Crécy.

by Daniel Russ on June 3, 2014

 

515px-Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_Crécy

 

 

Edward III Counts The Dead After The Battle Of Crécy

 

 

At the end of this long bell weather day, the flower of the French aristocracy, some of the most important and influential and wealthy people in Europe lay in death’s repose across a battlefield. It was a shocking thing that had happened that day on the interior of the Normandy province. A clash between not just empires, but a clash between two political classes, one was defined by wealth and grandeur and status. The other class was the commoner, poor illiterate British men who owned a longbow, a weapon made of wood, and they would vanquish a thousand French Knights, festooned in the finest European steel armor in the world, mounted on trained healthy and expensive horses, followed by indentured handlers. The peasant army thoroughly whipped the oligarchs. The simple and effective longbow as the perfect battlefield leveler in impecunious times.

 

Edward III was bucking to make himself King of France. In fact many of the lands he crossed and plundered were inside territory the crown claimed and many English people had settled there in Normandy as it was officially a realm of England. On July 11th, 1346, 15,000 English troops, led by Phillip VI and Edward, the Black Prince, crossed the channel and landed just south of Calais. Over half the men were Longbowmen, and another 5000 English archer were mounted. The remainder were foot soldiers who wield pikes to fend off cavalry charges and swords to finished downed knights. His force wasted no time and took Caen and other smaller villages by surprise.

 

The English attack plan was to march north and take town along the Seine. When they learned a large French force was approaching to cut them off, they tried to cross the river, however mounted and fast moving French forces burned the bridges and forced the English to march northwards along the riverside. Then they came to the Somme. Fearing that his forces would be corned, he offered a large bribe and found takers there that handily showed him where he could ford the Somme and continue to the coast. Edward III was not avoiding open war. He was looking for better battleground.

 

He found it.

 

On August 11th, 1346, Edward III found a place to confront the French Knights, near the town of Crécy. On the north side of the battlefield featured a 2000 meter long ridge line. This is where Edward put his archers, positioning them along the top and the length of the ridge. He formed them into a V shape pointing the V into the valley below. Behind them, were more mounted archers ready to exploit openings. The English troops were divided into three battalions. The vanguard forces were led by Edward, the Black Prince. The central force was led by King Edward III. The Earl of Northampton led the third battalion.

 

Below the ridge line, the battlefield itself was an open plain about 500 yards wide by 1000 yards long. The south side of the battlefield was divided by a river on one end and a thickly wooded hill at the other. In between the river and the hill was a narrow entrance to the battlefield, the only way for thousands of French knights to enter into the fray.

 

The violence of the attacks he made infuriated the French upper classes, many were living around Paris in mansions and palaces, surrounded by lush estates.  Phillip VI, King of France, and John, King of Bohemia assembled a combined force of 30,000 men, a mix of powerful knights, some infantry, and Genovese crossbowmen.

 

While the commoners wielding longbows  that were longer than some of the operators, while the English had tight lines, good field of fire and good leadership, the situation on the French side from the first moment was a disaster. The battle itself was won in part because the English were disciplined, experienced, blooded troops. The French were  effete egotists driving for social gain. The English invasion force was something like Sherman marching through Georgia. They provisioned themselves by purloining what goods and food they came upon. They were there after all to strike terror in the hearts of the French and to begin a fight. By the time Edward had chosen his place to stand and fight, the French were behind them by a day. The English had a chance to eat and rest and it made all the difference in the world.

 

The battle is on.

 

The French Knights apparently had taken the peasant bowmen and pikemen of Edward’s bedraggled army for granted. When Phillip entered the battlefield, he did not have tight command and control of his numerous mounted troops and they did not  march onto the battlefield. They rushed through the narrow gap between the river and the hill. In the rush to give battle there were no disciplined lines on the French side. They literally crushed knights in front of them because there was a push from behind generated by ambitious French knights who couldn’t wait for their turn at glory. The Longbowmen took advantage of the French gallimaufry and launched volley after volley into the Knights lines. That said, the French pushed the exhausted Genovese Crossbowmen into position in the front lines before they were ready and expected them to hold off the English.

 

The Genovese Crossbowmen had been marching all day long through rain and their bows were wet which made them ineffective. Some of the Genovese did not have a chance to unpack their crossbows or their body armor, the pavises, and so the entire line was unprepared when the English began letting loose. The pavises would have provided some protection from the longbow during reload cycles. The Genovese crossbow could only fire 2 rounds  minute. The Longbowmen could put 7 arrows in the air in the same amount of time. The 7500 Longbowmen  filled the air with 12,000 to 15,000 arrows in a minute. French historian Jean Devenette criticized King Phillip’s “undue haste.” He describes the English Longbowmen’s arrows: “rain coming from heaven and the skyies which were formerly bright, suddenly darkened.” The Genovese crossbow had a shorter effective range than the longbow. So the Genovese were running forward to achieve a firing distance, but the arrows that rained down from Longbowmen was too much

 

The Genovese were decimated by the Longbowmen and so they suddenly broke ranks and fled. Behind them, French Knights cut them down for cowardice. Before long, thousands more corpses clogged the battlefield below the English lines.

 

Throughout the day and flying the oriflamme flag – indicating no quarter will be given to prisoners, French Knights made charge after charge at the English lines, their horses struggling to negotiate a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers and horses and the armamentarium left behind in warfare. Each charge left more dead and the littered battlefield made it impossible for the French knights to form lines. Meanwhile, while most of the English arrows bounced off armor, enough of them landed in the gaps in armor. French soldiers fell with arrows sticking out of armor, their feet, their hands, their ankles, and arms and backs. Like pincushions, they fought on as hard as they could through the rain of arrows. Horses were faring no better and literally thousands of them lay dead in the first few hours.

 

At the end of the day 10,000 French lay dead or mortally wounded, and 1500 nobles were among them. The English lost about 300. It was a rout of the exalted at the hands of the poor. Witnesses say the first lines were forced into the second lines. There are some who say the Knights charged into the night. This is possible. What this really means is that the Longbow proved its might as it would for at least another hundred years.

 

527px-Battle_of_Crécy,_26_August_1346

 

 

 

Sources: Wikipedia commons, The Seventy Great Batt;e In History by Jeremy Black. Thames and Hudson 2005

 

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

jrj1701 June 4, 2014 at 6:55 pm

I heard a tale once that the French would cut off the middle finger of any British yeoman they found to keep them from being able to use a bow. During battle the bowmen would display their middle finger to demonstrate that they could still use their bow. I don’t know if that was true but it sure sounds cool.

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