Monday, August 10, 2009

Visit to Poiters battlefield 08/08/09

In September 1356 the Black Prince (Edward, Prince of Wales) was returning from a raid into France with about 7,000 English, Welsh & Gascon troops when he was intercepted by King John of France with about 20,000 troops. I visited the battlefield on 08/08/09.

On the web I had found a good map of the battlefield with modern roads & landmarks shown that made it easy to find. It’s actually about 8km south of Poitiers near a village called Nouaille-Maupertuis. There is “Le Prince Noir” Presse & Tabac in the village & a small information site, so the French do acknowledge its existence - they call it the battle of Nouaille. The info site isn’t quite on the battlefield (it’s off to the English left) & not very useful, but I had a printout from the website as a guide.

The English deployed behind hedgerows just in front of the Nouaille Wood. On the left the ground was rougher with a swampy valley. They had their wagon train behind their right beside the wood - in that location it had a getaway route to the south, but it was also fortified to cover the flank. There were good fields of fire for the archers & space for the mounted reserve between the infantry & the wood. I expect deploying front of the wood was to protect against envelopment & to give the guys somewhere to run to if things went bad.

The Frogs deploying their 3 battles one behind the other so they fitted the narrow front. Most of their cavalry was dismounted - possible reasons include 1) memories of Crecy (there were Crecy vets on both sides), 2) the hedgerows & vineyards made cavalry use difficult, 3) advice from William Douglas, the King’s Scottish advisor on fighting the English. The first line with most of the crossbowmen & light infantry was driven off by bowfire, the second line got mixed up with the remains of the first and after a stiff fight in the hedgerows was beaten off & fled the field.

But the third French battle lead by King John himself was still much bigger than the whole English army, now tired & depleted in ammo after beating off the first two battles. Now the BP did his Hannibal act. He sent his best captain, Jean de Grailly off to the right on a flanking mission with just160 men, left his own defensive position, and charged the oncoming French. There was a stiff fight until de Grailly’s men suddenly fell on the French flank. The effect was way out of proportion to the numbers involved – the French army broke. The King himself was surrounded & captured.

The battlefield has not been built over so the main features are still plain to see. The modern hedgerows are not in the same position as the original ones, in particular the one in front of the edge of the wood is not there now. But they are most likely a good indication of what they were like – bands of thick vegie 2 or 3 metres thick – very significant obstacles. They also block line of sight & would have totally hidden the flanking move ensuring complete surprise. The slope the French advanced up is very gentle, but between the hedgerows the English bowmen would have had great fields of fire.

It was a particularly good battlefield to visit because the terrain was very important to the action. The Black Prince chose his ground well & fully exploited the advantages it gave him to snatch victory against the odds.

Points to consider re wargames rules include:

Both sides considered that the terrain degraded cavalry’s advantages to the extent that they dismounted most of them.

A surprise flank attack by a very small force had a devastating on an entire army’s morale.

The BP left the tactical advantage of his fortified hedgerow to counterattack. The advantages of this may have been 1) to boost the morale of his own troops (nothing to be afraid of chaps – let’s go finish them off), 2) they were running out of arrows so the defence had lost some of its advantage, 3) it was the last thing the Frogs expected them to do – surprise is always good, 4) to coordinate with the flank attack, 5) the English had a mounted reserve (apart from the flanking force) – presumably placed where there was a field free of hedgerows & vineyards in front of their line so it could charge effectively.

The panorama pic is taken looking towards the English line. The wood is on the far side of the field. In 1356 there was a hedgerow this side of the edge of the wood.

The other pic is a typical hedgerow end-on - showing what an obstacle they are.

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