The March to and Along the Somme River
As Henry V’s army wearily trekked northeast from Harfleur heading for Calais, the English king must have speculated about the whereabouts of the French Army. The French made little attempt to interfere during the siege of Harfleur and their intervention could have caused Henry serious problems and prolonged the siege into the winter.
The French King, Charles VI had been keen to fight the English, but his mental state has been described as “delicate.” The French court was riven by infighting between the Armagnac and Burgundian factions and the man most likely to lead the French, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy had been excluded from the court, Paris and the army. French historians have blamed John the Fearless for their defeat at Agincourt by his absence, but his vassals did join up with the French king’s call to arms. He did however, prevent his son Philip from joining the French host. He had two very good reasons for this: He didn’t trust the Armagnac faction to protect his son and medieval warfare was not to be taken lightly, particularly against the English.
The elderly commander of the Armagnac faction also urged caution and prevented the French king from being present at any future battle. Sixty years earlier he had fought the English at Poitiers where his father, King John had been taken prisoner. He said: “it’s better to lose a battle than a king and a battle. None of the French commanders were keen to engage the English in open battle, preferring to contain them.
Stretching across Henry’s path to Calais was the Somme River with the Major French towns of Abbeville and Amiens. The English had been shadowed by Boucicault as soon as they left Harfleur and headed for the Somme crossing at Blanchetacque. While the English took the coastal route, d’Albret force marched northeast from Rouen with the French advanced guard, to block all the crossings across the Somme.
Henry V’s route from Harfleur to Calais
In the English army Sir Gilbert Umfraville and Sir John Cornwall led the van, the King, the Duke of Gloucester and John Holland led the main body, while the vital rearguard was led by the Duke of York and the Earl of Oxford. During the march, French historians have accused the English of sacking Fecamp, but there is no evidence to support this. And it is rather rich given the French Penchant for raiding and plundering English coastal towns. The first real French resistance was encountered at Arques, when the English were refused provisions. Henry was acutely aware of supply and logistical problems and the town elders had a change of heart when Henry threatened to burn it to the ground. There was another skirmish at Eu the following day and once again the English took what they wanted.
As the English approached the ford at Blanchetacque, the vanguard took a Gascon prisoner who told them that Constable d’ Albret was at Abbeville with 600 men. Furthermore the ford was blocked and staked by the troops of Guichard Dauphin Lord of Jalingy. The English had already used half of their supplies and there was no obvious route across the Somme. At the small town of Boves Henry’s advisors felt that their worst predictions for this foolhardy march through France had come true. The English were trapped and short of provisions, “like sheep in a fold.”
The French forces moved upriver destroying bridges and interdicting crossing points and they laid waste to any provisions that could have been used by the English army. Henry was unable to seize the city of Amiens because his forces were too small and he lacked siege weapons. The main body of the French army moved out of Rouen towards Abbeville around the 14th October and by now the English were running critically short of provisions. At this point the French tactics were extremely sound. By operating a scorched earth policy and withholding from combat, it was only a matter of time before Henry’s exhausted and starving army would be forced to surrender.
At the small town of Boves two miles southwest of Amiens, Henry parleyed with the castle garrison and in return for not burning the town and its vineyards, the town would supply bread and wine. Giving the English wine to consume on empty bellies was probably a French ruse to break the English army’s already fragile discipline. Henry forbade the common soldiers a second fill of their water bottles and maintained an iron grip on discipline. One can only imagine the English disenchantment at having to follow the river away from safety in Calais and deeper into hostile France.
The English turned northwest still following the river, to Corbie where they received a morale booster. The French garrison unwisely chose to sally out and in the skirmish, the French seized the standard of Guienne. John Bromley of Staffordshire hurled himself at the enemy, struck down the knight who had captured it and recovered the banner. This raised English morale and was seen as a sign of moral superiority over the French. But Henry had other reasons for the skirmish at Corbie. He wanted the French to think he was going to force a crossing, but instead, cut across a loop in the river. He knew the French advanced guard was at Peronne and wanted to outpace them. He also ordered that each archer should cut and carry a six-foot stave of wood, sharpened at each end in case of cavalry attack.
