Battle of Bicocca, 27 April 1522

The Battle of Bicocca was fought on 27 April 1522, during the Italian War of 1521–26. A combined French and Venetian force under Odet de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec, was decisively defeated by a Spanish-Imperial and Papal army under the overall command of Prospero Colonna. Lautrec then withdrew from Lombardy, leaving the Duchy of Milan in Imperial hands.

The massed attack by huge blocks of pikemen had proved very successful for the Swiss in the 15th century, and had been copied as a military system by the landsknechts of Germany. However, the early years of the Italian Wars were to reveal its deficiencies. At Cerignola (1503) and Bicocca (1522) the previously invincible Swiss foot were defeated by field fortifications manned by artillery and arquebusiers, with pikemen in support. Suffering severe losses from artillery fire in the approach, the Swiss formations were then subjected to a hail of arquebus shot before finally being repelled by pikemen at the fortifications. At Marignano (1515) the Swiss advance was halted by repeated French cavalry charges, until the Swiss losses from the French artillery became too much to bear and they began to retreat.

A diagram of the battle. Lautrec’s movements are indicated in blue; Colonna’s, in red.

In Lombardy, the French launched an attempt to recover Milan. Odet de Foix, vicomte de Lautrec, the French commander, was sent 16,000 Swiss reinforcements, who asked him to come to them at Monza to the north of Milan, which he did at the beginning of March. The French army was joined by the Venetian forces – 360 lances, 700 light horse and 2,500 infantry – and by Giovanni de’ Medici, who brought over his company of infantry and light horse. Medici had made a reputation for himself as a bold and vigorous commander in the previous campaign, when he had served his distant relation, Leo X. The combined forces approached Milan, but Prospero Colonna had ordered the construction of effective defensive earthworks to contain the French garrison still in the Castello, and to repel any attempts by the French army to get through to them. To aid in the defence of the city, Morone organized a militia among the Milanese, which provided several thousand men, and Lautrec failed to prevent Francesco Sforza reaching Milan in early April with 6,000 landsknechts he had brought down from Trent.

As Lautrec attempted to take Pavia, Prospero Colonna brought his army out of Milan to the Certosa of Pavia, forcing the French to move. The Swiss with the French army were growing impatient, threatening to leave, but were persuaded to stay for a few more days by the promise their pay would arrive soon. The French were planning to withdraw to Novara, which had been taken by Lescun, to await the expected arrival of Francis, and the Venetians to retire to Venetian territory. Charles V was annoyed by the loss of Novara, accusing his captains of having done nothing since they took Milan but waste time and money, without attacking the enemy. The captains were willing enough to give battle, the Spanish commissioner with the army explained, but the terrain had so many ditches that whichever side attacked the other in their encampment was liable to be defeated, even if they were the stronger. This observation proved prophetic. Following Lautrec from Pavia, Colonna encamped his men – 10,000 landsknechts, 4,000 Spanish and 4,000 Italian infantry and a few hundred men-at-arms – at La Bicocca, a country house three miles from Milan with a park bordered by ditches and irrigation canals, constructing ramparts and platforms for his artillery. Lautrec recognized the strength of this position, but the Swiss were keen to give battle. Fighting battles, the Swiss (and the landsknechts) believed, was their proper role in warfare.

Against his better judgement, Lautrec ordered an attack on the encampment on 29 April. At their own insistence, the Swiss were to make a frontal attack on the position of the landsknechts; Montmorency and other French nobles went with them on foot `for their pleasure and to acquire honour’. Lescun took 400 men-at-arms on the left flank to a stone bridge to the rear of the camp; Lautrec led the remainder of his men, infantry and men-at-arms, to the right flank to attempt entry into the camp on that side. The Venetian rearguard appears to have been the reserve. Lescun’s corps succeeded in penetrating the camp, causing some confusion and capturing much of the baggage of the men-at-arms. The Swiss had pressed ahead with their assault, but their approach was covered by the artillery of the camp. Those who survived this were confronted by an impassable ditch and rampart, and in this killing ground many fell victim to relentless fire from handguns. (Pescara was said, as a tactical innovation, to have organized the arquebusiers in four ranks, firing in sequence and kneeling down to reload as the rank behind fired over their heads. Swiss captains and French gentlemen who had placed themselves at the front took particularly high casualties among the estimated 3,000 men who died in this battle. The Swiss drew back and refused to make another attempt. Never again would Swiss infantry be so confident that they could overcome any enemy by sheer resolution and the shock force of their battle squares. Lescun’s men were unable to sustain the attack that was turned against them, and had to withdraw across the bridge.

