The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality

The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality

William McLaughlin - November 11, 2017

Everyone knows that the Swiss are neutral, right? Well, that wasn’t always the case, and the Swiss used to be among the most feared infantry through all of Europe. Two main events far apart in history defined the peoples and policy of the Swiss.

The Helvetii tribal confederation was a gallic group of tribes that ran into Caesar during the initial stages of the Gallic Wars. After a titanic battle led to a defeat for the Helvetii, they stopped their migrations and settled in the highlands of the Swiss Alps. Throughout the centuries of European conflict leading up to the fall of Rome and the Medieval period, the Helvetii and related peoples largely stayed homogenous in their region of the Alps, eventually incorporating populations from Italy, France, and Germany to become the multicultural and multilingual nation we know today.

The Swiss found their stride as a powerful state in the late Medieval period. During the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries, the Swiss gained widespread fame for their national military conquests and the impressive showings of the Swiss mercenaries. The Swiss pikemen were known for their ability to maintain perfect formation even at a dead run, as well as being able to change their formation to attack or defend from any position. The pikemen were a large part of the revolution to gain autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire, after crushing a force of armored knights sent to quell the Swiss rebellion.

The Superior Swiss Military Machine

The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality
Pike and polearm combat was terribly brutal and complicated, the Swiss were absolute experts. Wikipedia

Mercenary groups such as Swiss pikemen and German Landsknechts became popular throughout European wars as commanders could use these groups to plug in the missing link of their army with an elite and disciplined regiment. A sort of rivalry eventually grew between the Landsknechts and the Swiss pikemen through this period as well.

The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality
Though he may look kinda funny, this Landsknecht is carrying a two-handed Zweihänder that few men could wield. the Swiss-Landsknecht rivalry was key at Marignano. Wikipedia

In the early 1500’s the Swiss stormed out of the Alps into Northern Italy. They faced various Italian republics as well as the French throughout their campaigns but were still wildly successful in battle even against larger armies. The Battle of Novara in 1513 firmly established Swiss dominance as the 13,000 Swiss, lacking cavalry, faced a force almost twice their size complete with cavalry, artillery, and Landsknechts. Mobile charges from all directions led to the near destruction of the French army, the assaults were so quick that the Swiss took most of the camp, several guns and thousands of Landsknecht prisoners, whom they executed.

This battle gave the Swiss control of Milan in the heart of Northern Italy, a concern to the various states of Italy and particularly concerning to the French as it represented the “gateway” to greater Italy. Milan dominated the inland portion of Northern Italy, and the Swiss could threaten to dominate the immensely powerful coastal city-states of Genoa and Venice soon as well. Such control, via conquests, alliances and puppet rulers, would have brought an economic gold mine to an already proven military power and we could have had a Swiss dominance of Europe.

The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality
Francis I in a painting done the year of the battle. Wikipedia

A Confident Young King Against a History of Swiss Excellence

The French weren’t ready to accept this Swiss control, especially as they sought influence in Italy themselves. The problem was that the French seemed far from being in a position to attack. A new king, Francis I, was just past his 21st birthday and still in the first year of his reign. Francis had dozens of quality artillery pieces, but they were on the other side of the Alps.

In a daring march comparable to Hannibal’s march across the Alps with elephants in 218 BCE, Francis took a dangerous Alpine road and arrived in Northern Italy with a force of nearly 40,000. Far more than the 10,000 or so Swiss army. No matter how veteran they were, the odds were too against the Swiss and they sought peace, as they had already achieved great victories and amassed hordes of wealth through raiding and conquests.

Peace talks were quite short-lived, however, as another 10-15,000 Swiss were able to quickly march to reinforce the Swiss at Marignano. Despite still being outnumbered nearly two-to-one, the Swiss were a battle-hardened, elite force facing a young king with a raw army. A desire for more glory and riches swept over the Swiss and they marched out for the attack.

The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality
The infantry focus approach of the Swiss contrasted with the masses of artillery and cavalry of Francis. Wikipedia

The Swiss planned to use their almost entirely infantry army to charge straight at the French artillery in the center. Despite being infantry, their charge occurred so fast that the French artillery was captured after only firing a few shots. Though it seemed like the Swiss would take the field, their rivals, the Landsknechts fought the Swiss bitterly through the evening. The youthful King Francis personally led charges against the flanks until nightfall saw both sides retreat.

Both sides suffered immensely, losing many officers and men in total. The Swiss were confident in that their artillery rushing tactics almost won the day and they were stifled by the night. Francis, on the other hand, realized how close he came to losing his army. The artillerymen recovered and prepared to face similar tactics the next morning and that they did.

When the Swiss charged on the second day of battle they were forced to absorb many more shots of artillery before they closed in a mirror of prior day’s engagement. The difference for this day was time, and rather than needing extra time for the Swiss to win, it was the French who used the time to rotate in fresh troops and use a series of relentless flank charges to wear down the Swiss.

Eventually the Swiss were forced to withdraw. Though they maintained an impressive level of order, they were decimated, losing at least half of their force in the battle. The immediate results were the Swiss abandoning their Italian conquests. Eventually, the Swiss and French would negotiate what was known as the “Eternal Peace”.

The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality

Now, this wasn’t the specific document that laid out Switzerland’s neutrality, but it was the first big factor leading to it. The peace stated that both the French Kingdom and the Swiss would not fight each other, nor would they become involved in wars that might lead to French and Swiss conflict. The Swiss gave up a great deal of land but received a hefty payment from the French for the peace.

The Battle of Marignano opened the eyes of the Swiss, as their relatively small nation just absorbed one of the worst defeats of their history. Within the next decade, the Swiss wouldn’t venture out as a nation but suffered terrible losses as their Swiss mercenaries were defeated in several battles.

At Bicocca, the Swiss infantry was bogged down by mud and artillery fire and their massed formations made an easy target for Spanish hand-gunners. The age Swiss pike dominance was fading. Putting all of this together the Swiss built upon eternal peace with France to pursue a policy of neutrality.

The Violent Reason for 500 Years of Swiss Neutrality
WWI was a difficult test of Swiss neutrality given the immense proximity of the war and sympathies of the multicultural Swiss. Wikipedia

A big exception to Swiss neutrality ironically happened when the French attacked as Napoleon grew his empire. This did coincide with some turmoil and revolution within Switzerland and is the odd outlier in 500 years of active neutrality. During the World Wars Switzerland’s mix of German, French, Italian, and other cultures sparked some tension within the nation but they were still able to maintain neutrality.

Switzerland did defend their airspace during the wars and was known to shoot down planes from any nation if they violated Swiss airspace. They also had quite questionable trading and banking practices, though this is a far cry from breaking neutrality. The Swiss are recognized and aided in maintaining their neutrality by international powers but also through their own land and people.

As mentioned, Napoleon was aided by Swiss uprising, he would have had much more difficulty invading a unified Switzerland. The high passes of the Alps are still a massive advantage even considering modern military technology. And though they don’t have quite the same amount of gun ownership as America, they still have a fairly well-armed citizen population. Swiss neutrality is something we can all appreciate as it is a comfortable constant in a world that has otherwise changed immensely through countless wars in the last 500 years.