Daily Archives: 26/10/2011

Mud-wrestling on St Crispin’s Day

This day is called the feast of Crispian.

Or, in other words, it is 25 October, the 594th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, without which virtually nobody would have heard of St Crispian.

Even Shakespeare seems to have been a bit hazy.  In Henry V’s speech, he refers to both ‘Crispin’ and ‘Crispian’, depending on where the word comes in the iambic pentameter, getting increasingly desperate towards the end, when

Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world…

In fact (and I use this term very loosely), they were two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian.  According to the Oxford Companion to the Year, they were martyred in c.285.  There is an English tradition that they worked in Faversham – Preston St., to be exact – which became a site of pilgrimage.  The French, on the other hand, believed that they were shoemakers in Soissons.  Either way, they are patron saints of leatherworkers – which led one church in Toronto, with a gay congregation, to reinstate them as patron saints of leather and people wearing leather.  It all sounds like a load of old cobblers to me.

In 1976, John Keegan published The Face of Battle, the book that made his reputation as a military historian.  He set out to describe the direct, personal experience of ordinary soldiers in battle across the centuries.  He used three case studies, Agincourt (25 October 1415), Waterloo (18 June 1815) and the battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916).

I won’t summarise his book.  It deserves to be read in full.  But I was struck by Keegan’s point that these 3 battles all took place so close together.  Agincourt (Fr. Azincourt) is in the Pas-de-Calais department of north-west France, with the Somme River running through it.  Waterloo is just across the present Belgian boundary, a few miles from Brussels.

As I’ve said elsewhere, this area marks a cultural boundary between a French speaking, wine drinking region, and a Germanic-speaking, beer-drinking region.  Its ports also hold the key to control of the English Channel.  So it is no wonder that this region was known as the cockpit of Europe, because of the number of battles that took place there.

Agincourt archers

Archers at Agincourt, from Chronicques d'Enguerrand de Monstrelet, in Wikimedia Commons

Apart from geography, what did these 3 battles have in common?  One common denominator was mud.  High rainfall was an inevitable characteristic of its strategic position close to the Channel.  Agincourt was fought on a recently ploughed field, where the heavy cavalry wallowed in mud.  Napoleon delayed the start of battle at Waterloo because he wanted the fields to dry out first.  And we have all seen the photographs of mud at the battle of the Somme.

Yet the timing of the battles was very different.  Agincourt took place on a single day, and the battle was won and lost by sunset.  The battle was crucial because 25 October was late in the fighting season.  The harvest was over, and soon it would be too cold for campaigning.

The timing of Waterloo, on the other hand, was determined by Napoleon’s escape from Elba, rather than by the rhythms of the seasons.  He escaped in March, made his way north to Fontainebleau, then to Paris, seizing the initiative from the reinstated Bourbon king, Louis XVIII.  But by mid June, his One Hundred Days were up.

The Battle of the Somme, by comparison, was a feat of terrible endurance for the men who fought there, lasting from mid summer until mid November.  In Henry V’s day, dates were reckoned according to the Julian calendar, a matter of 11 days difference from the Gregorian calendar.  [I’ve explained this here]

The date of withdrawal from the Somme, 18 November, is therefore only 11 days later than the date of Agincourt.  (25 October according to the Julian calendar, but 7 November according to the Gregorian)

Unlike Agincourt or Waterloo, the battle of the Somme ended as a stalemate, with no clear winner.  By then more than half a million men were dead – and the land was a quagmire of mud.

Note: Actually, today is 26 October.  Doing my tax, due by the end of October, had to take priority over blogging.  The calendar can be a tyrant.