British History – Agincourt and Waterloo

Agincourt and Waterloo, four hundred years apart, 1415 and 1815, the British forces against the French, two victories, remembered and recalled with patriotic pride.

Britain has always recorded such events in words or pictures so that Shakespeare’s words placed in the mouth of Henry V remain in the mind, although the oft quoted, “Once more unto the breach dear friends” belongs to the siege of Harfleur which preceded Agincourt, not Agincourt itself. At Agincourt he rallied his outnumbered forces addressing them as ,”we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”. For Waterloo portraits abound, none more evocative than that of “The Charge of the Royal Scots Greys” by Lady Butler.

On each occasion the British were led by remarkable men.

Henry V was a King for his age; a strong leader, disciplinarian, who kept order at home, restored the country’s finances, ensured justice for his subjects and in defence of the realm went to war against France. Hostilities with France date back to the accession of William the Conqueror with the ensuing struggles between England and France continuing for more than the hundred years which give their name to the protracted conflict. Edward III sought to regain the lands lost, most notably in John’s reign and had victory at Crécy, when the English bowman gained renown but it is at Agincourt where the exploits of the English longbow men are most celebrated.

Arthur Wellesley, who had served in India, led the British troops in the Peninsular War, and was rewarded with a dukedom, then after Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba took command of the British and Dutch contingents in the final battle near Brussels, the Battle of Waterloo. After the War he joined Lord Liverpool’s administration and in 1828 he became Prime Minister.

Agincourt retains its prominence in the annals of British victories for several reasons. Firstly, because of the prowess in battle displayed by Henry V and his qualities of leadership as well as the bravery of those he led on St Crispen’s whom he declared would remember, recall the day and in turn be remembered. He inspired his men. They were loyal to him and well disciplined.

Secondly, it was the odds faced by the English. Figures vary and are disputed. On his departure from England, Henry had about 12,000 men. He had besieged and taken Harfleur in September. It had been heavily defended so that force was smaller when he set his next objective. Moreover, fatigue and dysentery would have also taken their toll because it was quite late in the year to continue the campaign, heavy rains turning earth to mud. He determined to march rather than sail to Calais which would necessitate crossing both the Seine and the Somme. He requested the Governor of Calais, Bardolph, to hold the Somme crossing open but he did not. Instead crossings were held by the French and the two armies watched each other from opposing banks. He initially outflanked the French, only to be outflanked in turn. Battle lines were drawn on the road to Calais near the village of Maisoncelles. Henry’s troops, therefore, by the time they reached the field of battle would have been significantly reduced. Estimates vary from about 6,000 to 8,500. The French are held to have outnumbered Henry’s troops hugely with their numbers being set at everything from 20,000 to 35,000 although that has been disputed and a lower number put forward by some. The fact remains that the French greatly outnumbered the English and Welsh.

Then there were the Welsh bowman. Their part in the victory is legend. The longbow was the most effective piece of weaponry for centuries. Able to pierce chain mail, a skilled bowman could loose flight after flight to cause anguish to opposing forces, men and horses. It is held that a longbow man could fire an arrow every five seconds. They also prepared well for the battle driving stakes into the ground to impede the French knights taking position behind.

The site of battle determined, Henry awaited the French advance but when they did not, he moved forward. The element of surprise allowed his men to launch their arrows at the enemy. The area of battle was small limiting the free movement of the heavily armed French and impeding the use of cavalry. Heavy armour and weaponry, weighed them down in the mud. They were crowded together unable to wield their weapons effectively. Numerically superior and expecting reinforcements they were confident of victory, overconfident. The battle was short. Henry in control of his men, aware of the risk of attack from the rear by reinforcements, executed the French prisoners taken. Fighting was hand to hand on the stake line but by mid-day the English had victory and the battle on the way to Calais took the name of the nearest castle, Agincourt.

Four hundred years later the battle lines were again drawn between the French and the English. The battle of Waterloo would bring to an end the conflict between England and France that had waged almost continuously for over thirty years.

