Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Down the Memory Hole
An Unknown French Victory of the Hundred Years War

du Guesclin
The Hundred Years war between England and France is not just interesting in and of itself but also of interest in how it is portrayed in modern day historical consciousness. In England for example we get detailed treatment of the battles of Sluys, Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt and Verneuil.1
The English kings Edward III and especially Henry V are given what amounts to rock star adulation by historians, generally English. The celebration of their heroism and brilliance is never ending.

Shakespeare's history plays Henry IV parts one and two and of course Henry V2 celebrate England's great warrior king with oceans of adulation and generally speaking the adulation continues with thick massive books talking about Henry V's Agincourt campaign.3 The celebration of this campaign goes on and on along with a decidedly negative view of the French and their leaders.4

Thus when we get to periods where the French were successful we get vastly less interest from English historians. And any coverage of this time period is shall we say decidedly slanted.

Thus the period of the reign of Charles V, (r. 1364-1380), of France. After the celebratory period of Edward III and his son The Black Prince (Another Edward), where the English won the battles of Sluys, Crecy and Poitiers we get the period during which the English lost all their gains.

Of course why the English were able to make such massive gains before the reign of Charles V was because of the general incompetence of the French military, but largely through the extraordinary luck of capturing the French king Jean II, (r. 1350-1364), during the battle of Poitiers, (1356). Edward and his son, the Black Prince, and their commanders had showed themselves quite unable to capture much territory from the French only the capture of the French king enabled them to extract massive territorial concessions. This was the Treaty of Bretigny.5 About 1/3 of France was transferred to the English.

All of this was most glorious from the English point of view. The aftermath was considerably less satisfactory. The war restarted in 1369 and by 1373 all the English gains were lost to the resurgent French. It had taken the English over 20 years to make the gains of the treaty of Bretigny and they were lost in less than 4 years.6

This period in virtually ignored by English historians, for despite massive English efforts to hold on to the gains they were quite simply no match for Charles V and his commanders. Thus accounts of this period by English historians tend to be very brief.7

And these accounts by English historians usually state that the French avoided battle, except with surprise attacks or when they had overwhelming numbers during this time period. They contend that the French along with surprise relied on raids, ambushing foragers, denying supplies etc., to frustrate the English who remained invincible in battle.

Of course the English historians with great care avoid giving a detailed description of actual military operations during this time period because the above description is largely B.S. What the French avoided was large scale set piece battle in which the English could use their combination of archer and dismounted men at arms to full effect if the French attacked them when so deployed.8

The French during this time period frequently fought English forces of a comparable size or even larger, yes they also employed raids and surprise but they were not afraid of battle with the English forces they just refused large set pieces like Crecy and attacking formed up English armies was avoided.9

Charles V to a large extent masterminded the French strategy and further stipulated that his forces would avoid large set piece battles. However, small scale battles, raids and surprise were the preferred method along with rapid movement. Charles V was indisputably one of the great French monarchs and in his efforts to clear out the English he was ably supported by Bertrand du Guesclin one of the great French commanders. Originally from Brittany du Guesclin was not a great battle field commander and in fact he was soundly beaten in the two largest set piece battles he was involved in. (Auray and Najera), and in both cases was captured and had to be ransomed. He was however a military genius when it came to raid, movement and surprise and was probably the most gifted strategist of his time.10

Du Guesclin is almost always barely mentioned in English accounts of the Hundred years war but he was undoubtedly one of its greater figures, just as Charles V was probably over all the most gifted ruler of his time.

Just as English accounts of the Hundred Years war play down this period of English defeat so do they ignore that this was also a period of English disaster. The classic example is the Pontvallain campaign. This was a campaign in which an English army of c. 4000-4500, men was not simply defeated but it was annihilated. This was a victory that was even more complete than the English victories of Crecy and Poitiers in which French armies were badly defeated but not annihilated.11 The French commander was du Guesclin.

The campaign started when in August of 1370 when an English army, commanded by Sir Robert Knolles, landed at Calais and left the city on the 9th of August, numbering c. 4000-4500 men. Now this army was entirely mounted which probably helps to explain its relatively small size. The purpose of the expedition was to mount a serious plundering raid and to extort money from towns and villages in exchange for not plundering and destroying.

On the 22 of September the English army reached the town of Corbeil near Paris and then marched on Paris. Sir Robert Knolles tried in vain to get the French to come out and engage him in battle, this included burning and pillaging the villages around Paris. Charles V despite much discontent ordered his troops to harass the English but not engage in formal battle. The English army eventually gave up and entered southern Normandy.

Eventually the English army spent its time extorting money and pillaging in the provinces of Touraine and Vendomois just south of Normandy. During this time period the leaders of the English army began to fall out with each other.

