The Art of Warfare

As with so many aspects of life in the century that ushered in the modern world, the art of war underwent an enormous transformation. Gunpowder technologies -- mobile and effective cannon and reasonably useful small firearms (arquebuses, muskets, and pistols) had a profound effect, both in the technology of war and its social organization. Although cannon had been in use since the 14th century, Charles VIII's invastion of Italy in 1494 saw the first light, mobile cannon dragged over the Alps and used to wreak havoc on a large scale. The production of cannon was expensive and monopolized by the great sovereigns who could afford it. This monopoly contributed no little bit to the rise of the centralized state.

Feudal castles or medieval town walls could be knocked down with little effort with modern, mobile cannon. This advantage did not last long of course, as military engineers quickly replaced high medieval walls with thick, squat, star-shaped fortifications studded with bastions. Some of these were such well-built defenses against artillery that they stood up to the German blitzkreig in WWII.  These fortifications were largely urban, not personal like the medieval castle. The country seats of the provincial nobility became Renaissance manors, while military actions were fought over towns.

Even more significant than cannon was the use of smaller firearms: the arquebus, and later, the musket. Although lacking the accuracy and range of the old missile weapons (bow and crossbow), a firearm is easy to learn to use. This meant that a relatively untrained social dreg could be made into a more-or-less useful soldier with relatively little training and expense. While a master bowman took a generation to produce and was a rare commodity, a company of arquebusiers could be thrown together in weeks. They might be ill-trained and ill-disciplined, but as Falstaff observed to Henry V, they'd "fill a pit as well as better."

The arquebus, a relatively lightweight firearm that used the slow-burning match as a firing mechanism, eventually gave way to the heavier musket. The arquebus fired a one-ounce ball and had a range of about 100 yards, while the musket fired a 2 ounce ball and had twice the range. The musket was heavy enough that a musketeer required a forked stick to rest the barrel on when firing the weapon. This extra accoutrement made reloading a complicated procedure, but the increased firepower made it worthwhile at the time.

Although the French led the way with heavy artillery, they were slower than the Spanish to adopt small firearms. They learned their lesson after the defeat at Pavia in 1528. By the end of the sixteenth century, war was largely a matter of powder and shot.

The transformation of the feudal knight (a high quality, but erratic and independent warrior) into cavalry (a tactical body used for its mobility and massed force) was another significant change, both socially and technologically. All the social privileges of the nobility were based on the assumption that they owed the service of arms to the king in exchange for the land (and its tenants) that supported them. The feudal knight trained all his life for war, and in return was expected to answer to the ban (first rank vassals) and arriere ban (everyone else) when called by the king or his overlord. However, he did not expect to be kept in the field for more than 40 days of service. He was likely to disappear to look after his own estates if they were endangered or if the campaign prospects weren't good for collecting ransoms and booty. He paid no taxes, owing the "tax of blood", but got no pay either.  He provided his own horses, harness, and support troops.  It was impossible for a medieval king to keep a reliable source of troops on hand for strategic purposes, but he also didn't have to spend the kind of cash that later kings did on standing armies.

A charge of heavily armored knights, armed with an 18-20 foot lance, in a shallow line on open terrain, is nearly irresistable. But by century's end, the heavy lance charge had largely lost out as a tactic to the charge in a squadron of several ranks, all fairly close together and armed with pistols. By contrast to the feudal knight, the cavalry soldier required less of an investment. He needed to be able to stay in position and go where he was told. A deep formation of them armed with wheelock pistols could spew out a murderous, if somewhat random, fire, and be moved quickly as a tactical striking force in the hands of a competent general. Pistoleers ended up lightening their armor and depending on their mobility for protection. They could be raised at need from professional mercenary troops. The Germans particularly specialized in the reiter, a pistol-carrying horseman. Since pistols only have one shot, a reiter carried as many as he could -- a couple slung in front of the saddle, maybe one or two in his boots, and maybe even across the back of the saddle. The move from the lance to firearms was a slow and irregular one. The Spanish had heavy lances throughout the century, while Henri IV's army had none at all. The Duke of Parma, perhaps the ablest military man of the times, once mocked Henri IV as being nothing but "a captain of light horse" (a true-enough statement in many respects).

