Here is the short version: In the summer of 1346 the English kicked the snot out of the French in one of the most lopsided military victories of the Middle-Ages. It was the first of the major stompings of the French by the English in what is now known as the Hundred-Years War. At issue was who should rule most, if not all, of France: Edward III of England or Phillip VI of France. But that is somewhat beside the point. If you are studying for the SAT exams and do not care about more, stop here. That is all you need to know to answer a standardized test or perhaps a crossword puzzle.
What is important about this battle is that it is one of the first examples of the rise of disciplined infantry as the real rulers on the battlefield.
Driving into the tiny farm village of Crecy, in early spring when the chill is still in the air of northern France, can be spooky. Completely bare streets. Not a soul walking around, or even cars parked on the streets, making the town seem abandoned. This is a curious thing in such a densely populated nation as France. But it does appear at that time of year to be a de facto ghost town. Or perhaps something else…
We drove into this small village in the northern French province of Picardy because I was giving my parents what I called the, “Cross-Channel Invasions Through History” tour, as only a son with very indulgent parents might attempt. I was forty-five at the time.
But though the present is interesting, for now I am going to talk only about the 1346 Battle of Crecy, (aka “Cressy”). The village itself rests just north of the River Somme, in what is known as the “Picardy” region of France. It is also just above an area well known to Americans, the beaches of Normandy, where we invaded in June 1944. But this region has always been a hotbed of military activity.
Understanding why the 1346 Battle of Crecy matters means having a grasp upon something called the “Revolutions in Military Affairs.” This topic has been subject to debate by military historians and military practitioners for decades. The idea is that an “RMA” changes the way that war can, and should, be fought, and over the millennia there seem to have been several of these. In simplest terms an RMA occurs when there is an innovation, either in weapons, organization, or tactics/ideas that is so profound that all other armies must either adopt, adapt, or perish.
In this case it reflects the “revolution” that made guys standing upon the ground (infantry) superior to the knights (read: cavalry) of the Middle Ages. At Crecy, in 1346, this was difficult to deny. That is why understanding this battle matters.
There is no need to go into the causes or even the ultimate outcomes of the 100-Years War. That was all European kings squabbling about power. What really matters, for somebody who wants an informed opinion about wars in the present, is some understanding about how some simple technologies and ideas really unseated the tradition of the heavily armed mounted warrior/knight as the be-all-and-end-all in European war, a system that had been in place for at least the prior 800 years.
The key here lies in a simple idea that had been lost between the end of the Roman Empire (pick your own date, I am not getting into that debate, but let’s call it between 350 and the mid-400s or so) and the Middle Ages: Cavalry can seal the deal, but only tightly disciplined Infantry can hold and win. That was how the Greeks and Romans operated during their long eras of dominance. However, during the Dark Ages and into the mid-Middle Ages, at least in Europe,a the inclination went towards elite combat soldiers, mostly mounted, mostly armed with heavy horses, weapons, and armor. Then in a few places it became apparent, again, that if you had trained and disciplined foot-soldiers, they could break the expensive and noble cavalry. Game changer. That is what makes Crecy (and a few other battles of this same general period) so significant.
Let us put that in economic terms. According to Professor Clifford Rogers of the United States Military Academy at West Point, we can break this down just in the cost of horses. A farm horse in the mid-1300’s might cost 30 pence, that is a plow horse, of course. A War Horse, also known as a destrier used by a knight? A really good one would run you about 1,600 times as much, and it was privately owned. Talk about a concentration of wealth.
So what happens when a knight mounted on that much money can be killed (and his horse too) by a peasant/part-time soldier wearing cheap boiled leather “armor” and armed with a good Yew-tree bow and an ash arrow?
So now to Crecy.
As noted earlier, in the summer of 1346 Edward III, who must list among history’s all-time list of bad-asses. Seriously. This was the grandson of Edward I, the infamous “Longshanks” of history (think English King in Braveheart), and he really lived up to grand-dad’s legacy. Over his 33 years of rule he fought an unbelievable number of battles, captured and held prisoner two kings, and at the end of it got France to sign over 1/3 of their kingdom. But this was the beginning, now he was fighting the French King Philip VI about which one of them should be the king of France. Edward, obviously, was based in England. Philip was in France. Edward’s problem was to demonstrate how he was the rightful ruler of France, and how to convince the population of that as well. His options were limited to really just two: Outright conquest (not viable because France was much bigger and Edward really could not sustain an army overseas for that long), or successfully embarrassing Philip to the degree that both the people of France, as well as chunks of the nobility, would see Philip as so weak and ineffective that they would come over to Edward on their own. Enter the Chevauchee.
