Sunday, October 25, 2009

This Day in History - October 25

1415- The Battle of Agincourt

During the Hundred Years' War, Henry the Fifth had led a force of 11,000 men into France to enforce English claims to territory in the North of France. Henry had just successfully completed a siege at the town of Harfleur in Normandy. But Henry had lost about half of his force to disease and wounds in the siege of Harfleur and he was hoping to reach the port of Calais and retreat to England for the winter.

However, the French massed an army 20,000 strong and cut off the English at Agincourt.The English Army had marched 250 miles in seventeen days and many of the soldiers were suffering from dysentery. The English soldiers were almost all common foot soldiers, with fewer than 1,000 of them being heavily armored knights. The French forces had many more mounted knights than the English. The French knight was the main battle tank of the day, fast, nearly invulnerable, and able to mete out an amazing amount of pain and damage. They represented an enormous outpouring of wealth and effort. The Feudal system of the day taught many children of the upper classes absolutely nothing but how to fight. No other skill was valued as highly. The horses, weapons, and especially armor of the cavalier were immensely expensive. The complicated and advanced plate armor was custom made by artisans of the highest skill and was designed to protect the wearer from all weapons.

The French attacked in the late morning and they were slowed by boggy and wet ground. King Henry had made himself very visible from the start of the battle, surrounding himself with banners and enticing the French knights to advance up the hill, into the range of his archers. The rules of war at the time usually had captured knights ransomed, often for very large sums of money. This even was the case with Kings and as a result, everyone was eager to capture someone important and become rich. The French were in three rows (or battles) and the highest ranking Noblemen were in the first row. They felt that their bravery and skill would sweep the common soldiers of England off the field.The English longbow had a range much greater than that of the French archers and was outfitted with a pyramidal arrowhead designed to punch through the heaviest armor. The field was close to 1,000 yards long and bordered by woods on both sides, giving an advantage to Henry's smaller and lighter force.

French men at arms and knights, over eager to gain glory and fame on the battlefield, pressed forward into range of the longbows. As the cavalry made their way towards the English lines, they were met with withering fire from the English longbowmen. The armor of the cavaliers, so expensive and beautiful, failed to protect them from the yard long arrows of the English from more than 300 yards away.The French cavalry was suddenly stuck far out in front of their own lines. They had the forest blocking them in on the flanks, and the English had set a line of sharpened stakes in front of their position. As more and more soldiers fell to the rain of arrows, the mobility of the cavalry was further compromised by corpses and wounded horses. At this point Henry ordered his lightly armed men at arms and archers to charge and the trapped Frenchmen were massacred.

Nearly 6,000 Frenchmen were killed during the Battle of Agincourt, many of them from noble families. It marked an end to the era of heavy cavalry as the most important arm of an army. The French nobility was severely weakened as well, and in many respects never recovered. English deaths amounted to just over 400, making it one of the most one sided battles of the era. Outnumbered three to one, Henry V had won one of the greatest victories of English military history. Five years later, Henry was made the Dauphin and Regent of France after winning several more victories. Henry the Fifth died only two years later from "camp fever" near Paris. He would have likely continued his conquest of France and would have greatly changed the face of history had he lived even ten more years.

1854- The Charge of the Light Brigade

October 25 is both a good day and sad day for the British though, as it also marks one of the saddest events in British military history. During the Crimean War, Lord James Cardigan received an order to attack with his Light Brigade cavalry against Russian artillery positions.
The British Army had been winning the Battle of Balaclava (which is where we get a fancy name for a ski mask today) when Cardigan received his order to attack. The Russian artillery turned out to be very heavily defended and there was no clear avenue of attack.
His cavalry bravely charged down into the valley and were destroyed by the massed fire of heavy Russian guns on three sides, suffering over 40 percent casualties.

Later it was discovered that the order was a mistake and the result of the "fog of war". Lord Cardigan, who survived the battle, is hailed as a national hero in Britain. The Charge of the Light Brigade, as it came to be known, was a prime example of old tactics and strategies being thoroughly discredited by modern weapons. By 1854, small arms and artillery were many times more effective than they had been 50 or 100 years before, but tactics were largely unchanged. This lead to the deaths of thousands of soldiers in the Crimean War and can also be clearly seen in the American Civil War and WWI. "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle" is a common term to describe this "plan" of attack. While there do arise cases where a frontal attack is necessary and the only choice, it rarely is a good idea. Casualties will always be high, many times unacceptably so. Success is far from guaranteed.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is probably most famous for being the subject of a poem by Lord Tennyson that some get to read in high school.

Half a league, half a league,
  Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

I suppose it is a nice poem, if you like such things, but I doubt if anyone who was there to see the 278 wounded and dying men and 335 dead or dying horses would put it in such nice terms.

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