Joan of Arc’s Military Successes and Failures

by Scott Manning on January 6, 2010

Joan of Arc was an aggressive military commander who always opted for offense instead of defense. 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. 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 Joan’s contribution to the battlefield. While Joan’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.

The Battle of Joan of Arc

Figure 1: Joan of Arc fought in thirteen known engagements.

The Hundred Years War in 1429

When Joan arrived on the scene of the Hundred Years War in 1429, France was at a tipping point. Even before Henry V, the English King, invaded with a major force in 1415, France was embroiled in a civil war. The invaders used this division to their advantage. By 1429, they controlled most of northern France. Charles VII, the Dauphin1 of France, struggled to keep the English and their allies, the Burgundians, at bay. The Burgundians were a French political faction that did not support Charles as heir to thrown. This political division is why England, a nation of approximately 2.7 million people2 could invade and hold large portions of land in France, a region of 11.7 million people.3 Charles was the future King, but he had not yet received his crown in the English-controlled city of Reims, where all French kings were coroneted. In October 1428, the English started their siege of Orléans, the last major French city north of the Loire River, the divider between English-controlled France and Charles’ remaining territory.

In this climate, Joan of Arc, a seventeen-year-old virgin claiming to hear voices from angels and saints, arrived and demanded that Charles VII provide her with an army. Her objectives were to lift the siege at Orléans, crown Charles VII king in the city of Reims, and drive the English out of France. After the Catholic Church questioned her for three weeks and confirmed her virginity, the Dauphin believed her. He provided her with armor, troops, and cannons, and sent her to Orléans. Why the Dauphin believed Joan is not the focus of this paper, but consider that since 1415 he had seen all of northern France conquered and a single city north of the Loire River, Orléans, kept the English from conquering the rest of the country. Charles’ desperation aside, the timing was right in France for the appearance of Joan. Prophecies foretold of the Maid of Lorraine, a virgin who would deliver France. The French peoples’ discontent with the English was high and the use of the term “God-damn” to describe an Englishman had become commonplace.4 J. F. C. Fuller surmised, “All that was lacking to detonate a national revolt was the spark of leadership.”5

Military Technology in 1429

Before examining Joan’s contributions to the battlefield, it is important to understand the military technology available in the mid-fifteenth-century. Her military career occurred during a transitional time for warfare. Knights, swords, lances, crossbows, and longbows had been the primary features of the Hundred Years War, but gunpowder technology was on the rise. Commanders used cannons decisively in several sieges before Joan’s time. In 1415, Henry V bombarded the gates of Harfleur for twenty-seven days with ten cannons until the city capitulated.6 In open-field battles, however, cannons were little more than nuisances. Henry V deployed cannons at Agincourt in the same year, but “it would have been an unlucky knight or archer who got in the way of a random shot.”7 Yet by 1450 and continuing through 1453, the French used cannons to knock “through castle walls” and drive the English off the continent.8 Joan’s career was in the middle of this transition. The European cannons of 1429-1430 were “twelve to fifteen feet long”9 and shot spherical projectiles that were as big as “thirty inches in diameter”10 and weighed approximately 200 pounds.11 Joan used cannons in all of her sieges, but never in open-field battles. Before Joan’s arrival at Orléans, catapults and at least seventy large cannons defended the walls.12 Yet, the English were not without their firepower and sported cannons as well. The accumulation on both sides meant the Siege of Orléans featured more gunpowder than any other engagement to that point in history.13

This gunpowder affair was Joan’s first battle. She arrived on April 29, 1429, six months after the siege started, and on May 8, the English retreated in defeat. Joan went on to successfully siege Jargeau, Meung, Beaugency, Troyes, and Saint-Pierre-le Moûtier; her troops won open-field battles at Patay, Montépilloy, and Lagny; and more than thirty cities surrendered14 without a fight. The most significant act for Joan was leading her army deep into English-controlled territory to see Charles VII crowned King of France (See fig. 1 for Joan’s path).

