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Forum Index > Off-topic Talk > The French and Military Common Sense Reply to topic
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Pedro Paulo Gaião




Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
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PostPosted: Thu 31 Aug, 2017 5:52 pm    Post subject: The French and Military Common Sense         Reply with quote

The French can trace a common opinion in several nations and military commanders regarding their own superiority compared to other european nations, when speaking of cavalry. The earliest reference I have for this come from the 12th-century historian John Kinnamos. He argues the french were better cavalrymen than the germans; but the germans were superior in foot combat. Ana Komnena also says about the power of a french/norman cavalry charge: "A mounted Kelt is irresistible; he would bore his way through the walls of Babylon." (Anna Komnene, p. 416)

This continues right through the middle ages: Froissart also records in Chapter 16 (book III) of his Chronicle how King John I of Castille put so much confidence in the french knightly elemment of his army at Aljubarrota (1385) that most of the spaniards in his army became jealous; when the French got trouble when facing the anglo-portuguese resistance, most of the spaniards refuse to help, saying ironically:
Quote:
It is also true, that the battle began too soon; but they did so to acquire greater honour, and to make their words good which they had said in the presence of the king. On the other hand, as I have heard, the Castillians made no great haste to advance, for the French were not in good favour with them, and they had said,� "Let them begin the fight, and tire themselves: they will find enough to do. These Frenchmen are too great boasters, and too vainglorious, and our king has not any perfect confidence but in them. Since he wishes that they should have the honour of the day, it shall be so; for we will have it our own way, or not at all." Conformably to this resolution, the Spaniards kept in a large body, twenty thousand at least, in the plain, and would not advance, which vexed the king much; but he could not help it, for they said,� "My lord, it is all over, (though none had returned from the battle): these French knights have defeated your enemies: the honour and victory of the day are theirs."

Source: https://faculty.nipissingu.ca/muhlberger/FROISSART/BALJVER1.HTM

Finally, when I read an Osprey book called "Fornovo 1495: The France's Bloody Fighting Retreat", the author states that "at the same time these French men-at-arms were regarded as the best heavy cavalry in Europe" (p. 15). I don't believe you would disagree about such statement. Probably the french would continue to have such fame of the best shock cavalry in all Europe until the End of the Wars of Religion. Perhaps such confidence might explain why they're so problematic in dismounting to fight the english in the Hundread Years War, but that's another subject.

What I would like to know is WHY the french were so good and why others weren't? French equipment was probably the same of the other western knights and men-at-arms, and they probably didn't have the best horses compared to some spaniard and hungarian breeds, for example.
-------------------
In his magnum opus, Machiavelli say this about the italian, not so long after speaking about the germans:

Quote:
Here there is great valour in the limbs whilst it fails in the head.
Look attentively at the duels and the hand-to-hand combats, how
superior the Italians are in strength, dexterity, and subtlety. But
when it comes to armies they do not bear comparison, and this springs
entirely from the insufficiency of the leaders, since those who are
capable are not obedient, and each one seems to himself to know, there
having never been any one so distinguished above the rest, either by
valour or fortune, that others would yield to him.


Could Machiavelli being too "nationalistic" here or what he says can be taken on some basis? Can we actually compare italian and german schools of fencing to produce such statement?
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Philip Renne




Location: New Jersey
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PostPosted: Thu 31 Aug, 2017 8:49 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

It's a pretty broad ranging topic you've brought up but I believe that one factor in France's military dominance on the equestrian side of things was the abundance of land suitable for raising horses. I don't think Germany, for example, with its yet to be drained wetlands and uncleared forests and hills would have been able to compete with France in number of horses raised, quality of steeds etc. Remember also that the Gauls in Caesar's day were well regarded as cavalrymen, and a source of many of the empire's cavalry units. So, perhaps the French, having this natural resource, developed a culture around perfecting equestrian combat in the knightly fashion whereas surrounding nations, while cultivating their chivalric contingents had to by necessity devote more resources to the development of other modes of combat.
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Peter Spätling




Location: Germany
Joined: 07 Nov 2015

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PostPosted: Thu 31 Aug, 2017 9:24 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

France is closer to the Spanish peninsula than other countries which makes it easier to import horses from there (and North Africa). There is quite a difference between a Hungarian horse and a Spanish one. I don't think that the French were enormously greater horsemen than lets say the Germans or Italians. Sure they must have been good but they did like to boast a lot...
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Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Thu 07 Sep, 2017 12:15 pm    Post subject: Re: The French and Military Common Sense         Reply with quote

Pedro Paulo Gaião wrote:
Finally, when I read an Osprey book called "Fornovo 1495: The France's Bloody Fighting Retreat", the author states that "at the same time these French men-at-arms were regarded as the best heavy cavalry in Europe" (p. 15). I don't believe you would disagree about such statement. Probably the french would continue to have such fame of the best shock cavalry in all Europe until the End of the Wars of Religion.


