Ghost Of Toby Archer
by Peter Hunter
Twenty-five seconds before Tobias Archer died, the French horse, rearing high in a last attempt to avoid the four-inch diameter pole - impaled itself on the static weapon. The sharpened upper tip disembowelled the poor animal as it struggled to free itself of the hazel stake that the archers had planted three feet into the ground at a forty-five degrees angle - as a defence against the French cavalry.
Trying not to be distracted by the blood spurting from the stricken animal, the archer carefully aimed his cloth-yard arrow for the un-armoured gap between chest and armpit showing, as the knight raised his right arm in a futile gesture of defence. The broadhead easily penetrated the hessian vest the Frenchman wore under his chain-mail breastplate - and he died as cleanly and decently as a man could expect from an arrow from a longbow.
As the dying man’s breath shortened - Tobias Archer received the full force of the lance from the man’s mounted companion…
… in his chest - massively and fatally…
Two hours later - his ex companions-in-arms - John Smith and Bruce Otterman surveyed the French knight’s handiwork.
‘At least he was on the winning side.’ Observed Smith, prodding his dead companion with his left foot. All round were the dead and the dying - men and horses - bleeding, screaming and groaning, spilled guts polluting the afternoon air - the horror and the agony of a medieval battlefield. Bending, Smith picked up his bow and with one smooth movement unhooked the string, releasing the tension to prolong the weapon’s useful life.
‘I wish,’ said his companion, ‘we could’ve buried him in England - in Hamoon where he lived…’
As the weary victorious English army made its way from that field stinking with the unattractive odour of death - towards the channel coast - eventually as the raged fleet conveyed them home - the gossip-mill amongst the ranks did its job and soon most of the army knew the story of Tobias Archer. They heard of the four foot soldiers he'd killed single-handed on the shallow slope by the farm gave the battle its name. They learned how, after being mown down by a French knight, Tobias Archer had dragged him off his horse and stabbed him several times with the short sword that most of the archers carried - not frenzied but controlled and justified fury.
Word spread too how, in the deepest, most desperate moments of the battle - when the English were at their most demoralised and close to losing - the common voice of Tobias, a yeoman from Dorset shire - repeatedly lifted their spirits, urging them not to falter, and losing arrow after arrow into the approaching French hoard - inspired all around him with his example.
A legend had been borne by the man from Hamoon, previously known only for weekly driving his ox-cart loaded with produce, following the Stour to Sturminster market and transporting corn to the mill there. A legend spread by word of mouth in an age before written communication was common. In the view of many - it was Tobias’s example that turned the tide - a benevolent contagion that that led to victory at Agincourt.
* * *
‘The name, Tobias Archer, or at least its modern derivative, Toby Archer,’ observed the middle-aged dark-haired woman to her younger companion, ‘crops up at regular intervals throughout our history.’
Professor Pamela Roberts specialised in military history. Her views were popular whenever media such as TV wanted a quick sound bite - preferably controversial. She was iconoclastic and controversial - just the type the visual media sought.
What they called ‘good television'…
The student looked at her with nothing short of admiration. Now, well into his third year - he knew enough about his likely future difficulty in finding well-paid work to realise that naming her, as a mentor would do him no harm at all.
‘What else, ‘he asked, ‘do we know about him?’
‘Fighting the Armada,’ she answered, ‘a sailor, Toby Archer, saved his ship by throwing overboard a canister of burning pitch catapulted from a Spanish ship.’
‘Then he led a small group - boarding and capturing the Spanish vessel.’
Professor Roberts seemed far away, lost in recollection; ‘He became a hero - typifying the spirit that inspired the nation after the battle. It seems that Elizabeth herself learned of him and repeated the story as an example.’
The young man helped himself to coffees - handing one to the woman.
‘His name surfaced again at the battle of Waterloo - becoming a rallying point - a natural leader when the battle was swinging decisively Napoleon’s way.’
The student’s scepticism was by now growing.
‘It’s not an uncommon name…’
‘No,’ she agreed ‘…but extreme bravery is, ‘and the co-incidence of the name - well I cannot begin to calculate the odds on that…’
‘True.’ He replied.
She continued. ‘In World War One …another Toby Archer was a tank commander who achieved fame for gallantry during some extremely dangerous times for us - and in World War two he was killed one of the convoys around the north of Norway. He was posthumously honoured after an account of his bravery told by his shipmate, Mike Hutton.
‘He was killed in World War Two,’ the boy enquired, ‘was he the same Toby Archer throughout those centuries?’
Her pause seemed to last forever, ‘…several times during our history,’ her face was distant as if savouring some profound truth only she had realised, ‘…times of great national emergency - the name has come up…’
The student’s breathing stopped - the hairs at the back of his neck stiffened. He started to speak but seemed not to find the words; ‘You mean…?’
‘Currently in the Army his name has emerged again… What does it mean…? What the devil are we in for now…?’
© Peter Hunter