Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Agincourt - October 1415: The Long March by W. B. Bartlett

The English army set out for Calais. No doubt there was much grumbling in the ranks. Thousands had been invalided home through the effects of dysentery and the expedition would have to survive on the rations it could carry with it and those that they could obtain from the lands through which they passed. Enough food was carried to last the men for eight days which was how long it was expected to complete the march if it was unimpeded. This turned out to be a hopelessly optimistic assumption.

To add to the dangers, it was now very likely that a French army was waiting to intercept the English force. Even early on during the march there were skirmishes between French and English forces though these were minor. Henry managed to negotiate passage past several important local towns, Arques and Eu. There was no time for a siege so the English had to do what they could to negotiate their way past these places unimpeded.

They had one specific target in mind, a crossing of the River Somme at Blanchetaque. This was a crucial destination, a ford which had been forced successfully by the invading armies of Edward III during his Crecy campaign over half a century before to his great glory; it was an action that resonated in recent English history. If Henry V could get across here then there was every chance of making it to Calais and then England without a fight.

Then disturbing news came in. A Frenchman was captured and interviewed. He told the English that an army lay ready and waiting for them at Blanchetaque. It has taken up a strong defensive position to block the way ahead. Henry pondered on the news, realising that a powerful army opposing him here could lead to disaster. Eventually he decided on his move: another way across the Somme must be sought.

So the English army diverted inland, moving along the southern bank of the Somme seeking in vain for a way over. Each mile they moved away from the coast was a mile further from Calais. Each day that passed extinguished another day’s rations. There was only a very limited supply of provisions easily available from the areas through which the army journeyed and it was no position to involve itself in a fight. Morale began to plummet and petty pilfering broke out. In one incident that deeply disturbed the pious English king a church was robbed. The offending archer was discovered and promptly hanged as an example to his comrades.

But then, a glimmer of hope. The army was thinking that it would have to make its way to the very source of the Somme before they could cross it. However, spies came in with the news that a crossing had at last been found. The French had taken steps to damage it beyond repair but had failed to do so. The army crossed gingerly over, just in time for French cavalry rode up to impede them but in insufficient numbers to successfully do so.

The English army advanced towards Calais once more, the Duke of York in the lead. His men reached the village of Blagny where a small river was traversed. They climbed the hill that hid the way ahead from them. As they crested it, they drew up their horses in a state of shock. Before them they saw a huge army barring the way. Many of the men had hoped desperately to reach Calais without a fight. It was now clear that this was unlikely to happen. Few can have had any hope that the result would be in their favour.

This must have been a blow to King Henry. His march across France had been a huge gamble and it is probable that he did not want to provoke a fight. The outcome of medieval battles was uncertain and defeat could destroy not only his claims to the throne of France but also his powerbase in England. He was young and inexperienced and, although he had fought in battle before, never in a position where the stakes were so high. The days ahead would provide the sternest test he was ever likely to face and the outcome of the battle that loomed would determine his place in history.

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W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt is available for purchase now