Swiss mercenaries (Reisläufer) were notable for their service in foreign armies, especially the armies of the Kings of France, throughout the Early Modern period of European history, from the Later Middle Ages into the Age of the European Enlightenment. Their service as mercenaries was at its peak during the Renaissance, when their proven battlefield capabilities made them sought-after mercenary troops. There followed a period of decline, as technological and organizational advances counteracted the Swiss' advantages. Switzerland's military isolationism largely put an end to organized mercenary activity; the principal remnant of the practice is the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.
In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5, Swiss mercenaries are called "Switzers" (Switzer is actually what the Swiss were called in English until the 19th century).
During the Late Middle Ages, mercenary forces grew in importance in Europe, as veterans from the Hundred Years War and other conflicts came to see soldiering as a profession rather than a temporary activity, and commanders sought long-term professionals rather than temporary feudal levies to fight their wars. Swiss mercenaries (Reisläufer) were valued throughout Late Medieval Europe for the power of their determined mass attack in deep columns with the pike and halberd. Hiring them was made even more attractive because entire ready-made Swiss mercenary contingents could be obtained by simply contracting with their local governments, the various Swiss cantons—the cantons had a form of militia system in which the soldiers were bound to serve and were trained and equipped to do so. Some Swiss also hired themselves out individually or in small bands.
The warriors of the Swiss cantons had gradually developed a reputation throughout Europe as skilled soldiers, due to their successful defense of their liberties against their Austrian Habsburg overlords, starting as early as the late thirteenth century, including such remarkable upset victories over heavily armoured knights as Morgarten and Laupen. This was furthered by later successful campaigns of regional expansion (mainly into Italy). By the fifteenth century they were greatly valued as mercenary soldiers, particularly following their series of notable victories in the Burgundian Wars in the latter part of the century. The standing mercenary army of king Matthias Corvinus of Hungary ( Black Army of Hungary 1458-1490 ) also contained Swiss pikemen units, who were held in high honour by the king. As a result, bands of men, sometime acting independently, other times under the banners of their cantons, marched off to foreign lands to fight in the causes of others, for pay. The native term Reisläufer literally means "one who goes to war" and is derived from Middle High German Reise, meaning "military campaign". The Swiss, with their head-down attack in huge columns with the long pike, refusal to take prisoners, and consistent record of victory, were greatly feared and admired—for instance, Machiavelli addresses their system of combat at length in The Prince. The Valois Kings of France, in fact, considered it a virtual impossibility to take the field of battle without Swiss pikemen as the infantry core of their armies. (Although often referred to as "pikemen", the Swiss mercenary units also contained halberdiers as well until several decades into the sixteenth century, as well as a small number of skirmishers armed with crossbows or crude firearms to precede the rapid advance of the attack column.)
The young men who went off to fight, and sometimes die, in foreign service had several incentives—limited economic options in the still largely rural cantons; adventure; pride in the reputation of the Swiss as soldiers; and finally what military historian Sir Charles Oman describes as a pure love of combat and warfighting in and of itself, forged by two centuries of conflict.
Landsknechts and the Italian Wars
Until roughly 1490, the Swiss had a virtual monopoly on pike-armed mercenary service. However, after that date, the Swiss mercenaries were increasingly supplemented by imitators, chiefly the Landsknechts. Landsknechts were Germans (at first largely from Swabia) and became proficient at Swiss tactics to produce a force that filled the ranks of European armies with mercenary regiments for decades. Although the Landsknechts were never quite as redoubtable as the Swiss, they were much more readily available for hire, as after 1515 the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, other than regarding Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the Royal French army. The Landsknecht, however, would serve any paymaster, even, at times, enemies of the Holy Roman Emperor (and Landsknechts at times even fought each other on the battlefield). The Landsknecht assumed the bright, garish soldier's outfits of the Swiss, and in fact soon outdid the Swiss in the flamboyance of their military dress.
