European Warfare 1300-1650 II

Swiss mercenaries

In the mid-fifteenth century English dynastic disputes opened the way for a French reconquest of her lost territories by 1453. The French established a regular force the Compagnies d’Ordonnance which numbered up to twenty companies, each of 100 ‘lances’. These were lances fournies, each made up of one experienced man-at-arms and a squire, both with warhorses, together with two mounted archers, supported by two pages. The archers evolved into cavalrymen and the companies in practice became a regular force of heavy cavalry numbering about 9,000. The French crown recognised the value of artillery because the reconquest of lands lost to the English involved numerous sieges. At Castillon on 17 July 1453 the French were besieging the city when an English relief army approached. The French dug in and turned their cannon against the English, achieving an overwhelming victory to which gunpowder weapons made a substantial contribution. But France was subsequently challenged by the dukes of Burgundy, one of whom, Charles the Bold (1467–77), developed the most modern and massive artillery train, forcing the French to follow suit.

The twist in the tale is that the Burgundians were defeated by the Swiss, a people who had virtually no such modern technology. Since the thirteenth century the Swiss cantons and cities had been fighting for their independence from the Hapsburg rulers of Austria. The narrow plains and passes of the Alps were not good territory for the Hapsburg cavalry, and in the long conflict the insurgents reverted to an ancient formation, the phalanx, equipped with long spears or pikes. At Sempbach on 9 July 1386 a tight formation of pikemen held off a superior Austrian force which was then taken in the flank by another phalanx of pikemen who deployed rapidly from their column of march. It was the discipline of the Swiss that was so impressive, and their mobility because they were very lightly armed. The success of their pikes, some 3–4 metres long and simply a long spear like the ancient Macedonian sarissa, with an admixture of halberds (a long-handled axe) underlines the limitations of gunpowder weapons. The long wars had imbued the Swiss with discipline, and as a result they were in much demand as mercenaries, which, of course, improved their performance. However, Switzerland had a small population, which meant that Swiss mercenaries were in short supply. But their methods were imitated, especially by the Landsknechte of western Germany who became their bitter rivals.

When the French invaded Italy in 1494 in a series of wars which lasted until 1559, they deployed all the latest military developments. Their cavalry were numerous and superb in their plate armour. This offered considerable protection from arrows, crossbow quarrels and even the low-velocity lead bullets of the arquebus. The most advanced type, developed by Milanese armourers, was cooled by immersion in water producing a very hard surface which was cunningly sculpted to deflect missiles. Such armour extended the life of the already heavily armoured cavalryman on the battlefield, but it was very expensive. The French had numerous arquebusiers, and employed Swiss pikemen who formed the backbone of their infantry. Their artillery consisted of the latest bronze muzzle-loaders on high-wheeled carriages which could be used in battle as well as against cities. But as yet no tactical system had been worked out to accommodate this mix.

The long wars with England and Burgundy meant that this French army, the most experienced in Europe, at first carried all before it. For a brief moment it seemed as if the age-old pattern of war dominated by fortifications was to be eclipsed, because the tall medieval walls of the Italian cities were battered by French cannon and surrendered quickly, forcing any state that wanted to challenge French domination of Italy to take to the battlefield. Since neither side had much idea of how to deploy their forces, they had to feel their way. At Cerignola on 28 April 1503 a Spanish army, which lacked cavalry, dug a trench manned by 2,000 arquebusiers. The French cavalry charge was checked by the earthworks, and shot down by arquebus fire. The use of field fortifications against cavalry was very reminiscent of Courtrai two hundred years before, and it highlighted the need to shield arquebusiers; the problem was how to do it with a degree of mobility, for enemies would not always obligingly charge fortifications or fail to bring infantry and artillery to bear. The Wagenburg was one means, but it still compromised mobility.

