It was a French general who said, several centuries later than the action reviewed here, that the over-riding principle of war which produced success was simply: "L'audace; toujours l'audace!" ("Boldness; always boldness"). The little battle at Auberoche in Gascony, France, reviewed here, is a classic example of the principle in practice. But it had results far beyond the actual combat outcomes; what transpired at Auberoche affected the mindset of French commanders for the next hundred years.
So how may boldness be transformed into battlefield success? And what are its ingredients, anyway? Can boldness be read as a willingness to take action regardless of the impinging factors, or is there, underlying it, something else? And how much does luck play a part? In another review (Arnhem; Holland 1944) we conclude with the remark: "Professionals make their own luck."
The start of what historians have rather inaccurately labelled "The Hundred Years War" was in 1339, after some convoluted diplomatic posturing and sabre-rattling during 1338. When the action actually began, there were a few hesitant moves by British forces landed in what is now Belgium, a skirmish or two, disappointment with allies, broken promises, and a general withdrawal. Not a propitious beginning; it seemed almost as though the participants were not really interested in being at war.
The whole thing started because the French king, Philip VI, claimed sovereignty over lands that, allowing for the curious legality of the period, actually belonged to Britain. The British king, Edward III, claimed for himself, in addition to his obvious belongings, the French crown - as far as he was concerned, Philip was a usurper and he, Edward, was the rightful King of France! How this came about was a long, involved and muddled series of births, deaths and marriages, using two current (that is, medieval) principles of inheritance - one stating that only the nearest male relative to a deceased king or noble might inherit the lands and titles left by a dead king or noble (this being known as the Salic Law); and the other suggesting the nearest relative of either gender might inherit. Because of cross-Channel marriages, the situation was accidentally - or was it really accidental? - engineered in which the British king claimed all of France, and the French king all of Britain; after all, most top-layer marriages of the day were arranged so as to cement international relationships or to acquire lands and titles.
If Philip had been prepared to acknowledge Edward as legal king and lord over parts of France, as had been inherited, Edward might have been satisfied. But he wasn't, so war resulted.
Those portions of France which were considered "British" - by the British, anyway - were Britanny, Gascony, and what is now Belgium. While the war in Belgium had fizzled out, that in Gascony and Britanny had flared up, with local lords loyal to Edward taking a hammering at the hands of the more numerous French troops.
In Gascony the matter came to a head in 1345 when the French commander, Count de l'Isle, advanced down the River Lot and River Garonne in a two-pronged assault on the Gascons' heartland around Bordeaux. His troops reached the important town of Liborne. The Gascons' defence was based around a multitude of small forts and castles, many little more than a single tower known as a bastide. These changed hands over and over again. Although the French had seized the town of Penne as early as 1339, nothing much had followed by way of military action. De l'Isle's campaign, however, was far more threatening and the Gascon lords in their bastides sent to Edward for help.
Edward's response was prompt. He despatched his very best general, the Earl of Derby, aged 46 and otherwise known as Henry of Lancaster, with a small army of trained men. At the time British troops were of two basic types: the men-at-arms were fully armoured mounted soldiers of some financial standing, able to afford their own expensive equipment and usually a young squire or two and some servants to attend to their needs; and secondly the archers, men of no financial independence but - crucially - also mounted. The fact of the whole army being mounted conferred upon the British an unmatched mobility and speed across the map. And as both types were required to practice their fighting skills on a weekly basis or face severe penalties, their skill level was probably the highest in all of Europe. Derby had under him officers of some ability and experience: the earls of Oxford and Pembroke, Lord Stafford, and Sir Walter Manny, the last-named a native of Hainault, a province in north-east France "owned" by Edward. For all its proficiency, the army was small; Derby commanded just 500 men-at-arms and 2000 archers.
The British troops, after an uncomfortable crossing of the English Channel and passage through the stormy Bay of Biscay, landed at the coastal town of Bayonne on 6 June 1345, where Derby allowed them to rest and recover for 7 days. He then led them on to Bordeaux, where he spent the next two weeks on civil administrative matters, having also been commissioned by Edward as his governor-general for Gascony. During this time British patrols got used to the area.
