Memorable Battles in World History
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Battle of Crécy

Title: Battle of Crécy
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Crecy was the key land battle of the Hundred Years' War (1338–1453) between France and England. The English naval victory at Sluys, in 1340, gave King Edward III control of the Channel and with it access to northern France. Edward did not immediately take advantage of this, however. During 1341–1346 a dynastic struggle occurred in Brittany in which both Edward III and the French king Philippe VI intervened. To raise money, Philippe VI introduced the gabelle (salt tax), which led to increased dissatisfaction with his rule. In 1345 Edward III raised an expeditionary force, and with it he invaded Normandy in July 1346, intending to assist his allies in Flanders and Brittany.

Edward III landed at La Hogue near Cherbourg in mid-June with perhaps 15,000 men, including a heavy cavalry force of 3,900 knights and men-at-arms and a large number of archers. Most were veterans of the Scottish wars. Edward III's army in France was experienced, well-trained, and well-organized. It was probably the most effective military force for its size in all Europe.

The fleet returned to England and Edward III marched inland. The English took Caen on July 27 following heavy resistance. Edward III ordered the entire population killed and the town burnt. Although he later rescinded the order, perhaps 3,000 townsmen died over a three-day sack of Caen, which set the tone for much of the war.

Edward III then moved northeast toward the Seine, pillaging as he went. For the next month, Phillipe VI chased Edward across northern France without bringing him to battle. Meanwhile, Philippe VI's son, Duke John of Normandy, moved north against the English from Gascony, while Philippe VI assembled another force near Paris. Edward III thus achieved his aim of drawing pressure from Guyenne and Brittany.

Reaching the Seine at Rouen, Edward III learned that the French had destroyed all accessible bridges over that river save one at Rouen, which was however strongly defended. Increasingly worried that he might be cut off and forced to fight south of the Seine, Edward III moved his army rapidly along the river bank southeast and upriver toward Paris, seeking a crossing point that would allow a retreat into Flanders if need be. At Poissy, only a few miles from Paris, the English found a repairable bridge and, on August 16, crossed over the Seine. Philippe VI and a sizeable French force at St. Denis made no effort to intercept him.

Only after the English had crossed the Seine and were headed north did Philippe VI attempt to intercept them. Edward III reached the Somme River on August 22, about a day ahead of the pursing Philippe VI, only to learn that the French had destroyed all the bridges over that river, save those at heavily fortified cities. After vainly attacking both Hangest and Pont-Remy, Edward III moved north along the western bank trying to find a crossing. On August 23 at Ouisemont, the English destroyed to a man the French defenders and burned the town.

On the evening of August 24 the English camped at Acheux. Six miles distant, a large French force defended the bridge at Abbeville, but that night the English learned of a ford only 10 miles from the coast that could be crossed at low tide and was likely to be undefended. Breaking camp in the middle of the night, Edward III moved to the ford, named Blanchetaque, only to discover that was held by some 3,500 Frenchmen under an experienced French commander, Godemar du Foy.

His now desperate supply situation and the closeness of the French army lead Edweard III to decide that he must attempt to cross here. Battle was joined at low tide at 8 a.m. on August 1. Edward III sent some 100 knights and men across the ford under the cover of a hail of arrows from his longbowmen. The English gained the opposite bank and were able to establish a small beachead. Edward III then quickly fed in more men and, under heavy English longbow fire, the French broke and fled toward Abbeville. By 9:30 the entire English army was across. So confident was Philippe VI that the English would not be able to cross the Somme that no effort had been made to clear the area on the east bank of resources, and the English were thus able to resupply, burning the towns of Noyelles-sur-Mer and Le Crotoy in the process. Philippe VI then pursued.

Finally, having resupplied and reached a position where he could withdraw into Flanders if need be, Edward III decided to stand and fight. On August 25 he selected a defensive position near the village of Crécy-en-Ponthieu. High ground overlooked a gentle slope over which the French would have to advance. The English right was anchored by the Maye River. The left, just in front of the village of Wadicourt, was protected by a great wood 4 miles deep and 10 miles long.