During this time period the French were gathering their forces with du Guesclin arriving with his men in the Norman town of Caen and several other French commanders including the Count du Alencon, and Oliver de Clisson. At Chatellerault Marshal Sancrerre was also gathering forces (c. 1200).

As the French gathered their forces the English could see they were under threat and Sir Robert Knolles tried to take precautionary measures. His army was in the area of Touraine / Maine just south of Normandy and du Guesclin was at Caen to the north and Marshal Sancrerre was to the east at Vendome.

In late November the disputes within the English army reached a boiling point over the issue of where to spend the winter. Knolles wanted to retire to Brittany where they would be relatively safe. Knolles subordinates wanted to stay in France proper where they could spend the winter milking the country dry and plundering.

Knolles then marched off to Brittany with his own men leaving a few garrisons where upon the remaining English divided themselves into three different groups, commanded by Grandison, Minsterworth and Fitzwalter, which then separated. The result was disaster.

It appears that du Guesclin was kept well informed about developments for on December 1, 1370 he left Caen and reached Le Mans in Southern Normandy on December 3, a march of c. 90 miles in three days; co-ordinating with Marshall Sancrerre who left Vendome on December 3.

Despite the exhaustion of his men du Guesclin marched from Le Mans with c. 1000 men, towards the part commanded by Grandison which numbered c. 1200 men and was strung out along the Gandelin river between the villages of Ponvallain and Mayet. On the morning of December 4th the French were upon the English who barely had time to form a line and were overwhelmed. Grandison was captured and practically all his men captured or killed.

Sancerre when he heard of the results of the battle moved south to attack Fitzwalter, and du Guesclin after sending some men commanded by de Clisson after Knolles went after Fitzwalter Fitzwalter fled south taking refugee in a fortified Abby at Vaas that had been garrisoned by Knolles. The French under Sancrerre stormed the Abby and du Guesclin arrived in time to complete the victory. Over 300 English were killed and many were captured including Fitzwalter.

Most of Minsterworth’s force fled into Brittany. A force of c. 400 men tried to flee into Poitou joined by two of Knolles garrisons they were caught in front of fortress of Bressuire and almost completely destroyed by du Guesclin and Sancerre on December 8.

Knolles reached the fortress Derval on the Breton March which was one of his possessions. There he stayed most of his men joined by many of Minsterworth ‘s men marched to St. Matheiu a port on the tip of Finistere in Brittany. Ministerworth and few others were able to purchase passage to England but the great majority were caught by de Clisson on the beach and killed or captured.

Du Guesclin then took the fortress of Saint – Maur in mid December of 1370 to end the campaign.12

In this campaign du Guesclin had engaged in rapid maneuver and had taken crushing advantage of the English army dividing itself and had crushed the sections piece by piece. It was overall at least very competent and probably brilliant.

An English army of c. 4000-4500 men had been not simply thwarted but comprehensibly destroyed. More than 3000 men had been killed or captured. It was without a doubt one of the very worst English defeats of the Hundred Years War. Yet it has, at least among English historians disappeared down the memory hole.

Du Guesclin and the time period in which he fought deserve to be better remembered by English historians rather than be made an obscure part of the Hundred Years war.

1. A classic example of English patriotically correct writing about the Hundred Years War is Burne, Alfred H, The Hundred Years War, Penguin Books, London, 2002. (Note this a reprint in one volume of Burne's The Crecy War, 1955, The Agincourt War, 1956.)

2. See Shakespeare at  Gutenberg Here.

3. A recent example is Barker, Juliet, Agincourt, Little Brown and Co, New York, 2006.

4. IBID. See also Burne and Barker, Juliet's sequel to Agincourt, Conquest, Little Brown and Co, London, 2009. 

5. Seward, Desmond, The Hundred Years War, Atheneum, New York, 1978, pp. 98-101, 266, Perroy, Edouard, The Hundred Years War, Capricorn Books, New York, 1965, pp. 132-145.

6. Perroy, pp. 158-165, Seward, pp. 110-115.

7. See Seward, pp. 110-115, and Burne, pp. 371-378.

8. Footnotes 6 + 7,  Sumption, Jonathan, Divided Houses, Faber and Faber, London, 2009, pp. 84-85.

9. See Sumption, pp. 61-211 for a description of the campaigns in France 1369-1374 C.E.

10. Seward, pp. 103-104, 109-110, Sumption, p. 92.
11. At most the French numbered c. 20,000 at Crecy and probably c. 16,000 at most at Poitiers. See Seward pp. 63, 86. (Seward's numbers are still on the high side.)

12. Sumption, pp. 84-93.

Pierre Cloutier

No comments:

Post a Comment