Exercise Fabius 2-7 May 1944 was, arguably, the largest training exercise to take place in the UK. It would be the final rehearsal for Operation Overlord . It was a rehearsal of the landings on the four invasion beaches in the Normandy coast between the rivers Orne and Dives; ( Sword, Juno, Gold and Omaha beaches) .
Utah beach, geographically separated from the other four beaches was considered a separate assault from naval point of view. The rehearsal for the landing on Utah Beach was Exercise Tiger and took place on 26-30 April on Slapton Sands in Devon.
Ex Fabius allowed participants the chance to rehearse under conditions as close as possible to those they would face. It also allowed the ports to practice supporting a large scale landing. This was a dress rehearsal with the landing forces approaching the beaches behind mine sweepers and landing craft lowered ten miles off shore. The landings were accompanied by live firing from ships.
The assault troops for each of the D Day beaches would practice landing on a stretch of coast with a similar configuration to that they would face on D Day. The exercise was too close to D Day for any further experimentation or changes to the plan. Some units would not return to their previous accommodation, but instread to their assault assembly area.
3rd British Infantry Division was assigned to assault Sword beach with the town of Ouistrhem and the River Orne on their left flank and the city of Caen as its objective. On Exercise Fabius it landed near Littlehampton with the River Arun on its Left and Arundel its objective.
Robin Dunn, who was Battery Commander of 16 Battery of 7 Field Regiment claimed post war that there were problems which were identified and if put right would have enabled the allies to do better on D Day.
” While at Bolney we had our final rehearsal of the invasion on the south coast near Arundel……..We had a new divisional commander, Tom Rennie, who had commanded a brigade of 5lst Highland Division with distinction in 8th Army and had a high reputation. The commander of 185th Brigade was Brigadier K. R Smith, who had been with the brigade for some time and had so far in the war seen no action. He was a good trainer of troops who had worked us hard during our training in Scotland. But he did not fully accept the role of the brigade in the divisional plan. We had heard that 21st Panzer Division had been identified as having recently arrived about thirty miles inland of our landing beach. The presence of this division became a fixation in K.P.’s mind. He was haunted by the idea that, if 185th Brigade pushed too boldly inland, 2lst Panzer would come round our right flank, which was in open country and cut us off from the beaches. There was wooded country on the left and KP. wished to infiltrate his infantry through the woods beside the river and approach the objective in that way along the divisional left flank. During our final rehearsal he attempted this manoeuvre, which involved keeping one battalion on our original thrust line and passing the other two round their left flank in a wide turning movement. The result was chaos. The battalions became separated from one another and the Brigadier lost communication with the flanking force which lost all momentum. I was at brigade HQ when Tom Rennie arrived and said wearily, ‘You won’t let this happen on the day will you KP? It would have been better, even at that late stage, if he had sacked KP. on the spot.” Robn Dunn Sword and Wig.
Although many fewer than on Ex Tiger, there were casualties on Exercise Fabius. On the Morning of 4 May twin engine fighter bomber aircraft of Coastal Command attached Allied motor boats inflicting many casualties. Possibly the German attack on Ex Tiger had made the airmen a little trigger happy.
Places associated with the story of the training and rehearsals for D day can be found across Britain, from the sections of Atlantic Wall built in Scotland to the beaches which stood in for the Norman Coast.
490 years ago, Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard, the commander of the French rear guard at the Battle of the Sesia, was mortally wounded by an arquebus ball, on 30th April 1524. This French soldier, generally known as Chevalier de Bayard, was renowned by his contemporaries as the fearless and faultless knight (le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche). He himself preferred to be referred to as “le bon chevalier”, or “the good knight”. The death of a man famed for his chivalry at the hands of an anonymous arquibussier appear to symbolise a transition in warfare. However the Bon Chevalier was much more than just a symbol. While most of his military services was in Italy and the borders of France, there are parts of his story which touches British Military history.
From the insular Britain the reign of the Tudors is fairly peaceful, fgive or take the odd Scottish incursion or Yorkist plot. But the forty years from 1490 was a turbulent time in Europe, with France at war for most of the time with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire was fought in Italy and along France’s still ill defined boundaries. This was a period when military technology, organisation and tactics were changing rapidly.
