Some lessons on participation from history pages

Some lessons on participation from history pages

You would know from this column that I believe citizens need to play a greater role in securing our nation. We might think that citizens’ participation is a sign of changing times, but history is replete with instances illustrating this concept. Here is one of my favourite stories.

And 600 years later, it still has lessons for us.

The English expeditionary force of 12,000 fresh and eager troops landed in France in August 1415. They planned to capture the port town of Le Havre and move inland. But the siege lasted much longer than expected.

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Attrition, dysentery and skirmishes with the French depleted the English army to almost half the size before the garrison of Le Havre finally surrendered. Since the military campaigning season was coming to an end, Henry decided to move north to Calais. He realized that he did not have enough troops to wage a battle against the well-defended city of Rouen and yet could not return to England without losing face and the ability to sustain his campaign financially. Leaving a small contingent to guard Le Havre, Henry marched his weary army of just 6,000 soldiers north along the coast to Calais, hoping to draw the French out into battle.

On 25 October, he was met with the reinforced and invigorated French contingent of over 30,000 horsemen and foot soldiers in the epic battle of Agincourt. The battle itself lasted about five hours, at the end of which the French were annihilated with over 8,000 casualties against just 200 of the English.

The secret behind this extraordinary turn of the battle was the strategic advantage of the English longbow. The longbow, or the war bow as it was known then, was an awesome weapon. It was the height of a grown man and required great strength to draw to its full length. As a matter of fact, the draw weight or the pulling weight of the longbow was about 120 pounds, while the weight of the modern Olympic competition bow is 40 pounds.

Also, to unleash its full power, the arrow had to be pulled right behind the ear of the archer, thus offsetting the aim and making it inaccurate except in the hands of the most accomplished archers.

But what it gave in return was overwhelming power to the metal tipped arrow that could punch through the enemy armour. Some 5,000 English archers could fire 15 accurate arrows a minute each, unleashing a rain of 75,000 arrows every minute. This hail of steel shredded the attacking French waves into complete disarray and defeat.

The capability of the longbow ensured English superiority in almost all battles until well after the advent of the musket.

To be fair, the French had bows as well. They used the mechanically cranked crossbow, which fired a bolt further than the longbow, but the cranking process of reloading was much slower and the French archer could only manage about an arrow a minute. So why didn’t the French use longbows as well? After all, it wasn’t sophisticated technology that couldn’t be copied. In fact, the French had imported expert bow makers from England to equip their own armouries as well.

The answer to this question illustrates why war of any form needs a social context to be successful. It is not simply an assembly of more soldiers or a superior weapon that wins battles. Instead, it is the structured framework of a society that develops superior advantages. While the longbow was a formidable weapon, its draw weight necessitated that the archer developed incredible power in his arms. To be a competent archer, he would have to start learning to shoot by the age of 10 or so and would need to practise 10-12 years before attaining proficiency. Skeletal remains of archers of the era confirm extraordinarily developed shoulders and arm muscles.

At the same time, kings could not afford to maintain large standing armies. They had to draw from the resources of lords and dukes or similar alliances whenever they went to battle. These archers had to work regular jobs when they were not fighting.

But the kings created this pool of archers by facilitating a passion for archery. They did this by offering prize monies and holding competitions at village, provincial and central levels. Every village had a shooting range and kids “played" archery during their spare time, in the hope of winning the prize money.

Soon it became a national pastime much like cricket did several hundred years later. Winners were honoured and given important positions in the armies, training and further incentives, thus creating an incredible and strategic advantage which gave the English superiority for centuries. That was an advantage that the French could not beat by technology alone. Though they tried to copy the English framework of disseminating training at the village levels, their social structure and the high cost of the crossbows made it impossible to replicate.

I think it is time for our society to realize that we cannot demarcate completely between soldiers and bystanders. War should remain the primary responsibility of soldiers, but the rest of the society too needs to participate.

While I am not an advocate of compulsory military training, I have a fair sense that if the government did offer it, there would be many takers. Of course, it will have to be made more convenient, and structures such as the National Cadet Corps, Territorial Army and Civil Defence will have to be given the impetus and leadership that they need. It is important for our nation to start owning the responsibility of its security at all levels. A society that leaves its fighting to the soldiers and the thinking to the civilians risks creating soldiers who are dumb and civilians who are cowards.

Raghu Raman is chief executive of corporate risk consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this fortnightly column at