Battle of Formigny: French Defeat English, as Hundred Years' War Winds Down

 
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Battle of Formigny: French Defeat English, as Hundred Years' War Winds Down

"Battle of Formigny" by Henri Lehmann (1837)
Currently displayed at the Museum of the History of France, Palace of Versailles, France
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: April 15, 1450

For today's mini-lecture, I will feature one of the last major battles of the Hundred Years' War between France and England. Less than 10,000 soldiers took part, but it was a significant victory for the French nonetheless.

Background

When the French broke the truce in June 1449 they were in a much improved position. The English, without clear leadership from their weak monarch Henry VI, were scattered and dangerously weak. The French quickly took the offensive in Normandy, taking English-held towns, including Pont-Audemer, Pont-L'Evêque, and Lisieux in August and much of the English-occupied province of Normandy was retaken by October. A number of stronger, better-fortified towns and cities remained in English hands. By January of 1450, French forces attacked a number of these English-held towns. Making use of large numbers of artillery during the capture of Rouen (October 1449), Harfleur (December 1449), Honfleur, and Fresnoy (January 1450), the French signaled a new era in warfare.

During the winter of 1449, the English had gathered a small army to challenge the rampaging French. Numbering around 3000 men, the force left Portsmouth under the command of Sir Thomas Kyriell. Landing at Cherbourg on March 15, 1450, the army was reinforced with a further 2000 men under Sir Matthew Gough in late March. Kyriell's main assignment was to provide aid to the city of Bayeux, which was under attack by the French. While on the march, Kyriell diverted his small army to the town of Valognes – which had recently been taken by the French – and retook the town for England. The English lost a number of casualties at this fight. After leaving some men to garrison the recaptured town, which reduced his effective numbers to between 3800 and 4000 men, Kyriell ordered the march to Bayeux resumed.

Prelude to the Battle

Two French armies were south of the Cherbourg peninsula, and prepared to engage the English army. One force of 3,000 men under the comte de Clermont was at Carentan, which was 20 miles west of Bayeux and 30 miles south of Cherbourg. On April 12, the English army's line of

Map of Normandy, showing area of the Formigny campaign of 1450 [Image courtesy of http://xenophongroup.com/montjoie/formigny.htm]
Map of Normandy, showing area of the Formigny campaign of 1450
[Image courtesy of http://xenophongroup.com/montjoie/formigny.htm]

march brought it near Carentan. As the English followed the coastline north of Carentan, the rearguard brushed off a sortie from the town as the force by-passed it. Believing his force was too small, Clermont at first refused to engage the English. He sent a message to Coutances, located 20 miles south of Carentan. The message reached the constable de Richemont, who commanded a force of 2,000 knights, men-at-arms, and archers. Realizing the danger to the French forces besieging Bayeux, Richemont and his men departed to join Clermont's army.

Two days later, Kyriell's army camped near the village of Formigny, about 10 miles from Bayeux. They set up camp on the western bank of a brook that emptied into the Aure River. They set up archer stakes and dug some hasty trenches to guard against a French cavalry attack.

On the morning of April 15, Clermont and his men left Carentan and began marching the 15 miles east to intercept the English before they reached Bayeux. At about the same time, Richemont and his men continued riding to join Clermont, traveling through the town of St. Lô and galloping generally north and west. With each mile, Richemont and his men prayed they would arrive in time to intercept the English.

French Army

The French, under King Charles VII, had taken the time offered by the 1444 Treaty of Tours to reorganize and reinvigorate their armies. This was accomplished by the compagnies d'ordonnance, local companies of French gentry or nobility consisting of between 600 and 1000 men each. Each of these companies was well-trained and drilled, allowing them to make a better account of themselves than their predecessors in earlier stages of the war. In emergencies, these local units could be quickly called to arms and confront English attacks.

The French ordonnance companies consisted of mounted men-at-arms (gen d'armes in French), each accompanied by a squire and a page, also mounted and wearing similar armor and weapons. Also in the mix were archers or crossbowmen, and finally came the artillery train.

English Army

The English force was little changed from the ones that had dominated the French military over the previous 120+ years. There were some 1000-1200 men-at-arms, along with about 2800-3000 longbowmen. [There were probably also some billmen wielding a polearm called an English bill. It was a relative of the halberd, and was very effective against mounted opponents.]

