The Development of Battle Tactics in the Hundred Years War
By Matthew Bennett
Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War, edited by Anne Curry and Michael Hughes (Boydell, 1994)
Introduction: It is a common aphorism that the history of war is too important to be left to military historians. They tend to be seen as obsessed with battle with no further interest or wider understanding of the warring societies. In truth, they have done themselves no favours in the past by emphasising ‘decisive’ victories. This overvalues the long-term impact of even the most significant battle and distorts by undervaluing the other, far more common, activities of raid, attrition, fortification and siege in the warfare of any period.
By their very nature battles are ephemeral events, and historians have to rely upon largely subjective accounts in reconstructing them. Some consider this an uncongenial or even inappropriate task for their profession. `Real’ history is to be found in the study of `real’ information, such as can be found in the administrative records of governments: musters lists, tax records, accounts, diplomatic correspondence, building records and so on. Biased and `journalistic’ reportage of chroniclers and government propagandists or the partial and often confused recollection of participants scarcely qualifies as history. Furthermore, the study of battles has tended to be conducted by soldiers.
There may seem nothing wrong with this, but it has led to them drawing upon their own military experience of modern warfare without making due allowance for the differences of another place and time. Just as the historians might benefit from some practical experience of, for example, `living in the field’, the soldier historians’ often impressionistic accounts need more historical rigour. They tend to be critical of medieval commanders and their forces on grounds that are simply not valid for their times. This is true of Lt-Col. A.H. Bume, still the most well-known military historian of the Hundred Years’ War.
He deserves credit for the work he did in exploring battlefields and his observations may be perceptive. But he was guilty of missing the point about how medieval warfare was conducted, by concentrating on battles alone. He was even capable of saying of the period 1369-1396 (when the bulk of the English king’s continental possessions fell into the hands of his French rival) that: `The war (was) lacking in military interest, for there was remarkably little actual fighting’. When the fortresses which guarded Aquitaine were being lost this is nonsense! As a result historians have tended to see the study of battles as a field for cranks and `enthusiasts’. Since understanding a battle requires study of the tactics employed by the protagonists, tactics have been tarred with the same brush. Surely they cannot be important in comparison to the great moving forces of history exemplified by economic, demographic, medical, governmental and ideological factors?
Yet if it is valid to study the impact of religious reform movements in the later middle ages, then it should be acceptable to look at tactics, since both were important areas of intellectual concern. The former has a higher status, because intellectual religiosity has a long literary tradition and so it can be studied. In contrast, military theorising was part of an oral, vernacular and secular culture, which rarely survives in writing. In fact, from the early fifteenth century there is written evidence that military commanders were capable of innovating, experimenting and setting down how warfare should be conducted and how battles should be fought. Above all they were capable of learning from experience, a talent which is almost never ascribed to the medieval military mind.
So tactics were important. They were important because failure to employ correct tactics could have a profound political impact, in a period when national leaders fought in the front rank of battle. In this context, clearly, time and intellectual energy were spent in discussing and attempting to put into effect, tactical variation. Attempting, for the medieval host was an unwieldly instrument for innovation. This not because it was made up solely of part-time soldiers; the hunting classes and their retainers at war, although there was always an element of that, In England, especially, many men made war their trade, and by the mid-fourteenth century there were substantial groups of men-at-arms and archers who might be considered professionals: they fought for pay and made their careers in the military service of the state. The indenture system promoted this situation. (That is to say a system of raising troops by contracts with individuals and their followings, from simple squires to men of high noble rank.) Fighting together over a season or over years such men learnt how to deploy tactically, both quickly and efficiently, and how to combine horse, foot and missile weapons to best effect. This is what made the English and their (chiefly) Gascon allies such good soldiers during the Hundred Years War. The French and their allies rarely achieved the same level of battlefield efficiency, even after Charles V1I’s reforms of the 1440s.
It is important to identify what tactics are. A recent, most widely read and otherwise excellent textbook on the Hundred Years’ War confuses tactics with strategy. The chevauchee is explained in terms of ‘Fabian tactics’, which is to say: a policy of defeating an opponent without the risks of battle.6 But the chevauchee (literally a `ride’) was a raiding strategy, inflicting economic damage and so weakening an enemy’s political and moral authority in the ravaged region. The misuse of the word tactics in the strict sense means that they are not discussed as an important factor. As a result, the French reaction to English tactics which was a continuing development from the 1340s to the 1450s – the duration of the war – is not considered.