infants.  Around the corner from the building was another mass grave (middle photograph) - this one for adults, and just starting to fill.  Both are surely covered now as many more trenches have taken their place.  And on the first floor of the White Dove building, several coffins - this one not buried, and several disinterred (bottom photograph depicts the unburied coffin).  For more on Hart Island, check out my 2008 blog post on the topic.

Prints of the “White Dove Building” photograph available here.
Prints of the “Mass Grave” photograph available here.
Prints of the “Coffin and Storage Crate” photograph available here.

A mix for Samantha and Kain; for the fights, the tears, the longing, the letting go and the trying again, because love is messy and unpredictable.  (LISTEN)

01. The Last Something That Meant Anything - Mayday Parade // 02. The Mess I Made - Parachute // 03. Painting Flowers - All Time Low // 04. What Went Wrong? - Blink 182 // 05. Run Away - Front Porch Step // 06. Cross My Heart (Acoustic) - Marianas Trench // 07. It Still Remains - Cartel // 08. Postcards and Polaroids - Sleeping With Sirens // 09. Drown - Front Porch Step // 10. The Worst of Them (Acoustic) - Issues // 11. So Soon - Marianas Trench // 12. I Miss You (Cover) - 5 Seconds of Summer // 13. Kissing In Cars - Pierce The Veil // 14. Hold Onto Me - Mayday Parade // 15. Ever Enough (Acoustic) - A Rocket to the Moon // 16. Forever and Always - Parachute

French troops on the Somme Front, launching an attack on the Germans, ca. 1916.

Far from thick lines of men marching slowly across no-man’s land an attack on the Western Front from late 1916 onwards was a complex, organised and theoretically well planned affair. It usually consisted of a consecutive waves of attackers moving quickly towards enemy trenches whilst an artillery barrage forced their opponents into their dugouts for safety, thus emptying the front lines of trenches. The men moved in a dispersed line of men, often in small groups, using the cover afforded by shell holes and converging on points of resistance using tactics of fire and movement that are similar to those used today.

Like much of our modern view of the Great War, the actualities of trench warfare were much different, and much more complex than are usually thought.

Tintype portrait of an unidentified man posing with a pickaxe who is said to be a Union veteran who helped dig the Union mine exploded under Confederate positions at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg.