Landsknechts (singular Landsknecht, German plural Landsknechte, sometimes also in English publications) were European, most often German, mercenary pikemen and supporting foot soldiers from the late 15th to the late 16th century, and achieved the reputation for being the universal mercenary of the European Renaissance.
The first Landsknecht regiments were formed by Maximilian I. He called upon Georg von Frundsberg, known by many as the Father of the Landsknechts, to assist him in their organization. They later went on to fight in almost every 16th century military campaign, sometimes on both sides of the engagement. The landsknechts, formed in conscious imitation of the Swiss mercenaries (and, initially, using Swiss instructors), eventually contributed to the defeat of the redoubtable Swiss whose battle formations, overly-dependent on hand to hand fighting, became vulnerable to the increased fire power of arquebus and artillery. French artillery or Spanish firepower dealt serious blows to the Swiss formations, and the Landsknecht pike blocks were there to fight off the depleted Swiss attack columns once this had occurred.
The Landsknechts, although rather conservative themselves in weapons usage, and always containing a large majority of pikemen, were more predisposed to the tactical employment of firearms than the Swiss were because Landsknechts relied less on the precipitous rush to close combat and, as Imperial soldiers, they also often fought in formations mixed with Spaniards, who made widespread use of the arquebus and, later, musket.
The landsknechts typically came from Swabia, Alsace, Flanders, and the Rhineland, but ultimately the regiments were made up of men from all parts of Europe.
Their battlefield behavior was highly variable. Sometimes, such as at the Battle of Pavia, they performed very well, being instrumental to the Emperor’s victory. However, on many other occasions, (such as in the later Italian Wars, French Wars of Religion and the Eighty Years War) their bravery and discipline came under severe criticism, and the Spanish elements of the Imperial army regularly deprecated the battlefield usefulness of the Landsknechts—it was said that the Duke of Alba hired them only to deny the Dutch enemy of their service, and put them on display to swell his numbers, not intending to fight with them. The Huguenots scorned their landsknecht mercenaries after these were immediately routed by the battered Swiss mercenary pike block they had been sent to finish off at the Battle of Dreux.
The regiments often expanded from 4,000 to 10,000 men according to circumstances, or even larger—the Black Band, generally considered to have been a regiment of landsknechts, were 17,000 strong when raised by the French in 1515. It was this flexibility which allowed them to be used in various battle conditions. Oberste (colonels) were given recruiting commissions by the Emperor to form regiments, with a lieutenant-colonel and various regimental staff, and units divided into Fähnleins (companies) with a Hauptmann (captain) in charge, as well as lieutenants and Fähnriche (ensigns). Other ranks included majors of the court-martial and officers in charge of camp followers.
The Tross were the camp followers or “baggage train” who traveled with each Landsknecht unit, carrying the military necessities, the food and the belongings of each soldier and his family. Members of the Tross were made up of women, children and some craftsmen.
Landsknechts were trained in the use of the famous long pikes and used the pike square formations developed by the Swiss. The majority of Landsknechts would use pikes, but others, meant to provide tactical assistance to the pikemen, accordingly used different weapons. For example, an experienced Landsknecht could be designated a Doppelsöldner, and instead of wielding a pike as did more recent recruits, would employ a 6-to-8-foot-long (1.8 to 2.4 m) halberd or partisan, or, more famously, a Zweihänder(literally translated: “Two-hander”), a two-handed sword as long as 180 cm (6 ft), although it was generally called at the time a Bidenhänder(literally translated: “both-hander”) rather than a Zweihänder. These great war swords could be used to hack off the heads of enemy pikes; or more likely to knock the pikes aside, creating disorder among the tightly arranged enemy pikemen in order to break through their lines.
However, this tactic seems to have been of limited value, and was possibly dropped after around 1510 (although pictorial evidence of the use of these swords in the front lines exists until at least late into the 16th century) – their Swiss adversaries had specifically prohibited it when they went over to widespread use of the pike in the early 15th century, because the weapon was too large to use in constricted pike warfare.
“Doppelsöldner” meant “double mercenary”, because they were paid double the wages of their less experienced counterparts. Landsknechts also used Kriegsmesser longswords, in German translating to War knife, a long curved sword clasped to the belt, the blade shown naked without a scabbard in some woodcuts from (1500–1520).
Other Landsknechts would use the arquebus, the precursor to the musket. When the Landsknechts were first formed, arquebusiers composed up to an eighth of the total number of soldiers, but the number gradually grew to be about a quarter.
The universal Landsknecht weapon was a short sword called a Katzbalger, carried in addition to the Landsknecht’s main weapon. Indeed, the Katzbalger was seen as the very symbol of the Landsknecht, Swiss illustrators being careful to depict it to indicate that a mercenary was a Landsknecht rather than a Reisläufer.
Landsknechts were a very powerful force due to powerful weaponry. Landsknecht Paul Dolstein said in July 1502 “We were 1800 Germans and were attacked by 15000 Swedish peasants…we struck most of them dead.” He was fighting for the King of Denmark at the time.
Landsknechts adopted the Hussite tactic of creating a ring of limbers and wagons, surrounded by cannon, with the encampment in the middle. While in strong positions like this, many Landsknechts lived in tents; however, in more makeshift situations, they would often build crude huts made of straw and mud supported by Pikes and Halberds. Commission officers would always sleep in tents on campaign. Quarrels and disease would go about the camp, and if the landsknechts had been defeated in the battle the camp followers had little time to escape before rape and plunder took place. However, it was usually secure from the enemy.