The Persian [Achaemenid] Army

Persian military forces were drawn from all areas of the Empire, members of the elite corps as well as conscripts levied for local action or for major campaigns. Thus the label “Persian” is not to be understood as describing the ethnic makeup but rather the troops’ allegiance, fighting under Persian officials or commanders. As has been seen, however, the command structure was not thoroughly Persian by any means either, save at the very top of the hierarchy, including most satraps and of course the King himself. The Old Persian word kra may be translated either as “army” or as “people.” This reveals the army’s ultimate origin – among the Persians themselves, many of whom came to form the corps of the standing army – as it results in occasional confusion in modern translation. When kra appears in a text, it is not always evident to us whether the people as a collective group or the specific subset of the army is meant.

Herodotus gives a full and colorful account of the vast and diverse forces of the imperial levy, the full army and navy of Persians and subject peoples, when he tallies the vast forces that Xerxes arrayed against Greece in 480 BCE. Herodotus also names many of the commanders, an elaborate depiction of the peoples of the Empire with descriptions of their clothing and equipment (7.61–100). For example, both Persians and Medes were arrayed in felt caps, colored tunics over scale mail, trousers, wickerwork shields, and a variety of weapons. Ethiopians (Nubians) wore leopard or lion skins and carried large bows. Paphlagonians wore woven helmets and carried small shields and spears. That Herodotus’ entire portrayal better describes a parade than a battle array has long been understood. But it typifies the diversity of peoples and weaponry that the Persian commanders had to weld into an effective fighting force. Persian forces, both infantry and cavalry, were renowned for their use of the bow: a frequent tactic was the unleashing of storms of arrows from behind a shield wall or for horsemen to harry the enemy with volleys of arrows.

Scholars debate the effectiveness of the Persian forces’ armor and tactics especially in the context of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 and Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire in the late 330s. Herodotus (9.62) describes the final crush of the Persians against the Spartans at the Battle of Plataea in 479:

On the one hand the Persians were no less than the Greeks in courage

and strength, but the Persians were without shields and, beyond this,

were unskilled and not the equal of their opponents in experience.

This passage offers just one example of the persistent problems of source evaluation. When Herodotus says that the Persians were “without shields” (Greek anoploi), what does that mean? Were the shields lost in battle? Was this contingent of the Persian army simply not carrying shields? And which group was it, ethnic Persians or some other? Some translate anoploi as “without armor,” which adds another layer to the problem. The Spartans were the most (by far) professionalized Greek soldiers of their day, so even the elite corps of the Persian army would have had their hands full against them. Beyond the elite, levied troops from the provinces of course did not have the same sort of armor, weaponry, or tactics as did, for example, the Persian Immortals and similar contingents. Numerous other passages in Greek sources provide similar perspectives: heavily armed Greek infantry, fighting in tight phalanx formations, trumped the (as generally described in Greek sources) light armed, less experienced, inferior Persian infantry every time – except when they did not. It is difficult to sift the Greek stereotypes from the realities of individual battles. That the Persians were able to conquer and retain so much territory for so long testifies to their army’s effectiveness.

The elite Persian force, numbering 10,000 according to Herodotus (7.83), was called the Immortals. Whenever one of their number died or was wounded or ill, another would take his place so the number of the battalion always remained 10,000. They were the most effective, and feared, Persian infantry force, and clearly comprised elite members of Persian society: men of prominent families or high rank. One thousand of them had gold pomegranates on their spears, some of whom comprised the king’s personal bodyguard, and the other 9,000 had silver. Herodotus’ incidental detail that the Immortals were conspicuous for their gold (bracelets or other marks of status and honor), and that they were accompanied by wagons bearing concubines and many servants, indicates that we are not dealing with the rank and file. Prestige items are frequently mentioned in conjunction with Persian officers and nobles, a phenomenon that also fed Greek stereotypes of Persian effeminacy and weakness. But these items were more symbolic than practical and communicated entirely different messages – honor and status – in a Persian context.

Greek sources often highlight the prominence and skill of Greek mercenaries, and from that perspective it was only thanks to better trained and better equipped Greek professionals that the Empire was able to field any sort of worthwhile fighting force in the fourth century. This trope contributed heavily to the stereotype of the effeminate, decaying Persian Empire before its fall to Alexander the Great. And even though Greek mercenary forces were an increasing phenomenon in the fourth century, and certainly used by Persian commanders, their significance often seems overestimated in Greek sources.

Persian Arms and Equipment

Herodotus describes the arms and equipment of Xerxes’ army in some detail. The Persians themselves wore floppy felt hats, tunics and armour exhibiting a surface of fishlike iron scales, and trousers. They carried wicker shields. Their weapons were large bows, short spears and daggers which were suspended from the belts on the right-hand side. Thus equipped, they might or might not be mounted. Persian armies generally relied upon the large numbers of their horsemen and bowmen.

Apart from the Persians themselves, Herodotus gives particulars of the other national contingents which the Persian kings were able to mobilize, although the statistics on which he based his information may have referred to the potential fighting strength of the entire Persian Empire rather than to Xerxes’ expeditionary force, gigantic though this force unquestionably was. We hear of Assyrians and others with bronze helmets; but in general, the Asiatics were protected only by various kinds of soft headgear and they seem to have worn no substantial body armour. Apart from daggers, bows and arrows, their weapons included iron-spiked clubs, axes and lassoes.

Cavalrymen – especially cavalry officers – may have worn more protective armour. Masistius, the Persian cavalry commander who was killed in the early stages of the Plataea campaign, wore gold scale armour under his scarlet surcoat. When his horse was hit by an arrow, he defended himself vigorously on foot and could not be brought down by body blows. At last, the Athenians who surrounded him guessed the secret and struck at his face.

Persian archers, both mounted and unmounted, carried their arrows in a quiver slung on the hip. This practice differed from that of the Greek archers whose quivers were slung on their backs. The hip position was no doubt more expeditious when there was a requirement for rapid fire.

Herodotus refers to the war chariots of the Indian contingent, but there is no mention of these chariots being used in the fighting. Persian kings normally went to war in chariots, which were also employed by the Persians for hunting. The Greeks of the classical period used chariots only for sporting events. Generally speaking, by the time of the Persian Wars the war chariot had been replaced by the man on horseback. The change had no doubt been brought about by the improved efficiency of horses’ bits, which made it easier for the rider to control his steed.

The Persian High Command

The Persian numbers in the two invasions were so overwhelmingly superior that one tends to blame the Persian commanders for the startling lack of success. The initiative for both enterprises came from the Great Kings themselves and there seems to have been no question of any significant “power behind the throne”. Yet there is nothing particularly blame-worthy in their conduct of the two operations – apart from the undertaking itself. There comes a time in the history of every empire when expansion has gone far enough and stability and consolidation, if not retrenchment, are needed. The handful of Athenian and Eretrian ships that had abetted the Ionian revolt was a poor pretext for such a massive military and naval effort.

If we turn to Aeschylus’ play, we find some contrast between the characters of Darius and Xerxes. The Persae presents the story of Xerxes’ crest-fallen return to Persia after his defeat at Salamis. Darius’ ghost appears and denounces the folly which has led to the recent débâcle. Darius is stern and dignified; in contrast, Xerxes is petulant and ineffective. At first sight, Herodotus’ narrative might seem to confirm this estimate. One recalls the incident when high winds destroyed the first bridge which Xerxes had constructed over the Hellespont, whereupon Xerxes ordered that the rebellious waters should be whipped as a punishment for the outrage. But perhaps this was not mere childishness on his part. In his multinational host there were many simple tribesmen who knew nothing of the enlightened Zoroastrian religion of the Persians; thus, to restore morale, it was no doubt necessary to demonstrate that even the gods of the winds and the waves were subject to the Great Kings of Persia.

Again, we are inclined to regard Xerxes’ return to Susa, his remote capital, after the disaster of Salamis, as weak and cowardly. Mardonius, his general, seems to have been left callously to his fate in Greece. But the matter may be viewed quite differently. The success of the Persian kings lay very largely in their ability to delegate power. Cyrus, when he conquered Lydia, had delegated the completion of his conquest to his general Harpagus, and probably Mardonius was expected to complete the conquest of Greece in the same way. However, when all has been said, the delineation of character in Aeschylus’ play should not be lightly dismissed. Aeschylus was, after all, writing at a time very close to the events which he described and he cannot altogether have overlooked the reputations which Darius and Xerxes had earned for themselves among their contemporaries.

As for Mardonius, he was Darius’ son-in-law, and had commanded the Persian fleet when it met with disaster on the rocks off Mount Athos. Darius’ dissatisfaction with him is clear, for in the subsequent expedition which that monarch launched against Greece, Mardonius was not in command. Datis and Artaphernes were in charge of the fleet which sailed across the central Aegean to Eretria and Marathon. However, Mardonius was a man of no mean ability and his later reinstatement proves that he enjoyed Xerxes’ confidence. After Xerxes’ return to Persia, Mardonius tried by sensible diplomacy to divide the Greek states against one another before deciding to engage in battle with them. His chances of success in this diplomatic initiative were very good and with a little more perseverance he might have succeeded. But, cut off from supplies by sea, he perhaps had difficulty in feeding his large army and was accordingly under pressure to reach a decision with the utmost possible speed.

The Persian Fleet

No one who reads Herodotus’ narrative can underestimate the importance of the naval factor in the two Persian invasions. The Persians were an inland power and possessed no fleet of their own. It says all the more for the organizing ability of the Great Kings – Xerxes in particular – that they were able to muster such vast armadas. It also suggests that their knowledge of Greek seamanship and fighting power was such that they by no means despised the enemy with whom they had to deal.

The largest contingent of the Persian fleet consisted of Phoenician vessels, manned by Phoenician crews. Rather surprisingly, the Persians relied also upon ships and crews from the Greek Ionian cities which they had subjugated. Inevitably, they must have felt some doubts about the loyalty of the Greek contingents of their own fleet. On several occasions during the campaigns, the Ionian effort seems to have been half-hearted, and at the battle of Mycale the Ionian Greeks at last deserted their Persian overlords to aid their compatriots.

Artemisia, the Greek princess who ruled Halicarnassus (subject to Persian goodwill), was present herself on shipboard at the battle of Salamis, fighting on the Persian side. However, she seems to have joined either fleet as circumstances dictated at any particular moment, for when pursued by an Athenian vessel she deliberately rammed and sank another galley of her own contingent. The Athenians, thinking that she had changed sides, abandoned the pursuit and Artemisia made good her escape without further impediment.

The truth is possibly that Xerxes found it less risky to take the Ionian fleet with him than to leave it in his rear. On every ship there was a force of soldiers, either Persians, Medes or others whose loyalty was to be trusted. Persian commanders often took the place of local captains and Xerxes probably kept the leaders of the subject communities under his personal surveillance. Their position closely resembled that of hostages to the Persians.

Apart from the Phoenician and Greek naval contingents, there was in Xerxes’ fleet an Egyptian squadron which was to distinguish itself in the course of the fighting. We hear also of ships from Cyprus and Cilicia. Cyprus contained both Greek and Phoenician cities and the people of Cilicia were largely of Greek extraction. Whether the Cilicians felt any bond of sympathy with the Greeks of the mainland is another question, but only the links of empire united them with the Persians. The proportion of the total naval strength to that of the land army is recorded: the land forces, when counted by Xerxes at Doriscus in Thrace, were, according to Herodotus, 1,700,000 strong: the strength of the fleet is given with some precision as 1,207 vessels, not including transports.

Persian Naval Strategy

It is interesting that Xerxes reverted to his father’s original plan and decided to invade Greece from the north. He must have considered that his channel through the Athos peninsula eliminated the main hazard of this route. Clearly, he could deploy a much larger army in Greece if his land forces could make their own way along the coast. At the same time, the fleet keeping pace on the army’s flank contained transports which considerably eased his supply problem. The land forces carried a good deal of their own baggage and equipment with the help of camels and other beasts of burden. These did not include horses. It was not customary in the ancient world to use horses for such purposes and it is noteworthy that Xerxes transported his horses by sea on special ships. Horseshoes were unknown in the ancient centres of civilization, and it is possible that the Persian cavalry might have reached Greece with lame mounts if their horses had been obliged to make the whole journey by land.

Warships were, of course, necessary to protect both the transports and the land forces. Without naval defence, the Persian army would have been exposed to the danger of Greek amphibious attacks on its flank and its rear. Moreover, it was Xerxes’ hope that he would crush any Greek naval units immediately, wherever he met them.

He met them first at Artemisium, on the northern promontory of Euboea. Several actions were fought there, with varying outcome. The Greek position was well chosen. In the narrow channel between the Euboean coast and the mainland, the Greeks could not be enveloped by superior numbers. At the same time, they guarded the flank of Leonidas’ forces at Thermopylae. If the Persians sailed round Euboea to attack them in the rear, then the Persian land forces would be separated from their seaborne support. What took the Greeks by surprise was the enormous size of Xerxes’ force, which despite all reports far exceeded their most pessimistic estimates. It was possible for Xerxes to send one section of his fleet round the south of Euboea while he engaged the Greeks at Artemisium with the remainder. Such a manoeuvre entailed no loss of numerical superiority on either front. But summer storms gathered over Thessaly and aided the Greeks. The very size of Xerxes’ fleet meant that there were not sufficient safe harbours to accommodate all the ships; a considerable part of it had to lie well out to sea in rough weather. In this way many ships were wrecked. When a squadron was dispatched to round Euboea and sail up the Ruripus strait, which divides the long island from the mainland, this contingent also fell victim to storms and treacherous currents. The task assigned to it was never carried out.

Quite apart from the figures given by Herodotus, events themselves testify to the huge size of the Persian armada. Despite the heavy losses suffered at Artemisium, Xerxes’ fleet still enjoyed the advantage of dauntingly superior numbers when, late in the same season, the battle of Salamis was fought. Even after Salamis, the number of surviving ships and crews was such that the Greek fleet at Mycale hesitated long before attacking them.

Communication Networks – The Royal Road

Reliable and efficient communications throughout the Empire were a necessary component for its success. The construction, maintenance, and guarding of an extensive network of roads and bridges required a great deal of engineering expertise, manpower, and expense. The Persians adopted and adapted their predecessors’ systems, and greatly expanded them, to facilitate communication across vast distances. Individuals or groups on state business carried sealed documents that allowed access to supplies or provisions en route to their destination.

The most famous of these roads, though it was only one of many, was what Herodotus called the Royal Road from Susa in Elam to Sardis in Lydia (5.52–53). Any “royal” road would have, in fact, run through Persepolis and points eastward, so Herodotus’ terminology reflects a Greek view, which usually viewed Susa as the main Achaemenid capital. From the west it ran through Cappadocia and Cilicia in Anatolia to Armenia and then south through Arbela – along the Tigris River – and on toward Susa. Herodotus notes that there were 111 royal staging posts interspersed on it and mentions several of them specifically (5.52). By his calculations this route ran roughly 1,500 miles and took a journey of ninety days. That was for a traveler in no great haste. Royal dispatches could move with surprising speed, a relay system with fresh horses and messengers at each staging post. Herodotus also describes these royal messengers: “There is nothing mortal that travels faster than these messengers … for as many days as the whole route there are horses and men stationed, one horse and one man set for each day. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor night hinders them from accomplishing the course laid before them as quickly as possible. After the first one finishes his route, he delivers the instructed message to the second, the second does likewise to the third; from there in rapid succession down the line the message moves.” (8.98)

There were similar routes in all directions from the Empire’s core in Fars.11 Ctesias alludes to other roads running from Mesopotamia and Persia proper to Central Asia. The primary route to Bactria across northern Iran is called in modern works either the (Great) Khorasan Road or, for later periods, by its better known appellation the Silk Road. Administrative documents from Persepolis, Syro-Palestine, and Egypt record disbursements to travelers in all directions. From the Persepolis documentation we gain a sense of the itineraries of a number of the network of roads running between Susa and Persepolis. An Aramaic document tracks travelers journeying from northern Mesopotamia to Damascus and on into Egypt, with several stops along the way listed by name.

Large work crews were involved in the construction and maintenance of these roads. Herodotus’ account of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece describes roadmakers at work, not infrequently the army on campaign. The main roads, constructed wide enough to allow chariots or wagons to travel on them, served to move military forces quickly, but they were also used by travelers or merchants to transport cargo. Roads also at times had to cross obstacles such as rivers. Some permanent bridges, such as one spanning the Halys River in Anatolia, were guarded by a fort. Pontoon bridges allowed crossing of other rivers, for example, at many spots on the northern Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries. Temporary pontoon bridges afforded the means for Persian armies to cross into Europe: Darius I over the Bosporus on his campaign against the Scythians and Xerxes’ bridge over the Hellespont against the Greeks. Of course, rivers and larger waterways were sometimes part of the route. Diodorus Siculus (14.81.4) records a journey on a well-known route at sea along the coast of Cilicia, on land from northwestern Syria to the Euphrates, then down the river to Babylon. Similar sea trading routes connected other parts of the Empire to the core, such as through the Persian Gulf and along the southern coast of Iran to the Indus Valley.


Command Structure of the Macedonian Army

The command structure of the Macedonian army was extremely complex, consisting of many separate layers of authority. At the highest levels it is quite well known; the same cannot be said of lesser ranks, but there are hints that suggest that, even at its lowest levels, it was as complex as the more powerful positions. As with many areas of Alexander’s empire, and particularly within the army, the command structure was continually evolving as new positions were created and others became obsolete. The most significant changes, however, were probably politically motivated. Alexander gradually changed the army from being that of Philip, through the influence of Parmenio and his family, to being his own, particularly after 331/0, when Parmenio’s influence had been removed.

Macedonian Heavy Infantry

At its lowest levels the command structure of the heavy infantry can be deduced from its gradations of pay. The smallest tactical unit of the heavy infantry was the dekas or ‘file’. As the name implies the dekas had once consisted of ten men, but at some point long before the reign of Alexander it had been expanded to sixteen. Of these sixteen men, twelve were rank and file with the other four being of superior status. Of these four, one was the dekadarch or file leader, one was a dimoirites or half-file leader and the other two were dekastateroi or half-file closers. Arrian tells us that the dekastateroi were paid the equivalent of one and a half the pay of a rank-and-file soldier, around forty-five drachmas a month. The dimoirites received double pay of around sixty drachmas a month. Bosworth seems to have made a slight error in interpreting this passage in Arrian, claiming that there were two dimoiritai and only one dekastateros, but Arrian’s text seems quite clear on this point.

Thirty-two decades formed a lochos, consisting of 512 men and being commanded by a lochagos. Three lochoi formed a taxis, which was the fundamental unit of the Macedonian heavy infantry, commanded by a taxiarch. Each taxis therefore consisted of 1,540 men, of whom 1,152 were rank and file and in receipt of the basic one drachma a day. Initially Alexander crossed the Hellespont with six taxeis, later expanded to seven around the time of the invasion of India. Therefore the command structure for a typical taxis of heavy infantry was:

  • Taxiarch
  • Lochagos (x3)
  • Dekadarch (x96)
  • Dimoirites (x96)
  • Dekastateros (x192)
  • Rank and File (x1,152)

The manpower indicated is, of course, paper strength, assuming that each taxis was at full strength. The six taxiarchs appear to have all been of the same rank with none holding superiority. Indeed there was no overall commander of the heavy infantry (excluding the one possible reference in Arrian discussed earlier) as there was for, say, the Companion Cavalry. This is because there really was no such organization as the ‘Macedonian phalanx’, the taxeis themselves frequently being used as separate tactical units, or in groups of two or three. This development came largely after 331 when the army entered northeastern Iran and smaller, more mobile forces were required.

Arrian makes a seemingly strange claim that:

On the right wing of the attacking force Alexander had the guards’ division under his personal command. In touch with them were the infantry battalions, forming the whole centre of the line and commanded by the various officers whose turn of duty happened to fall upon that day.

This is almost certainly evidence of a rotational system within the phalanx. It could be a reference to the order in which the taxeis appeared each day, and we are explicitly told in the sources that that the actual order of each taxis did rotate each day, or it could be that the minor commands within a taxis were rotated to give junior commanders more experience of slightly different roles.

The Macedonian heavy infantry appear to have undergone very few serious changes in the command structure over the course of the campaign. The huge numbers of reinforcements received between the great set-piece battles of Issus and Gaugamela seem to have been incorporated within the existing taxeis, presumably adding to the numbers of rank and file rather than to the officer corps. The first evidence for a seventh taxis does not appear until the time of the invasion of India, where Arrian names seven taxiarchs operating simultaneously.


At the time of the invasion of Persia, another of Parmenio’s sons, Nicanor, was the commander of the hypaspists. The hypaspists were the elite formation of the Macedonian heavy infantry and their tactical and strategic roles were many and varied. The hypaspists were organized into three chiliarchies of 1,000 men, each commanded by a chiliarch. This is true after 331 at least: before 331 it is uncertain. One of these chiliarchies was designated the agema, perhaps commanded by Alexander himself, or more likely by an unknown individual, as Alexander was usually with the Companion Cavalry during set-piece battles. The chiliarchs themselves were of markedly lower status than the taxiarchs of the heavy infantry, being more like a lochagos. This is at first sight rather surprising, considering that the hypaspists were the elite units of the heavy infantry, receiving only the very best of the new recruits into their ranks. We should remember, however, that, unlike the heavy infantry, the hypaspists had an overall commander, Nicanor, who was at a significant level within the command structure, ensuring that their status was considerably higher than that of an infantry taxis.

As with the rest of the army, the command structure of the hypaspists was significantly changed at the end of 331. The chiliarchies were subdivided into two new units, pentakosiarchies, thus adding an entirely new layer into the command structure, albeit a very lowly one. These new officers were again appointed by Alexander on the basis of merit rather than seniority, and again owed their allegiance to the king himself. We saw earlier how important this innovation was to the king, particularly later in his career as he became ever more paranoid.

Companion Cavalry

The numbers of the Companion Cavalry are not certain, although Diodorus gives the figure of 1,800 and most now accept the figure of 1,800 as at least being very close to the actual figure. We do know that by 333 the Companion Cavalry consisted of eight ilai (squadrons) of 200 men, each commanded by an ilarch. We have no information of from the beginning of his reign, but we do know that along with the general reorganization of the army in 331 an ile was further divided into smaller units. Arrian tells us ‘He also – this was an innovation – formed two lochoi (companies) in each cavalry squadron’.

Curtius hints at a reorganization, and confirms that commanders would from this time be promoted on the basis of ability and not of regional affiliations. However he does not mention the division of ile, preferring to concentrate on the hypaspists. From 331 the subdivision of ile was into two hekatostyes of 100 men; there is evidence that each ile was again subdivided into tetrarchia, of which there would have been four per ile. The tetrarchia is only recorded once in Arrian, at the turning of the Persian Gates in January 330, not before or after, but the unit was small enough that this is not surprising as they would mostly have operated in the larger units.

One of the ilai was given the title ile basilike, also frequently called the agema, or royal squadron: this unit was also of higher status than the rest. The royal squadron was of double strength and was charged with defending the king when he fought on horseback; they were his personal bodyguard in all of the set-piece battles. The overall command of the Companion Cavalry was in the hands of Philotas – until his execution in October 330, that is.

The ilarchs seem to have been relatively minor in rank, probably on a par with an infantry lochagos. Ilarchs are seldom mentioned by name in any of the sources and are never given separate commands of their own. The only one that achieved any level of distinction was Cleitus the Black, the commander of the royal squadron.

After the execution of Philotas in 330, the entire Macedonian cavalry was reorganized en masse. The basic tactical formation was now not the ile but the ‘hipparchy’. These new units are first recorded by Arrian during 329. Ilai do still appear in the sources but they become sub-divisions of a hipparchy, each hipparchy comprising a minimum of two ilai and thus 400 men. The ilai were also sub-divided into two lochoi, the commanders of whom were given the title lochagos, as with the commander of an infantry unit. Alexander appointed these commanders personally on a basis of merit rather than superiority, thus breaking with tradition. This was a policy that was entirely consistent with Alexander making the army loyal to him alone. This began to occur some time during 331 BC, probably after Gaugamela, when the last great batch of reinforcements arrived from Macedon. This was the beginning of the policy, that I have noted a number of times, of reducing the army’s ties of loyalty to its individual commanders, ultimately making them loyal to Alexander alone. Thus a new layer of sub-commanders was added in the command structure of the army, one which owed its loyalty directly to Alexander, to some extent breaking the link between the troops and their commanders. There are two possible reasons for this change. Perhaps Alexander came to the conclusion that the ilai were simply too small, at 200 men, to cope with the different style of fighting in the entirely different theatre that was to be their next challenge. The army would no longer be fighting set-piece battles, but would require far more mobility and flexibility as it moved into the northeast of Iran The second possible explanation was a desire on the part of Alexander to increase the relative superiority of the Companion Cavalry over the heavy infantry, each hipparch now being of a higher status than a lochagos.

The term ‘ile basilike’ also disappeared at this time and was replaced by the term agema, the nomenclature becoming the same as for the hypaspists. The actual number of cavalry hipparchies is unknown, but it is assumed that there were eight during the Indian campaign. The position left vacant by the death of Philotas was not directly filled. He was instead replaced by two men: Alexander’s life-long friend Hephaestion and Cleitus the Black. Both men were effectively of equal status within the command structure. Arrian gives the reason for this step as that ‘he [Alexander] did not think it advisable that one man – even a personal friend – should have control of so large a body of cavalry’.

Allies and Mercenaries

The Thessalian cavalry were without doubt the most important contingent of this aspect of the army. They were probably equal in number to the Companion Cavalry and very close to them in terms of quality. Overall command of this vitally-important unit was given to Alexander’s second-in-command, Parmenio. The command structure of the Thessalian cavalry was very similar to that of the Companions, being divided into ilai. They were not, however, allowed their own national commanders, but a senior Macedonian officer was appointed to command each unit. The Thessalian cavalry also had a unit which performed the same role as the royal squadron of the Companions; this was known as the ‘Pharsalian contingent’.

The other allied cavalry contingents, although considerably less important, were again organized along similar lines, being divided into ilai and each having a Macedonian commander. The appointment of a Macedonian commander at the head of non-Macedonian troops, be they cavalry or infantry, was the general policy of Alexander throughout his reign. Even the mercenary contingents were treated in exactly this same fashion, Menander being their overall commander. These Macedonian officers, however, were relatively unimportant in the overall command structure and few achieved any kind of distinction.

The fleets that accompanied the army of invasion were almost exclusively non-Macedonian, being provided by the member states of the League of Corinth. Each ship was captained by a native of the contributing city, and where a city-state provided more than one ship, they also supplied a ‘commodore’ for their particular contingent. As with other non-Macedonian units however, overall command of the fleet was with a Macedonian officer.


The term ‘bodyguard’ is quite a confusing one, as there appear to be two entirely separate groups within the army that carry this title. The first is an apparently-quite-strong detachment of heavy infantry. Arrian, three times, tells us that Alexander took with him the bodyguards and some of the hypaspists; this would seem to strongly suggest that they were not simply a detachment of the hypaspists, who were themselves often called ‘the guards’. Diodorus tells us that at the Battle of Gaugamela, Hephaestion ‘had commanded the bodyguards’. This passage again strongly suggests that we are not here talking about a detachment of the hypaspists, as at this time Nicanor was still their commander and only died later that same year. The bodyguards seem to have been a relatively minor force, perhaps of the order of a couple of hundred strong. The relative position of their commander within the overall command structure of the army is unknown; the only commander named is Hephaestion at Gaugamela, who was of course a very senior figure. Hephaestion’s seniority probably had more to do with his closeness to Alexander than the importance of the bodyguards as a military force: his successor after Gaugamela is never mentioned, for instance. This group could well represent a carry-over from a much older organization that pre-dated Philip’s reforms.

The group that most interests us here are the somatophylakes basilikoi, or ‘royal bodyguard’, originally seven strong, this number being rigidly maintained. The number was probably connected to their historical function of guarding the king’s tent. They were increased to eight in India, however, when Peucestas was promoted to this rank as a sign of gratitude by Alexander for saving his life during the attack on the capital city of the Malli.

The bodyguards occupied a position within the command structure that is difficult to define. The group as a whole formed part of Alexander’s immediate entourage, and seem certain to have been among his closest friends and most-trusted advisors. Membership of the bodyguard was obviously incompatible with any post that involved their being away from court for any length of time: both Balacrus and Menes were replaced as soon as they were assigned to the command of provinces. For reasons that seem less clear, inclusion within the bodyguard was also incompatible with a command within the army. Before Gaugamela, there is no recorded instance of a member of the bodyguard simultaneously holding a senior command. Bodyguards are occasionally reported briefly holding minor commands, such as Ptolemy, who commanded a joint force of hypaspists and light infantry during the siege of Halicarnassus, but this was rare. If any bodyguard were promoted to a senior command, he would immediately lose his title and be replaced. This happened, for instance, when Ptolemy became a taxiarch (this was not the famous historian and son of Lagos, but another very obscure individual: Ptolemy was a very common name in Macedonia). As a group they probably enjoyed the same status as a taxiarch, but did not, as such, occupy any position within the command structure. They were, however, still influential as they were among the king’s closest advisors.

This rather rigid system which applied to the bodyguard, as with almost everything else in the army, evolved considerably over time. After the death of Parmenio we hear of instances of bodyguards receiving senior, albeit temporary, commands. In 328, for instance, Alexander left four taxeis of heavy infantry in Bactria, along with their commanders. The remainder of the army was then divided into five columns, three of which were commanded by known bodyguards. The deaths of Parmenio and Philotas represent something of a watershed in Alexander’s career, as will be discussed below.

Evolution of the Command Structure

One of the major changes that occurred in the command structure over the course of Alexander’s reign was that the cavalry commands became increasingly important, relative to their previously-equivalent infantry commands. By the time of the death of Philotas Alexander was becoming increasingly disinclined to place such large numbers of men under a single commander; with this in mind he divided the command of the Companion cavalry between Hephaestion and Cleitus the Black. Individual hipparchs also became increasingly important in their own right, becoming roughly equal in status to the position of an infantry taxiarch. At the beginning of the invasion of India, the commanders of the heavy infantry who were most highly favoured by Alexander were promoted to command hipparchies of Companion Cavalry; namely Perdiccas, Craterus and Cleitus the White. This again illustrated that moving from an infantry command to that of cavalry was considered a promotion.

During this process, the royal bodyguard evolved into an important position within the command structure. Perdiccas was promoted to a hipparchy, from a taxis of heavy infantry, in 327; by 330 he also had the title of bodyguard. This was a dual function which was also enjoyed by Alexander’s favourite, Hephaestion. The Peithon who was a bodyguard by 325 is very probably the same Peithon who is attested as a taxiarch in 326/5. An infantry command was rare, however; members of the bodyguard were usually given commands within the Companion Cavalry, in alignment with its increasing importance. This desire on the part of Alexander to systematically downgrade the relative importance of the heavy infantry can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Alexander saw them as a potential, and increasing, problem. It was from the ranks of the infantry that the mutinies at the Hyphasis and Opis had come, and it would not be surprising if Alexander had deliberately aimed at increasing the prestige and importance of the cavalry relative to the infantry. This would have been to re-establish the situation that had existed before his reign, where the cavalry were clearly the units of greatest prestige. It is also likely that the heavy infantry had become less prestigious, simply because the army was engaged in northeastern Iran at this time and they were not as heavily involved in the fighting as they had been during earlier campaigns.

From 330, when Alexander entered the northeast of the former Persian Empire, he was faced with an entirely new situation: that of guerrilla warfare. This led to a willingness on the part of Alexander to divide his force, seemingly indiscriminately, between various commanders. Before this time if a second column was required it would consist of allied and mercenary troops, the Macedonians almost always staying with the king. As mentioned above, in 328 Alexander left four taxeis of Macedonian heavy infantry in Bactria and divided the rest of the army into five groups. These new commands were given to a fairly select group of Alexander’s closest friends: Craterus, Hephaestion, Coenus and Perdiccas were usually the first choices, with Ptolemy, Leonnatus and Peithon used where more columns were employed. When Alexander entered India, Hephaestion and Perdiccas were sent ahead to the Indus with a large force comprising around half of the Macedonians and all of the mercenary infantry.

One of the most important features of the changes in the command structure of the Macedonian army towards the end of Alexander’s reign was the increasing mobility of commands. Individual generals still kept their titles, but were expected to command entirely separate units as situations presented themselves. For example, in 327 three taxiarchs, Meleager, Attalus and Gorgias, were detached from their taxeis and were given the commands of a group of mercenary cavalry and infantry. They were then employed on diversionary movements along the river banks. Another example is that of Coenus, a taxiarch since 334, who was employed as a cavalry commander at the Hydaspes.

This move towards an increasing mobility of command was for two main reasons, the first being military. As Alexander entered the next phase of the campaign after 331, he increasingly met with an enemy that operated on significantly different lines from that faced early in the campaign. He was also faced with fighting in a new theatre and in different conditions, all of which required the army to be considerably more flexible than it had previously been.

There is surely a second, and in my opinion significantly more important factor at work here: namely politics. Alexander seems to have been becoming increasingly concerned about assigning large bodies of troops to a single commander indefinitely: there was for instance probably no overall commander of the heavy infantry, and the positions vacated by Parmenio and Philotas were never filled, the Companion Cavalry receiving co-commanders. Alexander increasingly detached individuals from their commands and gave them different assignments. He also employed new layers in the command structure and made promotions according to merit. These changes had a two-fold effect: the commanders became loyal primarily to him, since they owed their positions directly to the king’s favour; secondly, the focus of the army s loyalty was also the king, as their commanders often changed and their territorial origins slowly eroded. Alexander made himself the sole focus of every individual, whatever his rank, within the army.

The Price of Parmenio’s Support

Parmenio was probably the single most important political figure in Macedonia, apart from the king, during the reign of Philip; this is true of the early part of Alexander’s reign too. He, as well as various of his family members, was well entrenched at court and seems to have had political connections with both factions contending for the succession in the last years of Philip’s reign. Thus when Philip was assassinated, Parmenio was in a prime position to act as king-maker. He was in a position to offer the support of most of the lowland barons; this would leave Amyntas or any other potential rival with only the possibility of forming a coalition of the fringes of Macedonia and rebellious Greek cities. Parmenio was evidently a skilled political operator and knew well the strength of his position; Alexander was forced to pay a heavy price for Parmenio’s support, but in 336 he was in no position to argue. When the Macedonian army crossed the Hellespont into Asia almost every key command was held by one of Parmenio’s sons, brothers, or some other kinsman. We have already noted that two of Parmenio’s sons were commanders of the hypaspists (Nicanor) and the Companion Cavalry (Philotas), with Parmenio himself commanding the Thessalian cavalry and essentially being second in command of the whole army. Parmenio’s brother, Asander, probably commanded the light cavalry, and certainly received the satrapy of Sardis as soon as it was conquered. Parmenio’s supporters were also firmly entrenched in positions of power, men like the four sons of Andromenes and the brothers Coenus and Cleander. Many of the commanders of the army of invasion were little younger than Parmenio himself: when Justin tells us that headquarters looked ‘more like the senate of some old-time republic’ he is probably not exaggerating in his description, although it is a far from flattering one.

The Macedonian army down to 330 was at its very core Philip’s; they were his veterans and his commanders. Philip’s influence was always present, and frequently felt by Alexander in the form of Parmenio. This was a situation which Alexander could not tolerate indefinitely. He allowed the command structure to remain relatively unchanged whilst his success was still in the balance, but after Gaugamela Alexander began to make serious and sweeping changes to the army, changes which were made considerably easier by the assassinations of both Philotas and Parmenio. Some authorities have argued that Alexander was plotting for the best part of six years to remove Parmenio’s grip on the army, and see the final execution of Parmenio and Philotas as being the culmination of this plotting; this seems unlikely to be true. Why would he, for example, have left Parmenio in Ecbatana with a considerable part of the army and his treasury if he did not trust his loyalty, or if he was about to act against him? Alexander, on the whole, seems to have been more impulsive and spontaneous than this theory would give him credit for: it is more likely that Alexander seized his opportunity without having engineered it. Alexander was gambling that the army loved him more than they loved the old general, and he was right. Although the Thessalian cavalry perhaps did not take it well, they were not a significant part of the army after this, and indeed were disbanded entirely soon after. Following the death of Parmenio, Alexander would never again allow large bodies of troops to be commanded by any one individual for any length of time. Dissention was met with ruthlessness; the army had at last become his and his alone.

‘Marines of the Guard’

One of the more unusual units in the French army was the Marins de la Garde. While we English speakers have a tendency to anglicize their title to “Marines of the Guard”, as most readers probably know, “marins” in French really means “sailors”, so these troops are more properly referred to as the Sailors of the Guard. Their history dates back to the Consulate. The original battalion was raised in September, 1803. It consisted of 5 equipages, each composed of composed of 125 matelots (another French word for sailors), 1 trumpeter, 15 craftsmen and NCOs, 5 ensigns and was commanded by a Naval Lieutenant. The entire battalion was commanded by a Naval Captain (capitaine de vaisseau). 120 men from the unit were part of Napoleon’s escort at his coronation in December, 1804.

The Sailors proved very flexible. In Napoleon’s own words, as quoted in Infantry of the Imperial Guard  by Haythornwaite, “What should we have done without them? As sailors they have no way deteriorated, and they have shown themselves the best of soldiers. When occasion required they proved equally valuable, whether as sailors, soldiers, artillerymen or engineers; there was no duty they could not undertake.”

