European Warfare 1300-1650 I

At the battle of Legnano in 1176 the cavalry of the German emperor scattered the horse of the Milanese and their allies, but the Milanese foot held out in their camp until their cavalry could regroup to put the Germans to flight.

European warfare before 1300 was really dominated by the knight, whose preferred style of war was mounted. This was fundamentally because European states could not afford to raise, train and sustain infantry forces whose strength lies in mass. Yet war in Europe demanded footsoldiers, and as a result knights often had to dismount to fight, thus stiffening the large numbers of poorly armed footsoldiers. Mercenary foot were often employed, but because of the expense they were dismissed as soon as practicable. Yet there were circumstances in which disciplined foot were raised and trained. The city-states of Italy, especially Milan, defended their independence by insisting that all able-bodied men should serve in their militia – the rich as cavalry and the poor as infantry. These men lived and trained together, fighting with their relatives and neighbours against the enemies of the city. At the battle of Legnano in 1176 the cavalry of the German emperor scattered the horse of the Milanese and their allies, but the Milanese foot held out in their camp until their cavalry could regroup to put the Germans to flight.

The cities of Flanders were equally proud of their independence from their count and his master, the king of France. In 1302 some of the cities revolted against the French king, and the combined rebel army, with the militia of Bruges at its heart, besieged Courtrai. They had 10,000 men including a few sympathetic nobles and about 900 crossbowmen. All the Flemings seem to have had iron caps and most wore some kind of armour. They were armed with pikes or the long heavy club called the goedendag (literally Good Day). A French army under Robert of Artois came quickly to the rescue of Courtrai. Artois had about 3,000 cavalry supported by 6,000 lightly armed foot, amongst them 1,000 crossbowmen. The Flemings were trapped between this force and the river Lys, and formed their battle line with the river and the town of Courtrai behind them. However, between them and the French was a network of streams and dykes which they improved and extended by digging pits. Moreover, the weather was poor so the streams were full and the ground which the French had to cross was wet and slippery. Artois reconnoitred the enemy position and secretly bought a map of the obstacles from a defector, and with this he planned his attack.

On 11 July 1302 when battle was joined, the French crossbowmen first went forward and there was an inconclusive exchange of fire with the Flemings. The French cavalry then advanced across the streams to charge into the rebel ranks. But there was insufficient space between the streams and the Flemish ranks for the French knights to develop the momentum of a real charge, so they came to a halt before the pikes of the Flemish foot. A savage scrimmage then developed across the whole line as Flemish foot with swords and goedendags sallied out, doing mortal damage to the knights and their horses. The French pulled back to regroup, but the Flemings advanced and the cavalry were tumbled into the streams in a terrible slaughter. This was a spectacular victory, but like Legnano possible only because the cavalry chose to attack infantry in an entrenched position. At Mons-en-Pévèle on 17 August 1304 the Flemings tried to attack the French army, but movement broke up their dense infantry formations and they suffered heavy casualties at the hands of the enemy cavalry. It had always been recognised that steady infantry in a strong position were very hard to defeat. The difficulty was how to replicate the qualities of bravery and coherence which city militias developed as a result of the upbringing of their citizens.

European states could not yet raise sufficient taxes to train and maintain large standing armies like those of the Egyptian Mamluks, the Delhi Sultanate, and the Chinese. But they were becoming richer and an increasing professionalism was starting to emerge. In Italy constant fighting between the petty city-states in the thirteenth century exposed the limitations of citizen militias – principally that merchants and workmen could not afford to be constantly fighting. The militias were at first augmented and later replaced by hiring mercenaries in companies whose commanders kept them in being. There thus arose a corps of regular professional soldiers whose leaders, the condottieri, bargained with the cities over terms of employment. The city-states kept small standing forces and hired more for short periods, but demand was so great that mercenary companies stayed together, developing military skills, discipline and cohesion. The rewards of this kind of life could be very great. Muzio Attendolo, nicknamed Sforza (1369–1424), was a mercenary leader whose son, Francesco, became duke of Milan (1450–66), founding a dynasty which would last almost a hundred years.

