The above panel of 16th century warfare, engraved by Hans Holbein the Younger, depicts what was described as Schlechten Krieg, or Bad War. Two groups of pike armed soldiers (contemporary German soldiers carried 18 to 21 foot long spears) have collided and shoved into each other to the point where their spear points have become useless, and they now are hacking at each other with short weapons, known in German as Katzbalger, the gruesome “cat skinner”. From behind they are pressed by their comrades and on the sides men with larger weapons attempt to cut a way into the crush of bodies as, from behind, officers shout encouragement.
The image of this scene, often described as “the Push of Pike” has long fascinated me and other early modern war buffs. The mass of spear-armed infantry working in concert, is, according to authors like Victor Davis Hanson, a defining feature of “the Western Way of Warfare”, from which descends the traditions of the European/American of attritional warfare. Hanson argues that the heavy shock attack developed by the Greeks reinforced the importance of cooperative infantry formations (each man guarding his neighbor with his large shield) based on well-defined ideals of civil service in the Greek polis, which have continued into the thinking of liberal Western militaries in seeking decisive battles with combined-arms forces.
However arguable that point is, it is true that a classicist bias for Greek and Roman styled “citizen-soldiers” fighting in a dense formation was the inspiration for the military theorists of the 16th century. Combined with the viability of long pikes to ward off charges by the heavily armored European cavalry, the powerful kinetic force of a mass of penetrative spear points was demonstrated to be hard to resist, except by a similarly arrayed formation. Hence Swiss and German soldiers in the employ of France, the Holy Roman Empire, Burgundy, Spain, and the city-states of Italy often were recruited in bulk and served as soldiers for hire in the 15th and 16th centuries, while the pike continued to be used by European armies into the 18th century, and as a weapon of revolutionaries into the 19th. Pikes were even proposed as a stop-gap measure, due to a lack of rifled muskets, by the Confederate Governor of Georgia in 1861.
The slow diffusion of firearms into European armies did little to slow the pike’s dominance until the design of firearms made them more potent in range and reliability, and when the practice of regular drill increased fire rates and the capabilities of musketeer formations. Yet, the vulnerability of a man with a musket to enemy cavalry and to the points of the pike once the distance had shrunk kept the musketeer essentially as one employed in skirmishing and volleys given before the distances were closed by the pike-armed men. The musket was looked down on as the less manly instrument, the weapon of he who did his fighting at long distances, unable to stand square with his enemy and struggle with him. The power of the gun was undeniable, but still considered ancillary. In Japan, Miyamoto Musashi explained:
“From inside fortifications, the gun has no equal among weapons. It is the supreme weapon on the field before the ranks clash, but once swords are drawn, the gun becomes useless”.
Lacking the point of the spear, the gun would only finally supersede it on European battlefields with the introduction of the bayonet in the late 17th century. The use of the infantry square to defeat cavalry, seen at Waterloo and on other Napoleonic battlefields, developed from previous pike formations, especially the Swiss “Square” and the Spanish Tercio, which adapted the Swiss formation and added wings of musketeers to create a fighting unit capable of attacking and defending ground with equal ability when on open ground, where the musket could extend the formation’s killing reach without being overly-exposed to swift cavalry attack.
But the threat of close order combat, infantry on infantry, remained. And even in the 16th century, something was identified as “bad” about fighting at arms reach. If Grossman’s assertions in his book On Killing are correct, then it is true that human resistance to killing increases as distances decrease. The points of the pikes, when driving in one direction en masse, were hard to withstand, arguable not because of the actually killing involved, but because of the threat of the penetrative stabbing of the pikes terrified opponents and caused them to flee. The first ranks of the pike formation were usually held by veterans, who wore armor and were paid double the rates of regular men in the formation. Their job was to push into the opposing formation and break the shafts of the enemy’s pikes in what was termed “the forlorn hope”. As time went on, musketeers would increasingly push out front of the pikes to try and shoot into the dense groups of men in an attempt to do the same.
The question of how long formations actually lasted in the push of pike is debatable. Especially given the mercenary nature of many early modern armies, it is sometimes argued that those on the receiving end did not stand to take the blow for long, but often drew off or fled, sometimes using men with guns to screen the withdrawal. It took tremendous trust in your fellow soldiers to stand in close association and face a wall of spear-points, so captains and sergeants may have chosen to make a tactical retreat out of hand to hand combat if it looked like a collision was imminent and the odds were against them. Doing so in an orderly fashion required great discipline, and where this was lacking, entire infantry wings, like the Saxons at Brietenfeld or the Flemings at Rocroi could suddenly abandon the field if their officers did.
