In the last article about Edith Piaf and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” I referenced the St Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V. It is not a play I’m that familiar with. I think I’ve read it all once (but I’ve read bits of it many times while trying to answer various questions). And I’ve seen Kenneth Branagh’s filmed version several times. But the Battle of Agincourt is very strange in the play. Henry and his “band of brothers” are standing around thinking that they’ve lost the battle. Then Montjoy shows up and says, “No. You crushed us!”
Okay, fine. It’s a play. But it is supposed to be based upon historical record. And if there’s one thing I know about war, it is this: when one army is out gunned 5 to 1, it almost always loses. And when it doesn’t, there is a reason. Well, it turns out that the English really were badly outnumbered by the French at the Battle of Agincourt. And the English won. And there is one reason and one reason alone that they won. But first, some Shakespeare:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Well, I don’t believe that. I think most men of that time just want to tend to their farms or trades and had no real interest in that war that had been going on for 78 year and would continue on for another 38. It, like most wars, was pointless and stupid. It was a war about who ought to sit on the French thrown. Henry himself died 31 years before the whole bloody thing was over.
What won the battle for the English was the same thing that had won most of their battles in the first half of the war: the long bow. So again, it is not a question of heroics or will to power. Wars are won based upon what the resources each army has to use. Historically, it was just humans. But over time, technological advantages have made the difference. And sometimes it is just bad leadership. Does anyone really think that Hitler would have lost WWII if he hadn’t decided to pull Stalin back into the war?
I love the St Crispin’s Day Speech. It is beautiful. It is also pernicious propaganda. It wasn’t Henry’s “band of brothers.” It was his lowly artillery men with their cutting edge long bows. At the Battle of Patay, things were almost reversed, with the English having overwhelming numbers. But the French were able to destroy the archer position. As a result 1,500 French massacred 5,000 English. It was the beginning of the end of for the English. It’s all discussed in the three Henry VI plays, if you can bear them. They were among Shakespeare’s earliest plays. It isn’t that they are especially bad. But you can see how the English Empire would push Henry V all over the world because it makes the British look good. But the Henry VI plays make the British look like a bunch of impotent back-biters.
You know what’s a good Shakespeare historical play, Henry IV, Part 1. Do you know why? Because Henry IV isn’t a major player in it. It’s mostly about Falstaffe and Harry, before he became the annoying King Henry V.