The beginnings of a solution to combining gunpowder weapons with other arms were apparent at the battle of Ceresole, fought between the French and Germans, on 11 April 1544. The infantry on both sides formed squares in which pikemen created defensive hedgehogs. Arquebusiers sallied out from these ‘moving forts’ or fired from within them. The French and German infantry squares closed with one another in a ‘push at pike’ so that their arquebusiers were firing at a range of 5 metres, producing what one eyewitness described as a ‘great slaughter’. The bloody stalemate was broken by the superior French heavy cavalry which drove the German horse from the field and exploited gaps in the enemy squares. This combination of pikemen protecting the slow-loading and firing arquebusiers was to form the basis of infantry field warfare for over a century.

But the most radical change that arose from the early experience of the Italian wars was the ease with which fortifications were destroyed by cannon. The tall walls and towers of medieval cities and castles kept out enemies on foot and horse, but were vulnerable to cannon. As a result, during the Hundred Years War boulevards were constructed outside the city walls. These were strong-points of masonry, timber and earth equipped with guns which served to keep attackers at a distance from the vulnerable enceinte. The Italian states of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries lacked such defences and capitulated rapidly to French attack. But Italian engineers soon developed the trace italienne. Cities were now defended by thick low walls of earth and masonry fronted by deep ditches. The pattern of the perimeter was marked by projecting bastions, usually arrow-shaped, which housed artillery to outrange enemy batteries. Some city walls were entirely rebuilt, and new fortresses were redesigned on this pattern, but this was very expensive, so more often they were updated and adapted. The result was that within thirty years of the French invasion of Italy fortifications once more determined the pattern of war and the slow style of agro-urban warfare reasserted itself.

Modern impression of a tercio by artist Cabrera Peña. Source: magazine Desperta Ferro!

The greatest army of the second half of the sixteenth century was the Spanish Army of the Netherlands, created to suppress the revolt of the Netherlands (1568–1609) which was also a religious struggle between Catholic Spain and the largely Protestant Dutch. The basic tactical unit of the Army of the Netherlands was the tercio of about 3,000 men subdivided into companies of 250–300, further subdivided into squads of 25. About 500 in each tercio were equipped with firearms (though the proportion tended to rise), while the rest used pikes to protect them from attack while reloading. Typically the pikemen would form a square. The musketeers deployed on either side or in front as skirmishers, in formations eight deep, enabling the front rank to fire, then retired to reload while the other ranks fired. Under a general threat, the musketeers could retreat into the square of pikes. Both types of soldier needed careful discipline administered by a hierarchy of numerous officers, but units were cumbersome. The drill for loading an arquebus musket was complicated. In his Wapenhandleninghe, written and illustrated for Prince Maurice of Nassau, J. de Gheyn identified forty-two separate movements for the individual soldier. These were quite different from the drills for wielding pikes, so command and control were difficult. Moreover the square formations generally adopted by the tercios were very vulnerable to cannon fire. The arquebus was so inaccurate and so slow to load that volley-fire was essential, and even this was so imperfect that the clash with edged weapons continued, as in the ancient world, to be of prime importance.

The tercio evolved as a result of experience, but this stimulated thought about military matters. Prince Maurice of Nassau, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, who died in 1625, became commander of the Dutch armies in 1590 and, therefore, the arch enemy of the Army of the Netherlands against whom he would fight at twenty sieges and two battles. Like so many thinkers of this age, he was inspired by the classical past, and established the first military school, at Siegen in 1616. He was deeply impressed by the discipline of the Romans and insisted on systematic drill for all his troops. In the interests of control he reduced the size of the basic tactical unit of infantry down to the battalion of 600–1,000, with a roughly equal ratio of pikes to arquebusiers. Pikemen formed rather shallower files than in the tercio, but still constituted the centre of the fighting unit with the arquebusiers deployed on either side in formations eight deep, each line retiring while the next fired; when a general attack materialised, they took refuge behind the pikemen. The result was that Dutch armies deployed into rather thinner lines which were less vulnerable to cannon fire, and their battalions were more flexible and more mobile than the huge tercios of their enemies. In attack single-shot muskets were of limited value, so that pikemen normally went first, followed by musketeers using their weapons as clubs. Maurice won a great victory over the Spanish at Nieuwpoort on 2 July 1600, but he owed his contemporary fame to his siegecraft.

