Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Arrows? Not

I love the History Channel and do not watch it often enough (we have our own in Canada - it is not the same as the US one).

Tonight we have a somewhat forensic examination of the Battle of Agincourt.

Already wonderful themes show up. The human drive to bureaucracy is stunning - even in 1415 there are apparently lists of all the individuals who went with Henry to France, and of all those who returned! So some poor historian can plough through the apparently 7000 names and figure out who did and did not make it back. If she can decipher all that strange writing. And the likelihood that the names on the two lists are spelled differently.

Another - this show is characterizing the English forces as a motley array of paid soldiers, the French as a largely aristocratic crew, numbering 20,000. Seems like a lot of aristocrats to me.

Now, apparently, the archers had to be paid for, and there was a contract for the services provided. It lays out in detail what services would be rendered to Henry. So as it turns out there were 5500 archers and only 1500 knights. An impressive gamble?

But it turns out when one examines the pay rates, archers cost half of what the knights cost. And Henry had pawned the crown jewels to fund his exercise, and so was constrained financially. So archers were more cost-effective.

A scientific analysis (must be, they use computers) seems to show that the English arrows would NOT have penetrated the French armour. Now this IS interesting. It rather shatters my understanding of how the English prevailed. They do grant that the arrows would have killed the horses of the cavalry.

And the show asks the cruel question. Not how the English won, outnumbered 3-1. But .... how did the French lose?

The bottom line seems to be that the muddy conditions were very unfriendly to the French armor, causing the knights to bog down, not so much because of the weight, but just the stickiness of the contact between the mud and smooth surfaces of their outfits. The English were not in armor and this did not pose the same problem. Moreover, the terrain forced the battle to be conducted in a narrow funnel commanded by Henry's forces, neutralizing the advantage of numbers.

I do wonder how right all this is. But the show is well worth watching, so look out for it on your History Channel! I love to have the things I once knew turn out to be wrong.

On that one day around 4000 French soldiers died (almost no English). A grim milestone in one day! It seems from much of what I read that people today have no sense of what battles and costs have preceded and made our world. Not that this battle sounds particularly productive.

Many of the dead were apparently prisoners of war, that Henry ordered killed. The historian being interviewed thinks it may have been tactically necessary as he had too many prisoners in hand with the battle still not decided.

On the other hand there is some great spin, the greatest spin ever, perhaps:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day 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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.


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