The Swiss Infantry

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The Swiss Infantry

A very different path led to the emergence of the Swiss as a major contributor to the mercenary market, and offered other models and lessons for the later emergence of military enterprise. Under pressure from predatory outsiders, three of the central Swiss cantons joined together in a military alliance in 1291. Enjoying its first great success against Austrian Habsburg ambitions at Morgarten in 1315, the Eidgenossenschaft continued to evolve militarily through to the shattering defeat of another Habsburg army by the cantons’ infantry at Sempach in 1386. By the time of the latter battle the Swiss had turned improvised local resistance under the direction of some experienced military leadership into a formidable battle-winning military system based on mobilizing the adult male population into the Gevierthaufen, units of 4,000–8,000 men that were to be the hallmark of Swiss tactics for the next hundred and fifty years. Moreover the original group of central cantons composing the first Eidgenossenschaft had been joined in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by numbers of additional cantons and by the powerful Drei Bünde bordering the Tyrol.

Between Sempach and the spectacular victories of 1476–7 at Grandson, Murten and Nancy, which led to the destruction of the kingdom of Burgundy, the Swiss military reputation grew impressively. After the defeat of the Burgundian armies, despite their state-of-the-art armoured cavalry, good-quality infantry and substantial, modern artillery, the reputation of the Swiss shifted: from being regarded as useful force-enhancers added to other European armies, they were seen as an entire weapons system in their own right.

In practice, and as early as the battles against the duke of Burgundy it was clear that an army based purely on Swiss infantry had significant limitations. While the Swiss squares, with their fringe of pikemen and deep central block of soldiers with halberds and other hacking weapons, could sweep aside forces of armoured cavalry or less cohesive infantry with ease, they had limited capacity to follow up the defeat of an enemy on the battlefield. Without cavalry to harass and drive retreating troops into a disorderly rout, the enemy forces, though mauled by the Swiss, would probably live to fight another day – as the Burgundians managed after their first encounter at Grandson. More significantly for the future, Swiss confidence in the invulnerability of their infantry led them to neglect artillery. In the early fifteenth century they had field artillery that was equal to that of their enemies in numbers and quality, but by the early sixteenth century they had fallen substantially behind in terms of both technology and tactical thinking about the uses of firepower.

Ultimately even the superiority of the Swiss infantry on the battlefield was to be brought into question. If one response to the crushing defeats of the Burgundian armies was to try to hire the Swiss en masse, another was to try to forge similar infantry units from local material. Earliest and most successful in imitating the style of the Swiss infantry were the German Landsknechte, who had developed a military tradition as formidable as the Swiss by the 1520s. A further challenge to the Swiss was to be posed by the Spanish creation of their own elite infantry, the tercios, who combined the cohesion and offensive mass of a Swiss square with tactical flexibility, and a more coherent role for infantry firearms in combat.

In the long term the Swiss would lose their position to rivals who both imitated their military methods and gradually improved upon them, but the Swiss system of raising and deploying soldiers offers some important pointers towards the evolution of more elaborate systems of military enterprise. In comparison with the condottiere and their straightforward marketing of specialized military resources, the paradox of the Swiss system was that local citizen defence, based on the general obligation to military service and organized by the cantons, became an efficient mechanism for hiring out soldiers to foreign powers. The oft-made point about the propensity of agriculturally poor, mountainous regions in Europe to export a proportion of their men to make a living as soldiers certainly holds good for the cantons, as it did for the Tyrol, Croatia or Scotland. But the process was not without its conflicting pressures, as the authorities sought to balance what they considered to be the fundamental defensive needs of the Confederation and its constituent cantons, with the temptations and opportunities to send able-bodied men for service abroad.

The attraction of such military service for the soldiers was straightforward: contracts for service abroad paid wages of 4½ gulden per month. This was the pay of a skilled craftsman in the early sixteenth century, and at least twice that of an agricultural labourer. Those who were nominated as double-pay soldiers received substantial increments, while company captains would be paid up to ten times the ordinary wage. Moreover duties involving unusual danger – fighting pitched battles and storming fortifications, for example – were considered to merit additional payments from the warlord, while there was hope of making much larger sums from looting, booty and ransoming prisoners. The cantonal authorities sought to regulate this service, frequently asserting that they were the only legitimate channel through which foreign powers could negotiate. This of course allowed the authorities themselves to make substantial profits on the contracts, and also to benefit from the pensions which major military recruiters such as France and the Emperor paid to ensure goodwill and cooperation in meeting requests for the hire of soldiers. Cantonal control had some public benefits as well: given the fragmentary nature of Swiss society, local control of military service could prevent price-lowering inter-cantonal competition, and avoided the political – and military – difficulties of either finding that Swiss troops were contracted to fight against each other in opposing foreign armies, or running the risk of antagonizing powerful allies by an inability to prevent Swiss soldiers entering service with their enemies. Moreover, the cantonal authorities would occasionally come together to agree on military policy at the level of the Confederation, with decisions to raise a large part of the available fighting force – potentially up to 70,000 men by the time of the Burgundian Wars – for common defence or the pursuit of shared military interests.