Grand Catalan Company

Of all the mercenary companies the most successful was the Grand Catalan Company. This was originally recruited from Spain and consisted of 1,500 knights and 4,000 Almogavars – tough infantry from the frontier with Islam. The Company was a highly disciplined and ruthless force. During fighting in Italy 300 French knights charged a force of Almogavars, who ‘hurled darts so that it was the devil’s work they did, for at the first charge more than 100 knights and horses of the French fell dead to the ground. Then they broke their lances short and disemboweled horses.’ After Italy, the Company served Byzantium in 1303, and was so successful against the Turks of Anatolia that the Byzantines, fearful of its power, assassinated its commander. After devastating much of the Byzantine Empire in revenge, in 1310 the Catalans joined the French duke of Athens, Walter V of Brienne. Once again they were too successful for the comfort of their employer, and Walter recruited 700 knights and numerous foot and confronted them on 15 March 1311 at Halmyros. The Catalans raised field fortifications in a secure position and flooded the plain in front of them, miring the Athenian cavalry charge. They and their following infantry were slaughtered and the Company then took over rule of Athens until 1388. Their strength lay in their discipline and organisation. Leadership emerged from the most important knights, and they were respected and obeyed by all others because the members of the Company appreciated that if they did not stick together and obey they would be destroyed. Logistics and pay were in the hands of a single person, the Procurator General. They were able to absorb Greeks and even Turks into their ranks without losing cohesion or fighting ability.

In northern Europe it was in England that the most important changes appeared. After a sustained peace in the thirteenth century, the English crown under Edward I had to create armies for the long wars in Wales and Scotland which after 1337 merged into the Hundred Years War against France. The Statute of Winchester of 1285 obliged all free men to keep arms for the defence of the realm. When ordered, they were required to parade with them at the muster of the county militia for the king’s service. Such soldiers were rank amateurs and under Edward I the large infantry forces thus recruited tended to melt away through desertion. But increasingly captains concluded indentures or contracts with the crown to supply men-at-arms and archers with all their equipment for a fixed term and recruited these from musters of the militia. As the war after 1337 was fought in France, these companies often stayed there pursuing free-enterprise objectives whose destruction of French resources suited English policy. This gave the English crown access to a regular army of experienced soldiers, without continuously paying all the costs.

The English wars in Wales and Scotland demanded footsoldiers and more particularly showed the value of archers. Continuous warfare made it worth men’s while to practise archery, and the most competent of them equipped themselves with the finest longbows. These were made of yew and cut from the tree where the sap and heartwood meet, providing a draw-weight of up to 150–60 pounds. Such powerful weapons, which could penetrate the best armour, presented a major challenge to the armoured men, whether on foot or on horseback. And these archers were usually mounted, increasing their flexibility, and were trained to work with ‘men-at-arms’. This colourless term came into use in the fourteenth century to denote heavily armoured men who fought on horseback or on foot. It certainly included knights and nobles who served in the royal armies. But in a more diverse society many other careers were open to the upper class so that those who chose to become warriors were specialists. And they fought alongside humbler men, perhaps often their poorer relatives, who chose a military career. They were not precisely mercenaries, but were paid professional soldiers and formed the leadership of the emerging companies. The continuous warfare of the English crown in the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries offered to all these soldiers not only pay, but also the prospect of plunder and ransom of enemy prisoners, giving a great impulse to the professionalisation of war.

Commanders who could count on better armies could think more boldly about the conduct of war. One indication of this was the multiplication of manuscripts and translations of the Roman military writer Vegetius, who advocated military training and a systematic approach to war. Edward III of England (1327–77) recognised the power of the defensive position and the value, therefore, of forcing an enemy to attack him. In 1346 he thrust into French territory doing enormous damage, and drew the French into attacking him in a strong position at Crécy. His son, the Black Prince, achieved much the same at Poitiers in 1356. At Agincourt in 1415 the English again succeeded in drawing the French into attacking a strong line of battle. In each case the English arranged dismounted heavily armoured cavalrymen into close-order formations. The archers, sheltered behind hedges or lines of stakes, broke up the momentum of enemy attacks, which were absorbed and defeated by the phalanx of heavy infantry. Thus the notion of marrying the strategic offensive and the tactical defensive was very fruitful. Fundamentally the English were victorious because their soldiers were professionals.