Across the Somme into Artois
Henry’s army crossed the Somme on the 19th October at the fords of Voyennes and Bethencourt. Part of the advance guard of horsemen, spears and bowmen splashed across the wide but shallow river and set up a bridgehead. Materials were torn from nearby buildings to construct a single causeway and for the rest of the day, the English slowly forded the river. Any French intervention at this point could have turned the crossing into chaos. The English pressed on without resting into the darkness to Athiens where they made camp.
Again the French army refused battle and marched northwards to Bapaume, some forty miles south of St Omer and away from the crossing point. Had they chose to engage, the advance guard could have defeated the English, who were still trapped with their backs to the river. It seems likely that command confusion had gripped the French army and the main body of around 5,000 hadn’t reached Amiens until the 17th. It was a slow and unwieldy formation and included camp followers and a vast baggage train. The English were relatively unencumbered and could cover the ground more quickly. The probable reasons the French decided to move north to Bapaume was that the land around the Somme was marshy with winding tracks, and there was insufficient quartering for an army the size of the French. At Bapaume the French could join with the main body and regroup as a complete fighting force that blocked the road to Calais. It was arguably a sound decision, but one that let the English off the hook.
Advance to Agincourt
The English army resumed their march on 21st, passing Peronne. They crossed the tracks of “a huge host” and spent the night in the area of Mametz-Fricourt, while the French were following a parallel course some ten miles to their northeast. The river Turnoise lay ahead and Henry intended to cross it at Blangy. While his army was crossing the river, Henry’s scouts told him the French were close to his right and then they drew up within half a mile in battle order. The English also drew up, prepared to give battle, but the following day, the French moved away to the north and encamped at Agincourt for the night. Henry followed up cautiously, fearing the French would slip round the woods and attack his flanks. But the French were drawn up, spanning the route to Calais.
That night Henry took quarters in the village of Maisoncelles, while his army took what shelter they could from the driving rain. The English could see the fires and hear the thousands of horses of the French army, which had thrown out lookouts to prevent the English from slipping away into the night. Many knew that they would die the next day, so they received the sacraments and made their peace with God.
The Battle of Agincourt
While this is and excellent map of the battlefield and troop positions, it underestimates the French host by around 9,000. There are four eyewitness accounts of the battle, two from each side. The Duke of Wellington was rather scornful of trying to deconstruct battles as he regarded it as futile as watching the antics at a ball, but these accounts from both sides give a balanced picture of the most significant events of the battle.
There were negotiations prior to the combat, the French demanding that Henry give up any claims to the throne and release the captured Harfleur. Many in the French camp thought the battle unnecessary and were convinced that Henry would back down if he and his army were given free passage to Calais. They were mistaken.
The French battle plan was drawn up by Marshal Baucicault and Constable d’Albret, with David Rambures, the Master of the Crossbows. It had been drawn up to support an engagement at any time after the English had crossed the Somme, but the French had by now such a large army that it was unworkable. Nonetheless, it was a shrewd plan that attempted to neutralise the main English advantage of their archers. The Master of the Crossbow’s forces were to engage the English archers and break their formations, while the French Men-at-arms, centrally on foot with horse-mounted wings, would strike the English centre. At the same time, French mounted Men-at-arms would right-flank the English and attach their baggage train and support troops (varlets) from the rear. So briefly, the French plan was to:
• Disrupt the English archers by appearing from behind the French lines and engaging the English right.
• Disrupt the English rear with a mounted flank attack around the English left.
• Attack the English centre with a coordinated mounted and foot attack, while the crossbowmen pinned the English archers on the flanks.
The English battle formation is open to some debate. It has been suggested that the English battle line was interspersed with “harrows” of archers, as it had been at Crecy, formed up in wedge formations. It is far more likely that the bulk of the archers were pushed forward on the flanks, in order to direct converging fire on the advancing French from the wings. The flanking woods seem to support this supposition, as they would have provided cover for the archers. Furthermore, if the English line advanced, which it did, the archers could still give plunging fire over the heads of their own troops. While the chaplain’s account says that the archers were formed up in “harrows,” he was 1,000 yards to the rear with the baggage train. French accounts are consistent in that the archers fired on the French from the cover of the flanking woods. And once the lines of Men-at-arms clashed, the archers would have been of limited value in the melee, with their bows. They in fact proved to be a battle winner, once they got in among the exhausted French Men-at-arms. However, while the bulk of the archers screened the flanks, it’s not unreasonable to expect to see the Men-at-arms interspersed with a few archers.
