Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Don't Bring a Longbow to a Gun Fight

Here is my last post for the time being at least on the Hundred Years War. Fittingly enough it is on the subject of the last engagement of that war; the Battle of Castillon in 1453. In its way Castillon was as seminal as Crecy, for just as that engagement heralded the arrival of the long bow as a battle-winning weapon that would secure a century of English ascendancy, so at Castillon the cannon came of age to play a decisive part in the battle.

The initiative in the war had turned decisively in favour of the French in the aftermath of the Battle of Formigny in 1450. This had been a disastrous defeat for the English under Sir Thomas Kyriell. An English army of 4000 men had been forced into an indefensible position and all but annihilated by a superior French force. Following this battle the French had overrun all Normandy and reclaimed it for King Charles VII, whilst refugees poured across the channel. In the following year the French had invaded the English territory of Guyenne, culminating in the seizure of Bordeaux.

Battle of Formigny

In England there was widespread outrage. The Duke of Suffolk; whom many blamed for the debacle of the loss of Normandy and accused of conniving with the French, was arrested and beheaded with six strokes of a rusty sword.

The expedition of 1452 led by the septuagenarian Lord Talbot represented the last throw of the dice for the English to regain their territories in Guyenne and was supported by a widespread popular uprising. The following spring found Talbot advancing at the head of 6000 men towards a French army of 9000 who were laying siege to the town of Castillon.

Upon arrival Talbot received false intelligence that the French were fleeing. In fact under the direction of master-gunner Jean Bureau the French had dug in and were ready for a fight.

The French camp was a well-constructed affair, protected by an earth rampart, palisade and ditch and designed to allow the 300 French guns to enfilade their attackers.

Talbot, convinced that his enemies would not stand, thought to over-run the French camp and began an immediate attack with the forces that were to hand, not waiting for his whole army to come up. The English advanced in columns against the French with men at arms to the fore and archers to the rear. They did not lack for courage that day but it was a foolhardy enterprise and slaughter was the result as the English pressed forward; attempting to cross the ditch and storm the ramparts, only to be torn apart by murderous cannon fire at point blank range. The English nevertheless pressed on with the attack for a full hour as fresh men reached the battlefield and were thrown forward into the fray.

Talbot himself, the only man on horseback, had refused to wear armour in accordance with an oath he had sworn upon being ransomed from captivity following the fall of Caen. Instead, cloaked in purple, he offered an obvious target for the French gunners and a well-aimed cannonball struck his horse. Pinned beneath the stricken animal, old Talbot was hacked to pieces as a counter charge from the French camp swept away the broken English and further French reinforcements arrived to take them in the flank. By the time that Bureau’s guns fell silent, four thousand Englishmen lay dead. It was as profound an illustration of a change in the game of war as that made on the Western Front in 1914.

                                                                                                                                    Battle of Castillon
Within a few months of the Battle of Castillon, King Henry VI had lost his mind and Richard Duke of York had taken power in his stead. England stood on the brink of the Wars of the Roses; that murderous civil conflict ensuring that the territory lost in France would remain lost forever. The One Hundred Years War was at an end.

Just two months before the flower of English chivalry were mown down at Castillon by French guns, another event of world changing proportions had occurred. At the other end of Europe the mighty walls of Constantinople, which had repelled invaders from east and west for a thousand years were at last breached by the massive siege artillery of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror who then took the city, snuffing out at last the venerable Empire of Byzantium. The age of the gun had truly dawned.




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