The Weapons of War in the 17th Century

The Ottoman siege of Vienna. Note the sharp angles in the wall designs, and the zig zagging trenches closing the distance to the city. Photo Credit: Franz Geffels

Speaking of war, this is as good a segue as any to tell a small story. Thirty five years after the Peace of Westphalia put an end to Germany’s grief, the Ottoman Empire marched out for one final stab at Vienna. Under the leadership of Mehmet IV, the Turks mustered an army of somewhere between 90,000 and 300,000 men drawn from all over their Empire. At its core were the dreaded Janissaries, a body of professional soldiers that were only starting to become more a detriment than an aid to the Ottomans.[1] As they marched in spring, the timing coincided with the return of the grass their horses would need. Vast herds of cattle and sheep were brought along with the army as it marched, and local vassals along the route had planted rice along the side of the major roads to keep the army fed. Most details had been accounted for with a level of precision modern military planners would admire. Clear lines of communication were established all the way to enemy territory. When the army reached its destination and began to lay siege to Vienna, they constructed the camp in a meticulous fashion that provided access for clean water and safe disposal of the waste 12,000 soldiers have a habit of making. The rest of the force then scoured the countryside, fanning out for signs of enemy relief forces, food, and to generally terrorize their enemies. It was a clockwork machine of war, lubricated with the blood of their foes.

German armies in the 17th Century looked a lot more like Ernst von Mansfeld. Unlike the Ottomans, who had a salaried standing army of over 60,000 men in 1609, most European states could not stomach the cost of maintaining one for very long. Desertion, disease, and starvation during winter and fall was known to strip as much as half the numbers from a field army.[2] Nor was the discipline required to place the latrines downriver from the drinking water supplies typically on full display. Sacking friendly territory would be a common occurrence in the coming days, as consistent supply trains were virtually unheard of. For the smaller states and cities in the Empire especially, they simply lacked even the basic manpower to maintain a force of any size. Gone were the days when any noble could simply grab the peasants from their fields, stick a spear in their hands and point them at the enemy. In the era of powder and shot, a little more sophistication was required, but the concept of the standing army had not yet returned in full.

The lacey collared menace that was Ernst von Mansfeld.

That’s where professional killers like Mansfeld came into their own. The bastard son of a minor noble and one time governor of Luxembourg, Ernst von Mansfeld was the equivalent of a modern day canvasser. Outside of wartime, Mansfeld’s “army” consisted of himself and a team of dedicated officers who specialized in recruitment and training. When war began they fanned out, grabbed every second son and unwanted extra mouth they could find and whipped them into fighting shape as quickly as possible. The promise Mansfeld and other mercenary lords offered their men was plunder and adventure, neither of which were state specific causes. The mercenary and his ilk would leech the funds from one sponsor, then if the wind seemed to be blowing another way or the cash pile was running low they would switch their services to someone else. As a result the need for these often international sellswords to fund their own campaigns actually played a major role in prolonging the war, as some continued to rampage long after their nominal leaders had given up.

Often, these armies did not just mean men. Women and children, prostitutes, servants, the kidnapped, the dispossessed, washerwomen, and all other manner of camp followers typically accompanied the army wherever it went. Count Tilly, General of the Bavarian army at one point gauged that at the low end there were two noncombatants for every soldier in his ranks. Another mercenary paymaster noted that between six and seven children were born each week in the army. Needless to say, a lot of hungry people on the march. The resulting forces, be they state sponsored or mercenary were more than a military presence. They were a mobile Hobbesian state of nature. Mansfeld summed up what his army brought wherever it went,

“Neither they nor their horses can live by air…all that they have, whether it be arms or apparel, weareth, wasteth, and breaketh. If they must buy more they must have money, and if men have it not to give them, they will take it where they find it, not as in part of that which is due unto them, but without weighing or telling it. This gate being once opened unto them they enter into the large fields of liberty;…they spare no person of what quality so ever he be, respect no place how holy so ever, neither Churches, altars, tombs, sepulchers nor the dead bodies lie in them.”[3]

Soldiers waylay a party of travelers in the war. The artist Sebastien Vranck captures the chaos in both foreground and background, and the brutality of the attack.

Another compounding factor to the war was the use of modern fortresses. Unlike the circular castle walls of the medieval era, the gunpowder age called for more angular “star” forts with interlocking fields of fire and a lack of blind spots. Creative shapes and more sloping walls had given the edge to defenders in a siege, and taking a fortress was a time consuming and expensive affair. Especially along the Dutch front, fortresses paralleling one another were a common sight. While few garrisons had the strength to push out their enemies if surrounded, they could raid the countryside and perpetuate a lower intensity war away from the major armies.

In the event that a battle did break out, warfare was undergoing a major shift at the time. Gunpowder was becoming ever more practical, and musket and cannon played a major role in any battle. Still, the weaponry was in a sense still in its experimental phase. Smiths played around with breach or barrel loading muskets of all different calibers.[4] Cannon could fire canister, explosives, or solid shot, and were only loosely categorized by the size of the ball they fired.

The veritable sea of pikes in the late 16th Century battle give the scene.

Formations of pike men still played a major role on the field of battle, though their importance was starting to wane. At the start of the war armies were roughly split between pikes and muskets. Tactics differed on their use though, as the Dutch favored smaller blocks of pikes that supported their larger musket units, while the Spaniards favored fewer blocks of more numerous pikes known as Tercios, which were legendary for their discipline and loyalty. In battle, both lines of infantry would typically push to the center with volleys of musket fire covering the advance. If pike blocks met, the “push of pike” where both sides tried to literally force apart each other’s formation would ensue.[5]

Cavalry nipped at the flanks and looked to roll up the infantry formations if they could. Lancers wearing plate armor were still present, but the Thirty Years’ War marked almost the final appearance of the old fashioned knight. Other cavalry were filling its disappearance, as heavy horsemen remained great pursuers, and lighter ones armed with pistols played a major role in screening the flanks or skirmishing.

This musketeer displays the gear, dash, and devil may care attitude required to hold a lit match near dangling gunpowder. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Most pike men wore helmets and breastplates. Cavalry were similarly equipped with a range of plate armor. By contrast, musketeers looked more like something from a 70’s dance party than soldiers. Their baggy and often bright colored uniforms were adorned with bags of gunpowder like tassels. Cartridges were an uncommon innovation, and most musketeers also favored a matchlock gun that required a long and often lit match dangling over their body. The results were often combustive for the poor gunner in question, but their volleys could be deadly. The Dutch especially could lay down a withering and continuous stream of fire, even while advancing or retreating. With all of that in mind, it’s time to return to Ferdinand.

[1] The roots of the janissary corps had called for taking the children of conquered territories, converting them to Islam and then rigorously training them in war and ideology. By the 17th Century though the rules had been relaxed, and Muslim teens were allowed to join. By the 18th Century the Janissaries had become a pseudo civilian institution and a major liability. They kept the trappings of their ascetic beginning, never marrying in favor of retaining concubines, never assuming office but killing those in power they didn’t like etc…

[2] The sole exception might have been the Dutch. At least they offered a pension to those disabled in wartime.

[3] Wedgewood 2005

[4] Leading to such baffling innovations as the “triple handgun”.

[5] Or sometimes if no one was looking too closely they would sort of wave pikes in front of one another.


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