Military Developments of the Sixteenth Century
- A Wargamer's Guide: Part II
by Andrew Murdin
Minature Wargames No.6
Organisation: The Spanish Tercio.
In the opening years of the Sixteenth Century the organisation of both infantry and cavalry was fairly rudimentary. Cavalry seem to have been organised into tactical units on an ad hoc basis for most of the century, but the development of the infantry's organisation is another of the important innovations of these times.
At the start of the century the largest formation of any permanence was the company, of no fixed strength. Companies were brigaded together as the situation required. By 1505 the Spanish were experimenting with 'colonelcies' of four or five companies:
say 1000 men. Most of these were destroyed at Ravenna (1512), but the Spanish persisted with the experiment and by the 1530's they were organising at least some of their infantry into Tercios of about 3000 men. Though the size decreased to 1500 men later on, the Tercio persisted well into the next century.
The introduction of these formations was a gradual process however. In 1536 the Imperial army in Italy contained 10,000 Spanish Foot and 50,000 Italian and German Foot. Only 5000 of the Spaniards were organised into Tercios. All the rest were in unregimented companies. The role of the Tercios seems to have been to provide a core of well-trained troops to the army, available on a permanent basis. The Mediterranean commitments of Spain gave her a need for such troops not shared by other nations of Western Europe, and we can see here the origins of the standing national armies of the next century. The French attempts to copy this system were never particularly successful, owing to an unfortunate habit of disbanding companies whenever money was short (ie, most of the time!). In 1531 Francis I founded four 'Legions' of 6000 men each. These survived in a much modified form during the Wars of Religion.
Relatively few major battles were fought by the Spanish between 1530 and 1550. The war in Italy had become a ponderous, unimaginative affair of sieges in which both sides were reluctant to risk an engagement which might lose everything. Operations in Africa and against the Turks were generally amphibious assaults which might involve a siege but not a pitched battle. However, the way in which infantry were raised and organised for battle at this time can be seen from the battle of Ceresole (1544). The French had gathered 13,000 infantry for the battle. Of these, 3000 Swiss from Gruyere and 4000 French Foot were newly raised for the campaign. 2000 Italian mercenaries, hired as a number of independent companies, had also been recently recruited. Only 4000 Swiss pikes were troops who had been maintained on a long term basis. These would have been organised as independent companies, but had probably been brigaded together for some time.
The Spanish had 18,000 Foot, including 6000 Italian mercenaries no different from those in the French army. There were 7000 German Landsknecht all well-armed veterans, but only recently raised in new companies as reinforcements. The remaining men were 5000 Spanish and German veterans of the previous year's African campaign. They may well have been continuously employed since then, but are likely to have been reorganised in the wake of the African disaster. So, despite the fact that the Spanish were the only nation in Western Europe maintaining permanent infantry formations larger than the company, the Swiss veterans in the French army were probably the best organised troops present at the battle.
Ceresole also displays some interesting tactical features. Though the pike was still the most used infantry weapon, it's users were coming increasingly to rely upon support from infantry with firearms. Bicocca showed what could be achieved by arquebusiers under favourable conditions. At Pavia (1525), where they did not have the benefit of a strong position, they also contributed to the victory: the Swiss (again) suffered badly and retreated from a combined attack by arquebusiers and pike armed foot. Later in the battle the French gendarmerie became isolated and were decimated by fire from arquebusiers concealed in copses and behind hedges. The days when pikes or cavalry alone could be relied on to win a battle were over. Yet infantry with firearms suffered one fatal weakness: unsupported and in the open they could not hold off a determined attack from infantry or cavalry. Thus generals in the middle of the century were having to rediscover effective combined arms tactics. The way in which the firearms and cavalry were used to support the pike blocks at Ceresole seems to have been at least partly experimental.
The Battle of Ceresole, 1544
During the Spring of 1544 the French had laid siege to the town of Carignano, near Turin. This was an important Imperial stronghold, and the French intention was to force them to relieve the town and hence engage a French field army. The Imperialists duly obliged, and sent a strong recently reinforced army which, though short of cavalry, was well supplied with arquebusiers. The French, also short of horse, left a blocking force by Carignano and marched to meet them. The two armies met near the village of Ceresole in a shallow valley of very open terrain.
