At the Acropolis

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The Acropolis is one of those magical places. I have never been quite so awed by any place that I’ve visited before this. Sure there were hordes of fellow tourists, ongoing restoration works and a merciless sun beating down but these did little to detract from the sense of wonder such a place evokes. To think that such a place was constructed in the 5th Century BC is in itself enough to impress any visitor. To think that at the same time as people here in Britain were living in wattle and daub structures people were able to construct such engineering marvels as the Parthenon with it subtle use of perspective and geometry is shocking.

If you do visit the Acropolis make sure you get a guided tour. The structures are beautiful but the stories, myths and legends conveyed by a guide do so much to give a sense of the people that inhabited the place. For example, our guide pointed out the Areopagus a rock where murderers were tried so that they didn’t taint the city of Athens. We were also told that the Areopagus was the place where Orestes was tried for killing his mother and her lover. As well as this, the Areopagus is supposedly the spot where the Gods tried Ares for the murder of Poseidon’s son according to Greek mythology. These little bits of culture are not available on the few information signs scattered around the site and really did wonders for creating just that. A sense of wonder.

Most interestingly for myself, I was drawn to the Temple of Athena Nike rather than the far more impressive buildings constructed at the summit. This building is rarely open to visitors but our guide gave us a wonderful sense of the importance of what is otherwise a comparatively boring temple. She told us that the Temple is oriented to face the island of Salamis where the Athenian people sheltered as the Persian army under Xerxes I destroyed Athens in 480BC. It was here that the Athenian fleet beat the Persian fleet leaving Xerxes with no option but to withdraw his army from Greece. Whilst the battle story is interesting it is the consequences of the Athenian victory at Salamis that the Athena Nike really reveals. Fundamentally, Salamis was a battle where West beat East. Without Salamis, there would be no democracy, citizenship, philosophy, theatre and even trial by Jury. Salamis catapulted Athens to the forefront of classical civilisation and allowed many new ideas to flourish. The small unremarkable Temple of Athena Nike encapsulates some of the most important drama to unfurl in the history of Europe and it is far too easily overlooked by visitors in favour of the Parthenon.

The Origins of the Eclair

I’ll admit to it. I’m partial to an eclair or seven. I know its the time of the year when diets are all the rage but I just can’t help myself around them. It only occurred to me the other day, however, that I didn’t know very much about these delicious pastry treats. So I decided to have a quick search and this is what I found.

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Tiger Day VII

Tiger Day  VII is an opportunity to visit The Tank Museum without the crowds of the museum’s other major event Tankfest. Having now been to both I can say that the two have very different flavours. Tankfest is much more about moving armour, reenactment and explosions. Sure, the museum and conservation centre are open but the action centres around the Arena. Tiger Day, by contrast, is much more focused on the museum exhibits themselves and some of the stories around them. As the name implies, the Tiger tank is the central figure around which the day revolves.

Tiger 131, is amazing. That’s all I can say. The amount of work the museum staff have put in to ensuring that the first complete Tiger captured by the allies is in running order is immense. The machine sounds amazing with its distinctive track noise and the purr of its Maybach HL230 engine. The machine itself, still has much of the battle damage it received before being captured and this really adds to the vehicles story. Its the details that make Tiger 131 interesting. For example, Tiger 131 may be the only Tiger to feature a welded footstep and handle at its front for the Driver; suggesting a smaller man occupied the position. These details become apparent when up close and personal with the vehicle in the museum and the staff always seemed to be willing to chat about any of the vehicles in the collection.

Obviously, Tiger 131 is only one tank amongst many in the collection and there is plenty more to see. Some vehicles are even rarer and more unusual than the Tiger. Currently, the museum has an Elefant tank destroyer built on the failed hulls of Ferdinand Porsche’s bid for the Tiger contract. It also has examples, of glider borne tanks, amphibious tanks, Hobart’s funnies, cold war tanks and a whole lot more.

The real highlight of any event at the museum is the Moving Armour display and its well worth paying for the ticket to get the opportunity to see some really rare vehicles on the move. Seeing a vehicle parked up is one thing, but listening to and seeing 60 tonnes of tank on the move is a whole different experience. It gives you a real sense of the potential for violence such a vehicle has.

To wrap it up, Tiger Day is a seriously great day out for the kind of person that wants to learn a lot about the collection of vehicles at The Tank Museum. There is a range of talks throughout the day and a small moving armour display featuring the Tiger and its movie companion the Sherman used in Fury. If you are more in to larger amounts of moving vehicles, mock battles and explosions go to Tankfest. Seriously, it is great.

