Battle of Agincourt: Original "Band of Brothers" Triumph over French

 
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Battle of Agincourt: Original "Band of Brothers" Triumph over French

"The Battle of Agincourt" by Brian Palmer
Image courtesy of http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1007884/posts
(Unless otherwise specified, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

[Editor's Note:  I am a day late on this, and my apologies.  This is a reprint of an article written by Siggurdsson, our resident military history expert!  And, I would be remiss to not begin this post with the famous portrayal on film]


Today in Military History: October 25, 1415 (OS)

[The following is an updated re-posting of two related stories from October, 2010]

Today's excursion into history goes back to the Hundred Years' War between England and France in the early fifteenth century. A badly outnumbered English army, tired, hungry, and disease-ridden, relentlessly pursued by a superior French army, is forced to fight. Several hours later, led by their youthful, charismatic King Henry V, the English deliver a severe blow to French military prestige.

Background

[Note: for those not familiar with the "OS" designation above, it indicates that the date of this battle is rendered for the "Old Style" Julian calendar. If the Gregorian-reformed calendar is used, the date would be November 3. However, as someone devoted to the traditional dates of many battles, I prefer to use October 25, the feast days of Saints Crispin and Crispinian…]

Portrait of Henry V of England, Unknown artist, painted c. 1520; From the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
Portrait of Henry V of England, Unknown artist, painted c. 1520
From the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

The interminable war between England and France began in 1337, and was still being fought over English claims to the French throne, as well as English possession of various lands within France. The English king, Henry V, was in his mid-20's when he succeeded his father to the throne in 1413. Henry is described as having been "very tall (6 feet 3 inches), slim, with dark hair cropped in a ring above the ears, and clean-shaven." His complexion was ruddy, the face lean with a prominent and pointed nose. He also sported a horrid scar on the right side of his face, the result of an arrow wound suffered in 1403 while putting down the rebellion of Henry Percy (aka "Harry Hotspur"). [Note the illustration above does not show his right side.]

In 1414, Henry wanted to finally resolve the disputes over English recognition as heir to the French throne. In addition, the French had reneged on a ransom of 1.6 million crowns owed England for French king John II, captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. Henry said he would give up claims to the French throne if the French paid the ransom owed them, as well as recognition of continued English ownership of various French provinces. When the French counter-offer was insufficient, Henry claimed to be insulted and prepared to retaliate.

Henry organized an army totaling approximately 12,000 men. They landed in northern France on August 13, 1415 and immediately besieged the port of Harfleur. Henry had hoped to capture the port quickly, but the siege dragged on for over a month, mainly due to the vigorous defense of the town (as it was the principal northern French port). When the city finally surrendered on September 22, the English army had been worn down by casualties and disease, particularly dysentery. As the end of the campaigning season was drawing near, Henry decided he needed to reach the English-held town of Calais, 120 miles away. Once reaching that city, his force could rest and re-equip over the winter. Leaving Harfleur on October 8, Henry and his reduced force of 9000 men headed northward.

Agincourt campaign, August-October, 1415; Image courtesy of https://aelarsen.wordpress.com/category/henry-v/
Agincourt campaign, August-October, 1415
Image courtesy of https://aelarsen.wordpress.com/category/henry-v/

As they moved through French territory, the English foraged for supplies and raided towns, castles and noble estates. [This tactic is often called a "chevauchée," sometimes used to destablize an area or to force a reluctant foe to confront the raiders.] However, the French were not sitting idly by while these events were occurring. An army was assembling at Rouen – with the intent of relieving Harfleur – but was not ready by time the city surrendered to Henry. When Henry's army left Harfleur, the Constable of France Charles d'Albret began to pursue the English, hoping to bring them to battle. As the French force moved against the invaders, d'Albret sent messages to local nobles, urging them to form their retinues to help bring Henry to heel.

Henry's army initially marched along the Channel coast, but once it reached the Somme River, French opposition became apparent. The English were forced to move eastward along the Somme, seeking a crossing point, taking them further away from Calais. Unfortunately, the Constable of France deployed his forces well, either heavily guarding bridges or fords, or even burning or tearing down bridges to deny their use to the English. Finally, Henry's scouts found an unguarded ford near Voyenne on October 19. After resting a day, the army marched 53 miles in 3 days, finally reaching the small town of Maisoncelles on the 24th, near the castle of Agincourt, two days march from Calais. Unfortunately, the English scouts reported that the French army had crossed the English line of march and was now blocking the way to Calais.

Making camp, Henry began planning for the next day, when he anticipated that the French would attack his army. During the night, the English camp was nearly silent, many men anticipating that tomorrow would be the day they would die. One chronicle claims Henry toured his camp, giving his men encouragement for the coming French onslaught. There were so few fires in the English encampment that some French believed that the English were trying to fool them with a ruse, and stealing away in the night. By contrast, the French camp was "Party Central," as the French knights and nobility celebrated with wine and song what would surely be a great victory over the invading "Anglais."

