Saturday, February 17, 2018

Don't Mess With These Guys!

Schlechten Krieg - Hans Holbein
Cavalry once dominated the European battlefield. Armored men with lances on armored horses ran down infantry at will. As most of the infantry were simple peasants rousted out of their fields to serve in their lord's levies, armed with older, cheap weapons if they had weapons at all. Many carried their farm implements to war. Make no mistake, some of those could be deadly, but not usually against men on horseback.

While archers could, and did, decimate cavalry when properly emplaced, archers took a long time to train. So cavalry ruled the battlefield for a long time.

While long weapons, like the pike and the spear, had been around for a long time (Alexander the Great's phalanx carried a very long pike, the sarissa, in ancient times and they were very effective with it) their use by large formations faded. The Roman legions were far more mobile than the Macedonian phalanx.

After the fall of Rome, Europe devolved into competing fiefdoms. Charlemagne's empire rose and fragmented over time. Armored horse were all the rage. Then somewhere along the line, someone figured out (or remembered) that horses won't charge into a hedgehog of spears. The pike began to reappear in the hands of men trained to use it.

Switzerland in this modern day and age is known for a number of things: Swiss Army knives, Swiss cheese, Swiss banking, skiing, chocolates, watches, and more. A little known feature of modern Switzerland is their military. Military service is compulsory and while the standing army isn't that large, the reserve system keeps a number of trained men available. In addition, reservists keep their personal equipment at home, including their personal weapons. (Up until 2007 they had their ammunition at home as well.)

While the Swiss military hasn't fought a war in quite a while, the Swiss cantons were once famous for their pikemen.

An example of why other European countries leave the Swiss alone. Tough to campaign in the Alps!
At one time units of Swiss pikemen were the most feared infantry in Europe
During the Late Middle Ages, mercenary forces grew in importance in Europe, as veterans from the Hundred Years War and other conflicts came to see soldiering as a profession rather than a temporary activity, and commanders sought long-term professionals rather than temporary feudal levies to fight their wars. Swiss mercenaries (Reisläufer) were valued throughout Late Medieval Europe for the power of their determined mass attack in deep columns with the pike and halberd. Hiring them was made even more attractive because entire ready-made Swiss mercenary contingents could be obtained by simply contracting with their local governments, the various Swiss cantons—the cantons had a form of militia system in which the soldiers were bound to serve and were trained and equipped to do so. Some Swiss also hired themselves out individually or in small bands.
The warriors of the Swiss cantons had gradually developed a reputation throughout Europe as skilled soldiers, due to their successful defense of their liberties against their Austrian Habsburg* overlords, starting as early as the late thirteenth century, including remarkable upset victories over heavily armoured knights at Morgarten and Laupen. This was furthered by later successful campaigns of regional expansion (mainly into Italy). By the fifteenth century they were greatly valued as mercenary soldiers, particularly following their series of notable victories in the Burgundian Wars in the latter part of the century. The standing mercenary army of king Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (Black Army of Hungary 1458–1490) also contained Swiss pikemen units, who were held in high honour by the king. The native term Reisläufer literally means "one who goes to war" and is derived from Middle High German Reise, meaning "military campaign". 
The Swiss, with their head-down attack in huge columns with the long pike, refusal to take prisoners, and consistent record of victory, were greatly feared and admired—for instance, Machiavelli addresses their system of combat at length in chapter 12 of The Prince. The Valois Kings of France, in fact, considered it a virtual impossibility to take the field of battle without Swiss pikemen as the infantry core of their armies. (Although often referred to as "pikemen", the Swiss mercenary units also contained halberdiers as well until several decades into the sixteenth century, as well as a small number of skirmishers armed with crossbows or crude firearms to precede the rapid advance of the attack column.) 
The young men who went off to fight, and sometimes die, in foreign service had several incentives—limited economic options in the still largely rural cantons; adventure; pride in the reputation of the Swiss as soldiers; and finally what military historian Sir Charles Oman describes as a pure love of combat and warfighting in and of itself, forged by two centuries of conflict. (Source)
Eventually other countries adopted the Swiss fighting style, notably the Spanish with their famous tercio.
The tercio was an administrative unit with command of up to 3,000 soldiers, subdivided originally into 10, later 12 compañías, made up of pikemen, swordsmen and arquebusiers or musketeers. These companies were deployed in battle and were further subdivided into units of 30 soldiers. These smaller units could be deployed individually or brought together to form what were sometimes called Spanish squares. These powerful infantry squares were also much used by other European powers, especially the Imperial Army of the Holy Roman Empire. (Source)
The Swiss Guards at the Vatican are the descendants of the Swiss pikemen who once terrorized the battlefields of Europe. These chaps -

Are the military ancestors of these chaps -

The Pontifical Swiss Guard have watched over the Pope at the Vatican since the late 15th Century, though they were officially created on the 22nd of January 1506, though Swiss mercenaries were in the pay of the Pontiff since at least 1497. The Swiss Guard is the only mercenary unit from Switzerland by law since 1859. The soldiers are individually recruited from some of the best soldiers of the Swiss Army.

