Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spikes

Watching an episode of Connections last night, describing the battle of Agincourt, I made my own connection.  James Burke was describing the French cavalry riding onto the spikes the English had set into the ground, and all at once I remembered an episode of a terrible show from four or five years ago.  This being the internet, I was able to find that episode - be warned, it's quite grisly.  For those who can't view the episode, an instructor runs blindly into the end of the javelin he's just thrown.

Perhaps this has been obvious to many of you, but I've simply never considered it before.  There was always something odd about the cavalry willingly running onto those spikes ... but in a flash, I realized they probably never knew what hit them.

Think about it.  The field is muddy, it's been raining all day and night before, as it usually does in late October in northern France.  The stakes themselves are probably the same color as the ground, as they've been fixed by muddy soldiers with muddy hands.  The knights are riding on horseback, with helmets, so all they can see is what's visible through visors - and their eyes are seven or eight feet above the ground.  If the spikes are five feet long, and bent at just the right angle, they're practically invisible.

My thinking would be they never knew what hit them.  The horses would hit the stakes at full gallop, throwing the knights at twenty five miles forward into more spikes ... those that weren't spiked would still hit the ground on the fly, points of the armor digging into the muddy ground and breaking limbs, landing on their weapons, the straps of their helmets grabbing at their necks and breaking them.  Most would have the wind blown out of them, meaning that before they could even adjust to the fact that they had just been thrown, there would be peasants standing over them.  Imagine you're on a horse, you're thundering at the enemy, and then you're flat on your back, in pain, and through the slits of your visor you look up, and a gnarled, grisly, pathetic-looking minion is raising a mace ... and you're done.

That must have been unbelievable to see.  The front line of ten thousand knights - two thousand, say - breaking against the wall of spikes, that you can see but they cannot, crashing to the ground with an enormous, unbelieveable noise, horses screaming, your commanders shouting to rush forward to that maelstrom of metal and flesh and mud, to "KILL THEM, KILL THEM ALL!"  How would you ever forget that?  How would you forget the nightmare dream of that moment?

I was going to write a post about the mess of battle, the perception of the combatants and the disconnect between combat mechanics and real life, but I think I'll just leave this post here, and write about those things later.  The reader has enough to think about already.

10 comments:

Lukas said...

I actually was about to try and explain this to someone who wouldn't appreciate it on the internet.

So I deleted the post before hitting submit, shrugged and went back to what I was doing. The whole idea that a person has incomplete knowledge seems so alien in the world of satellite imaging, radio and drones does it not?

JDJarvis said...

Combat mechanics really can't duplicate combat, not at a pace that duplicates reality where everyone will know what's going on and will be able to make sound educated decisions equal to training and capability. The real world just doesn't work like a boardgame or rpg.
I spent about 20 years fake fighting (LARP and such) and duels are different from a brawl, different from a larger skirmish, and different from a battle. In a larger skirmish or battle (several dozens if not 100 plus on a side) you can think the fight is going really well everyone opponent in front of you is falling to your attacks, you can even spot people in the press doing their best to avoid you and the guys next to you as you hammer into them and all of a sudden you are utterly swamped because you and the two or three people near you may have been doign great but everyone else in your force has fallen and you hadn't noticed. There is more leisure of observation in fake combat as you aren't really going to die and the folks around you aren't going to die either but yuo can still miss a lot. It isn't the "fog of war" that's for commanders in a fight you get tunnel vision the momentum of combat makes you focus on a tighter and tighter area and you just don't see things those with less to lose that moment can.

Being in a mass of hundreds or thousands is dangerous in and of itself throw in animals hundreds of pound larger in every direction and the amount of discretion you are going to have is ridiculously limited, you can't avoid the spike in front of you as there are other men on warhorses to your side and directly behind you, there is only one choice: ride forward.

rjschwarz said...

I had always thought a rain of arrows took out enough horses to cause a massive collapse of the French charge leaving the downed knights dead, incapacitated, or covered in mud and disorientated by the time the English got into melee range.

Spikes protected the archrs but i dont think they were the major factor in the battle. Better tetead my Osprey books.

Alexis Smolensk said...

We'll never really be sure, rjschwarz, since so much has been written on the battle by so many people. My personal feeling is that, like role-playing experts looking down at drawings of the battle, the tendency is to look at those stakes as an OBVIOUS barrier, that no one would rush ... except we do know that the nobles DID rush it, so why? I am merely postulating that, given the way that a stake would look when viewed on its end from on top of a horse, they wouldn't LOOK like a barrier. The archers and everyone else behind those stakes would look unprotected.

Consider; once the charge crashed and tumbled on itself, how effective those bows would be against men who were tumbled down with horses, in the mud, struggling to regain their order. If it was just a matter of firing arrows, then why did the cavalry no simply ride out of range, or choose another time and place for the battle? Why did they stand in place and allow 25,000+ to be slaughtered?

I've never been able to make sense of the descriptions of this battle, until now. That is all I am saying.

Jomo Rising said...

Spikes seem to play a large part regarding defense against cavalry. Hundreds of bayonet wielding infantry were still a normal target for 18th-19th ce. cavalry. Apples and Oranges I know, but the pointy end recurs.

JDJarvis said...

From a reading I can't currently source the Archers were responsible for inflicting a lion's share of casualties but not all with their bows, they dispatched a large number of knights on spikes with their mattocks (used to drive the spikes) and spears and were again able to slaughter a number of knights who dismounted to assault but in the press were packed in too tightly and again fell to the mattocks, spears, and knives of the archers who had better footing in the mud being barefoot in average due to the mud and reduced clothing south of their waists due to suffering from dysentery.

Clovis Cithog said...

I have three horses, even won a belt buckle in a rodeo… horses have better vision than people. They are not willingly going to charge a wall of points; hence many warhorses wore blinders.
..
The wooden spikes would not be an obvious line of menacing, glistening steel. The spikes would be disguised by the archers/ infantry that stood amongst and in front of them. When the cavalry charged, the infantry would withdrawal (as expected) from the thundering hooves.

At 30mph (or 15mps) it wouldn’t take long for the flower of French nobility to be impaled on an unforeseen danger. IF I recall that battle correctly, the wooden spikes were carved days , if not weeks, before the battle and the English infantry suffering from dysentery grumbled about the additional wooden burden that they bore.

Dave Cesarano said...

Agincourt is oft debated these days as to what actually happened and how the killing took place. I'd recommend John Keegan's chapter in his book The Face of Battle. My medievalist friends (one of whom works at Morgan State) seem to believe that the stakes funneled cavalry into traffic jams where they were met with English polearms. The archers shot a few volleys but really just ran through the stakes and killed knights who were knocked down.

Jeff said...

I think the mistake many have in these kinds of discussions, is trying to come up with the "One Thing". In this case, the one thing (weapon) that won the battle. All the elements had to come together for the battle to go as it did. If the longbow had not been such a dangerous weapon at long range, the knights may not have charged as they did, to make it a close range fight, where they had the advantage. The weather, the foresight to bring the stakes, all came into play.

YagamiFire said...

One of the advantages I've had in D&D with many of the players in my campaign is that we've played airsoft together. Though not actual combat (far from it) it's still given us an appreciation for the shear chaos that can erupt even in a simulation of battle.

Noise, confusion, etc. It's, at the very least, given us a point of reference for this sort of thing. Having a full face mask, 40 pounds of gear and poor weather conditions...sucks. And that's not even considering the fear and other emotions that would come with REAL battle.