The Swiss Reisläufer (meaning those who go to war) were the best soldiers for hire money could buy.
In fact, their northern archenemies, the German landsknechte (knights of the land), started by emulating them. And we all know what they say about emulation: it is a high form of flattery.
Although not Swiss, more like their sworn enemies, the German landsknechte could never achieve the level of military prowess, fear and respect the Swiss Reisläufer inspired in their foes. The latter were more disciplined, more focussed, and more brutal than the vicious German bands. Although the former were led by eminent tacticians such as Jorg von Frundsberg, who managed to defeat and capture King Francis I, at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.
Incidentally, one of our household’s favourite tunes is “Jorg von Frundsberg’s fuhrt uns an” march (Jorg von Frundsberg leads us). The lyrics speak of nasty pike against pike pushes, bloody fields, the battle of Pavia, glory, death and courage.
The same French King had previously managed to best the Swiss after a two-day colossal battle at Marignano, near Milan, in September 1515. Contemporary sources claim that it is unlikely he could have won if 9,000 Venetian soldiers hadn’t arrived at the end of the second day of fighting. It did not help the Swiss that half of their numbers had been persuaded by French gold and entreaties to retire before the battle. It is clear in my mind that Marignano was one of history’s greatest might-have-been moments.
This battle was one of the biggest of its age. The French King fielded 40,000 men and 200 light and 72 heavy cannon. The Swiss contingent lost about 10,000 men when they decided not to fight the French, leaving them to start the battle with only 22,000 infantry and 200 cavalry. The Swiss only had eight pieces of artillery. But they did not need more. What they had instead was that which not many other soldiers had: the spirit of offense (the élan) or the capacity to charge very fast and to remain a cohesive force through unparalleled discipline.
The battle was ferocious with the Swiss assaulting and taking French artillery multiple times before being repulsed, only to renew their attacks. If the Venetian forces had not showed up at the end of the second day of fighting, the French would have been destroyed. As it happened, the Swiss gave up the field.
They had lost 8,000 to 14,000 men before withdrawing in good order after the two-day battle. The French-Venetian forces lost between 3,000 and 8,000 soldiers. And yet, the next year, it was the French who convinced the Swiss mercenaries to take their gold and enter French service.
The battle stopped Swiss expansion into northern Italyl. And while the Confederation lost most of its Milanese territorial holdings and apanages, it retained Ticino, which later became a full-fledged Swiss canton, in 1803.
They say an image is worth 1,000 words. Here are 20,000 of them. But just because pictures alone do not do Swiss bravery and military prowess justice, let us explore together the Swiss story of courage.
Switzerland is not only a country. It is an idea. It represents the noble notion that nobody has any right to lord it over anyone else. To be Swiss means to be free. In order to be free one needs to be bold and not afraid to die. The Swiss instinctively knew that.
“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” ~ Thucydides
In their quest for freedom, they were aided by the terrain of central Switzerland, the core and starting point of their Confederation. With mountains surrounding their individual valleys, they could easily evade the feudal yoke by moving to the next valley whenever the oppression became unbearable. At a certain point, they decided to make a stand and discovered that terrain amplifies the force of their arms.
They also adapted their weaponry to the battle conditions. Facing mounted knights, they developed halberds, which could easily make short work of their “canned” or armored opponents. They also stayed highly mobile by discarding any passive armor. Discipline came in handy and added to the brutality of their tactics. These were simple yet effective. The Swiss would charge the enemy without stopping, without mercy, without any thought for their own safety.
Their enemies soon learned that there was no mercy to be found behind Swiss pikes and halberds.
The reason for this was that nobility engaged in ritual warfare that seldom ended in personal sacrifice. In general, it would often result in a ransom paid to the victor. On the other hand, the Swiss shepherds knew that losing a battle would result in their deaths. So, they decided to raise the stakes. The Alps men sent a clear and loud message: you better defeat us because if you don’t, you are dead.
European princes and nobles started to find out just how true the Swiss were to this principle. Time and again, at Morgarten, Laupen, Sempach, Naefels, St. Jakob de Biers, during the Old Zurich War, the Burgundian Wars, the Swabian War, and the Italian Wars, the Swiss attacked a larger force, rapidly enough and with so much confidence utterly destroying any notions of tactics or battlefield response their foes had planned for beforehand.
