Every Englishman knows about Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. These were the great victories of the English over the French in the 100 years war, where the English longbow made the difference between the sides. The common Englishman was able to slay mounted French knights and steal the victory on the battlefield.
After the victory of Agincourt Henry V established the high watermark of English rule on the continent. Edward VI was crowned king of both England and France in 1422 on the death of his father. Edward was 9 months old. From that high point it all went downhill.
The battle of Formigny ended the presence of England in Normandy with a resounding defeat. After a successful and sustained campaign by the French to retake Normandy the complete destruction of the English army at Formigny signalled the end of Normandy as an English possession. It left Calais as the only English foothold in France, which was held until the reign of Bloody Mary Tudor.
Formigny is interesting from a historical perspective, because it laid out the future pattern of battle up until the invention of the rifled musket in the mid-nineteenth century in the US Civil War.
The English at Formigny, three quarters of whom were archers, established a strong defensive position, protected by ditches and stakes. The French, who had at last learned the lessons of Crécy and Agincourt, did not get drawn into a cavalry charge.
Instead they mounted only sufficient cavalry skirmishes against the flanks of the English to keep them bunched. They brought up artillery pieces and began to pound the archers from a safe distance.
The English infantry knew that if they remained in position they would be slaughtered by cannon fire. They presented an easy target in their defensive square.
If they broke formation to escape the cavalry would run them down and rout them in open country.
So they bravely launched a frontal attack on the French and captured the guns.
Before they could retreat and reform an organised defensive position a new force of Breton cavalry appeared on the English flank. They were charged and in their loose formation became easy pickings for the French knights.
This choreography of defensive square, infantry marching column and firing line evolved over the following years to become the tactics of Napoleonic era armies. Archers were gradually replaced by musketeers. Static defensive positions protected by stakes were replaced by mobile pike squares.
As artillery became lighter and more manoeuvrable the defensive squares had to become more agile. The pike was replaced by the bayonet, providing a far greater concentration of firepower in the squares.
All of this was ordained at Formigny. But what English man would remember such a day?
Formigny, sounds a bit like Fontenoy!
Fontenoy; by Thomas Osborne Davis
Thrice, at the huts of Fontenoy, the English column failed,
And twice the lines of Saint Antoine the Dutch in vain assailed;
For town and slope were filled with fort and flanking battery,
And well they swept the English ranks and Dutch auxiliary.
As vainly, through De Barri’s wood, the British soldiers burst,
The French artillery drove them back, diminished, and dispersed.
The bloody Duke of Cumberland beheld with anxious eye,
And ordered up his last reserve, his latest chance to try,
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, how fast his generals ride!
And mustering come his chosen troops, like clouds at eventide.
Six thousand English veterans in stately column tread;
Their cannon blaze in front and flank, Lord Hay is at their head;
Steady they step a-down the slope–steady they climb the hill;
Steady they load–steady they fire, moving right onward still,
Betwixt the wood and Fontenoy, as through a furnace blast,
Through rampart, trench, and palisade, and bullets showering fast;
And on the open plain above they rose and kept their course,
With ready fire and grim resolve, that mocked at hostile force:
Past Fontenoy, past Fontenoy, while thinner grew their ranks–
They break, as broke the Zuyder Zee through Holland’s ocean banks.
More idly than the summer flies, French tirailleurs rush round;
As stubble to the lava tide, French squadrons strew the ground;
Bomb-shell and grape and round-shot tore, still on they marched
Fast from each volley grenadier and voltigeur retired.
‘Push on, my household cavalry!’ King Louis madly cried:
To death they rush, but rude their shock–not unavenged they died.
On through the camp the column trod–King Louis turns his rein:
‘Not yet, my liege,’ Saxe interposed, ‘the Irish troops remain.’
And Fontenoy, famed Fontenoy, had been a Waterloo
Were not these exiles ready then, fresh, vehement, and true.
‘Lord Clare,’ he says, ‘you have your wish; there are your Saxon foes!’
The Marshal almost smiles to see, so furiously he goes!
How fierce the look these exiles wear, who’re wont to be so gay,
The treasured wrongs of fifty years are in their hearts to-day–
The treaty broken, ere the ink wherewith ’twas writ could dry,
Their plundered homes, their ruined shrines, their women’s parting cry,
Their priesthood hunted down like wolves, their country overthrown–
Each looks as if revenge for all were staked on him alone
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, nor ever yet elsewhere,
Rushed on to fight a nobler band than these proud exiles were.
O’Brien’s voice is hoarse with joy, as, halting, he commands
‘Fix bay’nets!–charge!’ Like mountain storm, rush on these fiery bands!
Thin is the English column now, and faint their volleys grow,
Yet, must’ring all the strength they have, they make a gallant show.
They dress their ranks upon the hill to face that battle-wind–
Their bayonets the breakers’ foam; like rocks, the men behind!
One volley crashes from their line, when, through the surging smoke,
With empty guns clutched in their hands, the headlong Irish broke.
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, hark to that fierce huzza!
‘Revenge, remember Limerick! dash down the Sacsanach!’
Like lions leaping at a fold when mad with hunger’s pang,
Right up against the English line the Irish exiles sprang:
Bright was their steel, ’tis bloody now, their guns are filled with
Through shattered ranks and severed files the trampled flags they
The English strove with desperate strength, paused, rallied, staggered,
The green hill-side is matted close with dying and with dead.
Across the plain, and far away, passed on that hideous wrack,
While cavalier and fantassin dash in upon their track.
On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, like eagles in the sun,
With bloody plumes, the Irish stand–the field is fought and won!