Why did the French lose the Battle of Agincourt when they outnumbered the English 4 to 1 and had all the advantages of fighting on land they knew well?
The task that King Henry V had set himself and his troops seemed an almost impossible one.
Indeed the men themselves were resigned to losing the battle. Exhausted by disease and the fact that they had been marching for weeks on end, they kissed the ground before they fought, believing they would be dead before the end of the day.
But it was the French who lost and the English who won. So what happened that day on the 25th October 1415, to turn the tide of events? As in most things there are multiple reasons why the French lost the battle but first a little of the background.
On the 11th August 1415, King Henry V sailed from Southampton in Hampshire with 10,000 men
He landed at Harfleur and fought hard for six weeks, losing nearly a quarter of his men before the town finally surrendered. This gave the French time to muster a large army of men, nearly 30,000 troops compared to King Henry’s 7,000.
Henry tried to run his exhausted English troops back to Calais and avoid entering into combat but he found their way blocked as the three divisions of the French army surrounded them.
Henry made the best of the situation, arranging his troops so that the French were forced to move towards them down a pinched front line, squeezed by the woods of Agincourt Castle. They drove stakes into the ground and waited for the onslaught but impatient with waiting, Henry took command and ordered battle to commence, taking the enemy by surprise.
What then compounded the French problem?
- The sheer number of troops made it difficult to direct them and ill discipline compounded the problem. They lacked someone of the authority of King Henry, who led his troops in an authoritative manner
- The French moved too many men en mass, the result was that in the narrowness of the front the men were packed too closely together, unable to load and fire their crossbows and bows and swing their arms carrying swords and axes.
- As the front line tried to move forward, their progress was slowed by the volley of arrows unleashed by the English longbows. As men fell and horses became frantic, pierced by the arrows, those coming up behind them trampled them. It was difficult to maneuver in the narrow lie or get out of the way.
- Two weeks of rain had turned the ploughed land into a bog, as men fell their faces were pushed down into the earth and they drowned in the mud.
- The French wore a very heavy armour, much heavier than the English soldier wore, between 50kg – 60kg. It was difficult to move in and the treacherous mud made it even more difficult.
The French quite possibly were out trained, out disciplined and out resourced in terms of weapons
- The English archers may have been out numbered but their superior skills and fine long bows were to prove fatal to the advancing French troops. A trained archer could shoot six arrows a minute. The range of the arrow was incredible. A well aimed arrow could wound a man at 400 yards, kill him at 200 and penetrate armour at 100 yards.
- Henry had taken a trained and disciplined army to France. The House of Commons had granted Henry a large sum of money for this battle as had the church. The soldiers were well paid, fed and resourced. The archers were a well trained crack force, whose job in life was to fire a longbow and they were experts.
The French were over confident, they never considered they might lose and had brought a gaily painted cart to the battlefield on which they expected to trundle the captured king.
The thing they thought their biggest advantage, man power, had in fact been their biggest problem. Too many ill disciplined men, showing complacency and a lack of respect for their leaders.
At the end of the day, 8,000 French soldiers died and 1,600 were taken prisoner compared to the English loss of just 500 men.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he today 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 accurs’d they were not here
And hold their manhood cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon St. Crispin’s Day
(Henry V by William Shakespeare)