I made a rash statement a few weeks ago, that sieges and holding territory were more important than battles in military history. This was quite rightly challenged, and it was agreed, more or less, that occasional colonial reprisal raids were not aimed at capturing territory.
This of course could lead to arguments about what we might mean by ‘capturing territory’. Punitive raids in the North-West province of India could be regarded as a means of keeping territory by making sure the locals were overawed by the Imperial might that could be deployed against them. If the raids were not carried out, the regions would become independent, the Imperial bases would then be threatened and that is before Russian agents drifted over the Himalayas to stir up trouble. So even the colonial argument touches territory at some point, perhaps not quite as directly as some.
Turning from the 19th century to the 14th, we have another candidate for not trying to capture territory. In this case, it is one I know a little more about: the early years of the Hundred Year’s war. Now, as wargamers we know that this revolved about the battles of Poitiers and Crecy. If we are dead sophisticated we might also admit that the siege of Calais was also part of the Crecy campaign. But the battles were decisive, were they not?
To answer this question we have to look a bit harder at Edward III’s strategy. I’m stealing most of this from Clifford Rogers’ book ‘War Cruel and Sharp’. He argues that after the Weardale campaign of 1327, Edward adopted Robert the Bruce’s strategy of chevauchee, siege and battle. The idea of this strategy was to use the chevauchee to devastate the enemy’s economic base. Dead or starving peasants pay no taxes, after all. The use of siege was aimed at drawing the enemy into battle, and the use of battle was to defeat the enemy field army, make prisoners and ensure a advantageous peace.
So, Edward III set off on a number of such adventures. Firstly, he besieged Berwick which led to the disastrous (for the Scots) battle of Halidon Hill. But the Scots were forced to fight, because Berwick, which was an important place economically and strategically, had to be saved. The devastation caused by the English archers up the hill was not the Scots fault. The fact that they had to try was Edward’s strategic success, brought about by the siege.
So, one up to the siege argument, I'd claim.
How about Crecy? Well, the battle came about largely because of the chevauchee, which devastated the lands where it passed. One of the issues in medieval policy was ‘good lordship’ which meant that the feudal lords, and ultimately the king, had to protect their vassals. So, if your vassal’s fields and houses were being burnt, you had to try to do something about it. Thus, the French army shadowed the English until they clashed at Crecy. Shadowing the enemy was a good way of ensuring that less damage was done, as small groups of enemy soldiers could not be sent out to devastate the countryside for fear of being picked off. The French did not need to engage the English directly. The fact that they did would seem to speak more of French overconfidence than strategic requirement. Edward, it seems did want to fight and went out of his way to persuade the French to accept battle. Removing the enemy field army would permit him strategic freedom to carry on his campaign and secure a port. After the battle, the English restarted their devastating raids and, of course captured Calais.
How do we classify this? Possibly one up to the ‘battle’ brigade, although the upshot was, in fact, a strategic, territorial, accession to the English crown, via a siege. Maybe we ought to halve the points.
How about Poitiers? Again, a large scale chevauchee by the English and lots of problems for the French. Again, it seems that the Black Prince sought battle and the French accepted it. Again the English won and captured various important people from whom an advantageous treaty was extracted, including lots of territory for the English crown.
How do we assess Poitiers? Well, probably one to the ‘battle’ brigade. The decisive battle gave the English a distinct diplomatic advantage.
Overall, therefore, we have to say that my comment, which was designed to provoke, is only partially confirmed by the first part of the Hundred Years War. However, it is worth noting that Edward’s strategy was composed of three linked parts – raid, siege and battle. Just going out and defeating the enemy on the battlefield was insufficient to ensure success in the war as a whole. This had to be linked with the chevauchees, which undermined the enemy in terms of both lordship and income and forced them to fight or lose by default. Sieges performed the same role, as the Berwick, but also were the upshot of defeating the enemy field army. Capturing strategically important locations, like Calais, was important, and that brings us around again to territory.
As wargamers, of course, we focus on battles. How many times have you seen a wargame of Crecy or Poitiers? How many times have you seen a campaign based around a chevauchee? Do we have the balance right? Should we be doing something different? Indeed, is it possible to have a good game based around the premise of devastating enemy territory?