French cavalry continued to be some of the best until the end of the Ancien Regime. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic cavalry was good in their own right -- and especially effective at maneouvring in large numbers -- but they didn't seem to have had their predecessors' reputation for superior individual and small-unit skills as well. Of course, later French cavalry (let's say during the Second Empire down to their final mechanisation in the 1930s) pretty much regained the pre-Revolutionary small-unit skills without losing their facility for large-scale manoeuvres; it's pretty shocking to see how modern and effective their doctrine was in the post-WW2 decades, and I'm pretty sure these doctrines can still be very effective when implemented in Third World military theatres that lack the logistical infrastructure to support modern mechanised and aviation forces on a long-term basis.


Quote:
Perhaps such confidence might explain why they're so problematic in dismounting to fight the english in the Hundread Years War, but that's another subject.


Not really. The French dismounted just fine -- after all, even during the 1150-1350 interlude when they rarely dismounted in open battle, they still dismounted all the time to participate in sieges, assaults, and skirmishes in fortified and/or built-up terrain.


Quote:
What I would like to know is WHY the french were so good and why others weren't? French equipment was probably the same of the other western knights and men-at-arms, and they probably didn't have the best horses compared to some spaniard and hungarian breeds, for example.


A part of it was obviously self-fulfilling prophecy. The French believed they were the best, and this belief gave them higher confidence and morale, which in turn actually helped them perform at a higher level. Placebo effect at its best.

However, the French weren't always superior. In the reigns of Henry II and Richard I (of England) the English men-at-arms seem to have trained more intensively and ended up being an even more effective force than their French rivals. Of course, it's worth noting that much of this "English" force really came from their French/Continental possessions. Even among the French, there seems to have been something of a split with the chivalry of Northern and Central France being viewed as more effective than that of the South.


Quote:
-------------------
In his magnum opus, Machiavelli say this about the italian, not so long after speaking about the germans:

Quote:
Here there is great valour in the limbs whilst it fails in the head.
Look attentively at the duels and the hand-to-hand combats, how
superior the Italians are in strength, dexterity, and subtlety. But
when it comes to armies they do not bear comparison, and this springs
entirely from the insufficiency of the leaders, since those who are
capable are not obedient, and each one seems to himself to know, there
having never been any one so distinguished above the rest, either by
valour or fortune, that others would yield to him.


Could Machiavelli being too "nationalistic" here or what he says can be taken on some basis?


A little of both. The individualistic and "clannish" character of Italians continued to be a factor in their military performance into the First World War at least, and in the Second World War their German allies observed that Italian enlisted men fought just fine but they were poorly led by their officers. It was a fairly common thing in North Africa for Germans to insert their "advisors" into Italian units to take over the command and make the unit perform more effectively.


Quote:
Can we actually compare italian and german schools of fencing to produce such statement?


No. Fencing is fencing. "Italian" and "German" manuals were both about individual skills and didn't really have that much bearing on this subject. It's much more relevant to look at massed combat practices; one of the things that 14th-century Italian chroniclers noticed about German mercenary men-at-arms in Italy was that they were better than the locals at maintaining their formation, especially at speed or while turning to face a new direction.

(Never mind that there was no such thing as unified "German" or "Italian" schools of fencing to begin with, at least not before the 18th/19th century.)
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Graham Shearlaw





Joined: 24 Oct 2011

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PostPosted: Tue 12 Sep, 2017 4:57 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Part of it there is more land to raise horses on in France, and a lot of it controlled by a really strong feudal nobility.
So if often the french have more cavalrymen in the pool we likey to see better cavalrymen get picked.

