In August 1415, the 26-year-old English King, Henry V, took an army across the channel and invaded France.
War with England’s traditional enemy suited Henry down to the ground. Firstly and most importantly, he had a not inconsiderable claim to both the Duchy of Normandy and the French throne. Secondly, an overseas campaign would nicely divert the minds of his subjects from problems at home (no different from today then!). Thirdly, it was an opportunity to pay the dastardly French back for their own raids on the English coastline.
Henry’s plan was simple. Land at Harfleur (now just about a part of Le Havre on the Seine estuary) and take the town there as a base of operations. Next, march upstream to Paris, and then on to Bordeaux.
The crossing went smoothly, the taking of Harfleur did not. Rather than being a walkover, the town was heavily fortified and well defended.
Although the initial landing, some three miles to the west of the town, was unopposed, Harfleur’s strong walls, with their towers, barbicans and moat, together with several hundred men-at-arms, proved a tough nut to crack. French counter-mining meant that the English had to rely on their artillery to batter at the walls of the town, all the while suffering casualties themselves from the guns and crossbows of the defenders. This is the bit in Shakespeare’s play where Henry exhorts his men with the “Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’” quote. It took the English a month to force a surrender, and cost Henry fully one third of his army: lost to both casualties and disease.
This left the English King with somewhat of a dilemma. His force was now not strong enough to carry out his original plan, or even perhaps to beat the large numbers of French troops gathering under the Constable d’Albret at nearby Rouen, but he could not afford to lose face by simply re-embarking his men and going home.
Henry decided to avoid the French but, against the advice of his nobles, to satisfy the demands of honour by proving that an English army could march through France “at will”.
His army would march north to the English enclave at Calais, some 120 miles away, and make their way home from there.
The March To Calais
Leaving the Earl of Dorset in charge at Harfleur with around 500 men-at-arms, 1000 archers, and the artillery and baggage trains, Henry set off for Calais on 8th October. His force now comprised around 900 men-at-arms and 5000 longbowmen, and carried provisions for only seven to ten days.
The march hit problems almost immediately. Not only had heavy rains turned all the roads to cloying mud, but the ford that they had expected to use to cross the Bethune river was flooded, forcing a diversion to find one further inland. By the time that they had crossed the next river, the Breste, the English had already marched some 80 miles in five days.
The next major obstacle was the Somme, but a captured prisoner warned of a substantial French force blocking the obvious crossing point. A further diversion led to another crossing being found, but this necessitated another five days of extra marching and the beating off of a French cavalry attack.
After crossing on the 19th, Henry declared the 20th October a rest day, but this gave the French heralds time to track the English army down and issue an official challenge to battle.
This Henry ignored, and the English marched on: covering another 70-odd miles in four days. They were now only two days march from the safety of Calais but, late on the 24th, scouts reported that a large French army had managed to get ahead of them and now blocked their route.
Realising that his army was exhausted (having marched over 200 miles in 16 days), hungry (the men had been living off nuts and raw vegetables for almost a week), and still suffered from the dysentery brought from Harfleur, Henry attempted to sue for peace.
As his terms really only offered basic reparations for damage caused during the campaign to date, they were rejected: with the French demanding that he permanently renounce almost all rights to French land. Negotiations broke down, and both sides prepared for battle.
The Night Before Battle
There could not have been a greater contrast between the two camps.
Shakespeare aside, Henry ordered that total silence be maintained in the English lines., so that all could rest as much as possible.
The French, however, confident of victory over the rag-tag invaders, partied the night away: boasting of the great deeds that they would perform on the morrow.
From above, the Agincourt battlefield resembles nothing more than a modern-day, churned-up rugby pitch!
Thick woods bordered a flattish area of newly-ploughed fields that was largely blocked at one end by the sizeable French camp and at the other by the village of Maisoncelles with the English bivouacked in front of it.
The open area was about 1200 yards wide at the French end, but narrowed to about 800 yards where the English were. The initial deployment of the two armies put them about 1000 yards apart, with the front of the French line resting on a track that led from the village of Agincourt to the village of Tramecourt.
Heavy rain had turned the newly-ploughed fields into a quagmire: a fact that would later have a terrible significance for the French men-at-arms.
The field obviously suited the smaller English army, as the French would not be able to bring their superior numbers to bear, but the latter were apparently so confident of victory that this didn’t bother them.
The Opposing Sides
Most historians seem to agree that the English army numbered about 5,000 archers armed with longbows, and around 900 men-at-arms.
The French, on the other hand, are variously quoted as having anywhere between 20-50,000 men present, although one contemporary Alastair Campbell wannabe suggests a figure as high as 150,000. A fair assessment is that they mustered around 25,000 men-at-arms and cavalry, supported by around 4,000 archers/crossbowmen and a few bombards.
As Murray Walker might have said: “Surely nothing can stop the French now”!
Initial Deployment – The English
There are two schools of thought as to the deployment of the English.
Although both agree that Henry deployed his men in one line, with no reserves, the traditional view is that Henry positioned archers on each of his flanks, with the centre of the line composed of three equal-sized bodies of dismounted men-at-arms separated from each other by more archers.
