“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” – Shakespeare’s Henry V addressing his troops before the Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt, among the most famous “David vs. Goliath” battles in all of war, occurred this week (Oct. 25) in 1415. The battle pitted “David,” a weary and depleted 7,000-man British army led by the young King Henry V, against “Goliath,” an army of 20,000 French noblemen, both cavalry and infantry, who were well rested, well equipped and were fighting on their home turf.
Claiming his right to the French throne, Henry had invaded France two months earlier and had been fighting ever since. As a result he had lost nearly half of his army either in battle or from disease, which prompted his decision to return to England to re-supply. But while marching to Calais, where he planned to rendezvous with an English fleet and sail home, he was met at Agincourt by the French force led by Charles d’Albret. The battle lines were drawn.
As most students of English history know, against overwhelming odds, Henry’s forces carried the day, destroying the much larger French force, although there is still some debate over the chief causes of victory.
But some things are agreed upon. Weeks of heavy rains had made the battlefield a muddy mess, which not only weighed down further the heavy armor the French wore, but also made it virtually impossible for them to maneuver. Both French cavalry and the heavily armored French infantry repeatedly sank into the muddy fields and had difficulty moving, which made them sitting ducks for the English archers and highly mobile foot soldiers with their swords, spears, hatchets and billhooks (knives).
Further, the English changed the course of the battlefield by planting sharp wooden stakes that both protected their archers from French cavalry charges and servd as a wedge, pushing French troops closer together in an increasingly narrow space that made maneuverablity that much harder and French vulnerability that much greater.
The result was a rout. Much of the French leadership was killed, including d’Albret, and the demoralized French troops soon surrendered. When the mud had settled, French casualties exceeded 5,000. English losses numbered around 300.
As a result of his victory, Henry was recognized as heir to the French throne, but his untimely death two years later of “camp fever” (probably dysentery) ended his dreams of combined rule. Still, England had the better of France for the next 14 years until the tide of battle was turned by a French military victory at least as miraculous as Agincourt. That would be the French victory at Orleans in 1429, which was led by a French teenage girl named Joan of Arc.