Both sides were formed up and ready for battle by 08:00 and while the English formed up and took whatever sustenance they could, the French breakfasted. This was a long-winded palaver, during which the French forgave rivals for old transgressions, honoured debts and argued about who were going to lead their formations. The English were weakened by hunger and disease. Some accounts of the battle indicate that Henry reminded his archers that the French had stated they would cut three fingers from each of their hands, so they could never draw a bow again. In reality, the loss of fingers would be the least of the archers’ worries, if they fell into French hands.
Henry had another concern, the ground. The woods on either flank drew inwards towards the English line and the ground was sodden due to the heavy rains of the previous night. Anybody who has tramped through the mud of Northern France would know just how pernicious French mud could be and how it slowed horses and heavily armoured men. He didn’t want to lose this advantage and at 11:00, Henry advanced his battle line, slowly to maintain formation, but to goad the French into action. By advancing, Henry had ensured that his flanks were protected by the woods on both sides and the archers pulled up the stakes and took them with the advance. During the advance, Henry called for pauses to regroup and allow the English Men-at-arms to avoid exhaustion.
Monstrelet who fought in and survived the battle, gives the following French numbers:
French Army Order of Battle
First Line: Mounted Men-at-arms 2,400 Dismounted Men-at-arms 8,000
Second Line: Dismounted Men-at-arms 6,000 Crossbowmen and Archers 2,000
Third line: Mounted Men-at-arms 6,000
The French were drawn up conventionally in three “battles,” van, centre and rear-guard. The van was commanded by the Constable who was accompanied by the Duke of Orleans and Bourbon, the Counts of Eu and Richemont. Marshal Boucicault and the Master of the Crossbows. The flanking force of cavalry was drawn up level with the van.
The centre was under the command of the Dukes of Bar and Alencon and some accounts say that the crossbowmen were bundled out of the ranks by their social superiors, the knights who smelled an easy victory. The French archers and crossbowmen who had a pivotal role to supress the English archers in the French battle plan, seemed to play an insignificant role in the battle. The rear-guard was comprised of many non-combatants and varlets who were eager for a piece of the action. What is unclear is given the vast numbers of noble and titled French aristocracy present in the van, is exactly who was in charge?
The English advanced slowly to maintain good order, the ground underfoot was sodden and slippery with newly-planted wheat. It was exhausting for the Men-at-arms in their armour and the English line moved to within approximately 250 yards of the French van, extreme arrow range. The English archers opened fire under command and the initial volleys galvanised the French into action. Their crossbowmen fired a hasty volley and then retreated out of arrow range.
Right from the beginning French leadership was lacking and the French initial repost was disjointed and disorganised. Then the French mounted Men-at-arms from the two wings charged. They were supposed to have had around 1,600 on the left and 800 on the right, but they had nowhere near that amount. A French eyewitness, (the Berry Herald) asserted that many of the French knights became bored during the protracted wait and wandered off. The right wing mustered around 150 lances and the left wing barely 160. And this was no flank charge as outlined in the battle plan. The initial French charge was to take the English from the side or the rear, but because the English flanks were protected by the woods, it was impossible.
The two initial French charges were half-hearted and the horses barely got into a trot across the muddy, cloying ground. The French lost very few Man-at-arms in the first attack and surviving knights, their duty done, made off. One French knight Willian de Saveuse, whose horse collided with a stake, was flung over the top of the palisade to lie helpless at the feet of the English archers. He was swiftly dispatched. The archers continued to fire at the retreating French, panicking and enraging their horses. On an open battlefield the French could have gone round their own troops and regrouped, but instead they were hurled into the woods or collided with the now advancing main force. This initial disastrous charge has been blamed by many French historians for the loss of the battle. This is a convenient fallacy, as the French still had more than enough to grind the English into the mud. What the French did lack was effective command and control and discipline. However, the retreating knights threw the French formations into total disarray.
