Battle of Blanchetaque
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The Battle of Blanchetaque in 1346 was the second of the three battles which made up what became the Crecy campaign of King Edward III of England during the early stages of the Hundred Years War. Although smaller and less notorious than the Battle of Crécy which followed it, it can be said that without the victory at Blanchetaque, the subsequent defeat of the French royal army at Crecy would never have been possible, as the English force would not have been in any position to oppose the French adequately had they not successfully forded the Somme River during the battle of Blanchetaque.
After defeating the French defenders of Caen in the battle there on 26 July and subsequently looting the city, the English army marched eastward along the Seine River, while the French forces had retreated in front of the advancing enemy, employing what would later become known as scorched earth tactics in an attempt to starve the English forces during their advance. This strategy suffered a setback when on 14 August the English captured an unguarded ford on the Seine at Poissy and prepared a pontoon bridge with which to cross. This threatened Paris and caused much alarm amongst the French populace, but actually might have been turned to the French advantage, as now the English army was supposedly trapped between the impassable Seine and Somme Rivers. Every bridge and ford on either waterway was heavily guarded, with King Philip VI situated first at Paris and then moving to Amiens and then entering the plain between the rivers in an effort to hunt down the English force with his much larger army.
Edward meanwhile was determined to break the French blockade of the Somme and probed at several points in late August, vainly attacking Hangest and Pont-Remy before slowly moving north along the western river bank trying to find an opening. Behind him toiled the French army, which despite some close encounters was unable to successfully come up on the English army. On 23 August a force of French levies opposed the English passage at Boismont, but were ridden down by Edward's cavalry and massacred to a man and the town burnt to the ground. On the evening of 24 August, the English force was encamped at the town of Acheux whilst the French army was just six miles away in Abbeville, watching the bridge there in case Edward attempted to attack it. Accounts differ as to the exact method of discovery, but during the night Edward was made aware by either an Englishman living locally or a French captive that just four miles away, near the village of Saigneville, was a tiny ford named Blanchetaque (so named for the white stones lining the river's bed) which was likely to be unprepared for an attack. Edward immediately broke camp in the middle of the night and moved his whole force toward the river.
On arrival at the river, it was discovered that the French had defended the position more strongly than previously believed. Guarding the far side of the crossing were 3,500 soldiers under Godemar du Foy, a highly experienced French general. Another problem was the tide which, being just over ten miles from the coast, was heavy, high and not expected to drop to crossable levels for some hours. During this time both sides prepared for the coming action, as Edward was determined that he would have to cross at this point. English supplies were running out and the army was ragged, starving and beginning to suffer from a drop in morale. The French force was drawn up in three lines along the sloping bank, with the best soldiers, 500 men-at-arms, positioned in the center.
Around 8:00 a.m. 100 English knights and men-at-arms entered the ford under the leadership of Reginald de Cobham, 1st Baron Cobham and William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton, both highly experienced officers. This advance was supported by large numbers of English longbow men who unleashed a hail of arrows on the French lines, causing casualties and a vital distraction to the defenders. The Genoese crossbowmen in French service were unable to respond in kind and the English reached the French side of the river. A vicious scrum ensued on the river bank, the ferocity of the English attack creating a beachhead into which Edward fed more soldiers. The combination of desperate foot soldiers and accurate archery forced the French force backwards until their lines broke and they fled to Abbeville, pursued closely by English cavalry.
An hour and a half after the French lines had broken, the entire English army was across the ford and marching northwards into countryside rich in food and loot. The French had been so confident that the English could not breach the Somme line that they had not denuded the area, and so the English were able to resupply, burning the towns of Noyelles-sur-Mer and Le Crotoy in the process. King Philip was not slow to pursue his enemy and chased Edward's far smaller force towards the coast, capturing several slow wagons before hesitating and allowing the English to gain a march on him. Edward used this respite to prepare a position close to the town of Crecy, where battle was joined the following day.
Without the victory at Blanchetaque, won through determination rather than any tactical genius, Edward would have been unable to find either the food his army so desperately required or the excellent position from which he won his most famous battle at Crecy just two days later. It is hard to judge the consequences had his army been unsuccessful in the action, but it could well have spelled the end for Edward and his army; Blanchetaque was the last viable crossing before the sea and the English army could not have fought or marched as a cohesive entity without the food and supplies the victory provided. As it was, Blanchetaque provided the impetus and position needed with which to later defeat the French army and conduct the siege of Calais. Casualties in the action are not clear, but it is claimed that as many as 2,000 French soldiers were killed in the battle or the retreat which followed it. English losses are less well known but were likely to have been substantially less than those of the French.
- Bernard Cornwell's novel Harlequin provides a dramatised yet substantially accurate portrayal of this action.
- Ken Follett's novel World Without End also describes this battle.
- Jonathan Sumption. (1990). The Hundred Years War, Vol 1, Trial by Battle. ISBN 0-571-13895-0
- A.H. Burne. (1955). The Crecy War. ISBN 1-85367-081-2
- P. 158, The Crecy War, A.H. Burne.