Look at the oprsite in scotland, where a lot of the land is not good for raiseing horses, in almost every battle the scots have fewer and lighter cavalry then the english.
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Pedro Paulo Gaião




Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
Joined: 14 Mar 2015

Posts: 244

PostPosted: Wed 13 Sep, 2017 2:51 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Philip Renne wrote:
It's a pretty broad ranging topic you've brought up but I believe that one factor in France's military dominance on the equestrian side of things was the abundance of land suitable for raising horses. I don't think Germany, for example, with its yet to be drained wetlands and uncleared forests and hills would have been able to compete with France in number of horses raised, quality of steeds etc. Remember also that the Gauls in Caesar's day were well regarded as cavalrymen, and a source of many of the empire's cavalry units. So, perhaps the French, having this natural resource, developed a culture around perfecting equestrian combat in the knightly fashion whereas surrounding nations, while cultivating their chivalric contingents had to by necessity devote more resources to the development of other modes of combat.


Was Germany so full of wetlands by this time? I thought that would be something related to the british isles, specially Scotland, Ireland and England before 1066 (implying the normans actually drained most of the bogs in one or two centuries).

About the Gauls, the main problem with this thesis is because it forgets that when the franks conqured Gallia, they introduced a type of warfare enterily composed of fighting infantry. Only Charlemagne (or perhaps his grandfather Charles Martell) would re-introduce the breeding of war horses due to the islamic military use of it. Sounds reasonble to say France had the of the best heavy cavalrymen due to the long-held tradition of heavy cavalrymen going back right to Charlemagne, who was the first monarch in Europe to introduce such style of warfare again.

Lafayette C Curtis wrote:
Not really. The French dismounted just fine -- after all, even during the 1150-1350 interlude when they rarely dismounted in open battle, they still dismounted all the time to participate in sieges, assaults, and skirmishes in fortified and/or built-up terrain.


Even in pitched battles? Some mainstream authors/historians usually point out french knight's views on dismounted fighting at pitched battles as somehow unchivalric as a relevant factor for their first great defeats for the English in the Hundred Years War. Even the History teacher of my College said that to me (he isn't specialist in Middle Ages, though). At Agincourt there are sources describing the french nobility having their breakfasts while at saddle, impatient with the expectation of reaching the English formation soon.
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Philip Renne




Location: New Jersey
Joined: 11 Jan 2010

Posts: 35

PostPosted: Wed 13 Sep, 2017 4:08 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Quote:
Was Germany so full of wetlands by this time? I thought that would be something related to the british isles, specially Scotland, Ireland and England before 1066 (implying the normans actually drained most of the bogs in one or two centuries).


Someone actually from Germany would probably be a better source for this info than I. I know that originally much o f central europe was covered with swampy forests which were drained over the centuries. I think also portions of the coasts were uncongenial to mounted warfare, was it in the 14th century the dithmarschen (sp?) flooded the lowlands and defeated an imperial army? My memory is a bit foggy on that episode.

Quote:
About the Gauls, the main problem with this thesis is because it forgets that when the franks conqured Gallia, they introduced a type of warfare enterily composed of fighting infantry. Only Charlemagne (or perhaps his grandfather Charles Martell) would re-introduce the breeding of war horses due to the islamic military use of it. Sounds reasonble to say France had the of the best heavy cavalrymen due to the long-held tradition of heavy cavalrymen going back right to Charlemagne, who was the first monarch in Europe to introduce such style of warfare again.


I wasn't suggesting that the tradition of horsemanship traced itself back to the Gauls, only that the environment was conducive to the breeding of horses and thus peoples residing there would be more inclined to perfect the art of mounted warfare.
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Dan Howard




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PostPosted: Wed 13 Sep, 2017 4:48 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Most of the draining and canal work in Germany wasn't done until the 17th-18th centuries. IIRC Prince Eugene of Savoy was instrumental in a lot of it.
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Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Thu 16 Nov, 2017 12:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Pedro Paulo Gaião wrote:
Lafayette C Curtis wrote:
Not really. The French dismounted just fine -- after all, even during the 1150-1350 interlude when they rarely dismounted in open battle, they still dismounted all the time to participate in sieges, assaults, and skirmishes in fortified and/or built-up terrain.


Even in pitched battles? Some mainstream authors/historians usually point out french knight's views on dismounted fighting at pitched battles as somehow unchivalric as a relevant factor for their first great defeats for the English in the Hundred Years War. Even the History teacher of my College said that to me (he isn't specialist in Middle Ages, though). At Agincourt there are sources describing the french nobility having their breakfasts while at saddle, impatient with the expectation of reaching the English formation soon.


