Geography of War - The Battle of Creçy
The Battle of Creçy (Hundred Years' War)
August 26, 1346
England (led by King Edward III) vs France and Bohemia (led by King Philip VI and King John the Blind)
The king of England had a compelling claim on the French throne. When the French monarch, Charles IV, died in 1328 without any children there were several options for who should have taken his place. His nearest male relative was his nephew, England's Edward III, whose mother Isabella was the eldest surviving daughter of France's King Philip IV. The nobility in France had confirmed many years before that a woman could not ascend the throne, but the question was unsettled whether she could pass along a claim that she did not possess. They eventually named Charles' cousin the rightful heir and crowned him Philip VI. Edward initially seemed to accept the decision, and traveled to France in order to swear vows of homage so that he could maintain control of Gascony. His wording was carefully scripted, however, to create future disputes and by 1337 he had caused enough disagreements with Philip that the latter convened a Great Council to state that Edward was in breach of his obligations and thereby must forfeit his French lands. Thus began the Hundred Years' War, but until the summer of 1346 neither side had won anything conclusive. To fight against English forces in Gascony along his southern border, Philip had already issued a formal call to arms for all able men in southern France to gather. When Edward himself landed an army in Normandy in July 1346, Philip was forced to do the same in the north. After ravaging and sacking at will along a path towards Paris, the English army was finally approached by a formidable French force just before they reached the capital city. Turning north, Edward III learned that he would not receive promised reinforcements but decided to select a location where he could face his enemy with the army he had available. He chose a small hill just outside the town of Craçy-en-Ponthieu.
With an army of just 14-18,000 men, the English were heavily outnumbered by a French force that may have numbered significantly more than 30,000. Additionally, Philip was able to rally many nobles and foreign mercenaries to his cause, and had a massive advantage in mounted troops. Since the days of the Roman Empire cavalry had dominated battlefields consistently, but Edward had relatively few horses at his disposal. While setting up his defensive lines, he even had the majority of his riders dismount while his infantry began digging holes across the field in front of them. Fully two thirds of the English troops consisted of archers carrying the longbow, a weapon made of yew wood that was unique to them. When Philip arrived on the battlefield he unfurled a flag proclaiming that no prisoners would be taken (a sign that the medieval rules of chivalry were in decline) and promptly sent hired mercenaries as the first wave of battle - Italian professionals skilled in the use of the crossbow. Their weapon turned out to be inferior to the English bows, because although they could reliably pierce armor they were only effective at short range and took much longer to reload. The heavy rain that had preceded the battle further hindered the crossbow's functionality, as the moisture loosened their strings (while the English simply removed theirs until the downpour ended) and it also had to be anchored on the muddy ground to load each bolt before being fired. After just a token volley, the crossbowmen turned away from the field in retreat. Philip quickly ordered a heavy cavalry charge, but the horses were unable to gain momentum as they tried to advance through retreating foot soldiers, thick mud, holes, and the bodies of the fallen. Mounted knights were reasonably protected against the waves of arrows, but their unarmored horses were not. Any riders who successfully reached the English lines were pulled from their horses and cut down. The French stubbornly continued sending cavalry charges into the heart of Edward's archery barrage, each subsequent wave finding the path through dead horses and soldiers increasingly difficult. Edward matched Philip's call to not take captives, perhaps not wanting to spare fighters to oversee prisoners until the field had been taken. The French finally ceased their attacks long after darkness had fallen and the English held their positions through the night until morning when they knew they had won, at which time they routed the remaining French and finally began taking prisoners from among the stunned and wounded survivors on the field.
A view up the hill of the battlefield from the French side:
The small hill where Edward III made his defensive stand should not have been much of a barrier against the numeric and strategic advantage of French cavalry. The positioning of archers on either flank of the hill, however, created a deadly crossfire for mounted knights who continued advancing against the unmounted center of the English line. The weather likely played the biggest geographic role in the battle, as it hampered both the crossbow and cavalry efforts of the French army. It was said that among the dead that were taken from the battlefield, many bodies had no marks on them. They had simply fallen under the weight of wounded horses and, unable to free themselves, were suffocated under the mud.
While the battle did not resolve anything in a war that would last a total of 116 years, it marked a definite change in battlefield tactics. For the better part of a millennium the army with the best heavy cavalry usually won, and unexpectedly an outnumbered force of soldiers on foot had defeated Europe's strongest cavalry. The English had learned a great deal while fighting with Scotland, including defensive strategies against mounted forces, and the longbow represented a superior weapon in the hands of trained archers. Additionally, the staggering loss of life among French knights and nobility (and even the Bohemian king who fought alongside Philip VI) was a sharp departure from the traditional norm of capturing and ransoming more valuable individuals. French casualties numbered 1,542 nobles and many more thousands of common soldiers. The English, on the other hand, lost just two nobles and perhaps a few as 200 others. Edward continued his campaign, largely unhindered, and was able to capture the city of Calais after a siege that the French were never able to relieve. The English controlled Calais for the rest of the war, giving them a large friendly port on the continent, and it remained in English hands for two centuries until the French finally wrested England's final mainland possession away in 1558.