A couple years ago, in this column, I addressed the agricultural cornerstone of a military event of paramount historical significance. That military happening was a battle that occurred in France on Oct. 25, 1415. The actual events of that battle formed the theme of William Shakespeare’s play “Henry V.” That military engagement between French and English forces took place near Agincourt in northern France, about 40 miles from the English Channel in a village called Calais.

Crop Comments: Mud, magnesium and a medieval milestoneIn a screen version of that play, we see that the evening before the fight, in which English troops were destined to engage much superior French forces of mounted knights and foot soldiers, King Henry gives his battle-weary comrades-in-arms a motivational speech.

That speech closed with the phrase “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Those last three words became the title of a World War II-based History Channel 10-episode drama series in 2001.

Henry V’s motivational speech, as acted out in Shakespeare’s play, no doubt helped the English fight valiantly, ultimately victoriously. But I explained in that column that Mother Nature’s role in nudging the English to victory was significant. I’d like to add a little dimension to her role in Henry’s victory.

In studying more about the Agincourt battle, I learned that the fighting actually took place just outside that French village. I saw photos taken six centuries after the conflict, and the film’s narrator described the crop in front of him: well-headed-out winter wheat. He also described the soil as being very dry, however, showing dead furrows with water in them. Not enough water to cause root rot, but – in opinion – enough to be churned by thousands of feet and hooves into a miry mud-sty.

Henry V was leading his exhausted troops – 3,000 or 4,000 of them – to Calais, where English ships would ferry them home. But a much larger French army blocked their path across a very large open area. The film’s narrator said that the field was about 1,000 yards wide; in the film its length appeared to be double that, so we’re likely talking about 400 acres. The battlefield’s physical nature was arguably the most significant factor in deciding its outcome. Recently plowed land, hemmed in by dense woodland, favored the English, both because of its narrowness, and because of thick mud, through which French troops, more than their enemies, had to slog.

Many historians believe that six centuries ago, woodlands bordered the longer sides of the battlefield, restricting the movement of foot soldiers and especially the cavalry. French forces are believed to have outnumbered English by five or six to one. The narrator also pointed out that the field only drops “a meter or two” in altitude in its whole length, a fact which certainly wouldn’t help surface drainage. Though a much smaller force than the French, English longbow archers outnumbered their counterparts significantly. All the French wore classic personal armor – very incompatible with mud. The English archers, tired or not, knew how to shoot.

The French started fighting first, forming ranks between the woods of Agincourt and nearby Tramecourt, which prevented them from outflanking their enemies. French tactical positions were poor. One historian wrote, “The French had plenty pf archers and crossbowmen, but nobody wanted to let them shoot, (because) the site was so narrow, that there was only enough room for men-at-arms (foot soldiers).”

By some estimates, the French vanguard may have boasted 5,000 foot soldiers, a number exceeding the whole English force at hand. French commanders apparently had chosen an unfortunate place and time to fight. This was because the battlefield had been recently plowed and seeded down, plus it had been heavily raining. With the French more heavily armed than the English, conditions underfoot were much more difficult. With the universal sea of mud, one historian wrote of “men sinking up to their knees. At the least, the French infantrymen were probably overcome with fatigue before they reached enemy lines.”

An English TV program, “Agincourt’s Dark Secrets,” conducted tests and “found a type of soil at Agincourt which is very retentive of moisture: a knight in full armour would have found walking through the mud like walking with 15 bags of sugar on each leg.”

Further supporting this statement, French author Pierre Naudin’s 2006 novel about the battle is titled “La Bourbier d’Azincourt (The Quagmire of Agincourt).” When the casualties (human and equine) were finally sorted from the mud, French losses outnumbered English by about 50 to one. Henry V led his victorious troops home to heroes’ welcome. In 1420, Henry V was recognized as heir to the French throne as well as regent of France.

Agriculturally, that battleground soon returned to sensible rotations of wheat, hay, mustard and barley. Maize was still a Central American phenomenon at that time. Imagine how muddy a field of corn stubble would become, trodden by thousands of feet and hooves.

I also learned that, although not as high in magnesium as the Dolomite regions in southern France, the northern zones of the country are “blessed” with lots of this element also. This fact, no doubt, helped determine the battle ground “personality” that fateful October.

From the solutions.net website, we learn that magnesium “has a greater attraction for water than calcium – approximately 67% greater – and thus has a larger hydrated radius than calcium. This causes soil particles to remain farther apart and more dispersed. For this reason, soils with higher magnesium content have less water stable aggregates and less pore integrity. These soils usually are stickier and remain wetter and saturated longer.”

Tell that to the Agincourt combatants of 1415.