For the Dutch, wars turned on possession of the numerous fortified cities of the Netherlands which meant that Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht formed the only solid block of territory held by the rebels. In 1590 most of the Spanish field army became involved in a war in northern France so that Maurice’s force of 10,000 could operate freely. Maurice adopted Roman methods, surrounding his target city with trenches, but with the significant difference that he then pushed forward more excavations bringing his concentrated artillery onto a weak point; he employed engineers and specialist contractors for this complex work. Such an attack demanded careful logistical preparations, because an army consumed vast amounts of money and stores which could only be collected at certain seasons of the year. Since campaigning in winter was difficult, the ‘window of opportunity’ for undertaking such enterprises was limited and it was rare for more than one investment to be attempted in a campaigning season. Maurice took endless pains over the details of his sieges and was impressively systematic; indeed, he established the form of siege warfare for generations to come. The ancient pattern of war based on sieges had Central Europe. Its greatest soldier was Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden (1611–32). He favoured battalions (called squadrons) of about 500 men, fairly equally divided between pike and gunners. They were subdivided into companies and grouped in brigades of four to six squadrons according to tactical needs. Each brigade had a dozen light guns, integrating artillery and infantry. His arquebusiers were trained to advance first and then to break down into shallow lines, which were best suited to pouring concentrated firepower upon the enemy. They took with them very light 3-pounder guns which could fire their pre-loaded cartridges even more rapidly than the musketeers. Once the enemy had been blasted by this fire, the pikemen in close order could charge into close quarters. They were supported by artillery using standardised calibres, 24-, 12- and 6-pounders. In the battles of the English Civil War (1641–51) the armies usually achieved a ratio of 400–600 men to one cannon, which was about the same as in late eighteenth-century armies.

Infantry tactics were partly shaped by the existence of cavalry. This was why arquebusiers, with their slow rate of fire, had to be protected by pikemen. But everybody also knew that dragging cannon around the battlefield was slow, that drill was imperfect, that movement disordered infantry formations, that troops were prone to panic and that in battle opportunities opened up which could only be exploited by speedy action – the strength of the horseman. The trick was, as it had always been, to choose the moment for the attack. Gustavus insisted that his cavalry charge home to exploit gaps and weaknesses in the enemy formations and in this he was followed in England by Cromwell, whose ‘Ironsides’ were specifically trained to get in amongst the opposing ranks.

At the battle of Breitenfeld, 17 September 1631, a German Catholic army of 10,000 cavalry and 24,000 infantry supported by twenty-seven cannon confronted a Protestant force led by Gustavus with 13,000 cavalry, 28,000 infantry and fifty-one guns. The Swedes deployed in linear formation and destroyed the Catholic squares, fifty men wide and thirty deep, by volley fire. Such a rare and decisive victory echoed throughout Europe, and from this time onwards linear formations firing volleys predominated in all armies. This was very clearly the best way to deliver firepower and it was made easier with the decline of pikemen. From 1650 armies were adopting the plug bayonet, which was jammed into the muzzle of the musket. By about 1670 this had been replaced by the socket bayonet which fitted around the muzzle of the musket, enabling it to be loaded and fired with the bayonet in place. The long musket thereby became a kind of pike. This was important because, given the slow loading sequence of all firearms, infantry needed to have edged weapons to hold off cavalry. Moreover there was now only one kind of soldier and, therefore, one kind of infantry drill, making it easier to manoeuvre. At the same time armies were discarding the matchlock in favour of the flintlock: a flint was driven by a spring onto a steel frizzen to produce a spark which ignited the powder in the flashpan. This was a surer and safer means of ignition than the burning fuse held in the jaws of the arquebus lock. The pre-packaged cartridge, a paper roll containing both powder charge and bullet, speeded loading and further simplified drill. The soldier bit off the ball (‘biting the bullet’), emptied the charge into the barrel and rammed it down with the ball. In attack the strongest and fittest men were often grenadiers – picked men strong enough to throw iron balls filled with explosives far enough to hurt the enemy.

