hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Lessons of Agincourt


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.
Henry V, William Shakespeare

Alphen, Netherlands. 25 October. What are the lessons of Agincourt? Six hundred years ago today King Henry V of England won the most famous English victory over the French. Even if one peers through the many layers of propaganda that have been laid over the battle, most famously by William Shakespeare, Agincourt remains a stunning victory for English arms. The English wracked by hunger and disease were out-numbered by at least four-to-one, and probably more by the French.  Critically, the French possessed the heavy armour of their day, the mounted knights on heavy horse. And yet some four hours after the battle commenced the flower of the French nobility lay shattered on the field of Agincourt, with between 7-10,000 French dead of a force that probably numbered between 25-35,000 men.  The English suffered at worst 200 killed, and by some estimates as few as 112, although amongst them lay the king’s brother Edward, Duke of York.  Leadership, tactics, technology and timing won the day for ‘Harry’ and England.

Leadership & Command: “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility, but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the actions of the tiger…” Henry V (1413-1422) had a dubious claim to the English throne. Indeed, his father Henry Bolingbroke had usurped it from Richard II in 1399. And was complicit in Richard’s murder in 1400. However, the younger Henry was an inspirational war leader.  Henry thus offered the English force a clear purpose and ensured unity of effort through his leadership, unlike the French who were riven with jealousies and petty rivalries at the highest levels of command. 

Tactics: “A very little, little let us do. And all is done”.  The French rode and marched without due regard for the carefully laid trap that had been laid before them, so dismissive of the tiny force before them were the French Constable, the Dauphin and the rest of the French command. Some years ago I walked the battlefield next to ‘Azincourt’ and was surprised by how little has apparently changed. Indeed, it is still relatively easy to imagine the French heavy horse and their men-at-arms advancing downhill into the v-shaped trap where up to 8,000 English archers lay in wait.

Technology: "For many of our princes - woe awhile - lie drown'd and soak'd in mercenary blood; So do our vulgar drench their peasant limbs in blood of princes; and their wounded steeds fret fetlock deep in gore and with wild rage yerk out their armed heels at their dead masters" Prior to the invention and proper military application of cannon and musket the English longbow was the decisive military technology of its European age. Whilst the French crossbow was more sophisticated it took far longer to load and could not carry a similar weight of weapon to the longbow. Thus, the English had the advantage in rate, weight, and indeed range of firepower and were this able to stand off and mercilessly tear French ranks to pieces.  Some years ago I stood next to a longbow. Made of English yew it was some five feet (1.5m) long with arrows of a similar length, some of which mounted armour piercing warheads (bodkins) and some flesh-tearing warheads. It was a truly awesome weapon and it is not surprising that the exhumed skeletons of English archers all share a deformation caused by the strength required to launch arrows from the longbow.

Timing: “This day is call’d the feast of Crispian”. The day itself played a vital role in England’s victory. 25 October was deep into a French autumn and the field of Agincourt was wet.  As the French man-at-arms advanced downhill towards the English lines they did so over a field deep in the mud ploughed up by the French heavy horse. In other words the French became quite simply stuck and it was this mud that not only destroyed French order but enabled the English longbowmen to pour volley after volley into the French. Thereafter, English men-at-arms moved onto the field alongside archers transformed into infantry to finish off the French and claim French nobles for ransom.

There is another lesson of Agincourt and it comes in the form of a big ‘but’. If the strategy of a campaign is essentially misguided however stunning a military victory gained it can never compensate for misplaced and ill-executed ambition.  Indeed, whilst much is made of Henry’s stunning victory the fact he had to fight the battle at all reflected his strategic failure.  Worse, whilst Agincourt damaged the French monarchy, the blow was not fatal.

Henry had landed in France on 13 August, 1415 to stake a claim to the French throne to reinforce his own. By October 1415 he was desperately seeking the sanctuary of then English-controlled Calais. Moreover, within seven years of Agincourt Henry was dead. With the victory of Jean d’Arc at Orleans in 1429 the French effectively won the Hundred Years War and ended English (or to be more precisely Anglo-Norman) claims to the French throne once and for all. Thereafter, and in spite of a brief respite England descended into the Wars of the Roses with the authority of the monarchy only established by the victory of the Lancastrians/Tudors at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

The lesson of Agincourt for today? This past week I attended a meeting that was meant to be about NATO and Russia, but was really about the agenda for the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit. At one point I lobbed in a verbal grenade; why are there so many NATO summits? My point was that too many NATO nations seem to place more importance on preparing summits and writing the declarations thereof, than actually preparing the military force vital to deterrence of threats. It is summitry before strategy, form before substance, eloquence before efficiency and effectiveness.

Henry V demonstrated on that fateful day in 1415 just what a small force, brilliantly-led, properly-deployed, and armed with decisive technology could achieve against a much larger force, divided at the top of command, badly-organised, and poorly-led in the field.  As NATO commanders consider the role of Allied forces both on its eastern and southern flanks they may wish to re-consider the Battle of Agincourt. Indeed, with cyber and disinformation possibly the new longbows unless NATO re-establishes credible unity of effort and purpose at both the political and military levels it could be the Alliance that one day finds itself cast in the role of the French Constable at Agincourt, and President Putin an unlikely Henry V.

Julian Lindley-French   

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