+ Historians Reassess the Battle of Agincourt

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Writes James Glanz in the New York Times, “No one can ever take away the shocking victory by Henry V and his ‘band of brothers,’ as Shakespeare  would famously call them, on St. Crispin’s Day, Oct.25, 1415.”

But Agincourt, and its status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English people’s self-image — is being called into doubt.

A group of historians in Britain and France have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time.  The research has led them to take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.

Their conclusion: the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one.

And depending on how you do the math, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight.

Even professional researchers and academics have been reluctant to challenge the image in the face of Shakespearen prose and centuries of English pride. 

Anne Curry, of the University if Southampton, is leading one study.

“It’s just a myth, but it’s a myth that’s part of the British psyche,” she says.

Her work has recieved praise, but also harsh criticism from other historians in the US and Europe.  It is the most striking of the revisionist accounts emerging from a new science of military history. 

These accounts tend to be not only more quantitative, but also more  attuned to political, cultural and technological factors.  They focus more on the experience of the common soldier, and less on grand strategies and heroic deeds.

These approaches have drastically changed views on everything from Roman battles with Germanic tribes to Napoleons’ disastrous occupation of Spain to the Vietnamese Tet offensive.

A measure of the respect being shown to the new methods is seen in this:  it has become almost routine for American commanders to call on them for advice on strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, Iraq and other present-day conflicts.

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 August 14 1415, beginning an uninspiring siege of Harfleur, France was on the verge of a civil war. 

Factions called the Burgundians and the Armagnacs were at each others’ throats.

Henry eventually forged an alliance with the Burgundians, who became what we call today his “local security forces” on the ground in Normandy.  He cultivated the support of local merchants and clerics. 

These are practices that the US Counterinsurgency Manual might endorse.

Says Kelly DeVries, professor of history at Loyola College in Maryland and writer on medieval warfare,

“I’m not one who sees history repeating itself, but I think a lot of attitudes do.”

DeVries says fighters from across the region began filtering toward the Armagnac camp as soon as Henry became allied with their enemies.

“Very much like Al Quaeda in Iraq, there were very diverse forces coming from very, very different places to fight.”

After taking Harfleur, Henry marched rapidly north on his way to Agincourt.  He crossed the Somme River east of Calais, his army depleted by dysentery, battle losses, hunger and fatigue.

Fractious French forces hastily gathered to meet him.  It is here that historians themselve begin fighting, writes Glanz.  Several take exception to the new scholarship by Ms Curry’s team.

Clifford Rogers, who teaches history at West Point, regards archival records too incomplete to disprove the strength of the French.

But other French historians say they doubt that France, riven by factional strife and depleted by plague, could have raised an army so large in such a short amount of time.  In addition, the French king, Charles VI, was suffering from bouts of insanity.

Anne Curry is comfortable with her numbers, based on her reading of historical archives, including military pay records, muster rolls, ships’ logs, rosters of the wounded and the dead, wartime tax levies and other surviving documents.

She can even name many of the soldiers.

An extraordinary online database lists around a quarter-million names of men  who served in the Hundred Years’ War, compiled by Curry and her collaborators at Southampton and Reading. 

It shows that whatever the numbers, Henry’s army really was a band of brothers; many of the soldiers were veterans who had served in multiple campaigns together.

They were people who knew and trusted each other, says Curry.

The French were slogging through muddy fields.  English arrow fire was quick and murderous. It maddened the horses, killed many of the riders and forced advancing men-at-arms into a mass “so dense that many of them could not even lift their arms.”

Heavily armored French fell wounded.  Many couldn’t get up and drowned in the mud.  Order broke down and panic set in.  Nimbler archers ran forward, killing thousands by stabbing and bludgeoning the fallen.

When Henry emerged victorious, according to some historians, the English crown then mounted a public relations effort to magnify the victory by exaggerating the disparity in numbers.

The victory didn’t last.  The French soured on their English occupiers.  the civil war remained unresolved in the decades after Henry’s death in 1422.

Again, the British came into France promising the new king would resolve the problems.  He failed. 

Shakespeare was unwilling to blame a failed counterinsurgency strategy.  He pinned the loss on Henry VI:

Whose state so many had the managing  /  That they lost France and made his England bleed.

sole source: NY Times article byJames Glanz on October 25, 2009.       http://www.nytimes.com

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