 

Agincourt 600 Years in the National Conscious – Pt.5 – National Identity & Culture

The battle is over and now it’s time to frame the battle in regards to its cultural significance. Let’s first realise that the battle of Agincourt was part of a much larger struggle between the English and French crowns. The Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) was significant in that it spanned five generations of Kings and had the effect of solidifying the national identities of each nation as in opposition. Previous to this the identities of England and France were highly similar due to the capture of the English throne by William the Conqueror in 1066. These close ties were obliterated in the chaos of the Hundred Years War as it evolved from simply that of a claim on the French throne to a much more national struggle of one nation against another. In many ways, the framing of the Hundred Years War as a distinctly national struggle allowed the targeting of non-military targets so as to reduce the income and manpower available to each side. A letter written in 1355 by Sir John Wingfield, who served in the retinue of Edward the Black Prince (1330–76) bears witness to this idea:

It seems certain that since the war against the French king began, there has never been such destruction in a region as in this raid. For the countryside and towns which have been destroyed… produced more revenue for the king of France in aid of his war than half his kingdom… as I could prove from authentic documents found in various towns in the tax-collectors’ houses.

In the wake of Agincourt, Henry V, attempted to secure his place in history by making the day of the battle (October 25th) a national holiday. Confusingly this ended up being split across a range of Saints days (but that’s the Middle Ages for you). Similarly, the battle is well recorded in almost all the English Chronicles which tend to pose it in rather straightforward heroic terms. The battle was also commemorated in a series of Ballads (which is helpful as many of the commoners could not read) tending to favour the bowmen as the central figure. Examples of these include The English Bowman’s Glory and the Agincourt Carol.

The memory of the English victory at Agincourt against the odds is also picked up by the monarchy during periods of aggression with the French crown between 1475 and 1629. For example when Henry VIII led an expedition against the French crown Agincourt was invoked in a biography of the King that had made it happen. Although the situation in France had fallen firmly in the favour of the French, not the English, gaining control of the country the memory of Agincourt helped to reassure the English that not all was lost. As Agincourt Day fell out of favour during the Reformation as the Saints days were altered and further lost importance with the rise of the Stuarts to the English throne another, and probably the most famous, version of the story appeared.

In the 1590s England’s traditional enemy, France, had been supplanted by that of Spain. The threat of whom was considerable and the nation in a state of panic. Against the backdrop of the armada Shakespeare wrote and produced Henry V. In doing so he set up most of the ideas that are still central to the English national spirit. He converted the speeches he found in the Chronicles to patriotic poetry focussed on the common man’s ability to turn the tide of battle. He clearly demonstrated the underdog coming out on top and so fuelled the idea that little guy had a fighting chance at glory. His speech written for Henry on the eve of battle shows Henry as a man of his people, willing to stand and die with his “common band of brothers.” (See the speech here)

Skipping on quite a bit, the memory of Agincourt was not lost on those men fighting in the Trenches of World War One. The novel The Bowmen was written at a time when the BEF was falling back under the pressure of the initial German offensive at Mons, but the novel tells the story of how the British were aided by ghostly Bowmen in holding the Germans. Some believe that this novel and the idea of ghostly bowmen aiding the English may have created the legend of the Angels of Mons. (In case you don’t know of this find a brief video here)

Most significantly the battle of Agincourt was incorporated in Second World War Propaganda when Britain faced off against Nazi Germany alone after the fall of France. The Spirit of Agincourt, that the outnumbered and out armed forces of Henry could overcome their foes was an important parallel to the British Situation. Lawrence Olivier was asked to produce a version of Shakespeare’s play in 1944 in support of the D-Day landings. The film itself wasn’t shown until after this event but struck a chord with the British mentality at the time.

Whilst today Agincourt seems a distant event in a distant past, it has been a battle that has had a significant impact on the way the British see themselves as an Island Nation. The “happy few” triumphing over the many is a common piece of our mythology and it’s constantly invoked in our darkest hours. Whilst we may no longer war with France, or have any real interested in European territory the 25th of October 1415 has been significant in the development of a distinct national identity separate to that of the European mainland.

Agincourt 600 Years in the National Conscious – Pt.4 – Battle

Positions at Agincourt

Positions at Agincourt: Image from Thinklink.com

Famously, during the night before the battle the King of England (Henry V) went around his camp giving words of encouragement to his men. The King sat and talked with both commoner and knight, hoping that letting his men see him unafraid would give them the confidence to fight the next day.

As the sun rose on the 25th October 1415 (the feast day of Saint Crispin), the English army moved out of its camp to take up a position on the road to Calais. Henry’s much smaller force formed three divisions of knights and men-at-arms. The furthest right was commanded by Lord Camoys, with the Duke of York commanding the centre and Sir Thomas Erpingham on the left. The long bowmen (whom made up most of the armies numbers) were deployed on either side of this battle line with stakes placed to their front to limit the impact of a potential cavalry charge. The French force formed three significant battles (lines of men) to the English front. The Constable of France led the first French line. The Dukes of Bar and d’Alençon led the second and the Counts of Merle and Falconberg led the third. Legend states that the first French battle contained most of the armies noblemen, so sure where they of a quick victory.