The wikipedia entry on Chevalier de Bayard lists his military service over thirty years service for three successive French monarchs Charles VII, Louis XII and Francis I mainly in Italy but also in Flanders. He seems to have played an important role in many of the battles of the Italian wars, from Charles’ ,VII’s campaigns .
The Chevalier de Bayard seems to have combined the personal qualities expected of a medieval knight with the professional abilities needed in the new world of gun powder, and pike and shot. While his chivalrous deeds and gallantry charmed Kings and courtiers – and Lucretia Borgia, he was far more than a dashing knight. He was a good organiser and trainer. In 1509 he raised a body of horse and foot which set the standard for discipline and battlefield effectiveness in an army which had previously despised infantry as a mere rabble. As a commander he was known for his accurate knowledge of the enemy, obtained by skilled reconnaissance and efficient espionage. In 1521, with 1000 men he had successfully held the “indefensible” city of Mezieres in the Meuse valley against an Imperial army of 35,000
In 1503 the re was a battle on the line of , with the Spanish Army assaulted the French Army across the the River Garigliano, via bridges of boats. One of the more famous incidents of the battle is the single handed defence of a bridge over the Chevalier de Bayard single handed held off a force of 300 Spaniards. This took place close to the village of Minturno, close to where the British Army attacked in a similar fashion in January 1944 and a few hundred metres from the Commonwealth War Cemetery.
Ten years later Bayard fought at the battle of Guines, known by the English as the battle of the Spurs, in which a French cavalry force was defeated by the English. Fleeing from the field Bayard was trapped, but noticing an English knight un-armoured and resting he forced the man to yield and then in turn offered himself as a prisoner. This act of chivalry endeared him to Henry VIII who released him on parole.
On 30th April 1524 Bayard died in “the midst of the enemy, attended by Pescara, the Spanish commander, and by his old comrade, Charles, duc de Bourbon, who was now fighting on the opposite side. Charles is reported to have said “Ah! Monsieur de Bayard… I am very sad to see you in this state; you who were such a virtuous knight!” Bayard answered,“”Sir, there is no need to pity me. I die as a man of honour ought, doing my duty; but I pity you, because you are fighting against your king, your country, and your oath.”
That is an interesting view from a historic figure at a time which we assume is dominated by treachery, Machaivelli and mercenaries.
For more about Chevalier de Bayard check the following:-
The attack on Pointe du Hoc by the US Rangers on D Day is a famous episode in the history of the cross channel invasion. On 6th June 1944 the US 2nd Ranger Battalion stormed 30m (100 ft) high cliffs to capture a German artillery battery which had to be neutralised. The action featured in the 1961 film “The Longest Day” and in many TV documentaries. The mission epitomised the Rangers ‘s ethos, inspired by the British Commandos. Few people are aware that along with the US Rangers some British logistics soldiers played an important and heroic part in the operation and were awarded medals for gallantry.
On Pointe du Hoc, the Germans had built, as part of the Atlantic Wall, six reinforced concrete case-mates to house a battery of captured French 155mm guns. Pointe Du Hoc was on a headland situated between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east. These coastal defence guns threatened Allied landings on both beaches, risking heavy casualties in the landing forces. Although there were several bombardments from the air and by naval guns, intelligence reports assumed that the fortifications were too strong, and would also require attack by ground forces. The US 2nd Ranger Battalion was therefore given the task of destroying the strong point early on D-Day.
Prior to the attack, the guns were moved approximately one mile away; however, the concrete fortifications were intact, and would still present a major threat to the landings if they were occupied by artillery forward observers, which could still direct the fire of the guns.
Assaulting the 100 ft rocky cliffs was expected to be a tough challenge. This was rather similar to the problem facing armies scaling city or castle walls. If the Germans were at all alert they could rain fire down on men climbing rope ladders. The operation was planned to take place shortly before dawn in order to achieve surprise.
The Rangers planned to use a secret weapon to help them climb the 100 ft cliffs quickly; the modern equivalent of a siege tower. DUKW amphibious 2 ½ ton trucks were fitted with the turntables from London Fire engines and machine guns fitted to the top of the ladder. The idea was that the DUKW would land on the small beach below the cliffs, extend the ladders and the Rangers would rush up the ladders, which were easier to climb than ropes or rope ladders. This was tried and practiced on training exercises on the South Coast.
On D Day itself the plan didn’t work out as well. Firstly due to a navigation error, the assault took place later than scheduled. Instead of landing in the dark the convoy travelled for some way along the cliff in full view of the now very alert German defenders.
