The Battles of Jeanne d’Arc
In thirteen known engagements, her troops were victorious nine times.
At least thirty different cities, towns, and villages surrendered without a fight when she approached with her army.
Jeanne was an aggressive military commander who always opted for offense instead of defense. Personally, she was a skilled horseman and swordsman, but tactically, she knew how to direct armies and place gunpowder artillery.
She was successful when she had the troops and the cannons to either match or overpower her opponents, but when she fought in overwhelming circumstances, she could not pull off a brilliant victory. In fact, the lack of cannons to match her opponents attributed directly to all four of her losses.
Historians have penned thousands of books that focus on this teenager’s gender, her influence on the Hundred Years War, and her canonization, but this paper aims to examine Jeanne’s contribution to the battlefield. While Jeanne’s aggressive approach to war and her skill with artillery made her a formidable opponent, they were also her greatest weakness and led to her eventual capture at Compiègne.
Arriving with provisions in Orléans under cover of darkness on the evening of 29 April, Jeanne almost immediately took a morale tour of the city, distributing food to the poor and paychecks to the soldiers. Participating in the war council, she almost immediately started locking horns with Jean de Dunois, the Bastard of Orléans; however, he left the city under the supervision of Jeanne and La Hire as he went to Blois for reinforcements; the reinforcements returned without incident, thus allowing for the Assault on St. Loup on 4 May, which is initiated by Dunois. Jeanne joins the battle late, because she had not been aware that the assault had already begun. French numbers suffice to take the fortress of St. Loup.
On the next day, Jeanne urges the war council to assault the bastille of St. Laurent, a heavily fortified position, but the other French commanders convince her that, since it is Ascension Day, they should observe a peace, and overnight decide instead on an easier task, leading to the 6 May Assault on the Augustines.
The people of the city, given hope by Jeanne, meanwhile raise a militia to contribute to the fighting; Jeanne manages to convince the professional army to accept militia help, although they do so only very reluctantly. Reports of the battle are confused, but it seems at one point that the French were in rout (perhaps because Jeanne charged in against the Boulevart, the strongest point of English defense), but rallied again when Jeanne refused to retreat; Gilles de Rais convinces Jeanne to turn the assault not against the Boulevart but against the lighter fortifications of the Augustins, and the French achieve a victory that effectively blockaded a significant portion of the besieging army. Jeanne was wounded in the foot in the assault. The other commanders attempt to convince her to sit out the next assault on the Boulevart and Tourelles fortifications, but she refuses and rejoins the army; the citizens of Orléans in response pitch in to help Jeanne’s army with material for the assault.
This begins the Assault on the Boulevart-Tourelles. The French spend most of a day bombarding the English position to no significant effect; Jean de Dunois decides to postpone a full assault on the position to the next day. On learning the decision, Jeanne instead grabs a ladder and leads an immediate ladder assault on the Boulevart. She is struck by a crossbow quarrel and taken off the field; while she is gone, the battle shifts back to favor the English, but she returns to the battlefield and re-rallies her army. They take the Boulevart, then storm across to the Tourelles, in a crushing success, on 7 May, that took both the English and the French armies by surprise. With the French now in complete control of the southern bank of the Loire River, the siege can no longer be maintained, and the English withdraw.
The victory at Orléans was surprising, but the lifting of the siege did not seriously damage the English position in France. Jeanne, because her ultimate goal is Rheims, wished to march immediately to the liberate Champagne as the next obvious step along the way, but the other commanders convince her that it is necessary first to deal with the English grip on the rest of the region. Thus, after a few weeks, the Loire Campaign, the first consistent French offensive in a generation, begins. In the meantime large numbers of men, hearing of Jeanne and the lifting of Orléans, begin arriving to volunteer to fight.
Jargeau was a small but heavily fortified town on the Loire, about ten miles east of Orléans. The French force, under Jeanne and her friend (le beau duc, as she called him) John II of Alençon, attack the suburbs; they eventually fall back, but Jeanne again rallies the troops. While scaling the walls, Jeanne is struck with a stone, knocking her down and her helmet off, but she rises again and rallies the French again. The English at Jargeau surrender.
The small town of Meung, on the other side of Orléans, had a strategically important bridge which the English could use to invade the region south of the Loire. Ignoring the English fortifications in the town, the French assault the fortifications at the bridge and capture it, installing a garrison there.
Beaugency, another small town, also had a strategically important bridge. Unlike Meung, controlling the bridge requires controlling the town, and the French begin artillery bombardment. Arthur de Richemont, who is in grave disfavor in the court of the Dauphin, arrives with troops and offers his support to Jeanne; Jeanne accepts his offer. D’Alençon negotiates a surrender.
The next battle was in open field; the precise location is not actually known, but is thought to have occurred near the small town of Patay. The first open-field battle of the campaign, it was also the one that the English could most expect to win, for the same reason they had won major victories at Crécy and Agincourt: the large English longbow corps could be used to devastating effect in an open field. The major weakness of the longbow is that longbowmen are very vulnerable to cavalry charges, which bring on close-fighting, for which longbowmen are ill-equipped, at very high speeds. To prevent this, the standard procedure was to drive large stakes in the ground to slow any cavalry. However, as the English are preparing these defenses, they inadvertently give away their position. The French command knows exactly what to do: they attack immediately and directly with massive cavalry. Such frontal cavalry assaults, which require special conditions to succeed, were one thing the French actually knew how to do very well; indeed, if they had a problem with it, it was a tendency to use it in situations to which it was poorly suited. This assault, however, was carried out almost perfectly under exactly the right conditions: the French crush an English army that would likely have crushed them if it had had more time for preparation. Jeanne participated, but given the circumstances there was relatively little to contribute.
