This Week In History: April 9 – April 15

This week marks two of the most remarkable battles that have occurred: the Battle of Nafels and the Battle of Formigny. Lassy goes into depth for both of them in his column “This Week in History.” Logo by Kaitlyn Tran/The Daily Campus

There’s something epic about historical battles, right? It’s simply bonkers to imagine thousands of heavily-armored medieval knights duking it out in Hastings, or lines of Napoleon’s Old Guard committing their final defense at Waterloo. There is no doubt history is ridden with warfare; there’s simply no escaping it. So, this week we’ll jump into two remarkable battles, each full of sacrifice and courage. Let the battles begin! 

What do you think the most peaceful country on Earth is? I know that’s a loaded, perhaps unanswerable question, but I’d like to argue that a great contender would be the beautiful alpine country of Switzerland. For instance, if you have ever used a first aid kit you may have heard of the Red Cross, a worldwide organization for humanitarian aid which uses an inversion of the Swiss flag as an homage to Henry Dunant, a Swiss national who also helped commence the Geneva conventions. It’s hard to deny that Switzerland brought peace to the mainstream. 

Now, despite being a country that is so peaceful it now has annual cow parades, Switzerland used to be equally renowned for its capabilities in warfare. Known in Switzerland as  “Reislaufer,” meaning “those who go to war,” Swiss mercenaries and their fellow German mercenaries, the “Landsknecht,” proved so useful on the battlefield that they quite frequently emptied the purses of their employers. The Reislaufer were essentially the equivalent of modern day fast food: quick to purchase and efficient in serving its role, albeit increasingly expensive. 

So, what was it like to be on the opposing side of the Swiss, as was the case for the Duchy of Austria in 1386? To put it simply, absolutely terrifying. That year, Austrian emperor Leopold III was decisively defeated and killed in action at the Battle of Sempach by the Swiss, and it seemed every invasion of the quaint mountain cantons was curbed. But with renewed spirits and Leopold’s young successor Albert III mustering a massive new army, surely the Swiss would be dealt a harsh blow, right? On April 9, 1388, the Battle of Nafels commenced. 

5,000 Austrian soldiers — emboldened by their previous defeats — marched deep into the Swiss Confederation. Their goal was to knock out the Swiss cantons one by one, many of whom rebelled against Habsburg rule in the years prior. In their way stood only a few hundred Swiss soldiers. The odds were nearly 16:1 in favor of the Austrians; only a fool could lose that battle. 

It would mean certain defeat to face the Austrians head on, so instead, the defenders retreated to the hills as the angered invaders plundered towns and villages across the countryside. The Swiss people feared for their lives as the defense of their country seemingly dissipated before them. 

If you were an Austrian, joyously looting and sacking as you wished, would you perhaps let your guard down a little? I bet anyone would, and that is precisely what the Swiss counted on. As soon as the Austrians turned their backs, the Swiss rallied and charged the unorganized Austrians. Hundreds died and thousands fled amidst the chaos of the ensuing rout, and the Austrians desperately fled over a bridge to safe territory. The battle was lost, but surely the Austrians could regroup and win the war. 

Suddenly, the sole bridge to Austrian territory gave out. 1,700 Austrians fell into the river and in an instant the entire army crumbled. The Swiss lost some 50 men, the Austrians potentially thousands. Peace treaties followed and years of peace and expansion continued in the Cantons. To this day, Swiss individuals make a pilgrimage following the track of the battle as it stands as a testament to the determination of the Swiss against unimaginable odds. 

Now, one of the most fascinating eras of history is the period of English rule in mainland France, lasting through much of the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. Normandy, Brittany and the rest of the western coast of France were all under the English crown, being subjugated through countless wars. Perhaps no rivalry on the continent of Europe was more bitter than that between the French and British.

However, in the modern day there is the English Channel separating England from France, a clear natural border between the two. So what led to the collapse of a British presence in mainland France? Perhaps you may remember from a previous “This Week in History” event covering the Battle of Castillon in 1453. Well, this week marks the remarkable Battle of Formigny from three years prior. On April 15, 1450, the French and British met in Normandy to determine the master of western Europe. 

After years of humiliating defeats such as the brutal Battle of Agincourt, the Frenchmen were imbued with a passion akin to the centuries-later Revolutionary era. A daring King Charles VII mobilized several armies to trample the British conquests from decades prior, and he was met with rapid success. The English populace was stunned and understandably quite furious. 

Assembling an army of some 2,500 men, Sir Thomas Kyriell was under a ton of pressure to meet English cravings for military success. He led his army along the beautiful French coast, with his sights on the quaint historic town of Bayeux. Kyriell and his men successfully captured several towns en route to their destination, but perhaps that would be their downfall.  

In a valley outside of the small town of Formigny, Kyriell cast his eyes upon a French force about equal in size to his own. Taking the defensive, he prepared his men-at-arms, bowmen and pikes in three descending lines, waiting for the French to push into the valley. Like clockwork, Kyriell’s plan worked. The French infantry broke as the English longbowmen rained arrows overhead, and the surprise appearance of deadly French artillery was met by a rapid counter charge, allowing the English to actually capture the French guns. 

Kyriell had done it, but suddenly both sides received shocking news: another French army was crossing near Formigny, directly to Kyriell’s rear. While attempting to reorganize their position, the English were pushed back by the two French armies. The taste of victory turned sour. In a last-ditch effort near the old stone Formigny Bridge, the English routed, dispersing into the country if they were fortunate enough to evade French swords. 

The battle set the scene for later French successes and the reclamation of their homeland, establishing the borders we know today. Isn’t it remarkable that a single battle can determine so much about a country’s future? For centuries the French called the location of the battle, “le Champ Anglais,” or “the English field.” 

That wraps up this look at some historical battles that took place this week! While there were only two events, I hope the extra detail made up for it! If you want even more history, check out the Kings and Generals YouTube channel to see a wonderful moment-by-moment depiction of countless historical battles, or for a lovely collection of historical battle overviews! As usual, there is so much history I cannot fit in. See you next week! 

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