The landing took place at a higher tide than planned. Secondly, the allied naval and air bombardment had brought down some of the cliff and created a heap of rubble in front of the cliff. It proved impossible to get the extendable ladders in place or a firm footing for the DKUW. One account describes a Ranger manning the machine guns on an oscillating ladder firing at the Germans when the ladder passed through the highest point of each roll.
The Rangers assaulted the cliffs using rope ladders launched up the cliff with rockets. Despite the Germans throwing hand grenades and shooting at them from the cliff edge, the Rangers were successful. They cleared the battery, found and destroyed the guns themselves, which were about a mile inland and started what proved to be a 48 hour battle to fight off German troops counter attacking.
The DUKW drivers were RASC drivers. The fire engine ladders mounted on the cargo bay of the DUKW made them top heavy and harder to control, especially in the heavy seas on D Day. Navigating and operating these amphibious vehicles was a difficult and arduous duty performed with skill. But this isn’t the end of their story.
At least two of the DUKW drivers, Corporal Good and Private Blackmore, scaled the cliffs using the rope ladders and joined the Rangers in the fight as riflemen. When ammunition was running low they went back down the cliffs and recovered machine guns from the DUKWs, which were under fire. They then returned up the cliff and brought the machine guns into action.
Pte Blackmore was wounded in the foot. After receiving first aid, he then returned to the front line and rescued a badly wounded Ranger under machine gun and mortar fire. He then volunteered to carry ammunition to the front line, salvage ammunition from the beach and repair weapons until he was evacuated on 7th June.
Cpl Good remained with the 2nd Rangers until Pointe Du Hoc was relieved by a force arriving by land from Omaha Beach to the East on 8th June. As you can see Pte Blackmore was originally recommended for a DCM, the second highest British Medal for Gallantry, but it was downgraded to an MM.
Colonel Rudder, the Commanding Officer fo the 2nd battalion US Rangers recommended that the actions of these two soldiers should be recognised. Corporal Good was awarded the Military Medal Private Blackmore was recommended the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but was awarded the Military Medal.
For most of the British assault troops on D Day, the fighting on the beach was over within a few hours. These two RASC soldiers fought one of the longest infantry actions undertaken by the RASC in North West Europe. They fought alongside specially selected, commando trained US Rangers in one of the actions which defined the US Ranger ethos. They are the exemplar of soldier first tradesman second and deserve to be role models.
When I first heard about this story I tried to find out what training these men would have received. The US Rangers and the British Army Commandos on which they were based were specially selected raiders expected to undertake physical feats not normally expected of ordinary soldiers, such as for example, such as scaling 100′ cliffs under fire. However, according to Andy Robertshaw, the Curator of the Royal Logistics Corps Museum it is very unlikely that these men would have been given any Commando training. Their bit of the operation was to drive these amphibious trucks, top heavy with the extension ladders through heavy seas.
It is remarkable that these men, specially selected for their qualities as helmsmen and DUKW drivers, after what must have been an arduous and difficult voyage, then chose to join the Rangers in their fight. I cannot find any pictures of these every-man heroes and been unable to trace any relatives or old comrades. The Sustainer magazine, the Journal of the Royal Logistics Corps published this article in their Winter issue Their story deserves to be more widely known.
There are a lot more men like Corporal Good and Blackmore, who served in many different roles, doing their bit. If you are interested in finding out more about other forgotten heroes please contact me and I can help you to find out more and where to visit the places where their did their bit..
The Aisne battlefields are in some ways a forgotten corner of the Western Front. Most British visitors to the Western Front tend to focus on the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, or hurtle across it en route to Verdun, the iconic French battle. Yet the battlefields in the Aisne, the bordering department south of the Somme Region, play a significant part in the development of the Western Front, have a special place in the story of the British Expeditionary force and are the resting place of several thousand British soldiers.
The Department of the Aisne forms an inverted triangle with St Quentin near the top left corner and the town of Château Thierry near the base. The northern half of the department is part of the Picardy plains. The southern half is much hillier and cut by the Oise, Aisne and Marne rivers flowing East to West. Battlefields tend to be determined by physical geography rather than administrative regions. Thus the department plays an significant role in several battlefields, only one of which takes its name from the department.
