Vastly outnumbered, trapped and in close terrain, facing hunger and disease, your flight to safe harbor cut off, what do you do? Attack. And win.
Henry V’s stunning defeat of the French on October 25, 1415 is famous to most folks as the setting of the oft quoted Saint Crispin’s Day speech by Shakespeare. But military historians also have long studied the battle as an example of how to fight outnumbered and win.
Henry V, already King of England, also claimed the title of King of France. As with so much else in the Hundred Years War, that claim was disputed. English kings had long claimed dominion over swaths of the French coastline. And truth be told, Henry V’s claim to the French crown was more an opening bargaining position, leverage to gain concessions from Charles VI. Charles VI, while willing to make concessions, wasn’t willing to grant the entirety of the lands Henry sought. France had been chipping away at English held lands in France for decades. Conceding any more than necessary seemed foolish.
Negotiations having failed, Henry V launched a campaign to regain control of the port town of Harfleur. From August to early October, Henry’s forces besieged and later occupied the town. With the end of summer, the traditional campaigning season, Henry decided to retire his back to England. Disease had weakened his ranks, and the poor weather approaching would only worsen that situation. But rather than redeploying directly from Harfleur, Henry decided to “show the flag” throughout Normandy, reminding the locals that he had an army that could travel the region at will, and depart from Calais.
The French had moved to raise an army to challenge Henry. While this force was not ready in time to relieve the siege of Harfleur, the French saw an opportunity to run Henry to ground and destroy his force.
After about two weeks of maneuvering, the French finally succeeded in blocking Henry’s route of escape to Calais. Near the village of Agincourt, the French held the northern end of a small gap in the woods. To get home, Henry would have to fight.
Henry had a force of roughly 1500 “men at arms”- that is, armored knights fighting as heavy dismounted infantry. In addition, he had approximately 7000 longbowmen.
The French were far more numerous. Historians were a bit less fastidious back then so estimates vary widely, but it is generally accepted the French had around 10,000 men at arms, and several thousand archers and crossbowmen.
English doctrine at the time would normally have dictated that Henry stand of the defensive and allow the French to attack him. That had been the tactic at Crecy. And given that Henry’s force had been forced marched some 250 miles in two weeks, and was already weakened by disease, Henry probably would have preferred to defend. But the French, having blocked Henry’s route, were in no great hurry to attack. If they could keep him contained just a day or so longer, additional overwhelming forces could arrive and strike his forces in the rear. In military terms, this is a “double envelopment.” The destruction of Henry’s forces would be almost guaranteed.
Henry, realizing French offers of negotiations were a delaying tactic, seized the initiative. He attacked. But no headlong charge, this. Henry moved his line forward to a natural choke point between the woods, where the field was only about 750 yards across. He halted here with his flanks secured by the woods and arrayed his men-at-arms in line. Meanwhile, his longbowmen, arrayed on either flank, advanced to within range (about 300 yards) of the French. The French planned to scatter the English archers with a cavalry attack, but were caught off guard by the English advance. As soon as the English archers reached their positions, they dug in long pointed spears, or palings, at a low angle to ward of any cavalry charge (similar to what you may have seen in Braveheart). In range, the archers began their volleys.
The French were thus baited into joining the battle. The French cavalry charge was disorganized and lacked weight. The cavalry was unable to turn the archers flanks because of the thick woods, and unable to penetrate the line due to the archers palings.
With the failure of the cavalry charge, the French main body advanced to join the battle. They faced two main challenges. First, the open field had recently been ploughed, making any movement slow and arduous. Having volleys of arrows falling upon them didn’t help any. Second, the first echelon of French men-at-arms was so large on such a narrow front that men were crowded together so tightly there wasn’t room to swing a dead cat, let alone a broadsword. When the French cavalry retreated from its rebuff against the archers, it fell back through the first of the French main body, causing further confusion.
When the first French echelon finally reached Henry’s forces, is was more a mob than a military formation. And it paid a price. While it had some success in pushing Henry’s line back, it failed to penetrate the line. The second echelon of French forces arrived and simply ended up stacked up behind the first. On such a narrow front, they simply couldn’t get through the crowd to reach the English. Soon they too lost their formation and were a milling mob. Having marched hundreds of yards over muddy terrain wearing heavy armor, French forces were badly fatigued. Still, the sheer weight of the assault would have eventually worn down the English. But Henry’s forces had one counterstroke left.