The Swiss retired with Lautrec to Monza, but there they left the army and went home. The Venetians withdrew their army from the duchy of Milan. Lautrec left for France, where he met with a frosty reception from the king. Lescun, who had been left in Cremona, having agreed terms of surrender with Prospero Colonna if no relief force should arrive from France within a set period, followed with the remainder of the army not long after. Only the fortresses of Cremona, Novara and Milan were left in French hands.

Battle of Bicocca

Battle of Bicocca

Wargame Scenario Pike & Shot

R Marsden

Your impetuous Swiss Pike decide to attack a well-defended position head on, with or without you.

Short Version = Slow up some of the Swiss charge with your fast cavalry, focus on the right and left corners of the fort. Release the Swiss to try and coincide with your attack.

Long Version = In this scenario you command a Swiss/French army, in which the Swiss begin a forward march that you do not control. Aware of the situation from the briefing, I opted on an army heavy on arquebusiers, thinking I’d have to blast my way into the enemy fortifications, and with some cavalry to try and probe for a way around. What Pike I had I believed (wrongly) would not be needed.

This battle ended up going my way, but like all so many plans- it didn’t survive the point of contact.

At the get-go I noticed my faster cavalry units could get ahead of the advancing Swiss. I placed them to the front of the Swiss pike where able to slow up key units. The Swiss didn’t march around my cavalry (what I expected) and thankfully did not attack them (what I feared). Thus partially stalled, I had a reserve of Swiss pike I could unleash.

The enemy is up a hill, behind walls, with arquebusiers to the front and pike in the back. Several redoubts house artillery. Cavalry lingers far to their rear. To the left is a road that does lead to a causeway into the fort, and far to the north is a bridge. To the right is a swamp. One of my favorite areas to sneak through.

I marched a mass of my arqeubusiers and pike to the right, planning on going through the swamp and fighting the enemy in it if I had to, or using it to get them to abandon their positions, or better yet, flanking them as they engaged the Swiss. I had my center empty. To my left I set up my artillery, a single-pike unit and some cavalry, originally for the purpose of defending the artillery. My initial plan was to overwhelm on the right and breach the defenses with the aide of the distracting Swiss.

And of course nothing went according to plan.

The scattered Swiss that reached the walls were defeated, though I knew this would happen and it took time.

As my army approached the swamp, (perhaps a bit too much along the west edge of it rather than east) the AI had their pike take to the walls to meet the Swiss and the arqebusiers drew back. The AI, unhappy about being outflanked, sent the arqeubusiers out of the fort and charged into the swamp, merrily seeking out melee and/or shooting up my units. My arqebusiers fell back and my cavalry did as well after I noticed I wasn’t winning the shooting or melee phase in the murky swamplands. So much for being clever. The good news was that the enemy army from this point on abandoned its position and left the safety of its own walls. The details of the plan didn’t work out, but its intent to dislodge the enemy did.

On the right, everything hinged. I released my stalled Swiss and they along with my pike met the enemy pike, who left their walls behind and marched SE onto open ground. This allowed me to set up favorable matches, but it was a slow grind, and the Swiss surprisingly broke at times and if victorious would sometimes sit stationary for turn after turn.

On the left, the Swiss were not going to win, which was fine, but I needed to stall for time so I could overwhelm on the right. I sent in my small force, and used ranged weapons to pepper the enemy, breach their fort, fall back from their fort and in general tangle up 3 enemy pike and the enemy cavalry.

In the center, my arqebuisers and cavalry (who had abandoned their swamp-antics on the right) found the enemy cannons undefended and took out most of them. I had them occupy the redoubts, and when any of my pike routed an enemy on my right, I’d send a few arquebusiers over to prevent the enemy gunmen from focusing their fire. A tactic I’ve had to reply on is- after a successful route, valuable units need to be protected from a concentrated counter-attack. Skirmishers and light cavalry do great at this when it comes to resisting ranged counter-attacks.

While my overall plan didn’t go as expected, the tide of battle turned in my favor. The enemy broke on my right and my skirmishers placed themselves in the way of the largely intact enemy arqeubusiers in the swamp, acting as human shields to prevent a counter-attack.

On the left, my pike and the Swiss were defeated, but the enemy was isolated and I was able to concentrate artillery and skirmisher fire onto units and break them. This combined with my efforts on the right led to 30% to 60% victory.

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