The fifteenth century saw the invention of the Swiss pike square, which ended the unquestioned dominance of the mounted knight. For half a century, the pike was "queen of the battlefield." The pike square won the independence of the Swiss cantons from the Hapsburgs. This was in many ways the return of an ancient idea, that of the Greek phalanx. Armed with 18-foot pikes, in a square formation, pikes could stop a cavalry charge cold and could steamroller their opposition when they got up the momentum. The pike square's effectiveness depended on discipline, coordination, and a powerful self-confidence. They were an essential element to any 16th century army, although as the century wore on they lost their invincible glow (artillery against pike squares is lot like bowling...) Mercenary pike regiments were the chief export product of the Swiss cantons. Most of the time they had an understanding with the crown of France and the king relied on them to make up the bulk of his infantry. The German landsknecht, using much the same tactics as the Swiss, were their rivals in the mercenary pike company business. The French kings used them when they weren't on good terms with the Swiss, and everyone else used them when the French had a lock on the Swiss. The landsknechts raised from co-religionists in Germany were a big component of the Huguenot armies.

Leaving aside the heavy artillery, a typical army was composed of all these three arms: horse, pike, and shot (arquebusiers and musketeers). They complemented each other: the pike and horse provided protection for the shot, who were extremely vulnerable to attack. Reloading is time-consuming, and without cover arquebusiers will be run down by cavalry. However, with cover on broken terrain, the arquebusiers can pick off horsemen with little to fear from the long lance. The horse provide mobility and striking power, the pikes a powerful defense. The ideal proportions of horse to pike to shot in an army were frequently debated. However, horse, as the most expensive, was always the smallest component, and became smaller as the century wore on. Among the infantry, the proportions of pike to shot changed over the years as well. How to integrate firearms with pikes was one of the technical issues of the day, with firearms becoming a more and more prominent component over time. By the seventeenth century, two-thirds of the infantry would be firearms.

Wars in this century are curiously indecisive to modern eyes. Commanders often avoided large general actions, where if things went badly an army could be lost. Instead, envelopment, attrition, and siege became the chief practices of war. The importance of towns to economic life made them the strategic prizes. Sieges required larger armies, since a besieging force needed to be able to envelop a town, throw up fortifications around their own camps, and fight off any relieving forces that might try to besiege them in turn. A typical field army at the beginning of the century might be 20,000 - 30,000 men, while the average was probably 50,000 - 60,000 by the end. During the Hundred Years War, 10,000 was a large army.

Paying for these ever-larger armies was expensive, and the treasuries of those states that engaged in warfare in this century were constantly struggling. Many wars were settled more by financial pressure than by actual military means. It was not uncommon in this time to see a smashing victory come to nothing because the army disbanded afterwards for lack of pay. The need for revenue meant a rise in taxes and various schemes for obtaining steady income for the royal treasury.  In France, this often meant the creation of more government bureaucracy and selling the administration and judicial offices in it. The unpopularity of Henri III's regime is probably due more to his need to raise money to finance wars that were entering their third decade than to the quirks of his personality that historians like to dwell on.

There were no standing armies as we know it, although there were a few more-or-less permanent establishments in France. In the aftermath of the Hundred Years War, Charles VII dealt with the problem of unemployed men-at-arms pillaging the countryside by forming permanent standing compagnies d'ordonnance, which were composed of 50 - 100 lances. A lance was a single fully armored knight, with his squire, page, groom, and at least two archers. François Ier created standing provincial "legions," large bodies of infantry inspired by Roman models. The Spanish had great success with something similar, the tercio, but the discipline, support logistics, recruiting and training needed to sustain such a military organization didn't quite develop in France. In addition to these institutions, there was a modest royal guard, well-known for its stylish outfits.

Apart from the guard that travelled with the court, the permanent garrisons were posted around the more troublesome borders between the Valois and Hapsburg territories (the north and east). Altogether, the crown of France had perhaps 10,000 men under arms at the beginning of "The Troubles" in the 1560s.  This was an outrageous expense by 15th c. standards, but it was completely inadequate as a field army in the 16th. These men were not particularly easy to mobilize, being scattered in garrisons and not subject to much military discipline or organization. The feudal levy contributed relatively little, although Henri IV was still sending letters in the 1590s asking various of his nobles "to bring a few friends" and meet him at a muster point for military operations. The ever-increasing armies of the day were made up companies recruited for the duration of the hostilities, and above all, foreign mercenary companies. When a peace was concluded, the army disbanded, often flooding the countryside with unemployed, socially maladjusted, armed men. During the civil wars, brigandage was a great social evil. 

