(ORDO NEWS) — The medieval pike, weighing about 3 kilograms and just under 5 meters long, was a weapon supposedly invented in Turin, Italy, in 1327 AD.
However, its history was actually much longer and dates back to the ancient times of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, when the Macedonian infantry dominated the battlefield with the sarissa, a long spear 4 to 7 meters long.
More than a thousand years later, in 1315, the peasants of the city of Shivts, which was part of the Swiss Confederation, rediscovered this ancient weapon, heroically fighting off the armored knights of Leopold I of Austria with only peaks.
Against all odds, this was one of the first times that commoners on foot defeated an onslaught of armored horsemen, and their victory shocked all of Europe.
However, it took the Swiss even more than a century and a great tragedy to finally realize the superiority of the pike, which turned them into the most elite and sought-after warriors of the Middle Ages – the Swiss pikemen.
Origins of the Swiss Pikemen: The Arbedo Disaster
When the Habsburgs (the ruling family of the Holy Roman Empire in 1438-1740) were distracted by their eastern conquests in Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, the Swiss Confederation attacked the imperial forces in Sempach in an attempt to expand their territories.
At the Battle of Sempach in 1386, Swiss troops armed mainly with halberds (combined spear and battle axe) clashed with Habsburg troops, whose mounted knights with long spears or pikes held off the Swiss hordes with great success.
Thousands of Swiss infantrymen were killed thanks to the superior length of the Habsburg spears, which allowed the Habsburg soldiers to effectively stab and maim the Swiss from a distance.
After some time, the Swiss miraculously got out of the predicament, breaking through the ranks of the Habsburgs and forcing Duke Leopold III and his contingent to rush forward on the enemy. The duke and his men were killed and routed by the staunch Swiss, who breathed a sigh of relief.
The Battle of Sempach was very tense, as the shorter length of the halberds left the Swiss troops at a disadvantage in the early stages of the battle.
However, the Swiss did not learn their lesson that day and continued to use halberds as their main weapon in subsequent battles, which ultimately led to the greatest military disaster in their history.
Almost 40 years later, in 1422, the Swiss again found themselves in heavy combat, this time at Arbedo against the Milanese. The Italians again conquered the city of Bellinosa, one of the many cities that surrendered to the Swiss Confederation as a result of the expansion that began at the beginning of the century.
Swiss troops and their star halberdiers have been rampaging across Europe since the death of the Milanese general Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1403, capturing large areas south of the Alps in the Ossola, Maggia and Versasca valleys.
The two armies met at Arbedo, north of the disputed city of Bellinosa, and the Swiss were immediately outnumbered by the combined Milanese regiments.
The Swiss sent 4,000 men to defend Bellinosa, while the Milanese sent 8,000 troops, twice as many as the Swiss.
The Italians made the first move, and under the leadership of their commander Carmagnola, they attacked the square formation of the Swiss, who successfully repulsed the attackers with blows from their halberdiers, killing 400 Italian knights.
Unable to break through the immobile mass of the Swiss battalions, Carmagnola changed his plan, ordering his knights to descend to the ground to engage their opponents, and his crossbowmen to fire volleys of shells into the Swiss flank.
It was then that Swiss resolve crumbled when Italian spears, almost twice as long as halberds, sliced and cut Swiss troops to pieces in a mirror image of the moment they were defeated at Sempach.
It seemed that the only weapons capable of hitting the advancing Milanese were pikes, but pikemen made up only less than a third of the Swiss force, and the short halberd was the more common weapon.
The only thing that saved the Swiss from complete annihilation was that the Milanese mistook a group of foragers passing by for Swiss reinforcements, which prompted Carmagnola to order the withdrawal of his units from the battlefield littered with corpses.
After Arbedo, the shocked Swiss, who had not lost a major battle for decades, convened a council called the Diet of Lausanne to try to understand the reasons for their humiliation. Realizing that short halberds would eventually lead to their demise, they expanded the use of the pike, making it the dominant weapon in their ranks.
By 1442, the pike was the main weapon of a quarter of all Swiss soldiers, by 1500, half of all fighters, and by 1515, it had become the weapon of choice for two-thirds of Swiss fighters. Swiss warriors were initially reluctant to adopt the pike, as it limited their mobility and its bulkiness made looting and looting difficult.
In 1512, the Swiss were forced to ask the Milanese, who had become their allies, to supply their warriors with lances, who took too many halberds with them.
Despite initial caution, the enduring pike brought the Swiss world fame, as their military power became an unstoppable force and a topic of discussion in European courts.
The success of the Swiss pikemen led to a lucrative job for mercenaries
After adopting the pike as their primary weapon, Swiss pikemen enjoyed military superiority in Europe for decades and were responsible for some of the most devastating victories of the medieval era.
Among the best known are the battles of Granson and Morat in 1476 and Nancy in 1477, where they annihilated the Burgundian armies, dismissing their prominent leader, Charles the Bold.
Attracting the attention of other noble European lords, they began to offer their services as mercenaries, becoming indispensable units in some of the most famous military units of the time.
In 1424, Florence requested 10,000 Swiss pikemen, offering a huge sum of 8,000 Rhine Goldens for 3 months of service, and in 1494, 6,000 Swiss mercenaries joined Charles IV during his invasion of Italy.
Individually, the Swiss pikemen were weak, since the length of their weapons did not allow them to defend themselves against sword blows, which easily parried their attacks.
However, when gathered together, the Swiss pikemen were a terrifying and relentless collection of sharp objects that advanced on the enemy, often at speed, demolishing everything in their path.
The first four ranks used their weapons on the attack, striking at everything in sight, while the men in the back, responsible for creating the pace, turned their pikes vertically and pushed their comrades in front of them.
When the pikemen drew their weapons aside to protect the rear, the square of the pike took on the appearance of a hedgehog, often causing the cavalry to dismount from their horses, which faced near-certain death if they attacked the dense wall of thorns.
The Swiss used the pike successfully on many occasions, including at Granson and Morat in 1476 and at the Battle of Novarre in 1513 against French troops. During the Battle of Schwaderloch in 1499, one of the most convincing Swiss victories, their German opponents even tried to imitate Swiss tactics, but failed due to their low level of training:
“… got off their horses and came up to the first line with a good pike, and defended themselves so fiercely that it would be impossible to defeat this smaller formation if everyone did as they did.
Then the Confederates shouted: “Forward, forward, the bad guys are running “… They pressed with clenched fists so hard that the aforementioned knights and the first three ranks were killed, but not without sweat and blood. The back ranks took to flight.”
The Swiss pikemen were most effective in open and flat terrain, and victory depended on an unhindered push forward. In 1494, Francesco Gicciardini noted the benefits of such favorable conditions for the Swiss hordes:
“They faced the enemy like a wall, never breaking formation, steady and almost invincible when they fought on a wide enough place to be able to expand their squad.”
The superior tactics of the Swiss were complemented by the tremendous courage of their men, who often fought to the last man. No Swiss army ever retreated from battle, even in rare cases of defeat.
At the Battle of Saint-Jacob in 1444, 1,500 Swiss soldiers died fighting a French army that was almost twenty times larger, repulsing numerous French cavalry charges and killing 3,000 of Louis XII’s men.
The French monarch was so dejected that he abandoned the conquests of Switzerland, turning his attention to the Habsburg Empire in Alsace, an easier opponent.
The Swiss thwarted another conquest attempt in 1499, this time by the Habsburg emperor Maximillian I, whose 30,000 strong army was largely destroyed. The Swiss penchant for self-defense contributed to their eternal independence throughout the 15th century, as their extraordinary fighting ability was never surpassed.
Swiss resilience was strengthened by strong kinship ties: Swiss pikemen usually fought side by side with their brethren, which contributed to the development of a spirit of self-sacrifice unparalleled in any other army in Europe.