Before we get to the battle itself, let’s talk terrain. The field of Agincourt was narrow and on either side woodlands limited any potential flanking movement. It was a battlefield that favoured Henry’s small numbers as any advance the French made would end up being squeezed inwards by the woods. The rain from the previous night and days before had taken its toll on the ground as well. Agincourt’s field was most likely deeply ploughed farmland at this point ready to receive deep set winter barley and as such it featured many ruts that would slow an advance. The fact that this soil was probably waterlogged and rather claggy would also be a problem for any armoured force moving across it as it would both slow the advance and sap the men’s energy. Right, back to the battle.

Before battle was joined something rather odd occurred on the English side of the field. In a symbolic gesture the English soldiers knelt to the ground and either kissed or consumed some of the soil. It is another gesture that would become legendary in time as each man symbolically showed that they might be returning to the earth if they did not win the battle and had accepted such a situation.

The English waited for the French to make the first move, but there seemed to be little activity on their side of the field. This has often been attributed to a range of factors ranging from a lack of leadership in the French camp to the fact that the French may have been waiting for more reinforcements. My conclusion is that the French had no need to attack the English as they blocked the English escape route and could have easily forced the English into a foolhardy move. This is in fact almost what occurred, seeing that the French made no move Henry’s banners gave the order to advance. His forces, almost unopposed made their way down the field to come within bow range of the French and there they halted, planted their stakes and once again waited.

The archers began to do their work firing a volley into the already compact French battles and so the French began their advance. The battle of Agincourt had finally begun. The French advance started off well but quickly became bogged down in the mud and slowed to the pace of a fast walk. The archer’s arrow storm took its toll knocking men from horses and throwing others to the ground. The first French battle began to lose its cohesion as it wallowed towards the English. It did, however, make it to the English line and a series of desperate combats began. The English bowmen, now unable to fire their weapons either from a lack of arrows or the risk of hitting their own men took up their poll axes, maces, hammers and swords joining the battle going on at the centre of their lines.

As the first French battle began to falter the second advanced to the attack. But again, this was repulsed. The battle now depended on the advance of the third and final French battle, but rather than advance it hovered on the edge of the field its commanders unsure of what to do. Henry’s forces sent a herald ordering them to leave the field or face battle with no quarter given, and so the French retreated and the English had their stunning victory.

The battle itself had several desperate moments. The Duke of York lay slain in the centre, trampled into the mud. The King himself, had almost been captured and had defended his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, from a mob of Frenchmen. The French had lost the Duke D’Alençon (who was killed whilst trying to surrender to Henry personally), the Constable of France (Charles D’Albret), the Duke d’Orleans and de Brabant amongst many other senior nobles.

As the battle closed, something significant occurred to the rear of Henry’s forces. A small force of Frenchmen under the local nobles Isambart D’Agincourt and Robert de Bournonville had managed to skirt the woods and fell upon Henry’s baggage train. In the confusion, Henry feared an attack from his rear and promptly ordered the killing of his prisoners to avoid the threat they posed. This decision is still seen as highly controversial today and is often left out from Agincourt’s story. In response to this threat Henry wheeled his army about and quickly dispatched the raiders. Luckily Henry managed to achieve this before many of the prisoners had been murdered and thus averted the majority of the slaughter. As the day came to a close the English ransacked the French camp and dispersed the last of the third French battle.

After such a stunning victory Henry’s forces made it to Calais completely unmolested by the French with their booty from both the battle and Harfleur in tow. Henry’s disastrous campaign, in the course of one day, had become a significant victory for the English cause in France. Whilst relatively unimportant in the recovery of England’s French territory the Battle of Agincourt severely hampered France’s ability to react to future campaigns by Henry and would eventually lead to him becoming France’s regent and heir-apparent (under the Treaty of Troyes 1420). Henry would marry the French King’s daughter Catherine of Valois but would fail to become king of France because he died suddenly two years later in 1422.

Agincourt 600 Years in the National Conscious – Pt.3 – Henry decides to March

The Earlier Battle of Crécy

The Earlier Battle of Crécy 1346

Henry V’s campaign in France was threatening to end not far from where it started at the town of Harfleur. The surrender of its garrison had taken far too much time and very little of the campaigning season was left before winter ceased all hostilities. Common sense would dictate the withdrawal of the English army back to England from Harfleur before the French could bring any significant force to oppose him. The campaign would have been a disaster and Henry would certainly be ridiculed but he would have kept his forces intact and managed to secure new possessions on the French coast from which to launch future campaigns. However, Henry decides to do something reckless.