THE OTHER SOMME BATTLEFIELD
There are geographic and commercial reasons why British battlefield tourists tend to miss out the Aisne. The Somme is that bit closer, and even then most British visitors focus on the battlefields around Albert, the site of the dramatic and costly first day of the Somme, and popularised in literature from Siegfried Sassoon to Sebastian Faulks. There has also been a major investment in the Somme in heritage tourism, from the development of the Thiepval interpretation centre, to the establishment of the Museum of the Great War in Peronne, and there is the well organised support for British tourists and the tourist trade. There is a risk though, that the focus on that which is easiest to visit distorts our understanding of the history and what it means.
The Northern part of the Aisne department centres on the town of St Quentin. This area tells a different story of the battles we know as the Somme. The most obvious features are the remains of the Hindenburg line, the fortified line created due to the high cost to the Germans of the battle of the Somme. We don’t often see the 1916 Somme battle as a “victory”. The huge investment in developing the Hindenburg line and the spiteful destruction of everything of possible value in the land they evacuated indicates that the Germans saw the Somme as a defeat. This area included the sites of actions in the advance to the Hindenburg line in March 1917. The village of Francilly-Selency includes reminders of this in the monument to the 2nd Battalion the Manchester Regiment which liberated the village in March 1917, in the action during which one of their officers, the poet Wilfred Owen, was wounded.
If we relied purely on popular culture, the Great war was not won but fizzled out in an Armistice, whether in a hail of bullets in no man’s land in Blackadder or with the tunnellers still under the static trenches in Bird Song. However, a visit to the Battlefields around St Quentin bears witness to the violent climax to the First World War on the Western Front. In March 1918, Manchester Hill, captured by Wilfred Owen’s battalion the previous spring, was occupied by the 16th Battalion the Manchester Regiment, understrength and exhausted from the Passchendaele campaign. This was one of the British redoubts isolated by German storm troops on the first day of the Kaiserschlacht and where its commanding Officer fought to the death, and was subsequently
awarded the Victoria Cross. The Hindenburg Line positions north of St Quentin stormed by the British, Australian and American troops 28 September-3 October 1918, are still very visible and provide evidence of the story of the allied determination, skill and courage that overwhelmed the Germans in 1918. At this point the German defences were based on the Canal du Nord, a major obstacle protected by barbed wire and concrete bunkers. The tactical problem can be compared with the D Day landings. The bridge at Riqueval, seized by Captain Charlton and nine men can be compared to the capture of Pegasus Bridge on D Day. It is one of the most evocative places, and captured on a camera.
The fighting did not end at the canal. The concrete bunkers of the Hindenberg line are much better preserved than the earthworks of the Somme. The BBC TV Programme ”Who Do You Think You Are?” featured Matthew Davis the descendent of William Henry Johnson VC winner seeking the story of his ancestor. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23109590
Close to here, at Mannequin Hill, N.E. of Sequehart, Lance Corporal William Harold Coltman, of 1/6th Bn, North Staffordshire Regiment, carried out the actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. William Coltman, whose Christian beliefs would not allow him to kill another man was Britain’s most highly decorated serviceman of the First World War ( 1914-1918 ). In the last two years of the war he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal twice, and Military Medal twice, acting as a stretcher-bearer.
THE AISNE – THE BIRTH OF TRENCH WARFARE
South of Laon is the area of the Aisne battlefields. The department included the battlefield is bordered by the city of Soissons in the West and Berry au Bac in the East, and stretches as far south as the River Marne and the city of Laon in the North. The countryside is a little more alien for the British visitor. The Somme Battlefields are geologically similar to Southern England and the rolling countryside and large fields are similar to the landscape of Hampshire. Much of the fighting centred on the high ground North of the river Aisne. The heights are often referred to by the name of the road along the heights, the Chemin des Dames.
The War first came to the area in September 1914 as the French and British armies fell back south pursued by the Germans. The German Schlieffen plan finally unravelled in the battle of the Marne between 5-12th September 1914 and the Germans pulled back. When the allies advanced north many could be forgiven for thinking that this war was nearly over. There had been an advance, a big battle and now the invaders were in full retreat. But, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the river Aisne, they found the Germans dug in on the spurs on the high ground overlooking the rive Aisne and supported by plentiful artillery. Despite heroic efforts in over a week of fighting, the BEF were unable to dislodge the Germans and both sides had started to dig trenches. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander of the BEF wrote to the king “I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble. Siege operations will enter largely into the tactical problems – the spade will be as great a necessity as a rifle”
There is a lot to see in the area from the BEF experience on the Aisne. The ground itself is evocative, and much as it was in 1914. You can still see the bridging site where the Royal Engineers bridged the river next to the damaged bridge. The story of the BEF can be traced on the landscape and past the cemeteries with the reminders of the costs.
