Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: Christopher Teutsch's Victory at Poitiers

I try to pick up new books on the Hundred Years War as they become available.  If they're affordable. I passed by Peter Hoskins' In the Steps of the Black Prince: The Road to Poitiers 1355-56 at ninety bucks.  However I did receive the hand-selected Victory at Poitiers by Christian Teutsch for my birthday.  On Amazon the book is recommended as a new account of the battle, and my hope is that Teutsch's 2010 work might do for Poitiers what Anne Curry did in her 2006 reassessment of Agincourt.

Though Teutsch provides a fresh look at this important 1356 battle, the book itself is a bit of a disappointment. Though Teutsch's assessment of the battlefield and particularly English movements during the battle are new and fresh, the vast majority of the book's pages are not devoted to the study of Poitiers or events particularly related to this battle.

First, just a little bit of information regarding this book.  It is part of a military history series, the Campaign Chronicles published by Pen and Sword Military in the U.K. Series, especially military history series, leave me a little uneasy.  It usually limits length and scope to something a little more formulaic.  Consider any Osprey series book.  Generally they are strictly page limited and and come with a specific format with regard to what is presented and the way it is presented.  Unfortunately, the breadth and depth of what the author has to share is limited in favor of the publisher's format.  I fear that is what may have happened here.

Victory at Poitiers is a mere 141 pages of text.  It has several pages of useful maps, and begins notes and index on page 143.  There is no bibliography.  Teutsch makes reference to sources, primary and secondary, throughout the text and one can determine his sources through his extensive end notes.  I don't know about you, but I really like a bibliography.  I build my own collection of sources on them. Not a killer, but certainly an annoyance. Even Osprey books have a list of sources.

Too much of what Teutsch attempts to do is provide context.  There are six pages devoted to medieval warfare and eight pages devoted to an extremely shallow understanding of the origins of the Hundred Years War.  I'm not sure this is necessary unless the publishers believed this little bit of information was going to suck in a few non-specialist readers to buy a $30 book about a, let's face it, little known battle from the 14th century.  The battle analysis is followed by a mere 14 pages devoted to the aftermath of the battle.  But most of that is a description of events that came generations later, including the final defeat at Castillon.  I'm not sure this is a productive use of space. Or see my previous criticism about audience. Toss in the six blank pages that appear at the end of each chapter, and there are 34 pages of 141 that, in my view are wasted space. 

The book gets interesting when Teutsch examines the battles of Crecy and Neville's Cross and begins to apply the lessons learned from these action to the movements and motivation of the Prince of Wales at Poitiers.  Warning: this has been done before.  Clifford Rodger in his excellent War Cruel and Sharp: English Strategy Under Edward III, 1327-1360 also examined the lessons the King Edward learned from his Scottish campaigns and applied them to the Hundred Years Wars.  Teutsch simply fast forwards to Prince Edwards lessons from more recent battles, though he was not present at Neville's Cross and applies them to Poitiers.  In a nuthshell those lessons were threefold: 1) Reluctant armies can be brought to battle given the right incentives. 2) An enemy might be brought to battle if he trusted more in weight of numbers, but victory was more dependent on a tactical rather than numerical superiority. 3) A battle, if won, could insure the domination of a larger and economically superior nation by a smaller, less developed nation. Definitely worth a look, especially if the reader hasn't thumbed through Rodgers.

The real value in this book, however is not all the context setting, it is the 60 or pages devoted to  the description and analysis of the campaign of 1356 and the battle itself. In a painstaking review of the contemporary sources such as Froissart, Geoffrey LeBaker, the Chandos Herald and others, and the more recent scholars including Alfred Burne, H.J. Hewitt, Richard Barber, Jonathan Sumption, Teutsch offers a new interpretation of the battle. Particularly with regard to the location of the battle itself, and the nature of the final battle with King Jean's division, this is new to me.

Without giving too much away, Teutsch effectively makes the claim the English positions were not completely set as the battle opened.  Salisbury's battle was still moving into position as the cavalry of the vanguard struck.  He also alters the Prince's original position to a hilltop adjacent to the heights occupied by Salisbury and Warwick.  Another important difference from other accounts is the suggestion that after the initial French attack on the English defenses, the Anglo-Gascon forces responded quite aggressively, effectively launching a counter attacks. Warwick's division effectively mounted to pursue the Duke of Orleans's division and returned to the field just in time to fall on the flank of King Jean's final attack. 

Despite the book's shortcomings, there is enough new stuff here that it is reshaping my approach to the battle and kind of options I might offer to the players in a Poitiers battle.  Taking the good with the not so good, the book is a worthy addition to my Hundred Years War library.

1 comment:

peter.hoskins said...

Unfortunately the price of my book, In the Steps of the Black Prince, the Road to Poitiers 1355-1356 is beyond my control. I can, however, do a little better than 90 bucks and offer it at 60USD including postage from France to the US. Peter Hoskins,