South African Military History Society


Few battles in history have produced such a spectacular victory, or been more romantically presented thanks to William Shakespeare, than the English King Henry V's victory at Agincourt in north-west France in October 1415. This battle, and the campaign of which it was the culmination, was the subject of the curtain raiser given by society member John Murray on 12th October. Henry was 25 when he was crowned in 1413, and already he was an experienced soldier. England's medieval kings had feudal claims to large parts of western and south-west France inherited from William the Conqueror and as a result of dynastic marriages. English military fortunes had reached their peak under Henry's great-grandfather Edward 111 through his victory against the French at Crecy in 1346, and his son Edward the Black Prince's victory at Poitiers 10 years later.

The English long bow was the weapon that decided the outcome in both encounters. Henry set out to retrieve a situation that had deteriorated seriously since Edward's day, and by August 1415 he had amassed an army consisting of 2 500 men-at-arms, including many great lords; 80 knights and over 1 200 squires; 8 000 archers, of whom half were mounted; 10 000 horses; 200 specialist gunners and miners; and various non-combatants numbering about 1 000. The English already held Calais and Bordeaux, but Henry decided his landing would be adjacent to the busy port city of Harfleur at the mouth of the Seine, a spot which combined the advantages of easy supply links to the English coast with a short line of march to Paris. His plans for a rapid capture of Harfleur were frustrated by determined resistance and his army was soon decimated by disease, mainly dysentery. By the time Harfleur surrendered on 23rd September over 2 000 of Henry's men had died, and another 2 000 had been sent home to recuperate. After providing for a garrison at Harfleur, only about 900 men-at-arms and 5 000 archers were left to continue the campaign.

Henry decided to seek the safety of Calais before the French forces could combine against him. He believed the distance was 100 miles. It was in fact 160 miles, and involved crossing 10 rivers, of which the Somme provided the most serious obstacle. It rained constantly. The combined French force that faced Henry's army after it crossed the Somme outnumbered it at least 3:1 and probably nearer 5:1, and it blocked the road to Calais. Its effectiveness was, however, weakened by divided command, and circumstances which restricted its ability to manoeuvre. Henry adopted a defensive position with his men-at-arms flanked by archers drawn up in wedge formation. The French were formed up in three waves, but were slow to attack. Henry moved forward to provoke a response, and soon the arrows were raining down on the first wave of French men-at-arms. The subsequent chaos disrupted action by the second wave, while the third wave melted away, only to reappear in a threatened attack on the English baggage train. The danger this represented caused Henry to order the killing of all except his most valuable prisoners. Altogether between 7 000 and 10 000 of the French died, with a further 1 500 or so taken prisoner. English casualties numbered no more than 500, the majority of those being wounded.

Napoleon's Russian campaign of 1812 ranks as one of the greatest military disasters of all time. Society Deputy-Chairman Martin Ayres described how the emperor's massive invasion expedition, the largest concentration of military power for at least a century, ended in the destruction of his army and his eventual downfall. In June 1807 Russia's Tsar Alexander was obliged to acknowledge his country's defeat at the Battle of Friedland by signing the humiliating Treaty of Tilsit, which Napoleon proceeded to interpret to his own convenience. The emperor also demanded that Russia honour its commitment to his "Continental System". This was aimed at strangling Britain's overseas trade, but was doing serious economic damage to the countries implementing it. By 1812 relations had soured to the point where Napoleon decided to settle the matter by invading Russia, and, he hoped, destroying its armies. At this point it appears he had no intention of advancing as far as Moscow. That would not be necessary.

The forces that Napoleon assembled for the invasion came from all over Europe, and were truly massive. Between June and November 1812 about 530 000 troops crossed the River Niemen, with over 1 000 guns, 30 000 carts and wagons, and 150 000 horses. The three Russian armies, which were deployed in an arc behind the Neimen, comprised around 212 000 troops with 752 guns. The subsequent Russian withdrawal in the face of Napoleon's advance soon ended his hopes of decisive victory, and the two main forces were not to meet until the Battle of Boradino on 7th September. By now the two armies were more evenly matched, and the battle, although excessively bloody, was indecisive. Once again the Russians withdrew, and Napoleon's road to Moscow was now open.

Moscow's fall did not bring Tsar Alexander to the negotiating table, however. Instead, the Russians extended to Moscow the scorched-earth policy they had followed during their withdrawal, and it soon became clear to the emperor that his army could not winter in a devastated city. The retreat began only five weeks after Moscow had fallen, and at first the going was easy. But the first snowfall on 6th November heralded the arrival of the Russian winter, and the much-denuded French army, constantly harried by Cossacks and the main Russian force, was soon reduced to a disorganised, freezing, starving rabble. Of the huge army that had invaded less than six months before, barely 50 000 escaped over the River Berezina, around 25 000 being lost in the attempt to cross. Napoleon's disastrous adventure marked the beginning of the end of his military supremacy, although not necessarily his ability to win battles. He was finally forced into abdication only two years later.

Unfortunately there have been large increases in the cost of the Journal and the postage and your Committee has been forced to increase the Subscriptions for 1999 to R70 for single membership and R80 for family (i.e. 2 people). The committee is looking into ways of reducing expenses to minimise future fee increases.
As this will be the last newsletter of 1998 the Chairman and committee members of the South African History Society wish their members a happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.


10th Dec
Martin Ayres SNAFU 4
ML Flip Hoorweg A Bridge Too Far -- Arnheim 1944
14 Jan 99
CR L Wildenboer Homemade Artillery
ML Kemsley-Couldridge Some Ethereal Aspects of War
12 Feb
CR Prof. Ian Copley A Tour of Haartbeestpoort during the Anglo-Boer War
ML Martin Ayres The Duke of Marlborough

10th December
Annual Dinner

Cape Town:
No meeting

George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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