SEMPACH, 9 July 1386

1889 painting by Karl Jauslin

Swiss pike square in the battle near Sempach on the 9th of July, 1386. Painting by Hans Ulrich Wegmann (1638/41) from the Battle Chapel at Sempach.

Illustration of the battle of Sempach in the chronicle of Diebold Schilling.

The Battle of Sempach, 1386. (a) Phase I: Marching north-east from Sempach (1), Duke Leopold’s Austrian army is unaware of the approach of a Swiss force moving towards him on the same road (2). The Swiss vanguard and the Austrians’ first division spot each other and begin to deploy (3). (b) Phase II: Recognizing the threat from the Swiss phalanx, Leopold orders his lead division to dismount (1) and deploys light infantry crossbowmen (2) to fire into the Swiss battle square to begin chipping away at the formation (3). (c) Phase III: The Swiss battle square begins to lose cohesion (1) and Leopold orders his dismounted knights into the fight (2). The Austrians inflict heavy losses on the Swiss, and Leopold readies his mounted knights for a charge (3) to finish off the disintegrating phalanx, but before the duke can order his horsemen forward, the Swiss main body appears over the rise towards Hildisrieden (4) and heads down the slope towards the action. (d) Phase IV: The Swiss quickly deploy from column into battle square (1) and smash into the flank and rear of the dismounted first division (2). Fatigued after an hour of fighting and faced with a seemingly unstoppable mass of fresh halberd-wielding infantry, the Austrians begin to rout (3). Leopold leaps from his horse and orders his division forward against this new menace (4). (e) Phase V: Before Leopold can launch his counter-attack, the Swiss wheel their square in a devastating assault on the Austrian flank (1). Though the Austrian knights fight bravely, they are gradually overcome by the Swiss halberdiers (2). The count of Hohenzollern, commanding the Austrian reserve, panics and orders a precipitate retreat (3), causing the squires and pages tending to the second division’s horses to look to their own safety and flee as well, abandoning their masters, including Duke Leopold, to certain death at the hands of the Swiss infantry (4).

Date: 9 July 1386.

Location. On the shores of Lake Sempach 10 miles north-west of Lucerne, near Road 2. 186.

War and campaign: The War of Independence of the Eight Swiss Cantons.

Object of the action: The Austrian Hapsburgs were trying to crush the rebellions of Confederate cantons.

Opposing sides: (a) Cantonal commanders leading the forces of four cantons, (b) Duke Leopold III commanding an Austrian army. Forces engaged: (a) Swiss: all infantry. Total: 1,600. (b) Austrians: including a large contingent of cavalry. Total: 4,000.

Casualties: The Austrian dead totalled 676 men including Leopold, a margrave, 3 counts, 5 barons, 7 bannerets, and 28 Austrian and 35 Tyrolean knights. The Swiss lost some 120-200 men, more than half of them Lucernese.

Result: The Swiss victory had wide repercussions owing to the death of Leopold and the flower of the Hapsburg nobility. It established the Swiss military reputation. As a result of this battle (from which the military reputation of the Swiss in part dates) the imperial towns were able to negotiate a truce which lasted until February 1388.

The battle of Sempach represents one of the most significant encounters in Swiss history-if not for the decisive way in which it was won, then certainly for the w a y in which the halberd became the primary Swiss weapon.

During the last quarter of the fourteenth century waves of political and social unrest swept over all western Europe. In Germany, in order to combat the encroachment of the Princes and lesser nobility, the towns made a supreme effort at co-operation and created a union in 1381. To this, in February 1385, Zurich, Berne, Solathurn and Zug adhered. The Forest Cantons however refused to join and Lucerne offered only indirect support. Despite this Lucerne considered the moment favourable for an attempt to throw off the last vestiges of Hapsburg overlordship, and in December 1385 war was started by her seizure of the Hapsburg administrative centre of Rothenburg while the town of Sempach, discontented with Austrian rule, was given co-burghership. All the confederates except Berne joined in.

After the death of the Emperor Charles, the Habsburg dynasty was divided up and the western approaches to Austria were handed over to the precocious young Duke Leopold III. Leopold, anxious to reassert the claims of his house on Swiss territory, soon incurred the wrath of the Confederation, which by a succession of alliances now had five new member cantons: Lucerne (1332), Zurich (1351), Zug and Glarus (1352), and Berne (1353). After hostilities between Lucerne and the Austrian fortress at Rothenburg in December 1385, war was declared; and by the middle of 1386 Leopold had mustered a formidable army of 4,000 knights and mercenaries, and carefully prepared his campaign.

However, the Confederates were well aware of his troop movements and swiftly marshalled some 1,600 troops from Lucerne and the three Forest Cantons. The two armies met to the northeast of Sempach by the hamlet of Hildesrieden. Here the two main Austrian columns were confronted by the Swiss van speedily advancing to gain their needed advantage of terrain. As it was, neither army had time to deploy effectively.

The Swiss, however, had achieved their aim, for Leopold had ordered his young knights in his ‘vaward battle’ to dismount-not only on account of the terrain, but also because the Duke wished to prove the effectiveness of the dismounted lance against the halberd. The Swiss for their part hastily formed a wedge with the wider right wing forming the point.

Shortly before mid-day the two armies crashed together in combat. With the first wave the dismounted Austrian vaward battle inflicted considerable losses in the front ranks of the Lucerne contingent, including the Hauptmann, Petermann von Gundoldingen. Soon the weight and superiority of the Austrian ‘pike’ began to show. Their crossbowmen gave the Swiss considerable trouble. Realizing the ineffectiveness of the frontal onslaught, the Swiss commanders ordered a sudden change in formation in which the rear left flank of the wedge widened to counter the Austrians from the flank. The arrival of fresh Swiss contingents from Uri gave new impetus to the ploy. Almost at once the Confederates succeeded in gaining a lodgement in the Austrian front. It is said that this was achieved by the brave feat of a certain soldier known as Winkelried, who threw his body at the Austrian ‘pike’, thus taking out a number of their points and snapping the shafts in the process. Once this decisive breakthrough had been achieved the Swiss halberdiers poured through, swinging their weapons above their heads and causing tremendous damage to the Austrians. On seeing this, Leopold ordered his second column to counter, but it advanced in considerable disorder and the momentum of the Swiss was too great for it to have any effect. Seeing the Austrian front fold, the rearguard panicked, and the train was the first to flee, taking the horses and leaving many of the dismounted knights stranded. Within two hours the battle had been turned and won. and 1,800 Austrians lay dead on the battlefield among 200 Swiss. Sempach illustrated the ability of the halberdier to hold his own against the knight, although the inappropriate nature of the terrain made it necessary for the Austrian horse to fight the battle on foot.

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