National Security: Agincourt

As a military historian, I enjoy walking across quiet battlefields to visualize the ebb and flow of a battle. You can’t do that with either a sea battle or air battle, because they take place in a changing medium. But with a land battle, the topography doesn’t change and you can picture how the armies met and how the conflict unfolded. There are small battles without much historical significance, and then there are significant battles which change the course of history. One of the latter took place six hundred years ago on Monday in a remote area of northeastern France near the village of Agincourt that lends its name to the battle. This is a pretty small rural town, maybe no larger than Hanson on the Valdosta Highway. England’s King Henry V was on a two month long expedition in Northern France to reestablish his claim to territorial lands that had slipped away. Initially, he commanded a force of about 10 thousand, but as the campaign wore on, he was down to no more than six thousand effective soldiers by the end of October 1415. He was now heading north to return to the coast and cross the English Channel to the comforts and safety of home. The French had different ideas and sought to block his retreat. With a force of 25 thousand, far out numbering their foe, the French army now blocked Henry’s route of escape. Between two wooded areas near the village of Agincourt, the armies faced each other across a plowed field, maybe a thousand yards wide.

The French were to the north and the English about 900 yards south of their position. In the early morning hours, the two armies faced each other with no movement. The men-of-arms were mostly knights dressed in their armor plate. There were cavalry, but most of the English force consisted of archers. Just before noon, Henry and his deputies grew impatient and began to move toward the French until they closed the gap to less than 300 yards, the range of an English longbow. Here the archers planted sharpened stakes in front of their lines to thwart the charge of cavalry. In a sense, the stakes represented a portable fortification. From this position, the archers began to fire their arrows in a slow arc toward the French. These initial flights of arrows probably did little damage to the armor plated infantry and horses, but it did provoke their response. The French cavalry charged from the wings into the English knights and were repulsed. The French infantry then began their move forward to close the gap. As the French came closer, the English arrows became more potent. Now the two armies locked into mortal hand-to-hand combat. It must have been a terrifying clash. The French seemed to be poorly organized and fell in great numbers, far more than their English opponents.

Many French leaders, counts and princes, fell which may have contributed to the route that followed. The broken French army retreated as fast as they could, leaving the battlefield in the hands of Henry and his well organized troops. We know a great deal about this medieval battle because there were seven written accounts which survive. Additionally, two centuries later, William Shakespeare wrote a play title “Henry V” which portrays the campaign and battle in verse. In this famous play is the St. Crispin’s speech where the king inspires his troops before battle. Here are recorded these immortal words: “From this day until the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Someday, I hope to travel to this region in Northern France, find the village of Agincourt and walk across the battlefield where so much blood was spilled. I want to picture the movement of the armies; the charge of the cavalry; and the clash of titans. While the scene today might be tranquil, it was the place of turmoil and consequence … six hundred years ago.

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