What English survive have to withdraw to Paris. The swift recapture of the entire north bank of the Loire river, and particularly the terrible defeat at Patay, force the English-Burgundian alliance, which had always been opportunistic at best, into one of its more cooperative phases. Having completed the Loire Campaign, Jeanne returns to Orléns for what she had intended to do all along: march to Rheims. (You will notice already that, while she can be convinced to delay, she always ends up doing what she originally insisted on doing.) Thus begins the Expedition to the Coronation. This would not ordinarily have been considered a very savvy move; the English were well-prepared to counter any such campaign. It would end up succeeding, however, because nobody expected it. Jeanne had one mission: get the Dauphin crowned king at Rheims. She had a considerable amount of work to do to convince the French command to take this route. And the English were virtually certain that the French would attack Paris, which was the obvious next step. For the French to go the other way and simply march through firmly held enemy territory for no other purpose than to perform a politically symbolic act, threw the English completely.
The Expedition was battle-less. The French army marched across enemy territory by nothing more than negotiation with local towns. Almost all the important towns were garrisoned by Burgundians, but none of the citizens wanted a siege and obviously none of the garrisons could take on the French army without backup from an army of their own. So the cities negotiated provisions and passage in exchange for amnesty and the garrisons just watched. And on the 17 July, Jeanne’s mission was completed: the Dauphin was crowned King of France at Rheims, a good hundred miles into the middle of enemy territory, which they had reached without having to fight at all. And the result, of course, was that a number of cities under Burgundian control switched allegiance to France.
But much of France still needed to be won, and thus began the March on Paris. Paris by now was heavily fortified by the English and Burgundians. And this time they could not be taken by surprise. The French army also will find itself in a peculiar position; no sooner is Charles crowned king than he begins secret negotiations with the other side in the hope of diplomatic victory — an action that will mean that the King of France will be limiting his support for the French army.
Battle of Montépilloy: 14-15 August 1429
After some complicated feinting between the English-Burgundian army, the English and French meet at Montépilloy. However, the battle is a relatively minor skirmish and the English eventually withdraw.
The French attack Paris; Jeanne is shot in the leg with crossbow bolt, but continues urging her troops onward. The first day goes exceptionally well: the French have not won, but events were almost entirely in favor of the French army. Jeanne insists that they continue attacking the next day. Charles insists, however, on retreat; the march to Rheims had had to be done by volunteers because he could not pay his troops. Jeanne and d’Alençon reluctantly withdraw. On September 22, Charles disbands the French army and the French commanders return to their homes, with only Jeanne remaining with the king.
The Siege of Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier was the beginning of Jeanne’s attempt at a consolidation campaign to bring minor strongholds for resistance in the Loire region under the king’s authority. The tiny town was well defended and the initial assault failed, but a second assault insisted on by Jeanne succeeded.
Jeanne began sending letters to other towns in an attempt to get provisions for another siege ordered by Charles, this time against the fortified and very well provisioned La Charité. She managed to scrape together enough to proceed.
La Charité was indeed highly fortified and provisioned, and the winter weather was extraordinarily bad; attempts to force surrender by assault failed. Jeanne lifted the siege a month after beginning it. We do not know exactly why; it could be anything from the difficulty of provisioning due to the winter weather to the impossibility of assault with the resources at hand to the fact that her troops, mostly mercenaries, were not responding well to her command.
For reasons that are somewhat obscure, perhaps as an attempt to restart her consolidation campaign, Jeanne attacks a small Burgundian contingent and captures its leader, Franquet d’Arras, who seems to have been setting himself up as a sort of local warlord with Burgundian backing. She attempts to use him to negotiate the release of the leader of an anti-English revolt in Paris, but upon learning that this leader had already been executed, she turns d’Arras over to the local courts. After a trial, he is executed on charges of murder, robbery, and treason.
It is in April of 1430 that Jeanne first begins to expect that she will be captured by the English or the Burgundians before Midsummer. By this time Jeanne is also beginning to worry about English designs on Compiègne, and attempts to prepare, despite still having very little support. In May she learns that her worries were justified, and she sets out for Compiègne, very likely without the permission of the king, and certainly without official support.
Jeanne manages to maneuver into Compiègne before the Burgundians can arrive there, and from this point plans suprise assaults against the Burgundians. She tries to strike at the Burgundian outpost at Soissons, but the people there refuse them entry, and she has to withdraw. She tries again against the Burgundian outpost at Margny, with much more success, but Burgundian reinforcements arrive and she is forced to retreat.
Her army returns to Compiègne, but when they arrive at Compiègne, the gates of the city are ordered closed by the governor while the rear of the French army is still in the field; and, the rear guard being the most dangerous place to be in a retreat, Jeanne is there with no place to go. The Burgundians swarm around her and she is pulled off her horse and captured. It is unknown whether shutting Jeanne out of the city was a deliberate or merely hasty act of the governor. It is notable, incidentally, that even the Burgundians who describe the event write admiringly of Jeanne’s valor in this last fight.