Fighters recruited in the Swiss countryside were usually placed in units made up of people from the same area, and in the cities the Swiss brigades were made up of people who belonged to the same guilds.
Modern lords understood this and even tried to copy the Swiss model. 20 years before his crushing defeat, Maximilian I, recognizing the strength of blood ties, insisted in 1479 that his Flemish infantry be recruited from the same regions and cities.
Also, Swiss mercenaries often refused to fight each other if they were on opposite sides. This was the case in 1494, when the Italian commander Ludovico il Moro was defeated after his Swiss mercenaries refused to fight against the French, who also hired Swiss troops.
If their homeland was attacked, the Swiss also left, to the chagrin of their employers. In 1524, 6,000 Swiss pikemen deserted Francis I four days before the Battle of Pavis, which the French subsequently lost.
Countermeasures and collapse
Despite seeming invincibility, Swiss hegemony ended as effective tactics were gradually developed against them, combined with technological advances in long-range weapons.
The generals noted that the Swiss were incredibly vulnerable on their flanks, which were often exposed. Despite the use of cascading pikes as a countermeasure to this weakness, the enemy commanders were soon able to devise effective schemes aimed at destroying the Swiss from behind.
Taking advantage of the fact that the pikemen slowly changed direction, they rushed into battle to engage in close combat from unprotected sides. Due to their size, the pikes were powerless against melee attacks.
Another effective strategy was to breach the front of the formation, allowing enemy soldiers to break into the center of the formation and slash the men from the inside using daggers, axes, swords, and other short weapons.
At Ravenna in 1512, the Spaniards succeeded in this task by breaching the center of the Swiss mass, sending soldiers to crawl under the lances and cut them down with their swords.
However, small arms were the best countermeasure. The large concentration of Swiss mercenaries made them easy targets for gunpowder artillery, which began to develop towards the end of the Middle Ages. Sharpshooters and gunners, located at a great distance in relative safety and protection, could fire shells without fear of collision with distant Swiss units.
This was used to great effect by the Spaniards at the Battle of Bickok in 1522, where the Spanish massacred 3,000 of the 8,000 Swiss with long-range fire. The Swiss hated the gunners, whom they considered cowardly, as Niklaus Manuel wrote in a song about the Battle of Bikkok:
“… in the ground, like a pig in dung: they did not even have the heart of a man, if they were not in an advantageous position.”
The Battle of Marignano in 1515 remains a textbook example of how to defeat Swiss pikemen. Against one of the greatest Swiss armies of the century, Francis I used every known counter-tactic to outdo the enemy.
First of all, he made sure that the battle took place on a hilly plain, which would not only reduce the effectiveness of a strong attack by the Swiss, who needed more level ground, but also provide sufficient cover for cannons and muskets.
The Swiss rushed to meet the French artillery, but were repulsed by artillery fire, cavalry attacks from the flanks, and injuries sustained on uneven terrain.
The next day, the Swiss were finished off by another swift cavalry charge behind their lines and the arrival of the Venetian vanguard, which prevented them from completely penetrating the French army. The Swiss retreated overwhelmed and defeated, having lost half of their forces.
Missed and realized opportunities
Had the Swiss been politically united during their period of dominance, they certainly could have become another great power claiming European dominance.
However, Swiss divisions always remained an obstacle, and a Swiss empire, conquering like Philip II with his legendary Macedonian pikemen centuries ago, would never have come into being.
The Swiss have missed their chance, and after their colossal defeats at Marignano in 1515 and at Biccock in 1522, their fearsome pikemen will never again achieve the dizzying heights of success they had achieved earlier in the 15th century.
However, despite these crushing setbacks, the Swiss continued to be hired as skilled mercenaries and were an important part of the French armies well into the second half of the 16th century.
Throughout the 17th and into the 19th centuries they continued to provide their services, eventually settling in Italy, exchanging leather jackets and lightly armored steel breastplates for the bright and colorful attire of the Vatican Swiss Guard, which since 1859 has remained the only Swiss mercenary group permitted by Swiss law.
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