The Military Significance of the Turkish War

The Long Turkish War saw the largest mobilization of troops in the Empire and Habsburg lands since 1568 and was the opportunity for many soldiers to gain experience of major operations prior to 1618. The list of Rudolf’s officers reads like a roll-call of the senior generals of the first half of the Thirty Years War. Wallenstein began his career as an ensign in the imperial infantry in 1604 and was wounded in the left hand during the final stages of the conflict. Both Schlick and Rudolf von Tieffenbach made early reputations against the Turks, while Trauttmannsdorff, the monarchy’s greatest diplomat, performed his only military service in this war. Charles de Nevers, the man at the centre of the Mantuan War of 1628–31, reputedly saved Wallenstein’s life at the siege of Kassa where he was himself serving as one of the many French Catholic volunteers. A significant number of the Italians who later rose to prominence also participated, including Count Collalto who became president of the Imperial War Council, Rodolfo de Colloredo who became a field marshal, and Ernesto Montecuccoli who subsequently commanded in Alsace. Some Italians were drawn to the Austrian forces by established patterns of serving the emperor; others arrived with the men sent to reinforce the Imperialists by Spain and the papacy, including Marradas and Dampierre, as well as Tilly from the Netherlands. Franz von Mercy, the Bavarian commander in the later stages of the Thirty Years War, also began his career against the Turks. The same was true for many of those who were later to oppose the emperor, including all three principal commanders of the Bohemian rebels: counts Thurn, Hohenlohe and Mansfeld.

The presence of these figures has largely been overlooked by military historians who concentrate on warfare in western Europe and underestimate the impact of the Turkish campaigns on subsequent developments. The western focus is embedded in the concept of a ‘military revolution’ that has become the accepted way of viewing early modern warfare. The proponents of this approach variously stress Spain, the Dutch and Sweden as the progenitors of new ways of fighting during the sixteenth century that relied on gunpowder weaponry wielded by large, disciplined units. Innovations in tactics and strategy allegedly made warfare more decisive, as well as increasing its scale and impact on state and society. Developments are fitted into a sequence with one power replacing another as the most efficient war-maker. Initial Spanish predominance is shaken first by the Dutch who are regarded as developing a more flexible military system that Sweden later improved upon and finally France perfected during the later seventeenth century. Scant attention has been paid to the imperial forces during the Thirty Years War, because they are perceived to have clung to an increasingly obsolete Spanish system that is associated with the pedantic positional warfare of the Dutch Revolt. In fact, Spanish ways of fighting often proved successful and were in constant evolution. Methods that were developed from the 1570s to deal with the Dutch were also effective against the Turks who likewise frequently evaded battle and sheltered behind fortifications. However, the Hungarian theatre encouraged its own practices that influenced how armies fought later in Germany, so it is more appropriate to see imperial ways of war as an amalgam of different experiences and ideas.

Military Technology

The Spanish system developed following the ‘real’ military revolution, in the sense of the largely technologically driven changes in warfare between 1470 and 1520 that saw the widespread adoption of hand-held firearms by both horse and foot, and their combination with new shock tactics by large, disciplined bodies of troops. These developments in turn sprang from changes in metallurgy and gunpowder milling that made firearms truly effective for the first time in Europe. Relatively rapid improvements followed in both handguns and cannon that forced commanders to rethink their use of these weapons. Guns and artillery were deployed on a larger scale in battle and were combined with existing weapons in new offensive and defensive tactics. The pace of technological change slowed from the mid-sixteenth century, by which time all the basic weapons had appeared while further developments were restricted by manufacturing problems. For example, cannon production lagged considerably behind ballistic theory because gun founders were unable to deliver pieces that matched the potential that mathematicians had calculated. It proved difficult boring straight tubes in solid barrels before the mid-seventeenth century. Instead, cannon were cast using an iron rod coated with clay, horse hair and manure as the bore that was covered with a mixture of molten copper, tin, lead and brass in a mould to form the bronze barrel. The core was then removed and a drill used to finish the bore to the required calibre in a method that was both time-consuming and not entirely reliable.