The authority to decide on when and for whom the Swiss soldiers should be raised was combined with direct involvement of the cantons in the process of recruiting and organizing the troops for war. A decision by a canton to raise troops on its own behalf, or to levy a specified number in accordance with a collective decision of the Confederation, would be followed by a mass summons for all the able-bodied males between sixteen and sixty to assemble so that the local officials could make a selection to achieve the agreed total of the levy. All those eligible for service were obliged to provide their own weapons and appropriate armour: breastplates and iron helms for the pikemen, in some cases partial armour for the halberdiers. Those called for service, but unable to afford weapons and armour, would be helped either from the town armoury or by loans of equipment from neighbours who were not summoned for military duty. Much of the support system for the troops – food supplies to be purchased at least while the troops were passing through the Confederation, transport for artillery, baggage and potentially for captured booty – was provided by the authorities. Though elements of the local elites, especially wealthy merchants, could buy exemption from military service via provision of arms, equipment and the hiring of substitutes, it would still be true that a higher proportion of the Swiss population took an active part in military activity than in other contemporary states. But if this appeared to some contemporaries and in subsequent accounts as an apparently utopian model of collective, democratic civil defence, the reality was rather different.

What made the Swiss military system work so effectively? Conscripting and equipping the troops might be a collective exercise, but the tactical effectiveness of the great Swiss infantry squares depended on military professionalism and experience at two levels. The forces needed to be led by men who knew how to deploy their troops effectively in very different conditions and against different types of enemy – from French and Burgundian heavy cavalry to Landsknechte who mirrored Swiss battle tactics. This kind of tactical and operational skill had to be combined with distinct leadership qualities. The cooperation of leaders of cantonal contingents needed to be won by consultation and active involvement in decision-making, while the ordinary soldiers had a strong sense of their fighting identity and needed to be handled with respect and restraint.89 While such leaders were part of the cantonal elites and were involved in decision-making in that context, they were also marked out by their lengthy military service and experience. In general they came from a tight-knit group of noble families with an extensive tradition of military leadership, who looked on military command as a career rather than an occasional act of patriotic duty. A noble family like the Stockalper from Brig held a succession of military commands from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, with a representative figure like Peter von Stockalper leading a large contingent of the Swiss troops in the French army at Pavia in 1525. Another noble family, the Courten von Siders, dominated recruitment and led troops from the Wallis through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, combining this with a succession of influential cantonal offices. Service abroad was the obvious means to acquire and develop military experience, while it also provided the opportunity not available at home to make a career and acquire wealth.

The nobles and other military professionals composing the high command were not the only element pushing for more extensive and flexible military service. While the military effectiveness of the Gevierthaufen appears in much earlier Swiss history as a spontaneous expression of the military spirit of the nation, in reality the striking-power and cohesiveness of the great squares depended on the elite of pikemen, the ‘double-pay men’, who occupied the front ranks of each side of the square. It was their steadfastness and experience in combat that was vital to harness the crude violence and energy of the mass of the soldiers: keeping the square tight, but not dangerously over-compressed, by their own positioning and sticking-power, while moving it forward to a collision with enemy defenders where the survival chances of these front ranks would depend on their skill with the pike and confidence that they would break the enemy. Serving in this ‘double-pay’ role demanded extraordinary qualities, not least physical strength and training to wield and then manoeuvre an unwieldy, iron-tipped 5½ metre pike, while wearing heavy breast and back armour. Absolutely crucial to the cohesion of the unit, it demanded a level of self-discipline and small-group identity which set them apart from the mass of less-experienced ordinary soldiers in the unit. As with the senior officers, the double-pay men were a group who were committed to military service and prepared to regard it, if not as a life-time career, certainly as a choice for a significant period of their early/middle life. The effectiveness of the Swiss military system depended on groups of men who could not easily be reabsorbed into civilian life and for whom military professionalism was both a choice and a necessity. Originally it represented a choice: the Mats were a combination of young and middle-aged unmarried men from within local communities, who would be the obvious group called up in any recruitment. Many of them enjoyed this role, volunteering for successive mercenary units being raised by local commanders, and were reluctant to return to the stable peasant community of their elder, married brothers where they would probably occupy a marginal role. In many cases this service abroad would eventually detach them from any sense of identity with their original community, and they would become Kriegsgurgeln, unsettled and rootless ex-veterans, habituated to risk-taking violence and casual opportunities for military service, never properly reintegrated into civilian life after the end of campaigns. For them, and for those who wanted to control their disruptive impact on settled civil society, military service was now a necessity, the only alternative to begging or crime. They formed a large group outside the normal cantonal recruitment system, but a natural pool of recruits for officers assembling units to take up mercenary contracts.

