grasp the initiative
Your commander matters. The best commanders know when to take the advice of their staff and when to brush it off.
The worst commanders are those who lack the knowledge or personality to know when to do one of the other.
As told by Douglas Sterling;
“Great Army of the Sea”
On May 16, the English royal council met and pushed back the deadline for gathering the ships until June 12, which would mean a sailing date around the 20th. When Edward met with his council again on June 4, it was clear that earlier delays had not been resolved. The only way to even attempt to keep up with the timetable previously set, which was being relied upon by the allies, was to send at least a small force across the Channel to give support. Little did the English council know that the French had amassed a fleet, principally from the Norman ports, and had sailed from Harfleur on May 26. It was a large force, consisting of 202 vessels—seven royal sailing ships, six galleys, 22 oared barges, and 167 merchantmen— requisitioned by Philip’s agents. By the time the smaller English force sailed, the French had passed Calais.
The French fleet, called the “Great Army of the Sea,” appeared off Sluys on June 8. According to Jonathan Sumption, author of a multivolume history of the Hundred Years’ War, the French soon “swiftly and brutally occupied the island of Cadzand and anchored in the mouth of the River Zwin opposite the harbor of Sluys. The news passed rapidly through the Low Countries, spreading panic in coastal towns and drawing a great crowd of gapers to the foreshore to watch the denouement.”
Reaching the English government two days later, the news of the French attacks at Sluys caused a near panic, many of the king’s advisers claiming the odds were too great to force a confrontation with such an armada. Edward’s Chancellor, Archbishop Stratford, in particular argued strenuously that the risk was too great. He had never supported the King’s enterprise and now considered it folly to risk the government’s finances, its fleet, the security of the English coast, and, indeed, the King’s person on an unworkable scheme. Edward would have none of it, and accused his advisers of trying to frighten him. For him, there could be no question of abandoning the coalition he had helped create, nor could there be any question of running from a fight. “I shall cross the sea and those who are afraid may stay at home,” he announced.
Archbishop Stratford resigned and was succeeded by his brother Robert, Bishop of Chichester. Edward was, however, persuaded to delay his departure for a few days to requisition more ships and to convert a transport armada into a battle fleet. Horses were removed to make room for infantry, and strong messages were sent to every reachable port to provide all ships over 40 tons. No excuses were accepted; Edward himself confronted the mariners of Great Yarmouth who were yet delinquent.
By June 20, nearby harbors were empty and the ships previously assembled were brought into the Pool of Orwell to join the large ships of the western Admiralty. The exact size of the armada is unclear, but is thought to have been around 140 to 150 ships when added to the Northern Fleet under Lord Robert Morley. Edward himself went aboard the cog Thomas, and the fleet set sail just after midnight on June 22, 1340.
Kind Edward Longed for Revenge
Catching a strong northwesterly breeze, the English fleet passed the point of Harwich at dawn and late on the following afternoon stood off the Flemish coast west of the Zwin estuary. Inside, the French fleet lay in wait, commanded by Admirals Hugh Quieret and Nicholas Behuchet. According to Jean Froissart, the famous chronicler of the early part of the war, “King Edward saw such a number of masts in front of him that it looked like a wood. When he asked his ship’s captain what it could be, he replied that it must be the Norman fleet that King Philip kept constantly at sea, which had done such great damage at Southampton, capturing the Christopher and killing her crew. King Edward declared that he had long wanted to fight them, and now, please God and Saint George, he would be able to, for they had done him such harm that he longed for revenge.”
The French saw the English fleet, too, and held a council of war. Barbavera, as the most experienced sailor among the commanders, counseled caution. He was concerned that the anchorage in which the French fleet lay was too confined for maneuvers if attacked and that the wind, blowing into the mouth of the river, would further hamper maneuverability. He suggested that Quieret and Behuchet take their fleets into the open ocean where they would have a better chance to maneuver and meet the English fleet on more favorable terms, but his colleagues balked. In their minds, the mass of their force was more than a match for the English. It certainly looked it, with the closeness of their ships and their great bulk, with bows, poops, and masts fortified with timber. Reinforcements from Flemish and Spanish allies brought their force to 213 vessels. Quieret and Behuchet were afraid that any move to the open ocean would provide an opening for the English force to sail in behind them and land in Flanders.
