The Development of Battle Tactics in the Hundred Years War
By Matthew Bennett
Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War, edited by Anne Curry and Michael Hughes (Boydell, 1994)
Introduction: It is a common aphorism that the history of war is too important to be left to military historians. They tend to be seen as obsessed with battle with no further interest or wider understanding of the warring societies. In truth, they have done themselves no favours in the past by emphasising ‘decisive’ victories. This overvalues the long-term impact of even the most significant battle and distorts by undervaluing the other, far more common, activities of raid, attrition, fortification and siege in the warfare of any period.
By their very nature battles are ephemeral events, and historians have to rely upon largely subjective accounts in reconstructing them. Some consider this an uncongenial or even inappropriate task for their profession. `Real’ history is to be found in the study of `real’ information, such as can be found in the administrative records of governments: musters lists, tax records, accounts, diplomatic correspondence, building records and so on. Biased and `journalistic’ reportage of chroniclers and government propagandists or the partial and often confused recollection of participants scarcely qualifies as history. Furthermore, the study of battles has tended to be conducted by soldiers.
There may seem nothing wrong with this, but it has led to them drawing upon their own military experience of modern warfare without making due allowance for the differences of another place and time. Just as the historians might benefit from some practical experience of, for example, `living in the field’, the soldier historians’ often impressionistic accounts need more historical rigour. They tend to be critical of medieval commanders and their forces on grounds that are simply not valid for their times. This is true of Lt-Col. A.H. Bume, still the most well-known military historian of the Hundred Years’ War.
He deserves credit for the work he did in exploring battlefields and his observations may be perceptive. But he was guilty of missing the point about how medieval warfare was conducted, by concentrating on battles alone. He was even capable of saying of the period 1369-1396 (when the bulk of the English king’s continental possessions fell into the hands of his French rival) that: `The war (was) lacking in military interest, for there was remarkably little actual fighting’. When the fortresses which guarded Aquitaine were being lost this is nonsense!
As a result historians have tended to see the study of battles as a field for cranks and `enthusiasts’. Since understanding a battle requires study of the tactics employed by the protagonists, tactics have been tarred with the same brush. Surely they cannot be important in comparison to the great moving forces of history exemplified by economic, demographic, medical, governmental and ideological factors?