Chevauchee, which can mean either a simple “horse processional” (ie a casual ride with your buddies), or “cavalry charge” if taken literally, actually refers to a larger idea: A massed raid, moving through enemy country and burning/looting/smashing as broad a swathe of land as possible. For a modern American example see the American Civil War and Sherman’s March to the Sea, but much more brutal.
Normally this sort of thing was done to collect loot, and capitalize upon an enemy’s weakness or lack of speed. But Edward had a second issue in mind, he wanted to fight, not just run. According to historian Rogers, the chevauchee in this case was a deliberate lure to bring Philip and his nobles to a pitched battle.* Even though Edward knew well that meant fighting outnumbered he had a deliberate reason for this. The justification, again, was to demonstrate Philip’s weakness. Not only could he (Philip) not protect his people from the depredations of Edward’s army, but even when he caught up to the English if he was defeated despite having much greater numbers the confidence Edward was trying to undermine could likely crumble.
By the measure of the other battles I have talked about thus far (Cannae and Verdun) you might not think the numbers involved in this battle are very impressive. None of the contemporary accounts match each other and modern historians generally believe the French numbers were exaggerated, for a variety of reasons. So the total number of combatants here was probably in the range of 40-50,000 troops total.
Edward, it is estimated, probably initially landed in the second week of July 1346 with around 15,000 men. Broken down this was probably around 2,700 men-at-arms (knights, esquires and their like), 2,300 light spearmen from Wales, and maybe as many as 7,000 of Edward’s secret weapon… the longbowmen from both Wales and England. (See some video explanations here and here, but if you really want to geek out… ) The rest was a combination of light cavalry, mounted archers (with short-bows) and other troops. But that is not how many he had at the time of the battle a month-and-a-half and several hundred miles later. By that point he had already fought a couple of small battles, and having captured many prisoners along the way, sent them back to England under guard for later ransom. So at the time of the actual Battle of Crecy it is likely that he was down to around 10,000 men.
A brief word about those longbowmen. The weapon was one that first came into play when Edward’s grandfather finally crushed the Welsh people as an independent entity and wrapped them into what was becoming “Britain.” Because of the topography of Wales, and to some degree their own sub-culture, the Welsh had always focused on more lightly armed and armored soldiery. Theirs was a way of war that focused on hit-and-run, and when pressed, to pull back into their mountainous central retreats. Central to this centuries-long military evolution by the Welsh (prior to Edward Longshanks finally crushing them at the end of the 1200’s) was the use of bows and spears. For them, therefore, bigger bows meant longer range and the ability to beat the more heavily armored English upon occasion. The Welsh longbow became their most feared tool of war. And so when Longshanks finally extracted fealty-through-submission from the Welsh he took the best parts of their abilities, the things that had caused him the most problems, and incorporated them into his own armies. By the time Edward III came to the throne the technology had spread, and would continue to spread, across more and more of England. But the best of them were, still, the Welsh longbowmen with their 6’ long war bows which had a “pull” weight of 120, 140, or even 170 pounds. That is a serious weapon.
Philip had a wider range of troops, and undoubtedly quite a few more. Although original accounts put the number under French command at as much as 8 times as large as the English, that is mostly discounted now. The best historians seem to be comfortable with a number between 30,000-40,000; the majority of which were mounted knights and mounted men-at-arms. The next largest contingent was actually crossbow-carrying mercenaries from Genoa, of whom there were perhaps as many as 8,000 at the battle.
That morning of 26 August the English army made a deliberate and casual march to the northeast, to Crecy and some high ground directly astride the French Army’s route. The French were coming from 14 miles to the south. This ground had been selected earlier by several of Edward’s primary subordinates, deliberately to allow the English an “anchor” both of their flanks on poor terrain and to give them an uphill advantage. The English arrived around mid-morning and set about preparing the battlefield. Among other things they dug thousands of 1’ wide holes to their front to trip up the French cavalry. Then they set up with three successive lines of infantry in the middle, and “wings” consisting of the archers on each flank. Nobody was mounted at this point.
