Swiss mercenaries

Swiss mercenaries

Swiss mercenaries were soldiers notable for their service in foreign armies, especially the armies of the Kings of France, throughout the Early Modern period of European history, from the Later Middle Ages into the Age of the European Enlightenment. Their service as mercenaries was at its apogee during the Renaissance, when their proven battlefield capabilities made them sought-after mercenary troops.

Ascendancy of Swiss Field Mercenaries

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. It should be noted, however, that the 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 such remarkable upset victories over heavily-armoured knights as 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. As a result, bands of men, sometime acting independently, other times under the banners of their cantons, marched off to foreign lands to fight in the causes of others, for pay. 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 The Prince. The Valois Kings of France, in fact, considered it a virtual impossibility to take the field of battle without Swiss pikeman 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.

The Swiss and the "Landsknechts" in the Great Italian Wars

Until roughly 1490, the Swiss had a virtual monopoly on pike-armed mercenary service. However, after that date, the Swiss mercenaries were increasingly supplemented by imitators, chiefly the "Landsknechts". Landsknechts were Germans (at first largely from Swabia) and became proficient at Swiss tactics to produce a force that filled the ranks of European armies with mercenary regiments for decades. Although the Landsknechts were never quite as redoubtable as the Swiss, they were much more readily available for hire, as after 1515 the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, other than regarding Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the Royal French army. The Landsknecht, however, would serve any paymaster, even, at times, enemies of the Holy Roman Emperor (and Landsknechts at times even fought each other on the battlefield, something the Swiss flatly refused to do in mercenary service). The Landsknecht assumed the bright, garish soldier's outfits of the Swiss, and in fact soon outdid the Swiss in the flamboyance of their military dress.

The Swiss were not flattered by the imitation, and the two bodies of mercenaries immediately became bitter rivals over employment and on the battlefield, where they were often opposed during the major European conflict of the early sixteenth century, the Great Italian Wars. Although the Swiss generally had a significant edge in a simple "push of pike", the resulting combat was nonetheless quite savage, and known to Italian onlookers as "bad war." Period artists such as Hans Holbein attest to the fact that two such huge pike columns crashing into each other could result in a maelstrom of battle, and ghastly casualties on both sides.

Despite the competition from the Landsknechts, and imitation by other armies (most notably the Spanish, which adopted pike-handling as one element of its famed "Tercios" infantry formations), the Swiss fighting reputation reached its zenith between 1480-1525, and indeed the Battle of Novara, fought by Swiss mercenaries, is seen by some as the perfect Swiss battle. Even the close defeat at the terrible Battle of Marignano in 1515, the "Battle of Giants," was seen as a victory of sorts for Swiss arms due to the ferocity of the fighting and the good order of their withdrawal.

Nonetheless, the repulse at Marignano presaged the decline of the Swiss form of warfare -- eventually, the two-century run of Swiss victories ended in 1522 with complete disaster at the Battle of Bicocca when combined Spanish and Landsknecht forces decisively defeated them using fortifications and new technology. It can be argued that it was arrogance -- overconfidence in their own supposed invincibility -- which defeated the Swiss as much as the armed forces of their enemies, for at Bicocca, the Swiss mercenaries, serving the French king, attempted repeatedly to frontally storm an impregnable defensive position, only to be mown down by small-arms and artillery fire. Never had the Swiss suffered such awful casualties while being unable to inflict much damage upon their foe. Arrogance and overconfidence were at play here, but another consideration was economic -- many of the Swiss mercenaries were still farmers, and needed to return home from campaign quickly in order to work the fields. This meant they often rushed, unthinking, into ill-advised battles in the hopes they would crush the enemy of their employer, collect booty, get paid, and march home to work their fields.

So terrible was the blow at Bicocca that Swiss battlefield proficiency suffered severely for years to follow. Their performance three years later, in French service at the great battle of the age, the Battle of Pavia, was commented on by many contemporaries as remarkably mediocre, and the battle is often portrayed as the benchmark for the decline in the reputation of the Swiss.

