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Landsknechts: The Economy Alternative?

Bohemian Mercenaries at the End of the 15th Century

We all know that winners write the history books. Recently, I ran into an unfamiliar bit of history which added to my knowledge of my favorite Renaissance mercenaries - the Landsknechts - while perhaps detracting a bit from their reputation, in my mind at least. It is very much a case of hearing a lot about the winners, while the second-place finishers have faded into obscurity.

We all know about the famous rivalry between the Swiss Reislaufer and the Landsknechts who imitated them, but you may not have heard of the Bohemian mercenaries of the late Middle Ages. These guys were - far more than the Swiss - the real marketplace competititors of the Landsknechts. And in the end, the Landsknechts won out because they were - to make a long story short - cheaper. Not better - just more cost-effective for the economy-minded Emperor. (Well, OK, maybe they were better...)

This is one of those times when you are chasing down a detail in your wargaming research, and - one thing leading to another - a whole story unfolds (and then, being a wargamer, you have to put the army on the table, and your wallet empties. Let's not talk about that part!) This kind of historical discovery is one of the things I love about the hobby.

I was reading the Art de la Guerre Late Medieval army lists - I had a lot of unpainted medieval figures left over from another project, and was looking for something useful to do with them. Since we play a lot of ADLG these days, but didn't have any armies with war wagons, I decided on Hussites: I could 3D print the war wagons (I used this free one from Thingiverse as a basis, but there are several), so that was an easy choice, but then I needed an enemy. Well, that would naturally be the Imperialists. And since I was doing Imperialists, and I still needed to find a job for a bag of unpainted longbowmen, which neatly form the core of a French Ordonnance army, I decided I would do all three armies. I could have two new match-ups to put on the table! (Not to mention the Venetians, which would only require a couple of extra bases of stradiotti, etc. You probably know how this works...)

In going through the Medieval German list for the Imperialists, I saw that they too - like the Hussites - could have war wagons. This piqued my curiosity, and I started digging around to find out who on the Imperialist side was using war wagons. (I like to put armies on the table which in fact resemble their historical antecedents, and not just armies which comply with the lists as written. That said, ADLG does a pretty good job with its army lists in keeping them historical.) I didn't think the Imperialists fielded war wagons against the Hussites, but if you are going to do a bunch of war wagons, you want to be able to use them as much as possible, right? I was thinking they could fight the French (which turned out to not really be true historically, but plausible, I suppose).

At the Battle of Wenzenbach in 1504 (or, a more detailed account in German), the penultimate conflict of the War of the Landshut Succession, one side (both sides were Bavarians, but one was backed by the Emperor Maximillian, while the other was not) fielded no fewer than 300 war wagons, manned by Bohemian mercenaries. These guys were still using Hussite tactics, long after the religious conflicts that triggered the Hussite Rebellion had died out.

It turns out that Bohemia - a problematic part of the Holy Roman Empire, like the Swiss cantons - turned their "revolutionary" tactics for dealing with mounted knights into a paying industry afterwards. The Swiss used the halberd and pike in mountainous terrain, unsuited to mounted warfare, to defeat the Burgundians and the Imperialists; the Hussites of Bohemia, living in ideal cavalry country, borrowed a trick from the Russians and developed the wagenburg. And both techniques were subsequently for sale.

But who were these guys? There is no Osprey Men-at-Arms book on them, so they are largely invisible to wargamers. It turns out that there are some pretty good German-language sites on them, notably this one. (I am lucky in having a lot of native German-speaking friends, because Google translate does a real massacre-job on these sites: "war wagon" becomes "chariot castle" and "Landsknecht" becomes "servant of the country" - the sort of literal translation that can be pretty confusing.) The Bohemian mercenaries are sometimes referred to as "Trabanten" (plural for "Trabant") but this is the same term used in other parts of Germany for high-ranking guards, notably in relation to the Landsknechts. (In 1690, when the Elector of Brandenburg decided to raise a company of gentleman guards in imitation of the French Mousquetiers du Roi, he used the name "Trabanten-Gard" for them. It can be tricky.)

The Bohemians used a combination of handgunners, crossbowmen, hand-weapons, pikes, and halberds to defend their war wagons, and the wagons themselves were supplemented by the use of pavises in the spaces between, forming what was termed a "wagon wall". The sources emphasize the use of hand weapons - swords and axes - over pole arms or pikes, but period depictions tend to show both. They were not heavily armored. They seemed to have perfected the use of the wagenburg, as it was on occasion used offensively in battle, maneuvering toward the enemy. They had a fearsome reputation.

Apparently, the Bohemian model was seen as a good one, and various of the Bavarian and Franconian nobility raised companies of mercenaries in imitation. They fought in a number of conflicts, including the "feuds" of the period - basically legal wars between members of the Holy Roman Empire - of the later 15th century. These were very common in Franconia, a part of Germany near to Bohemia where the Bohemian mercenaries seemed to be popular. (Such feuds span the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and can be an interesting topic unto themselves, for those who like Landsknechts and their bretheren - at Plassenburg Castle, the world's largest toy soldier museum in Kulmbach, Germany, there is a diorama with thousands of 30mm flats depicting the castle itself being besieged in a war where both sides employed Landsknechts.)

At the Battle of Wenzenbach, they were defeated. Maximillian - having fallen off his horse at one point in the battle - apparently lead his Landsknechts (commanded by Frundsberg) into the fray, thus giving them a ton of good marketing. Once they had won the battle, Frundsberg was knighted and the Landsknechts became the storied legions with which we are familiar. I am sure they would tell you that they became famous because they were better than their Bohemian opponents.

Maximillian takes a tumble, his horse shot out from under him by deadly Bohemian fire, and a Landsknecht lends a hand.
What a bunch of suck-ups! (From a woodcut by Hans Burgkmair, circa 1504).

But the real story - at least from the Bohemian side - is different. The Landsknechts were much more poorly paid, on a man-for-man basis, and apparently easier to recruit. The Bohemians did fight again - they were involved in the wars with Venice up until 1516 - but their reputation diminished, while that of the Landsknechts increased. It pays to remember that the Holy Roman Emperors were known for many things, and being deeply in debt was not the least of them. It is easy to understand that Maximillian would have preferred a cheaper (and victorious) option to the alternative.

In truth, the pike squares used by the Swiss and Landsknechts became the basis of infantry tactics during the Renaissance, and their form of warfare, being forward-looking, was in fact superior to that of the Bohemians. But at the time, that would not have been evident. Maybe, if Maximillian had been in a spending mood, the tank would have been developed centuries earlier, and the history of warfare as we know it would have been completely different.

I certainly cannot say. All I can do, as a miniatures wargamer, is to put a bunch of Bohemian war wagons on the table, and hope that I roll well enough to watch them decimate the competition's pike blocks. (I mean, how can you take yourself seriously as a soldier when you dress in all those gaudy colors, anyway? You look more like a clown, especially since you work for minimum wage! Not to mention being a bitch to paint, etc.)

Maybe you already knew all of this - given how much some wargamers know about history, it wouldn't surprise me. (Somebody put war wagons on the ADLG list, after all). But it was an intriguing find from my perspective, and yet another avenue into a fascinating past - and a whole new set of tabletop battles.

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