The corps d’élite of the new Imperial Army was, without the shadow of a doubt, the Imperial Guard. This celebrated formation evolved in a most haphazard and complicated fashion over the years, and here it will only be possible to mention the most important developments. Originally, it sprang from three sources—the personal escort (known as the Guides) of General Bonaparte commanded by Captain, later Marshal, Bessières, to which were added selected members of the Guards of the Directory and the Legislative Assembly. These three cadres were combined in late 1799 into the Consular Guard, and five years later underwent a final change of title in the year of the Emperor’s coronation. The Imperial Guard’s size grew enormously. At Marengo, the Consular Guard numbered only 2,089; by 1804 it had developed to comprise 5,000 grenadiers, 2,000 éite cavalry and 24 guns—or a total of some 8,000 soldiers in all; by mid-1805, this number had risen to over 12,000 men; no less than 56,169 Imperial Guardsmen were in service at the time of the Moscow campaign, but the all-time record was reached in 1814 when 112,482 soldiers could claim some type of membership of the Imperial Guard. Thus the corps d’élite developed from the size of a strong regiment to that of an army, but at the very end (“The Hundred Days”) it was down again to 25,870 soldiers.

The Imperial Guard eventually comprised three distinct sections. The original nucleus was the “Old Guard,” a force that eventually comprised foot grenadiers (the archtypical grognards) chasseurs, mounted grenadiers à cheval (known as grosse-bottes), the chasseurs à cheval (the “favored children”), dragoons, lancers, Mamelukes, gendarmes d’élite, besides Marines of the Guard and detachments of gunners and sappers. Then in 1806 was formed the embryo of what became known as the Middle Guard, made up initially of two fusilier regiments to which were eventually added (1812-13) two regiments of flankers, raised from gamekeepers and woodsmen, one and all noted as crack shots. Lastly, in 1809 there was founded the Young Guard, which mainly comprised regiments of light infantry, voltigeurs and tirailleurs. This last-mentioned formation consisted of the pick of each annual conscript class, and was a deliberate attempt to throw a more glamorous light onto the hated duties of compulsory military service; it was noted, however, that the Young Guard never fully attained the standard of the senior Guard formations.

The projected invasion of England brought about a new unit of the Consular (later Imperial) Guard on 17 September 1803: the Bataillon des matelots de la garde. They are nearly always called ‘Marines of the Guard’ in English, but the word matelot in French translates to ‘sailor’ in English. Calling them ‘Marines’ is understandable considering the very military appearance of these sailors, who wore shakos and were armed like elite soldiers. The battalion was 737 strong, divided into five crews. The unit soon marched away towards Ulm in 1805. In 1808 they were in Spain and many of the 300 present at Baylen were killed or wounded. Restructured and renamed Equipage des matelots de la Garde imperiale, and sent to the Danube in 1809, their strength was raised to 1,136 officers and men in 1810. They crossed the Niemen river into Russia in 1812, but only a third survived the terrible retreat. They then participated in the 1813 and 1814 campaigns. When disbanded on 30 June 1814, only 14 officers and 336 men were left. A small Equipage of 94, later 150, men was organised in the spring of 1815 but was disbanded after Waterloo on 15 August 1815.

The French Army – Middle of Sixteenth Century

The military establishment of 1552 needed to be ratcheted up by the demands of repeated campaigns. there are a number of sources which, while they do not always agree in detail, allow a general picture to emerge. These include the general army list drawn up after the German campaign, reproduced by Villars, two closely related lists of the army for the Metz campaign and estimates of the likely garrison of Piedmont. The Villars text is useful for its comprehensive survey of the entire kingdom outside Piedmont, though it lacks precise figures for the infantry. The army was thus listed as: first, the military household, then 1600 lances (notionally 4000 horse), 2940 light horse in 36 companies, 41 companies of `old French’ infantry (c. 12,300 men), 21 of new (6300), 7000 Swiss and four regiments of lansquenets, six companies of scots and one of English. The likely maximum for the infantry is 30,000. The garrisons of the kingdom itself included a further 400 lances, 290 light horse and 43 infantry companies (c. 12,000) with related formations. The garrison of Piedmont can be estimated at the same time 12-13,000 foot and five gendarmerie companies, though the infantry stood at 17,550 (16,000 effectives) in November 1554. The formations thus listed shifted around in the course of the campaign; the Swiss arrived late and were allocated to garrisons in France and Piedmont, as were the bulk of the light horse. the campaign lists for the army after the capture of Metz show around 36,000 men, to which the garrison resources of the kingdom should be added at 11,450 men. This seems to have been the maximum the crown could put together. A figure between 50 and 60,000 would therefore seem to be a good rough estimate for the entire military resources of the kingdom in 1552. the strength of the army for the royal campaign in Artois of August-September 1553 is known both from the detailed figures of Rabutin (9- 9,500 horse and 26-29,500 foot) and also from an official bulletin which suggests 12,000 horse and 30,000 foot. The official account almost certainly exaggerates the numbers of cavalry.

In 1557, with one army in Picardy facing the Spanish Netherlands army, another was despatched to Italy, commanded by Guise. French forces were thus again seriously divided. the disasters and triumphs of the year provide a good insight into the weaknesses of the French military machine. Estimates of the army on the northern front are difficult but cannot have exceeded 20,000 foot (French and German) and 6000 horse. at all events, fewer were present at the battle of Saint-Quentin, when a maximum of 20,000 French faced over 40,000 Habsburg troops. The army of the duke of Guise in Italy consisted of 20 ensigns of French infantry (4000), 6000 Swiss (24 ensigns), 500 men-at-arms in 7 companies and 600 light horse in 4.  Piedmont still needed at least a skeleton garrison of 10,000, though some Swiss troops were withdrawn after the battle. Re-equipping the army was vital. Infantry that in other times would not have been considered were recruited, while new armour and arquebusiers had to be rushed to the troops. Ten new gendarmerie companies were created. Guise brought back with him 1400 of his best arquebusiers, 9 French companies (1800) and 2 German and sent 10 more of French (2000) overland with the 6000 Swiss, the gendarmerie and light horse. He was therefore able to provide around 10,000 for the northern front and also to purge some of the inadequate troops taken on in the August crisis. However, there were now about 20,000 foreign troops on hand for whom there was little money to provide pay. Guise’s capacity to assemble a serious army for the siege of Calais was remarkable. a reliable source puts his army at 10,000 Swiss (in two regiments), 6000 lansquenets (2 regiments), an indeterminate number of French infantry (up to 10,000), 500 pistoliers and 500 men-at-arms, 3-400 light horse. An army of around 30,000 foot plus cavalry had been assembled by the end of December to replace that of 20,000 lost at Saint-Quentin.

in the aftermath of the defeat of Saint-Quentin, secretary Fresne recorded, a large number of French infantry were raised ‘of whom, though men were employed who at other times would not have been accepted, need made them necessary.’ These then had to be fully equipped with armour and firearms. A company that was drafted to La Capelle early in 1558 was entirely without arms.

Most observers agreed that the best French infantry of the old and new bands were the Gascons, observed in the Perpignan campaign of 1542 as ‘very fine.’ The reasons for this are still disputable and may be connected to social structures of the Pyrenees region and the frontier status of Gascony. In the crisis of 1557, when the estates of the little province of Comminges, near the Pyrenees, was called upon to find infantry, it certainly made an effective survey of the men with arms available, of whom there was a large number.

The aventuriers, through the development of the ‘old bands’, had effectively evolved into regiments by the 1540s. The term `regiment’ was applied initially to the Germans in the 1530s but, by the 1540s, many French infantry of the `old bands’ were effectively organised as such. Thibault Rouault was colonel of ten companies in Picardy in the mid-1540s and in Piedmont Jean de Taix commanded a similar formation. When he moved to Picardy, Taix seems to have absorbed Rouault’s command. Coligny had eight ensigns under his command as `colonel’ in Picardy during his campaign against the English at Boulogne. These were soon known as the `Chatillon regiment’ and moved, first, to Piedmont in 1551 and then back to France for the German campaign in 1552. The model taken was the `old bands’ of infantry amalgamated into larger groups like the Italians and German landsknechts (lansquenets). The first clear use of the term `regiments’ for French formations is often thought to be by Monluc, writing of the manoeuvres in Picardy in August 1558. In traditional military history, the creation of `regiments’ (of Picardy, Guyenne etc.) took place the advice of the duke of Guise in 1562, though it is clear that such formations already existed.

As for armament, France faced infantry armed with firearms at an early date. Louis XI’s francs-archers in Hainault met German `haquebutiers’ successfully in 1478 and it seems that in the 1470s a proportion of them were armed with spears, halberds and pikes; even some coulevriniers were expected. At Fornovo, the French infantry was covered by arquebusiers. Certainly, the Swiss in French service in Italy in 1500 were armed not only with pikes and halberds but also `hacquebutes.’Brantome, though he thought the French infantry was beginning to improve in the early 16th century, still took the view that at that time they were unwilling to adopt firearms and remained wedded to the crossbow. He thought that it was the shock of Pavia that led them to adopt firearms. The Parisian Nicolas Versoris reported that the defeat of Bayard’s army in Italy in 1524 `happened more as a result of the enemy’s firearms than anything else’ and French troops suffered greater casualties at Pavia in 1525 as a result of firearms. Yet it is clear that the crown was requiring the raising of companies of arquebusiers in the great cities by 1521. An Edict for Paris (March 1524) noted that, `considering … new war industries and inventions’, it was necessary to muster a company of 100 arquebusiers with the same privileges as the guard of archers and crossbow men, with the requirement to train once a week in order to inspire others to exercise.