Organization and tactics of early Swiss mercenary contingents

The early contingents of Swiss mercenary pikemen organized themselves rather differently than the cantonal forces. In the cantonal forces, their armies were usually divided into the "Vorhut" (vanguard), "Gewalthut" (center) and "Nachhut" (rearguard), generally of different sizes and often echeloned back with respect to each other. In mercenary contingents, although they could conceivably draw up in three similar columns if their force was of sufficient size, more often they simply drew up in one or two huge columns which deployed side by side, forming the center of the army in which they served. Likewise, their tactics were not very similar to those used by the Swiss cantons in their brilliant tactical victories of the Burgundian Wars and Swabian War, in which they relied on maneuver at least as much as the brute force of the attack columns. In mercenary service they became much less likely to resort to outmaneuvering the enemy and relied more on a straightforward steamroller assault.

Such deep pike columns could crush lesser infantry in close combat and were invulnerable to the effects of a cavalry charge, but they were vulnerable to firearms if they could be immobilized (as seen in the Battle of Marignano). The Swiss mercenaries did deploy crossbows, handguns and artillery of their own, however these always remained very subsidiary to the pike and halberd square. Despite the proven armour-penetration capability of firearms, they were also very inaccurate, slow-loading, and susceptible to damp conditions, and did not fit well with the fast-paced attack tactics used by the Swiss mercenary pike forces.

The Swiss remained primarily pikemen throughout the sixteenth century, but after that period they adopted similar infantry formations and tactics to other units in the armies in which they served. Accordingly, their tactics became less unique, and they took a normal place in the battle line amongst the other infantry units.

End of Military Ascendancy of Swiss Mercenary Pikemen

In the end, as proven at Marignano and Bicocca, the pike attack of the Swiss mercenaries proved to be too vulnerable to firearms wielded by Spanish and Landsknecht "arquebusiers" and the earthworks and artillery of the French. These "arquebusiers" and heavy cannons scythed down the close-packed ranks of the Swiss squares in bloody heaps -- at least, as long as the Swiss attack could be bogged down by earthworks or cavalry charges, and the shooters were backed up by Spanish and/or Landsknecht pikemen to defend them if necessary from the Swiss in close combat.

Other stratagems could also take the Swiss pikemen at a disadvantage. For instance, the Spanish rodeleros, also known as Sword and Buckler Men, armed with steel rodelas and side-swords, often wearing a helmet and a breastplate, were much better armed and armoured for man-to-man close combat than the Swiss. Accordingly, they could heavily defeat the Swiss if their pike column could be disorganized so that the Sword and Buckler Men could dash under the unwieldy pikes of the Swiss and stab the lightly-armoured, shieldless Swiss infantry. Landsknechts, using a formation similar to that of the Swiss, were defeated with terrible slaughter by the Spanish Sword and Buckler Men at the Battle of Ravenna. It should be noted, however, that this required disorganization of the pike column, and Swiss pike columns which retained good formation were able to heavily defeat Spanish rodeleros formations in battles such as at the Battle of Seminara.

Swiss Mercenaries after the Battle of Pavia

Despite the end of their supremacy circa 1525, the Swiss pike-armed mercenaries soon bounced back, and thereafter continued to be among the most capable close combat infantry in Europe throughout the sixteenth century, as demonstrated by their battlefield performances serving the King of France in the French Wars of Religion, particularly at the Battle of Dreux, where the block of Royal Swiss pikemen singlehandedly resisted virtually the entire Huguenot army, allowing the Catholic cavalry to eventually counterattack.

Service in the French army

Swiss soldiers continued to serve as mercenaries with many nations from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The most famous employer of these mercenaries was the French army, and the Swiss were an intrinsic, elite part of the French infantry forces. The famed Swiss Guard regiment, the most senior of the thirteen Swiss mercenary regiments in French service, was essentially identical to the French Guards in organization and equipment other than wearing a red uniform as opposed to the blue uniforms of the French Guards. The Swiss similarly adopted the musket in increasingly large numbers as the seventeenth century wore on, and abandoned the pike, their ancient trademark, altogether at around the same time as other troops in the French army, "circa" 1700.

