The Commentaries of Messire Blaize de Montluc, Mareschal of France

Blaize de Montluc, 1500?-1577, a French soldier serving 50 or 60 years. He gives some accounts of battles which will embarrass English archers, and lend more credence to Humfrey Barwick and Roger William’s opinions that the longbow was by that time obsolete. This battle takes place just a few days after the sinking of the Mary Rose in 1545.

Being return’d to the Fort of Outreau; there was hardly a day past that the English did not come to tickle us upon the descent towards the Sea, and would commonly brave our people up to our very Canon, which was within ten or twelve paces of the Fort: and we were all abus’d by what we had heard our Predecessors say, that one English man would always beat two French men, and that the English would never run away, nor never yield. I had retain’d something of the Camisado of Bullen, and of the business of Oye; and therefore said one day to Mousieur de Tais, that I would discover to him the mystery of the English, and wherefore they were reputed so hardy: which was, that they all carried arms of little reach, and therefore were necessitated to come up close to us to loose their arrows, which otherwise would do no execution; whereas we who were accustomed to fire our Harquebuzes at a great distance, seeing the Enemy use another manner of sight, thought these near approaches of theirs very strange, imputing their running on at this confident rate to absolute bravery: but I will lay them an Ambuscado, and then you shall see if I am in the right or no, and whether a Gascon be not as good as an English-man. In antient time their Fathers and ours were neighbours.
I then chose out sixscore men, Harquebuzeers and Pikes, with some Halberts amongst them, and lodg’d them in a hollow which the water had made, lying below on the right hand of the Fort, and sent Captain Chaux at the time when it was low water, straight to some little houses which were upon the Banks of the River almost over against the Town to skirmish with them, with instructions that so soon as he should see them pass the River, he should begin to retire, and give them leave to make a charge. Which he accordingly did: but it fortun’d so, that he was wounded in one of his arms with a Hurquebuz shot, and the Soldiers took him and carried him back to the Fort, so that the skirmish remained without a head. The English were soon aware of it, and gave them a very brisk charge, driving them on fighting up to the very Canon. Seeing then our men so ill handled, I start up out of my Ambuscado sooner then I should have done, running on full drive directly up to them, commanding the Soldiers not to shoot, till they came within the distance of their arrows. They were two or three hundred men, having some Italian Harquebuzeers amongst them, which made me heartily repent that I had made my Ambuscado no stronger: but it was now past remedy, and so soon as they saw me coming towards them, they left the pursuit of the others, and came to charge upon me. We marcht straight up to them, and so soon as they were come up within arrow shot, our Harquebuzeers gave their volley all at once, and then clapt their hands to their swords, as I had commanded, and we ran on to come to blows; but so soon as we came within two or three pikes length, they turn’d their backs with as great facility as any Nation that ever I saw, and we pursued them as far as the River, close by the Town, and there were four or five of our Soldiers who followed them to the other side. I then made a halt at the ruins of the little houses, where I rally’d my people to∣gether again, some of whom were left by the way behind, who were not able to run so fast as the rest. Monsieur de Tais had seen all, and was sally’d out of the Fort to relieve the Artillery, to whom so soon as I came up to him, I said, Look you, did I not tell you how it would be? We must either conclude that the English of former times were more valiant then those of this present age, or that we are better men than our forefathers. I know not which of the two it is. In good earnest, said Monsieur de Tais, these people retreat in very great haste. I shall never again have so good an opinion of the English, as I have had heretofore. No Sir, said I, you must know that the English who antiently us’d to beat the French, were half Gascons, for they married into Gascony, and so bred good Soldiers: but now that race is worn out, and they are no more the same men they were.
From that time forwards our people had no more the same opinion, nor the same fear of the English, that before.

Blaize de Montluc, John Underhill, John Smith and Humfrey Barwick all outright state that firearms outreach bows. Yet, many wargames have it the other way around. This inaccuracy comes from people comparing the maximum range of a bow when aimed at 45 degrees, which can indeed be hundreds of yards, especially with light arrows, to either the point blank or “effective” range of a firearm. If bows were held to the same consistent standard as firearms, the bow’s effective range would probably not be much over 40 yards.