Victories in battle are spectacular and we, like contemporaries, tend to be hypnotised by them. But much of the Hundred Years War was fought by quite different and much more common methods of destruction. The English crown could not afford a standing army capable of conquering France. Instead the royal government raised companies of soldiers whom they encouraged to fend for themselves when there was a lull in the fighting. These independent groups established themselves in parts of France and paid themselves by ravaging and taxing the countryside and towns. The English captain Robert Knolles attacked the area around Orléans:

In the year of Our Lord 1358 the English came to Chantecoq, and on the evening of 31 October they took possession of the castle and burned almost all of the town. Then they brought the whole of the region around under their control, ordering every village great or small to ransom itself and buy back the bodies, goods and stores of every inhabitant or see them burned, as they had been in so many other places. The people appeared before the Englishmen, confused and terrified. They agreed to pay in coin, flour, grain, or other victuals in return for a temporary respite from persecution. Those who stood in their way the English killed, or locked away in dark cells, threatening them daily with death, beating and maiming them, and leaving them hungry and destitute.

Such actions eroded the wealth of France at little cost to the English crown. But ultimately, in France and all over Europe, conquest depended on seizing great cities and fortifications. These were so formidable and so numerous that it was necessary to invest heavily in the latest machines for battering them down: cannon.

The military effectiveness of these new weapons was for long very limited. Saltpetre, the key substance in gunpowder, was expensive because it had to be imported from the east. Only at the end of the fourteenth century did Europeans devise a reliable method of making it, by collecting animal and human dung and urine, laced with calcium-rich materials in the dry environment of a cellar: a saltpetre plantation. But gunpowder posed other problems. If shaken about in transit the different constituents in gunpowder, sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal, separated out, while it was notoriously prone to damp. This led to the process of corning: the fine dry powder was mixed with a liquid such as vinegar and the resultant paste dried into dumplings which held the powder together and resisted damp. These were then ground up into coarse grains immediately before firing. This preserved the powder but created yet another range of problems.

European metallurgy was an art rather than a science. Guns were usually made by forging together iron rods into a long cylinder, and they were never cheap. In 1375 a single cannon took forty-two days to build and cost the French crown 5,000 livres: an ordinary French knight at this time lived on perhaps 250–300 livres per annum. The uncertain quality of metals made all guns very dangerous. Corned powder has a granular structure which allows much greater amounts of air in a charge, and is therefore very much more explosive than fine powder. Smiths had to learn to make guns stronger – and heavier – and loads had to be adjusted to the likely bursting point. At the same time the consequences of granulation had to be explored and appropriate types of powder developed for the various kinds of gun.

Mons Meg

Designing cannon was a complicated business. Siege demanded heavy missiles to demolish walls, and, as powder became cheaper towards 1400, gigantic bombards were produced. Mons Meg, now in Edinburgh Castle, was made in Flanders in 1449 and presented to the king of Scotland some seven years later. It has a calibre of 56 cm (22 in.) and could fire a ball of 180 kg (396 lb) up to 3.2 kilometres (2 miles). This sounds impressive, but it could only be fired 8–10 times a day due to the heat generated and the need to cool the barrel, while moving its 7.6 tons was very difficult. Weapons like this were only good for siege. Loading systems were also a matter of experimentation. Guns often had removable firing chambers which were wedged into the back of the barrel, but the joint tended to leak so that muzzle-loaders came into prominence. Early weapons used stones which broke up against castle walls. By the late fifteenth century iron balls had become the norm. They were more effective on impact and helped to standardise calibres because they could be made in fairly uniform sizes. Soldiers came to realise that guns with long barrels firing balls at high velocity were very effective, and so monstrous calibres fell into disuse. Gradually it was understood that cast bronze provided a good balance between weight and strength. Carriages based on large wheels were devised. By the time the French invaded Italy in 1494, inaugurating a series of wars which would last for half a century, they were able to bring with them relatively mobile cannon which battered down the medieval walls of cities and were sufficiently handy (albeit very clumsy) to be used in battle.

