Overrated-Underrated: Medieval Battle

Warfare in Medieval Europe is a bit of an odd duck. Wars, such as they were, were rarely about acquiring territory or expanding the national geopolitical reach. Instead, they were more about personal or family politics, and ransoming prisoners. On the tactical level, things were barely and rarely more than massed frontal assaults. Most “armies” were around the size of a modern brigade, and forget about grand campaigns. It was more about who could get the most trained troops to the battlefield first. And there was rarely anything epic or glorious in the fighting.

But a few battles from that era still stand out – so of course some are overrated, and some are underrated.

Overrated: Agincourt

It’s all Shakespeare’s fault. If he hadn’t written that admittedly great “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, Agincourt would have been just another side battle in that collection of miscellaneous conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War. As it is, the whole little campaign leading up to Agincourt was one great mass of stupidity, with the English and the French swapping bungles.

The campaign started with England’s Henry V attacking Harfleur, a port on the Channel. Taking it would have given him a base for a further invasion of France, a country that he had some delusion about an extremely tenuous claim for ruling. Getting another port town (they already had Calais, further up the coast) was rational, but Harfleur was in the middle of swamps; any attempt to besiege the place was an open invitation to dysentery and other diseases to come and wipe out your forces. With troops on both sides dying, an agreement was made that if France was able to send reinforcements, Henry would give up and go home. Now it was the French who blundered. They couldn’t be bothered to send a relief army, and Harfleur fell.

By now, it was late October. Well past the end of the usual fighting season (it would be too difficult to provide supplies to the troops, for one thing), the rational move would be to leave a strong garrison at Harfleur, and go home with the rest of the army. You could come back next spring with fresh troops, and set about conquering the place. But no, Henry was too arrogant for that. He needed to rub the French faces in it. Instead of heading right home with the troops not garrisoning Harfleur, he decided to pointlessly march them across the countryside towards Calais – where they would be shipped home.

At the start of the pointless march, the French had the right idea. Keep an army between the English and Calais, and normal attrition will wear them down to nothing – and we might even get to capture their king and hold him for ransom! This worked, the English were on the verge of losing it. They stopped trying to march past the French, and set themselves up for a battle.

Then the French made their last strategic mistake. They “accepted” the offer of battle, on land that the English had chosen and prepared. And followed it up with a tactical mistake. Instead of holding their ground and picking off the English a few at a time, they shoved their artillery (archers) aside and charged headlong with their heavy cavalry (knights) into the prepared English position. They were deservedly wiped out.

Henry went unimpeded to Calais, where he and his men sailed home – to return to Harfleur next spring, from whence they proceeded to attempt to conquer France.

Which is what he should have done in the first place, rather than stupidly risk his own neck in a stupid march to a battle that decided nothing. You can’t even call it a “victory against overwhelming odds” as some do, since, given the tactical situation at the start of the battle, the English defensive position pretty much completely neutralized any numerical advantage the French had. Wargamers know you need at least a 3-1 numerical superiority to have a good chance at defeating a well-defended enemy; the French at Agincourt had just about that advantage….

Underrated: Grunwald

At about the same time as Henry was schlepping across northern France, a titanic struggle was brewing in eastern Europe. The German Empire’s Teutonic Knights were pushing eastward (as the Germans are wont to do) into what they felt were criminally underused lands (they weren’t inhabited by Germans). The recently united-by-marriage Kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania weren’t going to stand for that. They assembled a huge army, and the two forces met at Grunwald on a day in the middle of July in 1410 for a truly epic battle.

How epic was it? Troop estimates vary widely, but it’s safe to guess that there were twice as many combatants as there were at Agincourt. The battle was fought in the middle of summer, which allowed for many hours of daylight – fighting raged for over ten hours. The battle may not have had any great speeches written about it, but it did have an actual incident at the start where the Grand Knight of the Teutonic Order sent messengers to the Polish king with two swords. “If you’re delaying your attack because you are afraid you don’t have enough weapons, here are some…” With that, they stabbed the swords into the ground and left. The “Grunwald Swords” later became part of the royal insignia of Poland.

The battle raged back and forth all day, with a whole bunch of nifty tactical maneuvers – and blunders. When the dust had settled, the Teutonic Knights were annihilated. Both Poland and Lithuania count this battle as one of the greatest moments in their history, with very good reason.

One last thought: I maintain that the reason the Polish-Lithuanian alliance won was because King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland simply outsmarted the Knight’s Grand Master. Starting from his setting up for battle in the shade of a forest while the Knights were cooking in their armor in an open field, he used every little tactical trick to gain an advantage.

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