This hesitance is further corroborated by the rarity of the actual killing use of the bayonet, at least evidenced by the statistical absence of bayonet wounds, once the pike had been replaced by the firearm. As one military scholar noted “Each nation in Europe says: ‘No one stands his ground before a bayonet charge made by us’. And all are right.” In the American Civil War, consensus has it that most of the real hand-to-hand uses of the bayonet, and hand to hand combat in general, happened by accident in the confusion of battle when combatants unexpectedly collided in the dense smoke. The preservation of the bayonet charge and the concept of delivering well-disciplined volleys and then rapidly closing distance in order to threaten one, which was the method employed in some form by most eighteenth century armies, demonstrated the value of maintaining shock tactics in the arsenal.
But in occasions where the cohesion of the opposing formations remained strong, the push might occasion the bitter fighting depicted by Holbein. It is curious to wonder how often it got to this point; the danger of such combat, especially to relatively unarmored individuals, was very high, and would not be undertaken without high morale or a sense of duty and professionalism not renowned in the mercenaries of the 16th century. Yet in those better trained and already semi-regimented societies with regular excuses to train in arms and deep familial ties (Swiss and Scots for example), the cohesion and elan of troops might be much higher a prior, to say nothing of the dedication to the soldiering trade and to the regimental flag (much more so than vague ideas of “nationality”) which preserved the unity of regiments and mercenary companies.
Armor grew scarcer among combatants as the middle ages waned (for a multitude or reasons), and thus some have argued that the forlorn hope, the front rank men with armor, were those who did the majority of the actual infantry combat. The other soldiers used their pikes to shield the formation against cavalry or prevent encirclement, holding back from the full push unless forced by necessity or seeing an opportunity. Surviving manuals for fencing drills with the pike, including elegant footwork, could potentially argue for specialists in close order combat similar to swordsmen being pushed to the front. Close combat is particularly exhausting, especially when in armor, so particularly skilled individuals in this regard would have been the important first ranks, also usually the better paid and better armored. If these men wavered, the whole formation might pull back or negotiate some kind of withdrawal or surrender. In the age when soldiers often transferred their allegiances, sometimes on the field of battle, this is not inconceivable.
Yet the density of the pike formation, if on the charge and meeting an unyielding opponent armed in similar fashion, also argues that the kinetic force of the push, knocking down men and then pushing forward, could lead to the interlocking of formations and the breaking of the shafts visible in Holbein’s print. At this range the enemy would be in ranges of a few feet to inches, and hence the short nature of the katzbalger and the daggers worn by the soldiers in the print. The ugly nature of the increasingly close quarters lead to the desperate stabbing or hacking at the foe, likely similar to the desperation recounted in the stories of American soldiers armed with knives and shovels stabbing and bludgeoning Japanese infiltrators who suddenly appeared in their foxholes in the dark of night. The strength of the pike block might have been the feeling of support and protection afforded by the man to right or left (such an argument is often used for the superiority of Ancient Greek formations over their opponents), and if formations collapsed, this feeling of bulwark may have suddenly turned the closeness from comforting to claustrophobic, hence the frantic struggle against opponents breaking into the formation, as seen in the print.
Further underscoring the steadfast potential was the difficulty in destroying such formations if indeed they were surrounded and fought to the death. The strong resistance put up by Spanish Tercios at Rocroi in 1643 when surrounded and outnumbered by the French is testimony to that, though they were eventually cut down to a man. In this case, the men armed with pikes could push until their pikes broke, and then come to blows at close quarters in a final desperate measure, though many would likely try to surrender (although at Rocroi, the French attackers gave almost no quarter). The nastiness of the fighting that could ensue was recreated in the recent movie Alatriste:
Even in an age when close combat with the “pusillanimous” pike was considered more noble and in adherence to the warrior spirit than the musket, the image of the interlocking of formations, of soldiers stabbing and hacking at each other while being crushed by surrounding bodies, was considered “bad war” in Holbein’s day. Today the “nasty” nature of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere is characterized by the supposedly similar intimacy of the killing done in urban firefights. In the case of Rwanda and other mass killings with machetes, the similarity is further reinforced, as is the ugly and almost inhuman regard for these killings in the public at large.