southern holland

From Swiss pikemen to Swedish mobile artillery

The impact of gunpowder in combat formations and battlefield tactics in Europe

The Swiss Pike Phalanx became a popular formation around 1500, or so. Prior to that, medieval and renaissance armies (especially in central Europe) focused primarily on heavy cavalry and elite infantry. These usually consisted of nobles, and were supplemented by poorly armed peasant levies. Think Battle of Agincourt here, elite semi-noble and noble French troops against English peasants and nobles.

The Swiss relied on citizen armies, all armed to an adequate standard. And to maintain relevance on a battlefield dominated by heavy cavalry, the Swiss implemented a heavily modified version of Alexander’s Phalanx. By mixing in long-reaching melee units, the Swiss Phalanx was more maneuverable, more sturdy, and all around better than either Alexander’s armies, or the infantry forces which had preceded them. Especially in France, Swiss mercenaries plied their trade and dominated all comers for decades.

However, they were challenged by German mercenaries, who initially copied their style. The German Landsknecht was essentially a heavily modified version of the Swiss Phalanx. One of the major, early, innovations of the Landsknecht was the introduction of several different kinds of long, reaching weapons, including the famous Zweihander two-handed sword. These weapons, in either Swiss or German employ, were used to cut down attackers before they broke the Phalanx, as well as cut the heads off of the enemy phalanx before launching their own assault. The Germans increased the ratio of pike to other weapons, and made their formations more versatile.

However the crucial innovation, and the one which would spell the end for the dominance of the Swiss, was the Landsknecht’s willingness to accept gunpowder weapons into their forces. Early in the 15th and early 16th centuries, during the hay-day of the Swiss, gunpowder weapons were expensive and rare. Thus, the Swiss incorporated very little of this new technology. But the Landsknecht, iterating on the Swiss design, incorporated these new weapons on a much larger scale. They might have between 15-25% gunpowder troops, which far outnumbered the Swiss. This allowed the Landsknecht to harry, demoralise, disrupt, and weaken the opposition well before they could respond (especially if it was a Swiss unit facing them!). Yet the Swiss never really integrated gunpowder weaponry on the same scale as the Landsknecht. Part of it was that the two forces rarely met in battle, and part was that the Landsknecht quickly proved themselves the superior style of mercenary. Only France, due to the preferable terms the Swiss offered the French king, really clung to the older model of army, and with poor result! In the few occasions where Swiss and German met, the Landsknecht regularly proved their superiority, especially in terms of firepower.

However, by the late 16th century, both the Swiss and the Landsknecht would find themselves outclassed by a new formation, the Spanish abomination.

In many regards, the Tercio is weird. For most of human history, armies lined up in a roughly linear fashion to fight each other. The lines might look different, be different sizes, and have a different organisation, but the linearity of war has been relatively constant. The Tercio, on the other hand, rejected that. The Spanish formed their phalanxes into giant squares, surrounded by musketeers. Anywhere from 3-5000 men made up the formation in its initial incarnation, and three or four of these Tercios (as one block was called) would form a wedge or diamond on the battlefield. It would go forth, and smash huge holes in the enemy formation, while maintaining a steady stream of fire against all comers.

The Tercio had several advantages, which made it useful across the Habsburg domains (Spain and Germany mostly, though the Tercio would eventually travel to Eastern Europe and elsewhere). Firstly, the Tercio was easy to command. With all those men, packed tightly into a huge square, orders could be easily communicated. Next, the Tercio concentrated a huge number of men in one spot. At any given time, the Tercio could be confident that it could bring more men to bear than an enemy, arrayed in the classic linear fashion. Further, the Tercio (ideally) maintained a constant volley of fire whenever it moved against the enemy. Within that belt of musketeers, the men were arranged roughly into lines, or waves. As the Tercio entered weapon range, the first line would fire their weapons, then move rearward. The second line would fire, and also move rearward. The rear lines would reload, and when their turn came, also fire. Theoretically, this meant that the Tercio would always be shooting, and wearing down the enemy.

But the Tercio too had many problems. Its movements were sluggish, and clumsy. 3000 men are hard to move around, especially when the musketeers were performing their evolutions. And with precious few officers to control the chaos, even veteran musketeers found the Tercio difficult to handle. Further, when moving to the attack and defence, the pikemen of the Tercio had to somehow switch places with the squishy musketmen on the outside. Especially on the attack, when the pikemen had to leave their cocoon and push forward, those manoeuvres sowed chaos and confusion in friendly ranks. Further, because the Tercio was so big, the men in the center and rear were often deaf and dumb to pressing danger. Rather than run, they blindly pushed forward against the front ranks, who had no choice but to press on. In the early days, this made the Tercio seem invincible; this dynamic meant that the Tercios almost never routed. But too, this was a doubled edged sword. At Rocroi, the Tercios should have retreated when they had the chance. Instead, they were annihilated. And on the subject of men in the back pushing, the men behind the first few ranks almost never saw any action. Other than pushing forward, many of the Pikemen of the Tercio rarely contributed to the outcome of the battle. Unlike in a classically linear formation, the Tercio locked men away in tight blocks. It was a hugely inefficient formation.

Only the Spanish really ever employed the Tercio to its maximum effect. But, by the Thirty Years War and the Dutch Revolt, many European powers had solved the Tercio problem, and had again iterated with new tactics.

