On this day in 1346, English soldiers under Edward III rain terror on Genoese mercenaries under Philip VI of France at the Battle of Crecy in the Hundred Years War with what is perhaps the first cannon fired in battle.
By the 13th century, gunpowder weapons began entering the battlefield but were fairly new and very rare. (The first documented handgun in Europe dates to 1284, in Italy.) So when Edward III’s soldiers arrived at Crecy in Northern France with large, if somewhat clumsy and relatively primitive cannons, it was a triumph from the start. The cannonballs themselves were nothing much—large stones crudely shaped into rounded projectiles resembling cannonballs—and the cannon itself fairly primitive. But when the cannon flashed, boomed, and rained boulder-sized projectiles on Genoese mercenaries on the field at Crecy, the effect was significant.
The soldiers had never before seen weapons of such heft and might, and the psychological shock won the English a precious advantage early on. Edward’s troops deployed between five and 22 cannons at Crecy, rattling the 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen and causing them to open fire prematurely. But the crossbow was ineffective beyond 200 metres, and the Genoese mercenaries wasted their artillery at far distances as the English rained their next—more traditional weapon—on their enemy, the faster, high-trajectory feathered arrow.
Many fell, if not by the English arrow, then by carnage at close-quarter combat. In the end, the English dealt a crushing defeat to Philip VI, routing the French with upwards of 30,000 casualties and opening the Channel port of Calais to the English. The cannon, though not yet an effective weapon, played a critical role in psychological combat during the Battle of Crecy and would become a regular part of arsenals in the future.
Other reports of cannons have been claimed throughout history, some even earlier than 1346. According to Arab historian Ahmad al-Hassan, the Mamluks used the first cannon in history against the Mongols in 1260 at the Battle of Ain Jalut. Whatever the first instance, the cannon became customary in battle, as evidenced by French soldiers in 1375, Balkan gunners in 1378, and Ottoman Turks in 1389.
Credit: © Everett Collection Historical / Alamy
Caption: Edward III of England defeats Philip VI of France at the Battle of Crecy.