Wednesday, 7 January 2015

2015 – a year of two anniversaries

There are two historic anniversaries this year. By chance, both of them involve crushing defeats of the French (one turned out to be a strategic triumph, the other was rendered a glorious but fleeting moment due to the cruelty of fate).

It is two centuries since the Battle of Waterloo, which demonstrated the tactical supremacy of a British footwear designer [to paraphrase the famous Albino Blacksheep page] over a troublesome Corsican. Six centuries have passed since one of England’s most heroic kings, Henry V, proved on the field of Agincourt that charging towards thousands of archers was not necessarily a recipe for victory.

The Battle of Waterloo

Napoleon had been exiled to the island of Elba. Unfortunately, the former French Emperor decided retirement didn’t suit him, and returned to the fore. He marched north, having been declared an outlaw. Numerous powers, including the UK and Prussia, organised forces to match his own. Napoleon had to destroy part of the coalition against him before reinforcements could arrive, and so the path to Waterloo began.

On 18 June Napoleon and Wellington clashed in the Battle of Waterloo. Blücher, commanding the Prussians, was nearby and heading to reinforce Wellington.

The French and multi-national armies led by Napoleon and Wellington respectively were almost identical in raw numbers, with 69,000 for the French and 67,000 for the coalition. Roughly half Wellington’s chaps were British or from the King’s German Legion. The coalition had 11,000 cavalry to France’s 7,000, but the French had 250 guns against the coalition’s 150. Infantry numbers were very close (50,000 coalition, 48,000 French).

The distant but nearing Prussians had 50,000 men.

Wellington adopted a defensive position along a ridge running east to west, effectively hiding many of his men just over the crest. A hamlet and château ahead of the ridge were fortified, as was a farmhouse.

Napoleon drew up his forces symmetrically, as he couldn’t see Wellington’s deployment and therefore couldn’t respond to it.

It had rained heavily overnight, which led to the Prussians moving more slowly than might’ve been the case, but also Napoleon setting up the battle later as cavalry and artillery aren’t fond of soggy ground and the French were unaware the Prussians would arrive so quickly.

There was fierce fighting to capture the château, Hougoumont, but it held throughout the battle. However, the French enjoyed success elsewhere on the field, putting the farmhouse under serious pressure and pushing back the coalition. The Earl of Uxbridge commanded a heavy cavalry charge to try and rescue the beleaguered infantry.

Initially, the cavalry swept all before them and made great and bloody work of the French, and although stiffer resistance was met, the infantry had been heartened and two eagles were captured from the French.

However, the horses were fatigued and any semblance of order seemed lost for Uxbridge’s cavalry. Napoleon ordered a strong counter-charge of cavalry and the British cavalry suffered heavy losses.

The farmhouse, La Haye Sainte, finally fell because the men defending it simply ran out of ammunition. But it had been held for most of the day and its long resistance may have been the critical difference between victory and defeat. Its capture enabled the French to advance their guns and hammer the coalition squares, which had been formed to (very successfully) repel the efforts of French cavalry to break them.

Things looked bleak. Changing from square formation would’ve left the coalition vulnerable to the French cavalry (the coalition had little strength in this arm remaining), but staying in them crammed men close together and made them soft targets for the increasing number of French guns firing their way.

Then Blücher and 50,000 odd Prussians turned up. The French put up a spirited resistance to this new threat, but were immediately on the back foot.

Napoleon attempted to rescue the situation by sending in his famed Imperial Guard, who had never known defeat, to destroy the Wellington army before the Prussians could make serious headway. The Imperial Guard were driven back, however, and the battle was lost.

Wellington had 15,000 casualties (dead or wounded), Blücher suffering about half this, and Napoleon around 25,000.

As well as being important in itself, Waterloo marked the final end of Napoleon as a political power, the end of tumultuous wars that had rocked Europe for decades, and an era (rare in Europe) of relative peace.

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt occurred during the latter stages of the rather lengthy Hundred Years’ War (on 25 October). Henry V, King of England, had besieged and taken Harfleur, and was marching his army of around 9,000 men (some estimates have it as low as 6,000) to English-held Calais.

A French army shadowed the English as they made their way to Calais. The English were in pretty ropey shape, suffering dysentery, possessing little food and having marched rather a long way in a short time. Henry decided to engage in battle as those factors and the potential for French reinforcements meant delaying would only strengthen his enemy and weaken his own side. It was a brave decision, given the English were outnumbered (estimates vary a lot, but one consistency is that the English were substantially fewer in number than the French).

The battlefield was a narrow strip of land between two woods. Henry’s army was over three-quarters archers, armed with the famed English longbow. The archers were on the flanks with men-at-arms and knights in the centre.

The French had the advantage of numbers, with estimates varying from 12,000 up to 36,000. Several hundred horsemen were on either wing, with the men-at-arms, who outnumbered their English counterparts very significantly, in the centre. The French also had thousands of archers and crossbowmen but the narrowness of the battlefield and the eagerness of the French nobility to capture noble Englishmen (and thereby claim substantial ransoms) meant that the men-at-arms advanced and the French archers played little role.

As well as being narrow, the field was muddy, making it difficult for the French men-at-arms to move quickly. The French advanced in three lines, with no opportunity to outflank the English due to the terrain. The English archers could scarcely miss, and the dead and wounded severely slowed the French advance. They did meet the English foot soldiers and push them back, initially, but the three French lines mingled and became very congested, making the English archers’ lives very simple. In fact, it seems the French were so tightly packed that they were unable to properly wield their weapons due to lack of room (reminds me of the latter stage of Cannae).

The French cavalry attempted to charge the archers, which was a disaster. Woodland prevented flanking and the archers had hammered stakes in front of their positions. Horses weren’t well-armoured and very easy to hit, with wounded/dead horses a serious danger to their riders and the advancing French foot soldiers.

When the archers ran out of arrows they grabbed whatever melee weapons they had and attacked the French men-at-arms, who were, as previously mentioned, in dire straits already.

The French lost thousands to capture or death, although this ended up being much the same thing. Fearful of the French regrouping and the prisoners becoming combatants once more, Henry ordered their slaughter, sparing only the most noble (and therefore able to fetch the highest price for ransom). Reportedly, the prisoners outnumbered their captors, which is pretty unusual.

As with army numbers, deaths are subject to a wide range of speculation, with English losses from around 100 to 1,500, and French losses of around 4,000 to 10,000.

The victory on the battlefield was total, and established Henry V as a great king in popular imagination. However, the Hundred Years’ War ended up being lost (if you’re English). Henry had all but won it, when he rather unhelpfully dropped dead just a few months after the French king did likewise. Had he lived, he may well have become King of England and France. But, like Hannibal, great heroism and battlefield victories do not necessarily mean winning wars.

It’s usually better to win battles than not (although Pyrrhus might argue the point), but strategic, logistics and diplomacy are crucial to winning wars, as is just a little luck now and then.

Incidentally, sometime next week I’ll be posting a cunning plan for the year ahead.


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