Flintlock smoothbore muskets were one-shot weapons, because although loading was simpler than on earlier weapons, it remained painfully slow and effective ranges continued to be very short. Volley fire partially compensated for these shortcomings, so in combat a battalion of about 600 men would be arrayed in a triple line and made to hold their fire until the enemy was about 50 metres away when a high proportion of shot was likely to hit its target. Fighting thoroughly re-established itself and was consolidated as more and more fortresses adopted the pattern of the trace italienne.

Fortresses dominated the bitter religious struggle between Protestant and Catholic, the Thirty Years War (1618–48) which devastated much of Germany and thereafter was with bayonets and swords. Cannon, of course, were effective at much longer ranges, but linear formations limited the damage they could do and they remained heavy and clumsy. Because firearms were so limited, armour continued to be worn. Infantry often became disorganised or panicked, so cavalry remained very useful for charging into their ranks or pursuing broken troops. In effect, gunpowder weapons had extended the killing ground and become a longsword, but close order remained vital because armies had to come to close quarters (or at least threaten to) to defeat their enemies. This pattern of close-order infantry and limited numbers of cavalry was essentially a continuation of the ancient and medieval experience, but elaborated by the use of firepower which in its primitive form is best regarded as a kind of longsword, a limited extension of the killing ground.

And there were plenty of other continuities in European warfare. Feeding an army was always difficult. In 1536 the Hapsburg emperor Charles V crossed the Alps and invaded Provence with 60,000 men, the largest army he ever assembled against a Christian power. The French response was very traditional – they scorched the earth, burning and destroying everything which could not be carried away, to the extent that local peasants were provoked into a guerrilla war. They then fortified the crossings of the Rhône and the passes to the north so that the imperial army was caught in a trap. The invaders could get little food from their distant Italian bases, so they plundered the land, provoking yet more resistance from the local people, some of whom actually tried to assassinate the emperor. When the French realised that the mills at Auriol had not been put out of action and were providing flour for the enemy, they destroyed them in a daring raid under Blaise de Montluc on 19–20 August. Faced with the prospect of starvation, the imperial army withdrew having accomplished nothing.

Such campaigns had been waged since time immemorial, and they continued because states with limited wealth and administrative capacity could not overcome the formidable problems of supply and organisation. This is one key reason why, although the European population grew in the early modern period, increases in the size of armies for long tended to be episodic. In the later fifteenth century the French monarchy, with a population of 12–15 million, briefly raised about 70,000–80,000 men. In the sixteenth century 50,000–60,000 was a more normal maximum, though population was climbing towards 18 million. At the height of the Thirty Years War when total population was only a little higher the figure rose to 125,000. These are wartime figures – in peacetime they fell away dramatically: between 1600 and 1620 the French supported only about 10,000 soldiers. The reasons for this were both political and economic.

Overall the wealth of Europe was evidently increasing, but the ability of governments to tap into this was limited, so that rulers could ill afford standing armies. In 1588 England mobilised against the Spanish Armada, but as soon as the threat had passed the men were turned out to die of starvation and disease. The Spanish ‘Army of Flanders’, which waged the ‘Eighty Years War’ (1568–1648) to subdue the Dutch revolt against Spain, was a standing force with its own elaborate medical and support services. They should have defeated the rebels, but in 1575 Philip II of Spain (1556–98), at a critical stage in the war, went bankrupt and his troops mutinied, enabling the Dutch to revive. Philip actually went bankrupt three times. If the greatest western power of the age, backed by the wealth of its American empire, could barely sustain regular forces, it is hardly surprising that all other states relied on hiring mercenaries for short periods of time.

The fundamental cause of such limitation was nobles’ and city elites’ dislike of taxation. Since all rulers needed their cooperation for effective rule, such people were in a position to sustain resistance. Moreover, in most states strong elements of the nobility regarded war as their special preserve and source of profit. The monarchy therefore depended upon their nobles to hire, and in part pay, for troops to augment a central core of royal forces. These were ‘aggregate contract armies’. The French armies which invaded Italy in the sixteenth century employed Swiss pikemen as infantry and there were plenty of other mercenaries in the ranks, while many of the ‘French’ units, both cavalry and infantry, were contingents raised by important noblemen. The disparate elements of these composite armies were, of course, very difficult to control, because noblemen expected to use troops for their own purposes and to make money from them. But at least relying on these intermediaries saved costs, and troops paid by the monarchy could be dismissed to fend for themselves. Even so, soldiers were paid irregularly, and tended to despoil even friendly countryside for their own needs.

