Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Review 1: 'Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World'

I am on the hunt for some answers. My big question is "What is “push of pike”? In this post, I will look at a popular book that discusses weapons and combat in the period and place that interests us- Early Modern Europe, about 1500 to about 1650. Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World is an important book to look at for a couple reasons. First, it is not overly scholarly. That is, this book is not written with language that is too elevated for most readers; further, it is not bogged down with evidence for claims, examinations of counter-arguments, or footnotes and sources. Instead, the book presents a simplified overview of the most important and widely used strategy, tactics, weapons, troop types, and combat techniques of the period. These subjects are painted with a wide brush. They are broadly characterized while minutia and exceptions are ignored. Conclusions/claims about a subject are almost always merely asserted without argument backing up the claim. These features make the book  a good resource for those of us who are just getting started or who desire a general overview of the period.
Here I will give a review of Fighting Techniques in light of the PoP Question. I shall present the most helpful data and analyze the conclusion the author draws, if any. My goal is to see what the book has to offer us in towards the PoP question (see What Is Push Of Pike? The Question Stated, March 11, 2011). We shall see which questions it gives answers to, and how far it take us towards some sound conclusions.

Most of the discussion pertinent to PoP is given in the first chapter, The Role of Infantry. Beginning in the 15th century with the Swiss, the thread of pike and shot combat is traced through the Landsknechts, Tercios into the 16th century battle at Pavia, the Dutch Reforms and the Swedish synthesis during the 30 Years War.
                Swiss: The Swiss are described as aggressive and quick in the charge, formed in dense columns of pikemen supported by halberds (pp. 8, 9, 11). Surprisingly, the Swiss pikemen receive the best attention in the section on cavalry (p. 70). Here we are told that the Swiss had been using the pike since at least the battle of Laupen in 1339, but that the Swiss pike block reigned by about 100 years later. Here is the meat of the description.
 “The huge Swiss pike block, protected at first by crossbows and handguns and then by arquebuses, became the dominant instrument for waging war, and was widely copied. It was an offensive weapon, which steamrolled its way over its enemies on foot and brushed aside those on horseback, and it could defend itself against cavalry from any direction.               
This is a good start at describing how the Swiss fought during the 15th and 16th centuries, but there is a lot left to do.
Landsknechts: The Landsknechts are characterized as more defensive in their use of pike formations. We are told that Pike and double-handed sword armed Doppelsoldner were stationed in the front of the pikemen in order to “cut their way into the enemy’s formation, making a gap that could be exploited by their own pikemen (p. 12).” The author’s are helpful to note that the Landsknecht pike was as sometimes as short as 14 feet (4.2m), and generally shorter than the Swiss pike.
                Spanish: The authors describe the Spanish Tercios as they were from about 1500 to the last decade of that century. The tercios were generally about a third pikemen. Another portion was  made up of sword and buckler armed light infantry, at times up to a third of the tercio, other times only making up a small contingent. The rest were missile troops, mostly crossbow, but  with increasingly large numbers of arquebus armed soldiers. [I want to point out that the authors note the use of sword-buckler troops for attacking fortifications (pg. 14). The shielded swordsmen, used by many nations, but probably most heavily by the Spanish, will be an area of continued focus in this blog.]
                A brief quote by Machiavelli describing of a pike engagement between the Spanish tercios and Swiss pikemen is given. Here it is.
“When they engaged the fight, the Swiss pressed so hard upon the enemy with their pikes that they soon opened their ranks, but the Spaniards, under the cover of their bucklers, nimbly rushed in with their swords and fought them so furiously that they slaughtered the Swiss and gained a complete victory.”

