Transition. In 1350 European warfare was beginning the transition from the medieval style, in which the knight or heavily armored cavalryman dominated the battlefield, to early modern warfare, in which infantrymen reigned supreme. Shortly before 1350 there had occurred two major battles in which foot soldiers had been victorious over cavalrymen—Laupen (1339), where Swiss infantrymen wielded pikes and halberds, and Crécy (1346), where English longbowmen were supported by dismounted knights. The English longbow archers’ successes in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) are far better known, but the Swiss use of the pike and halberd had the greater impact, since it remained a powerful factor in warfare until well into the sixteenth century.
Knights. A knight’s proper opponent was another knight, not the poorly armed and untrained infantrymen who accompanied medieval armies. Knightly disdain for fighting dismounted peasant levies was a major reason for the English victories in the Hundred Years’ War. Knights spent little time drilling together. Imbued with the old Germanic tradition that the best warrior led the others into battle, the knights competed to be the first to close with the enemy, making it difficult for their commanders to get them to wait for simple tactical maneuvers, such as flanking an opponent’s position. Despite such deficiencies, knights were for three hundred years nearly invulnerable to the weapons used by European infantrymen. The advent of pikes and longbows caused knights to use plate armor for themselves and their horses, which were more likely to be killed in battle than the riders. Despite the increased protection it offered, plate armor created problems. It was too expensive for the less-wealthy nobles, and the number of fully armored knights declined. Its weight required larger and more costly warhorses, which were slower and less maneuverable, allowing the knights to do little more than make a straight-ahead charge. Despite being defeated by infantrymen in various battles after 1350, the armored horsemen remained a potent element in war, especially in the French army, until the mid sixteenth century.
English Innovations. Having learned of the longbow from the Welsh in the thirteenth century, the English fought a war with the Scots (1295-1333) in which they developed the combination of longbow archers and dismounted knights that proved so effective against the French in the Hundred Years’ War. At Crécy and the nearly identical battle at Poitiers (1356), the English commanders, Edward III and Edward the Black Prince, respectively, were able to choose the terrain for the battles— hilltops where they placed their forces to await the French attacks. Both commanders dismounted most of their knights to form two divisions and placed archers between them and on the flanks. Meanwhile, the commander stationed himself with a mounted reserve, ready to strike at an opportune time. At Crécy the French attack began when crossbowmen were sent forward first to inflict what casual-ties they could on the English and to disorder their lines. The English archers, having greater range and firing from the high ground, easily drove the crossbowmen back. The French knights, cursing the footmen as cowards, charged up the hill without waiting for them to clear the ground. As a result, the momentum of the horsemen slowed as they charged through the retreating bowmen, and they became easy targets for the English archers. Few made it through the hail of arrows to exchange blows with the English dismounted knights at the top of the hill. At Poitiers, the French king, John II, decided the lesson to be learned from Crécy was that the English had won because they had dis-mounted their knights. It was a valid decision because horses had been the principal victims of the archers at Crécy, but John ordered his knights to dismount too far from the English lines. They were nearly exhausted by the time they had made it up the hill, and they were thrown back after a bloody fight. John then led his mounted reserve into the battle and was captured. The enormous ransom the English demanded for him nearly depleted French royal coffers and created popular unrest for a decade after.
French Reactions. For the remainder of the Hundred Years’ War the English used the identical formation and tactics for pitched battles with constant success. At Agin-court (1415), Henry V had to fight in a soggy plowed field rather than on a hilltop, but the result was the same. What defeats the English suffered occurred when they did not have the opportunity to dictate the terrain and battle tactics. At Orléans (1429), they lost partly because Joan of Arc had restored French morale but also because they had to defend their siege lines and could not form up in their usual style. The boost Joan gave the French continued after her death in 1431, and the English were put on the defensive until their army in northern France was forced to fight at Formigny (1450). They took their usual formation at the top of a hill, but the French had finally found a way to deal with the English combination of archers and dis-mounted knights. They brought up four small cannon that fired on the archers on the flanks of the English line.
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Unwilling to take the artillery fire for long, the archers broke ranks to rush the cannon. They overran the guns, but by breaking ranks they made themselves vulnerable to a French cavalry charge. After eliminating the archers the French turned their attention to the dismounted knights and crushed them. Three years later the French again used cannon effectively to defeat the English forces in Gascony and drive the English out of Bordeaux, their last strong-hold in the southwest. The conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War did not end the use of the archer-dismounted knight combination. During the War of the Roses, the civil war that wracked England from 1455 to 1485, both sides used the same formation and virtually identical tactics against each other.
