Mercenaries in the eight Italian Wars I

In 1515, the Franco-Venetian alliance decisively defeated the Holy League at the Battle of Marignano.

Detail from the above Battle of Marignano, Swiss mercenaries and German Landsknechts fighting for glory, fame, and money at the battle of Marignan (1515). The bulk of the Renaissance armies was composed of mercenaries.

“Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous”

Mercenaries were used very frequently in the eight Italian Wars (1494 to 1559): the core of the French infantry consisted of Swiss mercenaries, while the Italian cities hired both native and German mercenaries. Although many leaders were eager to hire mercenaries, in his famous work The Prince (1532) Niccolò Machiavelli strongly warned them not to do so. As might be expected, however, his advice fell on deaf ears: during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), marauding bands of mercenaries would lay waste to entire regions of Central Europe.

These wars initially arose from dynastic squabbles but soon evolved into a more general and very repetitive struggle for power and territory. They have many different names: the Great Italian Wars, the Great Wars of Italy, the Habsburg-Valois Wars, and the Renaissance Wars. Whatever name is preferred, however, it basically refers to the same thing, namely, the complicated series of conflicts between 1494 and 1559 that involved, at various times, France, the Holy Roman Empire, the city-states of Italy, England, Scotland, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, the Swiss, Saxony, and other players.

Taking place in southern and Western Europe, the wars finally ended in a Habsburg victory, with Spain emerging as the dominant European power. However, they are such a confusing kaleidoscope of military and political factors, ambitious leaders (mercenaries, nobles, and kings), alliances, counter-alliances, and betrayals they are not described here in great detail. Instead, the focus is very selective, only on those parts of some campaigns where mercenaries were used in a significant way.

The Italian War of 1494–1498: The First Italian War pitted Charles VIII of France against the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and an alliance of Italian powers under the leadership of Pope Alexander VI. In the opening stages of that war, Charles VIII invaded Italy with an army that included 8,000 Swiss mercenaries. At first his forces moved through Italy without much opposition: the condottieri (mercenary) armies of the Italian city-states were much too weak to stop the French forces.

The French reached Naples in February 1495 and captured it without a siege or a pitched battle. The Italian city-states, however, realizing that a foreign monarchy in their midst could endanger their own autonomy, created the League of Venice. This new institution pulled together an army under the leadership of the condottiero (mercenary chieftain) Francesco II Gonzaga. Charles VIII, not wanting to be trapped in Naples, marched north to Lombardy, where he fought the League at the battle of Fornovo (July 1495), using artillery and 3,000 of his own mercenaries. The outcome was both a success and a failure for him: he managed to retreat to France with most of his army intact, but he had to leave behind nearly all the booty he had seized in Italy.

The Italian War of 1499–1504: In 1499, Louis XII of France, having made an alliance with the Republic of Venice and with Swiss mercenaries, invaded the Duchy of Milan. Ludovico Sforza of Milan hired an army of Swiss mercenaries himself. The Swiss mercenaries, however, did not want to fight each other and Ludovico was defeated by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, a noted Italian mercenary who held several military commands during the Italian Wars. (Trivulzio had abandoned Ludovico and, switching sides, had joined Charles VIII.) Ludovico himself was handed over to the French in 1500 and spent the rest of his life jailed in miserable conditions in an underground dungeon in France.

The War of the League of Cambrai (1508–1516): The War of the League of Cambrai, also known as the War of the Holy League and by other names, too, was a major conflict during the Italian Wars. The chief participants were at varying times: France; the Papal States; the Republic of Venice; Spain; the Holy Roman Empire; England; Scotland; the Duchy of Milan; Florence; the Duchy of Ferrara; and, last but by no means least, the redoubtable Swiss mercenaries. The final victors were the French and Venetians.

Pope Julius II had wanted to curb the territorial ambitions of the Republic of Venice, so in 1508 he formed the League of Cambrai for this purpose. By focusing only on the role of mercenaries, one can note that in 1509 Louis XII of France left Milan at the head of a French army and invaded Venetian territory. To oppose him, Venice hired a mercenary army under two cousins—Bartolomeo d’Alviano and Nicolo di Pitigaliano. Unfortunately, however, they could not agree how to oppose the French.

As a result, when Louis XII crossed the Adda River, Bartolomeo advanced to attack him. Nicolo, on the other hand, saw no virtue in a pitched battle, so he moved away to the south. When Bartolomeo fought the French at the battle of Agnandello, he found that he was outnumbered and he urgently asked his cousin to send him reinforcements. Nicolo, however, simply ordered Bartolomeo to break off the battle and he then continued on his own way. Bartolomeo, disregarding these orders, kept on fighting until his army was surrounded and was destroyed. Nicolo, for his part, managed to steer clear of the victorious French forces but when his mercenary troops heard of Bartolomeo’s defeat, they deserted in large numbers, forcing Nicolo to retreat with the remnants of his army. The Venetian collapse was complete but Nicolo soldiered on.

In 1509 the citizens of Padua, aided by detachments of Venetian cavalry under the command of the “proveditor” Andrea Gritti, revolted. (A proveditor was a civilian official charged with overseeing the actions of the mercenary captains hired by the Republic of Venice.) Padua was guarded by some Landsknechts but they were too few in number to resist the revolt effectively, so Padua reverted to Venetian control. Relief forces were sent toward Padua but Nicolo had enough time to concentrate his remaining troops there. At the siege of Padua, although enemy artillery fire breached the city’s walls, Nicolo and his men were able to stand fast: the city did not fall. When Nicolo died of natural causes in 1510, Andrea Gritti took his place as proveditor.

Pope Julius II was increasingly worried by the growing French military presence in Italy, so he hired an army of Swiss mercenaries to attack the French in Milan and he formed an alliance with the Venetians, who also feared the French invaders.

The Italian War of 1521–1526: Francis I of France had wanted to become Holy Roman Emperor. When Charles V of Spain got the job instead, this gave Francis the pretext to start a general war. The war, fought in Italy, France, and Spain, pitted Francis and the Republic of Venice against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Henry VIII of England, and the Papal States. The result was a Spanish and Imperial (Holy Roman Empire) victory. From what might be called a ”pro-mercenary” point of view (in the sense that many of the advantages of mercenaries, at least as seen by their employers, have been recounted), the most interesting action of this war was the rout of Swiss mercenaries at the battle of Bicocca in 1522.

In this battle, a combined French and Venetian force, led by Odet de Foix, the Vicomte de Lautrec, was decisively defeated, north of Milan, by a Spanish-Imperial and Papal army commanded by Prospero Colonna. Lautrec had wanted to attack Colonna’s lines of communication but his (Lautrec’s) Swiss mercenaries complained that they had not been paid since their arrival in Lombardy. They demanded an immediate battle, threatening to abandon the French and return to their cantons if Lautrec refused to attack. Their demand forced him, against his will, to assault Colonna’s well-fortified position. Lautrec’s Swiss pikemen moved forward over open fields under a fierce artillery bombardment, suffering heavy losses, and had to stop at a sunken road backed up by earthworks. There they encountered the concentrated fire of Spanish arquebusiers and were forced to retreat. Their total losses were more than 3,000 dead.

The net result was that, a few days later, the Swiss mercenaries marched back to their cantons, while Lautrec had to retreat into Venetian territory with the remnants of his army. The significance of this battle is three-fold: it marked the end of Swiss pike-dominance among the infantry units of the Italian Wars; it forced the Swiss to change their policy of attacking with only massed columns of pikemen, i.e., without the support of other troops; and it was one of the first engagements where firearms played a decisive role in the outcome. The Italian historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) remarked on how this battle changed the military attitude of the Swiss. He wrote:

They went back to their mountains diminished in numbers, but more diminished in audacity; for it is certain that the losses which they suffered at Bicocca so affected them in coming years that they no longer displayed their wonted vigour.

The really decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–1526, however, was the battle of Pavia (1525), in which a Spanish-Imperial army under Charles de Lannoy, working together with a garrison of Pavia under Antonio de Leyva, attacked the French army, which was under the personal command of Francis I of France. The end result was that the French army was soundly defeated: in fact, Francis himself was captured by Spanish troops when his horse was killed from under him by Caesare Herocolani, an Italian mercenary. Francis was then imprisoned by Charles V and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid.

Mercenaries played significant roles in the battle of Pavia but rather than trying to recount their exploits here in exhaustive detail, it is better to look briefly at a few of the highlights. Examples include the following:

  •  A mass of French troops arrived at Pavia in October 1524 to besiege the city. Inside the city were about 9,000 men, mainly mercenaries, whom the Spanish commander Antonio de Leyva was able to pay only by melting down the gold and silver plate of the local churches.
  •  Confusingly, two different mercenary Black Bands were involved at the battle of Pavia. One, headed by Giovanni de’ Medici, consisted of Italian mercenary arquebusiers who had just entered French service. The other, led by François de Lorraine, consisted of renegade Landsknecht pikemen.
  •  Antonio de Leyva overran 3,000 Swiss mercenaries who had been manning the siege lines. Survivors tried to flee across a river but suffered massive causalities as they did so.

After his decisive defeat in the battle of Pavia, Francis wrote these famous lines in a letter to his mother, Louise of Savoy:

To inform you of how my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which remain safe….

The War of the League of Cognac (1526–1530): This war was fought between the Habsburg lands of Charles V (e.g., Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) and the League of Cognac (an alliance of France, Pope Clement VII, the Republic of Venice, England, the Duchy of Milan, and the Republic of Florence). The result was a decisive Spanish-Imperial victory.

The most interesting mercenary involved in this war was the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466–1560). Orphaned at an early age, when he grew up he became a soldier of fortune, first serving in the Papal guard and then under different Italian princes. In 1503, when fighting in Corsica in the service of Genoa, which was then ruled by the French, he took part in the revolt of Genoa against the French, and forced the French to evacuate the city. This made his name as a mercenary commander.

His next assignment, as chief of the Genoese fleet, was to wage war against the Turks and the Barbary pirates. While he was doing this, the French recaptured Genoa, which was later seized by the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor. Doria, however, sided with the French and entered the service of King Francis I of France, who promoted him to captain-general. In 1524 he relieved Marseille, which was under attack by the Holy Roman Empire, and later helped the French return to power in Genoa.

Later, Francis sent an army to Genoa, where Doria, still on the French side, seized much of the Genoese fleet. Doria, however, then turned his back on the French and sided with Charles in 1528. Doria’s subsequent offensive against Genoa ended any remaining hopes Francis had of keeping his hold on Italy. Much later, in 1543, Doria transported a relief army to Nice during the siege of that city by the Ottoman leader Hayreddin Barbarossa. After the Peace of Crépy in 1544, however, he wanted to end his days in peace and quiet in Genoa. His great wealth and power, coupled with the arrogance of his family, had made him many enemies there. In 1550, at the age of 84, he went to sea again to face the Barbary pirates, but without much success. He returned to Genoa for good in 1555 and died there five years later.


