Swiss Mercenary

The term "Landsknechte" was first coined by Peter von Hagenbach, recorder for Charles the Bold of Burgundy. The term Landsknecht translated literally means "servant of the country" and first began appearing in the German language in approximately 1470. The term applied to the mercenary soldiers of the areas of Alsace, Baden Wurttemburg, Austrian Tyrol, and other numerous countries in what is today Northern Germany. These soldiers served their countries in military service under the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I, Charles V, Ferdinand, and Maximilian II. These troops were originally created by the "father of the Landsknecht," Maximilian I, to uphold his claim to the Burgundian Legacy of the Netherlands. This was one reason for the formation of the Swabian Alliance in 1487. This alliance needed an army, and so the Landsknechte were born, the first created on German soil. In 1490, after the siege of Stuhlweissenberg, Maximilian had his troops swear their allegiance to him and their cause. This event brought about the discipline and unit integrity that would mold the future Landsknechte. This new military force was closely modelled on the fierce and well trained halbadiers and pikeman of the Swiss Confederation (Left).

The face of war was changing dramatically, the Burgundian Wars (1476-7) had shown that Cavalry was virtually useless against any well trained pike formations, and the new handguns. The costs of raising mounted troops was increasing due to economic pressures and political status of the European Nobility. This new mobile infantry, the Landsknechte, pikemen in the tradition of the dreaded Swiss mercenaries, were trained in large numbers, and fast became the main body of mercenary armies throughout Europe. The battles fought before the Renaissance were sometimes seen as chess games, in which checkmate was to be accepted quickly, and with as little bloodshed as possible. This gentlemanly conduct soon began to disappear from the battlefield as devious tactics, like ambushes, disguised troops with false information for the enemy, and dust or smoke screens to blind the enemy before a headlong charge were introduced and added to the strategy and battle formations of the European armies. The impenetrable Pike squares (adopted from the Swiss), rows of deadly new Arquebuses, and a new mobile artillery system were to become the standard of this new deadly mercenary army. The Landsknecht army, as it was, was a fearsome sight to behold. Thousands of men wearing what would appear to be brightly colored rags and hats with many gaudy, brightly colored feathers. Their clothes, being taken from their fallen opponents, didn't always fit properly, and thus began the slashing and tied together look of the Landsknecht. (This look would later be adopted by many of the Nobles as a fashion trend.) Most Landsknechte had only one set of clothes, and they could be easily ruined in the battlefield. Finding replacements for torn, filthy or damaged clothing was not difficult, being only a battle away. Some however did not choose to replace torn or dirty clothing and became an even more hideous sight. Also remember, part of the Landsknechts pay was picking spoils after the battle. Clothing, weapons, jewelry and basic supplies could always be found after a battle. Their dress was a matter of contention; however, with the Noble classes, who felt a uniform should be instituted for distinguishing rank. Maximilian I, at the Diet of Augsburg in 1503, ruled that they deserved at least one luxury in their miserable lives, and so they wore what they wanted. Many a noble hired Landsknechts to fight their silly and often petty little grievences. Many provinces of the Holy Roman Empire became battlegrounds for the minor nobles and their squabbles.

All of that constant fighting would require lots of travel. Just imagine the logistics of moving the thousands of mercenaries, their gear, all of the camp followers and other laborers, all of the supplies and equipment necessary for the fighting force to wage war. Miles of walking Landsknechte, still more miles of the baggage train and

Picture of a baggage train

required equipment. Historically, the female Camp Followers (known as the Kampfrau) were among other things - nurses, cooks, cleaners and sexual companions. But there were others in the train too, common laborers, merchants, families of the mercenaries, food animals and the worst of the lot, theives and scavengers.

Pitched Battle

Landsknechts fought for food, money, Beer (a food during the Renaissance, made with only 4 ingredients since 1516 -water, yeast, barley and hops) and religion. They would not fight for enemies of the Empire, those who did were hunted down and killed, with extreme prejudice! Most notabe was the Black Band, an entire legion led by George Langenmantel that joined the French. Their last battle was Pavia, in 1525. None of the 4,000 survived

The Swiss mercenaries were considered fearsome warriors, for in thier eyes, the only good enemy was a dead enemy.
The Swiss reigned supreme on the battlefield for about a century until new weapons like light cavalry and the Arquebuse were developed. The Swiss troops ignored these new developments. The supremacy of the Swiss mercenaries in foot combat finally came to an end at the battle of Bicocca in 1522. Under the leadership of Georg von Frundsberg, a contingent of Landsknechte decimatedover 3,000 Swiss mercenaries using earthworks, attrition, and the newly developed arquebus. "They went back to their mountain homes diminished in numbers but much more in audacity, for it is certain that the loss they received humbled them to the degree that for several years afterwards they did not show their accustomed vigor," said an Italian Historian, Guicciardini.

 Further evidence of their poor quality would be seen at the battle of Pavia. The Swiss mercenaries hired by Francis I broke and ran from the field. This could also have been the result of seige warfare (which the Swiss hated), poor conditions, and irregular payments.

The weapons that these fearsome warriors carried were glaives, pikes, halberds, Zweihanders, axes, Arquebuses, broadswords, shortswords and maces, thought not all by each man. The pike was the main weapon carried. The Ash stave was one and a half inches thick and up to 18 feet long. When used in great numbers (above Right), they form an impenetrable barrier. The Zweihander was the weapon of choice of the Doppelsoldner (Bottom), called so for fighting in the front rank, charging the enemy pikes, and getting paid twice as much. The Zweihander (right) was a 66 inch long sword, with a double-edged sometimes undulating blade, weighing anywhere from 7 to 14 pounds. The Arquebus was a muzzle-loading rifle with a simple match lock. When the trigger is pulled, the serpentine arm holding the lit cord is plunged into the powder pan, igniting the powder and firing the shell. Most Arquebuses were heavy and had to be fired from a rest, but Landsknecht felt that men should be able to use an Arquebus without the rest. Although the Landsknecht fought all over Europe, this international involvement lead to their demise. The soldiers suffered from a lack of internal discipline, and changed their allegiance at a price. Historical accounts of casualties and battle statistics show that of the dead, 1/3 were due to actual battle, about 1/3 were attributed to disease and starvation, and fully 1/3 of the deaths were due to internal squabbles. Maximilian I's original concept of the ultimate body of pikemen, superior to the Swiss through modern technology, fell to the wayside with the progress of firearms. The wild clothing of the Landsknecht disappeared by the second half of the 16th century, and even the term Landsknecht became obsolete, now they were Kaiserliche Fussknecht, Imperial foot soldiers. Thus marked the end of one of the most colorful periods of Military History in Europe.

Armored Doppelsoldier Doppelsoldier

Famous Users of Landsknecht

Emperor Maximilian I
Emperor Charles V
Emperor Ferdinand I?
Emperor Maximilian II

Herzog Wilhelm IV
Herzog Albrecht V
Herzog Wilhelm V

Georg von Frundsberg
Peter von Hagenbach