Friday, March 11, 2011

What Was Push Of Pike? The Question Defined.

Origins of the Question
I have had a burning question for some time. The question is this: what exactly was a “push of pike”? I came upon this term a few years ago as I was doing some research for a draft of small-engagement rules for my wargaming club to play. Initially, I assumed that a push of pike was simply the designation of what happens when a couple groups of pike armed men enter into mêlée. I made this assumption and thought nothing more about it. I was trying to ground my rule-set very heavily in the details of actual Renaissance military veterans given in their memoirs. But this term, push of pike, was merely mentioned by a couple writers, with no further description given. I wanted to know what took place in one of these pike pushing engagements, so I took the obvious next step – I googled it. The results were disappointing. Only cursory definitions expressing something to the effect that “a PoP is a term referring to an engagement of pike armed soldiers”. When I looked for a description of what took place in a pike engagement, I found explanations merely saying something like “when pike armed units came into fighting contact, this was called a push of pike.” I hope you can imagine my disappointment at the circularity and circuity of such answers.
                I next approached some secondary sources. Again, the answers were much the same, only embedded in more material. Last, I turned to other primary sources. Here, no overly straightforward answers were found; only a whole wealth of relevant information that needed to be sorted through, analyzed, and interpreted; often, the primary documents lead to more questions than answers. That work, for those of you who have yet to read my purpose statement, is what this blog is for.

The Question Clearly Stated
The core of my question, I shall call it the Push of Pike, or PoP, Question, is the question I originally wanted answered when I was working on wargame rules: What took place when a group of pike armed soldiers engaged a group of enemy soldiers, pike armed or otherwise? This question, the PoP Question, has several different aspects I am interested in which I shall detail now.

  • A survey of the secondary sources seems to yield two different, though general, answers to the question.
(1) One view is that Pike armed soldiers (hereafter pikemen), sought primarily to cause casualties by using the combined weight of a relatively long, thin formation of troops to literally push their opponents over. Once many of the troops, or at least the front ranks, had been knocked over onto the ground, the pikemen were free to trample, stab, and rout their opponents. I call this view The Steam-Roller View.
(2) The other popular view has it that a group of pikemen would stand within pike’s length of the enemy and cause casualties by stabbing, thrusting and poking till one or the other group had enough and either retreated or broke. I call this view The Stab and Thrust View.  
**(3) There is a third view that is not as popular in secondary sources, but finds its way into forums and discussions, representations of battles in movies/tv, and historical fiction (books, etc). This puts pike engagements in the camp that medieval battles are generally imagined to be in - great masses of individual fighters mixed up in free for all, hacking and killing at whatever enemy is nearest. I call this view The Mêlée View.

The point here is, which of these views is correct? Some more specific and better questions are:
-Is either totally correct?
-Do either come closer to correct; if so, how close?
-Are the two views mutually exclusive? That is, can both be true, and if so, how?
-What place does the third view have in regards to the other two? Does it fit in with either? With both?

  • How did pikemen fight in hand to hand combat? The sorts of things I specifically want to know about are:
(a) The techniques employed by pikemen, i.e. how they used their pikes.
Do contemporary fight books give us insight here? If so, how much insight do the martial art training manuals give us into the battlefield use of the pike? Put another way, which techniques taught in schools were used on the battlefield, and how often?
Related to this, how much insight do contemporary images of combat give us? Are we justified in analyzing images for answers to questions of combat technique? If we are, which images are we justified in using and why?

(b) Were different techniques employed in different situations? Were different techniques employed against different troop types?

(c) What distance did two belligerent units of pikemen stand from each other when engaged in combat? 

(d) Pikemen were often formed quite closely to one another in combat formations. Was the great mass of a pike unit utilized? How? Was the great weight of a unit of pikemen utilized? How?

  •  What is the deal with the term “push of pike”?
It is used by secondary source authors who subscribe to view (1) as well as by authors who hold view (2). Where did they get the terms from? Why do they feel justified in using it different than, and perhaps incompatible with, the way other authors use it. Also, what are their sources supporting their use of it.  

  •  What relationship holds between our questions and the military revolutions debate?

Two Notes
As you think about answers to these questions, hold on loosely to your previously held notions. As I have pointed out, the secondary sources typically ignore an answer to our questions. Those who posit an answer are often vague and rarely cite the sources for their assertions. We are correct to conclude that most secondary authors present conclusions that are predominantly heresy and conjecture. Therefore most of our answers, if based on those authors, are also heresy and conjecture. We must follow the instruction of a famous old knight and unlearn what we have learned. At the very least, we must hold tentatively to what we have learned and measure it by what we shall henceforth research and learn.

My final note is related to the above caveat. We must remember that warfare, including strategy, tactics, technology and combat techniques were constantly changing. On a broad scale, there was movement towards change and adaptation, which often included regressing to older tactics and techniques. Answers to our questions will almost definitely not be uniform to the whole of the early modern period. Any conclusions must be carefully set in their historical period and regional context. This attention to detail has been largely ignored yet will pay dividends if we take care to respect in our own research.

1 comment:

  1. One thing I have seen that leads me to believe Doppelsöldners and Halberds were used to break push of pike is this apparently period pamphlet supposedly from the 16th century.

    See that we have a mass of halberdiers in the middle. Apparently these were drawn out from the middle somehow once the pikemen were engaged. I have to imagine this was achieved by loosening the formation along the sides, and that they would then attempt to flank the enemy formation or hack at their pikes. The so called Doppelsoldner could serve a similar purpose. Shot would also serve to think enemy ranks.

    Moving further into conjecture, I noticed mention that lightly armored pikement made an appearance at certain junctures, and that their utility was in their rapid mobility and in being trained to receive a cavalry charge from any direction. These would then probably be well drilled and difficult to replace men.

    I, like you, have had real issues finding any authoritative information on this topic, but thanks for looking into it and for presenting this space for folks to discuss it.