Mercenaries in the eight Italian Wars II

Swiss mercenaries and landsknechte engaged in a push of pike (engraving by Hans Holbein the Younger, early 16th century)

The really decisive engagement of the Italian War of 1521–1526, however, was the battle of Pavia (1525), in which a Spanish-Imperial army under Charles de Lannoy, working together with a garrison of Pavia under Antonio de Leyva, attacked the French army, which was under the personal command of Francis I of France. The end result was that the French army was soundly defeated: in fact, Francis himself was captured by Spanish troops when his horse was killed from under him by Caesare Herocolani, an Italian mercenary. Francis was then imprisoned by Charles V and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Madrid.

Mercenaries played significant roles in the battle of Pavia but rather than trying to recount their exploits here in exhaustive detail, it is better to look briefly at a few of the highlights. Examples include the following:

  •  A mass of French troops arrived at Pavia in October 1524 to besiege the city. Inside the city were about 9,000 men, mainly mercenaries, whom the Spanish commander Antonio de Leyva was able to pay only by melting down the gold and silver plate of the local churches.
  •  Confusingly, two different mercenary Black Bands were involved at the battle of Pavia. One, headed by Giovanni de’ Medici, consisted of Italian mercenary arquebusiers who had just entered French service. The other, led by François de Lorraine, consisted of renegade Landsknecht pikemen.
  •  Antonio de Leyva overran 3,000 Swiss mercenaries who had been manning the siege lines. Survivors tried to flee across a river but suffered massive causalities as they did so.

After his decisive defeat in the battle of Pavia, Francis wrote these famous lines in a letter to his mother, Louise of Savoy:

To inform you of how my ill-fortune is proceeding, all is lost to me save honour and life, which remain safe….

The first phase of the battle of Ceresole, including the Imperial advance, the rout of the Florentine cavalry, the division of the landsknechts, and the advance and retreat of the Spanish heavy cavalry.

The second phase of the battle, including the rout of the Neapolitan cavalry and the landsknechts, Sanseverino’s withdrawal, Enghien’s cavalry attacks, the retreat of the Spanish-German infantry, and the return of the French and Swiss infantry from Ceresole.

The Italian War of 1536–1538: This war between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France was triggered by the death of Francesco Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and by their conflicting claims to the Duchy of Milan. The Truce of Nice (1538), which ended the war, made no significant change in the map of Italy and left divisive matters unresolved. In fact, this settlement is remembered chiefly because Charles and Francis hated each other so much that they refused to sit in the same room together. Their enmity forced the mediator, Pope Paul III, to shuttle from room to room to work out an agreement. Mercenaries do not appear to have played any significant role in this short war.

The Italian War of 1542–1546: This ruinously expensive war—basically a contest pitting Francis I of France and Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, on the one hand, against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VII of England, on the other—was inconclusive. All the players used mercenaries at one time or another: at the battle of Serravalle in 1544, for example, the troops of Alfonso d’Avalos, fighting on behalf of Charles V and his allies, defeated an Italian mercenary army in French service.

A battle worth looking at here is the battle of Ceresole (1544), which took place near Turin, Italy and which is remembered by military historians as “the great slaughter” because of the heavy losses which occurred when columns of arquebusiers and pikemen clashed in the middle of the battlefield.

The belligerents were France, whose forces were led by the Count of Enghien, and the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) under Charles V, whose troops were commanded by Alfonso d’Avalos. On the ground, a wide range of forces of differing backgrounds, i.e., both mercenary and regular, were engaged in this battle. The major combat units were:

On the French side

  •  4,000—Swiss troops
  •  4,000—Gascon infantrymen
  •  3,000—French infantry recruits
  •  2,000—Italian infantrymen

On the Spanish-Imperial side

  •  7,000—Landsknechts
  •  6,000—Italian infantrymen
  •  5,000—Spanish and German infantrymen

What made this particular battle so horrific (the French lost up to 2,000 men dead and wounded; the Holy Roman Empire, up to 6,000 dead or wounded, with more than 3,000 other men captured) was that the columns of each side contained both men with firearms and men with pikes, arranged in a new type of formation. A French nobleman, Blaise de Lasseran-Massencôme, the lord of Montluc, took credit for devising this novel strategy. His idea was to put his firearms men very far forward and in a row, i.e., in the second rank of a column, just behind the leading row of pikemen. Presumably on command, the first row of pikemen would kneel down and would place the butts of their pikes in the earth with the points facing the enemy. The firearms men would then fire over the tops of the pikemens’ heads.

Blaise candidly tells what happened when this system was actually tried at Ceresole. He had confidently expected that

in this way we should kill all their captains in the front rank. But we found that they were as ingenious as ourselves, for behind their first line of pikes they had put pistoleers [i.e., men armed with handguns: long-barreled arquebuses would have been too unwieldy at such close quarters]. Neither side fired till we were touching—and then there was a wholesale slaughter: every shot told; the whole front rank on each side went down.

The losses in this battle were so heavy that the ill-fated concept of alternating rows of firearms men and pikemen was never tried again. Instead, in later battles when firearms (generally arquebuses) were used, they were not fired at point-blank range but only from the relatively greater safety of the flanks of large formations of pikemen or they were used for skirmishing.

The Italian War of 1551–1559: In 1551, Henry II of France declared war on Charles V with the twin goals of recapturing Italy and of establishing French domination of European affairs. However, to make a long and complex story very short, the French failed to change the balance of power in Italy or to break Habsburg control. In terms of mercenary involvement, the most interesting aspect of this war was the battle of Marciana (also known as the battle of Scannagallo), which took place in Tuscany in 1554 and was a decisive Florentine and Spanish-Imperial victory.

Here the belligerents were the Duchy of Florence, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, on one side, and the Republic of Siena and France, on the other. Large numbers of troops were involved: 17,000 infantrymen and 1,500 cavalrymen for the Duchy of Florence and its allies; and 14,000, infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen for Siena and France. Many of the fighters were mercenaries. For example, the mercenary chieftain Ascanio della Cornia provided 6,000 infantrymen and 300 cavalrymen; Landsknechts were much in evidence; and at one point a corps of 1,300 hungry mercenaries was killed when trying to collect food to eat. As a result of this battle, Siena lost its independence and was absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The modern scholar Michael Mallett summarized the Italian Wars in these words:

It was the scale of the Italian Wars which created their enormous impact on European warfare. The emphasis on size and permanence of armies produced not only more disciplined and extensive use of known weapons and techniques, but also placed a premium on co-ordination between arms. The day had passed when a single arm—whether it was the French heavy cavalry or the Swiss pikes—could dominate the battlefield…. The Italian Wars were a vast melting pot; the heat and flames were new; the ingredients were not. Italy had contributed significantly to these ingredients even though she herself was to be consumed in the flames.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Italian Renaissance figure whose name is still cited frequently today by scholars, politicians, and debaters alike, had negative views on mercenaries.

The son of a legal official, Machiavelli had a good grasp of Latin and the Italian classics when he entered government service in 1494 as a clerk. After the Florentine Republic was proclaimed four years later, he rose to prominence as secretary of the 10-man council which conducted Florence’s diplomatic negotiations and military operations. It was during his diplomatic missions that he became familiar with the political tactics of many Italian leaders. In 1502 and 1503, Machiavelli also became familiar, at first hand, with the state-building methods of Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Romagna, who was expanding his holdings in central Italy through a mixture of military prowess, audacity, prudence, self-reliance, firmness, and cruelty. His army was essentially a mercenary army, heavy with contingents of French and Spanish troops. When he faced a revolt by his own mercenaries in 1502, he crushed it brilliantly and ruthlessly. Machiavelli studied closely the methods Cesare employed to trick the rebellious mercenaries and then magnified his achievements in The Prince.

From 1503 to 1506 Machiavelli was put in charge of reorganizing the military defense of Florence. At that time, condottieri bands (i.e. mercenary armies) were common in Italy, but Machiavelli did not think they could ever be relied on to remain loyal to their employers. He therefore argued in favor of citizen armies which, being native to a given state and thus having a personal stake in its fortunes, were much more likely to be loyal. Machiavelli’s thinking here was largely inspired by the citizen armies of ancient Rome.

In 1512, as a result of the rivalry between Spain and France (see the previous section on the Italian Wars), the Medici family returned to power in Florence. The republic was dissolved and, as a key figure in the former anti-Medici government, Machiavelli was placed on the torture rack because he was suspected of conspiracy. After his release, he retired to his estate near Florence, where he wrote his most important books. He tried hard to win the favor of the Medicis but was unsuccessful in this effort and was never given another government position.

Machiavelli’s best-known book—The Prince (Il Principe)—was not printed until l532, five years after his death, although an earlier version was first circulated in 1513 under the Latin title of De Principatibus (About Principalities). The basic and most famous teaching of The Prince is that a leader, in order to survive, let alone to win glory, is fully justified in using immoral means to achieve these objectives. Here the focus is on the two chapters of The Prince that have the most to say about mercenaries. It is worth quoting them at some length to get the full impact of Machiavelli’s thought.

His Chapter XII (“How Many Kinds of Soldiery There Are, And Concerning Mercenaries”), for example makes these forceful points:

I say, therefore, that the arms with which a prince defends his state are either his own, or they are mercenaries, auxiliaries, or mixed.

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and [one’s own] destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, that they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe….

I wish to demonstrate further the infelicity of these arms [i.e., mercenaries]. The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain [i.e., the leader of the mercenaries] is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way [i.e., you will lose the war].

And if it be urged [i.e., argued] that whoever is armed will act in the same way, whether mercenary or not, I reply that when arms have to be resorted to, either by a prince or a republic, the prince ought to do in person and perform the duty of captain…. And experience has shown princes and republics, single-handed, making the greatest progress, and mercenaries doing nothing but damage; and it is more difficult to bring a republic, armed with its own arms, under the sway of one of its citizens than it is to bring one armed with foreign arms. Rome and Sparta stood for many ages armed and free. The Switzers are completely armed and quite free.

In his Chapter XIII (“Concerning Auxiliaries, Mixed Soldiers, And One’s Own”), Machiavelli provides his considered findings on this subject:

And if the first disaster to the Roman Empire should be examined, it will be found to have commenced only with the enlisting of the Goths [as mercenaries]; because from that time the vigour of the Roman Empire began to decline, and all that valour which had raised it passed to others.

I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces; on the contrary, it is entirely dependent on good fortune, not having the valour which in adversity would defend it. And it has always been the opinion and judgment of a wise man that nothing is so uncertain or unstable as fame or power which is not founded on its own strength. And one’s own forces are those which are composed either of subjects, citizens, or dependents; all others are mercenaries or auxiliaries.