While their duties include the ceremonial posting of those colorful sentries one sees around the Vatican, they have a deadly purpose, protect the Pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1527, during the Sack of Rome, they more than earned their pay -
On the morning of May 6th, 1527, from his headquarters set up in St. Onofrio's Convent on the Gianicolo hill, Captain General Bourbon launched a series of attacks on Rome. During one of them, at the Torrione Gate, while leading the assault of the walls, he himself was mortally wounded. After just a moment's hesitation, the Spanish mercenaries broke through the Torrione Gate, while the landsknechts invaded the road of Borgo Santo Spirito and St. Peter's. The Swiss Guard, standing firm at the foot of the obelisk (now in St. Peter's Square, but then near the German cemetery within the Vatican close to the Basilica), together with the few remnants of the Roman troops, resisted desperately. Their Captain, Kaspar Röist was wounded, and later killed by the Spaniards in his quarters in front of his wife, Elizabeth Klingler. Of the 189 Swiss Guards, only 42 survived, the ones who, when all was lost, under the command of Hercules Göldli guarded Clement VII’s retreat to safety in Castel Sant’Angelo. The rest fell gloriously, massacred together with two hundred fugitives, on the steps of the High Altar in St. Peter's Basilica. Pope Clement VII and his men were able to escape to safety, thanks to the "Passetto", a secret corridor which Pope Alexander VI had built along the top of the wall connect­ing the Vatican with Castel Sant’Angelo. The savage horde was in a hurry, for fear that the League troups would cut off their retreat. Across the Sisto bridge the landsknechts and Spaniards fell on the city and for eight days committed every sort of violence, theft, sacrilege and massacre, even the tombs of the Popes, including that of Julius II, were violated in search of spoils. There were as many as 12 thousand dead and the booty amounted to ten million ducats. All that happened cannot really be regarded with surprise because the imperial army and in particular Frundsberg's landsknechts, were animated by a violent spirit of crusade against the Pope. In front of Castel Sant’Angelo where the Pope had retreated, a parody of a religious procession was set up, in which Clement was asked to cede the sails and oars of the "Navicella" (boat of Peter) to Luther, and the angry soldiery shouted "Vivat Lutherus pontifex!" (Long live Luther, Pontiff!) The name of Luther was incised with the tip of a sword across the painting of the "Dispute of the Most Holy Sacrament" in the Rooms of Raffaello, out of disdain, while on another wall a graffito hailed Charles V, emperor. Concise and exact was the description given by the Prior of the Canons of St. Augustine at that time: "Mali fuere Germani, pejores Itali, Hispani vero pessimi." (The Germans were bad, the Italians were worse, the Spaniards were the worst.) Besides the irreplaceable damage of the destruction of the relics, during the Sack of Rome, inestimable art treasures, namely the greater part of the Church's finest artisan-made gold and silver ware, were lost forever. On June 5th, Clement had to surrender and to accept heavy conditions: he had to cede the fortresses of Ostia, Civitavecchia, and Civita Castellana, to hand over the cities of Modena, Parma and Piacenza, and to pay the sum of four thousand ducats. Moreover, a ransom for the freedom of prisoners was demanded. The papal garrison was replaced by four companies of Germans and Spaniards, and two hundred landsknechts took the place of the Swiss Guard which had been suppressed. The Pope obtained permission for the surviving Swiss Guards to join the new Guard, but only 12 of them accepted, among them Hans Gutenberg of Chur and Albert Rosin of Zurich. The others wished to have nothing to do with the hated landsknechts. (Source)
Of course, Bad Ass of the Week featured a post about the Swiss pikemen here. Yes, they use adult language over there and are often over the top, but they tell a good story. And because this whole post was occasional reader Paweł's idea (and a good one it was), I thought I'd also have one of his favorite bands tell the story of the Swiss heroes who fell that day.

Tough guys those fellows in the odd uniforms.

I wouldn't mess with them!

Dzięki Paweł, świetny pomysł!

* Oddly enough the Hapsburgs originated in Switzerland. The dynasty is named after their seat of origin, the Habsburg Castle founded by Radbot, Count of Habsburg in the Swiss Canton of Aargau.
The origins of the name of the castle are uncertain. Most people assume the name to be derived from the High German Habichtsburg (Hawk Castle), but some historians and linguists are convinced that the name comes from the Middle High German word ‘hab/ hap’ meaning fjord, as there is a river with a ford nearby. The first documented use of the name by the dynasty itself has been traced to the year 1108.


