Spanish Tercio, Thirty Years War

An officer of Pappenheim’s Black Cuirassiers (Thirty Years’ War) holding a wheel-lock pistol, painted by Anatoly Telenik.

Military change profoundly affected Europe’s states. It is sometimes called a ‘military revolution’, although that does not adequately delineate the chain-reactions, occurring over a long time-frame, which transformed the way that states defended themselves. What began in Italy in the fifteenth century was still being felt in the early eighteenth century. An arms race, unleashed in part by the way in which firearms and artillery affected the conduct of war, changed what soldiers wore, the equipment they carried, and the training and preparation that they needed. It transformed the role of the cavalry and its tactics. It altered the wounds they inflicted on one another and their chances of being killed. Firearms produced a step-change in the capital investment upon war. Weapons had to be purchased and stockpiled. Stronger fortifications required more investment in fixed-capital structures, which entailed maintenance and year-round garrisoning. Stronger fortifications meant longer sieges, stretching normal campaigning beyond the summer season and the equipment required. There was an equivalent arms race at sea, resulting from mounting guns on ships and a consequential shift in tactics to a style of combat based on firepower, similar to that used by artillery in sieges.

The visible result of military change was fortifications whose traces still mark the European landscape – distinctive arrow-headed bastions of earth, the lowest parts reinforced in stone or brick to prevent the ramparts from being degraded, with outer-works known as ravelins (triangular), horns (twin-pointed) and crowns designed to deliver a curtain of fire upon would-be besiegers. Engineers were in demand, lured by projects and rewards from one prince to another as states increased their protection with the latest designs of fortified strongholds. Military manuals in the early seventeenth century were replete with ballistic details. Growing international tensions in Europe in the early seventeenth century are reflected in the thousands of miles of newly constructed or modernized fortresses. They included those built by engineers for Henry IV’s head of fortifications (the duke of Sully) from Savoy to Picardy on the French frontiers. Engineers for the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Habsburgs built defensive lines along the rivers in the Netherlands and in the lower Rhineland. The Austrian Habsburgs countered those built by the Ottomans across the Hungarian plain.

The importance of these fortresses in contributing to a military revolution can be exaggerated. Sieges were long and complicated affairs, expensive in materials and lives. Artillery was cumbersome and only fired mortar rounds slowly. As in naval warfare, the mobilization for siege warfare was a hostage to fortune. French commanders in the Thirty Years War found themselves committed by strategists in Paris to sieges which absorbed massive resources, the limited strategic gains being offset by a failure to hold a stronghold somewhere else. Shrewd military commanders in the Thirty Years War and English Civil War avoided sieges. What mattered was operational effectiveness, and for that the military equivalent of subcontracting was an important way for states to provide well-trained and reliable troops, feed and pay them, and motivate them to undertake the arduous route-marches and campaigns which the attritional warfare of the Thirty Years War demanded. Military ‘devolution’ (outsourcing) was as important as military ‘revolution’.

The resort to mercenaries to supplement the resources of a prince was well established, especially on the frontiers of Christendom, where the empty political spaces were occupied by militarized groups (such as Cossacks, Uzkoks and others) which had a tradition of combining raiding and piracy. Privateering was an established way of contracting for naval forces. Condottieri from leading families in the Italian peninsula (the Sforza, the Gonzaga) furnished forces to the Habsburg and Valois combatants in the Italian Wars, their contracts sometimes including a retainer (condotta in aspetto) to ensure that their men were held in readiness for another campaign. The best-trained forces of sixteenth-century Europe were its mercenaries. The Swiss infantry forged the technique of organizing a defensive square of soldiers with halberds, protected by a fringe of pikemen. That, in turn, was adopted by the Spanish tercio and German Landsknechte. The latter were mercenary soldiers, raised through the Holy Roman Empire by smaller German territorial princes and nobles whose units were then contracted out to princes. The effectiveness of the Swiss infantry squares depended on skills that were spread through the companies, coupled with leadership.