Instead of following Barbavera’s advice, the French admirals drew their ships into three lines across the mouth of the estuary, like an army on land setting up a strong defense. In the first line were 19 of their largest vessels, including the captured cog Christopher, which stood out larger than the others. Each line was chained together to form an impregnable barrier.
Who said SEALS are a recent invention?
The English sent a knight, Reginald Cobham, ashore with two others to gather intelligence on the French anchorage and their dispositions for the battle. Their report pointed out the major weakness of the French order of battle that Barbavera had warned of: the anchored, chained, and massed lines. According to N.A.M. Rodger, “This was a traditional galley or longship tactic, serving to make the naval battlefield as much like a battlefield ashore as possible, but of course it removed any possibility of manoeuvre and resigned the initiative to the enemy.”
An English council of war decided to grasp the initiative and attack the next day when they would have the advantage of wind and tide behind them.
Preparing for Battle
At the end of the 15th century, the Zwin estuary silted up, so that the site of the Battle of Sluys is now farm land and dunes. In 1340, according to Sumption, it was “a stretch of shallow water about 3 miles wide at the entrance and penetrating some 10 miles inland towards the city of Bruges. It was enclosed on the northeastern side by the low-lying island of Cadzand and on the west by a long dyke on which a huge crowd of armed Flemings stood watching. Along the west side lay the out-harbours of Bruges, Sluys, Termuiden and Damme.”
In preparation for battle, the English also drew up their fleet in three battle lines. In the early afternoon of June 24, they began to press down from the north on the entrance to the Zwin. Although Froissart’s account of the battle is truncated in time— making it seem like the dispositions of the two fleets and the attack of the English followed quickly upon the two forces sighting one another—he nevertheless gives a stirring battle narrative. According to him, Edward deployed his fleet, maneuvering it “so that the wind was on their starboard quarter, in order to have the advantage of the sun, which had previously shown full in their faces. The Normans, unable to understand these maneuvers, thought that the English were trying to avoid giving battle; but they were delighted to see that King Edward’s standard was flown, for they were eager to fight him.” It was then that the English fleet “advanced to the sound of trumpets and other warlike instruments.”
The English had the wind and the tide. Importantly, they sailed with the sun behind them, shining into the faces of the French.
Within the French force, confusion was beginning to overshadow confidence. As Sumption relates, the French fleet “had been too long at their battle stations and the chained lines of vessels, which originally extended across the breadth of the bay, had drifted eastward piling the ships up against each other on the Cadzand shore and reducing their sea room still further. The chains were useless in these conditions.” The French admirals ordered the chains to be thrown off, and the fleet then attempted to recover the open flank to the west.
Unfortunately, the Riche de Leure, a front line vessel of the French force, detached from their line and became entangled with a ship of the English van. While those ships grappled and struggled together, the English front line rammed into the French.
The front lines of the two forces included their largest ships. Edward’s flagship, the cog Thomas, was among the large ships from the Cinque Ports and faced the Christopher, captured from the English in earlier action, and the St. Denis, a large vessel with 200 seamen aboard.
Sea battle tactics in this period consisted of grappling with an enemy vessel to assault the enemy decks with showers of arrows in preparation for boarding, which was seen as a kind of infantry attack, like an assault on a fortress. The idea was to hold the enemy close to weaken them for a victorious assault. This is indeed how Froissart described the beginning of the battle, with “each side opening fire with crossbows and longbows, and hand-to-hand fighting began. The soldiers used grappling irons on chains in order to come to grips with the enemy boats.” Both sides had artillery of a sort, stone throwers and giant crossbows called “springalds,” but, according to Sumption, they were “more dramatic than useful.”
