Monday, October 24, 2016

Push of Pike - historical notes about the Pike

As a topic that got spurred on by all my late medieval and Renaissance wargaming activities lately, I did some reading about the lengthy catalyst of RMAs - the Pike. (RMAs are Revolutions in Military Affairs, and if you have never heard the name Michael Roberts, or of his first attacker, and later defender Geoffrey Parker, then you have been spared a great deal of historian's argument).

'Bad War' by Hans Holbein

There is a great article on the Push of Pikes, their employ, their length, etc - in an article called The push of pike in the 14th Century, from earlier this year (February 2016).  It is from a blog on historical topics, including such things as costume from different periods.  One of the gems of the article is the widespread basis for quotes and references.  Here is a great quote that is made, about a captain (Hynrick van Gemen) telling his men how to employ the Pike (presumably they were not veteran soldiers), during a battle protecting Münster from an invasion in 1407.
Gy menne, de nyn harnsch anne en hebben, gy solt achter uns beharnscheden gaen, und wyket nycht und schuwet uns und steket myt den peyken under de iseren hode.
"You men, who have no armour on you, you shall go behind our armoured (men) and will not move nor fear and you will stab with the pikes underneath the iron hats (in the faces of the enemy)."

But, of course, there is a lot of debate over whether or not there was ever a Push of Pike type engagement, where two pike formations actually engaged each other.  Lots of opinion on the internet, including an interesting discussion by a fellow that runs a blog called Swords and Socialism, where he reduces a pike-to-pike encounter as having three stages: Prodding (attempting to reach, and stab, without being stabbed), Pushing (when the blocks become locked, and it is a scrum, or shoving match, both bodies of men effectively having gotten "under" the pikes), and Panic (where one side or the other loses their cool, and departs the encounter).  I don't know how authoritative this is, or is it just a gleaning of information from other popular sources?

A video I uncovered also addresses the issue, and the presented supposes that pikes never actually faced pikes, just sort of had a machismo showdown until one side or the other fled (usually whichever side was not, in order, either (1) Swiss, (2) Landsknechts, (3) Spaniards, (4) Anyone else).

This fellow (his youtube channel goes by the name of Lindybeige) may have a point.  Now, a historian that was interested in finding out just how a pike formation worked, was Hans Delbrück, who in the research for his History of the Art of War, actually took men out in the field, gave them pikes, drilled them, and made notes as to how they behaved.  Equally, Charles Oman with his Art of War in the Sixteenth Century, is also quite influential, and does his homework.

One thing is certain, and that is starting with the Scots in their fight against the English, in the 14th century, and going on up until the last elements of pikes were removed from the musketry units in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century, one of the key formations of infantry power on the battlefield was the pike.  Was it defensive?  Was it offensive?  There are many opinions, all by people who have no first hand experience.

In the piece of artwork at the top of this posting, Holbein (who is responsible for fantastic portraits of Erasmus, Thomas More, Henry VIII and a couple of other chaps you may have heard of) does a drawing called "bad war" which was between Swiss pikemen and German Landsknechte.  Both had a reputation for being efficient, well trained, and ruthless, and were foes of each other (the two biggest kids on the block).  Since the Italian Wars, and moving on from there into the 16th century, they were often employed against each other, and the concept of a bad war (as illustrated by Holbein) is one where neither pike block will swerve, and the pikes and doppelsoldners with their two handed swords, halberds, and worse will chew into each other, in an extremely bloody scrum.


The Spanish were certainly avowed fans of the Pike, as seen throughout the 80 years war and others, with their much celebrated Tercio formation.  Fans of warfare from this period could do much worse than to track down and see the film Alatriste (with Viggo Mortenson in the title role), about a Spanish unit that is fated to fight the French at the battle of Rocroi.