Swiss Tactics. The archer-dismounted knight tactics won many victories for the English in the Hundred Years’ War, yet these tactics could not be adopted outside of England because of the lack of archers in other lands. The Swiss system of pike and halberd proved more revolutionary, because it could be easily adopted across Europe, especially by German foot soldiers who became known as landsknechts. The pike and halberd were not new weapons, but in the hands of sturdy Swiss mountainmen they proved effective against knights. In a series of battles in the fourteenth century the Swiss defeated Austrian and Burgundian cavalry forces and established both their style of fighting and the independence of Switzerland. At Sempach (1386), while fighting Austrian cavalrymen, the
Swiss came up with the formation and tactics that became their trademark. When news of an invasion came, the Swiss assembled quickly and marched toward the enemy already in the formation they would take on the battle-field, that is, in three columns, with the lead column in the center flanked by a column on each side. The pikemen were at the head of each column with the halberdmen behind them. At the rear were soldiers armed with either crossbows or firearms. When the lead column, often well ahead of the others, spotted the enemy, it would move immediately to the attack. As the lead column engaged the enemy’s center, first one flanking column, then the other, would strike the enemy on his flanks. The center of the field would remain clear for the lead column to fall back if it needed to without the disruption of the sort that ruined the French at Crécy. This formation was always successful in the era before 1515 whenever the Swiss fought an army close to theirs in size. On several occasions small units of Swiss faced much larger forces. They then formed a circle of pikemen bristling with pike in every direction, called the “hedgehog,” and fought to the last man. The enormous number of casualties they inflicted earned them a reputation for inordinate bloodshed. Their bloody reputation was further enhanced by that fact that the Swiss, unaffected by chivalry and the practice of taking prisoners for ransom, killed any captives they took.
Battle of Grandson. The best example of the Swiss style in action occurred at the Battle of Grandson (1476). Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy had invaded Switzerland with his forces of Burgundian knights, Flemish pikemen, Italian crossbowmen, and German handgunners along with the best artillery train of the era. The size of his force was about 14,000 men, while a surviving muster roll puts the Swiss army at exactly 18,113. Charles chose the terrain for the battle, a broad plain well suited to cavalry charges and artillery fire. Nonetheless, the Swiss moved immediately to the attack upon sighting their enemy. They repulsed the Burgundian cavalry charge, dashed through the field of cannon fire, and smashed into Charles’s infantry, which quickly broke ranks and ran. Charles, an energetic commander, regrouped his army and fought two more major battles with the Swiss. In the Battle of Nancy (1477), he was killed, “cleaved from crown to chin” by a halberd blow to the head.
War Wagons. The Swiss were fortunate that during their period of military superiority they did not have to face an enemy as strong in missile fire as the English army that fought the French. Soon after 1500, their style of warfare became obsolete in the face of the continuing development of gunpowder weapons. They suffered their first major set-back at Marignano (1515), where French cannon fire made them vulnerable to a cavalry charge. Although gunpowder weapons appeared in Europe early in the fourteenth century, they had little impact on combat for a century. The first army to use them successfully was Jan Zizka’s Hussite forces during the revolt that broke out in Bohemia in 1415. The Hussites were mostly Czech-speaking peasants inspired with a combination of nationalistic zeal against the German dynasty that ruled Bohemia and religious fervor against the Catholic Church that was seen as corrupt and too dominated by German prelates. Zizka’s manpower was made up of untrained foot soldiers who could not be expected to stand up against the German knights that constituted the enemy’s forces. His solution was the use of war wagons. He placed a squad of men in each wagon; half of them had a variety of edged weapons, and the others had handcannon. The Hussites also had wagons on which small cannon were mounted. Although gunpowder weapons of that time were both highly inaccurate and slow to reload, the wagons, which were drawn up in a line, gave the Hussites a stable platform and a defensive position from which to fire them against the large target presented by their mounted foes. Zizka gained victory after victory using this tactic. His death in 1424 did not eliminate the Hussite advantage, but success led to a split within the Hussite movement between moderates and radicals and a bloody civil war between the two factions. At the Battle of Lipany (1434), the moderates crushed the radicals and then negotiated favorable peace terms with the German king.
