- The Egyptians Are Encircled
Unexpectedly, the Hittites attacked the Amun division, causing Ramesses II to rue his lack of reconnaissance. In response, Ramesses II sent urgent messengers to hasten the arrival of the Ptah and Seth divisions of his army, which were still some distance away on the far side of the River Orontes.
The Hittites, however, also had forces near the rear of Ramesses’ forces, and Muwatalli’s, chariots attacked and encircled the Re division, which was caught in the open and almost destroyed. Some of its survivors fled to the safety of the Amun camp, but they were pursued by the Hittite forces.
Thus, now the situation was that the Amun division was engaged in and around its camp. The Re division was routed with elements of it fleeing to the perceived safety of the Amun camp. The other two divisions, Ptah and Seth, were fighting a rear guard action.
Then, the unthinkable happened for the Egyptians. The Hittite chariots began their assault and crashed through the Amun camp’s shield wall. The Amun troops were now engulfed by panic as well.
The difference between the chariots of the Hittites and the Egyptians became the difference in this pitched battle. The Egyptian chariot carried two men: a driver and a warrior, armed primarily as an archer and carrying a short thrusting spear. The Hittite chariot carried three men: a driver and two warriors, one armed as an archer and the other as a heavy infantry man, who dismounted from the chariot and fought on foot. This was because the Egyptians had modified the chariot such that the axle was further back, allowing the Egyptian chariot to be lighter resulting in a more maneuverable and faster chariot. The Hittite chariot was a heavy weapon designed to attack infantry formations; the Egyptian chariot was designed to protect infantry from chariots. The Egyptian bow man had a longer range than the Hittite bowman, because of their composite bows.
The attack by the Hittites started to wane on the Amun camp, because impeding obstacles of such a large camp forced many Hittite charioteers to slow their attack; some drivers were killed in chariot crashes. In the Egyptian account of the battle, Ramesses describes himself as being deserted and surrounded by enemies:
“…No officer was with me, no charioteer, no soldier of the army, no shield-bearer …”
Only with help from the gods did Ramesses personally defeat his attackers and return to the Egyptian lines:
“…I was before them like Set in his moment. I found the mass of chariots in whose midst I was, scattering them before my horses…”
3. The Egyptians Counter Attack
The Poem continues by describing how the pharaoh, now facing a desperate fight for his life, summoned up his courage, called upon his god Amun, and fought valiantly to save himself. According to the Poem, Ramesses personally led several charges into the Hittite ranks together with his personal guard, as well as some of the chariots from his Amun division and survivors from the routed division of Re, employing both the superior maneuverability of his chariots and the power and range of Egyptian bows. Ramesses apparently sensed that the Hittites were overextended and tired.
The Hittite soldiers, meanwhile, who understandably believed their enemies to be totally routed, stopped to loot the Egyptian camp and, in doing so, became easy targets for Ramesses’ counterattack. Ramesses’ action was successful in driving the Hittites back towards the Orontes River and away from the Egyptian camp, while in the ensuing pursuit, the heavier Hittite chariots were easily overtaken and dispatched by the lighter, faster, Egyptian chariots.
- Final Phase-The Hittites Summon Their Reserves
Although he had suffered a significant reversal, Muwatalli still commanded a large force of reserve chariots and infantry. He also still possessed the town with its walls. As the Hittite retreat reached the river, Muwatalli ordered another thousand chariots to attack the Egyptians, this contingent being mainly composed of the high nobles who were the king’s bodyguard, that is elite troops.
This time, however, it was the Hittites would be surprised due to their lack of reconnaissance. For, as the Hittite forces approached the Egyptian camp, the Ne’arin troop contingent from Amurru suddenly arrived, catching the Hittites off-guard. Seeing this, Ramesses having reorganized his forces, because he was expecting help, simultaneously attacked from the camp.
After six charges, the Hittite forces were almost surrounded. Pinned against the River Orontes, the remaining elements of the Hittites, not overtaken in the withdrawal, were forced to abandon their chariots and other weapons in an attempt to swim the River Orontes. According to Egyptian accounts, that is the Poem and the Bulletin, they swam hurriedly “as fast as Crocodiles swimming” and many of them drowned.
Next week, we will discuss, why the Battle of Kadesh is important to the story of Exodus.