Strategic lessons from the Battle of Agincourt
Miracle, Dare-devilry or Strategy by default
Ajit Rao, Consultant Mu-Sigma
The battle of Agincourt was fought on Friday, October 25, 1414. This was an amazing victory of Henry V’s small, exhausted and starving army against a larger, well fed and superior armored army. This article is my tribute to this battle 604 years ago.
Henry V was an ambitious young man and landed in France on 15 August, with 12,000 soldiers and laid siege to the port city of Harfleur. The city was captured but Henry’s army was suffered from the flux (dysentery). Henry V, ignored the advice of his counselors to return back to England after the victory over Harfleur. Anything less than a complete defeat of the French army was not acceptable to him. Clarence, one of Henry’s counselors went back to England leaving Henry with an army of 5000 archers and about a 1000 men-at-arms.
Henry and his small army marched towards Calais. The army was small, suffering from hunger and flux but was highly disciplined and motivated. The men-at-arms were always willing to dismount and fight alongside the archers who were their social inferiors. At Agincourt, every archer was instructed to make a stake to protect themselves from the heavy cavalry onslaught of the French army. The long bow is a bow that is as tall as a man and allows the archer to shoot great distances.
The English army found themselves against the French force at Agincourt. The French army was 36,000 in size and outnumbered the English army by a factor of 6! The French army included more than 4000 archers, thousands of cross bowmen, heavy cavalry and about 8000 men-at-arms in just the first line of attack. The French army being on home ground had access to food and shelter. The French knights were heavily armored which offered them protection from the arrows but would prove to be a major weakness in the slushy plains of Agincourt.
The plains of Agincourt, however offered a great advantage to the English army. The flanks were protected by woods and hence the battle field had become narrow. The plains had been ploughed recently and hence the ground was muddy and soft. The English army waited for the French to attack that did not come. The French had no reason to hurry; they had the home advantage including food and shelter. Every hour weakened the English.
On the 24th night, it rained again and the fields became even more muddy and slushy. Henry V, knew, like the French that time was not on his side. He also knew that his best option was a defensive strategy rather than an offensive one given the state of his army. Henry V decided to provoke the French by moving his army closer to the French army. This proved advantageous as the French cavalry would have a smaller space to maneuver. Henry organized his army in a single row, across the plain and between the woods. The archers were at the flanks and the men-at-arms at centre under Henry’s personal command. There were no reserves and hence nowhere to escape should the English be defeated. The line of the English soldiers was protected by the sharp stakes in front.
The French were optimistic of a victory, they spent the 24th night in their tents drinking wine and eating good food while the English soldiers spent the rainy night in the open plains. The French realized that the ground sloped towards the English army and narrowed into a funnel the closer one got to the stakes. They also realized that the ground was muddy, soft and slushy. However on the sunny morning of 25th October, they decided to pursue their plans and attacked, perhaps somewhat over confident.
The French were organized in 3 rows – the frontline, a second line and a rear guard. The cavalry were organized along the flanks. The French opened the attack by sending their frontline cavalry at the flanks into English archers. However, the soft mud slows down the French cavalry and heavily clad French men-at-arms who had to negotiate knee deep mud. In the meantime, the English shower of arrows starts hitting the horses and the soldiers. The terrified horses, wounded, turn back, trampling the French soldiers in frontline. The cavalry turns back into the dismounted second line and throwing them into chaos and confusion. The piled up dead soldiers and horses create more barriers in the slushy mud slowing down the French army and making them easy targets of the English archers. Despite this slaughter, the French soldiers reach the English line. The English men-at-arms supported by the archers armed now with mallets, axes and daggers to cut, thrust and slash at the faltering French. The English archers also fired arrows point blank, with devastating effect. The battle went on for 3 hours and the English grew tried as the French bodies piled up. Henry was paranoid that the French prisoners would take up arms and hence had all of them slaughtered.
The French sources put the number of dead French soldiers between 4000 and 10,000 and the English at about a 1,500. The English sources put the number of French dead between 1,500 and 11,000 and the English deaths at around 100.
The English victory was miraculous. Henry and his army were clearly out-numbered but displayed extreme courage to take on a larger, better equipped, well fed army. The French lost the home advantage perhaps due to over confidence. The rain, the recently ploughed plains were clearly not part of the design but worked in favor of the English. The French leadership in my view was also lacking. They could very well have delayed the attack, time was on their side. Also for some inexplicable reason the French did not use their archers and crossbows in the attack, reinforcing my view that leadership was poor. The French leadership could have positioned half the army in front of the English line and the rest of the army could have circled around the woods to attack the English from the rear. This would have been possible because they had the numbers, however they lacked this foresight.