This European military system was tested almost to destruction in the Thirty Years War. The war was caused by religious divisions in the loose structure of the German Empire whose independent princes and cities, whether Catholic or Protestant, feared domination by the Hapsburg emperors. This inevitably merged with the conflict between the Catholic Spanish Hapsburgs and their rebellious Dutch Protestant subjects. Fear of a strong German Empire prompted foreign intervention by Protestant Denmark and Sweden, and, decisively, Catholic France. Their participation, in turn, dragged in other powers like Poland which feared the Baltic ambitions of Sweden, and even Bethlen Gabor, the Calvinist-Protestant prince of Transylvania who saw an opportunity to throw off the domination of Austria. Germany became a battlefield whose sufferings were exemplified by the Catholic sack of Protestant Magdeburg in 1631.

Catholic sack of Protestant Magdeburg in 1631.

Yet the war was episodic and often there was little fighting, but this did not diminish the evils inflicted upon the countryside. Wallenstein (1583–1634) was an able general in the service of the German emperor, but he was chiefly important as a kind of military entrepreneur who could put together large armies, up to 50,000 strong, for his master. The trouble was that although the emperor could raise enough money to tempt men to enlist, he lacked the means to continue to support them, so that as a result they became parasites on the countryside of Central Europe. All too often they pillaged wildly, but Wallenstein understood that this could provoke resistance and even flight from the land, and preferred to levy ‘contributions’, carefully organised levies of food and money from the peasantry, to support his men. In fact on both sides this process became an end in itself. Wallenstein commanded an army whose purpose, in the mind of its emperor, was to destroy Protestantism, but in pursuit of supply and support Wallenstein tolerated Protestants as long as they yielded ‘contributions’, an outlook so at odds with that of his Catholic emperor that Ferdinand II (1619–37) had him assassinated in 1634.

Given the constraints on royal finances, war had to pay for itself. In 1630 Sweden provided 2,368,000 riksdaler for Gustavus Adolphus’s war in Germany, but this had fallen to 128,573 by 1633. Contributions on this scale had devastating consequences for ordinary people, as noted by a resident of Allensbach when the village had to support a company of Bavarians:

A lieutenant, who got 80 florins in cash every month, hay for three horses and wood for his housekeeping: a sergeant 16 florins; a couple of corporals 12 florins each; several lance-corporals, eight florins each; common soldiers six florins per man. Even then we were still pestered by them and had to give them a good few quarts of wine every week. It all amounted to a cash sum of 270 florins every month, and this lasted for 13 weeks.

Because ‘contributions’ were the real mainstay of armies, war developed a momentum of its own. Victory demanded a great army whose costs quickly outran the wealth of a state, so conquest was needed to sustain a great army. This vicious circle clearly bewildered even the greatest monarchs. Moreover, their dependence on intermediaries to raise forces loosened their actual control over troops, and the pace of the conflict intensified this subjection. Ultimately such depredations became unbearable and in the end the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was built around the principle that religion would be determined by the rulers of individual states. The internal security implications of the composite or ‘aggregate contract armies’ led princes to reflect upon their military structures, particularly as they were painfully aware that their armies lagged behind those of their nearest neighbours, the Ottoman Turks, a steppe people whose urge to expansion was threatening to Central Europe and the Mediterranean.

In the period 1300 to 1650 Europeans were very struck by the changes wrought in their armies by gunpowder weapons. In 1598 an English writer explained: ‘The wars are much altered since the fierie weapons came up.’ And indeed much progress had been made in adapting to the new gunpowder technology, but European armies remained incoherent, ill-organised and ill-disciplined, and there had been little change in the balance of advantage between steppe forces and those of the settled agro-urban world.


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