Swiss Military Tactics


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The Battle of Nancy 1477

Map of the battlefield of Nancy (J.B.Lippincott Co.)

Taking advantage of Burgundian weakness after their debacle against the Swiss, Duke Renatus of Lorraine now moved to reclaim his possessions, forcing the Burgundian garrison at Nancy to surrender on 6th October 1476.  Charles could ill afford to allow the city to remain in enemy hands as it was the hinge to his possessions in the Netherlands and Burgundy. Therefore he swiftly began to raise another army in order to reassert his authority, but the forces he managed to scrape together were a pale shadow of former Burgundian strength, numbering less than 12,000 men. For his part, Duke Renatus also found himself unable to raise a substantial force to oppose Charles, and therefore turned to the Swiss for help, but the Confederation was not inclined to mobilize. Instead they (with typical Swiss astuteness) allowed Renatus to recruit an army of paid mercenaries from among the various Cantons for the sum of 4 guilders per man per month. This proved to be such a popular proposition for the Swiss that within a matter of weeks 8,000 mercenaries were recruited. These, together with contingents from Lorraine, Alsace, Austria and France, gave Renatus a formidable army of over 20,000, including 3,000 mounted men-at-arms.

During November and December 1476 Charles had laid siege to Nancy, which, owing to the state of its battered and crumbling walls was not expected to hold out very long. Hearing of the approach of the allied relief army Charles moved out to meet them on 4th January 1477. His plan was to await the arrival of his enemy in a defensive position in a restricted part of a valley south of Nancy. Here he drew up his foot soldiers and hand-gunners in a solid square formation, with cavalry on both wings and artillery to the front. A small stream flowed across the approach march of the allies, and both flanks were protected by woods. The problem with the position was the fact that it was so restricted that it prohibited any manoeuvrability on the part of the Burgundians, and was also hazardous if a retreat was needed in view of a marshland at the rear.

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Swiss pikes. Grandson Museum

On the bleak and snowy morning of 5th January the allies held a council of war, at which it was decided not to attack the Burgundian position in great strength frontally, but to push forward a strong ‘Forlorn Hope’ to hold the enemies attention while the rest of their army attacked the flanks. The Vorhut, of some 8,000 foot and 2,000 cavalry formed the right wing of the enveloping movement; the Gewalthaufen, 7,000 pikemen and halberdiers, together with 1,000 hand –gunners and 1,000 horse would move around to the left over wooded hills. A very weak Nachhut, of only 800 hand-gunners was held back in reserve to support either of the flanking columns. [1] By mid-afternoon it had stopped snowing and the sun broke through the low clouds bathing the battlefield in winter sunlight. The Gewalthaufen together with the Lorrainer cavalrywas now descending the hillside on the Burgundian right flank, and Charles endeavoured to turn his artillery to met the threat, however, being unable to traverse sufficiently the cannon proved incapable of stopping the massive Swiss square from driving home its attack directly into the Burgundian infantry, although their mounted knights did manage to check the Lorrainer cavalry, but only momentarily.  Soon the whole of Charles’s infantry block began to disintegrate, and his attempt to bring over archers from the left flank proved too little too late. The Vorhut now came crashing down on the Burgundian left, scattering their horse and overrunning the artillery. It now became a case of every man for himself, and in the ensuing mêlée over 6,000 Burgundians met their death, including Charles himself who, rather like Richard III at Bosworth, was pulled from his horse and battered to death.

If Charles had been a true military thinker he would have realised that the only way to combat Swiss tactics was to employ them himself. His stubbornness in retaining mounted knights in the hope that they would still prove to be the decisive factor on the battlefield is understandable, given that almost every power in Europe, with the exception of the British and Swiss, also adhered to this notion. But if he had dismounted his cavalry and used them to fight on foot in conjunction with his archers and hand-gunners, while also training his remaining foot soldiers to handle the pike, he may well have achieved something close to equality with his enemy.

After the defeat of Charles the Bold the Swiss began to hire themselves out even more readily as mercenaries, and it became almost impossible to prevent them from hiring out to foreign lords and princes. Soon a distinction had to be made between the regular cantonal troops who swore an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and were paid by the various Cantons to fight for foreign masters, and the free bands of mercenaries who went their own way.

The last major conflict between the Old Swiss Confederacy and the Habsburgs was fought out in 1499, when a local dispute over who controlled some of the mountain passes in the Grison escalated into a full blown war. A major engagement of the war was the battle of Dornach (22nd July 1499). Here the Swiss first came into contact with the Landsknechtes. These well trained infantry had been raised by Maximilian I and had adopted the pike as their major weapon. This, coupled with greater manoeuvrability on the battlefield, marked a distinct shift, ‘in the development of tactical organisations capable of responding to the supremacy of the Swiss.’ [2] However, the Swiss still proved themselves superior on the day as the Landsknechtes lacked the community militia background of the Swiss and were not normally kept together long enough to instil any spirit of unity and bonding.[3]

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Clash of pikes (‘Bad War’ Hans Holbein)

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[1] Miller. Douglas, The Swiss at War 1300-1500, page 30

[2] Miller. Douglas, The Swiss at War 1300-1500, page 31

[3] Jones. Archer, The Art of War in the Western World, page 178



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