(The History Press, 2015) 256 pp. £20.00
Looking back in the 1460’s over a military career lasting some forty years, the Burgundian knight and chronicler Jean de Waurin identified the Battle of Verneuil as the hardest fought combat in which he had participated. Nevertheless it must surely rank as the most overlooked major battle of the Hundred Years War and possibly one of the most forgotten in the history of medieval Europe.
This neglect is all the more surprising because, unlike many medieval battles, we possess a first hand account from someone in the fighting ranks (Jean de Waurin himself). The multi-national nature of the “French” army, with very substantial Scottish and Italian elements, might also have ensured that the memory of the battle was sustained well beyond England and France. Even the fact that it ended as an English victory should have improved its chances in the memorial stakes given the ways in which national historiographies of the Hundred Years War developed. Nevertheless it soon sank into oblivion. The fact that there was no anointed monarch present perhaps played a role here. Its development into a pure slaughtering match meant that there were few noble prisoners to parade afterwards. It came nowhere near winning the war. By 1424 the English soldiers fighting in France were perhaps already beginning to become detached from a nation inclined to regard the war across the Channel as someone else’s business. In a longer perspective, it has always been a hard battle to make sense of. Chronicle accounts of what happened on the field are thoroughly confusing. Waurin is little help here; he admitted that he was too busy fighting to have any real sense of the wider situation and Wadge’s suggested reconstruction of events involves ignoring elements of his account. It is symptomatic that Verneuil has never been the subject of a title in the Osprey Campaign series and that, while Agincourt is still endlessly re-fought (and fought over) in print, this is the first book length study to be devoted specifically to it. Whatever criticisms may follow, Wadge should be congratulated on finally giving Verneuil the level of sustained attention it deserves.
Some of the criticisms are minor and should have been picked up by an attentive editor (for instance King David II of Scotland is systematically renumbered as “David III”, the queen of France’s name oscillates between “Isabeau” and “Isabelle” and the earl of Wigtown is sometimes “Wigton”). Some are issues of tone. The wider background to the battle is framed in distinctly Anglocentric ways. In particular, non-English readers may find Wadge’s starry eyed view of Henry V and his brothers as well as a consistent tendency to idealise the English archer somewhat grating. Perhaps significantly, Henry’s brutal response to Vincent Ferrer’s criticisms of the havoc inflicted on the population of northern France by his armies- “War without fire is like sausages without mustard” is not cited. The sections on military structures and equipment have very little to say about the Italian cavalry units which played such a crucial if equivocal role in the battle.
In the end one has to accept that this is not a book written with an academic audience in mind and accept a degree of simplification in its scene setting chapters; at least there are no howling errors of fact or totally aberrant interpretations to confuse the reader. The book begins to hit its stride some hundred pages in, with the later campaigns of Henry V and those undertaken by John Duke of Bedford as regent for the infant Henry VI. It underlines the fluid nature of the campaigning in these years and draws attention to other overlooked battles- the French victories of Baugé, La Brossonière and La Bussière being reminders that the fortunes of war did not always fall on the one side and in their different ways suggesting that skilful use of Scottish archers and Italian heavy cavalry might defeat the archery-based English forces. It also points to the enduringly tense relationship between the English and the Burgundians which required permanent close management. This could be done successfully in a campaign situation, as the Earl of Salisbury demonstrated at Cravant in 1423, but Bedford opted to do without a significant Burgundian presence at Verneuil even though this cost him in numerical terms.
Wadge’s reconstruction of the battle itself draws on but also modifies previous accounts by Col. Burne and Michael K Jones. Given the hopelessly muddled chronicle record it is probably as credible an account as we are likely to get. If at times it looks a bit too neat and structured to be entirely plausible and fails to consider certain issues (just how good was visibility on a dusty August day after the opening cavalry charges, for instance?) then perhaps that is a weakness common to all attempts to interpret the chaos of battle from a scholarly desk; no modern writer can hope to reconstruct the horrors of the fight without quarter which made up the concluding phase of Verneuil. Part of the uncertainty may even have been inherent in the French battle plan itself. On Wadge’s interpretation, this appears to have involved rather too many moving parts and relied on more coordination between units on different sections of the field than was sensible given the constraints of the times. While Wadge rather discounts them, I would also be inclined to stress unclarity over who was actually in command on the French side and communication issues within a multi-lingual army as further problems. Given the central role they were supposed to play, it cannot have helped either that the Italians probably only reached Verneuil on the eve of the battle. It also looks as if (as at Poitiers, Neville’s Cross and Agincourt, to name just some other cases) significant elements of the losing army barely engaged once it became clear that things were not going to plan.
In the end, however, Verneuil was a victory which settled nothing. Indeed military activity rather died down in the years immediately following it even though by rights Charles VII’s regime should have been on its last military legs. Wadge, in line with standard interpretations, attributes this relative absence of activity to a series of political upheavals in England which took Bedford’s eye off the ball and left him managing a major crisis in relations with Burgundy sparked by his brother Humphrey’s meddling in Hainault in support of his wife Joanna. One may also, however, wonder how far the heavy English losses at Verneuil (Wadge suggests that up to 20% of the English army were killed- experienced men not easily replaced) cast a long shadow. If not quite a Pyrrhic victory, it was a grim and costly affair, a soldier’s battle remembered best by those who fought there.
Brian G H Ditcham