This is an oft cited passage from The Prince detailing the fighting mechanics of Spanish and French troops at the Battle of Barletta in 1502. Machiavelli’s excellent description gives us insight into how pikemen, as least the Swiss kind, fought and the authors are to be commended for including it. What we can gather from this quote is that when the Swiss came to a push of pike, they closed in with the Spanish pike formation so physically near as to push Swiss bodies aside and out of file and rank order. I shall leave a detailed examination of Machiavelli’s text for a later date and take for granted that the Spanish shield-buckler soldiers were grouped with a large formation of pike armed soldiers.
Neither  Machiavelli in this quote nor the authors anywhere in this book comment as to why the Swiss charged so quickly and came into combat so closely with the Spanish. I shall not posit an answer here since we want good evidence for any claims. Nonetheless, we can collect several good nuggets here: (1)That at least around the beginning of the 16th century, the Swiss fought so closely and so aggressively with enemy pike formations that their own pikes at times became disarrayed and their front ranks were breached with space enough for enemy troops to exploit by rushing in. (2) The Swiss were not prepared for, and probably not used to, sword and buckler armed troops taking advantage of such a weakness.
                The Battle of Pavia: The authors spend a couple pages discussing the increasing use of firearms and the experimentation of all armies in figuring out the best way to integrate pike, shot, mounted troops, artillery and other troop types. The sixteenth century is described as an age of experimentation and Pavia was a proving ground. At Pavia, the authors say that Swiss pike units engaged in “some brief ‘push of pike’ with a Spanish tercio after which the Swiss withdrew from the field. Further, two groups of mercenary Landsknechts are said to have engaged in hand to hand fighting where one large formation was decimated due to the “fierce melee.”
Again, the authors provide no further comment on these engagements and we are left to guess about what pike combat looked like. For example, from the Swiss description, we are somewhat justified to assume that the Swiss did not always fight in aggressive, do-or-die charges. Whatever manner they fought in on this occasion (only 23 years after Barletta mind you), they were able to disengage and make a safe retreat from the field.
                The Landsknechts on the other hand are described as having a tougher go of it. One group of Landsknechts were ‘wiped out’ by two groups of opposing Landsknechts, one charging the front and the other the flank. In the case of Landsknechts, whatever way the pikemen fought in, the outnumbered group of pikemen could not make a safe retreat and gross casualties resulted.
                What accounts for the grave differences between these two pike engagements? The authors do not say. The Swiss, who are characterized throughout the book as ‘swift’ and ‘aggressive’ make a safe retreat. The Landsknechts, who are characterized by the authors as more defensive than the Swiss, but no less skilled in pike fighting, are seen at Pavia either slaughtering or being slaughtered by one another. Neither pressing an attack upon an enemy until they are annihilated nor fighting to the last man can be accurately described as defensive!
                The Dutch Reforms: While not mentioning how the Dutch fought with the pike, there are four plates from de Gheyn’s famous military manual. We are told one is the “push of pike”, but the image receives no further detail. We are left to wonder if the soldier attacked by thrusting his spear using his arms and core muscles, or if he was to press home a pike attack by stepping forward and pushing the weight of his body and the forward momentum of his advance.

Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World is really an excellent book and worth the money for those interested in an overview of infantry, cavalry, artillery, sea and siege warfare. But my aim is not to advertise or critique the book, but instead to discuss its help answering our questions.  Towards these ends, the book provides only negligible help. The book is supertitled Fighting Techniques and has combat skills in the subtitle. Because of these reasons, I expect to get a few more miles out of it concerning the techniques used by infantry soldiers in battle, as well as better descriptions of the skills necessary, learned and successfully employed in combat. Techniques and combat skills are mentioned, to be certain, but they are painted with too broad a brush, there are virtually no sources given, and the details given are always very short and too open to guesswork and interpretation to be very much help. A sad note about the book is that the contemporary art included is never cited and those of us who would love to investigate further images of battle are left, once again, guessing.

 "The Battle of Pavia" Hans Schaufelein, c. 1526
 Though it is unnamed and unsourced in Fighting Techniques, this image is said to show a push of pike in action. Note the two variations of holding the pike depicted.

The Book: Fighting Techniques Of The Early Modern World:  1500-1763, Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. Jorgensen et al (Thomas Dunne Books, New York: 2007). Publisher’s price: 29.95; Amazon price is around 15-20$, found here -

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.