Initially the French Revolutionary Wars which began in 1792 had seen France opposed by Austria and Prussia but the following year the first coalition was formed with England Austria, Holland, Spain, Prussia and Sardinia allied against the French. By 1796 only Austria and England remained fighting the French and Austria sued for peace the following year. There would be seven coalitions, in all of varying compositions, the only constant opponent of the French being the British.

The Peace of Amiens in 1802 was short lived. In 1805 Britain had Austria and Russia alongside as well as Sweden and some German states. Napoleon had become Emperor in 1802 and his star was in the ascendency so that European thrones were distributed to his family members and opponents came and went within the coalitions as their fortunes rose and fell, Austria quitting after Austerlitz, Prussia after Jena.

In 1808, however, he invaded Spain and the Peninsular War ensued with the British expeditionary force under Arthur Wellesley. That would prove a drain on his resources. His advance into Russia was too much. Napoleon had over-reached himself. In 1814 Napoleon was exiled to Elba but the following year he was back, gathering his Old Guard and forming an army.

The final episode in the protracted struggle between his troops and Britain and her various allies was to be played out just south of Brussels. Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, was in charge of the British troops.

Waterloo was the last of a series of encounters between the French, British, Dutch and Prussian forces.

The Prussian and British forces were still separate. The opening encounter was at Charleroi on 15 June. The Prussians were under Blücher who on June 16 en route to join the British and Dutch troops had encountered the French at Ligny. If the two allied groups joined they would far exceed the French in number. By the end of the day the Prussians had been forced into retreat by the French having suffered heavy losses and with high numbers deserting. Blücher although wounded was determined to join up with his British allies.

The next battle was at Quatre Bras. Ney delayed engaging. Initially Napoleon was numerically superior but the allies were gathering and with Blücher’s men moving north and the danger of being outflanked, Wellington withdraws and moves north also. Re-grouping is necessary. At the onset of Battle the allied forces numerically would be marginally superior although the French had more artillery than the British. The French artillery were noted for their prowess throughout Europe although in terms of armaments they were on a par. The British did have siege cannon but they never reached the battlefield in the rapid moving of troops so they were not deployed. The hope was to effect the link with Blücher.

Fighting commenced late in the morning at Hougoumont farm. Had the battle commenced earlier Napoleon could have pressed forward before the arrival of Blücher, echoes of the French delay at Agincourt.

This was a battle for the artillery. The musket had come into its own. The unwieldy early weapon, heavy, long, needing to be supported, difficult to load had been refined but still could not be aimed accurately. Its success lay in heavy bombardment and repeated firing when it could be lethal amongst the ranks. Loading still required the soldier to stand and ram home powder and ball down the barrel but the exercise had become honed so that a soldier could fire two shots per minute. Napoleon was skilled in his use of artillery using them at the onset of battle to weaken the opposition with repeated volleys before sending in cavalry and infantry. At Waterloo he did not do so. Wellington held his fire, taking a defensive position and then hurling the full force of his artillery, when the enemy drew closer.

In the afternoon Napoleon launched the full force of his guns. By late afternoon the Prussians had arrived. The French guns ceased and the cavalry advanced. In response the allied forces formed defensive squares, 500 men in each, with their rifles with bayonets in place, the blades bristling and causing terror amongst the advancing horses. The allied lines and squares held. The cavalry could not get close enough to use their sabres. The French artillery could not break the squares. Blücher arrived and set his guns on Napoleon’s flank to add to the bombardment.

Again Agincourt is echoed in the discipline of the British infantry and the negative effect of the confining of the French on their use of cavalry.

The farmhouse in the centre of the battlefield around which Wellington had chosen to make his stand was finally taken and Napoleon committed the Old Guard. They marched through the centre of the battlefield. Wellington placed batteries to fire on their flanks decimating their numbers.

The battle was close. Ney’s delay at Quatre Bras when he had the advantage, Napoleon’s delay in launching his attack, tactical errors, gave the day to Wellington. He stated that it was a “damned near-run thing”. Wellington gave the battle its name, the place where he had spent the night before the battle, Waterloo, and it is as such that it has been recorded and remembered.

Two victories, four hundred years apart, two great tactical commanders, two battles when the rain and mud favoured British forces and impeded the French more than the British infantry, and helped them win the day have left an indelible mark on British history.