The latest thinking suggests, however, that although this set up would allow the English to fire straight at an advancing enemy, it would also weaken the centre of the English line for the (usually critical) moment of impact. It would also go against standard English practice. I agree with this more modern view, and would suggest that Henry put all his archers on the flanks, concentrating only the three bodies of men-at-arms in the centre.
Initial Deployment – The French
In total contrast to the tight discipline of the English lines, the French deployment was utter chaos!
D’Albret’s plan called for his army to be deployed in three lines. The first would comprise some 8,000 dismounted men-at-arms; the second another 6,000 dismounted men-at-arms supported by the archers and crossbowmen; and the third around 10,000 mounted knights. On the flanks would be two further groups of mounted men-at-arms: 1,600 on the left under the Compte de Vendome, and 800 on the right under de Brebant. Bombards, positioned in the second line, would cut the English line into small groups: the French would then move forward and wipe them out a bit at a time.
Unfortunately every French noble wanted to be in at the kill: pushing themselves and their retinues forward into the front line until the French centre was one anarchic mass. The archers and crossbowmen were elbowed out to the flanks, and the field of fire of the bombards blocked by the eager knights.
Battle lines drawn up, both sides sat and stared at each other.
Henry’s formation was defensive, and the French were happy to let the English attack their superior numbers or even to let the ruffians starve to death where they were.
After about four hours, at around 11am, Henry realised that he was going to have to provoke the French to attack. His army would only get weaker as time went on, and he didn’t have the numbers for a frontal assault of his own.
Quickly and quietly his army advanced to just within maximum longbow range of the French line. This would be a distance of approximately 250-280 yards.
The French did not react: the party atmosphere in their lines had continued to the extent that some knights were now having their lunch!
The English deployed in their new position as before, but supplemented their defences with a line of sharpened stakes cut from the nearby woods.
Once everything was in place, Henry ordered the archers to open fire.
“Like a Cloud Laden with Rain”
The first volley of arrows slammed into the French lines within seconds…and did almost no damage at all to the heavily armoured French knights.
What is did do, however, was outrage the French army to such an extent that its commanders completely lost control. Led by the cavalry from the wings, the men-at-arms of the first two French lines lumbered forward into the muddy fields.
The French horsemen were committed piecemeal, as some of the knights were caught dismounted, lunching or gossiping rather than ready for action. Tasked with taking out the English longbowmen, they would have taken about 40 seconds to reach the enemy line: enough time to be hit by another 3-4 volleys of arrows, with the final two going in at short range. Those knights who did reach the archers crashed straight into the defensive stakes: unable to outflank the line of longbowmen because of the heavy woods to either side.
It was a disaster: the charge stopped dead, and those not shot down at point blank range were pulled to the ground by the nimble archers and dispatched with sharp, pointy things or just drowned in the lethal ooze. Soon a mass of routing horse was heading back towards the French lines.
Crash, Bang, Wallop!
Coming the other way were, of course, the French dismounted men-at-arms: still slowly churning their way forward through the mud. More chaos ensued as half-crazed horses slammed through the advancing columns, increased by the fact that the dismounted foot were trying to charge only the English men-at-arms, archers being too scummy and peasant-like to fight head on, and thus squeeze themselves into an even smaller gap.
The disorder was further increased by the fact that the English archers had now disposed of the French knights and were free to fire into the flanks of the advancing foot. It would have taken 3-4 minutes for the French to reach the English line, not including any delays occasioned by the need to avoid retreating horsemen. By the time they got there, they were unsupported, pin-cushioned, disordered, and exhausted: really no more than a heavily armoured mob.
Despite this, numbers and the sheer quality of the men and their equipment meant that they were still a formidable fighting force. The English line buckled at impact but, crucially, held: and a giant pushing match ensued. The French immediately facing the English were being shoved by both the enemy men-at-arms from the front and their comrades coming up from behind: not very conducive to combat effectiveness.
At this point the English archers intervened again. Downing their longbows, they attacked the flanks of the committed French columns. Individual knights, unbeatable one-on-one, were surrounded and dispatched as their mounted colleagues had been before. The first French line was almost totally destroyed.
The men-at-arms of the second French line arrived a few minutes later. Those not abandoning the fight immediately at the sight of their fallen comrades suffered entirely the same fate.
War Crimes Controversy
Both sides then paused for breath.
Despite their success so far, the English were still heavily outnumbered by the remaining French third line, so when news reached Henry of a successful French attack on the English baggage train (including the fact that one of his crowns had been stolen), he appears to have assumed that the French were on the verge of outflanking him. In fact, it appears that this “attack” was more of a looting party organised by the local squire and associated peasants.
The English had captured more prisoners than they could safely contain: around 4,000 according to some commentators. Henry ordered their execution: presumably to avoid them attempting to join in any further attacks on the English flank, overwhelming their captors and piling into the recovering English line from the inside.
The men-at-arms asked to carry out the executions refused: nobly concerned about how dishonourable it would be to slaughter a highborn enemy who had surrendered to them, and somewhat less nobly concerned about what the deaths would mean in terms of the ransom money they would receive by returning the captives alive. Henry had no problems, however, finding some archers to do the job. The slaughter began, only stopping once it was clear that the English had won.