And what sources can they name for the idea that dismounting was somewhat "unchivalric?" The only time I've actually seen a clear mention of this was for German men-at-arms in the 16th century, and it can be plausibly interpreted as the Germans looking for excuses to avoid being sent into a suicidal assault against a well-defended breach on an Italian city wall.

Besides, Agincourt was in 1415. That's nearly three-quarters of a century after Crecy, and also three-quarters of a century after the French learned that they needed a dismounted assault force to successfully engage the English in open battle. As a matter of fact, most of the French men-at-arms at Agincourt fought on foot, so I really don't understand what you're trying to say here.
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Pedro Paulo Gaião




Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
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PostPosted: Today at 2:15 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Lafayette C Curtis wrote:
Pedro Paulo Gaião wrote:
Lafayette C Curtis wrote:
Not really. The French dismounted just fine -- after all, even during the 1150-1350 interlude when they rarely dismounted in open battle, they still dismounted all the time to participate in sieges, assaults, and skirmishes in fortified and/or built-up terrain.


Even in pitched battles? Some mainstream authors/historians usually point out french knight's views on dismounted fighting at pitched battles as somehow unchivalric as a relevant factor for their first great defeats for the English in the Hundred Years War. Even the History teacher of my College said that to me (he isn't specialist in Middle Ages, though). At Agincourt there are sources describing the french nobility having their breakfasts while at saddle, impatient with the expectation of reaching the English formation soon.


And what sources can they name for the idea that dismounting was somewhat "unchivalric?" The only time I've actually seen a clear mention of this was for German men-at-arms in the 16th century, and it can be plausibly interpreted as the Germans looking for excuses to avoid being sent into a suicidal assault against a well-defended breach on an Italian city wall.

Besides, Agincourt was in 1415. That's nearly three-quarters of a century after Crecy, and also three-quarters of a century after the French learned that they needed a dismounted assault force to successfully engage the English in open battle. As a matter of fact, most of the French men-at-arms at Agincourt fought on foot, so I really don't understand what you're trying to say here.


Though I admittedly don't remember any primary source for the French or Scottish case, I'm sure I read authors stating about French's recusancy to dismount due to knigthly valour right to mid-14th century. Even later they weren't that willing to do so (but had to). I could take a look at the books and articles I read on the subject. If I find any mention of that behavior I'll quote it here. Anyways, regarding to Agincourt (1415): there were French men-at-arms who didn't dismount, and I remember of at least two occasions were the French spurred forward for a charge (one in the latter stages of the battle)

For the Spanish case: events dating from the very start of Du Guesclin and Black Prince's intervention in Castile's Civil War until Aljubarrota (1385). Spanish men-at-arms (Castillians especially) would just start to dismount in open battle because they were suffering too badly at the hands of the English and French men-at-arms; there was royal instigation to do that too, but apparently only the Portuguese were actually "open-minded" enough to properly imitate the style of war in alter-Pyrenees (largely because the portuguese style of fighting was a way different to Castillian and Aragonese one; we didn't have light cavalry, for example)

The King of Castille adviced his cavalry to not fight the French men-at-arms when they dismounted, but rather, to throw their darts/assengays (in the case of jinetes) and spur off, since they were told they could not stand against them; they were adviced, instead, to lure the men-at-arms out of their formation or to force them to mount again. Only when mounted they were allowed to charge against the French.

We can see those problems regarding to how Spaniards considered dismounted fight in pitched battles as "unchivalric" at Nájera, for example; the same applies with Aljubarrota, where they only started to dismount in the latter stages of the battle, but likely because there were so many horses' corpses, stakes and other obstacles on the way that it was basically impossible to charge right through the Portuguese formation. However, Froissart admits the French were more willing to fight on foot than the spaniards were, by the time the first ones realized they couldn't break through the enemy lines. The latter, though, continuously tried to break through or at least throw javelins and spurring off, doing that for many hours without any propper results.

There are other examples of that in the Constable's victories at Atoleiros and Trancoso, where he deployed formations of infantry and men-at-arms with pikes (or at least spear and lances) against vastly superior numbers of men-at-arms and jinetes, who didn't even tried to dismount, but used traditional and largely ineffective tatics against the Constable's formation and suffered heavy losses.

“Burn old wood, read old books, drink old wines, have old friends.”
Alfonso X, King of Castile (1221-84)
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