THE CHEMIN DES DAMES –1917 THE CALVARY OF THE FRENCH ARMY
The Chemin des Dames area was the site of the disastrous Neville Offensive in May 1917. The newly appointed commander of the French Army, General Robert Neville, thought that he had discovered the secret of the offensive based on the experience of successful limited attacks on the Somme and Verdun. He massed hundreds of guns and the cream of the French army, including tens of thousands of African soldiers. Unfortunately for Neville and the French army, the Germans had tunnelled deep into the ground, developed defences in depth and found out when and where the attack would take place. After several days bombardment the attack started under atrocious weather conditions, for May. After 135,000 casualties the French troops had had enough. There were mutinies in several regiments. They were strikes really, with soldiers protesting about ill planned attacks, poor food and no leave.
The saviour of Verdun, General Petain was appointed as Commander in chief of the army. He is credited with restoring discipline and confidence to the French Army. He did so with a mixture of carrot and stick. He instigated improvements in pay and leave arrangement, and perhaps most significantly, he cancelled further major offensives. This allowed the French army to recover its confidence in its commanders through a series of carefully planned and executed limited offensives. One of these, in November 1917 took place in the area around Fort Malmaison on the Aisne and resulted in the Germans withdrawing from the Chemin des Dames, the objective on the first day of the Neville offensive. The other implication of the French Army mutinies was that the burden of warfare on the West would have to be borne by the British until the American army could be mobilised and brought to Europe.
Arguably the 1917 mutinies had another legacy, in the French army of the Second World War. There is a comparison with Verdun. Verdun is a story of determination and sacrifice characterised by “They shall not pass”. The Chemin des Dames is where the French army reached the limits of endurance. It can be characterised by the bitter words of the Chanson de Craonne. ” It’s in Craonne up on the plateau That we’re leaving our hides ‘ Cause we’ve all been sentenced to die. We’re the ones that they’re sacrificing.”
There is a lot to see on the Aisne battlefield from the 1917 battles. The battlefield itself, like much of the
area around Verdun was deemed to be too devastated to be restored for agricultural use and designated a “Red Zone.” Although subsequently much agricultural land has been recovered, there are still tracts of the battlefield preserved as it was at the end of the First War, with the ruins of abandoned villages such as Craonne. There are also plentiful interpretive panels and panoramas relating the landscape of the battlefield. One focus for interpretation is the Cavern de Dragons, a quarry that became the scene of underground fighting. This contains an imaginative museum and guided tour.
There are also some evocative memorials each of which tells something of the French army. One memorial has a statue of a French soldier of 1814 alongside one of 1914; a reminder that this was also the site of one of Napoleon;’s last victories.
A group of elegant dark statues represents the spirits of the African soldiers who suffered so heavily in 1917. There is also a memorial to the first use of tanks by the French Army at Berry au Bac.
THE BRITISH ON THE AISNE IN 1918
The troops that made up the Ninth British Corps were singularly unlucky during 1918. As mentioned earlier, the Germans launched a series of offensives to try to win the war before the American Army appeared in numbers. The first offensive was between St Quentin and Arras on 21st March and took the Germans to within a few miles of Amiens. The second, the battle of the Lys, in April took the Germans close to undermining the Britsh in Flanders. In these five weeks the British Army had taken over 230,000 casualties, about the same as in the four month Passchendaele campaign. Five of the most battered British formations were transferred to the Aisne front, which had been a quiet sector since 1917. And so when the Aisne became the target of the German “operation Blucher.”, the plateau of California and Craonne was defended by the 4th Battalion the East Yorkshire Regiment of the 50th Northumberland Division. The resulting battle saw the British and French pushed back 25 miles to the river Marne. The 2nd Battalion the Devonshire Regiment and 5 Battery RFA distinguished themselves by the heroic defence of the Bois de Buttes despite being attacked by storm-troopers supported by tanks. Both units were awarded the Croix de Guerre which now is worn by all soldiers in 5 Gibraltar Battery RA and the Rifles. One of the best accounts of the fighting on the Aisne is published as “The Last of the Ebb:The Battle of the Aisne, 1918” by Sidney Rogerson Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal
BIG CASTLES AND BIG GUNS
The hilltop village of Coucey has a particularly fine ruined château and the remains of town walls. But it’s ruin is a story of the First World War. Before 1914 the château of Coucey was the largest in France and a major tourist destination. But in 1917 it lay in the zone that the Germans were planning to abandon and was destroyed in what in retrospect seems spiteful vandalism. On the outskirts of Coucey is a different sort of structure. In the forest is a concrete emplacement for a giant gun used by the Germans for shelling Compiegne 20 km away.