De l'Isle, acquainted by the reports of his patrols with the knowledge that the enemy was ashore, despite his immense superiority in numbers decided to make a purely defensive stand at Bergerac. Derby attacked the place, laying siege to the town and castle. After a while, de l'Isle decided that he was not going to be able to hold out and escaped with a small number of his men-at-arms, riding off into safety while leaving the rest of the garrison to their fate. Taking the hint, they surrendered, and Derby established his field headquarters there.
The next British move was to head north-eastwards to Perigeux. Derby found that the fortress - originally laid down by the Romans and further developed since - was far too strong a position to be taken by his small force; so regretfully, he by-passed it. The next place of any tactical importance was the small fortress of Auberoche, and the British marched there, winding their way through the narrow valleys and twisting ravines of that part of France. When they eventually arrived at Auberoche, the garrison decided very quickly to surrender and, having done so, marched off; the British promptly moved in. Derby then detached a small force under Sir Frank Halle to garrison the place and took the balance of his troops back to Bordeaux, as he had outstanding civil affairs to attend to.
Meanwhile, de l'Isle had reconstituted his army at La Reole. When, knowing the approximate size of the garrison, he was satisfied that he had an unassailable superiority in numbers - actually, around 7000 - he set off for Auberoche. Once there, and his demand for surrender firmly refused by Halle, de l'Isle settled down to a regular siege. What he didn't know was that Halle had been able to send a courier off to Bordeaux for help.
On receipt of Halle's message, Derby collected the available troops - just 400 men-at-arms and 800 archers - and with a flying column set off rapidly for the besieged castle. He sent a message to the Earl of Pembroke instructing him to bring his troops as well, giving a rendezvous at Bergerac. However, when Derby's men reached Bergerac, there was no sign of Pembroke, so Derby pressed on. He and his men had to cross the winding River Auverzere twice within a mile (1.6 kms) of a small village called La Change, itself about a mile or so due south of Auberoche and, there being still no sign of Pembroke, Derby settled his men into a hasty bivouac for the night.
Derby's instructions to his men were strict and simple: there was to be no talking above a whisper, no fires, and no foraging. He had managed, by using the deepest valleys and marching through the plentiful woods, to bring his force right up to the enemy's location without detection, and he wasn't about to have anything give away his presence. So it was cold rations from the sacks carried by his men in their horses' saddle-bags, no yarning, and a cold bed on the damp grass for the night. But despite the discomfort, his men were in good heart as they knew that Derby knew what he was doing. But where was Pembroke with the reinforcements, they wondered?
At dawn of the following day - 21 June - Derby had to make a decision. He could either wait for Pembroke to arrive, with the prospect of discovery as his men waited; or he could retire to Bergerac, in which case Halle and his men would in all probability be massacred; or he could attack with what he had. His officers agreed with him that attack was the only option acceptable.
Between his force and the French was a wooded area; Derby decided on a personal reconnaissance. Taking just a few men as escort - archers, as they were able to move more quietly than the men-at-arms in their armour - he stealthily crept through the trees until the path he was following came out at the top of the slight rise the wood was covering. Easing forward silently, Derby was able to see a remarkable vista.
Between the tree line and the river was a long, narrow meadow of level grass, about 200 yards (185m) wide. The area right in front of him was filled with the tents and camp-fires of the French, set in orderly rows with resulting streets intersecting the whole camp. The French troops were busy preparing their afternoon meal and the smell of cooking wafted into Derby's nostrils. Away to his left was the castle, the French siege engines and earth works plainly visible; their tent lines commenced just 400 yards (365 m) from the castle walls, just out of effective range for Halle's archers as the French estimated it by their own standards. And he thought he could just see a further French encampment beyond the castle, to its north-west.
On the way back to his camp, Derby found another path, which came out onto the meadow about 300 yards (275 m) from the nearest French tents. A plan began to form itself in his mind, and when he arrived at the bivouac area he immediately called his O Group (a modern expression meaning "orders group", when subordinate commanders are given their instructions).
Derby's plan was simplicity itself - and the epitome of audacity. His reconnaissance, together with his experience and intelligence reports, suggested that the French had around 7000 men altogether; some in the distant smaller camp beyond the castle of Auberoche, some actually engaged in the work of besieging the place - but the bulk, certainly around 4000-5000 men, were in the main camp on the meadow.