The Armies' Dispositions

Initial dispositions of English & French, battle of Agincourt; Map courtesy of https://europeanhistory.boisestate.edu/latemiddleages/maps
Initial dispositions of English & French, battle of Agincourt
Map courtesy of https://europeanhistory.boisestate.edu/latemiddleages/maps

At about dawn on October 25, both armies began leaving their respective camps and deploying in battle line. The Constable of France had chosen an area of clear terrain between two thick forests. ["Clear terrain" may be a bit of a misnomer, as this area was fields, harvested and now laying fallow for fall and winter. A heavy rain had fallen during the previous night into the early morning of the 25th, completely soaking the ground and turning the fields into large expanses of gooey mud.] The French began to deploy in the "clear" ground where the distance between the two woods was about 1200 yards wide, and about 750-1000 yards away from the initial English position, quite a ways outside of the extreme range of the English longbow.

The French deployed into three lines. Each of the first two lines consisted of several thousand infantrymen and dismounted men-at arms, with contingents of cavalry flanking them. The mounted men were specifically assigned to try to disrupt and run down the English longbowmen who were placed on each wing of the English army. There were also some bowmen and crossbowmen accompanying the French forward line, but they were badly emplaced and did not factor into the battle's final outcome. The third line seems to have been largely composed of mounted men-at-arms. A few chronicles claim that the French had some artillery pieces, but if so these guns were placed at the rear of the army, fired only a few shots and – like the French missile troops – played no role in the battle.

The Constable of France decided to play a waiting game, letting the English come to him. One nobleman even recommended that the French not attack at all, letting the English starve. During the extended wait for battle to commence, many French nobles in the first and second lines jostled with each other for the honor of striking the first blow. Consequently, the first two lines of the French began milling together and essentially became a large mob. [This jostling for position had the effect of forcing the French missile troops to the flanks of the first line.] D'Albret commanded the first French line, while the second line was under the command of the Dukes of Bar and Alençon, and the Count of Nevers. The third line was under the Counts of Dammartin and Fauconberg

English longbowmen preparing to shoot at French, artist unknown (Note the stakes designed to disrupt cavalry charge); Image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk
English longbowmen preparing to shoot at French, artist unknown
(Note the stakes designed to disrupt cavalry charge)
Image courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk

The English army began deploying for battle in a formation that had proved successful over the past century in warfare against the French and the Scots. They formed three battles, or divisions, posting two large contingents of longbowmen on the army's flanks in the thick woods, with smaller groups of bowmen in between each division. Each division consisted of infantrymen and dismounted men-at-arms. The right division was commanded by the Duke of York, the center was under the direct command of King Henry, and the left wing was under Lord Thomas de Camoys. In addition, Sir Thomas Erpingham, one of Henry's most experienced knights, helped deploy the archers in the most advantageous position. As they assumed their assigned positions, the English and Welsh bowmen began pounding sharpened stakes into the ground in front of them. These were designed to disrupt the charge of cavalry, possibly even impaling the horses.

One chronicle states that the English men-at-arms lined up shoulder-to-shoulder four men deep, yielding a tight line of 250-300 men long, with the large groups of archers on each flank and in the center of the line. Most of the English men-at-arms were wearing steel plate and mail armor, wielding two-handed swords, shortened lances, and axes, while the infantrymen mainly used spears and English bills. The archers were probably wearing little to no armor, perhaps nothing more than a steel cap. [Some historians even speculated that many of the English and Welsh bowmen were largely naked, as the constant "calls of nature" due to dysentery necessitated simply squatting and…well, you get the picture. This fact would prove pivotal to the final outcome of the battle.]

The exact size of each army is still the realm of historical speculation. The French army may have been as small as 20,000 and as large as 36,000 to 50,000. The English army is even more questionable. When Henry's army left Harfleur, it likely totaled about 9000. On the day of battle, the English may have been as small as 6000, with only about 900-1000 infantry, knights, and men-at-arms and the balance being longbowmen. [Recent scholarship continues to examine this question; it may never be definitively settled.]

"We Band of Brothers"

William Shakespeare wrote his historical play Henry V in the late 1590's; its first definitely recorded performance was in 1605. The battle of Agincourt was the climax of the play. French chroniclers record that Henry spoke to his men before the battle, urging them to fight hard. Shakespeare, never one to let a good opportunity for a bombastic speech pass, wrote this soliloquy for the king. It is one of the most stirring speeches given to men facing their inevitable deaths, but it also sought to unite the commoner and the noble in pursuit of a single purpose. [Personally, I get a lump in my throat every time I read it, so here goes…]

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispian's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford, and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
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.