Those qualities were acquired by experience. Swiss soldiers were recruited from close-knit peasant communities, comrades staying together in their contingents. Their commanders came from families where military service was regarded as an honourable career. The double-pay pikemen at the flanks of the companies were especially crucial to their solidity under fire. The Landsknechte had a more diverse basis for recruitment (including, after the Reformation, religious diversity) but many of them saw it as a professional calling. Each company had its elected officers who were responsible for troop movements, lodging and supplies, and who represented the interests of the soldiers to the captain. As in the Swiss companies, the men were divided into small groups who trained together. German contracting colonels came from among the smaller territorial princes or imperial nobility, but officers were ‘acclaimed’ by the soldiers at large, assembled in a circle, the body which also collectively enforced military discipline. The notorious flamboyance of mercenaries’ clothing – multi-coloured jackets, slashed breeches and outrageous cod-pieces – reflected the cultural and social assumptions of men who flaunted their sexuality and killing prowess.

Cavalry companies (Reiter) were much in demand, another part of the German soldier-business. Military changes made the traditional ‘man-at-arms’ – a man on a horse, protected with plate armour – a specialized and expensive military weapon. Units of heavy cavalry still survived in France, Venice or Milan into the seventeenth century, satisfying noble pretensions, but mostly they were replaced by bands of mounted cross-bowmen and handgun-men, deployed with some armour protection. German Reiter specialized in the pistolier tactics known as caracol – from the Spanish for ‘snail’ – which created or exploited a collapse in the infantry squares of an opposing army. Such techniques were primarily responsible for the Protestants’ Mühlberg defeat (1547). It required considerable experience to undertake such manoeuvres in battlefield conditions.

Elongated campaign seasons, larger armies and attritional warfare expanded the opportunities for contracted-out military forces. At the same time, the insolvency of princes increased the attractiveness of sharing the costs of raising, equipping, paying and supplying armies with a military contractor. The military ‘enterpriser’ acted as both contractor and creditor. Enterprisers existed throughout the military hierarchy, from colonels and privateering captains through munitioneers and purveyors, up to generals and admirals. Their relationships with states varied, depending on what they offered (and were asked) to undertake. The willingness of enterprisers to expand their range of activities, to advance princes and governments credit, and to take on operational responsibilities, may of itself have intensified military engagements.

Operational-financial contractors existed in naval as well as military spheres. The Mediterranean galley squadrons of the Habsburgs were built, outfitted and maintained by private contractors. Genoese galley fleets were contracted to the Habsburgs. Three of the ships in the 1588 Spanish Armada were built by private contractors, and 45,000 of the 60,000 tons of the fleet that year came from hired merchantmen. Captains (Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh being notable examples) used their ships as business ventures. They raised their capital in consortia, running privateering operations or hiring their vessels to the state, as opportunities dictated. ‘Get a good ship and judiciously manage her’ was the advice to indigent younger sons of English gentry, brought up to believe the exaggerated stories of the profits accruing to Elizabethan adventurers.

The biggest profits from military contracting were to be made in munitions and armaments supplies. Genoa, Hamburg and Amsterdam acted as the centres, but they relied on secondary providers. The Genoese merchant houses of Stefano and Balbi provided the armour and arms to Spanish forces. The Marselis brothers were among the Hamburg munitioneers who serviced the needs of the armies of northern Europe. The Amsterdam armaments manufacturer Elias Trip built armed vessels for the Dutch East India Company, but hired them out to the Portuguese and Venetians during the Twelve Years Truce (1609–21), and then contracted them to the Dutch and the French. Louis de Geer, whose industrial concerns included the development of the Swedish copper and iron works in the 1620s, was approached by the Swedish general Lennart Torstensson in 1644 to provide a fleet of thirty-two crewed and armed Dutch ships against Denmark and Norway (Torstensson War, 1643–5). De Geer was happy to oblige – at a price (466,550 talers).

French and Dutch Protestant forces in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries recruited German infantry and cavalry. They were signed up for the duration of hostilities rather than for a campaign. The capitulations which laid out the terms of the contract were signed in the Rhineland cities where their commanders organized their financial backing. Although the core of the Army of Flanders was provided by Spanish veterans, the majority of the troops which served were raised by similar means. Then, in 1603 the government of the archdukes in the southern Netherlands handed over its operational management to the Genoese enterpriser Ambrogio Spínola, whose credit was better than that of the Spanish government itself. In the Long Turkish War the regiments in the Austrian Habsburg armies came from Italy, Spain and France as well as Germany, their cosmopolitan forces including many Protestant and Catholic enterprisers who followed where opportunities beckoned.