The French pressed on despite their disorganisation. Honour demanded that they must cross swords with the English Men-at-arms. They moved in on foot with shortened lances or poleaxes, but by now they were exhausted. The ground was even more of a morass now that it had been churned up by the horses and the French had used the ground the previous night to exercise their mounts. Furthermore. The woods narrowed as they approached the English line and the French Man-at-arms were being funnelled and constrained so that they could barely swing a weapon. Those following behind ensured that the van was pressed forward and to fall would have meant certain death by crush asphyxiation. And all the time the English archers were raining down arrows on the slowly advancing French host. The French advanced with their heads down to protect themselves from the arrow storm falling on them. And the English were drawn up with the low, winter sun behind them, dazzling the advancing French.
When the two sides came into contact, the fighting was intense. The Duke of York’s helmet was so battered in that it crushed his skull. The same fate almost happened to King Henry, but he was wearing a great helm. The Duke of Alencon lopped off the king’s crown and battered his helmet, while Henry stood over the badly wounded Earl of Oxford to prevent him being killed by the French. This was no display of swordsmanship. It was close in, physically exhausting and brutal. The Men-at-arms heads would be ringing from blows to their helmets. Poleaxes would batter the shoulder joints of the armour, to prevent their opponents from using their sword arms. The screams of the seriously wounded and the dying would be deafening. They would be slipping in each other’s blood, smelling its coppery reek and if their footing was lost, the best they could expect was a swift death from a dagger through the eye socket into the brain. It was like going into an industrial chainsaw.
The archers had by now dispensed with their bows and they poured in from the flanks, nimbly ducking in and out of the exhausted French Men-at-arms, their daggers and short swords finding their way through visors and the joints of their armour. The English began to drive back the French, stepping over piles of bodies. The retreating van hit the French second line, exacerbating the confusion and disorder. Many of the French who tried to surrender by offering their gauntlet were hacked down in the English killing frenzy. The third line looked at the slaughter and held fast, making no effort to join the battle yet at this crucial point.
The actual melee phase of the battle may have lasted around half-an-hour, but probably around fifteen minutes. In the bleak, early afternoon light, the English paused exhausted and looked to their captured prisoners for bounty and to tend their wounds. It should be remembered that despite the lull, the battle was by no means “in the bag” for the English. Henry received a dispatch that his camp was being attacked by the French. Chroniclers have written that a local lord, Isembart d’Agincourt with several Men-at-arms and 600 peasants, launched a raid to loot the English camp. Simultaneously, some brave and organised knights from the third line gathered around 600 Men-at-arms and made a mounted charge towards the English.
There were enough French wandering around the battlefield to easily overwhelm the English if they were galvanised to regain their morale, by this late, French attack. Henry gave the order to kill the prisoners, only sparing the highest ranking and most notable. The knights and Men-at-arms considered this to be an ignoble act, so the task fell to the archers, commanded by a squire, the poor, bloody infantry. The French helmets were removed and their throats cut. Those who resisted were stabbed through their visors. The English nobility were sickened and horrified. The archers were probably more sanguine, knowing what fate would have awaited them if the English had lost.
Henry couldn’t immediately capitalise on his victory and took his exhausted army and the diminished haul of prisoners to Calais. He could never have taken Paris, it was too late in the year and his small army was exhausted. Henry Married Charles VI’s daughter Katherine in 1420, which led to the Treaty of Troyes. Henry V died suddenly on 31 August 1422 at the Château de Vincennes, apparently from dysentery, which he had contracted during the siege of Meaux. He was 36 years old and had reigned for nine years.
The experienced French professional soldiers, the dogs of war could have probably swung the battle, but they were always going to be outvoted by the aristocracy, the Princes of Blood. Additionally, they were used to operating in smaller, well-disciplined formations of well-trained and trusted men. The vast size of the French army was counterproductive and led to the French defeat.
The English chose the time to fight and shaped the battlefield. They fought like creatures possessed because there was no other option and nowhere to go. As Sergeant-Major Bourne said in the film “Zulu,” when asked “Why us?”
“Because we’re here lad. Nobody else, just us.”
© Blown Periphery 2018