There were three noteworthy English victories over France in the Hundred Years War. The best-known is the final one, the Battle of Agincourt (1415), but the earlier battles are just as historically and strategically interesting.
Historians have proposed a number of reasons for this unexpected loss. I think that our current understandings of implementation can be used to understand some of the failures of the French army. I suggest three implementation issues were involved and in relation to each we can see how Edward’s forces were successful in making beneficial changes that the French army failed to enact.
First, English longbowmen were made central to their army. Archers were an important contributor to the English victory at Poitiers, first firing upon the French cavalry head-on and then, when the knights’ armour proved too tough to penetrate, moving to one side and felling the horses with an attach on their flanks. The successful implementation here lay first in the English recognition of the power of the longbow and second in ensuring that the archers were effectively deployed in practice. The French also had archers and knew their power: they had suffered under the fire of English longbows in the Battle of Crécy ten years earlier. But they failed to integrate the archers into their fighting force as the English did, a failure that Barbara Tuchman ascribes to established social and cultural norms on the part of the French nobles: the French archers “were never properly combined in action with knights and men-at-arms, because French chivalry scorned to share its dominance of the field with commoners.” (153) In the English side this attitude was less dominant and they were able to benefit from the ranged power of the longbow.
A second factor played out in the tactics adopted by the French during the battle. The English force was very short of water and had dug in on a hill. Marshal Clermont, an experienced general and one of the senior French nobles present, proposed blockading the English and starving them out. Edward feared that the French would try this and the approach would likely have had an excellent chance of success. However, King Jean opposed the idea because it was at odds with the rules of chivalry. He chose instead to engage with the English and Clermont was among those killed in the fighting that followed.
Third, Edward had been able to organise his forces in a new way with some semblance of what we might recognise as a military hierarchy, with soldiers answerable to officers and officers to more senior commanders (this is not strictly true but captures the general idea). The French had no such structure and their commanders were at risk, as was often the case in medieval armies, from the fact that individual nobles and their followers might decide at any point that they had had enough and make a unilateral decision to leave the field of battle. With no notion of military discipline and troops’ loyalty in the first instance to their feudal overlord, the turning tide of the battle eventually led to a rout with surviving French nobles and foot soldiers fleeing before the rampaging English.
These were not the only things that contributed to the French defeat but they were important. The French lost, in part, because: their prevailing culture did not permit the effective implementation of a new technology (longbows); sociocultural factors prevented them from acting in a tactically beneficial way in reaction to the course of the battle; and they were tied to a harmful and outmoded organisational structure.
If we turn to contemporary writing on facilitators and barriers to implementation we find similar barriers to implementation recognised. Implementation science has been described as a discipline that focuses, in part, on “the discovery and identification of social, organizational, and cultural factors affecting the uptake of evidence-based practices and policies” (Luke 2012). The “evidence” available in the fourteenth century was not the type of evidence we might want to inform policy decisions today but it seems clear that social, organisational and cultural factors were key aspects of the French failure to implement new ways of thinking and acting that became major contributors to a French military disaster. Then, as now, social, organisational and cultural factors are central elements of what we have to recognise, consider, and address when considering implementing new practices or ways of doing things.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
My understanding of this topic has been informed by Barbara Tuchman’s outstanding A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Knopf, 1978).
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