The bewildering variety of heavy guns essentially fell into two types. Cannon proper (Kartaunen) were short-barrelled, thin-walled pieces firing solid round shot of between 24 and 75 pounds each and were used primarily to batter fortifications. Such guns were very heavy and required ten or more horses to shift them. Culverins (Schlangen) were longer-barrelled, thicker tubes that were safer to use, and had greater range and accuracy. Their stronger barrels required more metal, making them generally twice as heavy as cannons firing shots of equivalent weight. They tended to be used for six- or twelve-pound shot, and were often produced in smaller, two to four pounder versions called falconets (Falkone) that could be pulled in battle by two to eight horses. These guns were supplemented for siege work by mortars, short stubby guns that lobbed round shot or primitive shells over walls and obstacles.

The full range of equipment and projectiles already existed by the 1590s, including poison gas shells (used in the Netherlands and which contained various noxious substances intended to asphyxiate or blind their targets). Firebombs, or heated round shot, could be used to create firestorms in towns by igniting the tightly packed flammable buildings. There were also shells with flint and steel detonators, and those that exploded using a fuse ignited by the propellant charge in the barrel. Attacking troops could be mowed down with canister and other antipersonnel rounds that burst on exiting the barrel, turning it into a large shotgun. In short, there was little left to invent by the later sixteenth century, and future developments were largely refinements of what already existed by improving manufacture to make weapons more reliable and less hazardous to use.

The same applied to handguns that also existed in great variety but were increasingly called muskets for foot soldiers and pistols for horsemen. The former were between 125 and 144cm long, weighing 4–10kg and firing a lead ball of 40g around 300 metres, with an effective range of less than half that. The heavier versions required a rest to steady the barrel as the musketeer fired. The lighter version was still called an arquebus and was largely restricted to infantry trained to fight in looser formations, and by cavalry relying on firepower rather than cold steel. Improved manufacture enabled the lighter muskets to withstand a larger charge, and led to the disappearance of both the arquebus and the musket rest from around 1630. Most cavalry, including those trained to attack with lances and swords, carried long-barrelled pistols in holsters either side of their saddles. Pistols were rarely effective beyond 25 metres, but their metal-weighted handles could be used as a club in close combat. The technological advances associated with later centuries were already in existence, including rifled barrels, breach loading and a wide variety of mechanisms to ignite the propellant charge. There were mechanical wheel locks for pistols and the snaphance, or flintlock, for muskets, that used a flint to spark the powder. The flintlock became the principal infantry weapon between 1680 and 1840, because it was more reliable in wet weather and less susceptible to accidental discharge than the matchlock. This relied on pulling a lever to depress a metal claw holding a slow-burning match onto loose powder in a pan that sent flame through the vent to ignite the main charge in the barrel. There was a one in five chance that the flame failed to pass through the vent, providing the origins of the expression ‘flash in the pan’. This was double the chance of a misfire with a flintlock, but both these and wheel locks were still expensive, delicate weapons that often broke. Manufacturing problems restricted flintlocks’ use to hunting, while matchlocks remained cheap, sturdy and easy to use.


Contemporary drill books convey a false impression that an elaborate sequence of hand, arm and body movements was necessary to load and fire. In fact, the carefully itemized movements reflected the prevailing scientific concern to fix and understand human movement, rather than actual practice. The most complicated manoeuvre was the counter-march, intended to provide continuous fire during an advance or retreat. Each rank fired in turn; those who had just discharged their weapons remained stationary to reload while the next line stepped through the gaps between each man to take its turn. By the time the last line had fired, those who had shot first would have reloaded and could move forward. This was modified around 1595 so that men stood in blocks of five, peeling off as a group right or left once they had fired so as to reduce the number of gaps required in the line. Arquebuses and lighter muskets took around a minute to load, requiring fewer ranks to maintain continuous fire than heavier muskets that needed up to three minutes to reload. The Dutch practised the retiring counter-march, enabling them to fire while avoiding contact with an approaching foe. Well-trained, motivated troops could cover up to forty metres a minute with an advancing counter-march and about half that if retiring. The system could also be used while stationary, with each man peeling off to the rear once he had fired and the soldier behind stepping into his place to fire. The Dutch deployed in only ten ranks, accepting lighter firearms as a consequence, and so kept their evolutions relatively simple. The Spanish preferred deeper formations of 15 to 25 ranks, and appear to have let their men fire in their own time, simply grouping those with lighter, quicker-firing weapons nearer the front.