Firearms developed rapidly in French infantry formations from the 1520s, bow- men still being common in 1521, and Piedmont provided an important impetus. When Francis I issued an ordinance for the French and Italian infantry in 1537, he specified a maximum of one quarter of any company to be armed with guns, though it seems that this was more a measure of control for the Italian companies, which were notably dominated by firearms, at around 70%. By the 1540s French infantry companies were also very heavily reinforced by firearms. Piedmont was the area in which this happened earliest, since local regulations assumed that campaigning there required a preponderance of firearms in a company, sometimes 80-90 against 30 pikes. The vidame de Chartres claimed that he had led north- wards a force of arquebusiers from Piedmont in the aftermath of Saint-Quentin because, in his opinion, the main advantage the enemy had was in his Spanish arquebusiers, whereas pike-men could be raised easily in France and Germany. By the end of the 1550s, then, arquebusiers were as common in the north, where the typical proportion in a company equipped with firearms was now half-and- half. However, the ordinance of December 1553, specified that there should only be 58 arquebusiers in a company of 280 of the new bands and 97 in a company of 270 of the old bands, while the garrison companies were to be one third arquebusiers. There were some problems in that infantry had carefully to balance the offensive capability of firearms and the flexibility of pikes. If there were too many arquebusiers in a company, they were exposed to attack. In a formation, the arquebusiers had to retire behind the pike square while reloading. Infantry with firearms required greater training and discipline and was also more vulnerable to breakdowns in the supply of powder and shot. Fourquevaux naturally approved of the arquebus, though only in trained hands. His doubts were raised by what he thought was the desire of too many soldiers to be arquebusiers, either for higher pay or to fight at a distance. He thought that there should be fewer and better. The effect was often just noise, since sometimes for 10,000 shots not a single enemy was killed. He also had some regard for archers and crossbow-men, who, he thought, could serve well in bad weather, when arquebusiers were out of action.


Unlike the earlier wars with France fought under Henry VIII and Edward VI, the war of 1557-1559 was not initially an Anglo-French conflict but a Franco-Spanish war in which England became involved as Spain’s ally. The English were reluctant combatants; Philip II of Spain, husband of Mary I, put pressure on the English government to join the conflict, but Mary’s council decided on war only after a series of French provocations. Although favorable to Spain, the outcome of the war was disastrous for England, which lost Calais, its only remaining continental possession.

The French royal House of Valois and the Spanish royal House of Habsburg had been intermittently at war with each other since 1519. The hostilities that began in January 1557 between Henri II of France and Philip of Spain constituted only the latest phase of that struggle. Although joint ruler of England, Philip could not automatically take the realm into war. The marriage treaty that united Philip and Mary in 1554 limited Philip’s authority in England and denied him English military assistance unless the English queen and council agreed to provide it. Although popular with the English nobility, who sought profit and advancement through service to Philip, the war was highly unpopular in the country at large. The English commons, and especially the merchants of London, did not relish fighting or paying for a war begun to further Spanish interests. Philip, therefore, made little progress in persuading his wife’s kingdom to enter the conflict until a number of threatening French actions, culminating with Stafford’s Raid, an apparently French-backed descent on the English coast by a dissident Englishman, convinced the council of Henri’s hostile intentions.

England declared war on France on 7 June 1557, and by late July an English force had joined Philip’s army at the siege of Saint-Quentin. On 10 August, the allies decisively defeated a French relieving force outside the town, which capitulated on 27 August. The English fought credibly, sustaining more than 200 casualties before returning home in November. The defeat at Saint-Quentin left Henri in need of a victory, which Francis, Duke of Guise, secured with a surprise attack that captured poorly defended Calais in January 1558. Having ignored warnings of Guise’s intentions, the Marian regime, already unpopular thanks to its policy of burning Protestant heretics, was further discredited by the fall of Calais. Although Philip won another victory at Gravelines in July 1558, the battle had little effect on the peace talks that had begun the previous May. The talks were stalled by the English demand for the restoration of Calais. However, the death of Mary and the accession of Elizabeth I in November released Philip from any obligation he felt to support English interests. As a result, Cateau-Cambrésis, which was concluded in April 1559, left Calais to France. Although bitterly disappointed, Elizabeth was forced by French hostility to remain on friendly terms with Philip.


Cateau-Cambrésis is a town in northern France where a treaty was signed ending the last English foothold on the Continent. On 2 April 1559, Henry II of France (ruled 1547-1559) accepted terms that brought the Habsburg-Valois Wars to a close. After a truce in 1556, war had resumed in 1557 and subsequent successes helped determine the nature of the peace. The Spanish forces that invaded France from the Low Countries in 1557 won an important victory at Saint-Quentin (10 August 1557), when a relieving army for the besieged fortress was heavily defeated. In the battle, the Spaniards made effective use of their cavalry, especially of pistoleers, in which they outnumbered the French. Philip II of Spain (ruled 1556-1598) organized the campaign that led to this victory and followed it up by leading the successful storming of Arras.

The following January, however, French forces bombarded Calais, England’s last foothold on mainland France, into surrender in a campaign characterized by bold French generalship: Mary Tudor, queen of England (ruled 1553-1558), was the wife of Philip II, and she had declared war on France in June 1557. The French pressed on to try to take Dunkirk by surprise attack, but they were defeated at Gravelines on 13 July 1558. The Spanish pistoleers again outnumbered their French counterparts; they both won the cavalry fight and hit the French pike, who were also affected by Spanish harquebus power.

Aside from being defeated in battle, Henry II was also bankrupted by the heavy cost of the war and alarmed by the spread of Protestantism in France. The ability of the Spaniards to advance into France meant that Henry could not finance his army by ravaging the Spanish Netherlands. The Religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555, in which Henry’s German allies had settled their differences with the Habsburgs, had also weakened Henry’s position. As a result, he accepted a treaty that left France bereft of what her monarchs had fought for since 1494. Spain was left in control of Milan, Naples, and Sicily, the key positions that established Spanish power in Italy, and that at a time when Italy was the center of the Christian world.

In addition, the French had to yield their positions in Tuscany, which was now securely dominated by the Medici rulers of Florence, allies of Spain, while Savoy and Piedmont, which France had seized in 1536, were returned to Duke Emanuel Philibert of Savoy, a Spanish client. The French, however, kept Calais, and this marked the end of the pursuit by English monarchs of territorial gains in France.

French failure ensured that there was no reversal in the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis of the removal (by treaties in 1525 and 1529) of Artois and Flanders from the suzerainty of the French crown. This was the first major retreat of the French crown from the frontier originally designated in 843 when Charlemagne’s inheritance was lastingly divided. The frontier between the Valois and Habsburg territories in the Low Countries had become that between France and the empire.

This settlement was not to be seriously challenged until the 1640s, in large part because of the weakness of the French monarchy after the death of Henry II following a jousting accident in 1559. This, indeed, ensures that Cateau-Cambrésis is well known, whereas earlier peaces between Philip II’s father, Charles V, and French monarchs, such as the Treaty of Madrid (14 January 1526), the Treaty of Cambrai (3 August 1529), and the Peace of Crépy (18 September 1544), are largely forgotten. However, had Henry lived, or been succeeded by another vigorous monarch, France would have tried to contest the settlement. Indeed, in 1572, Gaspar de Coligny, the Huguenot leader, sought to unite France behind a plan for intervening against the Spaniards in the Netherlands. This was preempted when Charles IX turned against the Huguenots, but the policy was to be resumed by Henry IV (ruled 1589-1610). Cateau-Cambrésis should therefore be seen as a stage, not a definitive settlement.

Toward a Professional Army

“Escape of Charles the Bold” by Eugène Burnand (1894)


The wars conducted by Charles the Bold were a disaster for the Burgundian Army On numerous occasions it was defeated by more mobile and aggressive Swiss forces, and at Nancy in 1477 Charles was killed trying to rally his forces against the enemy.

In the wake of the Hundred Years War, one of Europe’s best armies was to be found in the service of Charles of Burgundy. Containing many mercenary veterans, the force was highly trained and had good equipment. It met its match on the battlefield, however, in the form of the Swiss infantry, whose speed and power canceled out the Burgundian Army’s advantage of being an all-arms force.

Although the English had been ejected from France at the close of the Hundred Years War, some nobles continued to reject the authority of the monarch and mercenary bands roamed the country. The French king restored order by forming compagnies d’ordonnance, which, commanded by loyal and reliable officers, would form the basis of a standing army in France.

In 1461 Charles VII died. His son, Louis XI, shared this desire to limit the nobles’ power. Chief among the king’s opponents was Charles the Bold (or Rash), Duke of Burgundy, who sought to establish a kingdom equal to that of France. He built up a professional army, many of them veterans of the Hundred Years War, including a proportion recruited from his former English ally.

By the early 1470s Burgundy had 8,000 troops. Armored horsemen and mounted bowmen accounted for half; the rest were infantry – a combination of archers, handgunners, and pikemen. Charles divided his troops into self-contained companies, consisting of the various types of cavalry and infantry, who trained closely together to ensure cooperation on the battlefield.

The army of Burgundy was widely feared. In 1474, for example, Charles intervened in a dispute over the control of the German city of Neuss, whose inhabitants had rebelled against the archbishop of Cologne. Charles supported the archbishop and marched an army to Neuss and laid siege. Charles’s artillery pounded the walls, but his troops could not break into the city.

The next year the German emperor, Frederick II, stepped into the quarrel and led an army to the city’s rescue. Charles turned his army on Frederick’s forces and opened fire with his artillery. Frederick withdrew and opened peace talks. Charles agreed to end the siege of Neuss in return for Frederick’s help in the future.

Charles’s interventions outside Burgundy alarmed the south German cities and the Austrian Hapsburgs, who allied themselves with the Swiss, whose infantry were the foremost soldiery of the day. Armed with pikes, halberds, and crossbows, they had asserted Swiss autonomy from the Austrian Hapsburgs during the 14th century, notably at the Battle of Sempach in 1386.