 

Prelude to the Battle

Both the English and French armies were deployed and ready to fight by 7:00 am, but neither side wanted to make the first move. The two armies spent three to four hours observing their opponent, hurling challenges and insults at each other. [It was at this point before the battle proper that the English and Welsh longbowmen supposedly extended their index and middle fingers of their right hands to taunt the French, who it was rumored would cut off the two fingers the bowmen used to draw their bowstrings. This urban legend on the origin of the English version of the "digitus impudicus," i.e., "The Finger," is unsubstantiated and does not jibe with known historical facts.]

As lunchtime approached (11:00 am or so), many French nobles sent their servants back to camp to fetch a meal. Charles d'Albret, the nominal commander of the French army, was also waiting for several more contingents of troops to arrive, hoping to completely overrun the English forces. Realizing that the enemy was willing to wait him out, King Henry made a bold, some would say insane, decision. He gave the order, "Banners forward!" and the entire English line marched forward about 400 yards, to extreme longbow range. The archers were compelled to remove their protective stakes, carry them forward, and plant them once more in the ooey-gooey muck of the French fields.

Caught off-guard by the English movement, the French divisions began to sort themselves out, preparing to attack. Many nobles were still arguing and jostling for position, hoping to be the first to strike a blow. Many French also wanted to mark the banners of important English nobles, hoping to overcome them in battle and capture a high-ranking foe to obtain a good ransom. [The medieval chivalric ideal allowed equals to fight one another, but a nobleman would not deign to recognize the existence of an armed commoner. The English and Welsh longbowmen fell into this latter category, and explains much of the French attitude towards the English army generally.]

English army in prayer before the battle, artist unknown; Image courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/agincourt.htm
English army in prayer before the battle, artist unknown
Image courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/agincourt.htm

At this point, the entire English army knelt in prayer, then every man kissed the ground and took a piece of dirt in his mouth and chewed it. This act was probably an impromptu take-off on the rite of communion, combined with the burial liturgy "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." When the English rose from the ground, they were ready to sell their lives as dearly as possibly, to triumph or die…

Battle of Agincourt; Friday, October 25, 1415

It was close to noon when the English and Welsh archers let loose their first volley, their arrows arcing from a high angle at extreme range (about 300-350 yards). This opening volley goaded the French in the first division to make their first impetuous charge. Although the French battle plan assigned the mounted men-at-arms the task of attacking the archers, the horsemen could not penetrated the thick woods on either flank of the English army. Instead, the cavalry charged forward towards the thin line of enemy footmen.

The longbows being used by the English archers were not the same longbows used by their grandfathers at Crecy in 1346 or Poitiers in 1356. They were more powerful, and the English bowmen were better trained than their forebears. In addition, the English had developed a new arrowhead, the bodkin, which was designed to penetrate the newer steel plate armor being worn in the early fifteenth century. [Modern historians and forensic anthropologists are divided on the effectiveness of the bodkin against the newer armor, but…]

Battle of Agincourt
Battle of Agincourt

The French charged into a virtual arrow-storm, with English shafts coming fast and furious (an English archer was expected to average between 6 and 10 shots in a minute's time, but that would have wasted ammunition very quickly). Even if the arrows did not penetrate the French knights' armor, most of their horses were not well armored, and therefore suffered the consequences. Many of the nobles' mounts, wounded or frightened by the arrows, threw their riders and then began trying to find an exit from the field. Most of them galloped back into their own lines, riding down the infantry and disrupting their formation.

Many nobles were trapped in the thick mud of the field, exerting much energy trying to make their way towards the enemy. [Some historians claim that many French riders literally drowned in the mud of Agincourt.] Few of the cavalry reached the English line. The first division of the French army came forward, slogging their way through the mud. However, the English line was situated at a narrow area between the two forests, which forced the French soldiers to cluster closer and closer together, making a compact target for the English bowmen. The French suffered the devastating shower of arrows from the English archers, falling into the muck and many a man would never rise from that trap. Several chronicles describe rising mounds of dead and wounded Frenchmen before the English front line; French soldiers trying to climb over those mounds presented excellent targets for the archers.

King Henry V (right of center) in hand-to-hand melee at Agincourt; Painting by Harry Payne (1915); Image from http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/agincourt.htm
King Henry V (right of center) in hand-to-hand melee at Agincourt
Painting by Harry Payne (1915)
Image from http://www.britishbattles.com/100-years-war/agincourt.htm

Despite the obvious numbers of the enemy, the English line held firm. The second line of the French army, straggled into the fight, but by joining the melee only made matters worse. Pushing the first division from behind, the second line only succeeded in causing more confusion than adding to the fighting punch of the flower of French chivalry. Soon, the English archers abandoned their stake barriers, dropped their bows and joined the huge melee. The bowmen used swords, axes, hammers, and daggers to add their power to the defense of the English line. With no armor – and little clothing – to impede them, the bowmen could maneuver in the mud better than most of the French. King Henry himself fought on foot during the battle, even defending his badly wounded brother, the Duke of Gloucester.