THE 1918 BATTLEFIELDS OF THE MARNE – WHEN THE AMERICANS SAVED PARIS FRANCE AND WON THE WAR
On two occasions in the First World War the Germans nearly reached Paris. It was the high point of the German advances in 1914 and in 1918. The battles which saw the repulse of these attacks are both known as the Battle of the Marne. The turning point was the deployment of American troops on the Marne in June and July 1918. The Americans played a big part in halting the Germans on the Marne at Château Thierry, which is home to the impressive US Châteaux Thierry monument. Not far away is Belleu wood, which is where the US marines attacked in 1918. This battlefield has been preserved and it and the neighbouring US American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery and the German cemetery are reminders of the part America played in the First World War.
The battle of Crécy (1346), alongside Agincourt (1415) has gone down in history as the triumph of the English foot soldier armed with the longbow over the French Knights. It has been known for a long time that Edward III had four cannons with his army, but their role on the battlefield has been dismissed, as having no effect beyond announcing that fire-power had arrived on the battlefield. However, in a speech to the Battlefields Trust, Professor Michael Prestwich argued that we should re-examine our interpretation of the Battle of Crécy and that Edward III’s cannons had a much bigger impact than as a mere gimmick of alchemy.
Edward III’s unexpected victory over the French at Crécy-en-Pontieu near Abbeville overturned the presumption that knights would ride down foot soldiers. This established the Longbow as an important weapon, the yeoman archers of England as heroes, and demonstrated the fighting power behind Edward III’s claim to the French throne which started the Hundred Years War.
King Edward III landed in Normandy in July. Having captured Caen he moved East to cross the Seine and then headed North along the coast, pursued by a larger French Army under King Philip VI of France. Edward crossed the Somme after winning the Battle of Blanchetaque on August 24. Tired from their marching and fighting the English army encamped near the Forest of Crécy. Philip raced towards Crécy with his men, keen to defeat the English and angry that he had failed to trap them between the Seine and Somme.
It is generally accepted that Edward deployed his men along a ridge between the villages of Crécy and Wadicourt and divided his army into three divisions. The right division was assigned to his sixteen-year old son Edward, the Black Prince. The left division was led by the Earl of Northampton, while Edward, commanding from a vantage point in a windmill, commanded the reserve. These divisions were comprised of dismounted men at arms supported by large numbers of archers equipped with the English longbow. The English improved their position by digging ditches and laying obstacles in front of their position. The baggage train was in the rear of the English position. Sometimes accounts mention that four cannons were positioned in the front line.
The leading parts of Philip’s army, advancing North from Abbeville arrived near the English around mid-day on August 26. The French started the battle before the whole French army had arrived on the battlefield. The French advance was led by several thousand mercenary Genoese crossbowmen, followed by thousands of French knights organised into divisions under the leading nobles, while King Philip commanded the rearguard.
When the Genoese crossbowmen approached close enough they fired a series of volleys at the English. These proved ineffective compared to the English response which was devastated the Genoese and forced them to retreat. This in turn provoked some French Knights to cut down the retreating Genoese as for their cowardice. The failure of the Genoese is attributed to several factors. A brief thunderstorm before the battle had wet their bowstrings. The decision to start the battle early, meant that they fought without their pavise’s wooden shields behind which they could shelter while reloading. Also, the rate of fire of a longbow was far in excess of a crossbow, with a longbow-man loosing thre or four arrows to each crosw-bow bolt.