The British archers would lead off first, all 800 of them. They would move silently through the woods, guided by those who had accompanied Derby on his recce, until they reached the place where he had been able to survey the camp. There they would spread out along the edge of the woods. After they had left, the men-at-arms, mounted, would follow for a way and then branch off to take the path Derby had found on his return journey, which led onto the meadow. The archers were to shout their war-cry - "Derby! Guyenne!" - and open fire on the mass of Frenchmen. The sound of that battle cry was the signal to the men-at-arms to trot out of the woods in single file, then turn to form a battle line facing the French encampment, finally to gallop the final 300 yards (275 m) to the camp at the full charge.
It was now late afternoon, the sun was lowering, and Derby gave the order to move off. Well-disciplined, the British troops led off silently, the archers slipping like ghosts through the trees, the horsemen less quietly as their mounts snuffled and farted. Over the meadow the smell of cooking onions drifted on the evening breeze and hungry Frenchmen gathered around the camp-fires, bowls at the ready.
"Derby! Guyenne!" The archers shouted their cry all together and followed this with a volley of arrows which felled scores of Frenchmen - the range to the nearest targets was much less than a hundred paces, almost point-blank for the well-practised archers. Then they steadied to the business of killing French soldiers over the whole camp area.
Shocked, un-nerved by the sudden assault, the French rushed about much like ants in a disturbed nest. Here and there men-at-arms tried to struggle into their armour, and were shot to death where they stood. Crossbow-men were killed as they tried to wind up their cumbersome weapons. Cooks were shot as they stirred the stew. Squires were skewered as they sought the orders of their lords. It was a massacre.
Then the British men-at-arms arrived, charging through the tent lines, hacking, cleaving, chopping down all who stood to resist and all who turned to run. Inevitably the tents and their guy-ropes impeded the charge and it slowed to a walk, but still the horsemen drove forward, piling up fleeing Frenchmen before them.
Back in the wood, the archers applied their fire more and more to their left as the horsemen drove into the camp from their right. And as Frenchmen were able to organise themselves to resist, they simply provided grouped targets which the archers could not miss.
Eventually - and we are only talking of a few minutes - the French resistance hardened as they got over the initial shock of the twin attack. And, as they did so, they realised that there were only a few hundred British soldiers in their midst. In their midst! They actually surrounded the impudent British. The French moved in to avenge themselves, realising too that the closer they were to the British men-at-arms the safer they were from the British archers. Things began to look dangerous for Derby's men-at-arms.
They were saved from a totally unexpected quarter. Halle's guards on the castle battlements of Auberoche, seeing the battle erupt in the French main camp, alerted Halle. He immediately instructed his own archers to fire upon the French soldiers engaged in the actual siege works, who were by now looking southwards towards their own camp to see what was making all the noise. Then, with a dash to match Derby's, Halle led his own few men-at-arms out through the castle gate in a down-hill mounted charge, straight through the siege-workers and on into the rear of the French surrounding Derby's men-at-arms. Halle's men were few in number - just a handful, really - but they were enough. The sudden impact of this attack on their rear proved too much for the French; they surrendered, they fled into the gathering dusk, they sat and nursed their wounds.
De l'Isle and most of his knights were captured and taken to Derby by jubilant British soldiers. The French in the subsidiary camp beyond the castle faded into the night and were not seen again.
The battle of Auberoche was over.
There is no proper record of the casualties of the battle; estimates - we can hardly call them "reports" - vary too widely to be valuable sources of reference. However, we may safely assume that the vast majority of dead and wounded were French, as the British archers were safely placed in their wood where they presented a doubtful target for those French cross-bowmen who actually got their weapons into action, and the shock action of the men-at-arms in bundling the French towards the north end of their camp allowed little time for them to sustain heavy losses.
What of the French, then? A latter-day French historian has commented that the battle of Auberoche represented "un choc terrible" (a terrible shock), and he would only say that if, indeed, the French had received a severe battering. Suffice it to say that there were two outcomes which were to have a lasting bearing on French attitudes towards the war.
In the first place, their commanders realised that their numbers advantage counted for very little against the practised ease of the British. Even their own casualties did not seem to deter British aggression. In short, the French realised that they had an enemy who could punish them even with vastly inferior numbers. This did absolutely nothing for their confidence.
