This Story Shall The Good Man Teach His Son …

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d

— Henry V, IV:iii

Thus did William Shakespeare ensure that the astounding victory by the English forces led by King Henry V over the flower of French knighthood would indeed be remembered even nearly 600 years later.

It was on 25 October 1415 that the renowned battle of Agincourt took place in northern France. The day was the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispianus, the patrons of cobblers and leather workers. (The two saints with almost identical names makes it rather hard to follow some of the lines in Shakespeare’s wonderful play, such as that quoted above.) Some 5,500 English fighters met more than 20,000 French knights and soldiers.

The French, being on familiar home turf, having good lines of supply, and being fresh and well-rested, were supremely confident of victory in light of their overwhelming numbers. The English, sick, exhausted, and vastly outnumbered, knew that they had small hope of surviving the day. Yet they were forced to fight, for the French army had cut the English off from their base in Calais. And fight they did.

Henry V was a surprisingly skilled general. He positioned his soldiers on a narrow field bordered by thick forests, which greatly reduced the advantage of the heavily armored French knights because it provided no room for massed cavalry maneuver. Henry had his men up most of the night cutting stakes which they planted in the ground projecting sharp points to stall a cavalry charge. Shortly before dawn, a brief but intense rain fell, turning the field into a quagmire, further hampering heavy cavalry.

Behind the light and hastily erected palisade, Henry positioned his most powerful weapon: Welsh and English Longbowmen.

As had happened at both Crecy in 1346, and at Poitiers ten years later, the massed fusillades of the “clothyard shafts” of English arrows broke the French cavalry charges. The longbow was a formidable piece of artillery; it could shoot an iron-pointed arrow, accurately, over two hundred yards. The heavy English arrows rained down in incredible mass, killing the French horses and wounding the knights despite their heavy armor. Without their mounts, and weighted down by 40 to 50 pounds of armor, the French knights were almost helpless in the mud.

Once the supply of arrows had been used up, the longbowmen surged forward as foot soldiers. With daggers and axes and other improvised weaponry, they made quick dispatch of the struggling French knights. The result was slaughter, pure and simple.

As Shakespeare tells it, there were “ten thousand French That in the field lie slain.” And he places the English losses at “But five and twenty.” The battle was indeed a masterful and overwhelmingly one-sided victory for the undoubted underdog, but most historians make somewhat more plausible estimates of the actual numbers (there are surprisingly good records from those days.) The Encyclopedia of Military History uses the generally agreed upon figures of some 6,000 French killed versus about 400 English.

The Battle of Agincourt stands to this day as one of the most brilliant of military achievements, and one of the most lopsided victories for an underdog in the long history of human conflict. It is perhaps most well-remembered because of Shakespeare’s matchless, dramatic retelling of the story, especially his rendition of King Henry’s “pep-talk” before the battle, which has been even been broadcast at the start of Super Bowl coverage (in 1996.) But it would remain an important part of any study of battles and tactics even without Shakespeare.

One interesting footnote about this battle is of interest to students of the development of modern English. Henry sent his dispatches home to England to spread the news of his great victory. In a departure from tradition, he sent the dispatches in English rather than in French. This was basically a sensible propaganda decision, but it had a far-reaching impact, at last elevating English into the daily speech of Kings.

It is worth noting, however, that this famous victory would not be much remembered if it had no distinct tactical interest. It was all a waste. For this ferocious devastation had no real strategic importance, and it made relatively insignificant long-term impact upon the histories of France or England. Before a decade had passed, all that Henry had striven for was lost. But for an immortal victory, Henry V left no enduring legacy. A battle won is a battle won, but history is also formed by what takes place after the triumph.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

— Henry V, IV:iii

Think Fire Safety Today

Today, 8 October 2016, is the 145th anniversary of the start of the largest and deadliest fire in the history of the United States.

This makes today a good day to think about fire safety. Every home should have a fire plan, and that plan should be reviewed and practiced on a regular basis. Today would be a good a good day to perform an test of household smoke detectors, and to perform an annual battery change. Perhaps its time to replace those old fire extinguishers that you (should) have in the kitchen and the garage. The old saying that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is especially apt when it comes to fire safety.