From 1476 until 1515 the Confederation’s military reputation stood at its height, and so, briefly, did its own territorial ambitions. The foreign invasions of Italy from 1494 opened up a new period of threat from potentially powerful neighbours in Lombardy, but also provided opportunities to extend Swiss influence and power southwards, most notably and ultimately disastrously in the decision to sell their services and support to Massimiliano Sforza, duke of Milan, against France from 1512 to 1515. The Confederation also sought to assert itself politically and territorially against the Empire and the Habsburg Tyrol, fighting the Swabian War in 1499, a struggle of which the legacy was a hardening of the hatred between Swiss and Landsknechte into what became a merciless vendetta through the next century. But as this period came to an end, as the Confederation stepped back from heavy – and profoundly divisive – commitments outside its own territory, space opened for larger and more diverse contracts with foreign powers. So long as the Confederation had been pursuing its own political interests via the deployment of military force, the growing desire of the warring great powers to hire Swiss troops en masse had been hard to satisfy. The figure of 6,000 troops recurs regularly in contract negotiations throughout this period, implying the upper limit of the forces that the authorities were prepared to see committed abroad while their own military needs were still potentially in play.

With changing priorities the financial, and on occasions political, benefits of responding to these requests for Swiss soldiers became more tempting to the cantonal authorities. In 1511 those seemingly perpetual enemies, the Confederation and the House of Habsburg, negotiated a ‘hereditary treaty’, offering mutual support in case of attack by a third party, and for the Habsburgs the right to hire Swiss troops to assist their own military defence. The Swiss defeat at Marignano in 1515 was followed by an agreement to a ‘perpetual peace’ with France, though it was not until 1521 that the French king managed to negotiate an agreement for the levy of Swiss troops. The hesitation of the cantons in agreeing to these levies was unsurprising, given that any such agreement would stand in direct contravention of the agreements with the Habsburgs. The open and multi-theatred conflict between Habsburg and Valois down to 1559 conflicted with clauses in both sets of treaties which stipulated that the Swiss were to be hired only for defensive warfare, and made a mockery of the apparently exclusive nature of the agreements, but at the same time also strengthened the cantons’ hands in a ‘bidding war’ for their services. When in 1553 Henri II wanted to increase the number of troops to be raised from the previously agreed 10,000 to 16,000, the terms included a substantial reduction in rights of French supervision over the recruitment and selection process and over the subsequent autonomy of the regiments, and formalized the agreement that in addition to recruitment and transportation money the Swiss soldiers would receive a full, non-refundable three months’ worth of wages at the time of the levy.

In reality these incompatible agreements with different warlords should be seen not so much as a product of greed and duplicity, but as a symptom of the acutely divided and fragmentary nature of federal authority. Any agreement between the various cantons on common policy or action was never more than temporary and contingent, and the individual cantons were themselves often strongly divided about the profits and potential hazards of military policy. The 1521 treaty with François I to provide soldiers for France’s defensive needs was not signed by Zurich, and as the reformation spread to other cantons, notably Berne, so they also started to hedge their commitment and refused to provide troops for France.105 Protestant cantons’ reluctance to support a common line when it came to requests for troops from Catholic powers was paralleled by the refusal of the eastern territories – the Drei Bünde – to accept limitations on their provision of troops for Habsburg service, making a particular treaty in 1518 to renew their formal military agreements with the Austrian lands. A few decades later in 1567, it was the Catholic cantons who broke ranks, agreeing against the wishes of the Protestants to send 6,000 troops to support Charles IX against the Huguenots, troops placed under the command of the militantly Catholic Ludwig Pfyffer von Altishofen.