Several examples of English bills (also called billhooks) [Image courtesy of http://old.qi.com]
Several examples of English bills (also called billhooks)
[Image courtesy of http://old.qi.com]

Still wielding the longbow which had won famous victories at Crécy (1345), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415), the archers still regarded themselves as the deciding arm of the English army. They were to be shown otherwise by the events of the coming battle.

Battle of Formigny

At about 3:00 pm, English pickets reported the approach of the French under Clermont from the west. Kyriell put his army into battle formation. The men-at-arms left their horses in camp and lined up in two large groups on foot. They were armed mainly with shortened lances, swords, axes, bills, and maces. On the flanks of the infantry – and in between the two foot divisions – where placed groups of archers. The English formation was about 1000 yards long and possibly 10 or 12 ranks deep.

The French under Clermont deployed about 400 yards away from the English line – just out of long range of the British bows. In the first hour of the battle, the French launched an infantry attack at the English line which was thrown back. Shortly afterwards, two mounted attacks on the English flanks were also repelled. Not wishing to throw away more of his men without inflicting casualties on the enemy, Clermont ordered his two cannons to be deployed forward. For several minutes, the French breech-loading culverins bombarded the English archers, causing long-range bloodshed which the longbowmen could not answer.

[Image courtesy of http://xenophongroup.com/montjoie/formigny.htm]
[Image courtesy of http://xenophongroup.com/montjoie/formigny.htm]

The archers broke ranks and advanced without orders, and the lightly armed and armored men took the French guns and killed the gunners. The English retired back to their line to await the French response. As a result of the English sally, the entire French force withdrew a short distance. With the loss of the guns, Claremont pondered how to prevail against the enemy. At about 6:00 pm, he received his answer…

Several hundred yards to the south of the battle, French horsemen appeared on a short ridge just north of the Aure River. Constable de Richemont and his 1200 cavalry had heard the firing of the French guns, and rode to their sound. [Richemont had left his archers behind in the interest of arriving at the battlefield more quickly.] Spotting the newly-arrived French force to his rear, Kyriell made a rapid redeployment of his force. He bent his line back in an L-shape, hoping to meet both threats to his rear. Unfortunately, this maneuver thinned his line and placed his entire position in jeopardy.

Richemont made personal contact with Clermont, and they coordinated an attack on the thinned English line. At about 7:00 pm the French forces under Clermont and Richemont launched a simultaneous attack on the English line. The French attacks bent back the flanks of the enemy line, threatening to surround it. The fighting was very fierce, as the English line disintegrated into small groups. The British made their stand in a number of orchards surrounding a stone bridge. Large numbers of Englishmen fell in this stage of the battle. Finally, the English line caved in and panic drove them from the field. Many more English was cut down or captured in the rout. By sundown, the battle was done.

Aftermath

The English under Kyriell suffered nearly 2500 casualties killed and wounded and 900 men captured, including Kyriell. His subordinate Gough escaped with the few survivors to Bayeux.

French losses are estimated at between 100 and 200 killed.

Footnote #1: With the French victory, there were no major English forces to oppose the French in Normandy. The province was quickly returned to French control. By 1453, only the city of Calais remained in English hands.

Memorial chapel built in 1486 to commemorate the battle of Formigny [Image courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu/~oberhot/formigny.htm]
Memorial chapel built in 1486 to commemorate the battle of Formigny
[Image courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu/~oberhot/formigny.htm]

Footnote #2: In 1486 Charles de Clermont ordered the construction of a memorial chapel near the battlefield. It still stands today, with some relics from the battlefield on display. The chapel had fallen into disrepair until it was restored and was given to the local community in 1963.

Footnote #3: In 1903 a monument was erected near Formigny to commemorate the battle, with the two French commanders prominently mentioned on the inscription.

Statue at the crossroads near Formigny battle site [Image courtesy of http://xenophongroup.com/montjoie/formigny.htm]
Statue at the crossroads near Formigny battle site
[Image courtesy of http://xenophongroup.com/montjoie/formigny.htm]

Footnote #4: Formigny is not indicated on many modern road maps. Its 1450 historic battle is omitted from much of the regional information found in guide books. It is only a few miles south of the famous landing site of Omaha Beach, well-known for the D-Day invasion of June, 1944.

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