In making these such statements, however, Machiavelli was certainly not a disinterested scholar. He very much wanted to get another high-level position with the government of Florence, and the only way to do so was to win the support of the ruling Medici family. A letter written by Machiavelli and discovered only in 1810 reveals that he wrote The Prince to impress the Medicis. However, since they were not prepared to pay the very high fees demanded by the best warriors of the time—namely, the Swiss mercenaries—in The Prince he had to fall back on a less-effective but more feasible solution, namely, a rural militia composed of Florentine citizens. Such a force, he argued, would be much cheaper and much more reliable than mercenaries.

Machiavelli clearly hoped that this proposal, coupled with his related ideas on the merits of a strong indigenous government (which was badly needed, in his view, to keep Florence free from foreign domination), would commend itself to the Medicis. It is clear, however, that it did not: Machiavelli never got another job, and mercenaries continued to be widely used by Italian city-states and by other employers.

Military Contracting: The Mediterranean Galley Squadrons

Andrea Doria

Genoese condottiere, admiral, and statesman. Born 30 November 1466, at Oneglia, Milan, into a lesser aristocratic family, Andrea Doria was orphaned at age 18 and he followed his older cousins into the papal guards in 1484.

Andrea Doria worked toward the position of condottiere-or mercenary military leader-in the employ of various rulers, among them Pope Alexander VI, Kings Ferdinand I and Alfonso II of Naples, and Giovanni Della Rovere. He joined Nicolo Doria in putting down a French-backed insurrection against Genoa in Corsica during 1503-1506, and from 1507 he weathered the tug-of-war between France and Spain for control of his ancestral city. By 1513 he was a naval commander under the patronage of the republic’s new Spanish-backed doge, charged with defending the city against the Turks and corsairs.

A pragmatist, who aligned his military services with shifts in leadership, Doria soon also excelled in naval warfare, striking at a pirate stronghold in Bizerte and defeating a Turkish force under Gad Ali (whom he captured) off Pianosa Island in 1519. Ultimately recognized as the foremost naval commander of his time, he also built his fortune, which helped procure galleys and crews of slave rowers.

From 1522 Doria offered his services, in turn, to King Francis I, Pope Clement VII, and finally to Holy Roman Emperor and Spanish King Charles V. Doria’s continuing exploits at sea included breaking the Spanish blockade of Marseilles in 1525 and the subsequent seizure of Savona and Varazze. During a brief contract with the Vatican (1526-1527), Doria joined Pope Clement VII’s eight-ship fleet with nine French galleys to rout a larger Spanish naval force at San Lorenzo Bay in 1526. Again in French service, in 1527 he drove the Spanish from Genoa, garnering the title of knight of the Order of St. Michael from Francis I.

Within two years the stringency of French rule in Genoa, as well as Doria’s failure to receive pay due him, moved him once again to support Charles V, who in September 1528 assisted him in driving the French from Genoa and establishing the city as an independent aristocratic republic, which endured until 1798. Although accepting titles and honors from Charles V as grand admiral of the Imperial Fleet, the Order of the Golden Fleece, Protonotary of Naples, and Prince of Melfi, Doria refused an offer to become doge, while at the same time exercising influence as de facto first lord and patron.

Doria continued his naval career, leading several forays against the Turks. He captured both Patras (Patrai) and Coron (Koroni) in 1532 and defeated Ottoman admiral Barbarossa (Khair-ed-din) during the capture of Tunis in 1535. The tables seemed turned at Preveza in 1538 when Doria and Barbarossa met again. The tardiness of Doria’s fleet in a planned union with the combined naval forces of Venice and the Papal States brought defeat by the Turks. This has also been seen as the work of a crafty rather than irresolute Doria, who ultimately may have chosen a trade agreement with the Turks over naval solidarity with arch rival Venice.

Andrea Doria’s military and governing careers continued into his 80s. He waged renewed campaigns against corsairs and the French at sea, and he secured the defeat of conspirators plotting against him in Genoa. Acknowledged as one of the last great condottieri, he embodied the typical traits of that military caste-greed, arrogance, ambition, and thirst for power-which were balanced against uncanny tactical and strategic capabilities. In Doria, these attributes were combined with his fierce loyalty to Genoa, which guaranteed that city further longevity as a naval and maritime power. After retiring from service in 1555 and passing his naval command to his nephew Giovanni Andrea (Gian Andrea) Doria, he died in Genoa on 25 November 1560.

The building, running and maintenance of the Mediterranean galley squadrons offer an excellent example of early military enterprise. Galleys and their crews could not easily be assembled, disbanded and reassembled on a short-term basis. This was both for military reasons – the persistent threat posed by the Barbary corsairs to trade, communications and the security of the Mediterranean coasts – and for practical organizational reasons: a navy that is demobilized and laid up will rapidly lose its operational capacity; sailors will seek other employment and abandoned vessels rot away. Training and maintaining effective oarsmen, whether slaves or volunteers, required regular practice, and it took around two years of experience for a crew of oarsmen to reach an optimum level of effectiveness in which their physical strength could combine with properly disciplined rowing. Disbanding the galley fleet even over a single winter threatened this process. For the Republic of Venice, the direct involvement of the patrician governing class in Levantine trade and the naval defence of the Empire had led to the creation of a state-run and state-financed galley fleet, so that in 1500 Venice was the only European state with a large permanent navy.

In contrast, both the Habsburg monarchia of Charles V and the French crown proved much more prepared to meet their naval requirements through the negotiation of lump-sum, long-term contracts for the upkeep of galley squadrons. And from the outset, private entrepreneurs were prepared to meet the initial costs of building, crewing and maintaining not just individual galleys, but entire galley squadrons under contract in state service. They could make this capital investment in the knowledge that their services would be required over the long term, and would be rewarded by contracts which took into account their initial investment in fitting out the squadron and ensuring that it was ready for service. Political success and failure in controlling the Italian peninsula during the struggles of the 1520s in fact hinged on one such contract, that with the private galley squadron of the Genoese patrician and entrepreneur, Andrea Doria, who in 1528 transferred his private squadron of twelve galleys from France to Charles V in return for a contract worth rather more than 80,000 ducats per annum: an increase to 6,700 ducats from 4,750 ducats per galley on his French contract. By 1530 the number of Doria’s galleys contracted out to Charles V had risen to fifteen, for an annual payment of 90,000 ducats. By 1533 there were twenty-seven Genoese galleys in the service of Spain. By 1538 and the battle of Prevesa, twenty-eight privately-contracted Genoese galleys were involved, twenty-two from Andrea Doria and six belonging to his kinsman Antonio Doria. By the 1550s Andrea held an established contract for twenty galleys, and his annual remuneration for maintaining the fleet in the service of Spain had climbed to 126,000 ducats. Besides the Doria, a significant number of other Genoese families were also involved in hiring galleys to the Spanish and to other powers; Marco Centurión, for example, let out five galleys to the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Increases in the size and sophistication of the galleys themselves and the impact of the price revolution had more than doubled the annual cost of hiring a galley from around 6,500 ducats in the 1550s to more than 13,200 by the 1620s. This steadily rising cost of galley contracts briefly tempted the government of Philip II to experiment in the 1570s with running the galleys under direct administration by royal agents, so that around 100 of the 146 galleys in the Spanish fleet came to be owned and directly administered by the crown. But this direct administration proved a disaster, costing almost twice as much per galley as the Genoese contracts, and reducing the military effectiveness of the squadrons as a result of failures to find enough experienced oarsmen and the bad management of provisioning and equipment. By the mid-1580s the policy had been reversed and the role of the Genoese, and in particular, Andrea Doria’s nephew, Gian Andrea, was once again established at the centre of Spanish Mediterranean naval policy.

For the Genoese contractors there were various attractive supplementary financial advantages over and above the fixed payment for the management of the galley (see below pp. 207–8). Moreover much of the time, whether directly under Spanish orders or carrying out a corso on their own initiative, the galleys were engaged in privateering which itself offered the possibility of additional financial rewards over and above the smaller but predictable returns to be made from good management of the contract. Given the high capital investment, not in the galley itself, but in building up both an effective crew and team of oarsmen, and the costs of regular replacements, the additional, unpredictable financial benefits may well have ensured that the contracts remained attractive. The profits from successful privateering certainly provided a large incentive to the captains and financial backers to ensure that they were maintained at a level of military effectiveness and kept at sea.

Hiring naval capacity

Mediterranean galley warfare provided an early example of the military enterpriser benefiting from a particular set of circumstances, principally the calculation of the squadron owner that the warlord hiring the galleys would need to maintain them for a continuous period. It might prove possible to fund the galleys for brief periods outside the contracts: much discussion in the Genoese Senate about establishing a fleet of ‘state’ galleys for direct military protection was based on the assumption that the galleys could be self-financing by doubling as merchant vessels carrying high-value cargoes, especially raw silk brought from Messina to Genoa. This seems in practice to have been a dubious prospect for the owners of high-cost, low-capacity galleys, but it was certainly the case that sailing ships could alternate between mercantile and naval purposes. It was unsurprising to see, both in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, the development of contracts in which owners of individual ships or entire fleets would be willing to hire these out, usually fully crewed and equipped, to the service of a major power wishing to create or expand a naval fleet, whether for a single campaign or a longer period. The expansion of oceanic trading networks was of considerable importance here; since the early sixteenth century ships were being built of a size and capacity to withstand heavy seas, to remain at sea for months, and carry enough cargo to make lengthy trans-oceanic voyages financially viable. This generally meant the abandonment of ships of more than a thousand tonnes, which could carry huge quantities of cargo but were unwieldy in handling, required large crews and concentrated the potential loss from storm or piracy. Development based on the evolution of the galleon, with its relatively high ratio of length to breadth, its weight of around 300–600 tonnes and its excellent handling qualities, came to dominate the oceanic mercantile and naval fleets of the European powers. Constructed for specifically mercantile purposes, these ships would be equipped with highly sophisticated systems of rigging, allowing a small crew to control three masts and their several thousand square metres of sail. Such ships could carry artillery, and indeed some armament would be considered essential for defence against pirates or the ships of hostile powers. They could also be built as warships, with at least one gundeck down towards the waterline, heavy guns mounted fore and aft, and some lighter pieces on the main decks. A full complement of artillery on a late sixteenth-century, 500–600-tonne galleon would amount to forty to fifty guns. A merchant ship would carry considerably fewer guns, but it could easily be adapted to carry more if intended to serve, permanently or for a single campaign, as a warship.

