Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What I've been thinking about lately

One of my friends complained recently that this blog has been reduced to nothing but how Republicans are ruining the planet. So, I feel like I should change things up a bit. Who'd like a bit of a discussion of the 100 Years' war?

Well, tough luck, because that's what you're getting.

The 100 Years' War is interesting because, like World War I, it bridges two great eras of military technology. Just as the Great War saw the evolution from infantry and cavalry to armored tanks with air support and indirect artillery fire (the predecessors of blitzkrieg) the great war between England and France saw enormous change -- though of course over a much longer span of time. The first few battles are fought primarily with knights on horseback as the central battle units. By the end, firearms and cannon fire were finding widespread use, especially in laying siege to towns and cities in the French countryside.

What's also interesting is the way the war changed the social fabric of England and France, something that's inseparable from the weapons used in the war itself. By the mid 1300s, the Armored Knight had become not just a formidable weapon in and of itself, but (to use modern language) a central node in the network of European kingdoms. Kings needed to be able to call on Knights for their wars, but keeping men and horses strong enough to ride in a cavalry charge is really, really expensive. (Talk to people who keep much smaller horses today if you doubt this.) So knights come to control large estates themselves, from which they derive the wealth to keep themselves healthy and armed.

Wealth + weaponry = political power, no surprise. France, the kingdom which regularly fielded the most knights, made them a central part of the political structure, a role that would endure for centuries: by the time the revolution came four hundred years later, the most conservative and obnoxious members of the aristocracy were those who had "earned" their nobility by the sword, or whose great-grandparents had.

There was a problem for the Kings of England who so desperately wanted to be Kings of France, though: The codes that knights swore to uphold specified that Knights were supposed to "defend the realm", not go off half-cocked on some mad scheme to capture Paris. So when Edward III landed men in Normandy in 1346, he had almost no knights on horseback with him, but instead a conscript army of a few thousand archers. At this time, it was thought that an armored knight was largely immune from arrows, so you can imagine how confident the French aristocracy was when they began charging -- having been deserted by their Genoese mercenaries -- across the plains at Crecy, knights on horseback outnumbering English peasants something like 3 or 4 to one.

Think, for a moment, what it must have been like to be on the receiving end of of a medieval cavalry charge. Most people today a) aren't familiar with horses to begin with, and b) aren't familiar with organized violence of the kind we're talking about. 10,000 Knights coming across a muddy field isn't something you only see: it's something you hear and feel in your chest as the rumble of 40,000 hoofbeats comes rolling your way. There are descriptions going back to Thucydides of men urinating and defecating out of fear from an onrushing Spartan phalanx charge -- the French at Crecy would have been something altogether more numerous, and deadly.

So it's kind of bizarre when the French get massacred.

(Please, no jokes about the French surrendering. Spoiler alert -- they go on to win the war.)

Estimates of casualties are notoriously unreliable from so far back, but the traditional numbers are that the French lost at least 10,000 of the suspected 30-40,000 warriors, including a substantial chunk of the French governing elite -- remember the centrality of the knight. The English are thought to have lost no more than 500.

The French, not being stupid, start improving their armor and begin lightly armoring the horses themselves. A minor bout of illness -- otherwise known as the Black Death -- spoils the fun everyone had been having for a time, but by 1356 the French and English are meeting again in battle, this time at Poitiers. This time, it looks for a moment like the knight is ascendant: the improved armor on the knights causes the English (er, Welsh) arrows to bounce right off. The English react quickly, and before the French knights can close, they outflank the cavalry and shoot the French horses out from under their riders. This destroys the cohesive line of battle that's crucial to a cavalry charge, and the English once again inflict a humiliating defeat on the French aristocracy.

As a final bout of humiliation, 60 years later English archers would deliver the coup de grace to the idea of the Knight as the paramount unit of battle, at the massacre that is otherwise known as the Battle of Agincourt -- a battle so laughably similar to Crecy that Edward III would have been within his rights to sue Henry V for plagiarism. Once again, the French relied on knights and crossbows, and once again the superior range and rate of fire of the Welsh longbow destroyed a cavalry charge before it could close with the enemy.

So, were the French just learning disabled? Why would they, three times in the same conflict, go in to battle with obsolete weapons and tactics? These defeats weren't minor -- after Poitiers, King John II of France was captured by the English, and he would later die in captivity in London, after a brief repreieve ruined by his son.

Well, part of the reason no doubt lies in the central role of the knight in the French elite. If some English peasants get lucky once or twice, well, that's one thing. But to admit that an entire mode of warfare is now obsolete -- and with it, the social order that underpins it -- would have been unthinkable to the French.

And, I hasten to add, the English. It's not like King Eddie wouldn't have loved to have knights when he landed in Normandy. Political expediency forced him to rely on an "inferior" force and leave the knights he had behind. As it turned out, English tactics, mobility, and weaponry would eventually overwhelm the cream of French aristocracy.

Of course, the English do not rule France today, nor did they even rule most of it from 1415 onwards. Agincourt was the last gasp of English power on the continent -- Henry V had spent the last few weeks retreating from the French army, and would retreat further after his "victory". The only thing he won was his own survival, and that of his soldiers.

Henry V's son (cleverly named Henry VI) would rule over the final expulsion of English soldiers from France. It was madness to think that England, with a population of 4 million, would be able to invade and conquer France and it's 17 million, especially as the war itself fostered a form of French nationalism incarnated by that religious fanatic, Joan of Arc.

Obvious lessons for the day:
  • the weaponry of war changes, sometimes rapidly and dramatically. Organized militaries sometimes have difficulty adjusting to these changes, and even deny that the changes are taking place.
  • A string of victories in battle is no guarantee of winning the war (as the English lost the war, despite three crushing victories.)
  • Similarly, having the most innovative tactics or superior weaponry is no guarantee of victory -- the legendary use of new weapons and tactics by the English on St. Crispin's Day, 1415, did nothing to cement English control over France.
  • The most innovative tactics are, almost by definition, not used by those with a superior conventional force.
Everybody knows the famous Shakespeare lines from Henry V -- perhaps the only widespread knowledge derived from the 100 Years' War of any kind:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Now that there's some good chest-thumping. But few remember the other words Shakespeare put in Williams mouth from the same play:
...if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it...
Two passages from the same play -- in isolation, one sounds like brave English pluck, while in context, we see the full ambiguity of Shakespeare's writing: Henry commends his men to fight for glory, after being warned that he would have been reviled for losing in a war where his soldiers have no idea what they're fighting for. That is, wasting men's lives for a lost cause is a gross sin, and it would be better, as Bates says, for the King himself to die or be captured and spare the lives of his soldiers.

And that, citizens, is why children should still be taught Shakespeare in school.

No comments: