The Great Chevauchée: John of Gaunt’s raid on France 1373
Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011, 80 pp. US $18.95. ISBN 978 1 84908 247 1.
For years, Osprey has served an audience that is interested in the nitty-gritty of military operations throughout history. In particular, readers come to Osprey looking for accurate, detailed and, yes, attractive graphic depictions of uniforms, armor and weapons, vehicles and other equipment, as well as maps of campaigns and battles. This kind of publishing falls outside of most people’s definition of scholarly activity, but taking the scattered visual and material evidence and creating entire scenes requires an interesting combination of learning, artistic judgment and daring. In principle, this synthetic work is as legitimate as the creation of historical atlases, which routinely depict (somewhat deceptively) countries and empires with boundaries that are indistinguishable from those of 20th century atlases. A map or an illustration of a battlefield can deceive, enlighten, or both.
The Great Chevauchée is part of a series on Raids, which Osprey advertises with the slogan “Outnumbered, outgunned, and against the odds.” Other volumes include the Israeli raid on Entebbe, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and the revenge of the 47 Ronin; I suspect the volume on the Abbottabad raid is in preparation. Does the Great Chevauchée really belongs in this company rather than in the Campaigns series? The English army that undertook this plundering, burning ride through northern France (and then south through Auvergne and west to Bordeaux) was by the standards of the time a major expedition, led by King Edward III’s second son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and claimant to the throne of Castile. Although the English effort ended in futility, its failure was not foreordained. Gaunt’s forces could have struck at Brittany or seized strongholds in the region around Paris; likewise Gaunt may have intended to reinforce the English position in Gascony and then invade Spain and make his royal title a reality. Sumption’s recent account of this episode (in volume III of his Hundred Years War) makes it clear that England’s enemies and other political observers took Gaunt’s army as a serious factor for as long as it stayed in being.
The Great Chevauchée may have been classified among the raids because the campaign did not result in any major battles or sieges. There are two two-page illustrations, one showing the death of the English commander Gautier Hewit when his reconnaissance unit ran into a larger French company; the other, appropriately, shows Gaunt’s men abandoning their baggage train in the later stages of the march. Similarly, the two detail maps explain what even in the fourteenth century were rather small actions: a “standoff” (Mont-Saint-Eloi) and a “double ambush” (near Sens). Perhaps the author, David Nicolle, felt that the chevauchée, or chevauchées that did not end in a battle of Crecy, Poitiers, or Agincourt, lacked the drama of other “campaigns.”
If so, Nicolle has served his readers well by not making more, or less, of this episode than it deserves. The text of the book is sensibly devoted to explaining how the English repeatedly used such rides to weaken the French regime and to provoke it into committing its forces to set battles, which the English, with reason, thought they could win. Likewise the French are shown torn between a desire to defend their territory and the logic of King Charles V’s strategy of harassment and refusal to enter into a major engagement, so that the hardships of campaigning would wear down and even destroy English armies. It was by aristocratic standards an inglorious method, but it worked. What drama there is in the conflict comes from this contrast of strategies.
Nicolle brings together a brief but reasonably complete narrative of the campaign in its political and strategic context. The book includes attractive drawings, contemporary illustrations and photographs, appropriately chosen, and some excellent maps (though some captions are very small). It will succeed as an introduction to one characteristic military operation of the Hundred Years War. And, as Nicolle indicates early in the book, it may help English-speaking readers understand why, despite the fact that the English won some spectacularly victories on the battlefield, they ended up losing the war.
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