Sunday, October 25, 2009

Historians Reassess Battle of Agincourt


October 25, 2009
By JAMES GLANZ

MAISONCELLE, France — The heavy clay-laced mud behind the cattle pen on Antoine Renault’s farm looks as treacherous as it must have been nearly 600 years ago, when King Henry V rode from a spot near here to lead a sodden and exhausted English Army against a French force that was said to outnumber his by as much as five to one.

No one can ever take away the shocking victory by Henry and his “band of brothers,” as Shakespeare would famously call them, on St. Crispin’s Day, Oct. 25, 1415. They devastated a force of heavily armored French nobles who had gotten bogged down in the region’s sucking mud, riddled by thousands of arrows from English longbowmen and outmaneuvered by common soldiers with much lighter gear. It would become known as the Battle of Agincourt.

But Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.

The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study.

Those cold figures threaten an image of the battle that even professional researchers and academics have been reluctant to challenge in the face of Shakespearean prose and centuries of English pride, Ms. Curry said.

“It’s just a myth, but it’s a myth that’s part of the British psyche,” Ms. Curry said.

The work, which has received both glowing praise and sharp criticism from other historians in the United States and Europe, is the most striking of the revisionist accounts to emerge from a new science of military history. The new accounts tend to be not only more quantitative but also more attuned to political, cultural and technological factors, and focus more on the experience of the common soldier than on grand strategies and heroic deeds.

The approach has drastically changed views on everything from Roman battles with Germanic tribes, to Napoleon’s disastrous occupation of Spain, to the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War. But the most telling gauge of the respect being given to the new historians and their penchant for tearing down established wisdom is that it has now become almost routine for American commanders to call on them for advice on strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, Iraq and other present-day conflicts.

The most influential example is the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” adopted in 2006 by the United States Army and Marines and smack in the middle of the debate over whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

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