In short, the Swiss never ever played a battle according to their enemies’ plans. They had a “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” strategy that worked 90–95% of the time. Their commanders led from the front. Losses were inconsequential to the Swiss. Self-sacrifice was the norm. And they carried the day with horrifying, for their enemies, regularity.
In 1386, at the Battle of Sempach, the Swiss were not able to break the close ranks of the Habsburg infantry armed with pikes. One of the Swiss men, Arnold von Winkelried, shouted: “I will open a passage into the line; protect, dear countrymen and confederates, my wife and children…” and threw himself upon the Austrian pikes, taking some of them down with his body.
The opening was exploited by the Swiss and the Austrians were put to rout.
During the Swabian War, at the Battle of Calven (1499), the commander of the Graubunden troops, Benedikt Fontana, died in the first rank, saying: Hei fraischgiamank meiss matts, cun mai ais be ün hom da fear, quai brichia guardad, u chia hoatz Grischuns e Ligias u maa non plü!”—”Go on, my boys, I’m just one man, do not care about me. Today is for the Grisons and the Leagues, or never!”
This is how the Swiss built their reputation. This is why they managed to put the fear of God into the nobility who considered them “les dompteurs des rois” or king slayers. By the time the Treaty of Basel was signed, in 1499, ending the Swabian War, Southern German moms were putting their children to bed by telling them horror stories involving Swiss soldiers coming for them to convince to go to sleep.
But the Swiss had won their independence from the Habsburgs. They had also become a de facto new state not belonging to the Holy Roman Empire.
Swiss pike squares were so effective that no cavalry could penetrate it. Even the famous English longbowmen had tried, under Enguerrand de Coucy, in December 1375, to overwhelm the Swiss pike squares with their yard-long bodkin arrows. This happened during the Gugler war, but the Swiss heavy infantry still carried the day. The Swiss pikemen could maneuver their 7-m long pikes with such precision that they sometimes blocked the incoming arrows from reaching the base of the pike: its human carrier.
As for defending against infantry attacks, after suffering an ignominious defeat at Arbedo in 1422 against the Milanese cavalry supported by Italian halberdiers, the Swiss included a strong proportion of halberds and portative firearms in their ranks, for all-round 360 degree protection against combined arms attacks. They quickly adapted and overcame the challenges of warfare.
Modern Swiss soldiers demonstrating the square
Swiss troops reenacting the pike tactics that defeated Charles the Bold 500 years before. Video still from the 1976 movie anniversary of the battle.
The pike square pivots to the right
Porcupine formation – square stops and goes into herrison position – pikes ready to receive or skewer cavalry & infantry in all directions.
The Swiss were the only soldiers who did not give or demanded any quarter. At the beginning of the Burgundian wars, in 1476, the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, reneged on his promise to spare the Grandson castle garrison, which had surrendered. He ordered the drowning of all 412 Bernese prisoners in the eponymous lake. By way of retribution, the Swiss slayed all the Burgundian soldiers they defeated at the Grandson, Murten and Nancy battles, including the Duke.
Hence, the expression “as cruel as a Murten”.
At Grandson, Swiss pikemen defeated the Burgundians in part also because their pikes were 6-meter long. Charles the Bold had decided to equip his cavalry with shorter 4-meter long pikes. Now, if we took this at face value, we could say that the Burgundians were digging their own graves.
However, I challenge any cavalry man to charge using a 6-meter pig stick. Is it doable? Yes, it is.
Has it ever been done in combat? I don’t think so. It is one thing to break 6-meter lances on the jousting field. And it is quite another proposition to charge pike squares using the same pike length.
The Swiss warlike ethos created the tradition of Swiss fiercely defended independence. Even in defeat, the Swiss did not bow to the enemy. And that, my friends, is the lesson that the Swiss have learned. Never give up, never surrender. Always fight for your beliefs no matter the odds, and no matter the cost. Freedom is priceless. Si vis pacem, para bellum! If you seek peace, prepare for war.
I leave you all with Ferdinand Hodler’s beautiful renditions of the Swiss Reisläufer: