Monday, March 30, 2015
I want you to imagine for a second that you're a Cavalier Pikeman at the battle of Torrington during the English Civil War. You're in the front ranks of your pike block, defending the outskirts of your town, when suddenly, out in the distance, you see a Roundhead pike formation heading directly at you. As it slowly advances towards you, pike tips bristling like the quills on a porcupine, you anxiously wait for your captain's orders to re-deploy. They never come. He's decided to call the opponent's bluff and stand his ground. As the enemy gets closer and closer, and you're own side refuses to budge, you realize, terrified what's going to happen. In a few moments, their formation slams into yours. In seconds, you, your fellow comrades in the first row, and the enemy's entire first line, are all wiped out. In the coming minutes, there will be more slaughter to come.
What you have just witnessed was known as a Push of Pike. Today, for my first ever post on my first ever blog, we're going to discuss it, "Bad War," and some points about Renaissance Pike Formations and Tactics
Part 1: The Pike Square and Pike and Shot:
By the late 1400's, European tactics and equipment for the time-honored tradition of killing the shit out of each other was changing. Armies dominated by expensive, heavily-armored Men-At-Arms (colloquially known as "Knights") were slowly being phased out in favor of cheaper, larger forces, consisting mostly of more lightly armored conscripts, supplemented by professional mercenaries hired from places such as Switzerland or the Holy Roman Empire (where the famed Swiss Pikeman and Landsknechte come from, respectively). The final nail in the coffin on the old way of fighting was the Battle of Nancy in January of 1477. Here the Swiss confederacy managed to smash Charles the Bold of Burgundy's Heavy armored Knights on horseback using the Swiss' secret weapon: NEUTRALITY! (Bet you didn't expect that.)
No, the weapon that smashed Charles the Bold's army and destroyed the Duchy of Burgundy in it's entirety was the Pike: almost 18 feet long, with a 4 foot steel tip. Now, pikes HAD been used before this; they were the mainstay of Alexander the Great's army in his conquests of the known world, and even had been used in the medieval era: the Flemish and the Scots used pikes to great effect at the Battles of the Golden Spurs and Sterling Bridge (which, unlike what Braveheart tells us, ACTUALLY TOOK PLACE ON A BRIDGE). But it was the Swiss who made the pike the mainstay of armies all across europe. Why? Because it was they who deployed their pikes in a radical new formation, designed specifically to combat heavy cavalry: the Pike Square. This was a formation of 100 men, deployed in a 10x10 square (hence the name "Pike Square"). The structure of this formation, combined with it's immense mobility and the discipline of the soldiers in it allowed the pikes to be deployed in almost any order: pikes could either be deployed facing the enemy in attack, or open up into a bristling defensive wall of pikes in all directions on the defense. On the late medieval battlefield, the Pike Square became the unchallenged king of the battlefield: against the previous formations, with their focus of heavy cavalry, it was unstoppable. he introduction of firearms in the late 15th century only added to the formation's strength. In what became known as "Pike and Shot" tactics, pikes were deployed in a defensive square, similar to the old pike square, with arquebusiers deployed in the front and on the left and right flanks, to form what were known as "Wings of Shot." Halberdiers were deployed in the center of the pike formation to help counter enemy pikes, using the great axe blades on their halberds to sweep enemy pikes out of the way. The pike and shot formation was an extremely effective and extremely deadly force. Imagine, if you will, 10, 20, maybe even 30 pike and shot formations, each with over 1,000 men supported by both cavalry and artillery. This combination allowed the pike to remain, for almost 200 years, the "King of the Battlefield"
Part 2: Pike Tactics:
"But how were pikes used in battle, SwordsAndSocialism?" I hear you cry. (Or at least, I would hear you cry if you were...you know what, forget it. Joke aborted.)
Pikes were used, like I said earlier, in a block formation, similar to the ancient Macedonian Phalanx or the Celtic Sheltron or Schiltron. Pike blocks usually formed into a 10x10 square, usually consisting of about 100 men. While on the move, the soldiers carried their pikes vertically (like so), but, when stationary, the pikemen were drilled to be able to deploy their pikes in any direction. When deployed, the first row would usually either bend over or kneel, planting the butt of their pikes into the ground for extra stability. The following few rows would remain standing, holding their pikes at about neck level. The pike square was an extremely versatile formation. On the offense, pikes could be deployed all pointing one way in attack, or be planted firm in defense. Squares could be joined together to form a battle line, and, if surrounded, pikes could still be pointed in all directions. A well drilled square could change direction very quickly, making it difficult to outmaneuver on horseback. Impossible to penetrate on horseback and dangerous to approach on foot, The square was a powerhouse of defense. On the attack, it was incredibly effective as well. When threatened the square could point all of the pikes at the enemy forces and merely move inexorably toward its target. But the square's real strength was in its charge. The charge consisted a headlong rush against the enemy with leveled pikes and a coordinated battle cry. The mass charge could only be carried out by the most disciplined infantry and mercenary companies, but when carried out, it was massively effective. Any enemies dumb or brave enough not to flee ended up impaled on the 4ft steel tips. The inclusion of muskets only added to the pike square's strength. Pike and shot formations added a ranged element to the classical pike square, with the musketeers being able to target enemy formations, and the pikes protecting the musketeers from enemy infantry and cavalry incursions. Overall, the Renaissance pike formation was an unstoppable powerhouse. It was maneuverable, fast, and could counter enemy cavalry and non-pike infantry with ease. It was when pike met pike when the issues began.
Part 3: When Pike met Pike:
While pikes and pikemen were usually the most common element on the Renaissance battlefield (In the English Civil War, Pikemen made up 1/3 of the total infantry forces), Pikes clashing with other pikes were actually not very common. Armies usually utilized specialist anti-pike forces, such as soldiers armed with Great Swords (and, for the inevitable "Oh, you mean Zweihänder" comment-THEY'RE THE SAME THING ) or halberds, to hack their way into the pike formations and destroy them from within (but that's another post for another time). With the introduction of gunpowder weapons, muskets, and even better, cannons were increasingly used to try to break up and scatter pike formations. Once this had been achieved, cavalry would be sent in to mop up the broken forces and pursue the survivors.
So, as we can see, it was not effective to try counter pike formations with other pike formations. But, that's not to say it didn't happen, because it did. Usually, when pike formations were sent to advance into other pike formations, it was done as a bluff: the hope was that the sight of a hundred advancing pikes would be enough to intimidate the enemy troops into breaking. Usually, if this didn't work, and the enemy formation refused to budge, the advancing formation would raise pikes, turn heel, and disengage. But sometimes, that didn't happen. Sometimes, due to God Knows why, pike squares were ordered to slam into each-other. And that's when things got messy.
The fighting that followed was known as the "Push of Pike," and it was an immensely violent, bloody affair, which usually resulted in heavy casualties. The Push of Pike can be divided into 3 basic parts, or, as I like to call them, the 3 P's:
It usually played out something like this:
Eventually, one of the sides would get in close enough to the opposing ranks, and then the real struggle would begin. At this point, since at this range, the length of the pikes made them incredibly unwieldy, both sides would raise pikes and charge, opposing sides literally slamming into each other. the two sides would then push physically, each man pressing on the one in front, until one or other of them gave way. These pushing matches usually only lasted a few minutes, but, on some occasions, they could last an agonizing amount of time (At Torrington, during the English Civil War, this pushing match lasted nearly 2 hours.)
The barbarity and high casualty rates of push of pike battles are probably the main reasons they occurred so infrequently: a quick perusal of Wikipedia (the vessel of all human knowledge) lists only 11 battles from the period between 1400-1700 where push of pike occurred. or the soldiers involved in such terrifying, violent affairs,, i'm sure even one time was too much.
For over 200 years, the veritable pike reigned as undisputed king of the European battlefield. It served in hundreds of battle, in the hands of thousands of soldiers, under the flags of everyone from princes to peasants. Even with the introduction of the Musket, the pike still remained the clear lord of the armies of Europe. With the invention of the socket bayonet, the pike was rendered obsolete, and yet, it was not until the 1730's, nearly 300 years after the victory at Nancy, that the pike was finally phased out of the arsenals of European armies. And even then, pikes were still a common sight in the hands of revolutionaries and militias of all stripes (England's Home Guard were very famously issued pikes in 1942).
The effect the pike had on European warfare was astounding. The modern organization of Companies and regiments, the concept of professional armies instead of hired mercenaries, even the borders of Europe itself, all of them owe their existence to the humble pike.
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog! This is my first post ever, so I hope that I did alright.
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