Even as the cantons were divided about which of the major, and possibly which of the second-rank, powers should have their requests to hire troops met, an additional factor came into play. The military experience of the senior officers might express itself in service to the Confederation or its chosen foreign warlords, but it was also attractive for them to offer military service at the head of a ‘free’ company of soldiers. The right to offer service to external powers as opportunity and reputation permitted – the principle of Reislaufen – was strongly asserted by its advocates, and not just for the obvious personal advantages of lucrative private contracts with foreign powers. It was argued that such service ensured that the range and level of military expertise was maintained amongst those who might later be called to serve under the authority of the canton or the Confederation; moreover the cantons’ own policies with regard to hiring and not hiring soldiers to external warlords were anything but coherent, and ‘informal’ service could prove a useful means to satisfy demands unofficially. Above all, military service via these informal channels served the obvious economic and social function of drawing more effectively on both the marginal, militarized population – the Kriegsgurgeln – and the Mats who were still part of the community but were under pressure as younger sons or unmarried relatives to draw their subsistence from outside that local community. The numbers prepared to volunteer for military service, either when authorized by the canton or simply organized by officers for foreign service, were impressive: of the 30,000 men raised by the Confederation to attack Dijon in 1513, some 14,000 had come forward as simple volunteers, offering their military experience in the hope of gain from pay and plunder.

In a striking prefiguration of the activities of later military enterprisers, it was thus possible for some of these ‘free’ commanders to raise large numbers of troops, drawing simply on their ability to raise Swiss volunteers without recourse to any cantonal conscription or selection. The precise number is not given, but in 1486–7 the eldest son of Count Jörg von Werdenberg-Sargans was able to attract ‘around fifty companies’ of volunteer soldiers for a war against Milan, against the explicit wishes of the authorities in the Drei Bünde. The capacity of these private captains to raise large numbers of troops was recognized by foreign warlords: in 1499 the French sought to recruit 12,000 Swiss soldiers on the basis that they would negotiate with forty independent captains, prepared to raise soldiers outside of cantonal organization.

Moreover, as Swiss troops after 1515 again started to be hired less often as a free-standing, battle-winning force, and more as a powerful addition to a mixture of other units raised by a warlord, so the range of opportunities for independent captains grew. There were large numbers of experienced captains who, in return for financial advances on their contract, could raise one or several infantry companies of 100–300 men each, and even a regiment at its later sixteenth-century strength of 1,000–3,000 men. The captains would receive funds from the warlord, and would then use their reputation, local influence or social position to seek out volunteers, who would arrive for service equipped and armed at their own expense. Without the involvement of the cantonal officials, there was no official mechanism to loan arms and armour to those selected for service who lacked money to buy them. Instead there is some evidence of small-scale financial investment in the individual soldier: money being lent him for the purchase of halberd or breastplate against hopes of a good return on a successful campaign. Some of this may have been more systematic: the captains who raised 6,000 troops for Ludovico Sforza’s service in 1500, Wilhelm von Diesbach, Jean Matter, Gutmann Zoller, George de Riva and Antoine Wider, all contributed some of their own funds for raising and equipping their companies.

Where real differences opened up between captains offering ‘free’ military service to foreign warlords and those acting as the agents of a system administered via cantonal authorities was in areas of financial expertise and logistical organization. Especially in the latter case, the ‘free’ captains were well aware that moving recruits through the territory of the Confederation without ensuring good order and adequate supplies of food would produce a ferocious reaction from the authorities. The contracts were negotiated with warlords to provide adequate sums of Laufgeld to cover the costs of such troop movements, but much still depended on good planning and reliable support. By the sixteenth century most commanders of a group of contracted companies would recruit a regimental staff to manage the finances and to try to ensure that provisions were purchased and stockpiled and that violent incidents with local populations (within the cantons) were avoided as far as possible. Even outside the frontiers of the Confederation it might be the case that the companies could live in part from requisitioning, robbery and plunder, but when food, money and saleable loot were not to hand, it fell to the unit commanders to try to organize provisioning for their men in camp, garrison or on the march, again requiring skills in making contacts with suppliers, organizing transport and advancing money for purchases that could later be recouped from the soldiers’ wages. These financial and organizational skills cultivated by the military families of the sixteenth century were to remain strongly in evidence amongst the Swiss military enterprisers of the Thirty Years War such as Hans Ludwig von Erlach or François-Pierre Koenig.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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