The English archers, having exhausted their supply of arrows, surged forward from their positions. Abandoning their longbows for swords, they slammed into the French flanks and a melee ensued. Unencumbered by armor, and swifter of foot without armor, they were able to quickly kill, wound or simply topple over thousands of the French men-at-arms. Knocked into the mud wearing 60 pounds of armor meant just getting back on your feet was an almost impossible task. They had little choice but to surrender and beg quarter.
Henry’s forces had decisively defeated the first two waves of the French attack. Thousands of prisoners had been taken. But there was still a third echelon of French forces, and even it outnumbered the English. Normally, captured men-at-arms were held for ransom. A knight who captured two or three French knights could look forward to receiving enough ransom to offset his costs of serving his king, and still probably have enough for a tidy profit. But Henry still faced that third wave of Frenchmen, who appeared to be gathering for their own assault. Accordingly, he ordered all prisoners put to the sword. This was an unpopular decision, but within the accepted laws of war at the time. A relative handful of the most noble blooded prisoners were spared, mostly as droits of the crown.
Seeing the utter defeat of the first two waves, the remaining French forces quit the field and fled to safety. The battle was over.
It was a decisive victory. But Henry’s immediate objective remained unchanged, to return to England. In less than a month, Henry would be in London, hailed a conquering hero. The military victory solidified his political force at home. Further, it reinforced in Continental minds the English superiority at arms. The defeat also caused great dissention amongst the various factions in France. This dissention would mean future expeditions to France would face an enemy that lacked unity and were easier to defeat or discourage.
Fast forward almost 600 years, and you’ll find that NATO faced some of the same challenges as Henry.
The NATO powers were greatly outnumbered by the forces of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. Similarly, the for the NATO forces, retreat wasn’t really an option, though for different reasons. Normally, an outnumbered force would look to trade space for time, attriting the enemy in a series of small battles, but never being pinned to one battlefield, always retreating before they could be destroyed. But politically, NATO forces had to hold the line as far forward as possible. Besides, as big as Western Europe is, there is only so much room to retreat before Soviet forces would have reached the Atlantic.
In the post-Vietnam era, GEN William DePuy and other thinkers were striving to develop a doctrine that would allow the outnumbered Western powers to fight outnumbered and win. They started with a careful consideration of history. I don’t know for a fact that they studied Agincourt, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t come across it at some point. One of the things they did learn, however, was that outnumbered forces, even overwhelmingly outnumbered forces, seemed to win just about as often as they lost. What did the winners have in common? Quite often, they had what the authors of AirLand Battle Doctrine came to call “agility.”
Agility is far more than the physical quickness we might think of, such as an outstanding running back. That was an imp0rtant component, to be sure. But the other part was an ability to see and evaluate risks and opportunities faster than the opposing force. Henry was quickly able to grasp that the terrain at Agincourt offered him an opportunity to nullify the French advantage in numbers. The French, on the other hand, wasted any opportunity their delaying tactics provided to shape the coming battle. Henry’s force was far more agile, both in the mental sense, and in the physical sense of his longbowmen not being overly burdened.
AirLand Battle doctrine saw a scenario where a US division might have to defeat as many as nine Soviet divisions. By carefully choosing where to meet the Soviets, they could force them to become congested along narrow fronts, providing a rich array of targets for US tanks, while also striking deep with artillery to prevent follow on echelons from lending their own weight to the battle. Artillery, attack helicopters, and air strikes, much like the archers of old, would sow confusion among following Soviet forces. It’s not an accident that the AH-64D Apache is nicknamed “Longbow” as they were intended to slip along the flanks and attack the second echelon of Soviet forces before they joined the battle.
And while artillerymen and Apaches couldn’t fall upon the flanks and fight hand to hand, every US division and corps commander would constantly be looking for the opportunity to slip a brigade into position to slam into an unguarded Soviet flank, especially when he could bloody their noses by making them attack positions strong enough to cause congestion and confusion.
There’s a hoary old saying that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. And at the strategic level, that’s true to some extent. But that doesn’t mean the professional ignores tactics. At the operational and tactical level, where the fighting is actually done, the professional soldier, to some extent, just has to take it on faith that his logistics train will keep up. Accordingly, he must be more tactically proficient than his foe, and equipped with a doctrine that emphasizes his strengths and exploits his enemy’s weaknesses. A careful study of history shows there is rarely something new under the sun.
As to Shakespeare’s most excellent speech in Henry V, and its powerful message on morale, moral strength and the Band of Brothers, perhaps we’ll cover that in our birthday message next year.