Spanish Square. The Hussite war wagon had no impact outside of Bohemia, and gunpowder weapons had only a limited effect on war over the next sixty years. By the time of the French invasions of Italy, which began in 1494, both cannon and firearms had been improved sufficiently that they could be used as effective weapons in the field. Using an artillery train of eighty large cannon on mobile carriages, French king Charles VIII had great success in taking Italian fortifications. At the Battle of Seminara (1495) the French army crushed a combined Spanish-Italian army. Faced with the need to reform his army after its crushing defeat, Ferdinand of Aragon decided to concentrate on the infantry and introduced the combination of firearms and pike that became known as the Spanish Square. By then the first effective firearm, the arquebus, had been developed, but it still took at least a minute to reload, probably longer in the disorder of the battlefield, and was highly inaccurate. Foot soldiers using the arquebus would be quickly overrun by a charging enemy, especially if it was cavalry, before they could reload. The solution was to use pikemen to protect the handgunners as they reloaded and to charge an enemy line if the arquebus fire had broken it. At the Battle of Cerignola (1503), Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba,, the Spanish commander, dug trenches in front of his lines to further shield his troops. Over the next twenty years the Spanish infantry was victorious as long as it had the time to dig entrenchments, and the French and their Swiss mercenaries relied on frontal assault on the enemy lines. At the Battle of Pavia (1525), the combination of arquebusiers and pikemen in Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s army formed up without entrenchments and defeated the French. The Spanish Square was the dominant formation in combat for the next century across Europe.
Ottoman Turks. The major military power of the sixteenth century that did not adopt the Spanish Square was the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish army continued to depend on the combination of light and heavy cavalry and infantry that had served it so well since the early fourteenth century. Ottoman horsemen used a short bow which remained the principal weapon of the Turkish army until 1600. The Ottoman sultans also created a force of armored horsemen similar to the knights. It always remained small in size but was highly effective when used in coordination with the light cavalry. The most notorious part of the Ottoman army was its infantry, known as janissaries. They were soldiers who had been taken as small boys from Christian subjects of the sultan and raised in the barracks as Muslims. They constituted an elite corps of infantrymen totally loyal to the sultan. The early janissaries used the bow but adopted the arquebus by 1500. This change demonstrated that the Turks were abreast of weaponry developments in that era, although they fell behind by the late sixteenth century. The Turks also had been quick to develop a strong artillery train, which served them well at the siege of Constantinople (1453).
Battle of Mohács. The major campaign for the Turks after their victory over the Byzantine Empire in 1453 was the conquest of Hungary. In 1526 Sultan Süleyman I (the Magnificent) gave battle to an Hungarian army at Mohács. The Hungarian force was made up largely of heavy cavalry, and the battle began when the Hungarians charged into the lines of Turkish light cavalry. In what may have been a planned tactic, the Turkish horsemen fled from the field only to expose the Hungarians to devastating fire from janissaries and artillery pieces. The Turks had chained cannon together to prevent the Hungarians from breaking through their line. At the same time, the Ottoman heavy cavalry charged into the Hungarians from the flanks, while a large detachment of light cavalry, which had been sent on a wide flanking movement, crashed into the Hungarian rear. The Hungarians suffered enormous casualties, including their king, and Suleiman marched to Budapest and took it without resistance. In 1529 he brought his army to the walls of Vienna. The well-defended city withstood the Turkish siege, and Austria remained in Christian control.