Musketeers carried short swords for personal protection, either a ‘tuck’ for stabbing, or a heavier ‘hanger’ for cutting. Most were of poor quality that bent or blunted, so mêlées were fought largely by inverting the muskets and using the heavy, angled stock as a club. Such weapons were of limited use against opposing cavalry who could close rapidly before musketeers could reload. Already in the late fifteenth century it had become customary to combine ‘shot’, or firearm troops, with pikemen, each armed with a long pole of around five metres tipped with a steel spike. Pikes could be used offensively by soldiers in a compact block advancing with levelled weapons towards the enemy in the manner of an ancient Greek phalanx. When acting defensively, each man in the front rank would stretch back his right leg, plant the pike butt against his foot and bend his left leg forward to hold his weapon at a low angle. The next few ranks held their pikes level at shoulder height so the formation presented a forest of points in the enemy’s face.

Given their defensive role, pikemen initially wore at least a steel helmet, vaguely resembling that of modern American firefighters, and a breastplate. Some wore a full corselet that also included a backplate and additional sheets protecting the thighs. Armour continued in use because the trend towards lighter-calibre muskets reduced their penetrative power and meant that the steel sheets retained their protective value. It was impossible to thicken them, since a man could not be expected to carry more than around eighteen kilos of equipment in battle without becoming prematurely exhausted. For this reason, as well as expense, no more than half of pikemen wore a full corselet around 1600, relying instead on a leather ‘buff’ coat, and increasingly many lacked even a helmet. Musketeers had a helmet at the most, because they needed greater freedom of movement, both to operate their weapons and to act in looser formations. They frequently wore a cloak to protect their powder horns from getting wet. They needed two horns, one for coarse-grain barrel powder for the main charge, the other for finer, priming powder. Both hung on cords over the right shoulder to be carried on the left hip where they were fastened with iron hooks to a waist belt to stop them swinging. Musketeers also carried single round charges in wooden containers hung on cords from a bandolier over their left shoulder, resting on their right hip where a leather bag for the shot was also attached, along with other items needed to clean and repair their matchlock. The bandolier arrangement was known as the ‘twelve apostles’ after the number of charges. It was gradually replaced around 1630 by prepared paper cartridges, each with a ball and powder that were carried in a hip satchel, or ‘cartouche’. Finally, a musketeer had to carry four to six metres of coiled match around his neck and shoulder, or attached to his bandolier while on the march. Since it burned relatively quickly at the rate of ten to fifteen centimetres an hour, only one in ten men would keep it lit on the march to light those of his comrades if the unit came into action. Musketry was a dangerous business, since the burning match could easily ignite the apostles or loose powder that spilled onto the men’s clothes. For this reason soldiers deployed two to four paces apart, only closing files when attacking.

The question of uniforms has attracted considerable attention from military historians, with many crediting the Swedes as being the first to introduce them. However, it is clear that many German units already wore uniform coloured coats prior to 1618, because they were territorial levies issued with clothing in bulk by their prince. Red and blue appear the preferred colours but needed expensive dyes, and white, or rather undyed cloth, was more common. Bodyguards frequently had more lavish costumes, sometimes with decorated armour. The widespread use of short, leather trousers fastened at the knee, as worn by peasants and artisans, would have also contributed to uniformity. The scale and duration of the conflict after 1618 and its associated cost interrupted this earlier trend towards purpose-made uniforms, and led to a more ragged, dull appearance with a mix of greys, browns, greens and other dark colours. However, the practice of paying troops partly in cloth ensured some continued uniformity, at least in the imperial army where most of the infantry wore light ‘pearl’ grey coats by the 1640s.

