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Through Trial and Error: Learning and Adaptation in the English Tactical System from Bannockburn to Poitiers

Through Trial and Error: Learning and Adaptation in the English Tactical System from Bannockburn to Poitiers

Through Trial and Error: Learning and Adaptation in the English Tactical System from Bannockburn to Poitiers

By Gary E. Sanders

Master’s Thesis, West Virginia State University, 2014

Abstract: During the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century, the English in medieval Europe fought in two wars: the Scottish Wars of Independence followed by the Hundred Years War. The final engagements of the Scottish Wars of Independence mentally, culturally, and physically changed English notions of what tactics and strategies should be used in warfare. From these experiences, the English learned lessons from Scottish methods of war that helped them devise a tactical fighting system that would eventually transform the ideals of chivalry and its application in warfare. The English then employed their new tactical fighting system decisively against the French during the Hundred Years War. During the early stages of the Hundred Years War, the French in turn learned hard lessons fighting against the English and attempted to adjust their tactics to counter the new English fighting system. This paper explores what techniques were learned by the English from the Scots, and how the English then modelled and improved on Scottish tactics to defeat the Scots then employ them against the French.

Introduction: The United States Military, in an effort to improve methods, tactics, and operations, conducts After Action Reviews (AAR) to analyze what was done correctly during an exercise or mission and what needs to be improved. An AAR provides an opportunity to gain insight for the team to identify and correct deficiencies in order to improve and streamline tactics, techniques and procedures to create better conditions for greater success. The AARs are generally documented for later reference. Armies of the Middle Ages, it seems, did not conduct such a formal process to identify and improve shortfalls. However, they recognized failure and success from the experience gained during battle and attempted to recreate success using proven tactics in future conflicts.

War in the Middle Ages, particularly the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, has been extensively covered by historians who through their research have provided vast insight into the era. Regarding military matters, much has been discovered from minute details, such as weaponry and dress, to the understanding of full-scale campaigns spanning centuries. Previous research also has shown how technological advances over time impacted and changed future conflict. Standing on the shoulders of generations of historians, this thesis will probably not unearth any genuinely new findings. However, it will attempt to look more closely, through a specific lens, and examine what opposing medieval militaries learned from one another and assess how that influenced adjustments to their methods of warfare, with reference during the first phase of the Hundred Years War fought between the English and the French in the middle of the fourteenth century. The study will open with a timeline illustrating the events that will be discussed, followed by a review of the literature. It will then cover some selected battles fought between the English and Scottish militaries during The Wars of Scottish Independence (1296-1357). These conflicts occurred between the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century. The three battles that will be covered include: The Battle of Bannockburn (1314), Dupplin Moor (1332), and The Battle of Halidon Hill (1333). Examining these conflicts will reveal the tactics learned and refined by the English between Bannockburn and Halidon Hill, which they later employed with great precision against the French during the Hundred Years War (1337-1475). A brief synopsis will follow to explain the political motivation and disagreements between the English and French that led to the start of the Hundred Years War, and a diagram is provided showing the key historical figures involved and their ancestry. The study will then concentrate on engagements between the English and French at the battles of Crécy (1346), Lunalonge (1349), Saintes (1351), Ardres (1351), Mauron (1352) then lastly Poitiers (1356). This is in order to provide a framework and the historical background within which to examine and present the thesis.


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