...in the Pas de Calais
I started visiting some WW2 battlefields in Europe back in 2005. One that is a bit outside my normal field (pardon the pun) of interest but when you find yourself staying only about 4km away, then you really have to visit. Across the Channel, in the Pas de Calais, lies the village of Azincourt, just north of Hesdin. On the 14 October 1415, it really was a Field of battle. I knew very little about it, but the visit made me want to find out more. Now, I apologise to any of you who are more familiar with the battle than I, but for those like me who know little about it, let me give some of the background I have discovered. Any mistakes are my own.
Part of the Hundred Years War, when the English King Henry V took and army of some 12,000 men to France. That army was much reduced as it made its way back towards the sanctuary of Calais, which was English territory at that time. Some 6,000 men, at the end of a long and tiring campaign season were making for some safety. They were ill fed and dysentery was rife amongst them. A French army under Charles VII tried to block them in a narrow defile, restricted by woods on either side, just beside the village of Agincourt (Azincourt today). In recent years there have been questions raised over the numbers involved, but while figures are quoted of 6,000 English against 36,000 French it is likely that the numbers may have been closer to 6,000 English against 20 25,000 French. Either way an understrength army of increasingly unfit men were faced by an enemy who outnumbered them about 4 to 1.
Heavy rain had turned recently ploughed land into heavy going for horses and men alike. That had an effect on another element, which was the weight of armour carried by the French knights and men-at-arms, compared to the lightly clad archers who made up the bulk of the English force. On the day of the battle the two armies faced each other at either end of the battlefield, and did little more. After some 3 hours of little happening, Henry sent his archers forward, down into a dip in the land. Here they placed wooden stakes in the ground in front of them, as a barricade against cavalry, and began to fire their massed arrows against the French lines. The longbow significantly outranged the crossbow used by French units, so the French were provoked into advancing against the English line. Casualties mounted as the weight of fire from the English longbow was very effective. The result was an attack in 3 waves by the French force, but each one became enmeshed by the fallen from the wave in front. Horses bolted, terrified by wounds from the English arrows. Once they did get into close combat with the English lines, so the sword, axe and club took a terrible toll in close quarter fighting. Once the heavily armoured men fell or lost their footing in the mud, so it was difficult to get back on their feet. The lightly clad English troops took a terrible toll.
Noblemen would be captured and held to ransom, so there was a benefit to capturing them alive, and holding prisoners. The common soldier held no value and would simply be killed. French cavalry did venture out behind the battlefield and captured part of the English Baggage Train. Afraid that dealing with this threat would allow his prisoners to pick up weapons from the battlefield and rejoin the fight, Henry had his prisoners killed. To cut the story rather short, figures suggest English casualties were in the region of just 450 men from the original force of 6,000. French casualties however are thought to have been in the region of 12,000 or more. By anybodys standards that is a horrendous loss of life and greatly out of proportion to the English casualties. Henry won the battle, but it didnt win him the war. However it did leave the route open for the English army to reach the sanctuary of Calais. The English longbow had once again reinforced its reputation as a battle winning weapon.
Driving along the main road today you will see two dimensional figures of medieval soldiers pointing off the road t the village of Azincourt. Even as you drive through the village yet more brightly painted figures lurking in the hedgerows. In the centre of the village is the visitors centre, which is a modern and very well laid out museum of the battle. The entrance way and even the door handles are made to represent the weapon that won the day, the English Longbow. Inside is a well laid out history of the battle, and examples of the armour and weapons used by both sides. One well laid out exhibit features a rope, fixed at one end and with a sand weighted bag at the other. To pull that rope back, as if pulling a longbow, needs about half the weight required to pull a longbow to full draw. All I can tell you is to go and try. Even at half the weight it takes some effort. Just imagine doubling that, and shooting a dozen or so arrows per minute, and maintaining that rate of fire. No wonder it was law in those days for Englishmen to practice with their bows every day. You'd have to in order to get that kind of strength in your arms. Like so many tourist attractions these days, there are a couple of suits of armour built into a stand so visitors and their children can have their photo taken with their heads seen in the suit of armour. Ideal for a photo opportunity, and one which my youngest daughter couldn't pass by!
Now, strange things can always happen, cant they. It was last May when we visited, and the weather was not too bad. While we were inside the visitor centre we heard the row of a sudden and very violent hail storm. As we left the museum, we were handed a map of the battlefield so you can then walk or drive round it. I was glad we chose to drive. I was also glad to have the benefit of a good size 4-wheel drive. Driving past the church, and yet more colourful figures, so we drove along a road that runs down the western side of the battlefield, to find it under about a foot or more of water at its lowest point. The water was just streaming off the fields. This took us up to the crest o the hill, where the initial English positions had been. Then drive back on a road that runs down the eastern side of the battlefield, which has a significant slope down from both ends toward the centre. At the centre there is another small road that cuts back across into the village of Azincourt itself. Yet as you approach, you can see a line of English archers, their bows raised and pointing towards the French positions. The countryside that surrounds you is really quiet and beautiful today. Somehow that line of archers and the sodden fields around us gave something of a taster of the conditions that armoured troops would have faced all those years ago. Not much farther along the road you will find a signpost to let you know exactly what battlefield you are on, and a stone memorial in a small square of trees, which marks the resting place of a mass grave of the French soldiers who died on that fateful day in 1415.
It made for an interesting day and a few hours that certainly fascinated me.
I am pleased we didn't drive by and dismiss it for being outside my usual interest. Now just as a point for closing, I must add one final element to this tale. Finishing the visit we went back up to the main road for our drive back to the town of Hesdin. Along this very straight, French road there are trees lining both sides of the road for a considerable distance. You may recall that I mentioned the violent storm we had heard, yet escaped, while in the visitor centre. As we drove along, so we noticed two of the trees in this long line, only about a hundred yards apart, were reduced to splintered tree trunks, with the remainder laying some yards away in the fields. They had both clearly been struck by lightning while we had been in Azincourt. They both looked like they had been hit by an exploding artillery shell, more like something from a photo of a WW1 battlefield. Quite a spooky experience to see them so utterly shattered. They had been fine when we passed only a few hours earlier. Quite an eventful day all round.