The French knights fell into confusion as they collided with the retreating Genoese. Continuing the attack, the French knights were forced to negotiate the slope of the ridge and the man-made obstacles. Cut down in large numbers by the archers, the felled knights and their horses blocked the advance of those to the rear.
At some point in the battle Edward received a message from his son requesting assistance. This King Edward refused, stating “I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help,” and “Let the boy win his spurs.” As evening approached the English still held their position after repelling sixteen French charges, and felling their attackers with arrows. This was a huge English victory.
But, this interpretation is based on conflicting and fragmentary sources surviving from medieval records. Michael Prestwich pointed out the accepted interpretation is largely based on a selective choice about which sources to accept and which to reject. Even the location is uncertain. Geoffrey le Baker, refers to the field of Crecy, while Froissart writes that battle took place near a wood, somewhere between Crécy and La Broie, (five miles apart) and the king was on the mound of a windmill, at the rear of his army. While another source, Henry Knighton mentions another place name, Westglyse, identified as Watteglise, which is to the north-east.
Michael Prestwich also drew attention to Italian sources which give a very different version of the battle from the English and French, and for work done by Richard Barber in an as yet unpublished work on Crécy. These accounts are dismissed as being written at third hand and in a third country. But there were large number of Italian Genoese present at the start of the engagement. One of these accounts, by Giovanni Villani, who died in 1348, “stressed above all the English encampment of carts. The whole army, he said, in three battalions, was enclosed in a ring of carts, with a single entrance. Bombards were placed under the carts, and the archers shot from them, their arrows stacked in barrels.” The same account also includes a description of the effectiveness of the artillery “The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire…They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses…The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners…[by the end of the battle] the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls.”
Professor Prestwich also quoted a second Italian account which dates from about 1360, and thanked Richard Barber for this. According to this account “Edward surrounded his army with iron chains, fixed to posts, in a horseshoe plan. Carts were then placed outside the chains, tipped up with their shafts in the air. Ditches were dug to reinforce the defences. Archers were hidden in the woods and cornfields – the author noted that as it was very cold in northern France, corn was not ha
rvested until September, and in Crécy it was still standing (the battle was 26 August). The Genoese had to climb a slope to approach the English position. They could not shoot their crossbows and were mostly cut down. The English archers, advancing through the corn, shot at the French cavalry and did so much damage that the battle was lost. There is a telling detail in this account. The Genoese crossbowmen’s problem was not that their bowstrings were damp – this account explains that the difficulty was that the ground was so muddy and soft that they found it impossible to put the crossbows down and hold them there with the stirrup for reloading. “
These Italian accounts are usually discredited because it is hard to reconcile the accounts of the carts with known practices of the time.
But perhaps the Genoese were describing something they had not seen before and could not understand. What they may have been looking at is the vehicles needed to support a gun battery – the worlds first wagon lines. Guns need a lot of vehicles, to transport the pieces, protect the ready use ammunition from the elements, carry ammunition and all the services to support the men who serve the guns. Edwards battery may have needed the ability to cast or carve their own shot, carry and possibly manufacture gunpowder. Edward’s army was on the move. It had prepared to fight at Crecy and it may have made sense to retain the ammunition and stores needed for the guns close by rather than banishing them to the baggage train.
As artillery evolved all the vehicles were held in the wagon lines where they would be protected from enemy fire. But at Crecy there was no enemy artillery fire, and contrary to Hollywood, flaming arrows were not a normal medieval battlefield weapon. A separate wagon lines would be additional risks to an English army marching through hostile territory and faced with a superior mounted enemy. And the wagons and carts might also have provided cover for archers.
Edward’s army may have been accompanied by more than the four bombards. According to Michael Prestwich, Edward had ordered 100 small guns, known as ribalds, in October 1345. These had, it seems, wheeled carriages, and were probably multi-barrelled.
So maybe the battle of Crecy was the worlds first battle where artillery played a significant part in the battle. So far this is a bit of speculation based on an after dinner speech by an eminent historian and information sources hiding in plain sight on the Internet. But the early gunpowder era is interesting for lots of reasons, not least because modern archaeological techniques have been able to establish new facts about medieval battlefields from the evidence that gunpowder weapons leave. In the last couple of years Glenn Foard rediscovered the battlefield of Bosworth from the cannon balls. Perhaps it is time to start a project to search for cannon balls from Crecy that may have sunk in the wet soil.
Military history, Battlefield heritage and Touring