These fierce mercenaries dominated warfare in Europe from the late 15th to mid-16th centuries.
Landsknechte (singular Landsknecht, German for “servant of the country”) were heavily armed, flamboyantly dressed pikemen and foot soldiers whose skill in combat made them the finest fighting men in Europe from the late 15th to mid-16th centuries. Most landsknechte were recruited from the poor in the region that is today southern Germany, although eventually their ranks included men from other parts of Europe, as well.
Originally, landsknecht units were formed to fight in the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who reigned from 1493 to 1519. However, high demand for their superb fighting abilities soon led to their widespread use as hired mercenaries in armies throughout Europe. It was not unusual for landsknecht mercenary units to fight on both sides of a battle.
Landsknechte fought in massed “pike square” formations (patterned after those developed by the Swiss) that contained up to several thousand troops. Their well-earned reputation as the era’s most feared soldiers was largely due to their skill in wielding the weapons with which they were heavily armed. These included the steel-tipped pike, usually 14-18 feet long; the two-handed zweihänder, a massive broad sword up to 6 feet long that could easily lop off the head of an opponent’s pike or swiftly dismember a pikeman; the katzbalger, a short sword that was deadly in close combat; and the arquebus, an early version of the matchlock musket that could disrupt an opposing troop formation. Soldier Paul Dolstein, who fought for the king of Denmark at the July 1502 siege of Älfsborg Fortress in Sweden, wrote of the deadly effectiveness of landsknechte in combat: “We were 1,800 Germans, and we were attacked by 15,000 Swedish farmers … we struck most of them dead.”
Landsknechte were easily distinguishable by their flamboyant, typically outlandish clothing. In an era when commoners were prohibited by law from wearing colorful, gaudy or expensive attire, landsknechte were granted an imperial exemption. They wore oversized flat hats festooned with feathers and sported colorful clothing with “puff and slash” decoration. In particular, landsknechte favored huge sleeves of billowing fabric (puff) with long cuts (slashes) revealing underlying mismatched bright colors. These flashy costumes clearly set them apart from the era’s common soldier, which was exactly as the landsknechte intended.
While on campaign, landsknechte were supported by a virtual army of mainly women camp followers (usually their wives, sisters or daughters) who cooked, cleaned, foraged for food and handled all menial chores. In the wake of a battle, the camp followers also looted valuables from the opposing side’s dead and finished off its wounded.
In the mid-16th century, gunpowder weapons (muskets, pistols and artillery) began to flood European battlefields. This gunpowder revolution quite literally “blasted apart” the tactical dominance of the massed pike square. Landsknechte, Europe’s dominant Great Warriors for nearly a century, then became obsolete.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.