The Swiss were not flattered by the imitation, and the two bodies of mercenaries immediately became bitter rivals over employment and on the battlefield, where they were often opposed during the major European conflict of the early sixteenth century, the Great Italian Wars. Although the Swiss generally had a significant edge in a simple "push of pike", the resulting combat was nonetheless quite savage, and known to Italian onlookers as "bad war". Period artists such as Hans Holbein attest to the fact that two such huge pike columns crashing into each other could result in a maelstrom of battle, and ghastly casualties on both sides.
Despite the competition from the Landsknechts, and imitation by other armies (most notably the Spanish, which adopted pike-handling as one element of its tercios), the Swiss fighting reputation reached its zenith between 1480 and 1525, and indeed the Battle of Novara, fought by Swiss mercenaries, is seen by some as the perfect Swiss battle. Even the close defeat at the terrible Battle of Marignano in 1515, the "Battle of Giants", was seen as a victory of sorts for Swiss arms due to the ferocity of the fighting and the good order of their withdrawal.
Nonetheless, the repulse at Marignano presaged the decline of the Swiss form of pike warfare—eventually, the two-century run of Swiss victories ended in 1522 with complete disaster at the Battle of Bicocca when combined Spanish Tercios and Landsknecht forces decisively defeated them using fortifications and new technology (i.e. handguns). It can be argued that it was arrogance—overconfidence in their own supposed invincibility—which defeated the Swiss as much as the armed forces of their enemies, for at Bicocca, the Swiss mercenaries, serving the French king, attempted repeatedly to frontally storm an impregnable defensive position, only to be mown down by small-arms and artillery fire. Never had the Swiss suffered such awful casualties while being unable to inflict much damage upon their foe. Arrogance and overconfidence were at play here, but another consideration was economic—many of the Swiss mercenaries were still farmers, and needed to return home from campaign quickly in order to work the fields. This meant they often rushed, unthinking, into ill-advised battles in the hopes they would crush the enemy of their employer, collect bounty, get paid, and march home to work their fields.
Organization and tactics
The early contingents of Swiss mercenary pikemen organized themselves rather differently than the cantonal forces. In the cantonal forces, their armies were usually divided into the Vorhut (vanguard), Gewalthut (center) and Nachhut (rearguard), generally of different sizes. In mercenary contingents, although they could conceivably draw up in three similar columns if their force was of sufficient size, more often they simply drew up in one or two huge columns which deployed side by side, forming the center of the army in which they served. Likewise, their tactics were not very similar to those used by the Swiss cantons in their brilliant tactical victories of the Burgundian Wars and Swabian War, in which they relied on maneuver at least as much as the brute force of the attack columns. In mercenary service they became much less likely to resort to outmaneuvering the enemy and relied more on a straightforward steamroller assault. Such deep pike columns could crush lesser infantry in close combat and were invulnerable to the effects of a cavalry charge, but they were vulnerable to firearms if they could be immobilized (as seen in the Battle of Marignano). The Swiss mercenaries did deploy crossbows, handguns and artillery of their own, however these always remained very subsidiary to the pike and halberd square. Despite the proven armour-penetration capability of firearms, they were also very inaccurate, slow-loading, and susceptible to damp conditions, and did not fit well with the fast-paced attack tactics used by the Swiss mercenary pike forces. The Swiss remained primarily pikemen throughout the sixteenth century, but after that period they adopted similar infantry formations and tactics to other units in the armies in which they served. Accordingly, their tactics became less unique, and they took a normal place in the battle line amongst the other infantry units.
End of military ascendancy
In the end, as proven at Marignano and Bicocca, the pike attack of the Swiss mercenaries proved to be too vulnerable to firearms wielded by Spanish and Landsknecht arquebusiers and the earthworks and artillery of the French. These arquebusiers and heavy cannons scythed down the close-packed ranks of the Swiss squares in bloody heaps—at least, as long as the Swiss attack could be bogged down by earthworks or cavalry charges, and the shooters were backed up by Spanish and/or Landsknecht pikemen to defend them if necessary from the Swiss in close combat.
