Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Most tragically Inept Wars (Battle Edition)
Agincourt. Probably the most famous battle in English history, not because of its significance (which it was) or its political/historical ramifications (lots of those, actually) but because we killed a lot of the French and lost very few of our own troops. Its what a military historian would refer to as a "right proper roasting of the frenchies" then he'd laugh and spill his pipe.
This was technically part of the Hundred Years war, which was less a war and more England and France fighting each other over bits of France for a very long time before the English went home and France declared victory. France often declares victory when people stop invading them, that is probably the origin of the French word victory and our usage of it for actually winning battles is inaccurate.
Henry V was in charge of the English at the time, literally in charge and present at the battle, this was back when being King meant being around at the battles and giving rousing speeches to your men. Admittedly, giving rousing speeches to the nobles you have appointed to be in charge of your men, but that marching up and down the lines and shouting freedom stuff from Braveheart wouldnt actually work in real battles because thousands of people cant hear all that, especially when you are riding up and down the lines, even if you are at the front you are only catching parts of the speech. You will know Henry V, he is the second most famous Henry despite having the best Shakespeare plan.
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Some French noble was in charge of the French since Charles VI of france was a bit poorly at the time. He was Charles d'Albret. I dont know anything about him apart from him he had trouble reigning in the nobles he was supposed to be commanding and blamed them for his loss. So I will make him up a backstory, he was an avid stamp collector and ... lets say he had a girlfriend, called Jean. They got married in a stamp themed wedding, she dressed as the penny black. I will edit wikipedia to make that true later.
Now, Henry was invading France for various reasons. Mostly he wanted bits of France, that he considered his, this was a good enough reason to invade places back then. The French werent having this, because they used to actually put up a bit of a fight when they were invaded back then. And they were doing quite well. Henry was trying to get back to (English) Calais and the French were about to do them in.
Essentially the English had been marching 3 weeks, were battle weary on top of that, the weather was piss poor and they were generally not happy. They got caught out by a larger French force designed to finish them off. There was a little negotiation and the French initially refused to fight, basically hoping to make their massive force even bigger with expected reinforcements so as to make it more of a whitewash. Henry, being no fool, pushed the issue and knew his best chance was to fight his way through to Calais and hope for the best. But he still had to fight defensively, his force being largely bowmen, so he took a calculated risk and moved his defensive line forward to push the French into attacking.
The English were pretty sure they were done for. Accounts we have consist of lots of talk of people talking about imminent death and trying to cleanse their souls for the judgement day they were about to face. According to French accounts, Henry gave a speech to his nobles reassuring them they would be most likely captured not killed by the French (since the ransoming of nobles was a common practice back then and a way to fund further battles) but reminded the common soldiers no one would be capturing them so to be sure to fight for their lives.
So it started. The battleground was a narrow strip of land between two woods (that of Agincourt and Tramecourt.) There is a whole field of history dedicated to working out how battles are fought, its very complex and involved gauging common battle strategies, logical strategies and then assimilating them with all accounts of a battle to garner how it was most likely waged. Basically, guessing and stuff.
But we can imagine, having 900 or so soldiers and 5,000 bowmen, Henry set up some sort of defensive line of soldiers and held his bowmen behind/around them. And would lay his forces from one side of the field to the other, so he couldnt be flanked. And helpfully forcing an attacking force into narrowing his force to actually strike at you.
France had knights, cavalry, general soldiers and crossbow men. How big their force was isnt entirely clearly, conventional wisdom is around 36,000. But there is some lack of clarity on who went home when and how many reinforcements they actually received. But few (sane) historians put them at anything less than 3 times the size of the English force, most at 6 times the size.
France's best hope for quick decisive victory was an early Cavalry charge, breaking the line and then easy to kill the bowmen, who wouldnt be much of a match for mounted men. They didnt do this. By the time they had got a charge going, the bowmen were all in place and let rip. The horses not being armoured on the body didnt take kindly to arrows being shoved in them, lots of them just fled, ripping open the French lines and trampling people to death on their way to safety. Even horses dont like the French.
The French soldiers started to move in. The problem with being heavily armoured soldiers is you are wearing really heavy armour. You slog your way down the battlefield, you are getting pelted with arrows and when you reach the enemy line you are knee deep in mud, so closely packed in due to your bigger numbers you have difficulty actually weilding your weapons... and the bowmen, who dont wear armour and have handy weapons like hatchets, can generally cut you up before you can raise a sword.
Pretty much everything went wrong for the French. Knights drown in their armour due to the rain, there are even reports of guys being struck by lightning. If true, it would be pretty awesome to think even God was on Englands side in this one.
"One of the best anecdotes of the battle involves Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry V's youngest brother. According to the story, Henry, upon hearing that his brother had been wounded in the abdomen, took his household guard and cut a path through the French, standing over his brother and beating back waves of soldiers until Humphrey could be dragged to safety."
The only successful French manoeuver in the whole battle was the attack of the baggage train. Unprotected, they managed to slaughter the paige boys defending the kings personal possessions. Thats right, the only saving grace for the French was they killed a bunch of kids to steal the Kings underwear and engraved pipe. Taking a thousand strong force to do it. Score, guys, score.
The French really went wrong in a few ways. They had no unified command, the nobles each controlling their divisions individually and so without thought to an organised strategy. Reports suggest they ignored the bowmen to attack English nobles, thinking of ransom money and not the practicalities of winning a battle. And obviously, by being French.
The battle took most of the day, the French left the field in disgrace. The next day the casualties were counted up. Any surviving French on the field were killed (considered a merciful thing to do back then.)
The most common estimate puts the English losses at 450. At least 112 died in the battle, so that doesnt seem that inaccurate. Its nearly impossible to guess the French losses at anything but "thousands". Thousands, people, thousands. This is one of the biggest white washes in military history.
Lesson learnt from this battle? If you outnumber the English 6-1 and with heavier, better equipped forces... you better just surrender now, because that is nowhere near enough.
After this Henry V went on to be recognised as the regent of France and given a princess to marry to make it solid. Those were the days, my friend, you take a few thousand people on holiday, kill enough guys and people give you their country and a princess.
Henry V, bad ass, star and princess collector.
FUN HISTORICAL FACT - This is the battle cited by many as showing the superiority of the Long Bow. Odd, since the long bow is totally useless against armoured forces. The main advantage of the archers was their ability to join the melee so quickly and take advantage of the conditions and slow moving armoured forces.
FUN HISTORICAL FACT - Henry V was a total bad ass.
FUN HISTORICAL FACT - If it wasnt a freshly ploughed field and raining quite heavily, it would have went entirely the other way and quite quickly since the French could have used their armoured and mounted forces much easier. Further proof, God favours the English.