In the second place - and it was really a product of the first outcome - French commanders after Auberoche tended to walk away from a battle with the British if they could do so without losing too much honour, and this timidity lasted for the next hundred years! Their immediate reaction was to call off three other sieges in the area.
Effectively, then, Auberoche represented a clear watershed in Anglo-French military relationships during the war. Kings came and kings went on both sides of the quarrel, but the underlying military pecking order had been established. How? What allowed Derby his victory?
Essentially it was two things, the second a product of the first. As has been commented already, Derby and his fellow officers - and this applies also to many more who never set foot in France - viewed their connection with matters military as a profession, not merely a temporary amusement. They were intent that in their chosen profession - and it must be added here that most of these men were seriously rich and could have lived their lives without lifting a finger - they should be not only completely competent but also that they should be the best.
The second factor was practice. They held war-games of a sort; they practised their personal soldiering on the tournament field, some being actually killed in doing so, so realistic was the mock combat; they practiced, practiced, practiced. For additional training, and as an outlet for their professional energies, they engaged in other peoples' wars as mercenaries, complete with their own retinues of soldiers. And they made sure that their followers, whether men-at-arms or archers, also practiced, week in, week out. And as Northampton had done after the battle of Morlaix in 1342, they went over the features of the battle just fought, analysed them, and made adjustments to their methods and equipment as appropriate. In other words, they learned. History shows that the army which does not learn - from either its failures or its successes - will have a poor battle record.
With these things in mind, then, let us look at some features of Auberoche.
Pembroke's arrival at Auberoche was after the battle was over and the victorious British were entertaining de l'Isle and his knights to supper; Derby jovially invited Pembroke to join in before all the venison was eaten. Now, it makes one wonder if there was more to Pembroke's lateness than a simple lack of urgency on his part. If his delay had been no more than a result of dereliction of duty, then one might expect that Derby would have been more than a little annoyed with the man - yet he greeted him as though a fellow victor. This suggests one possibility; Pembroke was a thoroughly competent soldier, so had his "delay" actually been arranged? Was he dragging his cloak very visibly - he had far more men than Derby - for de l'Isle's patrols to see, and from which they might deduce both his proposed destination - Auberoche - and likely time of arrival, while Derby's little army crept quietly through the hidden valleys days ahead of Pembroke? It seems likely; Derby's "annoyed" decision to press on at each place that Pembroke "failed" to make the rendezvous could well have been a bit more play-acting.
Halle's reaction to the situation was also interesting. This officer, fairly well down the seniority list, had been selected by Derby because he was bright. His understanding of the position of Derby and the British men-at-arms, surrounded in the French camp and in danger of having their initial success over-turned, and his immediate decision to attack the French rear, shows just how well-trained were the British officers generally.
De l'Isle, on the other hand, despite his seniority, showed his true mettle at the battle at Bergerac earlier, when he had abandoned the garrison and escaped. True, the value of a senior commander is only realised if he is in a position to command, and de l'Isle might possibly have reasoned that he, personally, would be more valuable to the French cause if he were not a prisoner. But this sort of behaviour does little to engender high morale in an army. Again, history shows time and again how morale slumps when a commander leaves before crunch-time comes. Perhaps the most famous was the abandonment of American troops in Bataan in 1942 by General Douglas MacArthur; their morale slumped immediately, even though they knew he had been ordered out by the President himself.
For the French troops at Bergerac the position was as serious. Medieval practice was simple regarding sieges. If a garrison agreed to surrender at the outset, they would be allowed to leave without harm; but if they resisted, and lost, they were likely to be butchered, along with everybody in the place. De l'Isle had initially refused the offer of honourable surrender at Bergerac - which meant that, if the besieging British actually got into the place, the garrison's fate was sealed. Then de l'Isle deserted them. The immediate surrender of the garrison was their only hope of survival - by doing so, they effectively distanced themselves from their vanished commander and his decision in the beginning not to surrender. Fortunately for them, Derby was the sort of man who could recognise exactly what had happened, and chose to allow the garrison to survive. But it still didn't do French morale much good.