Other stratagems could also take the Swiss pikemen at a disadvantage. For instance, the Spanish rodeleros, also known as Sword and Buckler Men, armed with steel rodelas and side-swords, often wearing a helmet and a breastplate, were much better armed and armoured for man-to-man close combat than the Swiss. Accordingly, they could heavily defeat the Swiss if their pike column could be disorganized so that the rodeleros could dash under the unwieldy pikes of the Swiss and stab the lightly armoured, shieldless Swiss infantry. Landsknechts, using a formation similar to that of the Swiss, were defeated with terrible slaughter by the Spanish rodeleros at the Battle of Ravenna. It should be noted, however, that this required disorganization of the pike column, and Swiss pike columns which retained good formation were able to heavily defeat Spanish rodeleros formations in battles such as at the Battle of Seminara.
After the Battle of Pavia
Despite the end of their supremacy circa 1525, the Swiss pike-armed mercenaries continued to be amongst the most capable close order infantry in Europe throughout the remainder of the sixteenth century. This was demonstrated by their battlefield performances in the service of the French monarchy during the French Wars of Religion, in particular at the Battle of Dreux, where a block of Swiss pikemen held the Huguenot army until the Catholic cavalry were able to counterattack.
Service in the French army
Swiss soldiers continued to serve as mercenaries with many nations from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The best known employer of these troops was the French army, where the Swiss formed an elite part of the infantry. The famed Swiss Guard regiment, the most senior of the twelve Swiss mercenary regiments in French service, was essentially identical to the French Guards in organization and equipment, other than wearing a red uniform as opposed to the blue uniforms of the French corps. The Swiss adopted the musket in increasingly large numbers as the seventeenth century wore on, and abandoned the pike, their ancient trademark, altogether at around the same time as other troops in the French army, circa 1700. They also served in the New World: Samuel De Champlain's map of the Île Sainte-Croix (Saint Croix Island) settlement shows a barracks for the Swiss.
The Swiss mercenaries were recruited according to contracts (capitulations) between the French Monarchy and Swiss cantons or individual noble families. By 1740 more than 12,000 Swiss soldiers were in French service. During the remainder of the eighteenth century Swiss numbers varied according to need, reaching a peak of 20,000 during the Austrian War of Succession and falling to 12,300 after 1763. The Swiss soldier was paid at a higher level than his French counterpart but was subject to a harsher disciplinary code, administered by his own officers. The basis of recruitment varied according to regiment - in some units recruits were drawn exclusively from the Swiss inhabitants of specific cantons while in others German or French volunteers were accepted to make up shortfalls in the number of available Swiss. During the latter part of the 18th century, increasing reliance was placed on recruiting from the "children of the regiment" - the sons of Swiss soldiers who had married French women and stayed in France after their term of service had ended. At the outbreak of the French Revolution the Swiss troops were, as foreigners, considered more reliable than their French counterparts in a time of civil unrest. Accordingly Swiss regiments made up a significant proportion of the royal troops summoned to Paris by Louis XVI in early July of 1789. A detachment of Swiss grenadiers from the Salis-Samade Regiment was sent to reinforce the garrison of the Bastille prison shortly before it is was besieged by the mob. The Swiss and other royal troops were subsequently withdrawn to their frontier garrisons. Another Swiss regiment, the Chateauvieux, played a major part in the Nancy affair (mutiny) of 1790 and 23 of its soldiers were executed, after trial by their own Swiss officers. The Swiss Guard however remained loyal to the last and was massacred on August 10, 1792, dying to protect Louis XVI when the mob attacked the Tuileries Palace, although the king had already fled. The eleven Swiss regiments of line infantry were disbanded the same year with the unemployed rank and file mostly returning to Switzerland.