Edward III commanded more than 11,000 men. He divided his forces into three divisions, known as "battles." Each "battle" contained a solid mass of dismounted men-at-arms, perhaps six ranks deep and about 250 yards in length. Edward positioned two of the "battles" side by side as the front line of his defense. Sixteen-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales (later known as the "Black Prince"), had nominal command of the English right, although Earl Marshal Warwick held actual command. The earls Arundel and Northampton commanded the left "battle." Several hundred yards behind these two, in the center, Edward positioned the third "battle," a reserve under his personal command. Archers occupied the spaces between the "battles" and were echeloned forward in V formations pointing toward the enemy to deliver enfilading fire.

Edward also located a detachment of cavalry to the rear of each "battle" to counterattack if need be. He had his men dig holes on the slope as traps for the French cavalry. The king used a windmill located between his own position and his son's right "battle" as an observation post during the battle and directed his forces accordingly.

It has been suggested that Edward III may have had some gunpowder artillery at Crécy, but that is by no means certain. The year before he had ordered 100 ribaulds, or light guns mounted on carts. If these were employed in the battle, it was the first European land battle for gunpowder artillery. In any case, they did not influence the battle's outcome.

The French brought to Crécy an army variously estimated at between 30,000 and 60,000 men, including 12,000 heavy cavalry of knights and men-at-arms, 6,000 Genoese mercenary crossbowmen, and a large number of poorly trained infantry. This French force, moving without a reconnaissance screen or any real order, arrived at Crécy at about 6 p.m. on August 26, 1346. Without bothering to explore the English position, Philippe VI then attempted to organize his men for battle. He positioned the Genoese, his only professional force, in a line in front. At this point a quick thunderstorm swept the field, rendering the ground slippery for the attackers.

The well-disciplined Genoese then moved across the valley toward the English position, with the disorganized French heavy cavalry in a great mass behind them. Halting about 150 yards from the English "battles," they loosed their bolts; most fell short. They reloaded and began to move forward again, only to encounter clouds of English arrows. The Genoese could fire their crossbows about 1–2 times a minute, while the English longbowmen could get off an arrow every 5 seconds. The English arrows completely shattered the Genoese, who were not able to close to a range where their crossbow bolts might have been effective.

The French knights behind the Genoese, impatient to join the fray, then rode forward up the slippery slope, over and around the crossbowmen, and encountered the same swarms of arrows. The shock of the French charge carried to the English lines, however, where there was some hand-to-hand combat. The English cavalry then charged, and the remaining French knights were driven back. Repeatedly the French knights regrouped and charged (the English claimed some 15–16 separate attacks throughout the night), and each time they were decimated by the arrows of the longbowmen. The English held their positions until dawn.

The French dead included some 1,500 knights and men-at-arms, and between 10,000 and 20,000 crossbowmen and infantrymen, in addition to thousands of horses. Philippe VI was among the many Frenchmen wounded. English losses were only about 200 dead and wounded.

Crécy made the English a military nation. Europe, which was unaware of the advances made by the English military system, was stunned at this infantry victory over a numerically superior force that included some of the finest cavalry in Europe. Crécy restored the infantry to first place. Since this battle, infantry have been the primary element of ground combat forces.

After several days of rest, Edward III headed for the Channel port of Calais and a long siege there, beginning on September 4. Only in July 1347 did Philippe VI make a half-hearted attempt at its relief. Calais fell to Edward III a month later, on August 4. It turned out to be the sole English territorial gain of the campaign, actually of the entire Hundred Years War. Calais remained in English hands until 1558.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Bourne, Alfred H. The Crécy War. Reprint. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976; Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years' War: The English in France, 1337–1453. New York: Atheneum, 1978; Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years' War: Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
 

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