The King assembles his war council and informs them, against common sense and the imploring of his council, that he wishes to lead his forces overland to Calais in a show of force. This march would involve the crossing of two major rivers (the Seine and the Somme) and would leave his forces vulnerable to attack. It would also be a race against time, Henry was aware that the French barons had put aside their quarrels and begun to assemble a force near his route of March. In an attempt to make his route more secure the King sent a messenger by sea to Calais to inform its governor to dispatch forces to guard the crossing used by Edward the Third over the Somme in 1346. On the 8th October, the army began the 100 mile journey to Calais but on arrival at the Somme crossing they encountered the unexpected. Opposing them on the other side of the river was a significant force of French troops; the Governor of Calais had failed to hold the crossing.

Henry turned his march inland; searching for a fordable crossing not guarded by the enemy and in doing so brought his army deeper into France. This stalemate went on and on with the French forces shadowing the English from the right bank of the river and opposing each possible crossing point for some time. This must have been a frustrating series of events for the English as they risked bringing the French to battle if they could not escape before the enemy were assembled. Finally (and with the help of some geography) the English army was able to outstrip the shadowing Frenchmen by cutting straight across a bow in the river, crossing and resuming the march north east towards Calais.

A relieved English army marched through the Picardy town of Frévent on the 24th October 1415 and found themselves within 30 miles of Calais and safety. Upon entering the valley just outside of town, however, the feeling of good cheer evaporated. David had met Goliath. English scouts had encountered significant forces of Frenchmen across their route. The French forces had obviously managed to cut across their march whilst the English were stalled on the Somme. Henry could do nothing with the river to his back and the enemy to his front but continue to march on.

Beyond the village of Maisoncelles the French forces finally came in to sight and what they saw must have humbled the English. From the East masses of French men-at-arms, knights and crossbowmen were marching to arrive at the already great French Camp ahead. Henry halted his men 2 miles short of the French camp knowing that in the morning he would have to give battle and as the English steeled themselves for the morning a heavy rain began to fall.

Agincourt 600 Years in the National Conscious – Pt.2 – The Siege of Harfleur

Siege of Orleans 1429 - An Idea of Harfleur

Siege of Orleans 1429 – An Idea of Harfleur

The English army (under its monarch Henry V) set sail from Southampton for France on August the 11th and landed on the North Bank of the Seine near the town of Harfleur (now part of Le Harve) on August 16th.  Henry decided to start his campaign season by quickly besieging and capturing Harfleur. Harfleur would be difficult to capture in a siege because it was enclosed by a circuit of stone walls and towers with the ability to flood the ground to its west. Henry called on the town’s inhabitants to surrender in the hope of a quick victory, threatening to put them all to the sword if they declined. Despite this threat the garrison refused believing a French relief force would be dispatched. By the 24th of August the English frustrated by their slow progress in the siege began to bombard the town. It is interesting to note that the English forces had with them at least 5 cannon, a relatively new piece of equipment on the battlefield*. By 31st of August the English had begun to sink mines to collapse the French defences as they were becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress.

By the third week of the siege (7 – 13th September) disease began to rear its ugly head in the English siege works. Medieval sanitation was not very well advanced and in most sieges disease caused more casualties than the actual fighting. The diseases affecting the English besieging force were most likely waterborne and caused by the flooding of the land around Harfleur itself. The effects of this on Henry’s army was devastating with significant losses to his force occurring (he sent at least 1500 ill men home). The mines sunk the week before to collapse the town’s defences were abandoned this week after they encountered enemy countermines.

A series of English assaults were launched in the fourth week of the siege (14th – 21st September) perhaps suggesting the dire need to quickly end the siege before Henry’s men succumbed to disease, French relief arrived or the campaign season ended. These assaults proved successful and on the 18th September an agreement was struck for a formal surrender of the garrison if French relief did not arrive by the 22nd September.

Without any sign of a French relief force having been arranged let alone marching to the garrison’s relief the town was surrendered as arranged on the 22nd September 1415. On the 24th September Henry ejected the populace of Harfleur giving them escort to Lillebonne where they were met and recieved by Marshal Boucicaut of the French army. The town would be repopulated with English settlers and garrisoned by 300 men-at-arms and 900 bowmen.

Whilst the siege of Harfleur was eventually successful, the five weeks it took to capture the town severely hampered Henry’s ability to carry his campaign towards Paris and bring the French to battle within the year’s campaign season. Similarly, the cost to Henry’s army had been significant with many men either lost in combat or succumbed to disease (the Earl March, Jon Mowbray, lost 31% of his 200 man retinue at Harfleur). Harfleur itself yielded little in the way of booty and Henry’s campaign had cost the English treasury a significant amount of money. At this point in time Henry’s campaign to recover the lands lost to England in France seemed to have been a failure but a bold decision was about to change all that.

*Gunpowder weapons were also used at the siege of Aberystwyth Castle (the town where I studied) and Harlech Castle in Wales earlier in the century.