The first army that left for the Holy Land was that of Peter the Hermit’s. It wasn’t an actual army because the vast majority of his followers were peasants and laymen; many men had taken their entire families with them. Only a small minority of Peter’s following were knights, commanded by the pious knight, Walter Sans Avoir (The Penniless).
Nevertheless, Peter had amassed a great following. Historians estimate that his following was anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people, large enough to be considered an army. Today, Peter the Hermit’s expedition is widely known as the People’s Crusade.
The biggest challenge Peter faced with leading such a large army was how he was going to keep them all well fed throughout the entire journey. There were very few districts in Europe that had enough food to feed such a large group of pilgrims, so the only way he was going to keep them fed was to keep them moving. Though, the district of Cologne lay strategically near the Rhine River so the land in that area was more fertile. Peter assumed that the townspeople of Cologne would have enough food to feed him and his following. That was probably why he decided to stay there for a number of days. He also wanted to preach to the Germans with the intent to recruit more nobles to his crusade.
Peter was successful: the German nobles, Count Hugh of Tubingen, Count Henry of Schwarzenberg, Walter of Tech, Count Emich of Lusingen, Gottchalk and the three sons of the count of Zimmern, all inspired by Peter’s preaching, made their crusader vows.
However, not everyone left Cologne when Peter left. Walter Sans Avoir grew impatient and so he left Cologne, taking a few thousand of Peter’s followers with him, all of them probably knights. They marched alongside the great Rhine and Neckar rivers, then down the Danube, arriving in Hungary in early May of 1096. “When his (Walter’s) intention and the reason for his taking this journey became known to Lord Coloman, most Christian king of Hungary, he was kindly received and was given peaceful transit across the entire realm, with permission to trade. And so without giving offence, and without being attacked, he set out even to Belgrade a Bulgarian city, passing over to MaleviUa, where the realm of the kingdom of Hungary ends. Thence he peacefully crossed the Morava (Save) river,” wrote Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade.
The moment they set foot in Semlin, discipline in Walter’s small army of crusaders disintegrated. As sixteen men attempted to rob a bazaar, they were caught in the act by the Hungarians. They were consequently stripped of all their arms and clothes and sent across the Save river naked. The Hungarians hung their clothes on the town wall as a warning to all.
Conditions for the crusaders deteriorated even more once they entered Belgrade. Since it was mid spring, the harvest had not yet been gathered, so the townspeople could not feed Walter’s army. They were probably just as suspicious of these foreigners as was their king and his military commanders. In any case, they forbade the sale of anything to Walter and the crusaders. Furious, Walter and his troops pillaged the countryside, stealing herds of cattle and sheep. In the process, the crusaders got separated from each other, so when the Bulgarians counter-attacked, they were quickly scattered and many of Walter’s men were massacred.
Walter fled with what remained of his army to Nish. “There he found the duke and prince of the land and reported to him the injury and damage which had been done him. From the duke he obtained justice for all; nay, more, in reconciliation the duke bestowed upon him arms and money, and the same lord of the land gave him peaceful conduct through the cities of Bulgaria, Sofia, Philippopolis, and Adrianople, and also license to trade.” They arrived at the gates of Constantinople in the middle of July and were received well by the Emperor Alexius. There, they waited for the arrival of Peter the Hermit and his much larger force.