Friday 25th October 1415 - "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” So said Churchill about the pilots and ground crew who won the Battle of Britain in 1940 against the might of the German Luftwaffe.
In 1599 Shakespeare wrote the famous speech of Henry V on St Crispin’s day for his new play. “The fewer men, the greater the share of honour. God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more…We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother…And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d that they were not here.” Once again, heavily outnumbered, the odds heavily stacked against them, weak, hungry, diseased, tired and some of them barely clothed due to illness; the English overcame the might of the French Army in a pivotal battle.
The traditional view of numbers in the battle suggests that the English army was heavily outnumbered. Shakespeare’s version has the odds at “(Earl of Westmorland) Of fighting men they have full three score thousand… (Duke of Exeter) five to one; and besides they are all fresh. (Earl of Salisbury) … ‘tis fearful odds.” Thus the French have 60,000 to the English 12,000. 30,000 to 7500 is more usual. Juliet Barker in her book on the subject in 2005 suggests 36,000 to 6,000 but Anne Curry, Professor at the University of Southampton, on the other hand, estimates it recently as 12,000 to 9,000 in favour of the French.
Henry had re-entered France, after negotiations with the French had failed, to continue the war that Edward III had started back in 1337, in what has become known as the Hundred Years’ War. Like his predecessor he wished to claim the throne of France as well as protect his English assets already established.
Whatever the numbers the build up to the fight was far from ideal for the English soldiers. Having landed in Normandy with 1500 ships and 12,000 soldiers as well as support staff Henry attacked the port at Harfleur on August 18th. He assumed he would capture it quickly. It did not yield until September 22nd however and by then dysentery had swept though the English army. This reduced numbers in the by at least a quarter and meant that they had to head for Calais and a return home rather than push on into the rest of France.
After leaving a small garrison to defend Harfleur the army set off and followed the course of the River Somme in search of an undefended bridge to cross, or one that had not been destroyed. The French army were waiting on the other side of the river. The Somme was eventually traversed at Béthancourt and the two armies faced each other on 24th October with the French prepared to wait till the next day to fight, probably hoping for even more troops. The English had been marching through mud and rain for two weeks and were exhausted.
The French enquired whether the English wanted to surrender but this was not going to happen – despite Henry’s own doubts overnight. Henry said he would rather die in battle than pay a ransom or be caught. Thus both armies lined up on a narrow strip of land between Agincourt and Tramcourt. There were woods on both sides. The English deployed in the usual way with longbow men (many of whom were Welsh) on the flanks and the men-at-arms and knights in the centre along with another detachment of longbow men. The Duke of York led the vanguard, front detachment, and Sir Thomas Erpingham was entrusted to control the archers.
The French were deployed with men-at-arms in two rows at the front with cavalry at the back and at the sides. Charles D’Albret, the constable of France, led the army. The King, Charles VI, was incapacitated with illness – both physical and mental. It was reported that he thought he was made of glass.
The field had recently been ploughed and there had been heavy rain in the days leading up to the battle. It was difficult for some of the heavily armoured French to stand up and once on the ground almost impossible for them to get up. Their armour weighed up to 60 pounds. Due to the narrowness of the field they were packed in tight with little room to move. Both armies stared at each other for nearly three hours. Henry then made the first move and ordered his archers and men to pick up the stakes they had put into the ground to protect themselves and advance over the field to within about 250metres of the French forces and re-plant their stakes. He then gave the instruction for them to shoot their first arrows and the carnage began. Approximately 7,000 archers let loose their arrows on the French. The archers were able to shoot at least 12 arrows a minute and they rained down on the French like hail causing mayhem in the opposition’s ranks.
The French cavalry at the sides of the army were goaded into attacking first and swept forward in front of the infantry. This further churned up the ground. The horses were struck by the many arrows that came into them – especially those from the longbow men in the woods at the side of the field. Many knights were thrown from their mounts and were finished off by the English with a dagger through the eye slits of the helmet. They could not break through the massed ranks of English soldiers with the stakes providing good protection.
At this stage the first line of infantry pushed forward but got squeezed more tightly by the cavalry that had pushed in from the flanks. The effect of this was that they could not use their weapons. They also started to fall over each other and slip in the mud. Many French were either trampled to death or drowned as their helmets filled with water. Many of the archers now threw away their bows and started attacking the French with daggers and axes. The dead and wounded started building up in front of the English line and causing another obstacle for the French to get over. It is reported that this pile reached nearly head height. As they were so lightly armed the archers were able to scramble up on this heap of bodies and walk along the top of the French who were unable to raise their weapons either to defend themselves or strike a blow back. They hammered their knives through the helmets of the enemy using hammers.
There was mayhem and panic in the French ranks as the other lines started to push forward too causing a “Heysel stadium-like” disaster with soldiers being crushed in the press. The English started pulling the injured from the pile to hold for ransom later and quite a number of French were now held in a pen behind enemy lines.
The French pulled back but still had enough men that could return and win if they could reorganise themselves. Henry became alarmed that the French were regrouping and ordered the slaughter of the captured sparing only the highest ranking men in case the men guarding them were needed to repulse the next attack. Over 200 were thus killed and many English soldiers saw their chance of riches go with them. The legitimacy of Henry’s tactics has long been argued. French chroniclers have not criticised this decision and it has been argued that the main reason was to terrorise the French into submission. Whatever the rights and wrongs it had the desired effect and the remaining French withdrew.
The casualties are hard to assess. The French number is anything between 4,000 to 11,000 and the English around 500. The French lost their Constable as well as three Dukes and eight Counts. The English lost, among others, the Duke of York.
Henry returned to England on November 16th and marched in triumph to London. His victory, he claimed, had been down to God’s blessing. Henry went back to France to continue the fight in 1417, capturing Normandy. In 1420 he signed the Treaty of Troyes with Charles VI where he was made heir to the French throne and married the French Princess, Catherine of Valois. The Dauphin, Charles VII was declared illegitimate.
Henry returned again in 1421 and captured the town of Meaux, which was controlled by the Dauphin. He was joined by his Queen in May 1422 but soon became ill, possibly with dysentery. He died at the royal castle at Vincennes on 31st August aged just 35 before he could claim his throne in France. Ironically Charles VI was to die just two months later on 21st October. Henry left behind a nine-month old son, Henry, who was never really able to claim the throne his father had worked so hard to get and by the end of the 100 Years’ War in 1453 England was left only with the town of Calais.
The Battle of Britain was to have a profound effect on World War Two and consequent post-war events. In the short term Agincourt also turned the tide of the war. But for the demise of Henry V it could also have had a similarly long-term effect on European organisation and nation building.