Friday, October 28, 2005

Where "this band of brothers" once stood.

"Agincourt," by Juliet Barker.

Reviewed by Frances Stonor Saunders.

Shortly after dawn on October 25, 1415, 6,000 Englishmen under the command of Henry V looked across a sodden field at the French enemy, and soiled themselves. Their bowels loosened by dysentery and fear, many of them cut off their breeches and undergarments in an attempt to let nature take its course. This option was not available to the men-at-arms who were encased in 70 lbs of steel plate armour. Their discomfort can only be imagined.

Harry's army also creaked, from joints stiff after weeks of exposure to incessant rain, and from armour that had rusted. Some men were barefoot, their shoes having disintegrated on a desultory march across 250 miles of hostile territory. Sick, half-starved, outnumbered by five to one - how did this pitifully reduced host transmute into the noble force that with "terrible aspect" humbled the pride of France at Agincourt 600 years ago?

The French army was vastly superior in number, but its bulk outweighed its intelligence. With no leader (both the king, Charles VI, and his dauphin, declined to make an appearance) or proper chain of command, it lacked the coherence and discipline of the English. During the lengthy period of deployment on that wretched field of the Somme, the French nobles and knights jostled to get their armorial banners into the leading ranks.

Distracted by this competitive gallantry, they failed to take advantage of Henry's highly risky redeployment of his archers, who actually had to turn their backs to the French as they adjusted their position. Free to commence their deadly work, the archers unloosed volleys "as thick as rain" (in England, meanwhile, geese shivered after the involuntary donation of their feathers). The French, as Henry had intended, attacked, sending mounted men-at-arms and infantry crashing towards the English lines.

What followed was carnage on a scale not seen in the Hundred Years' War since the battles of Crècy and Poitiers, half a century before. The French horses, stung by English arrows, reared and bucked and threw their riders, who now became a grisly front line of bodies wedged into the sticky ground. After them came the infantry, who had to clamber on top of their colleagues, pressing them ever deeper into the mud, in order to meet the English corps. Eventually, unable to move forward or back across the mound of jerking limbs, the flower of French chivalry was hacked and clubbed to death by the English.

The military facts of the battle of Agincourt, insofar as they can be accurately reconstructed, are briskly delivered by Juliet Barker. Too briskly, perhaps. We have to wait until page 287 for the fight to begin, and a mere 20 pages later, it's over (give or take: a subsequent chapter deals with the mopping-up exercise). There is little or nothing to distinguish her treatment from, say, John Keegan's commanding chapter in The Face of Battle. But Barker's account, as her subtitle suggests, seeks a much wider perspective on this cherished episode in English national myth than conventional military history can offer.

From her introductory section on the background to Henry V's quarrel with France, through the massive logistical exercise of mounting an invasion, to the siege and fall of Harfleur and the increasingly desperate march towards Calais, this is narrative non-fiction in grand sweep mode. This allows Barker to gather up much rich material, but leaves her little room for analysis. We learn of the extraordinary sums raised to pay for Henry's campaign, and much about how it was disbursed, but there is no discussion of how this impacted the economy (we can guess: the survival of surnames like Bowyer, Arrowsmith, and Fletcher are a reminder of the medieval population's profitable invol-vement in war).

Barker dismisses stories of "Henry's wild, misspent youth and his dramatic conversion at his coronation into a sober, just and righteous king" as mischievous invention, but doesn't explain what animated this reverse hagiography. Nor does she explain why the chroniclers log Henry's every eyebrow movement up to and including on the eve of battle ("A little touch of Harry in the night"), only to leave us with such a pallid impression of his role on the battlefield itself.

Elsewhere, Barker is more vigilant in her reading of primary sources (not just for what they say, but for what they fail to say). She is right to warn of the "propaganda trap" that historians must dodge, "the one-sided, politically motivated or simply jingoistic" response to Agincourt that seasoned generations of prep-school history lessons and, most famously, provided Laurence Olivier with the excuse to prance and preen and speak in a ridiculous accent.

Barker is sometimes vulnerable to a bit of Old Vic nostalgia, but the weight of evidence she presents in this ambitious book speaks for itself: medieval war was a brutal business, and no amount of glamorous chivalric accessories can disguise that fact.