The Landsknechte

The other group of mercenaries whose contribution to the eventual emergence and flourishing of military enterprise is of central importance are the Landsknechte, to whom might be added the other substantial group of German mercenaries hired by foreign warlords from the 1530s onwards, the pistol-armed cavalry, or Reiter. The Landsknechte appear to have been recruited from the time of Maximilian I, specifically as a response to the Swiss Haufen, with the Germans employing the same weapons, formations and tactics. Maximilian threw his own weight and reputation behind the levying and organization of the Landsknechte, seeking to overcome German noble disdain for infantry service by carrying a pike himself and rewarding successful Landsknecht commanders with honours and titles. Rather more rapidly than the Swiss, the Landsknecht regiments started to substitute arquebuses and the heavier muskets for halberds and other short-handled weapons. By 1570 each company (Fähnlein) contained 200 infantry with firearms against the remainder (somewhere between 100 and 200) armed with pikes. Like the Swiss Haufen and the Spanish tercios, the size of the combat unit gradually declined: a Landsknecht infantry regiment would be recruited at 4,000 men in the 1560s, but the numbers of effectives would usually be lower than that, with a company of 300 on paper being closer to 220 in practice. As with most other European infantry the numbers within a regiment or its equivalents were drifting down towards a typical 1,500–3,000 troops by the end of the sixteenth century. The system of recruiting and operating the Landsknechte differed from that of the Swiss in the absence of any equivalent of the cantonal structure and authorities to authorize, control, and in many cases administer the levy and deployment of troops.

The Landsknechte were raised throughout the constituent territories and jurisdictions which formed the Holy Roman Empire. The initiative to raise infantry on a scale and in formations large enough to match the Swiss on the battlefield probably came from Emperor Maximilian. But Imperial authority was not capable of coercing or demanding a military contribution from the innumerable rulers over whom the Emperor possessed ultimate juridical authority but little practical power. Any equivalent of the cantons’ universal military service was a pipe dream of theorists like the writer, soldier and Imperial councillor Lazarus von Schwendi. In the face of a generally perceived common threat, the territories of the Empire might agree to provide financial contributions to the Emperor as defender of the common interest through the regional assemblies of the Reichskreise, the ‘Circles’ or regions of the Empire. The one threat in the sixteenth century which was likely to command some consensus was Ottoman pressure on the Habsburg lands and on south-central Germany; for this a military tax, the Römermonate, was collected in accordance with the agreement made with Charles V at Worms (Wormser Matrikel) in 1521. A single Römermonat involved the collective levy of 15,371 infantry from the Empire, with a monthly pay and upkeep cost added to this of 88,500 gulden. Depending on the nature of the military emergency, the Diet could vote multiple tax grants which would maintain an Imperial army for an agreed period. The Emperor could draw upon the tax revenues to finance the campaign, and the territories within the Circles would undertake or contract the levy of the specified numbers of troops. Römermonate from the Circles might occasionally be available for the pursuit of Habsburg dynastic interests in Italy, or directly against France, but in general this would be funded by direct and indirect tax resources, extraordinary lay and clerical subsidies from the Habsburg lands.

The actual levy of troops was a local matter, in which the smaller German territorial princes and the subject nobility of medium and larger states might play a role as military contractors. But above all it was the activity of the independent (Reichsunmittelbar) Imperial knights (Reichsritter). These latter figure largely in the contracts for the hire of Landsknechte, and include many of the names most closely associated with the military history of the period: Berlichingen, Ems zu der Hohenems, Sickingen, Schertlin von Burtenbach, Fürstenberg, Truchseß von Waldburg. In most cases they were noble landowners for whom the additional financial attractions of successful military service were considerable, and who were unconstrained by the juridical complications of being princely subjects. The extent that this became the knightly métier can be seen from its continuation into the Thirty Years War, with no less resonant military names like Pappenheim and Hatzfeld emerging from this class. Though rather like the social rise of the condottiere in the fifteenth century, the later, larger-scale and more complex military enterprise of the seventeenth-century Empire became the province of the younger sons and brothers of princely families. In contrast, sixteenth-century mercenary activity in the Empire was dominated by the Reichsritter. There were a few exceptions: the most famous of all Landsknecht commanders, Georg von Frundsberg, was from a noble family who were subjects of the Habsburg archdukes of the Tyrol. Martin Schwarz, notorious from British history as the captain of 2,000 Landsknechte led against Henry VII at the battle of Stoke in 1487, seems to have been a cobbler before he progressed through the military ranks in the 1470s. At the other end of the scale, some of the German princes, like their Italian counterparts, did become directly involved in raising and hiring out bodies of soldiers: Albrecht Alkibiades of Brandenburg provided a notorious example in 1552 when he hired out his army corps to the French for an invasion of the Habsburg Netherlands. But the German soldier trade remained dominated by the Imperial knights at least until the second half of the sixteenth century, and their claim to make contracts with any warlord they wished – the principle of Reislaufen – had direct consequences for the capacity to satisfy external requests for the service of Landsknechte or Reiter. The strongest opponent of this claim was the Emperor himself, to whom all of these otherwise Reichsunmittelbar knightly captains owed allegiance. Under Emperor Charles V, contracting to serve the French king meant, more often than not, direct military opposition to the Emperor, so the debate about ‘foreign’ service intensified. The one victim of judicial proceedings to assert this principle was Colonel Sebastian Vogelsberger. Brought to trial for having served François I in the 1530s and having offered to recruit troops for Henri II at the time of the Schmalkaldic War, he was executed in 1548. But Vogelsberger, though enjoying wealth and office from his military service, had been born the son of a small farmer and schoolmaster in the Rheinpfalz; he had none of the political immunities of the Reichsritter, and his example had no real impact on subsequent willingness to continue contracting abroad.

If in practice most German mercenary colonels could negotiate contracts without any fear of restraint or prosecution, it was also the case that the military resources of the Empire were incomparably greater than those available to their Swiss counterparts. As contemporaries pointed out, it was not difficult to recruit large numbers of soldiers to serve as Landsknechte and recruiters could in many cases be selective, taking only those who came with their own weapons and armour, and looking for those with previous military experience or good health and physical strength. Recruitment in 1555 by Colonel Georg von Holle around Wildeshausen easily generated 5,000–6,000 potential recruits at the assembly point although funding was only sufficient for the contracted 3,000.130 Given the concern of the Swiss authorities to control the overall numbers of Swiss in foreign service, it was largely German Landsknechte who were raised to soak up the extra demand.

Moreover a completely new gap in the market was filled by the German Reiters with their pistolier tactics. Recognizing that lancers and cavalry armed with sabres would stand no chance of breaking a well-formed, pike-ringed square of Swiss or Landsknechte, ordinary armoured and light cavalry were deployed on the flanks and in reserve to take advantage of weaknesses or breakdown in the infantry centre of an opposing army. But the Reiter, deploying the pistol tactic of the caracole in large, cohesive units, offered the prospect of a more direct role for elite, well-drilled cavalry. Though the caracole has frequently been dismissed as little more than ineffectual choreography, the technique by which successive ranks of a cavalry column rode up to within yards of an enemy formation, discharged their heavy, armour-piercing pistols and wheeled away to allow the next rank to fire, could prove effective – psychologically as much as in terms of casualties inflicted. Pistols repeatedly fired at five to ten paces into a static infantry formation whose own firearms had already been discharged, mostly ineffectively and at greater range, could be highly intimidating, as the collapse of the infantry of the Protestant princes demonstrated at Mühlberg in 1547. More consistently decisive was the impact of pistol-armed Reiter on traditional heavy cavalry armed with lances; it was the use of cavalry pistoliers, rather than the infantry pike-square, which ended the battlefield role of fully armoured heavy cavalry. The main reason why the caracole and similar cavalry tactics were talked down by many contemporaries was that such tactics would only work in the hands of experienced, disciplined and well-trained units of cavalry. Just like the pike-square, the caracole would prove a disaster if deployed by inexperienced troops with no sense of unit identity or cohesion. Hiring German units of Reiter who had this practical experience of providing disciplined pistol fire on horseback was the obvious, ready-made means to acquire this military capacity, despite the cost of 12 ducats per month for an ordinary cavalryman.

The German soldier trade of the sixteenth century was thus able to meet considerable external demand. If the first and greatest contracting warlord was the Emperor, as early as 1515 the army of François I which opposed the Swiss at Marignano contained 23,000 Landsknechte. By the mid-1530s the French campaigning forces included 6,000 Landsknechte raised by Wilhelm von Fürstenberg and a further 7,000 raised through other colonels. In the early 1550s Henri II was regularly campaigning with between 10,000 and 13,500 Landsknechte, while at the well-documented review of Henri’s army conducted at Pierrepont in 1558, as many as 19,000 German infantry were supplemented by 8,200 Reiter (in an army totalling 40,500). France was not alone: in 1544 Henry VIII sought to raise 2,000 Landsknechte under Maximilian d’Ysselstein, count of Buren, together with seven independent companies of German cavalry totalling some 1,500 horse. He would certainly have raised more, but the difficulties that he encountered were an indication that the contracting activity of both the Emperor and the king of France had come close to draining even the large pool of high-quality German soldiers available for hire. The kings of Denmark hired both regiments of Landsknaegtene raised by their own nobility, and contracted German units to supplement these throughout the sixteenth century. As early as 1502 German Landsknechte were sent by the margrave of Brandenburg to serve under contracts drawn up by King Hans of Denmark.

What could turn these Germans with varied and diverse geographical and social backgrounds into units of soldiers whose military reputation was sufficiently impressive that rulers would compete at great expense to hire them in preference to their native soldiers? The Landsknechte could not in general draw upon the obvious strength of the Swiss Haufen, close-knit and homogenous peasant communities which could reinforce group solidarity and cohesion. There was far less sense of community and no distinctive ‘geography of recruitment’ either for the Landsknechte in general, or for the individual units. The social and economic backgrounds also varied widely, with townsmen as likely as peasants to volunteer, and with a wide social spectrum of recruits, from lesser nobles enlisting as ‘double-pay men’ down to the urban unemployed. If there was no strong regional or social solidarity, neither was there any powerful sense of emergent ‘German-ness’ that could create bonds. Georg von Frundsberg might try to stir up anger amongst his own followers against the 5,000 Landsknechte in French service at the battle of Pavia, but there was little real sense of cultural identity that could be used to stimulate cohesion. Appeals to Imperial service and common duty as the Emperor’s vassals cut little ice when pay was in arrears, as Frundsberg himself discovered in Verona in 1510 and again in 1527 at San Giovanni near Bologna. And unlike the Swiss, the German soldiers, infantry and cavalry, had few reservations about fighting each other as hired soldiers of opposing powers, partly of course because recruitment across large and diverse German territories outweighed any strong sense of a common culture. The captain of the Zug contingent who told the soldiers of the leading Swiss Haufe at Marignano that the battlefield would be their churchyard, then appealed to them to ‘be courageous and think of their home’. It is difficult to see that this shared concept of ‘home’ could have an obvious collective German equivalent.