Arrows Fell on French Crews “Like Hail in Winter”
Because the French force was hemmed in by the weight of the English fleet and was soon snared with hooks and grappling irons, they were forced to fight with a serious disadvantage in firepower. For, as in the English land battles that were to come in the following years, the English crews were equipped with the longbow, which was greatly superior to the crossbow used by the French and their Italian allies. As Sumption says, the longbow “was more accurate. It had a longer range. Above all it could be fired at a very rapid rate.” He quotes a London observer as describing arrows falling on the French crews “like hail in winter,” while “crossbows had to be lowered and steadied at the stirrup while the wire was strenuously levered back between every firing.”
By all accounts, the battle was ferocious and the slaughter terrible. According to Froissart, “The battle … was cruel and horrible. Sea-battles are always more terrible than those on land, for those engaged can neither retreat nor run away; they could only stand and fight to the bitter end, and show their courage and endurance.” Although the French had the advantage in numbers, the disposition of their forces and the weight at the point of attack favored the English.
Still, the French and their allies fought hard. The English forces “were hard-pressed, for they were outnumbered four to one, and their enemies were all experienced sailors. But King Edward, who was in the flower of his youth, proved himself a gallant knight, and he was supported by … many … gallant knights [who] fought so valiantly, with the help of those from the neighborhood of Bruges, that they won the day.”
The fighting proved to be fierce and lasted well into the afternoon when it became clear to the French in the rear lines that their comrades in the front were suffering grievously. Yet they were unable to join the fray because they were hemmed in between their own front line and the shore, and did not have room to maneuver round to the west. By evening, however, the English front line had broken through to the French ships in the rear and fell upon them. Now the English had a tremendous advantage in weight of ship as their cogs towered over the smaller French ships in their second line and they were able to rake the decks of the French from their greater height.
With the English clearly winning, Flemings began to pour from Sluys and other harbors in the estuary to join the fight and share in the victory. They fell upon the French from the rear as the English continued to press from the front. As night fell, the third French line of Norman merchantmen and Philip’s barges attempted to escape the estuary. The English tried to block their path and the battle devolved into a series of skirmishes as more and more French ships made toward the open sea. By 10 pm the fighting was nearly over, except for two ships so entangled that they fought fiercely throughout the night. By the time the English were able to board the French ship at dawn the next day, they discovered 400 enemy dead aboard.
Unlike war ashore, at sea here is not much room to retreat once fully engaged. Losses are rarely done in retail, deaths are wholesale. In modern times as it was for thousands of years.
Almost 18,000 Frenchmen Were Killed
In fact, only the dawn of the following day would reveal the extent of the French defeat and the tremendous loss of life and shipping. According to Sumption, the French “suffered a naval catastrophe on a scale unequalled until modern times.” The English had captured 190 of the 213 French ships that had been engaged, including their old cogs, Christopher and Edward . Although a certain number had escaped, including Barbavera’s six galleys, four of the six-oared galleys based at Dieppe, and 13 others, the death toll was almost indescribable. Again, as Sumption puts it, “The crews and troops on board the ships which did not escape were killed almost to a man. No quarter was given once a ship was boarded, and those who threw themselves into the sea, as many did, were picked up by the Flemings on the foreshore and clubbed to death.” Perhaps between 16,000 and 18,000 Frenchmen were killed. Edward himself would write to his son that each tide brought in more and more corpses.
As for the French admirals, Quieret was killed when his ship was boarded by the English. Behuchet, who was recognized by his captors, was held for ransom. Then, Edward III, in a pique of anger, waived the normal conventions of aristocratic warfare and had Behuchet hanged from the mast of his flagship.\
And now, befitting our era; the Battle of Sluys in Lego. Seriously; it's fairly good to excellent.
First posted December 2016.