The Two-fingered Salute

“Bus. Bus. BUS!” Harry grabbed the dashboard in front of him. Lou wrenched the wheel and steered onto the other side of the road.

“You know we drive on the left side of the road?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Lou glanced in the rear-view mirror, reached for the gear stick with his right hand, remembered just too late and changed up with his left. “It’s just the turn into the road threw me. Why do you guys have to do everything different? Why drive on the wrong side of the road?”

“No, the left is the right side, the rest of the world drives on the wrong side. It’s so the coachman’s whip that he holds in his right hand doesn’t put pedestrians at risk.”

“Oh sure, that’s a real good reason. I can see dozens of coachman using the freeway. Did you see that bus driver? Jeez, and they think you English are polite and reserved. What was with the two fingers?”

“Ah, the two finger salute. I didn’t see that, I had my eyes screwed shut. Look, pull over there, let me drive, and I’ll tell you the story.”

++++

England and France have never been particularly good neighbours. Odd, because for the best part of a thousand years the rulers on both sides have been related. The English kings ruled part of France, the French ruled parts of England, everyone wrote in French and they were all related. Still, all families have their fights, right? But this little spat has never really been over. Oh, nowadays the Frogs and Le Roastbif limit hostilities to taunts at rugby games and the burning of the occasional lorry of lamb. Back in the day, though, we were at it hammer and tongs. Take the Hundred Years War. You know how long that lasted? Decades.

Back then, England had a superweapon: the English longbowman. That and superior tactics made the English army a force to be reckoned with. And this was never more clearly shown than at the battle of Agincourt. You’ve heard of Agincourt, yes? Into the breach once more, Saint Crispin’s day and all that. Twenty-five thousand Frenchman, a mere six thousand English lions. They didn’t keep many records back then, but most historians reckon the English only lost at most a hundred men on the day, all due to the English longbows.

Everyone had archers, of course. Every culture has discovered the bow and arrow. There’s something basic about a bit of string and a stick that makes a man think, ‘You know? I could kill someone with that.’ But how they used them differed either side of the English Channel.

The French archer would hold his arrows in a quiver slung on his back. So when battle commenced he’d grope behind him, find an arrow and bring it to his bow. Then he’d locate a target. Maybe that pikeman there. Wait, no, that knight. More dangerous and a bigger target. So he’d notch the arrow, draw back the bowstring, aim and fire. And the whole process would repeat, maybe once a minute.

The Continentals also had a soft spot for the crossbow, a very un-English machine. A crossbow is a lot easier to fire. You just point, make allowance for the wind and distance, and pull the trigger. No art, no skill like a longbow. But then you had to put your weapon on the ground, put your foot in the stirrup and heave with both hands. Long-distance crossbows even had a winding handle to pull the string tauter than you could by hand. This all took time, so you could fire much less frequently.

Not the noble Englishman. When they drew their battle lines, the first thing the English archers did was to empty their quivers on the ground, then stick all their arrows into the earth at their feet, point first. This gave two advantages. One, the arrowheads got coated with E-coli, tetanus and all sorts of nasty bacteria. More people died after the battle from infected wounds than died on the battlefield. Two, the arrows were there to hand, no messing around with your arm over your head, trying to find an arrow you couldn’t see. Young boys would run up and down the line, replenishing the stock.

Then, the archer did not pick a target. Instead, he would fire to a range. He’d point his arrow up in the air and loose it to fall, say, two hundred metres away. If it hit anyone was luck, the important thing was to get the range just right. It was a law that every able-bodied Englishman should practice this every Sunday afternoon.

So when the battle started, the English longbowman would grab an arrow, point it up, fire, grab the next. It was like arming an entire army with machine guns. The sky would turn black with arrows. It was called Arrowstorm. The opposing team would have to walk through this storm to reach the English lines. There was Johnny Frenchman, maybe holding a shield in front of him, which was totally useless because the arrows were raining down from above. It would be like trying to walk through a storm and staying dry by avoiding the raindrops.

This tactic, however, had a drawback: cavalry. It only took a few armoured French knights to ride through the storm and they could plough through the English archers like rhubarb crumble through a granny. So scattered along the English lines were small squads of archers that didn’t take part in the storm making. They’d keep their eyes peeled for cavalry making a break for it. Then half a dozen archers would bring him down. They didn’t even have to aim for a chink in the armour. If the knight was wearing light armour, an arrow could pass through it. Chain mail was no defence. But there was a bigger, easier target. If they could bring the horse down, the knight was at their mercy. Many knights could not get off the ground in their heavy armour if they fell. They could be finished off or ransomed after the main bout. And don’t think of a thoroughbred stallion like El Cid’s mount in the movies. These beasts were not built for speed. They were more like carthorses, built for strength. Have one of those fall on you and you were not going anywhere, armour or no. Nevertheless, have enough horses charge, and the English were vulnerable.