The French, for their part, marched pell-mell from their location as soon as their scouts returned and informed the King Philip that the English were setting up for battle. Yes, we know that Philip was under some serious political pressure at this point. After all, so far Edward had pretty much marched unopposed across a good chunk of the north of France, at one point within mere miles from Paris. Philip was already embarrassed by the fact that he could not even stop Edward at any of the rivers, the Seine and the Somme, which could have stalled the latter and forced a change in the campaign. So politically he had to fight, and he had to fight soon. But there was another aspect to this calculation at the Operational Level of War: Food.
Edward, recently, had captured a large store of food, so he was well set. Given the relative rates of speed of the two armies he could have continued on his merry way to the north, picking any one of a number of harbors from which to be resupplied or to leave. Plus, his army was smaller. Philip, on the other hand had a comparatively massive army (larger than most cities of the day, barring London and Paris), and with that theoretical advantage came a very real pressure: he had a lot of hungry mouths to feed and nothing even remotely resembling a modern military logistics system to provide food and fodder for 30,000 men and probably in excess of 100,000 horses. Nor could he loot the countryside of his own people, as Edward had been doing, for obvious reasons. So fight he would, as soon as possible.
Sources differ again here as to what happened next. Quite a few later historians took the line that the French arrived at the battlefield and immediately rushed into battle without getting set and attacking deliberately. This is almost certainly untrue, as the first forces committed were those Genoese mercenary crossbowmen, and mercenaries don’t rush into battle for the love of fighting. They go in deliberately, when ordered to do so by the man paying the bills. Yes, the French nobles were itching for a fight, but Philip at least held them together until the whole army was on-hand. But they did appear to attack rather quickly after their massed arrival, and that things fell apart fairly quickly after that.
In a way it doesn’t really matter, because the result was the same. Pitting the Genoese crossbowmen against the English longbowmen was a losing proposition for the former, both because of range and rate of fire. The Genoese were slaughtered, and started retreating. Of course this annoyed the assembled French nobility, who then decided to attack their OWN mercenaries from behind. Nice move that one.
Next came the first of several mounted French cavalry attacks. We know that there were three general assaults (the first of which swept through the Genoese, slaughtering them as they went but also getting disorganized. The second and third waves, following, could not see what was going on up front and crowded forward themselves, increasing the chaos on the French side all the more and creating what the modern military might call a “target rich environment” for the English longbowmen on the flanks. All of these French attacks came to ruin. None of them seriously broke through even the first line of the English knights and men-at-arms on foot in the center. Where there were some local penetrations reserves from the second line (not even the third) of the English, stepped up and crushed it, even as the longbows continued to pour in the arrows from the sides. In the end it was a complete and utter rout.
Casualties, like the numbers present overall, are somewhat problematic to nail down precisely. In part this is because the chroniclers of the time focused on the nobility and just gave sort of a mild hand-wave at the “lesser ranks.” So we know that among the French both Philip’s younger brother, and his nephew, were killed, as was the King of Bohemia (a French ally), as well as another seven counts and viscounts, eight barons, and some 80 bannerets, as well as a full 1,542 knights and esquires. The Genoese, who started with roughly 8,000, were essentially wiped out. We have only estimates for the “common” French soldiers. Overall you might assign a total loss of perhaps 8-10,000 total killed or captured.
The English lost around 300 men, as best we can tell.
A “Military Revolution” indeed.
*This stands in contrast to earlier interpretations which suggested that Edward was “trapped” and “forced into battle,” but I find Rogers’s more recent scholarship the most convincing. Edward had plenty of supplies, a good long head-start over Philip, and several of the primary sources seem to lean particularly strongly in Rogers’s direction. For the two best books on both Edward III and Medieval Warfare in general see War Cruel and Sharp and Soldiers Lives Through History, The Middle Ages. Be warned, this kind of book, though very readable, is not cheap. Good scholarship costs.
As always I can be reached at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com