Siege of Orleans

Figure 2: How the English besieged Orléans. Notice the cannons on the left.15

Joan’s Inspiration and Intimidation

Historians have debated Joan’s contributions for centuries. Bernard Montgomery fenced his opinion by stating that he never determined “whether Joan had any God-given military ability herself or whether she was merely a tool in the hands of the French generals.”16 By “tool,” Montgomery meant that Joan merely inspired men to fight and contributed little else. It is true that Joan inspired. In most of her engagements, she carried a white banner that depicted Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and two angels. This banner was easily recognizable by the French and their opponents. Circumstances–whether they were miraculous or just great war stories–showed that her aggressive approach inspired the French and frightened the English. While trying to lift the siege at Orléans, there were several instances where Joan inspired the troops to press their fight in the midst of panic. On May 4, the French attacked an English fortification without Joan. As she rushed to the frontlines, “she found many wounded, which distressed her greatly.”17 Seeing the gruesome sight of retreating, wounded troops must have discouraged her as it would any soldier, but she pressed on and pushed the French to continue their attack. They took the fort and “many English were killed.”18 During an attack on another English fort outside Orléans, an arrow hit Joan above the breast in plain sight of everyone in the battle. While Joan had her wounds dressed, the French, who had been attacking all day long, faltered. As her troops were retreating, Joan returned, stuck her banner on the edge of the ditch surrounding the fort, and declared, “[T]here should be no retreat.”19 Both the French and English soldiers who previously thought she was dead–or at least mortally wounded–were shocked. The French gained courage and attacked; the English were afraid and fled. Joan’s troops took the fort with little resistance. Most of the English drowned in their retreat when they crowded a weak bridge that collapsed over the Loire River. There is precedence for a military commander encouraging troops with his mere presence at the front lines. Julius Caesar bragged how his presence at a battle in Gaul gave “fresh heart and hope” to his troops and “each man wanted to do his best under the eyes of his commander-in-chief.”20 Joan with her banner had a stronger effect, because she not only brought courage to her men, but she also instilled fear in her opponents. At Montépilloy, an open-field battle, Joan struggled to get the English and the Burgundians to leave their defensive positions. Joan rode out and taunted her opponents, but the commander would not order an attack “for he feared that his army would be demoralized at the sight of Joan’s banner.”21

This intimidation factor followed Joan from May through September 1429, where more than thirty cities surrendered without a fight. These cities, however, had more to fear than Joan’s banner. By July, the French had killed upwards of 3,500 English troops.22 Before Joan fought her first battle, she sent a letter to the English demanding that they surrender all their French cities and leave the continent. Those that did “not obey, I shall have them all killed.”23 These were not empty threats. At the Siege of Jargeau, 700 English troops defended the town for two days. After the first night of fighting, Joan demanded the town’s capitulation or “you will be massacred.”24 The English refused and Joan’s cannons bombarded the town. Eventually, the French assaulted the walls and killed as many as 1,100 people, which means the dead included English troops and French civilians.25 This was not the only incident of massacres that Joan left in her trail and word of these events surely preceded her throughout France. Joan and her banner inspired her troops and struck fear in her enemies, but the massacres certainly aided her in the thirty-plus bloodless capitulations.

Joan’s Reliance on Cannon

Inspiration and intimidation were not the only advantages Joan brought to the battlefield, as she also possessed a martial aptitude with directing armies and positioning artillery. This is tough to fathom, because even with Joan’s military prowess, she was still only eighteen.26 One Frenchman recalled that she “was very simple in all her actions, except in the conduct of war, in which she was altogether an expert.”27 The Duke of Alençon, who was present for most of her battles, also reaffirmed that she was a simple girl, but “in the conduct of war she was most skillful.”28 He clarified the “conduct of war” to mean carrying a lance, directing armies, and placing artillery. The latter is something that he emphasized twice saying that she “acquitted herself magnificently.”29

The evidence for Joan’s skill with artillery is strong. Consider that after four days of negotiations, the city of Troyes was no closer to surrendering to Charles VII. The Dauphin asked Joan what they should do and she insisted that they begin a siege. He agreed and put Joan in charge of the assault. She spent the night placing artillery and ordered the troops to gather material to fill the ditches around the city. When the morning arrived, Joan yelled “to the attack” and the city immediately capitulated.30 The mere sight of Joan’s artillery made 500-600 English and Burgundian troops in a fortified city surrender. One experienced French commander observed that the “positions she took up were so admirable that even the two or three most famous and experienced captains would not have made as good a plan of battle.”31

At another battle, Joan demonstrated an even stronger understanding of cannons. At the Siege of Jargeau, Joan instructed the Duke of Alençon “to retire from the place where I was standing, for if I did not ‘that engine’–and she pointed to a piece of artillery in the town–‘will kill you.'”32 He moved and the cannon later killed a soldier in that very spot. The Duke took the event as a divine sign, but his martial understanding was not as strong as Joan’s was in this moment. While the Duke possessed some battle experience, he was still young in his military career. He missed the Siege of Orléans where Joan experienced the most cannon-intensive battle to that point in history.33 Avoiding enemy cannons was a necessary skill. Joan, the seventeen-year-old, was childlike, but when it came to war, she was a professional.