So, Agincourt. The English were pressing their claim over northern France. For some reason, the French thought they were entitled to it. Henry led a bunch of exhausted men through the French countryside to meet a superior army, his men hungry, weakened by dysentery, and to top it all, soaked to the skin by heavy rain.

The French were confident they could defeat them. They outnumbered them almost five to one. The longbow was a problem, of course. The French considered it cheating, a lowly peasant able to bring down a French noble from a distance, but it was effective, so they hired mounted mercenaries from northern Europe to swell their ranks. There were only so many knights of noble birth after all. Everyone was happy.

Most people, anyway. The mercenaries decided the day before the battle would be a good time to renegotiate their wages, a tactic practiced even now by French Air Traffic Controllers. They demanded more money to face the English, knowing the battle would depend on the deployment of cavalry. The French refused on principle. Always beware of principled people; reason flies out of the window. The mercenaries said they’d refuse to fight if they didn’t get paid. The nobles took them at their word, and had them executed before the rest of the French army. Lunacy. Now not only were the French soldiers fearful of their own commanders, but they had thrown away their main advantage.

On Saint Crispin’s Day, the English were in a state. They were hungry, miserable and far from home. Henry decided the best thing to do would be to get the whole battle over and done with. While the French enjoyed a hearty breakfast, Henry drew the battle lines near the village. He chose a slope to defend, and set his men to embedding sharpened stakes into the ground, then lining his bowman behind them. This was madness. Everyone knew that you put your cavalry in first, then your infantry, to protect your bowmen at the rear. What were these crazy Englishmen doing?

The armies lined up three hundred metres apart, the English at the top of the hill, the French at the bottom. Then the taunting began. This was an age-old tradition carried on even today in the Five Nations rugby tournament. It could have gone on all day, but Henry had had enough. He ordered the bowmen to open fire. Arrows fell on the French, so they advanced. Contrary to every convention of the day, the English stayed put.

The first wave were horsemen. Many of them fell under the arrowstorm. Others turned and fled, or were unhorsed and their terrified mounts tried to escape. They charged into their own advancing infantry. Behind the infantry, the crossbows could not get into range to fire.

Horses and troops ran every which way, and the grass field became a quagmire. Those troops still motivated to advance found themselves trudging uphill through heavy mud. Slowing to a crawl under the hail of English arrows, they fell.

One contingent of cavalry managed to ride under the storm, across the mud and up to the English lines. Here the horses either impaled themselves on the spikes or threw their riders. Even the English bowman threw down their bows and joined in the slaughter of the helpless knights.

The weather helped, turning the battlefield into mud. Henry’s tactics were perfect, letting the French exhaust themselves trying to reach the English. But the true victor was the English longbow, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction at the time.

Battle in those days was a civilised affair. True, civilians were slaughtered with impunity. Captives were routinely humiliated and tortured before being hung. Survivors on the field were dispatched with a sword rather than nursed back to health. But these were the chess pieces the nobles moved around. Captured noblemen were treated far better than an army’s own soldiers. After all, the opposing commander was likely to be a cousin. After the battle was over, the points were added up and the score decided. Then, because one game did not make a match, and if the other side had no pieces the next game couldn’t go ahead, each side would exchange prisoners, ready to start again.

These were the rules. It was the civilised thing to do. Only a savage would not return prisoners of war. But the French were reluctant to re-arm the enemy with such a devastating player. So they returned most of the bowmen. By most, I mean they kept the fore- and middle finger of each English archer, maiming them so that they could not draw a bowstring again. It was the humane thing to do.

As I said, for centuries war between the French and the English over territory was as common as fights between husband and wife as to whether the gravy was burnt. The fixtures would always start the same way. Two great armies would line up within shouting distance and warm up by insulting each other. You can see this at any great sporting fixture to this day.

“Hey, Roastbif! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries.”

“Ha, that’s what you think, Frog. No-one knows who my father was or what he smelled like.”

Of course, amongst the rank and file there was a language barrier. Witticisms are less devastating when the enemy has no idea of what you’re saying. So it would degenerate into roars and barks, pulling down of trousers and insulting mimes.

The English had a favourite mime. They would line their archers up, and show the French that they were ready and able to rain a hail of arrows onto them if they were foolish enough to advance. The archers would raise their right hand aloft, fore- and middle fingers forming a V, letting the opponents know what was about to happen.

And to this day, it is a uniquely English expression of contempt and anger: the two-fingered salute, the V sign.

++++

“So, what are you saying?” said Lou. “He was giving me the finger?”

“Oh, twice as bad. He was giving you two of them.”

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

4 Responses to The Two-fingered Salute

  1. Frank says:

    Blimey Bob. If only school History lessons were this much fun, I would have amounted to something.

  2. I ADORE the inclusion of Monty Pythoness 🙂

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