When we think of Switzerland today, images rush into our brain of chocolate, finely constructed watches, and of course neutrality. In the past, this was not always the case, for Switzerland once produced the most notable mercenaries in the history of the world.
To understand the Swiss mercenary (AKA: Reisläufer), we must first look at why there was a need for a group of well-trained regulated mercenaries. Into the late Medieval Period, wars raged throughout Europe between nations. During these conflicts many knights(mounted nobility) were killed, so foot-soldiers became more and more important. However, taking a peasant off his farm and training him was time consuming and costly. Many countries began hiring solider to fill in the ranks of their depleted armies. It was during the 100 years’ war, that waging war was seen as a profession.
Switzerland is made up of several cantons (or states). Each of these cantons would arm and train able body men as soldiers. Switzerland itself was being lorded over by the Austrian Habsburgs. On several occasions, the soldiers from these small cantons demonstrated incredible soldiering skills and defeated well trained knights who were employed by the Habsburgs, giving the Swiss a reputation as great warriors.
As their reputation grew, the Swiss were being hired out to other countries. During this time, many French kings would not go to battle unless they had employed Swiss mercenaries. Machiavelli in “The Prince” dedicates an entire chapter to them and their fighting techniques, describing them as strong, victorious, and fearless warriors.
The Swiss mercenary preferred weapon was the pike or the halberd. The halberd is a two- handed pole weapon with an axe topped with a spike. A pike (preferred weapon by the Swiss) was simply a long spear type weapon whose length could reach up to 25 feet (one simple definition is that when a spear when it becomes too long to be handles by one hand, it becomes a pike). Imagine a whole army holding these pikes and moving across a battle field. Anyone in front of them would be driven backwards or skewed to death. It was extremely useful against cavalry, as a charging horse would be impaled upon the pike, or seeing these sharp points at them, they would rear back throwing its rider upon the ground.
These Swiss pikemen used a formation known as a pike squire. It was a group of pikemen forming a square (the number in front equaling the number at the side). The ones in front held their pike’s horizontally, and the ones in back at a higher angle with each row, until almost they were held vertically. Holding the pikes at different angles would deflect arrows that would be shot at them. If a pikeman in front was killed, he would be replaced by the pikeman standing behind him.
As with anything great, it would be copied and improved. German soldier called the Landsknechts soon appeared on the battle field and rivals of the Swiss mercenaries. The two mercenary groups began fighting each other on opposing sides. Imagine huge armies of pikemen, their long lances interlocked against each other as they pushed back and forth. These battles were often described as appearing like huge porcupines having a fight.
As with any type of innovation, a newer innovation arrived and replaced the pikemen. The introduction of gunpowder onto European battlefields meant the decline of the pikemen. At the battle of Bicocca the Swiss mercenaries were mowed down by superior tactics and the use of cannon and small-arms fire. These Swiss mercenaries had never seen such losses, and it was about this time that the country of Switzerland declared itself neutral to other’s countries conflicts (except sending troops and mercenaries to be hired mostly by the French and Spanish).
This would not be the end of the Swiss mercenaries, for soon the Swiss Guard was formed. These guards would now serve as security for the nobility across Europe, particularly in service of the French and the Vatican.
The Papal Swiss Guard was founded in 1506 and has served the Pope since that time. In modern times, this group was looked on as merely a ceremonial role (we have all seen the pictures of them standing guard holding halberds and dressed in colorful renaissance outfits); however, in 1981 when there was an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II they have received more modern training. The Swiss Guard today is not only trained in the use of the pike and halberd, but also modern weapons. They have become a dedicated bodyguard organization similar to the American Secret Service.
I want to wish everyone in America a Happy Fourth of July.
W.A. Rusho is a professional wrestler and author of the novel “Legend of the Mystic Knights”. The previous publisher of this novel is no longer in business, and so he is actively seeking a literary agent or publisher. If you wish to contact him, email him, or visit his website.