Following the occupation of Switzerland by French revolutionary forces in 1798, a project to raise six demi-brigades of Swiss infantry for French service was initiated. However recruitment proved difficult and by May 1799 only a quarter of the intended establishment of 18,000 had been raised. Napoleon authorized the recruitment of a Swiss infantry regiment for French service in July 1805. A further three infantry regiments were created in October 1807, each including an artillery company. He specified that this newly raised Swiss Corps should comprise only citizens of Switzerland without "mingling in deserters or other foreigners". The Swiss regiments fought well both in Spain (where they clashed at the Battle of Bailén with Swiss troops in the Spanish Army) and in Russia. During the retreat from Moscow Swiss losses amounted to 80% of their original numbers. The Swiss were allowed to keep the distinctive red coats which had distinguished them prior to 1792, with different facings identifying each regiment. One composite regiment of Napoleon's Swiss veterans fought at Wavre during the Waterloo campaign. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 two regiments of Swiss infantry were recruited as part of the Royal Guard, while a further four served as line troops. All six Swiss units were disbanded in 1830 following the final overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy.
Service in the Spanish Army
Another prime employer of Swiss mercenaries from the later 16th century on was Spain. After the Protestant Reformation, Switzerland was split along religious lines between Protestant and Catholic cantons. Swiss mercenaries from the Catholic cantons were thereafter increasingly likely to be hired for service in the armies of the Spanish Habsburg superpower in the later sixteenth century. The first regularly embodied Swiss regiment in the Spanish army was that of Walter Roll of Uri (a Catholic canton) in 1574, for service in the Spanish Netherlands, and by the middle of the seventeenth century there were a dozen Swiss regiments fighting for the Spanish army. From the latter part of the seventeenth century these could be found serving in Spain itself or in its possessions, and fought against Portugal, against rebellions in Catalonia, in the War of the Spanish Succession, War of the Polish Succession, War of the Austrian Succession (in the fighting in Italy), and against Britain in the American Revolutionary War. By the 1790s there were about 13,000 men making up the Swiss contingent in a total Spanish army of 137,000. Their final role in Spanish service was against the French in the Peninsular War, in which the five Swiss regiments (Ruttiman, Yann, Reding, Schwaller and Courteen). mostly stayed loyal to the Spanish—at the Battle of Bailén, the Swiss regiments pressed into French service defected back to the Spanish Army under Reding—and were eventually ground down by years of fighting. The year 1823 finally saw the end of Swiss mercenary service with the Spanish army.
As in French service, the Swiss fighting in the ranks of the Spanish army generally followed its organization, tactics and dress. The Swiss regiments were however distinguished by their blue coats, in contrast to the white uniforms of the Spanish line infantry.
Service in the Dutch Army
The Dutch employed Swiss units at various dates during the 18th century, although on a more limited scale than France or Spain. In 1745 three battalions of the Swiss Hirtzel Regiment formed part of the Dutch contingent sent to serve in England as allies at the time of the Jacobite uprising in Scotland that year. Four regiments of Dutch line infantry retained Swiss elements until 1829.
Prior to the amendment to the Swiss Constitution of 1874 banning the recruitment of Swiss citizens by foreign states, such contracts always stated that mercenaries would return to Switzerland if the country was attacked. Military alliances were banned under the Swiss constitution of 1848, though troops still served abroad when obliged by treaties. One such example were the Swiss serving under Francis II of the Two Sicilies who defended Gaeta in 1860 during the Italian War of Unification. This marked the end of an era.
Since 1859, only one mercenary unit has been permitted: the Vatican's Swiss Guard, which has been protecting the Pope for the last five centuries, dressed in colourful uniforms, supposedly drawn by Michelangelo, reminiscent of the Swiss mercenary's heyday. Despite it being prohibited, individual Swiss citizens carried on the tradition of foreign military service into the twentieth century, including participation in the Spanish Civil War, usually on the Republican side. Swiss citizens also served in the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War, although purely on an individual and voluntary basis.
Notable Swiss mercenaries
- The artist Urs Graf
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