  1. As the photo (above) shows, Swiss pikemen in the later period were supported in formation by musketeers (at that time using fuse-lock muskets of various designs) to support their pike formations against a stand-off enemy. In the early period, they used crossbows. I find it interesting that combined arms forces (from the Mongols with their Chinese infantry and artillery to the Romans to modern armies now) always seem to be the way to be successful. While technology moves, combat philosophies are remarkably the same over the centuries. A German panzer army didn't do well without combining the armored spearhead with panzer grenadiers and air superiority/supremecy. Remove one element and it doesn't work well.

    You can always point to situations such as Agincourt where the French cavalry was dismounted by mud (and broad head arrows into their mounts) and continued a dismounted frontal attack against light artillery (archers with longbows firing bodkin arrows into the slowly moving knights at pointblank range). Not unlike infantry against fortified machine guns on the Western Front in WW1. However, campaign success absent those irregularities always requires a blend of weapons and specialties. The Romans were masters of blending heavy infantry, artillery (light and heavy) and (usually foreign cavalry) into well engineered defensive formations and goading unarticulated infantry into attacking them.

    1. Ah combined arms, one of my favorite topics. I wasn't trying to claim that the pike formation was the end-all, be-all of medieval warfare, just introducing the pikemen to get to the story of the last stand of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.

      But you raise some excellent points LL (as always). A future post on combined arms is "in the hopper," so to speak.

    2. The military is an excellent example of Mr. Franklin's saying "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

    3. I have always been a fan of Ben Franklin.

  2. Give the Swiss credit for their centuries of independence.

    1. When you have a tough group of folks with those mountains to stand behind, independence is the reward.

      They earned it.

  3. I remember reading somewhere, many moons ago, that the Swiss developed their pikes after getting their butts handed to them by German knights fighting dismounted with lances. Dunno if it is true, but sounds reasonable.

    The other favorite Swiss weapon, the Halberd, deserves serious recognition by itself. Designed to be used between the pikes for chopping in a devastating downward motion, with a pike head to supplement the pike line, and a hook or back spike for anti-horse action. Kinda like the peasant version of the 'knightly' pole-axe.

    Also, to be Papal guardsman, you have to be a Catholic of good standing. The Vatican and the Swiss haven't relaxed that requirement, yet. Though the way the current pope is acting...

    I love the fact that the current Papal Swiss Guardsman are both versed in modern weapons (pistol, smgs, and rifles) and the use of the sword, dagger and halberd. Wouldn't want to be the idiot that tries something around a 'traditionally' armed guardsman.

    Oh, to spend about a week just wandering the Papal armsrooms and coon-fingering all the pretties. That would be heaven on earth for me.

    1. I'll bet they have some cool stuff back there in the storerooms!

    2. I saw a quick view of the armory. Suits of renaissance armor, matchlocks, flintlocks, beltfed Maxim machine guns, all sorts of rifles from single shot muskets to the latest battle rifles, swords, pikes, halberds, dirks, bayonets, all fully functional and ready to go.

      I can just imagine it. "Caspar, we're out of 9mm, you and Martin break out the K98s. Paulo, here's two rifled muskets, block the upper hall until we get to you... Sorry, Friar, but the Sisters of Peace already took the Maxim out and are using it near (sudden blast of noise) the steps of the Basilica."

  4. Yet another outstanding post. And a history lesson as well. You do good work, OAFS.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  5. As I'm sure you know, Sarge, archers could do a good bit more than decimate cavalry. Decimation only kills 10%: they could do a lot more damage than that.
    --Tennessee Budd

  6. Thier full cut Guard uniforms convienently conceal GLOCK 19s, and there are HK MP7s nearby. Tough as Swiss Badgers, they are! But the Pope is a Very High Value target. No onew has more moral authority than the Pope. Even we Lutheran Badgers acknowlege that. Assassinating the Holy Father would be a nightmare event, and is very much to be desired to some people.

    1. The Guard have a tough job, so far they've done well.

      But the evil abroad in the world never stops trying.

  7. thanks for appreciating the idea!
    also, somewhat ironic my next proposition would be another badass of the week entry, and this time cavalry that regularly routed pikemen/muskeeters combined arms forces - and came close to ending the career of Lion of the North before he even set foot in Germany
    I think you know already who I am talking about...
    also, introduce here the 163x series, maybe?
    oh, and quick, map-supported story of rise. fall and eventual rebirth of Poland is also on order

    1. I love hussars, especially the winged variety. I like the idea of a 163x series, so few know about that time period.

      A post on Poland is in the works, don't think I've forgotten.

  8. I had once thought they were largely ceremonial and actually Italian, but found out they are truly Swiss and truly badass- often in plain clothes carrying H&K MP7s or Sig-Sauers, doing a 2 year stint from the Swiss Army.


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