The importance of training increased with the spread of partially mass-produced portable firearms. These included the heavy-duty musket (supported by a rest on the ground when fired) and the lighter arquebus. These weapons were initially fired by a matchlock, a primitive mechanism that dropped slow-burning match-cord into a flash-pan to ignite the powder with the operation of a hand-lever. But dog-locks, wheel-locks and flint-locks – devices to produce a spark to ignite the charge – became more widely available. The introduction of the flint-lock is often credited to Marin le Bourgeois, a French gunsmith (and lute-maker) patronized by the French kings Henry IV and Louis XIII. But there was a trade-off between weapon weight and performance. Only larger-bore muskets could pierce armour at over 200 paces and, until the Thirty Years War (when the rifling of gun-bores that had begun to make hunting firearms more accurate was applied to military weapons), they were inaccurate. Portable firearms therefore depended on being used en masse and at close range with pikemen still essential to protect infantry in battle. Such developments placed even greater emphasis on drill and experience.

Gradually in the earlier seventeenth century the preference emerged for a more linear deployment over the more traditional large square blocks of troops. In his Art of War (1521) Machiavelli was among the first to stress the benefits of that formation. Contemporaries were aware of the disadvantages too. Linear formation lost the cohesion of the square. If challenged upon a flank, the long line had to pivot – a laborious manoeuvre, needing practice and officer oversight. Similar trade-offs were in play in the experiments with lightly armed, mobile cavalry organized into smaller units and shallow lines, offering great battlefield manoeuvrability but at the cost of the cumulative weight of a deep column of cavalry pouring into enemy positions. The Spaniards retained their company squares and it does not seem to have been a disadvantage to them. The French were slow to adopt newer cavalry formations but it did not compromise their victory at Rocroi (19 May 1643). Battlefield tactics did not spearhead a military revolution.

There was a profusion of printed books, covering every aspect of war. In words and diagrams, with lead soldiers, wooden models and mechanical toys, it was a subject of intense discussion. ‘Evrie day,’ noted the Elizabethan soldier Roger Williams, there were ‘newe inventions, strategems of warres, changes of weapons, munitions, and all sorts of engines newlie invented.’ For all that one learned in books, however, there was nothing like the experience of the real thing. The warfare of the late sixteenth century had created the pools of expertise which influenced soldiers of the next generation. The school of Alessandro Farnese, Spanish commander in Flanders in the 1580s and 90s, was highly prized. So too were those of Henry IV and Mauritz of Nassau and his cousin William Louis. The results were watched and to some extent copied in Protestant Europe in the next generation. In a letter to Mauritz in December 1594, William Louis mooted the idea of five rotating ranks of musketeers (based on the Ancient Greek military writer Aelian) to replicate the hail of fire which the Romans reputedly achieved with javelins and sling-shooters. It turned out that it took ten ranks to achieve that result. Intensive drilling was essential, as explained in Jacob de Gheyn’s Arms drill with arquebus, musket and pike (1607), the most successful military manual of its day.

Humanists championed the virtues of conscripted militia and criticized the unreliability, venality and lack of zeal in mercenary soldiers. Their case supported the vision of a Christian commonwealth in which citizens defended the patria in support of their prince. The reality was, however, that wherever conscripted citizen armies were attempted (for example, Machiavelli’s Florentine experiment in 1512 and the French ‘legions’ of the 1540s), they were a failure. Cheaper, they were poorly trained and tended to desert. Justus Lipsius (who knew little about armies but a lot about Tacitus) influenced the next generation with his critique of flamboyantly dressed mercenaries who were a law unto themselves, and his arguments in favour of disciplined, conscripted troops. ‘I likewise require modestie of apparell’ runs the English translation of Book V of his Politics, where he presented his blueprint for ‘a severe conforming of the souldier to valour and virtue’. Military enterprisers in the Thirty Years War and English New Model Army generals disciplined their troops not because they read Lipsius but because they had a stake in the units they commanded.

