Burgundian Army


The dukes of Burgundy were students of the art of war. They were the first to add gunpowder artillery units to a regular army, and the first to appoint salaried nobles as artillery officers (most nobles preferred to serve in the cavalry, the traditional arm of aristocracy). They were also the first to concentrate cannon in batteries, rather than disperse them evenly across a battle front. In a series of military reforms from 1468 to 1473, the Burgundian army was remade, partly on the French model but also making use of a unique four-man lance as its core unit. Subsequently, Burgundy fought with France (1474–1477), then with the Swiss (1474–1477), in the hope of becoming a full kingdom and one of the emerging Great Powers of Europe, stretching from Lorraine to Milan. Instead, the Swiss destroyed the Burgundian army and killed Charles the Rash.

Burgundian-Swiss War (1474–1477).

Burgundy’s conflict with the Swiss Confederation resulted principally from the effort by Charles the Rash to expand his domain and elevate his Duchy to the rank of kingdom and even one of the Great Powers of Europe. To connect his core holdings in the north with rich Italian lands to the south, he sought to carve a path of conquest and annexation through the Swiss Confederation. The inevitable clash came at Héricourt in 1474, where mature Swiss square tactics allowed the men of the Cantons to catch in a pincer maneuver a mercenary relief column, mostly comprised of armored cavalry, and destroy it. The next major encounter came at Grandson (1476), where the Swiss captured the Burgundian artillery train of over 400 very fine cannon and many more ammunition and support wagons. However, the Swiss pursuit floundered when it reached Charles’ hastily abandoned camp and a frantic and ill-disciplined scramble for booty began. The Cantons thereby missed a main chance to destroy the Burgundian army. The two forces met again at Morat (1476), where some 12,000 Burgundians and allied mercenaries in lance formation fell to Swiss ‘push of pike’ and the spears and pistols of allied cavalry from Lorraine. At Morat, a further 200 Burgundian cannon were lost to the Swiss, giving them one of the finest trains in Europe. This string of defeats unhinged what might have become a Burgundian empire. Along with mutinies and treachery by mercenary garrisons, Charles’ power and territorial holdings were alike eroded. The final act came at Nancy (1477), where Charles lost another battle through stilted tactics to a superior and more disciplined enemy, saw the Burgundian army built up over a century destroyed, and surrendered his life. The defeat ensured that Burgundy would not emerge as one of the Great Powers of the early modern age but would instead see its territory eaten by more powerful and militarily successful neighbors, especially Austria and France.

Battle of Grandson, (March 2, 1476).

After defeat of his relief army at Héricourt, Burgundy’s Duke Charles the Rash moved against Berne. The Bernese reinforced their garrison at Grandson but Charles overran it. He allowed his troops to massacre the garrison, which provoked the Swiss Confederation to rage. A confederate army moved to intercept the Burgundians near Concise, a village south of Neuchâtel a few kilometers from Grandson. The Swiss moved in their standard formation of three pike squares: the ‘‘Vorhut,’’ ‘‘Gewalthut,’’ and ‘‘Nachhut.’’ In the early hours of March 2, 1476, an advance column of Swiss foragers unexpectedly stumbled into the Burgundian camp set up in a shallow valley of small copses and vineyards. Charles hastily formed up his men while more Swiss arrived to take command of the sloped high ground above the camp. Some minor skirmishing by Swiss handgunners provoked Charles to order part of his infantry to attack up the valley side. Archers and gunners of both armies began to inflict casualties, but neither side gave ground. Then the Swiss Gewalthut arrived, raising the number of Swiss on the field to some 10,000. At mid-morning, the Swiss decided to move downslope toward the Burgundians. They formed a single massive square at whose center fluttered the great Banner of the Swiss Confederation along with cantonal standards and Fähnlein. Charles ordered his artillery to open a bombardment and sent his cavalry to attack directly. The Swiss set a Forlorn Hope of 300 crossbowmen and arquebusiers in front of the square to act as a light skirmisher screen. At their rear, atop the slope just descended, canon were manhandled into position and opened fire.