After initial skirmishing and scouting the Imperialists started a general attack on the French by advancing their entire line. The French advanced to meet them. At the south end of the two lines the French Light Horse routed the Imperialist cavalry there, then attacked the Italian foot. This attack was unsuccessful, but the Italians had to halt to beat it off. While they were fighting the remainder of the Imperialist line continued to advance, dangerously exposing the left flank of the Landsknechts. The French infantry at the southern end of the line had intended to attack the Italians, but seeing these halted and engaged by the cavalry, they turned towards the open flank of the Landsknechts. These had originally been advancing on the Swiss, but half of them now had to turn to face the new attack. Both the French and the Landsknechts were practicing what was considered to be a new tactic; behind the first rank of pikemen in each unit was a rank of arquebusiers. As the Swiss, French and Landsknecht columns collided, these men fired with devastating effect. The whole front rank on both sides went down, but the arquebusiers then found themselves trapped between the pike columns. Their fate takes little effort to imagine. Despite this carnage these units remained at push of pike for some time until the French gendarmes, charging into the gap created when the Landsknecht column had divided into two, so disordered them that the Landsknechts broke and fled. They were pursued by their victorious opponents and no quarter was given. The Spanish men-at-arms panicked and fled after making a half-hearted attempt to aid the routing infantry. The Italians, who had by now reformed after beating off the French Light Horse, did not interfere, but marched from the field in good order.
The northern end of the Imperialist line had been much more successful. The Spanish and German foot broke the French and Italians facing them in short order and inflicted heavy casualties as they pursued. They were then halted by an attack from the gendarmes in the centre of the French line, but repulsed them after a fight. The situation here was now a stalemate, for the French horse could not break the stationary infantry, but neither could the infantry move without being in serious danger. Only when news of the fate of the Landsknechts reached them did the infantry try to retreat, but they were badly beaten by the gendarmes when they moved. The Swiss had by now also come up, and the surviving Imperial foot surrendered.
The French lost perhaps 2000 men in the battle; the Imperialists five times that number. Yet this devastating victory was entirely nullified when the French were forced to withdraw their army to meet an Imperialist attack on northern France.
Points to note
1) Both armies were short of cavalry, but the intelligent use of cavalry to support infantry was decisive.
2) Point blank fire can be devastating, but does not stop a determined attack.
3) Good quality infantry can defend themselves against infantry and cavalry only so long as they keep their formation.
If unsupported they will lose.
French: 4000 Swiss veterans, 3000 newly raised Swiss, 4000 French infantry,
2000 Italian mercenaries, 600 Light Horse, 900 Gendarmes.
Scaled down and defined according to the WRG rules this gives the following army:
Swiss veterans: HI or LI, 'B' class, pike, close order. LI, 'B' class, arquebus, order.
Other Swiss: HI or LI, 'D' class, pike, close order.
French: MI, 'C' class, pike, close order. LI, 'C' class, arquebus, order.
Italians: MI, 'D' class, pike, close order. LI, 'D' class, arquebus, order.
Gensdarmes: EHC, 'A' class, lance, mace, order.
Light Horse: MC, 'D' class, javelin, shield, open order.
Unit A: 5 light horse.
Unit B: French, 20 pikes with a sub-unit of 20 arquebusiers.
Unit C: 5 gensdarmes.
Unit D: Swiss veterans, 6 HI and 30 LI pikes, with a sub-unit of 5 arquebusiers.
Unit E: 5 gensdarmes.
Unit F: Newly raised Swiss, 5 HI and 20 LI pikes.
Unit G: Italians, 10 pikemen with a sub-unit of 10 arquebusiers.
Unit H: 5 light horse.
Artillery: 4 medium guns with 4 'C' class crew each.
Imperialist: 7000 Landsknechts, 5000 Spanish and German veterans,
6000 Italians, 600 light horse, 200 Spanish men-at-arms.
Scaled down this gives the following wargame army:
Landsknechts: HI, 'C' class, pike, close order. LI, 'C' class, arquebus, order.
Veterans: HI, 'B' class, pike, close order. LI, C' class. arquebus, order.
Italians: MI, 'D' class, pike, close order. LI, 'D' class, arquebus. order.
Men-at-arms: EHC, 'C' class, lance, mace, order. Light horse: MC, 'D' class, arquebus, open order.
Unit 1) 5 light horse.
Unit 2) Italians: 20 pikemen, with a sub-unit of 20 arquebusiers.
Unit 3) Landsknechts: 30 pikemen, with a sub-unit of S arquebusiers.
Unit 4) Landsknechts: 30 pikemen, with a sub-unit of 5 arquebusiers.
Unit 5) 5 men-at-arms.
Unit 6) German veterans: 16 pikemen, with a sub-unit of 8 arquebusiers.
Unit 7) Spanish veterans: 16 pikemen, with a sub-unit of 8 arquebusiers.
Unit 8) 5 light horse.
Artillery: 4 medium guns with 4 'C' class crew each.
Comments on wargaming Ceresole
1) Up to 5 figures in the front rank of the French unit B and the
Imperialist units 3) & 4) may fire as if they were arquebusiers once
during the battle.
2) Both armies are commanded by a general, Francis, Duke of
Enghien (French); and the Marquis Del Vasto (Imperial).
Military Developments of the Sixteenth Century, Part I
See also Renaissance Warfare by George Gush
Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers