The longbow outgunned
The longbows charged uphill into a hail of fire from a well placed gun position and lost.
John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, now in his mid-seventies and a veteran of the 100-year war with France, was appointed to lead the expedition of 3000 men that landed in Guyenne 17 October 1452.
The citizens of Bordeaux opened their gates to Talbot, throwing out the French garrison. Many towns in Guyenne quickly followed in reasserting their loyalty to the English, thereby undoing the gains made by King Charles VII in 1451.
The point of disembarkation for the English army was strategically a surprise. The French had assumed the English expedition would be sent to Normandy.
The French King took considerable time for thorough preparations and it was not until mid-summer of 1453, that he was ready with an army to re-occupy Guyenne. Three French armies approached western Guyenne. One from the Northeast, one from the East, and one from Southeast.
Charles VII followed with a reserve army well to the rear. The combined French army was in an overwhelming superiority although no single one of its three units by itself outnumbered the Anglo-Gascon army that Talbot could now put in the field. Talbot's son, Lord de Lisle, arrived in Bordeaux with additional English troops, which brought the English contingent to nearly 6000. As usual, the English counted on augmenting their army with loyal Gascons. In view of the opposing numbers the separate French armies advanced with some caution.
By mid-July the French centre army from the East besieged the town of Castillon on the Dordogne River only 30 miles East of Bordeaux. The French force had more than one commander. The titular command was vested in the senior nobleman, Jean de Blois, Count of Perigord and Viscount of Limoges. However, the de-facto man in charge was a by now well-known 'siege engineer' called Jean Bureau, who along with his brother Gaspard was an acknowledged master of artillery.
It was by now practice in the French army that the 'siege engineer' directed siege and artillery operations. The noblemen commanders remained with and led the heavy cavalry, which was their particular expertise. The artillery would beat off and hold a position against attackers, but its immobility meant that it could not destroy them. That could only be achieved through a counter-attack with the cavalry. The de-facto command structure of the French army well reflected the realities of battle as they had by now evolved.
The Bureau brothers had gained experience in the Normandy sieges and had also been in the 1451 campaign to reconquer Guyenne; they knew the region. They decided to site a fortified camp East of the town of Castillon, in a position where it would not be caught between two fronts; the town garrison to East and the expected relieving army also coming from the East.
For four days from 13 to 16th July some 700 French pioneers worked night and day in order to construct a deep continuous ditch backed by a palisaded rampart to surround the camp on three sides; East, South and West. It was some 700 yards (640m) long and on average 200 yards (183m) wide with its Northern side abutting the river Lidoire. The irregular perimeter of the French camp made the best use of a dried riverbed and was such to give the artillery a maximum of oblique and enfilade fire.
Another distinctive feature of the French camp was its composition. It reportedly contained 300 guns, far more siege cannon or bombards than could be expected to be with a moving invading force. Though the exact breakdown between artillery pieces and handguns is not known, there is little doubt that a significant number of the weapons were handguns and that these were probably supervised by the Genoese mercenary, Guiribaut.
The guns were placed around the perimeter of the camp and if there were as many as 300 they must have been almost wheel to wheel in an unbroken line The camp was beyond artillery range of the town of Castillon and no effort was made to establish closer siege lines or to isolate the town. The French camp was essentially an artillery park. It contained at least 6000 men. There is little doubt that Bureau had prepared the camp primarily to engage a relief force.
Moreover, a cavalry troop of 1000 Breton men at arms was located 1 mile to the North of the camp on a wooded rise. A thousand French archers under Joachim Rouault were placed as an outpost in the Priory of St. Laurent just to the North of Castillon at a point where any relief force from Bordeaux might be anticipated.
Though he would rather have waited until the French forces drew closer to Bordeaux, Talbot was persuaded to go to the rescue of Castillon. With noted aggressiveness and daring Talbot departed Bordeaux in the early morning of 16 July. He led an advance troop of cavalry to be followed by more dismounted men and artillery. His total force at Bordeaux was some 6000 plus about 3000 Gascon contingents which had joined at the last moment. He hoped that by knocking out one army and then quickly returning to Bordeaux, he would be in a better position to chose his ground and pick-off the other two. Speed was therefore essential and this meant the large numbers of men at arms on foot would have to follow. The numbers available to Talbot for the battle of Castillon were therefore much lower than the above; probably no more than 4000 at the height of the battle.
After reaching Libourne on the Dordogne River at sundown, Talbot's mounted force of about 500 men-at-arms and 800 archers continued with a forced night march. By dawn on the 17th the advance guard of the English-Gascon force reached the woods immediately North of the Priory of St. Laurent. The route taken had been an indirect one and French lookouts in the Priory would have had no inkling of an assault out of the wood at day-break. Talbot's small force surprised the French archers killing some and dispersing the others, who fled to the main French camp. The attack was a complete success. The main French army in the camp had made no attempt to relieve the Priory. Some of the English men at arms pursued the archers right up to the camp and would have returned with useful reports as to its position and nature.
After the nearly 30-mile forced march and the conquest of the Priory, Talbot now gave his troops a well-deserved rest. The men were also able to help themselves to the ample supply of food in the Priory. Presently a messenger from Castillon reported that the French were retreating. In clouds of dust. French horsemen and carts were seen riding hastily away from the camp. True to his instincts Talbot recognized the value of striking the French as they were attempting to withdraw. He was cautioned against such haste at least until all of the English and Gascon men at arms on foot had arrived. Nevertheless, Talbot decided to attack immediately before the prize escaped. It was an understandable but nevertheless fatal error of judgment.
Talbot's mounted force forded the river Lidoire 600 yards (550m) to the West of the French camp. The English-Gascons did not advance upon the French camp from that direction, but swung round to attack the longer axis of the camp embankments from the South. It now became clear how brilliantly the Jean Bureau had sited the camp.
It could not be attacked from the North where it was protected by the river Lidoire and a steep bank. If it was attacked from the West its frontage of only 200 yards (183m) was too small for the full deployment of an attacking army. From the South the attacker would have to pass across the front of the camp and virtually within the range of its guns as the river Dordogne was only 600 yards (550m) away to the South.
As an experienced campaigner Talbot belatedly realized that the French had not left their camp and that it was indeed well positioned. However, nothing in his experience would have enabled him to recognize the danger of confronting a wall of gunfire that could cover a greater area than the longbow. This time it was Talbot who was surprised, the French Army was not in full flight but ready and waiting for him.
What had in fact happened was that the archers who had fled from the earlier attack on the Priory had sought refuge in the camp. As the camp was already overcrowded the commanders had decided that the maximum number of horses, carts and non-essential men would have to be evacuated. The cloud of dust that had been seen should in the distance was that of the varlets riding horses and carts away from the camp. It had misled messengers into the belief that the whole army was in retreat.
Instead the French gunners were waiting for Talbot right where he was. Talbot directed his troops to dismount for the attack while he remained astride his white cob. The attack was launched with the battle-cry of "Talbot! St. George!" It was launched into point blank artillery and it was carnage. English and Gascons who got through the massed gunfire struggled across the moat and up to mount the parapet. Thomas Erpingham reportedly managed to plant his banner on the top of the parapet before paying for the glory with his life. French cannon pounded the attackers with enfilade fire at point-blank ranges, maiming more than they killed. The attack met with hand-to-hand fighting at several points. As the battle continued the seriously out-numbered English and Gascon army was augmented piecemeal as the following dismounted force arrived on the scene. Although in total there may have been close to 4000 of Talbot's men on the battlefield, their piecemeal arrival made efficient deployment difficult. Even as a singular force, it was still insufficient number to successfully assault a well-prepared field defense. The assault was undertaken without Talbot's artillery, which did not arrive in time. Despite the searing gunfire the English-Gascons army managed to maintain the struggle for about an hour approaching mid-day. At this point the outcome of the battle could still have gone either way.
Now the Breton cavalry, which had been stationed in the woods to the North of the camp was deployed with perfect timing and surged down from the heights, wheeling round the camp to the East to strike the right flank of the English-Gascon army. Simultaneously the French archers rushed forth from the camp walls, behind which they had retreated earlier in the day. They took full advantage of the enemy now being driven down the incline towards the river Dordogne. While his beaten army tried to withdraw by fording the Dordogne at the Pas de Rauzan, Talbot was left pinned beneath his horse that had been felled by a cannon shot. A French archer, Michel Perunin finished the Earl off with a single blow of an axe to the head. Talbot's son was also killed. Some of the English-Gascons escaped to Castillon, others were pursued to nearby towns.
The victory of the French army at Castillon annihilated the English-Gascons and left them without a field army in Guyenne to support their cause. Casualties amounted to some 3500, mostly wounded and captured. On the French side losses were much lower and are generally estimated at between 200 and 300.
The battle of Castillon is one of the first battles in Western Europe where guns decided the issue. A mass of weapons firing from prepared defensive positions was really an expansion of the English longbow tactic. However, a different level of competence and experience was required in order to employ these new weapons effectively in a vulnerable defensive position. The Bureau brothers had well assimilated their experiences of previous campaigns. They had thought through the new logic of the advantage gained by a longer range of fire, tempered by its lesser mobility. The command structure of the French army had adapted itself to these new realities and enabled such men to make the necessary changes in tactics.
Gascon towns quickly surrendered as the French artillery approached. The renewed surrender of Bordeaux to King Charles VII of France on 10 October signaled the end to the 100-year war.