sabato 30 maggio 2015

The battle of Agincourt and the decline of cavalry as a tool of Western warfare

On the 25th of October 1415, during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) that saw the English and the French contending their supremacy over France, the English army led by King Henry V heavily defeated the French army of King Charles VI. Although less numerous, the English army obtained a decisive victory thanks to its superior discipline and, above all, the wise use of bowmen. For the French noblemen, decidedly lacking of discipline and of a well-defined strategic plan, the battle evolved into a bloody mass slaughter, despite the bravery of the feudal cavalry’s charge. Victory allowed Henry V to gain control over most of the French territory, contended by the rival factions of the Armagnacs and Burgundians. In military history, the victory represents the ultimate decline of the heavy cavalry in favour of the infantrymen equipped with throwing weapons. In fact, the synchronized use of the English longbows and their tactical and precise rate of fire had introduced the idea of using nimble shooting troops rather than slow and clumsy knights. This battle, also because of the use of gunpowder, represented one of the first combats of Modern Age and the embryonic model for future armies composed of infantrymen with firearms and artillery.
The battle of Agincourt, a clear example of the victory of foot-archers over the feudal heavy cavalry, had several phases. It all began with a period of stalemate and waiting that ended up with the English advance. Suddenly, the Englishmen shot several heavy loads of arrows with their longbows. Consequently, the foe’s cavalry, made of French nobles, decided to charge against the enemy, and at the same time both infantries started to engage the melee. After, the English bowmen too began to intervene in the scuffle, impelling the French to refold. After another stalemate, often paused by some occasional new shot of arrow loads, the Frenchmen tried to carry forward a raid on the English wagons and supplies, without any success. Finally, all the French prisoners were slaughtered – even those that could be ransomed – and both armies moved away from the battlefield.
Henry V used to deploy the army in three flanks before the start of each battle, but in Agincourt, instead of dividing the army into three parts, he decided to organize his army linearly. Every three infantry divisions were protected laterally on both sides by two large contingents of archers, because about 2/3 of the British army was made up of very strong English archers with their formidable longbow. A strategy that proved decisive was the ingenious idea to set into the ground some wooden poles about 2 metres long, to curb the attacks of the powerful French cavalry. The French army had instead adopted the classic three-line deployment: one in the vanguard, one in the centre and another in the rear. The two sides came face to face already at eight o’clock in the morning but only after two hours did Henry decide to start the battle against the still French army. Once the two sides were closer one another, the British hurled the French army with a hail of arrows: the French found themselves surrounded by a huge amount of bolts that covered the sky of the plain of Agincourt while their army was suffering heavy losses in dead and wounded. At this point, the cavalry began to assault the English with several frontal charges though being under the arrow fire of the English bowmen that had adopted by now a formation in the shape of a wedge. As well as by the arrows, the cavalry was being slowed also by the mud and by the English palisades. Soon the cavalry was on the run and forced to retreat, as happened to the infantry that was blocked first by the archers and then charged by other 1000 English infantrymen. After the cavalry had fled, the wings of the French army became unprotected, and the English archers started weakening also the French infantry. When the ammunitions had ended, the archers left their bows and joined the hand-by-hand melee against the enemy. The battle seemed to be at an end but suddenly, while the English were busy killing prisoners, a new small contingent of French cavalry, reorganized after the rout, attacked the English rear-guard occupied in the massacre of prisoners: however, the French attack failed again. After this episode, the battle was finally over ending with Henry V’s complete triumph: the French had lost around 15.000 men, including a significant part of the noblesse. With the end of the battle, Henry V was recognized as heir to the throne of France, placing a truce in the Hundred Years War.
The battle of Agincourt (October 1415)
Let us know introduce some military considerations of the battle.
The English longbows had a maximum range of 270 metres, although 200 metres was the optimum one (200 metres = 218 yards). All arrows were one metre long. The English bowmen used the tossing of arrow loads as a tool to oblige the French cavalry to charge against their army, preventing them to stand still. The wisdom and skill of the archers was so great that they could easily hit the enemy’s vulnerable parts of the armour from a long distance, also whilst the enemy was moving. The English mastered the art of archery, knowing well that an arrow that is shot horizontally has an inferior range but a clearly stronger impact, whereas an arrow that is tossed diagonally at different angulations producing a parable has a wider range but is weaker and less accurate in the impact. Accordingly, the English could steadily understand how to toss the arrows, if deciding to make a vertical or diagonal shot or a horizontal and frontal one. In the case of a vertical or diagonal toss, it is the force of gravity to play the major role, and instead in the horizontal one it is the immediate impact power. On the other hand, the French knights were extremely heavy and slow. Each one of them wore an armour that weighed around 30-35 kilograms, and adding it to the warriors’ weight, the poor horse had to bear on its back an average weight of 130 kilograms (average 75 kg of the knight; 35 kg of the knight’s armour; 20 kg of the horse’s saddlecloth and carapace).     
Under the continual and methodical arrow fire, the French knights decided to charge straightaway the English archery lines, ending up bumping into the hidden palisades that the English built specifically for the foreseen cavalry charge. The route that the cavalry had to tread was of 270 metres. During the first 220 metres, the knights’ horses went to step; then suddenly they gradually started galloping, crossing the last 50 metres at an average speed of 20-24 kilometres per hour. Once the enemy was reached, the cavalry suddenly slowed down and did not dash into the enemy’s lines, preferring to roll away. This is not surprising if we think that, unlike what modern movies often show to us, the majority of cavalry charges do not aim at overwhelming the infantry line, especially if solid and compact, but at scaring the enemy’s infantrymen arousing panic and discouragement among the ranks. At the same time, the archers did not passively wait the cavalry to sweep them away, but decided to take shelter. Now, it is true that the archers had failed to deviate or even stop the cavalry charge through their arrow firing, but likewise the cavalry failed to unhinge the enemy’s ranks and to compel them to flee.   

English longbowmen


J. Keegan, The Face of Battle.             

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