On the other hand, the Bergerac incident gave Derby a fair idea of the de l'Isle as a commander and as a man. Knowing the measure of the man he was able to adopt tactics which in other circumstances - without a knowledge of the opposing general's character - might be regarded as rash rather than audacious. In this case, at Auberoche Derby wasn't being bold so much as using the information he possessed.
So why didn't Derby do much the same at Perigeux as he had done at Bergerac? Simple: he by-passed the place for a very good reason - he simply didn't have the numbers to engage in a successful quick assault, nor the numbers nor siege train to do things in a slow, methodical manner. Derby's decision was a mark of his mental approach to war: "do what is do-able - but do it well."
What made things "do-able"? Derby's troops were pretty standard for the period, although the British retained the long-bow while the French and most Continental armies now relied upon the cross-bow. Both were developments of the earlier, shorter, bow. The cross-bow was an attempt to add "punch" by changing to a far more powerful although shorter bow, which needed a simple winding mechanism to pull it back, plus a shorter bolt instead of an arrow. Welsh archers simply developed instead a much bigger version of the original bow, having much enhanced power from its greater length. But the longbow retained its ease of re-loading and was far simpler to manufacture in numbers. Its arrows were developed in different versions for different targets: against men in plate armour a chisel point was employed, to punch through the metal; against chain-mail a narrow pointed bodkin pierced through the links; and against un-armoured targets a twin-fluked head - the traditional "arrow-head" - meant difficulty in withdrawal. But whereas the Welsh had introduced the long-bow against a startled English foe, the latter had - crucially - learned; and they adopted the weapon as their own and made most of the technical developments listed above. Cross-bow and longbow had about the same range and killing potential; but the longbow had around six times the rate of fire. What the Welsh originators of the weapon had introduced was a battle-winning feature. Some commentators have likened the longbow to a machine-gun when comparing it with the cross-bow; it wasn't - with the machine-gun only the first shot of every burst is aimed and the rest just go in the general direction of the target, whereas with the longbow, despite its rate of fire, every shot was aimed. Strangely - or maybe not; the French didn't seem to learn much about anything - the cross-bow remained in French use, usually in the hands of Genoese mercenaries, instead of a reversion to the longbow. It is possible, even likely, that in their non-analytical approach to war, they assumed that the sophistication of the cross-bow would obviously render it more effective than the comparatively crude longbow. Oops.
Mobility was another area of disparity between the two armies. Whereas the French, reliant on a huge number of impressed levies who marched on foot, were fairly slow-moving, the British had all their men mounted on horse-back, even the humble archers. The result was that mobility allowed the British a strategic force-multiplier.
We say "humble" archers; this refers not to attitude but to financial circumstance. These were poor men, and hence interested in loot and in taking prisoners of some social standing for ransom purposes. There was no humility in the attitude of the British archers; they had a tremendous pride in their ability - justified - and an aggressive interest in bettering their own financial position. These were dangerous men and it may be that Derby took a thoroughly professional delight in leading them.
So, let us now go back to the questions posed in the Overview at the start of this Review. Was boldness translated into battlefield success? Certainly - but how? By Derby knowing that his own troops were professionals and that the French were largely relatively untrained levies, that the enemy commander was not fully trusted by his men and that he had a well-developed self-preservation instinct, and that the topography of his selected battlefield was perfect. It was an encouragement when he finally made his personal recce that there appeared to be no French sentries… So, yes, there was definitely something else underlying his audacity rather than a willingness to take action regardless of factors: he had weighed the factors very carefully and knew he had a success waiting for him and his little band. Professionalism was the secret of audacity in Derby's case.
[Finally, it might interest the reader to compare the battle of Auberoche with the battle of Roche-Derrien in northern Britanny. There, too, was a castle in the bend of a river, with a British garrison under siege. There, too, was a relief force of British troops who gave the French camp a severe beating. And - almost unbelievably - there, too, was a second French force which did not get involved in the fight. Even the two place names contain the word "roche". Is it possible that the two actions, so incredibly similar, were actually just the one? The French chroniclers of the time and later - the British didn't seem to do much after-action reporting - were notoriously inaccurate and fanciful in their writing-up of history; is it possible that they got confused and reported rumour at the end of a "Chinese Whispers" trail as fact? Hmm. Isn't history fun?]