The earliest handguns in Europe were miniature cannon mounted on poles – staff-guns. Such weapons had been used in China, where they were called fire-lances, as early as the eleventh century. Corned powder was much less dangerous when used in small weapons and, as a consequence, by the early fifteenth century long-barrelled weapons of narrow bore were starting to be used. The arquebus, a weapon with a length of about a metre, some forty times the bore, seems to have originated in the rich cities of south Germany, perhaps most particularly Nuremberg. City authorities wanted to protect their independence, but were little interested in conquest and the raising of large armies to besiege enemies. However, they were open to new technologies and they had plenty of good metal-workers. As a result they developed the arquebus, whose name derives from Hackenbüchse meaning ‘hook gun’, which describes how it was mounted on walls. This weapon was simple and cheap to make, about half the price of a good crossbow, consisting merely of the proverbial ‘lock, stock and barrel’. In a wooden stock was mounted a simple iron tube closed at the back which was muzzle loaded. The charge was ignited through a small hole at the back to which a burning match mounted in a serpentine fired by a trigger was applied: this was the matchlock whose outstanding virtue was that it was simple to use.

This was the true advantage of firearms. Dependence on ‘native skills’ had always been a major bottleneck for armies. Modern analysis of the skeletons of archers has shown that key bones used in the drawing of a longbow become deformed, the result of long practice from childhood. Relatively few men would have been willing to train so intensively. Equally, the man-at-arms needed to develop athletic skills through constant practice from youth if he was to be effective. By contrast, the arquebus was a simple killing tool which almost any male could be quickly trained to use, so that unskilled men could be recruited easily to make up for losses. Of course, the weapons were not very accurate, but the quality of archers too must have varied enormously in this respect. More importantly, the rate of fire might be slow, but this was compensated for by greater numbers and, in time, careful tactics and drill. There were also logistical reasons for preferring firearms. Arrows were heavy and voluminous. At the battle of Crécy in 1346 the English archers each carried 24 arrows and drew on a reserve of about five million which weighed 55 tons. Powder and shot were much more compact. In fast-moving steppe warfare these were not great advantages, but in Western Europe where geography, agriculture, climate and fortifications conspired to slow the pace of war, they were substantial. It was, therefore, worth the effort of compensating for the obvious weaknesses: slow loading and inaccuracy.

The slow development of firearms meant that there was no sudden change in the way armies fought, and at times they had much less effect on war than, for example, Edward III’s tactical innovations. Cannon came into use in the early fourteenth century and had obvious value in sieges. But although they were employed at Crécy in 1346, they played no part at Nicopolis in 1396 when a western crusader force was crushed by the Ottoman Turks, nor at Agincourt in 1415, when the English defeated the French. In 1420, when the Hussites of Bohemia rebelled against German rule, gunpowder weapons for the first time played a decisive role in field warfare. Jan Zizka, the rebel commander, knew that his untrained and largely infantry army could not defeat the German heavy cavalry. In the open his raw footsoldiers would be ridden down, and the staff-guns and arquebuses were so slow to load that they could offer little protection. He hit upon the idea of putting his men into trains of heavy wagons which were chained together in a laager (circle) when the enemy attacked, the famous Wagenburg. Each wagon held a mixture of crossbowmen, staff-gunners and conventional infantrymen with swords and spears, while heavier guns were placed between the wagons. Hussite commanders were defending, so that if they chose their ground carefully the Germans would be obliged to attack these mobile fortresses. The firepower of the Wagenburg decimated the attackers, and those few who did survive to close could be held off by the conventional infantry, giving the gunners and archers time to reload. In theory the Germans could have destroyed these laagers with cannon of their own, but these were so heavy and clumsy as to be of limited value on the battlefield. In the end the Hussite rebellion collapsed in 1434 because of internal tensions, but the Wagenburg was widely copied because it enabled raw troops to use their gunpowder weapons very effectively.


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