Historians Reassess Battle of Agincourt
Historians Reassess Battle of Agincourt
By JAMES GLANZ - New York Times, 10/25/2009
MAISONCELLE, France — The heavy clay-laced mud behind the cattle pen on Antoine Renault’s farm looks as treacherous as it must have been nearly 600 years ago, when King Henry V rode from a spot near here to lead a sodden and exhausted English Army against a French force that was said to outnumber his by as much as five to one.
No one can ever take away the shocking victory by Henry and his “band of brothers,” as Shakespeare would famously call them, on St. Crispin’s Day, Oct. 25, 1415. They devastated a force of heavily armored French nobles who had gotten bogged down in the region’s sucking mud, riddled by thousands of arrows from English longbowmen and outmaneuvered by common soldiers with much lighter gear. It would become known as the Battle of Agincourt.
But Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.
The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study.
Those cold figures threaten an image of the battle that even professional researchers and academics have been reluctant to challenge in the face of Shakespearean verse and centuries of English pride, Ms. Curry said.
“It’s just a myth, but it’s a myth that’s part of the British psyche,” Ms. Curry said.
The work, which has received both glowing praise and sharp criticism from other historians in the United States and Europe, is the most striking of the revisionist accounts to emerge from a new science of military history. The new accounts tend to be not only more quantitative but also more attuned to political, cultural and technological factors, and focus more on the experience of the common soldier than on grand strategies and heroic deeds.
The approach has drastically changed views on everything from Roman battles with Germanic tribes, to Napoleon’s disastrous occupation of Spain, to the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War. But the most telling gauge of the respect being given to the new historians and their penchant for tearing down established wisdom is that it has now become almost routine for American commanders to call on them for advice on strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, Iraq and other present-day conflicts.
The most influential example is the Counterinsurgency Field Manual adopted in 2006 by the United States Army and Marines and smack in the middle of the debate over whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the head of the United States Central Command, drew on dozens of academic historians and other experts to create the manual. And he named Conrad Crane, director of the United States Army Military History Institute at the Army War College, as the lead writer.
Drawing on dozens of historical conflicts, the manual’s prime conclusion is the assertion that insurgencies cannot be defeated without protecting and winning over the general population, regardless of how effective direct strikes on enemy fighters may be.
Mr. Crane said that some of his own early historical research involved a comparison of strategic bombing campaigns with attacks on civilians by rampaging armies during the Hundred Years’ War, when England tried and ultimately failed to assert control over continental France. Agincourt was perhaps the most stirring victory the English would ever achieve on French soil during the conflict.
The Hundred Years’ War never made it into the field manual — the name itself may have served as a deterrent — but after sounding numerous cautions on the vast differences in time, technology and political aims, historians working in the area say that there are some uncanny parallels with contemporary foreign conflicts.
For one thing, by the time Henry landed near the mouth of the Seine on Aug. 14, 1415, and began a rather uninspiring siege of a town called Harfleur, France was on the verge of a civil war, with factions called the Burgundians and the Armagnacs at loggerheads. Henry would eventually forge an alliance with the Burgundians, who in today’s terms would become his “local security forces” in Normandy, and he cultivated the support of local merchants and clerics, all practices that would have been heartily endorsed by the counterinsurgency manual.
“I’m not one who sees history repeating itself, but I think a lot of attitudes do,” said Kelly DeVries, a professor of history at Loyola University Maryland who has written extensively on medieval warfare. Mr. DeVries said that fighters from across the region began filtering toward the Armagnac camp as soon as Henry became allied with their enemies. “Very much like Al Qaeda in Iraq, there were very diverse forces coming from very, very different places to fight,” Mr. DeVries said.
But first Henry would have his chance at Agincourt. After taking Harfleur, he marched rapidly north and crossed the Somme River, his army depleted by dysentery and battle losses and growing hungry and fatigued.
At the same time, the fractious French forces hastily gathered to meet him.
It is here that historians themselves begin fighting, and several take exception to the new scholarship by Ms. Curry’s team.
Based on chronicles that he considers to be broadly accurate, Clifford J. Rogers, a professor of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, argues that Henry was in fact vastly outnumbered. For the English, there were about 1,000 so-called men-at-arms in heavy steel armor from head to toe and 5,000 lightly armored men with longbows. The French assembled roughly 10,000 men-at-arms, each with an attendant called a gros valet who could also fight, and around 4,000 men with crossbows and other fighters.
Although Mr. Rogers writes in a recent paper that the French crossbowmen were “completely outclassed” by the English archers, who could send deadly volleys farther and more frequently, the grand totals would result in a ratio of four to one, close to the traditional figures. Mr. Rogers said in an interview that he regarded the archival records as too incomplete to substantially change those estimates.
Still, several French historians said in interviews this month that they seriously doubted that France, riven by factional strife and drawing from a populace severely depleted by the plague, could have raised an army that large in so short a time. The French king, Charles VI, was also suffering from bouts of insanity.
“It was not the complete French power at Agincourt,” said Bertrand Schnerb, a professor of medieval history at the University of Lille, who estimated that there were 12,000 to 15,000 French soldiers.
Ms. Curry, the Southampton historian, said she was comfortable with something close to that lower figure, based on her reading of historical archives, including military pay records, muster rolls, ships’ logs, published rosters of the wounded and dead, wartime tax levies and other surviving documents.
On the English side, Ms. Curry calculates that Henry probably had at least 8,680 soldiers with him on his march to Agincourt. She names thousands of the likely troopers, from Adam Adrya, a man-at-arms, to Philip Zevan, an archer.
And an extraordinary online database listing around a quarter-million names of men who served in the Hundred Years’ War, compiled by Ms. Curry and her collaborators at the universities in Southampton and Reading, shows that whatever the numbers, Henry’s army really was a band of brothers: many of the soldiers were veterans who had served on multiple campaigns together.
“You see tremendous continuity with people who knew and trusted each other,” Ms. Curry said.
That trust must have come in handy after Henry, through a series of brilliant tactical moves, provoked the French cavalry — mounted men-at-arms — into charging the masses of longbowmen positioned on the English flanks in a relatively narrow field between two sets of woods that still exist not far from Mr. Renault’s farm in Maisoncelle.
The series of events that followed as the French men-at-arms slogged through the muddy, tilled fields behind the cavalry were quick and murderous.
Volley after volley of English arrow fire maddened the horses, killed many of the riders and forced the advancing men-at-arms into a mass so dense that many of them could not even lift their arms.
When the heavily armored French men-at-arms fell wounded, many could not get up and simply drowned in the mud as other men stumbled over them. And as order on the French lines broke down completely and panic set in, the much nimbler archers ran forward, killing thousands by stabbing them in the neck, eyes, armpits and groin through gaps in the armor, or simply ganged up and bludgeoned the Frenchmen to death.
“The situation was beyond grisly; it was horrific in the extreme,” Mr. Rogers wrote in his paper.
King Henry V had emerged victorious, and as some historians see it, the English crown then mounted a public relations effort to magnify the victory by exaggerating the disparity in numbers.
Whatever the magnitude of the victory, it would not last. The French populace gradually soured on the English occupation as the fighting continued and the civil war remained unresolved in the decades after Henry’s death in 1422, Mr. Schnerb said.
“They came into France saying, ‘You Frenchmen have civil war, and now our king is coming to give you peace,’ ” Mr. Schnerb said. “It was a failure.”
Unwilling to blame a failed counterinsurgency strategy, Shakespeare pinned the loss on poor Henry VI:
“Whose state so many had the managing, That they lost France and made his England bleed.”