Saturday 27 August 2022

Great Battles that Weren’t

I am sure it has not escaped the notice of my astute reader that some battles just did not happen. I dare say we can all think of a few in our favourite eras. Those confrontations where one side got cold feet, received incorrect information, or decided to march away in the rain and forget about the whole embarrassing escapade. Or where the alliance broke down before it got going and hence, of course, deprived the wargamer of a fascinating encounter.

It might not have escaped your attention that I have turned the idea into a campaign game – Armada Abbeys – based on the premise that the Spanish Armada did, in fact, land, or at least, partially landed. This is a highly respectable idea in historiography, by the way. Geoffrey Parker has a chapter on it in his book on the Armada, and I have seen a journal article or two about it, plus a discussion in one of the Elizabethan wars books I have read (do you really expect me to get up and find it?).

The fundamental idea is that there are a lot of situations in history where a campaign could have taken a different turn. For example, consider the Dieppe raid. What would have happened if the allies had captured the port and clung on? It was not part of the plan, granted, but a 1942 invasion of north-western Europe would certainly give a different twist to the progress of World War Two. Granted the allies would probably have been thrown back eventually, but where would the Wehrmacht pull the resources from to do so? It is not my period, but the possibilities are manifold.

This has been brought to mind as I have been pondering categories of wargames – historical, semi-historical, fictitious, and so on. Battles that could have happened but did not would fall into the semi-historical classification. The enemies could have clashed at that time and in that place, but did not. The Armada could have landed but did not. The allies could have dug in at Dieppe but were not in a position to, and so on.

As a case in point, as I was writing about this, I recalled reading in Jonathan Sumption’s Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War I (London: Faber & Faber, 1990) about the campaigns before Crecy. These are activities that are largely ignored in the historiography and military history of the period, probably because they did not result in a battle, but they are interesting nevertheless.

The English under Edward I and his Flemish allies besieged Cambrai in the summer of 1339, and the French army marched to relieve it, taking up a position at Peronne on the Somme, 22 miles away. There they stayed, much to Edward’s dismay as he sought to bring them to battle. Cambrai held out (just) and the French would not move to relieve it. Edward had no particular use for the place except as bait for the French and he probably needed to move on to find supplies. He had around 10,000 men, half of them English, and a slightly fractious array of allies, some of whom were vassals for the French king. Invading France was going to cause them some pain.

In early October Edward invaded France, looting and burning as they went. The French king eventually arrived and took command of his army, while Edward drew his forces together and retreated, probably to secure his line of retreat north. He had other problems: the English had supplies but their allies had not, having expected to fight the decisive battle as soon as they entered France. Just as the army was about to fall apart the French sent a formal challenge to battle on 21 or 22 October. Edward accepted.

On 21 October Edward halted at La Capelle and ordered for battle. The army was arranged in three lines of infantry and men-at-arms behind a stake-lined trench, with archers forward and to the flanks. The French halted on 22 October at Buirenfosse about four miles away. During the night the English raided their lines.

Edward’s plan was, of course, the classic English tactic of the early Hundred Year’s War, to lure the enemy cavalry through an arrow storm onto a line of men at arms behind a row of stakes. The French must have known that, and there was a furious debate in their camp as to what to do. The army was hungry and thirsty, having marched through well-looted land in the last few days. Not forcing the action and making Edward retreat would be as successful as defeating him in battle. The French vanguard retreated and dug in.

At this point, Edward realised that his campaign had failed. He had sought a decisive battle and the enemy had refused. His army was smaller and had its own supply problems; he could not attack the superior French in a defended position. He had to retreat. After they had gone the French too withdrew, after examining the English position and finding it not as formidable as they had expected.

Crecy would have to wait. Edward only just scraped together the alliance and the money to continue the war. Harvests were poor and the wool price was low (the main source of English income) because Edward had flooded to market to raise cash. Crecy would have to wait.

Yet the wargamer might be inspired. What if Philip of France had decided to attack to English at La Capelle? It would be as famous as Crecy now, in all probability. Edward’s alliance might have survived, especially if he had won. If Philip had lost, what then?

As it is, La Capelle is only known as the place where the Armistice was signed in 1918 (according to Sumption, anyway). It could have been different. A superior force attacking a shaky alliance with better firepower and a reasonable defensive position. After all, what on earth could go wrong?

So, there you are. A battle that wasn’t. History can change on such things. Philip might have been persuaded to do the honourable thing and fight. Edward certainly hoped so. As wargamers, we can speculate, and that is part of the fun.


  1. One of the most obvious non-battles is Turnham Green in1642. Would a wargamer fancy the odds any more than Charles?
    And the biggie in the Seven Years War was Bunzelwitz, where Frederick was, for once, the one skulking in prepared defences.

  2. Turnham Green, um. I'm not sure that it was a winnable situation from the Royalists pov: even if they won it would be presented as a massacre of good protestants like Magdeburg, so they would lose anyway. Interesting question, though.
    As for the SYW I've never heard it, but the mindset must have been to march around them, surely? Frontal assaults are so 17th Century...

  3. We’re on the same page. In both cases it wasn’t worth the putative attackers accepting battle. As you say, the risks were too great. The question is also whether the ‘defenders’ wanted battle (like Edward). I don’t think Frederick wanted battle at Bunzlewitz (he really was on his uppers at that point), but I’m not sure about the Parliamentarians. Even with their numerical advantage, it was hugely risky.

    Maybe Edward had made his position too daunting a prospect for the French. Both sides had to want battle. Both had to think victory was worth the risk.

    Re: Bunzlewitz, it would have been too risky marching around it. The Austrians didn’t have enough resources to leave a large enough screening force that wouldn’t have been vulnerable. The choice of a good, defensible camp was a much admired art in the 18th century.


    1. Yes, I think that most commanders during most of history regarded battle as hugely risky. Edward III is a bit of an aberration.
      Certainly the French thought Edward's position was stronger than it was, and there was an argument in the French camp. Some wanted to attack (it was the most honourable thing to do) while some argued that seeing Edward out of France was sufficient (all tied up with the concept of 'good lordship'). Both sides could then argue, in fact, that they had 'won'. The French had seen the invaders off, Edward had marched through and ravaged a bit of France with impunity.
      For Turnham Green I think that the highest risk was for the Royalists; the Parliamentarians probably couldn't afford to give up any more of the approaches to London after Brentford. Funnily enough I used to go through Turnham Green on the tube, but I never got off to examine the ground. I don't suppose it looks anything like the 17th Century, though.
      Good camps have been important parts of the art of war for centuries - the Romans were quite good at it. Part of what brought Gustav Adolf down was a decent defensive camp established by Wallenstein (I'd get up to find the details, but the cat is sleeping on my foot).