The enormous fire that started 145 years ago and which was the worst such disaster in American history is not, as some may have guessed due to the date, the Great Chicago Fire, though it did start on 8 October 1871. The calamity of which I write is the lesser‚Äźknown, but far more terrible fire that broke out to the north of Chicago near the village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, that same hot, dry October evening 145 years ago.

The Great Peshtigo Fire was far vaster in area and far greater in devastation than the Great Chicago Fire. In Chicago, almost 2,500 acres were burned and more than 15,000 structures were destroyed. More than 250 people are thought to have died in the Chicago blaze. The Great Peshtigo Fire consumed nearly 1,250,000 acres of timberland and towns, and villages on both sides of Green Bay. Whole towns were erased completely. At least 1,100 people died in the Peshtigo conflagration, though the nature of the firestorm was such that there is no certainty about many details. At times the blaze produced temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which left no organic traces of the possible victims. Some sources estimate more than 2,000 people died in the Wisconsin disaster.

The Great Peshtigo Fire is not well remembered, despite its being much worse than the Great Chicago Fire. For the Peshtigo Fire there was no romantic “cause” to compare with “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.” (To this day, the cause of the Peshtigo fire remains undetermined.) And, quite frankly, there was no media presence in the lumbering communities of Wisconsin that could compare with Chicago’s press corps. It pays to get the word out. It’s likely that most every American school child has heard about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, though it’s a fiction. Few have read about Peshtigo.

One more fact to note helps to illustrate how much more terrifying and devastating the Peshtigo inferno was: The Great Chicago Fire burned 2,500 acres during the course of 36 hours, from 9:00 pm on Sunday the 8th until about 9:00 am on Tuesday the 10th; the Great Peshtigo Fire consumed its 1,250,000 acres in just under 11 hours!

As to the unknown causes of both Chicago’s and Wisconsin’s fires, it is interesting to note that as early as 1882, a fall of meteorites was suggested. Given that four major fires actually happened virtually simultaneously around the shores of Lake Michigan, it seems plausible that some superior cause may have been responsible. But we will likely never know for certain.

So think fire safety, today and every day, both indoors and out. And you also might do well to reflect upon the power of publicity.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Saratoga

It was on this day in 1777 that the great Revolutionary War battle of Saratoga was concluded, ending in an overwhelming victory for the newly independent Americans. American troops under General Horatio Gates and General Benedict Arnold soundly defeated British General Burgoyne’s regular British Army troops and a contingent of Hessian soldiers.

The Americans took 5,700 prisoners while losing only 150 men. This victory was the strategic turning point of the war as it removed a large portion of the British threat to the northern states, and it inspired France to formally recognize American independence and to commit whole-heartedly to the American cause. France’s support was initially purely monetary, later it took the form of additional troops and fleets. This infusion of cash and troops was indispensable to the ultimate success of the American Cause. It was the victory of the French fleet in the Battle of the Capes in September of 1781 that left General Cornwallis stranded in Yorktown with no British fleet to assist him. A month later he surrendered, effectively ending the American Revolution leaving the Americans the winners.

Because of this impact – making the Colonies’ revolution into a part of the larger European geo-political maneuvering – the Battle of Saratoga ranks as one of the pivotal battles in world history; if the Colonists had lost, everything that followed would have been different.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The truth is, all might be free if they valued freedom as they ought. — Samuel Adams

Further Reading:

Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War, Richard M. Ketchum; Henry Holt and Company, 1997: ISBN: 080504681X

In this wonderfully detailed and well-written account of the events leading up to the American victory at Saratoga, Ketchum explains how the Colonists alienated their potential allies in Canada, and adds a host of fascinating information which I had never before known of. Really well worth reading.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763 – 1789, Robert Middlekauff; Oxford University Press, 2005: ISBN: 0195162471

First published in 1982 as a part of Oxford’s history of The United States series, (which also includes James MacPherson’s landmark work on the American Civil War, The Battle Cry of Freedom) this is the essential one-volume work on the Revolutionary War. Middlekauff treats political and military aspects of the revolution, of course, but he also covers the social context of the times in the Colonies and in Great Britain, the religious moods of the day, and the economic and technological developments of the era. As I say, essential.