The Swiss carried a reputation as ferocious foes. In 1444 a French army slaughtered a small Swiss force of 1,500 men; but while being annihilated themselves the Swiss killed double that number of French. So, in November 1474, it came as no surprise when the Swiss repulsed a Burgundian incursion and advanced into Burgundian border lands. Charles responded in February in 1476, marching with an army of 15,000 men into the Swiss town of Granson and hanging all the Swiss troops he could find. By March 2, a Swiss force had arrived seeking revenge. Charles had archers, heavy cavalry, handgunners, and artillery, and he formed up outside Grandson, with Fake Neuchatel on his right. The Swiss infantry force of 18,000 men was divided into three tightly-packed columns equipped with pikes.

The speed of the Swiss advance caught the Burgundians by surprise, the complex enveloping action ordered by Charles became disorganized, and his center fell back in disarray. Charles’s army then started to retreat, but the Swiss marched on and cut down his men wherever they caught up with them. About 1,000 Burgundian troops were killed at Grandson, along with 200 Swiss. Charles refused to be deflected from his ambition to drive the Swiss from his lands, however.

In June 1476 he laid siege to the fortified position of Morat with an army of 20,000 men. Expecting the Swiss to send an army to its rescue, Charles had his men dig field fortifications, and he then placed his archers and artillery behind them and waited for the enemy. The Swiss army of 25,000 reached Morat on June 22. Due to bad weather and inadequate sentries, the Burgundians were unaware of the Swiss advance and the Swiss came upon the Burgundian lines while most of Charles’s army was resting. The pikemen and halberdiers ploughed through the half-empty defenses, slaughtering all in their way. A substantial Burgundian force of 7,000 men were trapped and killed to a man.

The Swiss and their allies then took the offensive, entering Burgundian territory. Charles reorganized his forces and, on January 5,1477, he met the Swiss outside Nancy. The Burgundians were caught between two Swiss forces and thrown back. Charles was killed as he tried to rally his troops, and his defeat and death put an end to any pretensions that Burgundy might develop into an state independent from France. Louis XI adroitly took most of the duke’s lands for France.

Charles had possessed one of the most modern armies of the day, well trained and with good equipment, but he had not used it effectively on the battlefield. He had underestimated the speed and power of the Swiss infantry, who canceled out the Burgundian Army’s advantage of being an all-arms force. The war with Burgundy established the Swiss as the most fearsome soldiers in Europe. Machiavelli wrote of them: “No troops were ever more expeditious on the march or in forming themselves for battle, because they were not overloaded with armor.” Their mobility allowed them to outmaneuver their opponents and force battle on them when they were unprepared. Some pikemen wore limited armor – steel cap and breastplate – but many preferred to fight with a leather jerkin or buff coat.

The Swiss fought in deep columns with long pikes and halberds, a bristling hedgehog similar to the phalanx of classical times. The halberd was not as long as the pike, but had a heavy steel head tapering to a point, to which was attached an axe blade and a secondary spike or hook used to catch the reins and pull down charging horses. At Nancy, it was a halberd that brought down Charles the Bold with a single blow that split his skull open. The pikemen and halberdiers were preceded into battle by light infantry who carried crossbows (and subsequently handguns), their role being to unsettle the enemy and draw fire away from the pike columns.

Despite the success of the Swiss in defending their homeland, they did not represent the future of warfare. They were conservative in their military thinking and did not absorb the changes that were taking place as the 16th century dawned. Above all, they failed to take into account the new role of firearms, especially artillery, although their reputation ensured that they would have a career as effective mercenaries. The future of military operations fell to those armies that had the support of an economically powerful state prepared to harness the resources of the nation. To be successful in warfare, an army had to combine the latest gunpowder technology with large and disciplined bodies of infantry and cavalry. Of these, the armies of the Ottoman Empire, France, and Spain would be in the forefront.






“Askari” was a term applied to local Africans who served in European colonial forces. The entomology of the word comes from the Arabic word soldier and, as it was most commonly used in the eastern African context, reflects the mixed Swahili culture of the region. The term also means someone who is “locally recruited,” which carries special import in terms of Africans recruited from the colonies to serve European interests. The importance of the askari to the colonial project underscores the true nature of imperialism. Despite the claims of imperialists that European success was due to their cultural, racial, or technological superiority, the reality of most colonial conquest underscores European dependence on Africans to accomplish the aims of imperialism. For example, the famous colonial standoff at Fashoda, in that the French force consisted of seven Frenchmen and around 140 Senegalese, illustrates this reliance. African askari were of critical importance to nearly all of the colonial powers, although the manner in which they were organized and employed was as varied as the colonizers themselves.

What was common to the colonizers, at least initially, was a firm belief in a hierarchy of “martial races” that meant Africans from certain communities were seen as naturally good soldiers for the Europeans. Not only were these races deemed strong and hearty (useful qualities in any soldier), but also they were considered most willing to obey European officers. Often, this led to common recruitment practices as Europeans attempted to maximize their use of these martial races. Prized for their effectiveness against the forces of the Egyptian Khedive, and later against Europeans under the Mahdi, were Sudanese troops. Sudanese were recruited by both the British and the Germans, for example, to staff their initial forces. Even after such common recruiting practices went away, largely due to the solidification of colonial divisions, this belief in racial or ethnic hierarchy was sim- ply transferred to the specific colony or colonial holdings of the respective powers. Beyond racial categorization, askari often would be recruited on ethnic lines to ensure the connection of one people, group, or region to the colonizers. The very nature of recruitment was designed to divide and conquer the colony.

African soldiers were often utilized in regions not connected to their ethnic background to ensure that there would be no chance of common cause between colonial troops and African civilians. These tactics underscore that the role of the askari was as much about internal security as about de- fending the colony from foreign threats. Beyond such racial and political justifications were the practical matter that utilizing African troops made colonial conquest and administration far less costly in money and European lives. Every askari in a colonial force lowered the monetary cost of administration, as well as the risk to European troops, who often suffered mightily from the African climate and African diseases.

As Belgium’s King Leopold II served as one of the major catalyzing agents for the Scramble for Africa, it is unsurprising that his Force Publique (FP) employed askari. Leopold’s force reflected the views of the “martial race,” with his force initially recruiting heavily from the Sudan. Of the initial 2,000 askari, for example, only 111 were Congolese. Only in the 1890s were local chiefs required to produce recruits for ser vice to fill out the ranks. During the period of personal rule, the line between soldier and mercenary was thin, with the askari more readily employed as overseers to punish those African civilians who did not meet their rubber quotas. Famously, the Belgians went out of their way to recruit cannibals in order to heighten the potential terror of their troops. The largest action of the FP was during the Congo- Arab War, to repress Arab population centers along the Lualaba River. The war involved a massive number of African troops as the FP absorbed mercenaries and irregulars into their forces to quell the Arab states. After a three- year war, the Belgians were able to defeat the remaining Arab positions and solidify their control over the Free State. After the Belgian government acquired the colony, the askari became a more regularized force, both in weaponry and organization, which enabled the FP to acquit themselves in Africa during World War I.

In the British case, the use of Africans to fight for British interests was originally an ad-hoc affair. Frederick Lugard helped create the Central African Rifles and Uganda Rifles when serving the interests of British companies attempting to solidify their hold over the African interior. Eventually these ad- hoc units, as well as the East African Rifles, combined to form the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in 1902. The KAR served with distinction in colonial campaigns in Somalia and the German East Africa campaign of World War I. Lugard was also responsible for the creation of the askari forces in the British possessions in West Africa. He was the founding commander of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF), which was an amalgamation of a number of ad- hoc units in West Africa. This force was organized in order to protect Nigeria’s hinterland from French encroachment. Lugard utilized the force, however, to conquer the Sokoto caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria. The WAFF fought in World War I in Africa and was renamed the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) in 1928.

Despite the common utilization of the term askari, it is most readily associated with the German Schutztruppe (Protective Force) of the respective German colonies. Like other colonial forces, these units were created out of necessity to meet the needs of the imperial venture. In 1888, after suffering under the exploitive rule of Carl Peters and his German East Africa Company, Africans led an uprising against the company that took over nearly the entire coast. The German government, in responding to this threat against their interests, sent a force under the command of Hermann von Wissmann to repress the revolt. Originally, this Wissmann-Truppe consisted of a polyglot assembly of Africans (600 Sudanese, 100 Zulu from Mozambique, 80 East Africans, and 40 Somali), in line with the common European attitude of the martial races. The Sudanese were deemed the bravest soldiers with some Germans referring to them as “black lansquenets” in homage to the Germanic mercenary soldiers. This force, which was used to crush the rebel- lion, was then made the official protective force of East Africa by the German government. While initially relying on foreign Africans, the Schutztruppe shifted to utilizing locally recruited Africans (in other words, askari), primarily from the Nyamwezi people located in western Tanganyika. This region, heavily connected to the caravan culture of east Africa which required the service of young men as soldiers and porters, served as an attractive area of recruitment. While the forces in East Africa have attracted the most historic attention, largely due to their success in World War I, another primarily African Schutztruppe force was formed in German Cameroon, while an entirely white cavalry force was created in German South West Africa. These forces served as the punitive and protective force in the German colonies and then became the main fount of German resistance during World War I. Under Paul von Lettow-Vorbek, the east African Schutztruppe proved a thorn in the side of the British, as the Germans were able to conduct a guerilla campaign that tied down British imperial troops throughout the entire war.

Further Reading Jonas, Raymond. The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011. Moyd, Michelle R. Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa. Athens: Ohio University, 2014. Page, Malcolm. A History of the King’s African Rifles. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2011. Parsons, Timothy. The African rank and file: Social implications of colonial military ser- vice in the King’s African Rifles, 1902-1964. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999. Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

The Guns of Burgundy

Mons Meg

In Edinburgh Castle sits one of the world’s best examples of a white elephant. It is a giant bombard known affectionately as Mons Meg, and was given to King James II of Scotland by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in 1457. The expression `white elephant’ is apt, because it derives from the presentation of these rare and valuable creatures by kings of Siam to visiting dignitaries. As well as being uncommon and precious, the beasts were also exceedingly expensive to keep, and were therefore not entirely welcome as diplomatic gifts. Mons Meg was not only elephantine in size but it was also difficult to transport and slow to fire, and almost obsolete by the time Philip the Good gave it away. In its way, Mons Meg makes a strange comment on the notion of a military revolution. Damage to walls during the recent sieges of Constantinople and Belgrade had demonstrated the power of huge bombards. Yet Philip the Good was so aware of their shortcomings compared to lighter bronze guns that he could afford to give away what appeared to be the most formidable artillery piece in his collection. But Mons Meg is no less telling as a symbol of the sad fate of the dukes of Burgundy, because artillery was not the only field in which the Burgundian rulers showed unusual foresight. We can also discern in the armies of Philip the Good and his successor Charles the Bold the first stirrings of a military revolution in the form of infantry organisation, uniforms and the combination of troops. One might therefore have expected that such developments would have brought about the Burgundian domination of Europe. Yet this did not happen, and the supposedly modern Burgundian army was to find itself being defeated time and again by a mode of warfare that looked comparatively primitive, until Burgundian power disappeared for ever in 1477 at the hands of what appeared to be squads of simple infantrymen.

The Burgundian dukes had always been at the forefront of developments in gunpowder weapons. Froissart credits Philip the Bold, who reigned from 1363 to 1404, with the first successful siege using cannon, at Odruik in 1377, and his descendants were to follow eagerly in his footsteps – an achievement that was partly explained by their continued enmity against the kings of France. By 1453 the royal artillery train, associated in particular with the Bureau brothers, had been instrumental in the expulsion of English armies from France at the end of the Hundred Years War, and developments in technology were carefully noted and jealously guarded. The Burgundians also had the advantage of controlling some well-established centres of metal-working such as Liege. John the Fearless, who reigned from 1404 to 1419, may have had as many as four thousand hand guns in his arsenal. As for larger weapons, when Charles the Bold laid siege to Dinant in 1466 the town capitulated after only a week’s bombardment, in spite of having resisted seventeen previous siege attempts mounted without the aid of artillery. But even this was no easy victory, because as many as 502 large and 1,200 small cannonballs were fired during this short space of time, and Charles’s frustration was taken out on the citizens whom he tied together in pairs and threw into the river. Artillery warfare required both patience and enormous financial resources.

The Burgundian adoption and appreciation of artillery technology was in marked contrast to the attitude of many of their contemporaries. A certain `Lord of Cordes’, besieging Beauvais in 1472, had only two cannons, which were fired twice during the entire operation, and in 1453 the entire army of Ghent had fled when one of their artillerymen accidentally let a spark fall into an open sack of gunpowder. Accidents apart, such battlefield use of artillery was by no means as efficient or impressive as the firing of cannon against a castle wall. At Montlhéry, for example, the Burgundian cannon were well represented, but only managed to fire ten salvoes at the French during the battle, and at Brusthem trees and hedges impeded their lines of fire.

By the last quarter of the fifteenth century the Burgundians had realised that a number of smaller bronze guns could be more effective in a siege than one or two huge bombards. One vital consideration was transport. The early bombards were arduously loaded on to wagons and then equally as laboriously taken off and prepared for firing – the Ottoman monsters at Constantinople being a good example. Lighter guns could also be designed to sit on permanent carriages, and the model designed in Burgundy was to become the prototype for all later European gun carriages. But even this innovation does not imply any great speeding up of the artillery process on the battlefield. At the Siege of Neuss in 1475 the Burgundians were able to ford the Rhine with their heavy guns while under full view of the enemy, because the emperor’s guns were facing away from the river and it would have taken too long to turn them round.

As for Mons Meg, the famous gun was completed in 1449 and at birth weighed in at 15,366 pounds, with a length of fifteen feet and a calibre of eighteen inches. She arrived in Scotland in 1457 and may have been present at the fateful Siege of Roxburgh in 1460, when a gun exploded while being fired and killed King James II. Her awkwardness notwithstanding, the Scots continued to use Mons Meg for many years to come, and the gaping hole in one wall of Norham Castle on the River Tweed bears testimony to how effective she was in 1497. But when the Scots invaded England for the disastrous Flodden campaign in 1513, Mons Meg was not taken along. She ended her active days firing royal salutes, the last of which, in 1680, blew a hole in her barrel. Meanwhile, the Burgundians had not only moved on in terms of artillery development but, against all expectations, had managed to move off the political stage completely. Long before the apparently obsolete Mons Meg had left active service in Scotland, the supposedly modern dukes of Burgundy had disappeared into history, having met with a catastrophe in 1476 against an army that artillery technology had been so far unable to challenge on equal terms.

The Rise of the Swiss

The memories of 1476 and the dramatic military events that surrounded that year are still cherished in Switzerland, whose soldiers brought about the unexpected Burgundian humiliation. A short poem, once taught to every Swiss schoolchild, sums up neatly the events that culminated during the first few days of 1477:

Karl der Kühne verlor

bei Grandson das Gut,

bei Mürten den Mut,

bei Nancy das Blut.


Charles the Bold lost

at Grandson his treasure,

at Mürten his courage,

at Nancy his life.

Charles the Bold was the fourth, and last, Duke of Burgundy. He was born in 1433 in Dijon, the capital of the original duchy, which by Charles’s accession in 1467 had spread northwards in an irregular patchwork to encompass the Low Countries, Brabant and Flanders. Charles had been the loyal supporter of his father during the discussions and plans on first saving Constantinople and then recapturing it. He was also fully in tune with the Burgundian enthusiasm for artillery, and knew how to use his weapons to good effect. During the Siege of Neuss in 1475 a chronicler noted how `it was pitiful how culverins were fired at (the people) thicker than rain’. Success attended his efforts, and Charles captured Luxembourg and Lorraine during the first few years of his reign.

But from 1469 onwards Burgundian power had also become a threat to the Swiss. These were the days when the word `Swiss’ was just coming into use to describe the loose confederation that dated from the end of the thirteenth century, when the three original canton members of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden had created a nucleus. Of the three, the Schwyz attained a particular reputation, so their name was adopted by the whole confederation after their humble spearmen had defeated an army of mounted knights at Morgarten in 1315. By 1469 the Swiss confederacy was becoming aggressive and dynamic. It desired complete independence from the Holy Roman Empire, and was much given to raiding. The canton of Bern now led the Swiss federation, which had its eye on expansion into the Burgundian territories towards the north and the west.

The principal weapon used by the Swiss in the early days was the halberd – a heavy, pointed axe mounted on a long shaft that combined the functions of battle axe, cutting weapon and hook. It was deadly when it met its target but was slow and ponderous to deliver, so when the predominantly infantry-based army of the Swiss confederacy began to expand out of its own valleys into areas where cavalry could operate a change in weaponry was required. As a result, one particular weapon came into its own: the pike. This weapon was probably first introduced from Italy, but by the time of an expedition from Lucerne in 1425 it was recorded that 40 per cent of the army of the Swiss confederacy were armed with pikes.

The Swiss pike was wielded by the most experienced troops in the army: men who could be trusted to co-operate with each other and who would hold firm when mounted knights approached. These men sheltered other troops, such as crossbowmen, within the giant hedgehog that they created. The most heavily armoured pikemen formed the front line, the butts of their weapons were grounded to take the shock of a charge, and their usual targets were the knights’ horses.

By using pikes in this way the Swiss soon achieved a formidable reputation for breaking cavalry and humiliating the élite mounted knights. The Swiss secret was unity and discipline. A single pikeman, who wore little armour and carried a clumsy weapon, was almost defenceless, so the Swiss never fought as individuals but instead as an organised and self-supporting body of men who made up a unit that acquired a life of its own. Contemporaries referred to the silent and eerie way by which a Swiss pike square seemed to ooze across a battlefield. Deep inside the square were other men armed with the old-fashioned halberds. They caused most of the wounds when riders were unseated or the square entered into a situation of melée. At the right moment the pikemen’s ranks would open, letting the halberdiers through as a second wave – and none of them took prisoners.

In April 1474 Alsace revolted against Burgundian domination and its inhabitants executed their hated overlord Pierre Hagenbach. The Swiss were heavily involved in this development, so a military confrontation between them and Charles the Bold could not be long in coming. When, in the following year, Charles was heavily occupied in several areas of his territory simultaneously the Swiss initiated the long-expected military collision, but it was not until the Swiss reached Estavayer on Lake Neuchatel that there was any serious resistance. Fortunately, for the besiegers, many of Estavayer’s citizens had decided to flee by climbing down ropes that they had hung from the town walls, and had very obligingly left these escape ropes in place. With their help the Swiss entered the town and a massacre ensued – the first of many such episodes in the Swiss-Burgundian conflict. Estavayer was also looted systematically, including every piece of equipment used in its cloth-making industry. Such behaviour was by no means uncommon in fifteenth century warfare, but the `rape’ of Estavayer was so extreme that it even provoked a reprimand from the authorities at Bern, who criticised their own army for carrying out atrocities that `might move God and the saints against us in vengeance’. It was a strangely prophetic remark, save that the role of the Almighty was to be taken by the very earthly Duke of Burgundy.