Late Middle Ages: The Resurgence of Infantry


Swiss Infantry



Throughout the high Middle Ages, heavy cavalry had completely dominated warfare. It had become completely entrenched in both the military and socioeconomic systems of the day- the noble knight was a key component of the feudal system. In this way, infantry was overlooked as strategically important, even when certain groups of foot soldiers again began to claim victories against the knightly cavalry.

By the 14th century, infantry (without the large support of cavalry) was reasserting its effectiveness in combat. In certain areas of Europe, infantry was becoming a well organized and capable fighting force, which was even able to stand against heavy cavalry. Flemish infantry of the early 1300s, for example, were organized by guild into regular militias, and well equipped with mail habergeons, steel helmets, gauntlets, shields, and even plate armor; and they bore an assortment of weapons, including bows, crossbows, pikes, and goedendags. (This was a heavy wooden staff, four to five feet long, and tipped with a steel spike.) Because of their structure, in particular their ability to hold the line when facing a cavalry charge, the Flemish were able to achieve a decisive and influential victory against the French chivalry at Courtrai in July of 1302.

The cities of Flanders were rebelling against the King of France, and laying siege to Courtrai castle. The king sent 2,500 men-at-arms and 8,000 infantry to relieve the Courtrai garrison and dispatch the rebellion. He took it for granted that the Flemish would flee when they found themselves outnumbered in heavy cavalry, which was widely acknowledged as the master of the battlefield. Instead, the Flemish withdrew to a predetermined position away from the city, in marshland where their flanks were protected by streams, and prepared for the French advance.

The infantry was broken up (by guild and region, so that men who knew each other would be fighting together, which boosted morale) into four divisions, three in line and one as reserve. The soldiers were densely packed, about eight deep, with their pikes and goedendags extended. The Flemish knew that success depended on their holding formation during the French charge, and they did so. The charge was foiled, and degenerated into a vicious mêlée, in which Flemish infantry outnumbered the French men-at-arms. The surviving French, disarrayed and demoralized, and finding little ground to retreat, began to flee. Over a thousand French noblemen were killed in the battle. The dominance of cavalry in warfare now became subject to question.

The implications of this victory were far-reaching. The Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314, saw a set of similar circumstances. The Scottish pikemen, led by Robert Bruce, crushed the English chivalry by adopting a schiltron, a dense formation of spearmen, against their charge. It is noted in the Scalacronica that the Scots were imitating the tactics used at Courtrai. (Keen 1999: 142)

Around the same time, the Swiss were also challenging the concept of infantry as inferior to heavy cavalry. The Swiss Confederacy distinguished itself in many battles: Morgarten in 1315, Laupen in 1339, and Sempach in 1386, the last of which was to profoundly transform infantry tactics.

The weapon of choice of the Swiss infantry, in addition to the pike, was the halberd- a staff approximately 1.8 meters long with a large hatchet attached at the end by two eyes. In addition to the broad hatchet blade, the weapon had a spike at the top, similar to a pike, and often a hook opposite the blade. The halberd took considerable strength to wield, but because of its tremendous leverage it could cleave straight through armor and inflict massive wounds that were most often fatal. It could not be used with a shield, and so a battle of halberds was brutal and quick, and missing one’s target was a deadly mistake.

The key to the prolonged success of the Swiss in battle was superior military organization, and a sound and simple system of tactics. They organized by region, and were therefore able to assemble their ranks quickly. They moved rapidly as well, because they only wore light armor. They functioned almost autonomously, and were able to make up for the deficiencies of incompetent leadership.

The Macedonian phalanx was the prototype of their array in battle. They would, like the Flemish before them, amass in dense and deep formations, with the first four ranks leveling their pikes. The pikes were gripped by both hands, widely extended, and held slightly downward in the front row. Because they were about eighteen feet long, with an additional foot for the steel tip, they would extend through the ranks from the back. Each successive row held them higher, forming an impenetrable barrier. The rest of the formation kept their pikes upright, in reserve for when the first line of pikemen fell. In the interior were also located the halberdiers, as well as men bearing an assortment of two handed swords, morning stars, and war hammers. They waited until a charge had been broken, and fell on their scattered enemy. At the same time, they were a contingency in case the enemy broke through the hedge of pikes.

In 1386, the Swiss faced the men of the Austrian Duke Leopold III, who sought to reclaim his territory. Among an army of infantry and mercenaries were 4,000 knights. They met at Sempach, a hamlet of Hildesriechen. All of Leopold’s men dismounted even the knights- because he wanted to “prove the effectiveness of the dismounted lance against the halberd.” The momentum of the Swiss halberd and pike overcame them, however, and at the end of the day 1800 Austrians were dead, versus around 200 Swiss.

The Landsknecht were a German class of mercenaries who imitated the tactics of the Swiss pikemen. They came into existence in the 15th century, and established their superiority to most other infantry, save the Swiss, who consistently beat them. Their favored weapon was again the pike, and they attacked in tightly grouped squadrons.

During this period, it was proven that a capable infantry could not be defeated by a cavalry making use of the now stagnant couched-lance charge. Knights began to dismount for battle again, making use of their skills in mêlée combat. On the ground, their armor was effective in protecting them against an infantry, but they were hampered by a severe lack of mobility. When firearms were developed to the point of usefulness in warfare, they could penetrate a knight’s armor easily and be used by a less skilled infantry than the bow. This lead to the decline of armor suits, and the end of the Middle Ages.