The regiments which campaigned in the period from 1620 to 1650 were raised and maintained in a variety of ways. There were forces that were financed, administered and directed by the state (parts of the French and Spanish armies, the core of the Swedish army, the New Model Army) at one extreme of the spectrum. General contractors (such as Albrecht von Wallenstein, Ernst von Mansfeld and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar) who ran armies almost as private states in their own right lay at the other. In between there were entrepreneurs offering packages of military and naval force but under the overall control of statesmen, partially state-controlled operations, where some elements (munitions, supplies and so forth) were contracted out, and specialized providers of munitions and other services. Particular circumstances dictated the degree to which military forces were contracted out. What they all had in common was a willingness to fight longer and harder, with higher proportions of casualties. Some of the battles of the Thirty Years War (Rheinfelden, 1638; Freiburg, 1644, for example) lasted over twenty-four hours. At the second battle of Breitenfeld (1642) half of the imperial forces lay dead or wounded or had been taken prisoner; 30 per cent of the opposing Swedish troops were dead or injured. At the battle of Jankau (1645) Lennart Torstensson’s Swedish army of German mercenaries was pitched against the imperial forces led by Melchior von Hatzfeld. Four to five thousand of the 16,000 soldiers on the imperial side were killed or missing by the end of the battle, and a similar number were captured by the Swedes. Regimental soldiers were tough, resourceful and adaptable – prepared to undertake forced marches of hundreds of miles and then pitch into battle without delay.

Such commitment was not generated by loyalty to an individual ruler, except when he was also a battlefield commander as in the cases of Gustav Adolf and Oliver Cromwell. It owed little to religious or patriotic zeal. The armies were composed of different nationalities: Gustav Adolf’s army in northern Germany in 1631 comprised 43,000 Swedes and 36,000 Germans, Scots, Livonians and Latvians. The Army of Flanders was Spanish in name but cosmopolitan in composition. An Italian colonel in imperial service might recruit German or Hungarian soldiers, supplemented by men from Italy or elsewhere. Colonels and commanders did not generally impose confessional adherence on their forces. Religious pluralism was the consequence of recruiting and retaining soldiers for their experience rather than their zeal. Many of those fighting in the English New Model Army (1645–60) did so for religious reasons, and Cromwell became notorious for appointing those of humble means but strongly held Protestant beliefs (‘I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else,’ he wrote to the earl of Manchester). But when their junior officers and ranks became politicized over back-pay in the years from 1647 to1649 they supported the Independents, who rejected a state-imposed religious confession. Scottish Calvinists who, like Robert Munro, joined Gustav’s army ‘for the cause of religion’, fought for a Lutheran of decidedly broad-minded views, at odds with the ecclesiastical establishment of his own country, subsidized by Catholic France. Maximilian of Bavaria’s determination to insist on Catholic officers in his army inherited a broader tradition, encapsulated by the Jesuit Antonio Possevino’s 1569 manual, A Christian Soldier (copies of which were distributed to troops before Lepanto), which drew on crusading traditions. By 1650, those were traditions in clear retreat.

Military commitment was generated within fighting forces themselves. Battlefield commander-enterprisers had a personal financial stake in the survival and success of their units. Their own reputations as well as the fortunes of their backers rested on the operational decisions they made. Survival depended on developing and retaining experienced soldiers. Whatever short-term gains there might have been in recruiting dregs, in the longer term it was ‘able’ seamen and ‘old soldiers’ whose experience counted for most. Securing their services meant recruiting from as broad a background as possible, offering competitive pay, equipping them well, increasing the numbers of double-pay men in the ranks and enhancing prospects of advancement. Year-on-year campaigning, with the reality of different states competing for what military enterprisers offered, strengthened the contemporary perception in the Thirty Years War that soldiery was a career. Among the 15,000 troops of the Bavarian army which disbanded in 1649, six regiments had served continuously since 1620, and a further six had been in action for over two decades. A majority of regiments in German forces had perhaps seen a minimum of six years of continuous campaigning. Most important of all, battlefield commanders were responsible for feeding and paying their men. Their own credit lines and logistic support were essential to their military success.


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