Naval Warfare. Perhaps because of his defeat at Vienna, Süleyman turned his attention to the naval contest in the Mediterranean Sea. Christianity and Islam, the two rival religions that divided the lands bordering the sea, had been involved in a naval war for nearly a thousand years, but it reached its climax in the sixteenth century. Warfare in the Mediterranean still was a matter for rowed galleys because the winds on the sea were too light and unpredictable for sailing ships of that era to use under battle conditions. Despite the two-thousand-year history of galley warfare, large-scale fleet actions were relatively uncommon. The greatest battle in the history of galleys was the Battle of Lepanto (1571) off the western Greek coast. The Muslim fleet was manned by the Ottoman Turks and North African corsairs, while the Christian flotilla consisted of ships from Spain, Venice, Genoa, and Malta. The two fleets had more than two hundred galleys each, and the manpower, including the rowers, in each fleet was about eighty thousand men. Naval combat was still largely like combat on land. The basic tactic was for galleys to form up in a long line opposite one another and charge toward the foe. They fired the few cannon they carried, placed at the bow, at as close a range as possible to do damage to the defenders of the enemy ship before the ships grappled. Armed men then dashed onto the enemy’s deck to seize control of the ship in hand-to-hand combat. The Christian fleet at Lepanto had something of a secret weapon, however. The Venetians had developed a much larger rowed ship called the galleass, which was capable of carrying more cannon and handgun-ners than the smaller galleys. The heavy firepower from the galleasses played a major role in the overwhelming Christian victory. Three-quarters of the Ottoman fleet was captured or destroyed; twenty-two thousand Turks were killed or taken prisoner; and as many as fifteen thousand Christian galley slaves were freed. Despite the overwhelming Christian victory, they failed to follow up on their success, as the Christian alliance quickly fell apart. The principal result of Lepanto was a great increase in the size of galleys, building on the example of the galleasses. Their larger size, however, made them slower and less maneuverable and more vulnerable to the broadside-firing sailing ships from the Atlantic that were making excursions into the Mediterranean by 1600.
Spanish Armada. The most significant conflict between Atlantic fleets before 1600 was the Spanish Armada. Stung by English pirate attacks on Spanish shipping and English support for Dutch Protestant rebels, Philip II decided that it was necessary to invade England and replace Queen Elizabeth I with a Catholic ruler. In 1588 he ordered his fleet to sail into the English Channel to take control of it so that his army in the Low Countries fighting the Dutch could cross over to England without interference from the English navy. The Armada consisted of 123 ships, including thirty-five galleons, manned by 8,000 sailors. Philip had assembled the Armada from all of the resources available to him, which included many ships from the Mediterranean to serve as transports for the 19,000 soldiers. They were not built for the storms and rough waters of the North Atlantic, and several had to be left behind. Disease spread quickly among the seasick soldiers crowded below the decks.
Protestant Wind. The Armada reached the western English coast and sailed eastward along it toward Belgium. The English ships came out from their ports and followed the Armada as it passed, but it maintained a tight defensive formation and lost no ships to English attacks during this stage of the voyage. When the Spanish reached the Belgian coast, they found that there was no harbor large enough to accommodate the entire fleet. They were forced to put down anchors in the open sea. The next night the English set several old ships on fire and sent them into the Armada’s anchorage. In a near panic the Spanish captains cut their anchors to get away from the fire ships, and the wind scattered them northward into the North Sea. The next morning the Armada’s galleons formed a defensive line against the English fleet to protect the scattered trans-ports, and the only significant fighting, called the Battle of Gravelines, occurred. The English innovations in creating a new style of fighting at sea were successful, especially the use of retractable gun carriages, which allowed for quicker reloading. The Spanish apparently did not have them and were forced to reload their guns while their muzzles were fixed outside the hull. One galleon was sunk by a line of English ships that sailed along it firing broadsides, and several more had to be beached. With the “Protestant wind” continuing to blow to the north, the English broke off, and the Armada soon was blown far into the North Sea. Unable to return the way it had come, the Armada was forced to sail around Scotland and Ireland to get back to Spain. Many of the ships, battered by battle and violent storms, either sank or were forced to put into shore, where most wrecked because of the lack of anchors. Eventually sixty-four ships made it home, but even they had heavy casual-ties, so only about one-third of the Armada’s manpower survived. The failure of the Armada was not the end of Spanish naval power, since Philip II rebuilt his fleet along the English model in the next years. Its most important impact was convincing the English monarchy that it should invest in building a substantial royal navy that would domi-nate the seas by the end of the next century.
Larry H. Addington, The Patterns of War through the Eighteenth Century (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990).
David Eltis, The Military Revolution in Sixteenth Century Europe (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1995).
John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking, 1976).
Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
com·bat • n. / ˈkämˌbat/ fighting between armed forces: killed in combat | pilots reenacted the aerial combats of yesteryear | [as adj.] a combat zone. ∎ nonviolent conflict or opposition: intellectual combat. • v. / kəmˈbat; ˈkämˌbat/ (-bat·ed or -bat·ted, -bat·ing or -bat·ting) [tr.] take action to reduce, destroy, or prevent (something undesirable): an effort to combat drug trafficking. ∎ archaic engage in a fight with; oppose in battle: [intr.] your men combated against the first of ours.
So combatant XV. — OF. combatant, prp. of combattre.