Jehan du Lac has led a typical life for a landless, younger son. He first enlisted with a company of horse led by a relative of a friend-of-the family. He has served in the garrisons of the places de sureté ceded to the Huguenots, where his chief problem was keeping the men from going back to their trades as shoemakers or chair-menders. Being young and enthusiastic, he tried to improve the troops with military drill, but this is a concept that would not be truly pioneered until Maurice of Nassau in the 1590s. He fought in the Low Countries for a time but ended up in fairly desperate straits, having to give up everything he owned for ransom. There was a bleak time when he was lucky not be be hanged. His best bit of luck was ending up as a man at arms with Henri de Navarre, thanks to the patronage of a female relative. The pay was infrequent, but it felt wonderful to be on the side that won a battle, for once. The great fortune enjoyed by men like Bayard and Monluc never came his way though, and he never managed to get a company or land of his own. His wounds at Ivry were too much for him, and life here at the Poulet Gauche seems better than the alternative...
 When hostilities were declared, companies of soldiers were raised on commission from the king and then disbanded when they were over. A captain would receive funds from the royal treasury (or advance them from his own pocket) to recruit and outfit a company. The recruits came from the farms, streets, highways and sometimes even prisons -- untrained young men with no land and no established trade with little to lose. Their officers came from the nobility. The pensions and pick of the loot that went with their positions were part of the natural perquisites of their social class. Commissions were a kind of subsidy for the nobility, and they bitterly resented any opportunities for military advancement offered to commoners.

Although the Italians had been fighting their wars with condottiere for centuries, the 16th century saw the rise of the professional soldier as an international commodity. It was impossible for most governments to supply themselves with enough infantry. Armies were made of significant numbers of mercenary companies, all with their specialities. "Albanians" (often various flavors of Eastern European or Greek) were valued as light horse. The Scots and Gascons were often found as mercenary infantry (the Gascons had a tradition as crossbowmen, and adapted nicely to firearms). And of course, mercenary pike companies were the national industry of the Swiss cantons. The German states were a source of both landsknechts (pikemen) and reiters (cavalry pistoleers). There were a number of wealthy entrepreneurs, especially in the German states, whose goods were military companies. For the most part, "patriotism" was not a big motivating factor to the average soldier, unless he was local defending his own home town.

Of all the fighting men in Europe, the quintessial soldier was Spanish. The Spanish tercio, a large infantry "regiment" (the word is used loosely in this time period) formed the backbone of the most successful army in the world. It contained pikes, some sword-and-buckler men (at least earlier in the century), and light firearms organized under captains and colonels. Spain had an efficient organization for recruiting from its own provinces and keeping these units "topped up." The endless campaigns in Italy and the Low Countries made them formidable troops, with high confidence and esprit de corps. And the end of the century, Maurice of Nassau, a landmark figure in military history, would build on this foundation and the inspiration of classical Rome to create the beginnings of modern, infantry-based military drill and discipline.

It was hard to discipline an army when the pay was usually quite irregular.  Governments not only had troubling raising money, getting the money from where it was collected to where it needed to be paid out was a difficult task. Mercenaries would desert when their pay got too far in arrears (more than one battle was lost that way), and even among the well-disciplined Spanish, the Army of Flanders went on strike in the 1570s for lack of pay. Frustration about pay and the miserable conditions of long sieges could lead to the most ferocious repercussions, as the sack of Rome in 1527 and the sack of Antwerp in 1576 by out-of-control soldiers amply demonstrated.

The pay, even for officers, was never very great. The captain made his profits by paying his men as little as possible, collecting the pay of dead or deserted soldiers, and profiteering in supplies. That higher-level officers and suppliers lined their pockets with the royal funds intended to support their troops was a fact of life. And of course, there was the loot, or rather, the promise of it. Ransoms from captive enemy officers and rich burgers in captured towns were the dream of every soldier, although in reality, the best went to the senior officers and noblemen.

Soldiers spent a great deal of their time in siege operations. A besieging army did not have an easy life -- disease from malnutrition and unsanitary conditions was a bigger killer of soldiers than combat. Once the countryside had been stripped, the besiegers might have almost as hard a time supplying themselves as the besieged. The Spanish, a model of military organization, had supply depots stationed all along the "Spanish Road" (the route taken by troops moving from Italy to Flanders) and military contractors who supplied them, but for most armies logistics were a nightmare. La Noue called the army "this monster with a stomach." A soldier was largely responsible for supplying himself with clothes, arms, and food. Sometimes these things could be gotten by loot and pillage, sometimes at exhorbitant prices from military entrepreneurs, and sometimes not at all.

An army could not function without its camp followers. These included sutlers, carters, hangers-on that did all kinds of camp service, old wounded soldiers, and women who not only sold their sexual services but tended the sick and wounded, did the laundry, and carried a lot of the soldiers' goods and camp amenities on their backs. Puritannical commanders were always trying to minimize the disorder that attended these women, but in a world without field hospitals there was little reasonable alternative.