Nor could religious identity be easily pressed into service by the military authorities. Despite the distinctive piety and popular beliefs of the Landsknechte – similar to those of the Swiss – on the eve of battle or after military successes, soldiers and their officers were remarkably resistant to the currents of evangelical reform unleashed from the 1530s and 1540s. Attempts to foster a strong, confessional identity amongst the Landsknechte failed, as did most attempts to demonize enemies in terms of their heterodox religious beliefs. Recent work continues to maintain the judgement of Anton Schindling that armies in the Empire were confessional ‘free states’ in the early modern period, in which religious piety and practice was certainly evident, but strong confessional divisions and antipathies much less so. That this was not necessarily the case with all early modern soldiers can be seen through the example of the Spanish soldiers of the tercios, whose behaviour and group indentity was strongly shaped by a powerful, militant Catholicism.

It is easy to depict the sixteenth-century mercenary as driven straightforwardly by greed or need; whether they were seeking to exploit their military role to extort money from society, or whether they were victims of that society, forced to become soldiers by a harshening economic environment, their motivation was crudely material. When his own Landsknechte surrounded Frundsberg at San Giovanni, threatening him with violence over their arrears of pay, shouting ‘Money, Money’, and then declaring that they would undertake no further military action until their arrears were paid, it might seem perverse to question this bottom line of their motivation for service. Like the Swiss, the Landsknechte received decent wages: at four Rhenish gulden a month, this was typically half a gulden less than the Swiss, but still double the pay of a farm labourer and more than a skilled journeyman. With the appropriate, privately purchased equipment of pike and half-armour, and especially if drawn from a higher social rank, the recruit might qualify as a double-pay soldier (around 10–20 per cent of the company), with what would then be a substantial wage. It certainly was not the case that the majority of those volunteering and enlisting as ordinary soldiers were from the lowest economic groups in society. Many were the sons and brothers of middling or prosperous peasant families, others were from urban artisan and journeyman backgrounds, while some were from the urban patrician class seeking adventure or experience. In any case, and a point so often missed when discussing these privately raised troops, while financial gain might have explained their enlistment, it would not explain the military qualities of either Swiss or Germans.

At the heart of the success of the Landsknechte lay a distinctive, complex and to some extent paradoxical sense of corporate identity. This was also present with the Swiss, though shaped in their case by the demand for military service, so that the military organization – at least when organized cantonally – was a closer reflection of the wider community. For many Landsknecht, and more like the Swiss ‘free companies’, military service was a professional choice for the individual. At the same time Landsknecht professionalism contrasted with that of the Italian condottieri companies, who were separated from their surrounding society, indeed had often been hired in order to ensure that this society had little to do with the practicalities of military activity. It was the concept of the collective ‘Regiment of the Landsknechte’ which systematized a strong sense of corporate identity that was about both belonging and social distance. What service as a Landsknecht offered was a defined and collective social status which ranked the soldier amongst the respectable and honourable elements of society. This status was measured not primarily in terms of good wages and other economic benefits – which were decent on paper but in reality frequently failed to come up to expectations – but in terms of honour and ‘freedom’. Military service as a Landsknecht was an honourable career, freely chosen and with a status which was measured by rights and privileges akin to those of members of other corporations in early modern society. Understanding the status of the sixteenth-century Landsknecht requires forgetting entirely the eighteenth-century perception of ordinary soldiers as social detritus, separated as much as possible from direct contact with respectable ranks of society by close confinement to barracks and the drill square.

One obvious manifestation of the status of the sixteenth-century Landsknechte was simply outward respect. The soldiers were members of a corporation which provided military service, itself a highly regarded activity. The terms in which they were addressed reflected this. Emperor Maximilian consistently referred to his ‘Liebe Landsknechte’, or his ‘fromme Teutsche’ or ‘ehrliche Kriegsleut’. Taking the example from the top, and even more aware of sensibilities in this respect, an effective commander like Frundsberg referred to his ‘lieben Söhn und Brüder’, while respectful adjectives like fromm, tapfer and ehrlich were regularly used in collective address. Civil society took its cue to some extent from this respectful tone within the corporation: ambiguities in attitudes to the soldiery did not challenge the idea that the profession was honourable and accepted its evaluation of itself. The fascination with the Landsknechte in contemporary painting, copperplate engraving and woodcuts bears powerful witness to an attitude which was certainly not free of moralizing disapproval, but was also accepting of the soldiers’ claim to a distinctive status and role in society.

A more substantial factor in determining the German and Swiss soldiers’ sense of self-worth was an element of democracy and self-determination in the military organization. Each company in a unit of Landsknechte had a complement of ‘Gemeinämter’, officers who were directly elected by the collectivity (Gemein) of the soldiers to represent their interests, namely a Führer, two Waibel (Gemeinwaibel) and a Fourrier per company. These officers shared between them the administrative oversight of troop movements and lodgings, divided up the allocations of supplies and munitions, allocated watches and other responsibilities, and represented the interests of the soldiers to the captain in all areas of duties, discipline and rights. To these duties the Führer added the all-important function of acting as advocate and adviser for the common soldiers in matters of justice. The existence of the Gemeinämter was a reflection of the rights of the ordinary Landsknecht or Swiss soldier, but so was the manner of their election. The entire company would assemble in a large circle and the names of candidates for these posts would be shouted by soldiers to the scribe, who would note them down in preparation for voting by simple majority. Moreover the company drawn up in their circle was a crucial element in other areas of decision-making: the forum for negotiation with the senior officers, the mechanism for taking collective decisions, and the context in which the trial and punishment of members of the company took place.

Beneath this structure of company and regimental office-holders, all the men in a German or Swiss mercenary company were divided into small, self-selected groups of eight to ten ordinary soldiers, or six double-pay men, the Rotte. This was militarily important in its own right, a classic example of those small-group dynamics which twentieth-century military theorists have regarded as the key to understanding the military effectiveness of larger bodies of soldiers. Its significance was certainly understood by contemporaries, being readily adopted by the Spanish tercios, with their divisions of the companies into small groups of camaradas. Each Rotte informally elected one of its number as the Rottmeister, who would distribute food and munitions, allocate accommodation within the Rotte, fix watches, resolve disputes and generally act as group leader.

Representation was important, and so were its practical implications. Above all the Landsknechte and their Swiss contemporaries served under systems of justice which emphasized collective responsibility for hearing cases and deciding verdicts and punishments. Though the regimental colonel possessed supreme judicial authority and had the right to overrule the collective will of the soldiers, such direct confrontation would normally be avoided. In general the regimental judicial officers, headed by the Schultheiß, would initiate legal proceedings against offending soldiers, and the case itself would be heard within the circle of the assembled soldiers, the defendant having the right to call upon his Rottmeister, the Führer or one of the Waibel, or any other of the soldiers to speak for him in the public context of the trial. While a trial would follow formal procedures and the verdict would be reached by a panel or ‘jury’ which was dominated by officers appointed by the colonel, the rest of the soldiers were present and could either act as a legitimizing force for the verdict and sentence, or might register their disapproval or dissatisfaction with proceedings. In some cases of crimes against fellow soldiers, the company would also act as collective executioner, forcing the condemned to pass along two lines of spear-armed soldiers who would beat and stab him to death. This again was a recognition of the condemned soldier’s status; he would not be humiliated by being handed over to the ‘dishonourable’ charge of a regimental executioner.

The obvious result of this popular participation in regimental justice was to weaken the disciplinary sanctions of the senior officers over their troops. It was difficult and sometimes dangerous to seek to prosecute soldiers who were considered by their fellows to have behaved within acceptable norms, and on some occasions even when they had acted well beyond them. Rather than formal codifications imposed through a military hierarchy, discipline appears more as a collective consensus which might vary markedly in different contexts, for example between the battlefield, the army on the march or in quarters. A capital sentence for insubordination on the battlefield would probably command general approval from the soldiers, while a similar sentence imposed on soldiers who had fallen out of a march might provoke a riot.

The consensual model was more widely reflected in the relationship of officers to men: while the contracting colonel would appoint his officers, they would then be ‘acclaimed’ by the assembled circle of soldiers; this was ostensibly so that they would be recognizable in a military community where there were no external marks of rank, but of course also carried some implications of popular election. Moreover, officers led from the front and by example, which often meant in the front ranks of the Haufen; their authority was demonstrative and repeatedly affirmed by active leadership, rather than established and hierarchical. Unable to deter their Swiss soldiers from a frustrated collective decision to storm the well-defended fortress of Morbegno in northern Italy in 1531, the commanding officers unhesitatingly placed themselves in the front ranks, so that both Dietegen von Salis and Hans von Marmels were killed in the first assault.

As this example also shows, it was not always the case, and especially when pay was in arrears, that the commanding officers would take all military decisions. If the Landsknechte by the sixteenth century had largely abandoned the Swiss model of decision-making by the collective body of the senior officers – the Kriegsrat – both the decisions and orders of Swiss and German commanders could be swept aside on occasions by popular pressure or resistance from their men. All of this would appear to challenge most ideas of what constitutes military command and functional discipline in modern armies, though it is easily recognizable from earlier European and non-European societies, where military forces maintained an edge over neighbouring powers through the combination of their soldiers’ high self-esteem and their cohesiveness and fighting power based on each individual’s sense of participation and responsibility.

Such organizational traits, even if they challenge conventional ideas of military hierarchy, could foster military results that certainly impressed contemporaries. Some other aspects of this strong collective identity excited less favourable reactions. There was a profound ambiguity at the heart of Landsknecht self-identity in society. They wished to be a respectable and honoured part of that society, but at the same time their extremely strong group bonding and the nature of military life gave them a sense of assertive separateness, of being outside the norms of a settled, ‘respectable’ society. If a powerful motivation for enlistment and service was a heightening of social status through the rights and freedoms enjoyed as members of a prestigious corporation, an equally powerful force was the cohesiveness gained from standing as a close-knit group outside of, or hostile to, society. This latter tendency is characteristic of many armies and navies, but it has rarely been carried to such conspicuous extremes as by the Landsknechte, and certainly explains much of the particular antagonism towards this style of mercenary warfare expressed by many of the moralizing writers of the sixteenth century.

Much has been written on Swiss and Landsknecht dress and appearance, and depictions of individuals and groups, whether from life or as caricatures, fascinated contemporary artists, supplying what was evidently a large market for engravings. It is easy to imagine the impact of a group of Landsknechte arriving in some small town or community in central Germany, with their extraordinary, multi-coloured and extravagant costumes, highly individualized, flamboyant in their use of slashing (to reveal other, expensive fabrics beneath the top layer), elaborate stitching and ruffles, feathers, plumes and other decorations, in many cases inspired by lively and colourful Italian styles of dress. Landsknecht costume was about conspicuous consumption: the soldiers had access to cash paid as a monthly sum, intended to cover costs of food, lodging and upkeep, but readily spent on gambling, drinking and the purchase of provocatively expensive clothing. The dress was also unmistakeably about assertive masculinity and sexuality: brightly coloured fabrics and deliberately conspicuous codpieces, puffed and padded jackets which emphasized shoulders and chest, tight leggings, fabric slashing to reveal bare skin on legs, arms and chest. In a communal culture where the disruptive effects of unconstrained sexuality were a strong source of anxiety to religious and civil authorities, the dress and swaggering, aggressively masculine behaviour of the Swiss or the Landsknecht were an open provocation, an incitement to fornication, adultery, and illegitimate children. That they would readily impress non-military young males and encourage them to try to imitate clothing and behaviour, even if they did not seek to enlist, was a further reason for concern. ‘I likewise require modestie in apparell’, thundered the predictably puritanical Justus Lipsius, in a comment that might otherwise appear a low priority in a work on military discipline.

Dress though was only one part of a more systematic rejection of the norms of civil society in the social and cultural behaviour of the Landsknechte and their Swiss counterparts. Their detachment from the settled life of town and country was also embodied in the Troß, a great extended and mobile camp of wagons, carts, porters, draught and pack animals, food and merchandise vendors, servants, women, children and animals that accompanied the regiments of troops to provide a combination of support services, shops and social environment. The Troß was where the soldier stored his possessions and might establish his wife, children or servants, where he bought his food and drink, sold his booty, and could buy the services of tailors, cobblers, barbers, surgeons, notaries and whores. This last service provided by the Troß was notorious amongst moralists and critics of this military system. While they might grudgingly have accepted the practical, physical necessity for the presence of whores with the army – ‘no whores, no war’ was a popular saying from this period – the openness with which the trade was plied and the lack of censoriousness from the senior ranks of the unit presented a sharp contrast with the often tortuous hypocrisy of settled civil society.

The open tolerance of the presence and role of whores within the army camp was embodied in the office of the Hurenwaibel. Although this man in fact had a wider responsibility for the general good order of all of the services, marketing and other activities within the camp, he was specifically identified for his role as the overseer and supervisor of the prostitutes, a post which involved resolving disputes, preventing violence and ensuring that the women were kept in the camp and were separated from the troops when they were directly engaged in military activities. Far from being a modest, low-key position, the Hurenwaibel in a large army enjoyed a status equivalent to a company captain and had a team of assistants. The frequent subject of engravings and descriptions of the various ranks and duties of military officers, the Hurenwaibel was the public face of an army organization which was increasingly at odds with those urgent attempts at moral reformation and discipline that were being launched by spiritual and civil authorities through the sixteenth century.

If the enforcement of discipline amongst the Landsknechte may have reflected collective consensus as much as top-down enforcement of formal regulation, there is little doubt that the consensus was least likely to support the punishment of soldiers who pillaged, stole or perpetrated violence against civil populations, even those within the territory of the warlord who had hired the soldiers. Though many of the senior officers did recognize both a prudential and a moral duty to try to protect civilians from their soldiers, the cultural and social assumptions of the soldiers themselves did little to restrain lawless behaviour against those who were outside the bounds of internal loyalty and recognition.

The roles of both Swiss troops and Landsknechte illustrate the ambiguity of a widespread acceptance of the military qualities of the professional soldiers of the sixteenth century, and yet an unease about the extent to which they were able to define their own relationship to surrounding society. This ambiguity forms one of the most important contexts in which the developing role of military enterprise in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should be seen.

The Swiss Infantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CUITO CUANAVALE, ANGOLA: An Angolan soldier holding a Soviet-made AK-47 Kalachnikov submachine, guards a battery of Soviet-made ground-to-air missiles 29 February 1988 near Cuito Cuanavale, southern Angola, where Soviet-backed regular Angolan army and Cuban soldiers are fighting against anti-Marxist and Western-backed UNITA nationalist movement. 22 December 1988, South Africa, Cuba and Angola signed treaties for the phased withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)Cuban artillerymen prepare to fire at Somali forces in the Ogaden

Fidel Castro, believing that the Soviet Union was not adequately supporting the radical left throughout the Third World, began championing its cause, particularly in Africa.


Fidel Castro’s desire to take the offensive against capitalism and spread revolution ultimately led to the Cuban army fighting in Africa. His aim was to create many Vietnams, reasoning that U.S. troops bogged down throughout the world could not fight any single insurgency effectively. Africa was still emerging from colonialism when Castro came to power, thus presenting him many opportunities.

The Cuban presence in Africa evolved through many phases before leading to the introduction of combat troops. The first phase, guerrilla training, began in 1960 when arms and medical personnel were sent to the Algerian National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale). This was followed by the first permanent military mission which arrived in Ghana the following year when a few instructors set up a training camp near the border with Upper Volta. Guerrilla training expanded and continued until the early 1990s.

In the second phase, Cuba attempted to militarily bolster a friendly nation. In October 1963 Cuba supplied Algeria with forty Russian-built T-34 tanks and some fifty Cuban technicians who were at sea on board the Aracelio Iglesias when a border conflict erupted between Algeria and Morocco. This equipment was followed within the same month by perhaps three other shipments (two by sea, one by air), raising Cuban strength to approximately 300 men, plus artillery, mortars, and tanks. Apparently the Cubans did not participate in combat and they were withdrawn by the end of the year after training Algerians in the use of the hardware.

During the third phase, Cuba attempted to influence the outcome of tribal rivalries, siding with groups whose ideologies were most compatible with that of Cuba. This phase opened with high-level delegation visits to Africa. In October 1964, Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos went to the Second Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, meeting in Cairo, and declared that Cuba could not be passive “toward mankind’s greatest problems.”

In December, Che Guevara traveled to Algeria, Mali, Congo-Leopoldville (soon to become Zaire), Ghana, Guinea, Dahomey, Tanzania, and Egypt. Che was empowered by Castro to offer material aid to those who shared Castro’s ideology. By mid-1965 the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) received weapons from Cuba. Arms for the Guinea rebels, the African Party for the Liberation of Portuguese Guinea and the Cape Verde Islands, arrived in 1966. And apparently, Cuban instructors were training members of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique in Tanzania by the late 1960s.

Che returned to Africa to lead guerrilla fighters in Zaire, which he entered through Tanzania with a small band of Cubans in the spring of 1965. They were joined by several hundred more Cubans who entered through Congo-Brazzaville. However, Che found the rebels unwilling to fight; and after Joseph Mobutu seized power in November 1965, most of the Cuban fighters withdrew. Che remained behind in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville until March 1966 organizing the Cuban mission that had been sent there.

Adding to the Zaire setback, two of Castro’s closest allies were toppled by military coups—Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria (1965) and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana (1966). Thus, Cuba lost both of its African training bases. Following these experiences Cuba paid more attention to protecting its hosts. New training bases were established in Congo-Brazzaville and former French Guinea. In Brazzaville, Cubans formed part of the presidential guard, and they also trained a militia from the ruling party as a counterbalance to the national army. The Cuban mission to Congo-Brazzaville grew to nearly one-half the size of the entire Congolese army. On June 27, 1966, that army attempted to overthrow President Massamba Debat. Cuban troops and the party militia protected the political leaders for three days. Capt. (later Brig. Gen.) Rolando Kindelán Bles stated, “We Cubans opposed the coup. We took the entrance to the airport, the main radio station; we controlled the road intersections; the nerve centers; and in that way we were able to impede it.” The coup collapsed when the Congolese army refused to fight the Cubans. In August 1968 Marien Ngouabi did overthrow the Cuban-supported government. Notwithstanding, Ngouabi permitted the Cubans to continue to operate in the Congo.

Cuba continued to send military help to leftist regimes in African nations, and additionally focused upon liberating Portuguese colonies, thus beginning phase four.11 Cuban aid to former French Guinea (independent since 1958) was directed in part to the guerrillas fighting the Portuguese in bordering Portuguese Guinea (today Guinea-Bissau). Cuban advisors began operating with the guerrillas in February 1967, and in November 1969 the Portuguese captured Cuban Capt. Pedro Rodriguez Peralta.

Between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Cuban activity in Africa subsided. However, it soon increased again with missions being sent to ex-Spanish Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, Algeria, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone—plus to the Middle East, South Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.


Angola was strategically important because of the petroleum exports from the Cabinda enclave and because the Benguela Railroad, the major transportation link for landlocked Zaire and Zambia, ran through it.

The war for the liberation of Portuguese West Africa (the future Angola) from colonial rule began in February 1961 when the Marxist-oriented Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) attacked the colonial headquarters in the capital of Luanda. The Portuguese had occupied some coastal regions since the end of the fifteenth century, although modern Angola became Portuguese only after the Conference and Treaty of Berlin in 1885.

Between 1961 and 1975 an estimated 20,000 Africans died in the fighting, and by the late 1960s perhaps half of the Portuguese national budget was spent on the war in Angola. By the mid-1970s, Angola was the last Portuguese colony in Africa. On April 25, 1974, junior Portuguese officers overthrew Dr. Marcelo Gaetano, who had succeeded the long-serving dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. The new, leftist Portuguese government invited the principal Angolan guerrilla organizations to participate in the transition from colonial rule to independence. As a consequence, fighting broke out among the competing guerrilla factions in March 1975 to see who would win control of the country from the Portuguese.


Five “armies” were fighting for control of Angola—three from disparate revolutionary factions plus those of Portugal and the Union of South Africa. In addition, the Zairean army operated openly in the northern region of Angola.

The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which fielded about 5,000 fighters, dominated the northwestern section of Angola. Led by Holden Roberto, the Bakongos tribe provided its popular base. It was considered pro-West and was supported by Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. The Zairean army even operated within the area controlled by Roberto. Despite his pro-West affiliations, Roberto secured help from Peking in December 1973. Between June and August 1974, China sent 450 tons of military material to the FNLA via Zaire and began training its soldiers.

Just below that area was the region dominated by the Popular Movement of Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto. The MPLA had about 2,000 fighters and its support base was among the Mbundu Tribe. During the mid-1960s, fighters from the MPLA trained in Cuba and a Cuban-operated base in the Congo.

The MPLA received most of its arms from the Soviet Union; these weapons were shipped through the People’s Republic of the Congo-Brazzaville. During one week in October 1975, the MPLA received twelve MiG aircraft, twenty-one tanks, thirty armored cars, 200 rocket launchers, plus small arms. By the spring of 1975, Neto appreciated that his MPLA guerrillas could not effectively use the advanced Soviet weapons being provided; hence he turned to Castro for advanced training, which began in June 1975, one month after the request. This significantly changed the balance of power among the rival Angolan factions. Because of Cuban and Soviet help, the MPLA grew in military prowess and, as a consequence, attracted many new recruits.

South of the territory dominated by the MPLA lay the area controlled by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi. The Benguela Railroad passed through this area. The movement had splintered from the FNLA in 1966 over tribal differences and objections to clandestine support from the United States. The UNITA fielded 1,000 men and its tribal support came from the Ovimbundu in the south.

The Portuguese government had about 55,000 troops in Angola but by mid-1974 was committed to withdrawing. To the south was the well-equipped, well-trained 50,000-man South African army.


The Cuban-supported MPLA wanted to seize control of most of Angola’s provincial capitals prior to November 11, 1975, the date set by the Portuguese for Angolan independence. In response, the FNLA and the UNITA sought aid from the Union of South Africa. South Africa, for its part, wanted to prevent the MPLA from winning control of Angola.


Between July 12 and 15, 1975, the MPLA successfully captured Angola’s capital, Luanda, but was immediately threatened from both the north and the south. In the north, FNLA troops attacked the MPLA but were stopped at Kinfangondo (12 mi N of Luanda). In the south, South African troops crossed the border between Angola and Namibia on August 11 and seized the hydroelectric dams on the Cunene River which spanned the border. Within a few weeks, other South African troops captured the towns of Pereira d’Eça and Roçadas, thus blocking the route leading to the dams from the north. The South African forces advanced northward.

Cuba reacted quickly to the dangers confronting the FNLA. Castro called for volunteers from the Cuban army to fight in Angola. Many who volunteered were black, possibly an attempt to demonstrate a racial bond with Angola. In early September the Cuban merchantships Viet Nam Heroico, Isla Coral, and La Plata, packed with troops, vehicles, and 1,000 tons of gasoline, sailed 5,000 miles to the African nation. Even though Angola was a petroleum-producing nation, Castro wanted to reduce the possibility that his supply could be interrupted, so the Viet Nam Heroico carried 200 tons of gasoline in 55-gallon drums in the holds, which were left open for ventilation, and La Plata carried the drums strapped to the deck.

The United States held a secret, high-level talk with Cuba to express its consternation over Cuba’s actions, but this had little effect. The Cuban troops landed in early October.

The South African force driving northward from the Namibian border posed the most significant threat to the MPLA, so some of the recently arrived Cuban troops joined the MPLA troops moving against Nova Lisboa (today’s Huambo, 300 mi SE of Luanda) and Lobito (220 mi S of Luanda). The remainder established training camps at Benguela, Saurimo, Cabinda, and Delatando.

On October 6 Cuba and the MPLA clashed with the FNLA and South African troops at Norton de Matos and were badly beaten. While the Cubans had been crossing the Atlantic, the South Africans had apparently airlifted a few troops plus some armored cars into central Angola. These were supplied by C-130 aircraft flying into Nova Lisboa and Silva Porto (275 mi SE of Luanda).

On October 23 the South Africans launched a major offensive. A mechanized column composed of armored cars, motorized infantry, and artillery manned by the South African army, Portuguese mercenaries, and FNLA fighters (loyal to Daniel Chipenda who had defected from the MPLA) attacked. On that day the column captured Sá da Bandeira (400 mi S of Luanda) and on the twenty-seventh the port of Moçãmedes (380 mi S of Luanda), without resistance. The column then fell back to Sá da Bandeira but then turned north against Benguela (250 mi S of Luanda) where the Cubans had one of their training camps.

The mechanized column detoured to Nova Lisboa on November 1. It then resumed toward Benguela. The Cubans blocked the column on November 4 with 122mm rocket fire, causing the South Africans to request heavy artillery which could outdistance the rockets. The next day, the Cubans abandoned Benguela and Lobito, and by November 11 (Independence Day) the South African column was advancing on Novo Redondo (120 mi S of Luanda).

Castro reacted to the presence of the South African armored column by announcing “Operation Carlotta,” a massive resupply of Angola, on November 5. On the seventh Cuba began a thirteen-day airlift of a 650-man special forces battalion. The Cubans used old Bristol Britannia turboprop aircraft, making refueling stops in Barbados, Guinea-Bissau, and the Congo before landing in Luanda. The troops traveled as “tourists,” carrying machine guns in briefcases. They packed 75mm cannons, 82mm mortars, and small arms into the aircrafts’ cargo holds. Aircraft with normal take-off weights of 185,000 pounds were lifting off weighing 194,000 pounds. Pilots were flying over 200 hours per month. A round trip required 50 hours.

Castro’s resupply efforts by sea were no less dramatic. Perhaps five troop-laden ships had sailed from Cuba in late October, arriving in Angola during the middle of November. Cuba’s only two passenger ships were fitted with cots, field kitchens, and additional latrines. Paper plates were used and plastic yogurt containers served as glasses. The ballast tanks were used for bathing and toilet water. Ships normally outfitted for 306 persons (passengers and crew) sailed with 1,000 on board in addition to armored cars, weapons, and munitions.


Between December 9 and 12, Cuban and South African troops fought between Santa Comba (180 mi SE of Luanda) and Quibala (150 mi SE of Luanda); the Cubans were defeated. Among the Cuban casualties was the commander, Raúl Argüello, a veteran of the Cuban Revolution. He was killed when his vehicle hit a land mine. At the same time UNITA troops and another South African mechanized unit captured Luso (500 mi ESE of Luanda).

Following these defeats, the number of Cuban troops airlifted to Angola more than doubled, from about 400 per week to perhaps a thousand. Among these troops were seasoned veterans of the Cuban Revolution and wars in Latin America, such as Victor Chueng Colas, Leopoldo Cintras Frías, Abelardo Colome Ibarra, and Raúl Menendez Tomassevich. By the end of January 1976, some 7,000 Cuban troops were in Angola. Cuba also prepared to send at least one artillery regiment and a motorized infantry battalion.

And, Cuba no longer was having to go it alone in aiding the MPLA. On November 13, 1975, Soviet military advisors had arrived in Angola. In early 1976 the Soviets began providing IL-62 jet transports to the Cubans, significantly increasing their airlift potential. These aircraft introduced fresh troops and rotated veterans into the mid-1980s.


On January 4, 1976, the Cuban-supported MPLA captured Uije (150 mi N of Luanda) and the major airbase 25 miles to the east the following day from the FNLA. On the twelfth, the MPLA took the port of Ambriz (125 Mi N of Luanda). As a consequence, the troops from Zaire, who had supported the FNLA, pulled back across their border.

In mid-January, the South Africans withdrew from Cela and Santa Comba deep in Angola to a position just north of the Angolan-Namibian border. This was probably influenced by a number of factors. First, the surge in Cuban troops required South Africa to make a decision to either increase its army in Angola or withdraw. Second, the United States stopped supplying Angolans opposed to the MPLA. And third, the Cubans temporarily stopped airlifting troops to Angola, which provided a graceful way out for its opponents.

Cuba resumed airlifting troops to Angola in late February 1976 at a reduced rate. In that month, the MPLA captured the last UNITA stronghold and drove its rivals into neighboring countries. The MPLA also had to battle a new faction, the Front for the Liberation of the Cabinda Enclave (FLEC), led by Francisco Xavier Lubtoa.

By March 1977 the MPLA controlled enough of the country to permit Castro to pay a state visit. However, in May Nito Alves and José Van Dunem attempted an unsuccessful coup against Agostinho Neto. Cuban troops helped defeat the rebels. In July, an additional 4,000 Cuban troops were introduced into Angola. In spite of this, the UNITA was able to regroup and launch an offensive against the MPLA in December. The Cuban-supported MPLA was able to counterattack beginning in April 1978.

In September 1979 Neto died while undergoing surgery in the Soviet Union. José Eduardo dos Santos succeeded him. Throughout the late 1970s, the MPLA aggressively eliminated potential dissenters.

The fighting dragged on for years while Fidel directed operations from Havana. Brig. Gen. Juan Escalona, Chief of the Command Post, stated:

For over two years every day, without fail, between 2:30 and 3:00 in the afternoon I was advised I had a visitor. I knew the Commander in Chief had arrived. He would stay in the Armed Forces Ministry until the early hours of dawn. The entire Angolan operation was directed by Fidel minute by minute.

South African forces frequently crossed into Angola to destroy South-West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) training bases. More critically, the MPLA could not root out the UNITA (which had emerged as its principal opposition) and became, therefore, increasingly dependent upon Cuban combat troops. By 1987 some 24,500 Cuban troops held defensive positions in Angola. The MPLA controlled the larger population centers while the UNITA held the countryside.



By the late 1980s, the world balance of power was changing. The Soviet Union was disintegrating, and along with it, Cuba’s capacity to continue its commitment to the MPLA. Throughout the 1980s, the MPLA grew weaker as the UNITA grew stronger, in large measure due to UNITA’s support from South Africa and increasingly the United States.

In November 1987 the MPLA was in full retreat following a defeat at Mavinga (650 mi SE of Luanda). Cuba’s most successful general, Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, and 15,000 Cuban reinforcements, including frontline pilots, were rushed to Angola. Ochoa remarked, “I have been sent to a lost war so that I will be blamed for the defeat.”

On January 13, 1988, South African-led forces attacked three MPLA brigades east of Cuito Cuanavale (580 mi SE of Luanda). The Cubans wanted these MPLA troops to retreat and then consolidate a new position; they were either unwilling or incapable of doing so. On February 15 the South Africans crashed through the MLPA’s defenses and encircled the 59th MLPA Brigade. Seven Cuban tanks counterattacked; all were destroyed but the 59th Brigade was able to escape. Cuban General Cintra Frias now arrived on the scene to take command of field operations (Ochoa remained the senior Cuban in Angola) and the defenses finally held at Cuito Cuanavale.

Both sides maneuvered on the battlefield to gain advantages at the negotiating table. Should the South Africans attack, Castro instructed Ochoa to “be ready to counter-attack with as many aircraft as possible to completely destroy the Ruacana water reservoirs and transformers [on the border with South African-controlled Namiba].” Apparently, the MLPA knew nothing of these orders; it had a tacit understanding with the South Africans that the Ruacana dam complex was off-limits. Finally, in late 1988 Cuba agreed to withdraw by July 1, 1991, leaving the MPLA to its own fate.


During 1975 the Cuban army saved the MPLA from defeat by its internal rivals and external enemies. However, Cuba’s military rescue committed that Caribbean nation to the long term protection of the MPLA regime which required not only military but also economic aid. In the long run, this was unsustainable. The MPLA’s internal rivals were numerically superior, although initially disorganized; but throughout the 1980s the MPLA’s rivals grew stronger as the United States and South Africa became increasingly willing to supply them with aid.

Cuba’s initial military success may be attributed to Castro’s willingness to raise the ante beyond what either the United States or the Union of South Africa was willing to do in 1975. The Cuban commitment probably peaked near 36,000 troops, and possibly 150,000 troops rotated through Angola.

