Swiss Mercenaries in the 15th and early 16th centuries

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”

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In Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5, Shakespeare has the king call out: “Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.” Here Shakespeare is referring to the famous Swiss mercenaries, whose courage, reliability, and battlefield skills made them the most sought-after mercenaries during the Late Middle Ages. Their discipline and training even allowed them to withstand cavalry charges. Because they were so good at their work, it is worth saying something here, very briefly, about their abilities.

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.

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