Friday, August 15, 2008

Poitiers 1356 in the present

Poitiers, from the Hundred Years War (as opposed to Poitiers from the 8th century, also known as Tours) is now one of my battles. Along with Cowpens, Agincourt, Battle of the Pelennor Fields and a few others, Poitiers is one of the few battles I just have to game. I feel compelled.

Of course, in order to fight the battle I have to paint the figures. For the English that's about 250 wee men. For the French, double it. Needless to say, I'm nowhere near the number for the Anglais, and I haven't even started les frogs. Poitiers in 2011. Maybe sooner if the wind blows right.

Why Poitiers? It's an interesting battle. It comes at the end of Edward the Prince of Wales' destructive chevauchee or raiding mission. He is forced to battle by an army led by King Jean the Good (not good as in good general.) The English choose a strong defensive position and are obligingly attacked by waves of French infantry after shooting down the handful of mounted knights. What makes the battle unusual is that the English longbowmen play a diminished role in the battle for several reasons. One is that this is a fairly small army so there aren't that many of them, 2,500-3,000. Another is that proportionally they are actually outnumbered by other infantry types. Figure 3,000-4,000 dismounted knights and men-at-arms, while at Agincourt the ratio of archers to men-at-arms was three-to-one. At Poitiers, the archers have an important role, shooting down the French cavalry, but are less effective against the dismounted knights, and run out of arrows after the third wave of the French attack. So, this is much more of a medieval slog. Armored men bashing on armored men until one side tires of the whole business. In the end the French succumb to a daring mounted attack, King Jean the Good becomes King Jean the Captured throwing France into a tizzy for the rest of his life.

One thing I have done is acquire books and read about the battle. The first of four is by Donald Featherstone. Published as part of a series of wargaming guides back in the 70's, Don used some pretty traditional resources to provide a spiff little resource to gamers, giving a background on the battle, suggested commander ratings, and other suggested factors to figure into a miniature scenario. Also included, is a very simple set of rules for gaming Poitiers that seem like fun. I think I may use them with my singly mounted figures just for laughs. Being more than 35 years old, Don's recommendations for figures is pretty amusing. Though he names Minifigs and a few other old manufacturers, his chief recommendation is Airfix due their price and the suitability of the Robin Hood range as longbowmen. Times have changed.

I've also picked up two important books by Richard Barber on Edward the Black Prince. The first is a biography. It's a bit of a slog, written in 1976, that tries to debunk the mythology surrounding Edward. I learned a lot about the way he made war, his close companions that fought with him pretty much all his life, and I also learned about the large gaps in our knowledge about the Prince, and the assumptions we've made because of those gaps. The other Barber book is actually a documentary history of Edward. This includes the journals of Geoffrey Baker and the anonymous herald for Sir John Chandos, the Prince's great captain and friend. I haven't read this book yet, but it's high on my list.

Poitiers 1356 was a recent birthday gift, and a wonderful one too. Published in 2002, and relying on more recent scholarship, author David Green does his best to focus on the battle and depict the action. His wife is an artist and she provides some nice color plates, while Green adds color maps and even a section devoted to wargaming Poitiers!! Though brief, it is a very handy guide and unfortunately out of print.

Like many Hundred Years War battles, our knowledge of this battle is imperfect. The troop positions, their movements and motivations are simply unclear. Though we've stepped back from the belief that the French regularly outnumbered the English ten to one, actual numbers are simply not known and are based on some records, but tainted by supposition and common sense. Even so, this action has my attention and I look forward to actually fighting the battle some day.

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