Cannon was a common theme in Joan’s sieges. From May until the Siege of Paris on September 7, 1429, Joan never lost a battle and cannon played a major role. At all of her successful sieges, Joan always had superior firepower. Even in her inspirational role, cannon supported the mystique around her. Before Joan arrived at Orléans, the city rejoiced after receiving word from Charles VII that he was sending “victuals, powder, cannon, and other weapons of war under the leadership of the Maid.”34 Yes, the prophesied Maid of Lorraine was coming with leadership, but she was also bringing food, gunpowder, and more firepower to a city that already had seventy-plus guns. Those who may have questioned whether a teenager could defeat the English would have been at least happy to get the extra food and cannons.

The downside of being so reliant on artillery meant that when it was not there, the chances of success diminished. At her four losses–Paris, La Charité, Choisy-au-Bac, and finally Compiégne–Joan was outgunned. The political mess in France directly attributed to Joan’s lack of supplies. After Charles VII was crowned King of France, he and his advisors began pushing for diplomatic measures instead of military ones. When Joan besieged Paris, the King was working on truces with England and Burgundy. The King called off the siege after the first day and dissolved Joan’s army on September 21, 1429. Charles VII was no longer interested in military victories; he preferred to protect his new crown.

Joan still wanted to kick the English off the continent. To keep the war hawk occupied, the King sent Joan after a Burgundian mercenary in the south, far from the English strongholds. Though the objective was much more modest than Paris was, the King severely diminished Joan’s troops and supplies. Still, she successfully besieged Saint-Pierre-le Moûtier from November 1-4, but at the cost of her gunpowder supply. In preparation for the siege of La Charité, she sent letters to previously liberated cities asking for “powder, saltpeter, sulfur, transport, strong arbalests and other necessities of war.”35 She explained that the next siege would not “last long for lack of powder.”36 Joan did receive some supplies, but they were not enough. In the dead of winter, she besieged La Charité for a month. She did not take the city and her army retreated in late December without taking their cannons.

How was Joan of Arc so skilled with cannons?

Joan’s Aggressiveness

Regardless of Joan’s troop strength or supplies, she remained aggressive. Even before moving into Burgundy to assault Saint-Pierre-le Moûtier and La Charité, she ignored warnings about the coming winter.37 This aggressiveness served her well on June 18, 1429, at the Battle of Patay where she pushed her commanders to pursue the English. After several successful sieges, the French rode their momentum to gain the open-field victory, an arena where the English were previously dominant. Again, at Lagny on March 29, 1430, Joan’s cavalry charged a force of 300-400 Burgundians three times, putting most “to the sword” and capturing the rest.38 A month and a half later at Choisy-au-Bac, Joan led several assaults against Burgundians, but their cannons were too powerful and she retreated. Finally, on the morning of May 23, Joan arrived at Compiégne. The Burgundians arrived with a force that “to this date, there was no power with a stronger or more numerous gunpowder arsenal.”39 Joan aggressively led her cavalry out in a charge. After some skirmishes, the Burgundians captured her. These last two battles show how Joan’s aggressiveness worked against her. She appeared to have no notion of defense when she entered Compiégne, because she immediately charged out of the city when the Burgundians arrived. Compiégne was not a weak city and its citizens possessed a defensive mentality. They had gone as far as to knock down towers that got in the way of their cannons. In fact, after the summer, the Burgundians gave up the siege and abandoned most of their artillery in the retreat.40 The city successfully defended itself, but because Joan opted for offense instead of defense, she became a captive on the first day of the siege.

Joan of Arc was inspirational for her troops and she possessed military skills that helped the French accomplish some much-needed victories over the English. Focusing solely on Joan’s inspirational qualities serves both admirers and skeptics. The admirers are able to glorify her accomplishments and gloss over her failures as nothing more than an ungrateful King tossing aside a gift from God. Skeptics are able to view Joan as nothing more than a “tool” used by military commanders who did all the real strategizing. This argument is insufficient, because it ignores essential facts. For one, Joan still had victories even after the King dissolved her army and the most experienced commanders were no longer at her side. Second, Joan’s aggressive approach remained the same. The Battle of Lagny featured the same cavalry charge approach as the Battle of Patay. The successful siege of Saint-Pierre-le Moûtier featured the same cannon-intensive assault as the successful sieges of Jargeau, Meung, and Beaugency. These victories had eluded the French for nearly fifteen years as the English and the Burgundian allies rarely saw defeat. Yet with Joan, the French army of thousands finally experienced major victories and even when the King dissolved her army, Joan still had victories with only a few hundred troops. Although her career was short, her understanding of artillery and her aggressive approach to battles garnered nine victories to her name. Her ability to intimidate with her mystique, overwhelming victories, and massacres resulted in dozens of cities surrendering without a fight. Yet, with all her martial ability, she had her weaknesses. She was too dependent on artillery and she never fought defensively, and as a result, she lost four battles, the fourth of which was her last.