During the Dutch War, the Dutch found themselves fighting the Spanish Tercio. But they had a problem, many of the Catholics living in Southern Holland (modern Belgium) didn’t want to fight with Protestants, against their trading partners, at the risk of having their farms and estates burned. That left the Dutch without aristocrats, and in 16th century terms, that meant no officers! (Traditionally, the nobility served as the kings officer corps. They were appointed based on wealth and power, not merit. The Dutch had no king, and the nobles abandoned them. That meant William the Silent had to adopt a new kind of army to fight the Spanish).

If the Swiss solved the cavalry problem by harkening back to Alexander, then William the Silent went back to Caesar for his inspiration. The Dutch formed their army around citizen soldiers which were organised into centuries and cohorts, later companies and brigades. Each unit was organised in a standard fashion, and had a standard complement. That meant a general could always know exactly what 2 brigades meant, it was x number of pikes and x number of guns, and that helped the Dutch standardise their army.

In terms of unit composition, the Dutch also radically increased the numbers of muskets v. pikes, to perhaps 30-40% of their army. They arranged these units in a roughly Roman formation (that classic checkerboard), with each brigade alternating:

Pike-Shot(gun)-Pike-Shot-Pike-Shot, etc.

In combat, the musketeers would soften the enemy up (either on the offensive or defensive) while the Pikes would manoeuvre into position. At the critical moment, the pikes would rush forward and attack the enemy, or defend the musketeers (who would retreat and seek a new firing position).

But the innovation was incomplete. It would take a Swede, Gustavus Adolphus, to carry the new formation into its final form. Prior to 1630 and Sweden’s entry into the Thirty Years War, Adolphus had waged a long war against Poland. Poland fought wars radically differently than the central and western Europeans: they relied more on peasant levies, pure pike armies, and the legendary heavy cavalrymen, the Winged Hussar.  In Germany and France, the Swiss and Landsknecht had killed the heavy, lance-armed, cavalry which had dominated the in the renaissance. Instead, cavalry fought much like musketeers did in the Tercio.

The Caracole manoeuvre had cavalry charge the enemy and, at the last second, fire a pistol or carbine before turning away and riding back to the rear to reload. Both complicated and ineffective, the weapons of the time, fired from horseback, simply could not reliably produce the damage and confusion required to break an enemy. But the charge of a Hussar, with their heavy wooden lance, could do just that. Adolphus adopted the Hussar, and used it as his corps of decision. When he was ready to end a battle, he would launch his Hussars at the enemies’ weakest point, where they would have the worst possible chance of stopping the heavy cavalry. And, once broken in one spot, the enemy army often quit the field in whole cloth.

Adolphuses other innovation was much simpler. He designed and employed a series of light artillery pieces, and gave them to his individual brigades. While they were inaccurate and often inefficient, no other army had given control of the precious artillery pieces to smaller units before. The Adolphan brigades thus had a lot more firepower than their opponents did, and the Tercios did.

Adolphus brought his new army into the field against the Austrians, who had adopted Spain’s Tercio. But the Austrians had never mastered it, and found themselves repeatedly checked and defeated by Adolphus. It signalled a paradigm shift, and many European armies (especially among the protestants) adopted the new style. Even France switched to this new model. And at Rocroi, when the veteran Spaniards met the new French armies in battle, the Tercio was finally broken, and the cream of the Spanish army was laid to waste. This new model would persist, with some modification, into the reign of Louis XIV.

The central concepts, heavy cavalry, brigadisation, and a mixture of pike and shot, would be adhered to until after the War of the League of Augsburg, when socket bayonets replaced the Pike. Yet, even before then the ratio of Guns to pikes continued to expand. During Adolphus’ lifetime, his army likely grew to around 50-60% guns. By the W. O.T. League of Augsburg, that ratio was around 75%. And obviously, by the W. O. Spanish Succession, just a few years later, that ratio had grown to nearly 90-100% (with the bayonet). 

This is the general flow of battlefield tactics in the Early Modern Period. The real secret to warfare during the 16-18th century was the gun. Each formation successively brought more firepower to bear than the last one. Guns were useful in many situations, both on the attack and the defence, but the Pike was only useful as a weapon of last resort (ie, close-in fighting) and as a last shock action to cement a victory and route the enemy. The formations which brought more gunpowder to bear did better than those that incorporated less. And this arms race would continue into the early 1700s, when armies finally adopted the socket bayonet, which turned guns into makeshift pikes, and finally made armies 100% gunpowder affairs.

Russell Weigley, Age of Battles
Frank Tallett, War and Society in Early Modern Europe
William McNeill, The Pursuit of Power
Peter Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age
David Chandler, Oxford History of the British Army


Crossing the Chasm: The Polder Cup

Whether it’s a controversy over goal-line technology, a linesman plastered across newspapers after a dubious call, or a referee put to the sword after falling prey to a bit of simulation in the box, football is a sport preoccupied with its own minutiae. So much so, that for all the vitriol and passion that trails every small incident on the pitch, it’s often easy to forget that at the end of the day, football is just a game.

San Sebastian-based artist Maider López built upon that premise with her Polder Cup project, where she hosted a football tournament in Southern Holland across a series of mismatched pitches. From jagged boundary lines to hollows and bumps littering the field and even ditches of water splitting fields in two, Maider parodied the rigid official rule-set by creating a situation in which players had to adapt their strategy and interpretation of the rules to the environment around them.

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