The Swiss Guard, loyal to the last, was massacred in the French Revolution on August 10, 1792, dying to protect Louis XVI from the mob and assembled National Guardsmen although, ironically, the king had already fled the Tuileries Palace. Napoleon's army also included Swiss troops, who fought well, and were allowed to keep their distinctive red uniforms (distinguishing them from the French troops, who wore blue), although this caused some confusion on the battlefield --it was the same color worn by Napoleon's enemies in the Spanish campaigns, the British infantry.

Service in the Spanish Army

Another prime employer of Swiss mercenaries from the later 16th century on was Spain. After the Protestant Reformation, Switzerland was split along religious lines between Protestant and Catholic cantons. Swiss mercenaries from the Catholic cantons were thereafter increasingly likely to be hired for service in the armies of the Spanish Habsburg superpower in the later sixteenth century. The first regularly embodied Swiss regiment in the Spanish army was that of Walter Roll of Uri (a Catholic canton) in 1574, for service in the Spanish Netherlands, and by the middle of the seventeenth century there were a dozen Swiss regiments fighting for the Spanish army. From the latter part of the seventeenth century these could be found serving in Spain itself or in its possessions, and fought against Portugal, against rebellions in Catalonia, in the War of the Spanish Succession, War of the Polish Succession, War of the Austrian Succession (in the fighting in Italy), and against Britain in the fighting associated with the American Revolution. Their final role in Spanish service was against the French in the Peninsular War, in which the six Swiss regiments in the Spanish army mostly stayed loyal to the Spanish, and were eventually ground down by years of fighting. The year 1823 finally saw the end of Swiss mercenary service with the Spanish army.

As in French service, the Swiss fighting in the ranks of the Spanish army generally followed its organization, tactics and dress.

wiss Mercenaries in Modern Times

Since 1859, only one mercenary unit has been permitted under the Swiss constitution, certainly the most famous of all: the Vatican's Swiss Guard, which has been protecting the Pope for the last five centuries, dressed in colorful uniforms reminiscent of the Swiss mercenary's heyday. Despite it being prohibited, individual Swiss citizens carried on the tradition of foreign military service into the twentieth century, including participation in the Spanish Civil War, usually on the Republican side.

Notable Swiss mercenaries

*The artist Urs Graf



*Führer, H. R., and Eyer, R. P. (eds.), "Schweizer in "Fremden Diensten", 2006. In German.
*Lienert, Meinrad, "Schweizer Sagen und Heldengeschichten", 1915. In German.
*Miller, Douglas, "The Swiss at War", 1979.
*Oman, Sir Charles, "A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century", 1937.
*Oman, Sir Charles, "A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages", rev. ed. 1960.
*Richards, John, "Landsknecht Soldier 1486-1550", 2002.
*Schaufelberger, Walter, "Der Alte Schweizer und Sein Krieg: Studien Zur Kriegführung Vornehmlich im 15. Jahrhundert", 1987 (in German).
*Singer, P.W. "Corporate Warriors" 2003.
*Taylor, Frederick Lewis, "The Art of War in Italy, 1494-1529", 1921.
*Wood, James B., "The King's Army: Warfare, Soldiers and Society during the Wars of Religion in France, 1562-76", 1996.


*HDS|8608|Fremde Dienste/Service étranger


*"Schweizer im Spanischen Bürgerkrieg" (The Swiss in the Spanish Civil War), Director Richard Dindo, 1974 (English-language release 1982). In Swiss German with English sub-titles.

External links

* [ 500 Jahre Schlacht bei Hard] , 1999?, on the SFwV SSGA website. In German.
* [ Ancient Tactics Tested: Swiss Pike and Ancient Phalanx] .
* [ 1499–1999] , 1999, 500th anniversary of the Swabian War. In German.

ee also

*Military history of the Old Swiss Confederacy
*"mal du Suisse"
*Swiss army

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