Bibliography

Caesar, Julius. The Conquest of Gaul. Translated by S. A. Hanford. London: Penguin Books, 1982.

DeVries, Kelly. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2003.

—. “The Use of Gunpowder Weaponry by and against Joan of Arc During the Hundred Years War.” War and Society 14 (May 1996): 1-15.

Foch, Marshal, Louis Bertrand, Georges Goyau, et al. For Joan of Arc: An Act of Homage from Nine Members of the French Academy. London: Sheed & Ward, 1930.

Fuller, J. F. C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World. Vol. 1. Edited by John Terraine. London: Granada, 1970.

Gies, Frances. Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

McEvedy, Colin, and Richard Jones. Atlas of World Population History. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

McNeill, William. “The Gunpowder Revolution.” The Quarterly Journal of Military History 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1990): 8-17.

Montgomery, Bernard. A History of Warfare. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1968.

Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses. Translated by Edward Hyams. Lanham: Scarborough House, 1994.

—. The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence for her Vindication. Translated by J. M. Cohen. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1955.

Pernoud, Régine, and Marie-Véronique Clin. Joan of Arc: Her Story. Translated by Jeremy Duquesnay Adams. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Footnotes

  1. The Dauphin is the heir to the French throne. []
  2. Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (New York: Penguin, 1978), 43. []
  3. Ibid., 57. []
  4. The French term is “Godon.” Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453 (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 181. []
  5. J. F. C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World, vol. 1, ed. John Terraine (London: Granada, 1970), 329. []
  6. Bernard Montgomery, A History of Warfare (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1968), 207. []
  7. John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 320. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. William McNeill, “The Gunpowder Revolution,” The Quarterly Journal of Military History 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1990): 10. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Montgomery 1968, 207. []
  12. Fuller 1970, 331. []
  13. Kelly DeVries, “The Use of Gunpowder Weaponry by and against Joan of Arc During the Hundred Years War,” War and Society 14 (May 1996): 8. []
  14. DeVries rattles off thirty-two individual cities that surrendered to Joan throughout his book. Several times he cuts his list short by saying “and more.” Kelly DeVries, Joan of Arc: A Military Leader (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2003), 114, 116, 122-123, 126-127, 132-133, 136, 138-139. []
  15. Woodcut from the Vigiles of Charles VII. Printed by P. Le Caron in 1493. Marshal Foch, Louis Bertrand, Georges Goyau, et al., For Joan of Arc: An Act of Homage from Nine Members of the French Academy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1930), 4 []
  16. Montgomery 1968, 207-208. []
  17. Régine Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence for her Vindication, trans. J. M. Cohen (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1955), 186. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. Ibid., 146. []
  20. Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, trans. S. A. Hanford (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 69. []
  21. Fuller 1970, 343. []
  22. In May and June 1429, Joan’s troops fought the English at Orléans, Jargeau, Meung, Beaugency, and Patay. While estimates are not available for all of the engagements, there are records of 140 English killed during the siege of the Saint Loup fortification outside Orléans, 1,100 killed at Jargeau, and 2,200 killed at Patay. DeVries 1999, 75, 100, 114. []
  23. Letter from Joan of Arc to the English dictated on March 22, 1429 and sent between April 24 and 27, 1429. Régine Pernoud and Marie-Véronique Clin, Joan of Arc: Her Story, trans. Jeremy Duquesnay Adams (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), 34. []
  24. DeVries 2003, 99. []
  25. Assuming that the French killed all 700 troops, there are 400 bodies that belonged to civilians of the city. DeVries 2003, 101. []
  26. Joan was eighteen at this point. Joan was born in the year 1412, but scholars have not pinpointed the exact date. Some theorize January 6. Pernoud and Clin 1999, 34. []
  27. Pernoud 1955, 108. []
  28. Ibid., 160. []
  29. Ibid., 161. []
  30. DeVries 2003, 126. []
  31. Pernoud 1955, 143. []
  32. Ibid., 157. []
  33. Kelly DeVries pointed out that the Duke was not at Orléans. DeVries also suggested that Joan probably directed other soldiers to move during battles. Kelley DeVries, e-mail message to the author, October 21, 2009. []
  34. DeVries 2003, 69. []
  35. Letter from Joan of Arc to the inhabitants of Riom sent November 9, 1429. Note that Joan understands fully that if the cities did not have gunpowder, then her men could use saltpeter and sulfur to make some. Pernoud and Clin 1999, 257. []
  36. Letter from Joan of Arc to the inhabitants of Riom sent November 9, 1429. Ibid., 257. []
  37. Frances Gies, Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 132. []
  38. DeVries 2003, 162-163. []
  39. Ibid., 163. []
  40. DeVries 1996, 14. []

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