Spanish at Rocroi - by Augusto Ferrer-Delmau

A list of push-of-pike engagements includes a lot of the seminal battles of the 16th century.  According to wikipedia, this list includes:

Arbedo (1422) - Milan vs. the Swiss
Ravenna (1512) - Duchy of Ferrara (and France) vs. Papal States (and Spain)
Novara (1513) - Venice (with France) vs Milan (with Swiss)
Pavia (1525) - France vs. Charles V (HRE Emperor, who is also Charles I of Spain)
Ceresole (1544) - France vs. HRE in the Italian Wars
Langside (1568) - Moray vs. Mary, Queen of Scots
Santo Domingo (1586) - the only battle listed in the New World
Zutphen (1586)
Nieuwpoort (1600) - Look at this map of the battle - zoom in and look at the detail!
Benburb  (1646) - Irish (Owen Roe O'Neill) vs Scots Covenanters and English Colonists

This does not include any battles from the English Civil War (unless you include Benburb, which I won't), nor from the Thirty Years War (such as the battle of Lutzen).  It does include four of the major conflicts of the Italian Wars (Ravenna, Novara, Pavia, and Ceresole).

Wargamers, of course, want to get the history correct (when they can).  But, whether the clash of pike-on-pike resulted in a mutual stabbing affair, a crushing scrum, or a macho staring contest until one side or the other departed - it doesn't matter. The rulesets will tell you which of the figures are dead (or no longer able to function in combat), and which are due rewards for behavior (by winning a "combat").  Regardless of what this means in real life, the fact that the pike was the main weapon of massed infantry formations (including the elite formations of the day - the pike blocks of the Swiss Cantons), and that it was extremely effective vs. musketry formations and cavalry formations, and that it was vulnerable to artillery fire, and that it would occasionally be asked to go head to head, and toe to toe, with an enemy pike formation.  It is a part of military history, and so the push of pike clash has earned a place in our historical wargames.


Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Interesting post!

Charles Turnitsa said...

Steve - thanks. I'm still reading, and doing research on the subject. Two of the battles that are often pointed at as showing the decline of the pike (Marignano and Biocca) are strange cases, but show the days of the weapon as being limited, when employed against emplaced shot and artillery units.

One of the things that I have always thought, since my earliest days of renaissance wargaming, is that the Pike may have started out as a (psychologically) defensive weapon. The insurmountable arm of offense in the 15th century was stilled the Armored cavalryman, as developed under centuries of development in feudal and manorial Europe. Although some battles have shown the effectiveness of shot (notably, archers) against the cavalry, I think that the psychology was still in place, that they were the Arm to beat, on the battlefield. The Pike formation, while maybe not maneuverable enough to be offensive against Knights, certainly was clearly a nearly unbeatable forces (when supported properly) that the Knights could not beat.

But the fly in the ointment of my theory is that by the late 16th, and early 17th century, at least, the Pike had become to be seen as offensive. This is certainly true in the 80 years war, the early phases of the 30 years war, and even the English Civil War. Again, the ratios seen in the infantry units of the New Model were more in favor of shot, but Pikes were certainly still a necessary component for military planners, as late as 1688, and maybe 1700.

Guillaume d'Guy said...

Thanks for your reprise of this interesting and perhaps never to be resolved subject.
I am a wargamer that does almost exclusively the Musket & Pike period. As such, determining what "push of pike" actually meant when it was originally used is akin to the holy grail :). Clearly it was a frequently used term in contemporary accounts and drill manuals and so familiar that hardly any explanation needed to be given. It was perhaps simply the idiom meaning "to come into close contact with the opposing foot"

I had watched the YouTube video (Lindybeige) a few weeks ago and came away with a rather uncertain "well maybe..." The Holbein print has always been my starting point and Rocroi in the film "Alatriste" the best representation of what I imagine. The fact that there exists contemporary exercises for individual pike combat suggests that it was more than just a glaring contest.

I think your conclusion is perhaps the most intelligent I've seen. In wargaming the details of what happen in a push of pike really don't matter - the rules sort it out anyway. Bravo!

Thanks also for several other links I will now explore at leisure.