At first the Burgundian canon had the better of it, cutting gaping holes—as much as 10 or 12 files deep—in the Swiss ranks. Burgundian cavalry charged the Forlorn Hope, which scrambled for cover under the pikes in front of the square. Charles led a second charge of lancers from which he emerged sans horse and barely in possession of his life. Another company of cavalry tried to flank the Swiss, but could not navigate the steep slope. The result was sharp combat with lance, halberd, crossbow, pike, pistol, and arquebus. The fight lasted several hours, until the Swiss ran out of quarrels, shot, and powder. Charles’ artillery was still well-supplied and kept up a deadly bombardment while his cavalry rested and reformed. But then he repositioned the artillery and moved his infantry back, hoping to draw the Swiss off the sloping vineyards. This was a grave error, as at that moment two more Swiss squares arrived. Upon blowing of a Harsthörner (‘‘Great War Horn’’), all three squares advanced at once. This movement, along with the disorder of the retreat Charles’ men were attempting, spread panic in the Burgundian ranks. Particularly unruly were his German mercenaries. The flight of most of his foot left Charles exposed with only artillery and cavalry, and neither arm could hold the field against the Swiss ‘‘push of pike.’’ Charles considered the situation then wisely fled with his army, in part to save himself and partly in an effort to regroup his infantry. The Swiss fell upon the Burgundian camp and looted it, foregoing any advantage they might have had by pursuing a defeated enemy. On the other hand, they captured Charles’ superb artillery train of nearly 400 cannon along with many more supply carts. Given the duration of the fight, casualties were relatively low on both sides.

Battle of Morat, (June 9–22, 1476).

‘‘Murten.’’ Swiss lack of cavalry contributed to a failure to pursue and finish off the Burgundians at Grandson (March 2, 1476). That allowed Charles the Rash to withdraw and to reform an army of 22,000 ducal, Milanese, and mercenary troops (including English longbowmen and Landsknechte infantry). He also cobbled together a new artillery train to replace the 400 guns lost at Grandson. Within three months he was ready. On June 9, 1476, he besieged the garrison town of Morat. There he faced his old Grandson guns which the Bernese had emplaced atop the walls. Several rash Burgundian assaults were repelled by the guns, but Charles was able to get his largest siege pieces into position by June 17 and these blew great gaps in the city’s defenses. Into these breaches he sent infantry to take the city by storm. After a full day of hand-to-hand fighting the Swiss still held, guarding the smoking gaps. Meanwhile, a relief column of 25,000 tough troops from the Swiss Confederation and another 1,800 Lorrainer cavalry made for Morat. Learning this, Charles personally chose the ground for the coming battle and fortified it with a ‘‘Grünhag’’ (earthwork palisade) paralleling a forward-lying ditch. His rear rested securely at the foot of a wooded hill. For a week the Burgundians manned the Grünhag and waited as Charles grew ever more impatient with each false alarum. He sent out scouts to locate the Swiss encampment then rashly repositioned the bulk of his army in fields in front of the Grünhag, leaving just 3,000 men to hold the earthworks.

Seeing this, the Swiss seized the initiative. They sent a 5,000 man Vorhut (van) forward to pin the Burgundians down with harassing fire from crossbows and arquebuses. The Vorhut was supported by a 12,000-man Gewalthut (center) moving in echelon, which was highly unusual for the Swiss, on the left. Free to maneuver to either flank or to assault the rear of the Burgundian position was a third square,a 7,000-man Nachhut (reserve). The Vorhut, along with allied cavalry from Lorraine, attacked the Grünhag directly. The advance was slowed by sharp casualties inflicted by longbowmen and Charles’ artillery, which was in fixed position behind the Grünhag. The main square recovered and with ‘‘push of pike’’ swept over the earthworks, killing most of the defenders. This released the Vorhut to continue its advance toward the main Burgundian force. When the Vorhut collided with Charles’ men neither side was in tactically disciplined formation: the fighting was disorderly, hand-to-hand, and extremely bloody. Also charging into the Burgundians was the oversized Gewalthut, supported by hundreds of allied horse from Lorraine. In the interim, the smaller Nachhut completed a planned encirclement of the main Burgundian position aided by a distracting sortie by the Swiss garrison out of Morat. A mêlee ensued during which most of the Burgundian foot were slaughtered with the usual Swiss efficiency and ignorance of quarter. Many men-at-arms were driven into the water of nearby Lake Morat, where they drowned under deadweight of their own armor. Or they were cut down along the shoreline after discarding armor and weapons to better run from the pursuing Swiss foot and ruthless Lorrainer cavalry. Confederate casualties ranged between 400 to 500 men, whereas Burgundian dead reached close to 12,000. And Charles had again lost his artillery train, further weakening him even as its capture strengthened the Swiss. After Morat came the climactic battle of the Burgundian Wars, at Nancy (1477).

Pike and Shot: Campaigns


2 thoughts on “Burgundian Army

  1. Pingback: Burgundian Nemesis at Nancy | Weapons and Warfare

  2. Pingback: Toward a Professional Army | Weapons and Warfare

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