Soil Type Determines Historic Battle Outcome

Soil Type Determines Historic Battle OutcomeSix months ago there was a 20-year commemoration (and re-airing) of the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers.” I watched these programs when first televised, as well as a second time years later. This 10-episode real-life saga portrayed the Easy Company of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. This program tracked the movements of these soldiers from stateside basic training to the D-Day invasion, all the way through France and Germany to victory for the Allied Forces. Early on, I learned that the title of the mini-series was taken from the play written by William Shakespeare, “Henry V.” What I’m writing about here isn’t just military in nature, but very agricultural. Not too surprising, because very often military campaigns are waged on fields.

The title “Band of Brothers” comes from a Shakespearean drama where King Henry gives a motivational speech to his soldiers on the evening of Oct. 24, 1415. His battle-weary English troops were about to engage a far superior French force on France’s own turf the following day. In that play, Henry’s pep talk – where the king cheers on his comrades-in-arms – centers on the phrase “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Following the king’s spiel, his soldiers break into loud cheers. Just how close to historical reality Shakespeare’s account is may be debatable. Well-studied period historians believe that King Henry actually delivered a motivational speech to his soldiers. This pep talk no doubt helped the English fight valiantly – and secure victory – but Mother Nature had a big hand in tilting the battle scale to the English. Here’s why:

In researching the particulars behind the real battle which Henry needed to win, I learned that the fighting did actually take place just outside the French village of Agincourt, about 40 miles south of the English Channel. In researching the Battle of Agincourt, I saw pictures taken six centuries after the conflict, and the narrator described the crop in front of him, well-headed-out winter wheat. He described the ground as being very dry. However, he also showed dead furrows with water standing in them. Not enough to cause root rot, but enough to churn into a gosh-awful mud-sty.

Henry was trying to lead his tired troops, 3,000 or 4,000 of them, to Calais on the Channel, where English ships would ferry them home. But a superior French army force blocked their path across a very large open area. The narrator said the field was about 1,000 yards wide, and in the film its length appeared to be twice that, so we’re probably talking around 400 acres. The field of battle was arguably the most significant factor in deciding the outcome. The recently plowed land hemmed in by dense woodland favored the English, both because of its narrowness and because of the thick mud through which the French knights had to walk.

Many historians believe that six centuries ago woodlands closed in along the longer sides of the battlefield, restricting the movement of foot soldiers and, particularly, 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 doesn’t help surface drainage. Though a much smaller force than the French, English longbow archers outnumbered their French counterparts significantly. All the French wore classic knight personal armor, a trait which did not blend well with mud. And the English archers 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. Overall, French tactical positions were poor. Quoting one historian: “The French had plenty of archers and crossbowmen, but nobody wanted to let them shoot, (because) the site was so narrow that there was only room enough for the men-at-arms (foot soldiers).” The French vanguard may have boasted 5,000 foot-soldiers, a number exceeding the whole English force on hand. French generals apparently had chosen an unfortunate place and time to fight. This was because the land 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 for them. With the 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.”

I learned from the English TV program “Agincourt’s Dark Secrets” that historians “conducted tests and found a type of soil at Agincourt which is very retentive of moisture: a knight in full armour (sic) would have found walking through the mud like walking with 15 bags of sugar on each leg.” Not surprisingly, 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 then led his victorious troops home to heroes’ welcome. After further conquests in France, Henry V was recognized in 1420 as heir to the French throne and the regent of France. He was at the height of his powers but died just two years later near Paris.

A very little-known trivia tidbit about Agincourt was that a few soldiers were armed with weapons powered by gunpowder – a fact which only multiplied repeatedly in the coming years and decades. Agriculturally, the battlefield soon returned to sensible rotations of wheat, hay, mustard and barley. No corn (maize) for centuries to come. Maize was a Central American contribution. Imagine how muddy a field of corn stubble would become, once traumatized by many thousands of feet and hooves.

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