The Eidgenossen matter.
The who? What? Why?
OK, let me back up.
Two weeks ago, while talking about the Battle of Crecy I mentioned the concept of a Revolution in Military Affairs. At that time I gave a fairly simple definition. A better, or perhaps just more complete definition of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) might go like this: “A fundamental change in the practice of warfare based upon changes in the areas of technology, organization, tactics, or social/political/economic factors that make up how a force is developed, fielded and fights.”
OK, fine, but why does this really matter?
Well, the answer is pretty simple. Right now we are fifteen years into what may well prove to be a multi-generation series of conflicts. We are facing changes in technologies, organizations (ours and those of others), tactics and social/political/economic factors for all the combatants, would you not agree? All of which means that for us to be intelligent commentators on these wars, or just informed voters in a Republic engaged in conflict, we should be aware of the concept of an RMA. That allows all of us to critically evaluate what the hell is going on in the present day and make informed decisions.
So how do we get there? The best way is to understand the RMAs of the past. Which brings us, once again, back to that first RMA I mentioned last week, the Infantry Revolution.
Yea, I just jumped from the 2010’s to the 1300’s. Stay with me.
I mentioned in that earlier essay that Crecy marked the beginning of the Infantry RMA, but that was a bit of an oversimplification. In part due to the fact that as Americans we mostly lean on English sources for our deeper history, and the English, they love them their longbowmen. The battles of Crecy, Agincourt, and Poitiers are nearly Holy Writ in English history, and that infects us too.
Yes, the Welsh and English longbowmen of Edward III and Henry V were one part of the equation, but there was another more fundamental and parallel version of the same RMA. It was an Infantry Revolution that did not rely upon a specialized weapon or long training in that weapon. But it took as a base some of the same elements: Cheap, Simple, Low-Barrier to Entry, Lethal to Knights. Ultimately it was the bigger part of the Infantry Revolution. Folks, may I introduce, the Eidgenossen.
Have you ever wondered why it is that the Vatican is guarded by Swiss Guards in funny looking costumes?
(Sometimes I really do wonder if, in my advancing years, I am beginning to sound like the stereotypical curmudgeon Andy Rooney. I am starting way too many conversations with that line, “Ever wondered why…”)
The answer is simple: In the Late Middle Ages the Pope was a player. In military terms he mattered. He owned vast territories, he fielded armies, and he apparently had few qualms about committing mass violence with those armies. At the core of many of those armies were mercenaries. Being rich, the Popes hired the very best, the most lethal, the most dedicated mercenaries available. Starting in the late 15th Century under Pope Sixtus IV that was…the Swiss.
Yea, the Swiss. Way back when, the major Swiss exports were not clocks, chocolates, cheeses and protectionary privacy banking laws. What the Swiss exported to Europe starting in the 1300s and through the early 1500s were the most efficiently violent, lethal, and vicious combat forces available for sale in all of Europe, the Swiss Oath-Brothers, the Eidgenossen.
Wait? What? The Swiss?
Yea, the Swiss. Once upon a time they were the baddest asses on the block. But to understand how that happened you need to think a little about their environment.
Feudalism, that hierarchical system of social organization, required the ability of elites to dominate the means of production. Yea, I know, sounds all Bernie Sanders and stuff, but that was the bottom line. If you could dominate the local population, you could control the local wealth. Domination could be direct (“give me”) or indirect (“if you give me, I will protect you from the others”) but usually a combination of both. Of course this mostly applied in agrarian areas, where people were tied to the land. In the Alps, not so much.
Not entirely, but to a big degree, the pastoralists (read: “Sheep and Cow herders”) of the Alpine valleys were never subjugated to deep feudalism because, at the end of the day, they could always just shift valleys and there was not squat that any overlord could effectively do about it. Build a castle in one valley? Fine, I’m leaving for the next one over. That sort of negates the ability of an overlord to amass enough wealth to build much of a castle in the first place. So what you had in a lot of what is now Switzerland was free men who were bound by families and personal and commercial affiliations, not feudalism. This mattered. (NOTE: This is also a gross exaggeration of a very complex situation, but enough to give you the gist.) In the early 1300s enter inroads by external powers, feudal powers, trying to exert their own authority over segments of Switzerland, or more accurately the sub-states that now make up Switzerland. Places like the Gotthard Pass were coveted by these external forces. These feudal powers thought that their armor and knights would put paid to the peasants of Switzerland. Bad bet.
The Swiss were not rich, as a rule, and they were not therefore heavily armed or armored. But they could make spears, honking big spears as much as 18’ long, and 8’ long axes known as halberds, and swords that stood as tall as a man. They could not afford fancy plate mail or even chain mail, but they discovered a more potent tool. Working together, en masse, they could make a fighting force that would slaughter all who stood before it.
This is your social/political/economic factor I mentioned in the definition of an RMA.
