11 – The German Landsknechts Displaced the Swiss as Europe’s Elite Mercenaries
The German Landsknechts began as a poor man’s version of the feared Swiss pikemen, but by the early 1500s, they had proved their worth in several battles, and displaced the Swiss as Europe’s supreme mercenary forces. Like the Swiss, Landsknecht units were comprised of squares of pikemen, but they improved upon the formation by flanking it with supporting troops armed with firearms, halberds, and swords.
The first Landsknecht units were formed in 1487, when Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I directed a Swabian commander, Georg von Frundsberg, to form mercenary regiments. Frundsberg, who came to be known as the “father of the Landsknechts”, consciously modeled the new units on the Swiss pikemen, and hired Swiss instructors to train them.
By then, the Swiss formation and tactics, dependant on a tightly packed phalanx of pikemen and close hand to hand combat, was becoming outdated and increasingly vulnerable to firearms and artillery. The Landsknecht, assembled in pike blocks of about 200 men that were lighter, smaller, and thus more maneuverable than their Swiss counterparts, were intended to fight off the Swiss after their ranks had been depleted by arquebuses and cannon.
When Landsknecht and Swiss pikemen met on the battlefield, the result was like two fighting dogs unleashed against each other in a pit: no quarter was given or asked, in what was referred to as schlechten krieg, or “bad war”. The Landsknechts’ tactical innovations, fighting while supported by firearms, gave them an edge, and at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, they defeated the Swiss.
The Landsknechts thus earned a terrifying reputation on the battlefield, but it was eventually eclipsed by an even more terrifying reputation for their conduct off the battlefield. They were notoriously undisciplined, and had no compunctions about going on rampages and taking what they were owed by force if they were not paid on time. Indeed, their reputation for unprincipled violence, rape, robbery, and massacre, led a contemporary chronicler to remark that the Landsknechts would not go to hell, because the devil was too afraid to let them enter his domain.