Although Cuba has not released data concerning its casualties, they are estimated to be 3,000 killed (including Gen. Raul Arguello) and 3,000 wounded. These figures do not include the casualties related to disease. Although Cuban logistics were primitive, having to resort to a few aging commercial aircraft, small cargo ships, and large fishing vessels to support a major, long range military operation, nonetheless, these assets got the job done.

Castro’s massive military commitment to Angola revealed inequities within Cuban society. The commanding officer of Cuban air units in Angola during the mid-1970s, Gen. Rafael del Pino, revealed, after defecting to the United States in May 1987,

The people, the officers resist going to Angola. This is not only because … we have converted ourselves into a mercenary army … but it is that our officers see that the problem is that neither the sons of the members of the Politburo [n]or the sons of the principal leaders of the government go to Angola, do not go into military service.

Also, the Cuban economy was adversely affected. To fight on the scale required in Angola forced Cuba to call up its reservists. Many of these individuals were the most technically trained people on the island. As they were removed from their normal jobs, the economy suffered. For example, aircraft required two full crews to make the flight across the Atlantic. These additional crews came from small Cuban airlines, effectively shutting them down. And in spite of attempts to protect the sugar industry, as men were increasingly pulled from the fields, production dropped and, as a consequence, so did Cuban hard currency.

The intervention by the South African army was a political failure for that nation. Although it won battles in 1975, the Union of South Africa, possessing no international support due to its racist policies, could not take political advantage of these victories. During 1975 it committed perhaps 2,000 combat troops to Angola and held a reserve force of some 4,000 men near the border. The subsequent policy of providing support for the UNITA, which at times included employing South African armor and aircraft, was much more successful.


In 1974 widespread national strikes crippled Ethiopia as demonstrations and riots spread against the authoritarian regime of Haile Selassie. The military refused to take action against the people. The Dergue (Armed Forces Coordinating Committee) emerged out of the confusion as a powerful political element. By late summer the Dergue arrested the Prime Minister and over one hundred other officials of the government. The Dergue finally seized power on September 12, deposed the Emperor, and established the Ethiopian Provisional Military Government. Fidel Castro was the first foreign head of state to visit Ethiopia following these events.

Over the next few months, the military government systematically destroyed the remaining civil leadership. Executions were common. However, at the same time, Ethiopia was to fight ethnic Somalis who lived in the Ogaden Desert in its northwest corner and wanted to be made part of Somalia. This fighting had profound implications for Ethiopia, since many ethnic groups who desired independence were within its borders.

Somalia had renewed its interest in annexing the Ogaden Province in 1969. Gen. Mohammad Siad Barre, who had come to power in that year through a coup, desired to incorporate those regions outside the nation which had Somali majorities. These included parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. In 1974 Siad Barre provided the Soviet Union a naval base at Berbera in exchange for weapons and training, which allowed him to aggressively pursue his ambitions. Some of these weapons and training ultimately reached the “West Somali Liberation Front” (WSLF), which was fighting to separate the Ogaden Desert from Ethiopia and join it to Somalia.

When the deposed Ethiopian Emperor died in August 1975, a number of grass-roots organizations demanded increased civil rights. The military government struck swiftly, openly murdering the opposition. These massacres intimidated those who survived. On February 3, 1977, Brig. Gen. Teferi Bante, head of the highly volatile Dergue, was killed in a coup led by Lt. Gen. Mengistu Haile Mariam—a gunfight literally errupted during a military council meeting. The Cuban news media hailed this as a great victory.

Later in February, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, commander of the Cuban troops in Angola, headed a military delegation to Addis Ababa. This was followed by a two-day, unannounced visit by Castro, who tried in vain to resolve the border differences between Ethiopia and Somalia. In April Ethiopia asked the United States to withdraw its personnel from that country.

However, by April the Somali separatists won some clear victories in the northeast, and fighting also erupted in southeastern Ethiopia. In May Mengistu traveled to Moscow seeking military hardware; the request was granted. This infuriated the Somalis, who after all had a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. As a consequence, Somalia increased its aid to the WSLF and on June 17 Somali troops invaded Ogaden forcing the Cubans and Soviets to openly choose sides. Both Cuba and the Soviet Union believed that Ethiopia was more important to their long-term interests than Somalia.


In 1975 the Ethiopian army was composed of almost 41,000 troops. It possessed almost no armor or tracked vehicles, essential for desert fighting. Because of poor leadership, training, and equipment, it had little fighting ability.

The WSLF had about 6,000 fighters. Many had been trained by the Cubans before Castro chose to side with Ethiopia and were supplied from Somalia.

The Somali army was composed of 23,000 men. It possessed 250 tanks and 310 armored personnel carriers, mostly older Soviet equipment. Although its leadership, training, and equipment were poor, they were superior to those of the Ethiopian army.

Prior to December 1977, no Cuban combat troops were in Ethiopia.


In July 1977 Somalia chose to escalate the fighting from guerrilla actions to open warfare in order to take advantage of its superior army vis-a-vis Ethiopia. Its strategy was to seize the Ogaden Desert and then threaten the heartland of Ethiopia. Initially, Ethiopian strategy was purely defensive.


Throughout the summer of 1977, the Ethiopian army lost ground on both the northwest and southwest fronts against the guerrillas while Mengistu carried out bloody purges against those suspected of opposing his rule in Ethiopia. Guerrillas sabotaged the Addis Ababa-to-Djibouti single-track railroad, which carried over half of Ethiopia’s foreign trade, by destroying five bridges. Meanwhile, in July Somalia reacted to Cuban and Soviet assistance to Ethiopia by expelling its Soviet military advisors and accepting military aid from the United States and Great Britain.

On July 17 a Somali force of 250 tanks, twelve mechanized brigades, and thirty war planes invaded the Ogaden Desert. By August the Somali army had seized 112 hamlets and towns and much of the desert. On the eighteenth Ethiopia declared a mass mobilization, and in September Cuban military help to Ethiopia began to increase. These were not enough to reverse the defeats. As a consequence of Cuba’s actions, Somalia expelled the Cuban chargé d’affaires. Late in September the Somali army captured the city of Jijiga (375 mi N of Addis Ababa) and the Kara Marda Pass which was the gateway to central Ethiopia.

By October Ethiopia had received large quantities of military hardware from the Soviet Union, but the Ethiopian army was totally unprepared to employ these. The Ethiopian Foreign Minister traveled to Cuba to seek Cuban training and combat troops as a last resort. However, by October 31 the Somali advance had been halted.


On November 13 Somalia expelled all Soviets, took back its base concessions, and aborted its 1974 friendship treaty. It also broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. On the twenty-second Somalia launched a second offensive; the objective was the city of Harar (250 mi E of Addis Ababa). On December 22 Cuba began a secret, massive airlift by Soviet aircraft of its combat troops from Angola, the People’s Republic of the Congo, and the Caribbean to Ethiopia. The Cuban combat force grew from 400 men in December 1977 to 16,000 men in April 1978.


In January 1978 Raúl Castro flew to Addis Ababa and then on to Moscow. On January 24, the Ethiopian and Cuban troops counterattacked from Harar. The Somalis sustained 3,000 casualties and began to retreat. In February Cuban troops launched a major offensive and recaptured much of the lost desert. On March 5 the Kara Marda Pass was recaptured and by the eighth the Somali army had been driven back into its own territory and was in a state of shambles. The fighting was over.

In 1981 Ethiopia, supported by Cuban and Russian advisors (but not combat troops) invaded Somalia, attempting to drive Siad Barre from power. This failed in part because the United States provided Somalia $50 million in military aid. By 1984 the Ethiopian army was fighting six separatist guerrilla movements and the country was in chaos. Peace between Ethiopia and Somalia was agreed to on April 6, 1988, and the last Cuban left Ethiopia on September 9, 1989.


In 1977 Cuban combat troops were able to snatch victory from defeat because of the introduction of an overwhelming force (16,000 men) against Somalia in a little more than seven weeks. Although farther from Cuba, logistics were easier than the Angolan operation because many Cuban troops were pulled from Angola and the Republic of the Congo, and more importantly, the Soviet Union provided most of the air transportation. Cuban casualties are cited as being high, although no numbers are offered.

As in Angola, Fidel Castro attempted to direct combat operations from Cuba. Division Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frías stated:

We maintained permanent contact with the Commander in Chief; daily he was sent cables with information. He replied to everything and gave pertinent instructions. … He would order you to place a cannon in a place, how to do it, with how many men, etc. He had it all at his fingertips.


Foremost, Cuba’s fighting in Africa was at its own intiative and not that of the Soviet Union. General Cintra Frías, who served in both Angola and Ethiopia, stated, “The Soviets were never able to control us although I think that was their intention on more than one occasion.” José Raúl Alfonso, a former member of the Cuban intelligence community, stated, “the opinion [of those going to Angola in 1975] was that the Soviets did not know what we were going to do, so much so that Fidel told us that if things went wrong, we should not expect aid from them, not even from the Socialist camp.”

In some respects, the Cuban experience in Africa paralleled that of the United States in Vietnam. The Cuban army could win battles, but because Cuba did not understand the nature of the struggle, these victories did not lead to political success. In Angola particularly, Cuba saw this as a struggle against colonialism and capitalism where, in fact, it was primarily an internal feud between competing tribes. And, like Lyndon Johnson for Vietnam, Fidel Castro for Africa attempted to fight the war from his command post at home.

In the context of the cold war, Cuba’s efforts in Africa were a waste of resources. Cuba’s interventions were costly in men and treasure, contributing to a sharp downturn in its domestic economy. Additionally, Cuba’s military actions in Africa cost Cuba any possible rapprochement with the United States. Far less significant, these military actions did win Castro the good will of some black Africans who perceived neocolonialism as their greatest threat.

By late 1977 Cuba and the Soviet Union more clearly agreed upon foreign policy, as was demonstrated by their cooperation in Ethiopia, which had been somewhat lacking in Angola. One consequence of Cuba’s troops fighting in Africa was that Soviet pilots and technicians replaced Cubans in the defenses of the Caribbean island so that the Cubans could serve in Africa. Also, from 1970 to 1979 Soviet troops in Cuba increased from 1,000 men to some 5,000 men, and in 1979 Cuba acknowledged that a Soviet combat brigade was stationed on the island. Sarcastically, the People’s Daily of Peking wrote:

Question: What’s the largest country in the world?

Answer: Cuba. Its heart is in Havana; its government is in Moscow; its graveyards are in Angola and Ethiopia; and its people are in Miami.

One essential psychological, and therefore also political, factor in the Cuban involvement was the fact that many Cuban soldiers were either black or of mixed race.

One source states that over 300,000 Cuban military personnel and civilian experts served in Africa. It also states that of the 50,000 Cubans sent to Angola, half caught AIDS and that 10,000 Cubans died as a consequence of Cuban activity in Africa, although these numbers seem high. All Cubans had left Africa by May 1991.