Within two hours, the battle was decided. Those French who had survived the bloody, muddy scrum of battle either surrendered or straggled back toward the uncommitted third line, which wavered on the razor's edge of either fight or flight. This portion of the French army was probably twice the size of the entire English force, but most of the major French nobility – including Constable d'Albret – had perished in the first two hours of the battle. Henry was aware that his hungry, sick, and tired army might not be able to withstand an assault by this final portion of the enemy.

It was at this point that the biggest controversy of the battle took place. The local French lord, Isambart d'Agincourt, led three of his knights and a mob of peasants through the woods and attacked the English camp near the village of Maisoncelles. Henry could not spare any soldiers to guard the baggage, so the French marauders captured much booty, including one of Henry's spare crowns. In addition, some French peasants began looting the bodies on the field.

When Henry saw this, he thought that his force was about to be overwhelmed. Therefore, he gave the order to kill the prisoners. Many of his soldiers refused, imagining the only way they could obtain huge ransoms drowning in pools of cold blood. After threatening his followers, Henry ordered the bowmen to do the dirty deed. As a result, 200 English and Welsh archers began the bloody task, killing many of the prisoners. They did not, however, kill all of the French prisoners, as records show that between 1000 and 2000 captives did survive. [Apparently a number of high-ranking captives were spared, hoping for huge ransoms.]

Finally, about mid-afternoon, King Henry sent a herald to the unmoving French third line, threatening them with annihilation if they did not leave the battlefield. That was the last straw, and the third line – which had not fought at all that day – took to its heels and left. The battle of Agincourt had ended.

Aftermath

As with most medieval battles, casualty figures are so much guesswork. French casualties have been estimated at between 8000 and 11,000 killed and wounded with up to 2200 taken prisoner. This would account for between 33 and 50 percent of the total French army. Furthermore, a large number of French nobles and major officeholders died in the mud of Agincourt. They included three dukes, at least eight counts, a viscount and an archbishop, along with numerous other nobles. Of the great royal office holders, France lost her Constable, Admiral, Master of the Crossbowmen and prévôt of the marshals. The baillis of nine major northern towns were killed, often along with their sons, relatives and supporters.

English casualties have been estimated as low as 100-200 dead and wounded, with an upper figure of 500-1000.

After the battle, burial details took care of the dead, the wounded were tended to, and King Henry made several "battlefield promotions," giving knighthoods to several men. One such man was David Gambe, a Welsh man-at-arms who served as a scout prior to the battle. When asked about the size of the French army, he told the king, "There are enough to kill, enough to capture and enough to run away." Gambe fought bravely in the battle, and was discovered after the fight, lying in the mud dying of his wounds. Henry knighted him for his service.

The victorious English returned to their camp at Maisoncelles, where they slept and dressed their wounds. The next morning, they returned to the battlefield, looted the dead and dispatched any French found to still be alive. King Henry and his army then continued their march to Calais; with no major French force to delay them, the English army arrived at their destination three days later.

Footnote #1: Henry married the daughter of the French king, solidifying his claim to the French throne. Unfortunately, he never managed to press his claim, dying of dysentery seven years later.

Footnote #2: This was the last major English victory of the war. Shortly after King Henry's death, a French peasant maid came to prominence and gave the French nation some needed backbone to continue the war. Her name was Joan of Arc.

Modern-day view of the battlefield of Agincourt; Image courtesy of https://apetcher.wordpress.com/tag/battle-of-agincourt-museum/
Modern-day view of the battlefield of Agincourt
Image courtesy of https://apetcher.wordpress.com/tag/battle-of-agincourt-museum/

Footnote #3: The battlefield is still mostly intact, near the modern-day town of Azincourt. The tree line, however, has been pushed back a bit, making the battlefield look wider today than in 1415.

Footnote #4: During the Second World War, British actor Sir Laurence Olivier read King Henry's "St. Crispin's Day Speech" on BBC Radio to raise the morale of the British nation. As a result, Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Olivier to film Henry V for the war effort. Partially funded by the British government, the movie was released in 1944. It received four Academy Award nominations; Olivier – who also produced, directed, and co-wrote the script – received a special award "for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen." [Olivier was not impressed by the honorary award…]

Footnote #5: Henry V was remade in 1989, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role. It received three Oscar nominations (Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Costume Design), winning the latter category.

Theatrical release poster for Henry V (1989)
Theatrical release poster for Henry V (1989)

Footnote #6: If the readers would like a well-written modern novel dealing with this battle, I would enthusiastically recommend Azincourt, by Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe Napoleonic Wars series.

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