The optimum combination of pike and shot, both as a numerical ratio and as a form of deployment, remained hotly debated in military treatises. Setting aside the numerous theoretical models, essentially only two formations were used in the field. Those adopting the Dutch-style counter-march needed thinner lines and more shot than pike, deploying a ratio of two to one in a ten-rank line by the 1590s, with the pikemen in the centre, flanked by equal numbers of musketeers. The Spanish and imperial infantry favoured the larger, deeper formations that had been the norm earlier in the sixteenth century. Their pike were grouped as a central block with always twice the number of men in each line as there were ranks deep, because each man needed twice the amount of space in depth as in width to wield his weapon. The effect was to produce a square block that would be flanked by ‘sleeves’ of musketeers. An additional three to five ranks of light arquebusiers generally lined the entire front to maximize firepower. If caught by a cavalry attack, the musketeers could shelter under the pikes that would stretch over their heads. When attacking enemy foot, the arquebusiers would retire round the flanks once they had fired, leaving the pike free to charge. Spanish and imperial commanders sometimes grouped additional blocks of musketeers on the four corners, which can be seen in many battle engravings from the early seventeenth century. This was simply a formation for deploying and advancing, and the additional shot would fan out towards the enemy to fire, falling back to a less exposed side of the square if the formation came under attack.

The large square formation has become known as the tercio after the term used by the Spanish for their infantry regiments, while the thinner, longer Dutch formation is called a battalion. It has become a historical convention to see the latter as inherently superior to the former, not least because of its association with firearms that have appeared to later generations as obviously more advanced than pikes, weapons first used by the ancient Greeks. This distinction is not accurate, nor does it correspond to sixteenth-century military thinking that drew directly on the ancient world for its inspiration. The deeper block formations offered better all-round fighting ability than the thinner Dutch lines, where each unit relied on its neighbours standing firm or its vulnerable flanks would be exposed if the enemy broke through. Though only the first five ranks of the tercio could fire at any one time, the presence of another ten or more behind stiffened the resolve of those in front, or at least made it harder for them to run away. The unit assumed a more imposing presence on the battlefield; something that was a considerable advantage as it bore down on a wavering foe. In an age of black powder, the battlefield soon filled with smoke, making it extremely difficult for commanders to see what was happening. It was easier to lose control of long thin lines, composed of smaller, but more numerous battalions, than a deployment of fewer, larger tercios. These could be positioned en échelon, or diagonally staggered in chequerboard fashion about 200 metres apart. If one became detached or separated, it was generally large enough to fight on alone until rescued.

There was a trend towards increasing the ratio of shot to pike and to stretch formations into thinner lines that became pronounced in the 1630s, as we shall see later. It was partly related to minor technological advances producing the lighter muskets, and possibly also to pressure from soldiers themselves. Recruits generally preferred becoming musketeers rather than pikemen, who often had to stand under fire without personally being able to retaliate. Pikemen had originally received higher pay and were still seen by officers as more honourable than musketeers. Men who rose from the ranks did so ‘from the pike up’ (von der Pike auf), and not from the musket. Pikemen killed using cold steel, like the traditional knight’s lance, whereas musketeers relied on the devilish invention of gunpowder producing thick clouds of acrid smoke, striking their foes from a distance, rather than looking them in the eye. Pikemen also accused their more lightly equipped colleagues of being more prone to plunder, whereas they could not enter houses with their long weapons – something that clearly had a ring of jealousy to it. Certainly, pikemen were more likely to throw away their weapons if their formation broke, thus becoming defenceless, whereas musketeers could flee still fully armed.

The trend towards more shot around 1590 was also due to the deployment of musketeers in smaller, looser formations to open a battle or to delay an enemy while the rest of the army assembled. Parties of 50 or more musketeers would be pushed out in front of the main line, covered by groups of 250 pikemen as a reserve and rallying point. Such methods anticipated those of 200 years later, but generally disappeared around 1630 with the growing emphasis on massed, disciplined firing by ranks developed by the Dutch and copied by the Swedes. Given the inaccuracy of individual shots, commanders emphasized the volume of fire, and later also its rapidity, culminating in the disciplined firing by platoons adopted around 1700.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.