Armies of this time period often had more chaplains than doctors.  Given the state of field medicine, this may have been just as well. Contemporaries certainly felt that war had become a more bloody business in their day. The wounds dealt by the traditional edged weapons, pikes and swords, separate muscle tissue but are often stopped by bone. They tend to be relatively clean, and if the wound isn't immediately fatal (e.g. a cleft skull), the odds of recovery are fairly good. Wounds from lead shot are another story. They cause a great deal more trauma with their percussive force (one of the common field injuries was being hit by flying pieces of bone and teeth from the guy next to or in front of you), and are more likely to become infected. Maimed soldiers had no Veterans Administrations to provide for them -- they were likely to become beggars and thieves and a source of public shame and disorder.

The profession of arms was the traditional occupation of the nobility, but it had changed a great deal since the glory days of chivalry. The nobles made up the majority of the horsemen and provided the officers for the infantry. Many poor younger sons of the nobility enlisted as simple men-at-arms in a company -- usually horse, but for those without the money for the equipment could enlist as simple infantry men. There were also "gentlemen volunteers" who would just show up and fight for or with whomever they chose -- a commander with a good reputation, for example. They got no pay and did not actually answer to anybody for their actions. Volunteers and men-at-arms were alike drawn by the same hope. The prospect theoretically existed for them to make their fortunes through ransoms and plunder, although in reality the richest ransoms and best plunder went to the officers of higher rank. Blaise Monluc began this way, as a simple archer, and ended up as quite a successful professional soldier, who "had seen as much shooting as anyone alive." Others ended up quite differently: beggars, outlaws, and food for the gibbet. A man with no land had to follow the wars, selling his services as best he could, goaded on by "hope, the cupbearer to war."

Notes on the pictures:

1.) A musketeer. He is carrying the forked stick that was used to prop up the barrel of the musket. Muskets were heavier than arquebuses (which did not require a stabilizing prop), but had more range and firepower. In the early part of the century, foot soldiers with firearms were treated very savagely if they had the misfortune to be captured. Traditional knights felt that these low-born men with their long-distance weapons could kill better men than themselves without the decency of face-to-face combat, so the usual rules of ransom and prisoner exchange did not apply to them. By the end of the century, foot soldiers with firearms had become the norm.

2.) Alexander the Great, shown as an early 15th c. knight from a painting by Albrecht Altdorfer.

3.) A French nobleman, armed and mounted in the style of a reiter, confronting a peasant. By comparison with the previous illustration, both he and his horse have lighter armor.  The reiters developed the technique of the caracole. This is performed by a squadron of many ranks. The first rank comes up to the enemy, fires, then wheels off to reload and reform.  The next rank comes up and does the same, and so on. In reality, this technique was probably not incredibly useful, as it took a great deal of discipline and coordination. The first few ranks were usually the best quality soldiers and could usually be counted on to perform properly, but the ranks behind were often "filler." They might fire in the air and wheel off well before their turn in order to avoid danger. The caracole is more of a skirmishing tactic, and does not have the penetrating power of a charge home, where all the ranks force their way through an enemy body. How best to charge -- whether in a shallow line or in deep ranks, how dense the ranks and files should be, whether to begin the charge from a distance or close to the enemy, and so on, were topics heavily debated by military theorists of the time. With the 20-foot lance, the line cannot be very deep, as the horsemen will hinder each other. The traditional French tactic with the lance had been to charge in a single line, en haye (in the hedge). Everyone has an equal opportunity for glory, and if no holes open in the line it can theoretically envelop the enemy. By century's end, it had lost out as a tactic to the charge in a squadron of several ranks, all fairly close together and armed with pistols.

4.) A pike square. There are a few arquebusiers surrounding the pikemen. The pikes are up, their rest position, so the square is not yet prepared to attack or resist a cavalry charge. The flag bearers, carrying the ensigns of cantons or towns where the troops were from, are a couple of ranks back from the front. The captains and the best-quality fighters took the first few ranks. These were known as "double-pay men"-- good money, but naturally the most dangerous position and not for the faint-hearted or novice. During a charge, the first four ranks would lower their pikes, the ones behind remaining upright. As holes were made in the lines, they would be filled by the pikemen from behind.

5.) Cannon, with artillery man. The artillerists who managed the cannon, sited, aimed, and transported them, were skilled professionals. Theirs was an engineering and mathematical art. Although cannon in some form had been around since the 14th century, it was not until Charles VIII's campaigns in Italy that light cannon with effective portable gun carriages were developed and used.  The French crossed the Alps with them and dealt the Italians a terrible surprise. The art of fortification did not lag far behind; within a few years towns were surrounding themselves with the new artillery-proof walls (see LaFere for a diagram). 

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-c.t. iannuzzo