8 thoughts on “The Commentaries of Messire Blaize de Montluc, Mareschal of France

  1. […] They all carried arms of little reach, and therefore were necessitated to come up close to us to loose their arrows, which otherwise would do no execution; whereas we who were accustomed to fire our Harquebuzes at a great distance, seeing the Enemy use another manner of sight, thought these near approaches of theirs very strange, imputing their running on at this confident rate to absolute bravery. [Link] […]

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  2. […] against loyalist harquebusiers during the peasant rebellions of 1549. Neither does he mention the victory of Blaise de Montluc’s harquebusiers over a larger force of English longbowmen in 1545. Crécy and Agincourt are famous victories of the longbow, but Loades could have mentioned a couple […]

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  3. […] In 1545, just a few days after the sinking of the Mary Rose with its large cache of longbows, French soldiers Blaize de Montluc and his band of harquebusiers routed a larger group of English archers. Montluc credits his victory partially to the fact that longbows were “arms of little reach” compared to his harquebuses, which could be fired at long distances. Montluc himself hated firearms, but he did not doubt their effectiveness- he had been permanently maimed and disfigured by gunshot wounds. Since Payne-Gallwey cites Montluc in his book, it is troubling that he failed to mention this important incident. […]

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  4. Was this post older than the one where you commented about Sarasen archery, and saw that single men can be reliably hit from 80 yds? Because you suggest that the range is as low as 45yds, and I don’t think I’ve seen such an estimate. And you’re suggesting musket range should be based off a 45 degree angle!? That’s absurdly silly.

    Muskets can be used as indirect fire weapons, and were in a couple of rare cases… but it was highly ineffective, seeing that the musket ball loses a lot of energy, whereas the arrow can retain most of its energy when fired in an arc. Hitting accurately with a musket is hard enough at 200yds anyway, so trying to shoot targets at 500yds is basically folly (it was surprising the Japanese got some hits trying that stunt).

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  5. The most thorough comparison of bows to firearms that I’ve seen is Roland Bohr’s “Gifts from the Thunder Beings”. He says,

    “For hunting and combat, the effective range of bows and arrows was at most approximately 40 meters (43 yards); for smoothbore , muzzle-loading firearms it was probably at most 60 meters (65 yards). Both weapons could propel their projectiles much greater distances, but the best results were achieved at short range.”

    Based on my personal experience with bows and muskets and my reading of history, I agree with Bohr. It’s unfair to compare the *maximum* range that an arrow can travel to the *accurate* range of a musket ball.

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  6. Well, not sure how thorough it was, since there seem to be a lot of important comparisons you weren’t familiar with, brought up in comments.

    As for bow hunting, I know a little bit about that…. You want to shoot within 50m, so as to ensure a clean kill, both for moral reasons and so you don’t have to chase a dumb deer which is going to attract all the predators in the area with the smell of blood…. But against an enemy combatant? You can hit man-sized targets at 100m, with modern recurves, and even a near-miss is good for suppression (and less of a concern with a high rate of fire). So I’m not sure how that guy confused hunting effective with combat effective….

    Meanwhile, you get cute quotes like, “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” and military doctrines where only one or two volleys were exchanged before charging to bayonets. Heck, I told you about the contemporary tests that found something like a 50% accuracy against a block of men at ~75m, with RIFLES under PACTICE conditions… and that was the Prussian army of ~1805. So the idea these guys have a greater effective range than the, “Archers of the Eye,” of Nubia is absurd. Heck, deciding they have a greater effective range in general is ignoring math, so I’m not sure what basis he came to those figures.

    And I wasn’t comparing maximum range… I was comparing records of archery performance against single man targets, at 70m to 120m (Mamluks, Qing), compared to the accuracy of the rifle against a BLOCK of infantry at 75m. So I was actually using an unfair comparison against the archers….

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  7. 18 century military tactics manuals and guidances (when gunpowder was cleaner and firearms were more reliable than 16 century) coupled with Henry’s VIII law, which ordered all able men from 24 years old to shoot at targets no less than 220 yards away, contradicts this completely. It was the law, not words of some random soldier.
    It must be said, however, that not everyone followed Henry’s orders. There were cases mentioned when people were found guilty of building ranges lower than 220 yards and were punished.
    But it was expected and apperantly seen normal to shoot at the target from such distances. It is said that Henry himself being quite experienced archer could hit a bullseye (don’t know how big it was, though) from 240 yards.

    Composite bows would be even better in this regard.

    Of course, muskets can send bullet to 300 yards easily, but hitting something at that range unless it’s a tightly packed large line/square of soldiers – is a lottery.

    Also I read Blaize’s notes and he mostly met against garrison troops. Don’t know how good those were, but English tended to leave the weakest forces to garrison the captured settlements.

    Also his words about Gascons at the end are hilarious and pretentious at best.

    Muskets, besides mediocre accuracy, which is typical for smoothbores, had a rate of around 1 in 5 bullets misfiring, or instances of gunpowder exploding, burning people’s eyes or hands. Only half of the gunpowder burning, resulting in a weaker and even less accurate shot.

    Good article which collects most contemporary info on Napoleonic muskets, which were, in my opinion, better than those early firearms of 16 century: http://www.napolun.com/mirror/napoleonistyka.atspace.com/infantry_tactics_2.htm

    Not talking about weather, of course, it would be devastating for both bow or musket.

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  8. Jacob makes fair points. Since Bow Vs Musket directed me specifically to this anecdote, I’ll post my analysis of it.

    Didn’t say much about this anecdote, because I already commented good harquebusiers could hit men at great distance, and have mentioned the failing bow culture of England on another post. Didn’t want to dig into the weeds with anecdotal evidence, but since I was asked to:

    First, he clarifies the English were charging up to the cannon, and is specifically flanking them after they routed Captain Chaux’s force; there’s no suggestion the English haven’t been effective in the overall war, but rather everyone is scared of them due to historical success and their aggression, despite the “inferior” weapons. Second, his force is an unknown mixture of pikes, halberds, and harquebusiers, likely a low number of the latter since it’s the mid 16th century. I think the French were using about a third or less harquebusiers at this point, but we don’t know what this particular captain had with his sixscore. Plus, the English also had harquebusiers of an unknown number…. You comment about him being worried about these, but considering he ran off ahead by himself, and good harquebusiers were suited to sniping officers, it’s more a wonder he survived than the fact he was worried.

    As for the clash, they didn’t skirmish with superior firepower, but charged after one volley at “bow range” (whatever that is in this context). If they had such a purely superior ranged weapon that can hit targets far beyond bow range, and if you figure this force can be taken as harquebusiers against archers… why didn’t they skirmish as long as possible with the superior ranged weapon?
    Rather, it brings into question their effective range, that they got as close as they could before unleashing one volley, then clapping their hands to their swords. Heck, they did that while outnumbered, too.

    And of course, the English didn’t flee from the gunfire, but at “two to three pike lengths” from their charge… which lead to him stating they were cowards bereft of Gascon blood (which is very ironic, since they had just chased off another Gascon unit). He actually doesn’t comment on how effective his or the archers’ volleys were, nor on the Italians’. We could guess that maybe the English fled because the volley tore them to pieces, but it could just be that the fierceness of the charge scared them, or that the flanking attack had scared them more than it seemed. They could’ve overestimated his numbers, been worried about the force they had just chased off returning, or figured their company had gotten deeper into enemy territory than was wise.

    Not saying those points as excuses, it is possible the harquebusiers were numerous and tore the enemy asunder–but there’s no way to know, and there are better anecdotes which dismiss the idea the harquebus was purely superior so it hardly matters. I try to focus on anecdotes that are a little less arguable, in general.

    Oh, and one aside on bow range… we don’t know how skilled either party was, at that point, and what the doctrine was on engagement range. The English doctrine of the time might’ve been to close to 50m before raining fire rapidly on their enemies. Or it might’ve been to charge anything and everything, since all we hear in that account is of them closing on enemies violently.

    But anyway, thanks for collecting these anecdotes, they’re interesting to read.

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