Remember, in medieval warfare after feudalism took root, knights and their ilk ruled the roost. It was damned hard to kill a knight, one-on-one. But if it was hard to actually kill a knight you could beat him at least into submission, and then capture him. A captured knight was worth a lot of money, and so over time it was more and more likely that the knights would be taken captive in war. Later they would be ransomed by their families, or their liege lords. Taking a prisoner became a major economic incentive, as long as that prisoner was a knight or a noble.
Commoners? Not so much. Slaughter them and move on.
Which sort of meant that the Swiss knew damned well that they had nothing to lose, and that since their only chance of survival was a crushing victory of their own, they themselves had no reason to try and break off from the main formation and take prisoners. Ahhh, the law of unintended consequences.
The main tactical weapon of the Swiss, after some experimentation, was grotesquely simple. It was an 18’ long spear, with a 1’ long iron/steel point at the end. The Swiss, largely un-armored mind you, would mass in a huge disciplined formation known as a “phalanx”, and come trotting forward, upwards of 3,000 of them per formation. Obviously, prisoners were the last things on their minds.
The front rank would lower their spear points, then the second, and the third, and the fourth…until all one saw from the front was a massed body of sharpened tips coming, at a trot, straight towards you. No, this formation could not turn. It was not flexible. It could not maneuver. But what it could do had not been seen for nearly a thousand years. It could kill, without mercy, everything in front of it.
One might as well attempt to use a pistol against the forward edge of a Steam-Roller.
If the lead ranks did not kill those idiotic knights and men-at-arms attempting to face them at the front, it would at least knock them over, then walk/trot over top of them as the sixth-seventh-eighth…twentieth ranks stabbed downwards with short swords or knives and killed them without a moment of pause as they continued onward. The only thing coming out of the back end of an Eidgenossen charge was a corpse. Not a hostage, not somebody to be ransomed, just dead meat. So this was not an RMA based upon some new technology, but one based upon an ancient one, used in a way that had not been seen in millennia. It was a “new” doctrine, and it worked.
This, alone, both offended and scared the piss out of the highly paid and trained knights and nobility facing the Swiss. And what was even worse, the Swiss expected no less themselves, as demonstrated by several suicidal assaults by the Swiss against vastly larger numbers. This, in a way, only added to the fear that their enemies came to feel when an Eidgenossen formation crested a hill and started trotting towards them.
The Swiss tactical organizational method and system, initially created of necessity as they fought for their own independence starting in the early 1300s, was simple. Local forces, one cannot call them anything but militia, would mass quickly at a designated assembly area. As soon as enough were there, they would march towards the enemy. Before they arrived at the location of the enemy they would enter battle formation, and then move straight into the attack. No pause, no “let’s look and see”, no “assess the situation.” Attack, first, and always. This too mattered, both psychologically at the tactical level and ultimately at the strategic level.
Take for example just one battle, that of St. Jacob-En-Birs in 1444.
The French Dauphin Louis was tasked by his father the king to relieve the besieged city of Zurich and so invaded with roughly 30,000 men that year. (Note: Sources vary on his exact numbers ranging from 15,000-30,000 overall.) It did not work out so well.
Just after Louis and his army crossed the border near the Swiss city of Basel, near the intersection of the modern-day nations of France, Germany and Switzerland, the initial wave of Swiss Eidgenossen came over a hill and, without a pause, crashed into the center of his column. There were only about 1,500 of them. Though we cannot be sure of the exact numbers what is clear is that they were outnumbered by at least 15-1 and perhaps as much as 20-1. Yet they did not even slow down. Think about that.
They shattered the middle of Louis’s column, and then had to face reality. They formed a “hedgehog”, facing their massive spears out in all directions. Over and over, all day, Louis launched attacks, had his crossbowmen fire into the Swiss, and did all that he could. But though the Swiss hedgehog shrunk, it never broke. At the end of it all the Swiss were dead, but so was about 1/7th of Louis’s army, something more than 2,000 of them, and all that he had faced was the equivalent of the local National Guard unit. He had not even yet seen the massed formations of 10-20,000 he could expect once he got a few more miles into Switzerland. That night he turned around, and left.
Over roughly 200 years, from their initial victory at Morgarten (1315) through the early 1500s when technology overcame their enthusiasm, the Swiss reigned supreme. Unlike the longbowmen of Wales and England, theirs was also a transferable skill, requiring mostly discipline, not years of training. And so after the Swiss consolidated their independence, they began to export their lethal skills as mercenaries (hence the saying “Pas de l’Argent, Pas de Suisse”, “No Money, No Swiss”) and others, notably the Germanic “Landsknecht,” began to copy their techniques and formations. But the Swiss, in the end, were the best money for lethality bargain.
Which is why the Pope hired them back then, and his successors have kept them in one form or another to this day.
Military Revolutions can take many forms. Some technology-based, some socially or culturally founded, others built upon a new way of using an old tool. We will look at a few more of these in the future, but for now you have enough to start thinking, critically, when you see some talking head talking about a real “game changer” or “revolution” in military issues. More often than not, I suspect, you will be as suspicious as I am when I read the same.
As always I can be reached at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com