A third French attack led by the Compte’s de Marle and de Fauquembergues was beaten off without any real difficulty, and the third French line began to slink away from the battlefield.
The English were triumphant!
Casualties & Aftermath
Almost half the existing French nobility had died or been taken prisoner.
Today, it’s hard to come to terms with how significant this was for France and the French throne. Perhaps the equivalent of half of all British MP’s being wiped out, or half the cast of Eastenders and Coronation Street combined.
The English had lost around 250 killed, but were so drained by the battle and circumstance that they could not take any real advantage of the situation. Henry ordered most of the loot to be burned, and continued his march to Calais.
Although in the next few years the English continued to win battles against the weakened French, and Henry was eventually made effective heir to the French throne, his death, in 1422, and the rise of Joan of Arc meant that within a couple of decades the only territory remaining to the English in France was the Guyenne region (Calais).
Wargaming Agincourt Using Vis Bellica
There are a couple of ways in which the battle can be re-fought.
Firstly, and most obviously, the field can be set out as described below, the French and English allowed to deploy as they wish, starting at their original positions, and the battle fought from there. Army sheets for both the English and French armies accompany this article. At correct game scale, the English army is a very manageable 450 points. The French army is more like 1,500 points, but could be represented using a smaller number of figures with bases recycled as they are removed.
The French should win that one every time.
Secondly, and more interestingly, the battle can be re-fought from the moment the first volley of English arrows is fired. Special rules for that are given below.
The Wargames Battlefield
The battlefield should be set out as described above.
The woods on either side of the open space should be Impassable terrain, the track in front of the French lines give no advantage to movement, and the ploughed, waterlogged, muddy quagmire remaining be Difficult terrain.
The width of the open ground should be 120” at the French lines, narrowing to about 100” at the second, advanced English position. For those re-fighting from scratch, the width at the original English lines should be about 80”.
The English line should be 28” in front of the French line (100” if starting from in front of Maisoncelles), and fronted by stakes that count as Light Works.
Vis Bellica army sheets for the two sides can be downloaded by clicking on the army names below:
Second Option - Start Positions
The English should start as described above: one brigade of archers on each wing, the dismounted men-at-arms in the centre. The archers should be fronted by stakes. All bases are marked with Hold orders.
Deployment for the French, however, is much more interesting.
- Place the bases comprising the flank cavalry brigades on the field and mark them as disordered. Roll 1d6 for each base. On a roll of 1-3, the base is counted as dismounted and must spend half of their first turn’s movement in re-mounting (don’t worry about horseholder bases). Do not place their Officers with them.
- Get all the dismounted men-at-arms bases for the army, and all Officer bases (i.e. all Leaders, Sub-Generals and the General) together, and make sure they are clearly marked as to which is what. Randomly picking one base at a time, including Officers, place them across the battlefield in between the two flanking cavalry brigades. Make a second line in the centre when necessary. Mark them all as disordered. This is now the French front line.
- Place all the remaining bases for the army (i.e. the mounted knights of the third line, the missilemen and the bombard) in another random line 10” behind the first two. Mark them all as being in disorder.
Second Option – Starting the Battle
The game begins as the English fire a volley of arrows in Sub-Phase 10: Stationary Shooting H/F. Once French casualties have been calculated, immediately mark orders as follows:
- All flank cavalry brigade bases are immediately marked with Attack-The Archers In Front of Us orders.
- All Officers except for the General are immediately marked with Attack orders.
- All remaining bases in the French front line are marked with Attack-The English Men-At-Arms orders.
- All other French bases are marked with Hold orders.
Calculate Officer Casualties and carry on from there.
Second Option – Analysis
The second option gives the French huge problems in beating the English, despite their superior numbers.
Their command structure is well and truly buggered by both the size of the brigades and the fact that their Officers seem to have forgotten their command responsibilities. Rather than being with their men, they are scattered throughout the army: either pushing forward to be first to attack the enemy or enjoying a light luncheon with friends.
With 28” between the two sides, it is going to take the mounted knights four turns to reach the English archers: finishing each movement phase in disorder. It’s going to take the EHI foot nine or ten turns to reach the English men-at-arms: presumably having to cope with some routing knights on their way as each brigade of enemy archers should be able to cause nine casualties per turn!
The only way for the French to win is if the English don’t manage to concentrate their fire wisely, or if they manage to issue enough orders to stop the first line charging forward out of control. With their Officers the worst culprits in the charging forward stakes, this will not be easy.
The Solo Game
Agincourt could even be fought as a solo game: with the player taking either of the two sides.
The game would start just as above, but the non-player side would be unable to change orders for the duration of the game.
Agincourt is a great battle to re-fight. Although the sides seem incredibly disproportionate, handicapping the superior numbers of French with the second option, above, evens things out to the extent that my money would probably be on the English.
As Henry says:
For he today who 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 abed shall think themselves acursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks, that fought with us upon St. Crispin's day!
This article reproduced from Wargames Journal (issue dated October 2003)