France was in a dire state at the start of 1429. The English controlled almost all the territory north of the Loire River. Their Burgundian allies, who opened a civil war against the French kings despite being close relations to them, controlled great swathes in the east. The French were defeated and demoralized on every front. Despite outnumbering their enemies significantly, they lost at every encounter. Yet, a peasant girl came out of nowhere in the spring of 1429 and turned this situation on its head in a matter of months. So, why was Joan of Arc so effective?
Joan of Arc – Effective Qualities
Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, we’ll begin with a map of France in 1429:
The lands still loyal to the future King Charles VII of France, as you see, were just a rump. The fairest lands in the country belonged to France’s enemies. The child Henry VI of England had claim to being the effective King of France. So why did this map change so drastically in just a few months?
First of all, Joan of Arc seems to have had good instincts as a military leader, particularly in using the new gunpowder artillery. Jean II, Duke of Alencon, who was Joan’s closest friend, testified during her nullification trial that:
In all she did, except in affairs of war, she was a very simple young girl; but for warlike things bearing the lance, assembling an army, ordering military operations, directing artillery-she was most skillful. Every one wondered that she could act with as much wisdom and foresight as a captain who had fought for twenty or thirty years. It was above all in making use of artillery that she was so wonderful.
Gunpowder artillery was changing the face of war in the 15th Century. Age-old fortifications proved ineffective in the face of such bombardment, and the range of effective combat increased drastically. Proper deployment of these weapons would obviously have a beneficial effect to the side that so deployed them. Moreover, she had her finger on the pulse in ways her co-commanders did not, as we see in Joan of Arc: A Military Leader:
While she did not practice that skill at Chinon or elsewhere, she seems to have had an affinity in learning from and in the engagements which she fought, and she always seemed eager to learn, especially if such learning aided the fulfilment of her mission. Being ‘common’ may also have allowed her to listen to others, common cannoneers, for example, and to learn from them, something prohibited the more noble French military leaders. (pg. 56)
Some of these “common” artillerymen were quite good indeed, as seen in the story of one man in the pivotal Siege of Orelans:
Then there are the exploits of Master Jean, a gunner actually mentioned as one who operated a gunpowder weapon known as a ‘grosse couleuvrine’, who was originally from Lorraine. The Journal calls him ‘the best master there was from that trade’ and Jean seemed to use that expertise to harry the English in the Tourelles. Firing from a fortified position, known as the Belle-Croix and approximately 400 meters across the broken bridge from the Tourelles, ‘he wounded and killed many’. But this was not all: ‘To mock [the English] he sometimes let himself fall to the earth, feigning either death or wounds, and had himself carried into the town. But he would return quickly to the skirmish, and did such so that the English would know that he was still alive, to their great damage and displeasure.’ (pg. 63)
Joan of Arc listened to and benefited from men like this. Her military career is one of the first cases of people rising through the ranks by merit, rather than noble birth.
Yet, there was an even more important reason why she was so effective.
Joan’s “Divine Mission” – Infectious Enthusiasm
Joan of Arc believed that she had been sent from God. Apparently, she heard voices from childhood, as testified by a friend of hers from home:
I saw Jeannette very often. In our childhood, we often followed together her father’s plough, and we went together with the other children of the village to the meadows or pastures. Often, when we were all at play, Jeannette would retire alone to “talk with God.” I and the others laughed at her for this. She was simple and good, frequenting the Church and Holy places. Often, when she was in the fields and heard the bells ring, she would drop on her knees.
She believed in the veracity of these voices, regardless of what their substance may have been. Her belief in this naturally led her to take corresponding action. As we have seen so often in history, that is commonly enough. Unshakeable self-belief, that keeps the doubts and weaselly voices muted and lets you act almost on autopilot from there on out, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Joan’s belief in her mission made the entire army more effective. The French, who were essentially leaderless thanks to the timidity of the future Charles VII and his sniveling advisors (who would later undermine Joan) had demonstrated their ability to successfully fight the English and their Burgundian allies when properly led. They just lacked leadership on the scale needed to turn the tide of the war. When Joan of Arc arrived, she provided this leadership and a sense of a mission. Her mood infected her troops, who now felt that they could win, and became much more effective as a result.
Her military record shows us that Joan of Arc was no tactical or strategic genius on par with the likes of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. Her conduct of warfare was costly. She had great instincts, especially in deploying artillery, but her movements were straightforward. Often, though, this was enough, because France could far more easily afford to take the losses than England could:
The English forces that occupied France in 1429 really had no justifiable reason for their success there. After all, England was a far less populated kingdom than France. Comparative demographic figures show a disparity of more than 300 per cent. This of course meant that the potential number of soldiers from England was much smaller than that from France. Calculations of English soldiers in France provided by based on expeditions sent from England to France between 1415 and 1429 show a total of just 41,327, an incredibly small number of troops to protect all of the occupied regions of France, and to carry on further offensive military actions, even if it was feasible that all of those soldiers remained alive and in military service in France in 1429. This meant, as was seen above, that the English forces besieging Orleans in 1428-9 never had enough numbers even to surround the whole city. To be sure, a small English population and equally small numbers of English soldiers did not seem to hinder the course of the war before 1429. Additionally, the English had been able to capitalize on the civil war that raged throughout France between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. The English used their allies to help eliminate their personnel problems, assigning them garrison duties in places such as Paris. (pg. 123-4).
Leadership is often simply about providing the mood and guidance for the people under you to do their best work. Because of her self-belief, willingness (and capability to learn), and most importantly, infectious enthusiasm for her mission, Joan of Arc restored morale and guided the French into fighting a war of attrition that their English and Burgundian enemies ultimately could not win, and she was clever enough to know this.
Her attitude did, however, lead to a lack of necessary caution and unnecessary losses, especially later in her career when her detractors deliberately undersupplied her army. She probably could have avoided being captured in 1430 had she proceeded a little more cautiously.
But as her extraordinary life and career shows, it’s usually better to be too bold than too cautious. The French leaders who erred on the latter end were not effective at all, while she, who was on the former side, did more in a few months than they had ever done. Had she not been deliberately undermined after the crowning of Charles VII at Reims, she undoubtedly would have done far more. It is a good tale to remember as we deal with sniveling, backstabbing leaders in our own epoch.
You can read more about Joan in Lives of the Luminaries.
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