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The Battle Of Hastings Post by :xxmisselissaxx Category :Essays Author :Hilaire Belloc Date :April 2011 Read :3202

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The Battle Of Hastings

Related in the Manner of Oxford and Dedicated to that University


So careless were the French commanders (or more properly the French commander, for the rest were cowed by the bullying swagger of William) that the night, which should have been devoted to some sort of reconnaissance, if not of a preparation of the ground, was devoted to nothing more practical than the religious exercises peculiar to foreigners.

Their army, as we have seen, was not drawn from any one land, but it was in the majority composed of Normans and Bretons; we can therefore understand the extravagant superstition which must bear the blame for what followed.

Meanwhile, upon the heights above, the English host calmly prepared for battle. Fires were lit each in its appointed place, and at these meat was cooked under the stern but kindly eyes of the sergeant-majors. These also distributed at an appointed price liquor, of which the British soldier is never willing to be deprived, and as the hours advanced towards morning, the songs in which our adventurous race has ever delighted rose from the heights above the Brede.

The morning was misty, as is often the case over damp and marshy lands in the month of October, but the inclemency of the weather, or, to speak more accurately, the superfluous moisture precipitated from an already saturated atmosphere, was of no effect upon those silent and tenacious troops of Harold. It was far other with the so-called "Norman" host, who were full of forebodings--only too amply to be justified--of the fate that lay before them upon the morrow.

It is curious to contrast the quiet skill and sagacity which marked the disposition of Harold with the almost childish simplicity of William's plan--if plan it may be called.

The Saxon hosts were drawn along the ridge in a position chosen with masterly skill. It afforded (as may still be seen) no dead ground for an attacking force and little cover. (Footnote: The Rhododendrons on the great lawn are modern.) Their left was arranged _en potence_, their right was drawn up in echelon. The centre followed the plan usual at that time, reposing upon the wings to its right and left and extended. The reserves were, of course, posted behind. Cavalry, as at Omdurman, played but a slight role in this typically national action and such mounted troops as were present seem to have been intermixed with the line in the fashion later known, in the jargon of the service, as "The Beggar's Quadrille." The Brigade of Guards is not mentioned in any record that I can discover, but was probably set by reversed companies in a square perpendicular to the main ravine and a little in front of the salient angle which appears upon the map at the point marked A.

The terrain can be clearly determined at the present day in spite of the changes that have taken place in the intervening years. It is a fairly steep slope of hemispherical contour interspersed with low bushes; the summit (upon which now stands our lovely English village of Battle and the residence of one of those cultured and leisured men who form the framework of our commonwealth) was then but a wild heath.

Harold himself could be distinguished in the centre of the line by his handsome features, restrained deportment, and unfailing gentlemanly good sense as he spoke to staff officer, orderly, and even groom with indefatigable skill.

In spite of the determination observable from a great distance upon the faces of the tall Saxon line, William with characteristic lack of balance opened the action by ordering a charge uphill with cavalry alone; it was a piece of tactics absurdly incongruous and one even he would never have attempted had he understood the foe that was before him, or the fate to which that foe had doomed him.

The lesson dealt him was as immediate as it was severe. The foreigners were thrust headlong down the hill, and a private letter tells us how the Men of Kent in particular buffeted the Normans about "as though they were boys." But even in the heat of this initial success Harold had the self-command to order the retirement upon the main position: and with troops such as his the order was equivalent to its execution.

This rude blow would have sufficed for any commander less vain than William, but he seems to have lost all judgment in a fit of personal vanity and to have ordered a second charge which could not but prove as futile as the first, delivered as it was up a perfect glacis strengthened by epaulements, reverses and countersunk galvon work and one whose natural strength was heightened by the stockade which the indomitable energy of Harold's troops had perfected in the early hours of the morning. Many of the stakes in this, the reader may note with pardonable pride, were of English oak--sharpened at the tip.

William's plan (if plan it may be called) was, as we have seen, necessarily futile and was foredoomed to failure. But Harold had no intention to let the action bear no more fruit than a tactical victory upon this particular field. The brain that had designed the exact synchrony of Stamford Bridge and the famous march southward from the Humber was of that sort which is only found once in many centuries of the history of war and which is (it may be said without boasting) peculiar to this island.

Another general would have awaited the second charge with its useless butchery and still more useless contest for the barren name of victory. Not so Harold. Those commanding, cold grey eyes of his swept the line in a comprehensive glance, and though no written record of the detail remains, he must know little of the character of the man who does not understand that from Harold certainly proceeded the order for what followed.

The forces at the centre, which he commanded in person, deftly withdrew before the futile gallop of William's cavalry, leaving, with that coolness which has ever distinguished our troops, the laggards to their fate. At the same moment, and with marvellous precision, the left and right were withdrawn from the plateau rapidly and as by magic, and the old-fashioned tactics of mere impact (which William of Normandy seems seriously to have relied on!) were spent and wasted upon the now evacuated summit of the hill.

What followed is famous in history.

The cohesion of the Saxon force and the exactitude and coolness with which its great operation was performed is of good augury for the future of our country. Though it was now thick night, by no set road and with no cumbersome machinery of train and rear-guard, the whole of the vast assembly masked itself behind the woodlands of the Weald.

The Norman horsemen, bewildered and fatigued, gazed on the many that had fallen in defence of the masking position and wondered whether such novel happenings were victory or no, but the army whose concentration upon the Thames it was William's whole object to prevent, was already miles northward, each unit proceeding by exactly co-ordinated routes towards London.

There is perhaps no more difficult task set before soldiers than the quiet execution of such a manoeuvre after the heat of a heavy action, and none have performed it more magnificently than the veteran troop of Harold.

When (luckily) all the orders had been finally distributed a great tragedy marred the completeness of the day.

Just before the execution of this masterpiece of strategy, and as the autumn sun was sinking, the inevitable price which war demands of all its darlings was paid.

Harold himself, the artist of the great victory, fell. But we have no reason to believe that his loss retarded the retrograding movement in any degree. Men who create as Harold created have not their creations spoilt by death.

* * * * *

The shameful history of the close of the campaign is familiar to every schoolboy, and the military historian must be pardoned if he deals with a purely civilian blunder in a few brief words.

Parliament interfered--as it always does--with what should have been a matter for soldiers alone. Intrigues, bribery, or worse (with which the military historian has no concern) ruined what had been, in the field, one of the principal achievements of the Saxon arms. And William, who could not count to hold his own against regular forces and who was astonished to find himself free to retreat precipitately on Dover, was still more astonished to find himself accepted a few weeks later after an aimless march to the west and north by the politicians--or worse--at Berkhampstead. He and England were equally astounded to find that a broken and defeated invader could actually be accepted by the intriguers at Westminster and crowned King of England as the price of a secret bargain.

Such was the fruit of as great and successful an effort as ever Saxon soldier made: the Battle of Senlac: for such--as I am now free to reveal--was the true name of the field of action.

The ineptitude or avarice of politicians had undone the work of soldiers, and it is no wonder that the last of Harold's veterans, who retired in disgust to impregnable fortresses in Ely, Arthur's Seat, and Pudsey, are recorded to have gnashed their teeth and shed tears of indignation at the dispatches from the metropolis. At Crecy they were to be avenged.


(The end)
Hilaire Belloc's essay: The Battle Of Hastings

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