Couple of reasons for that.
One was the Christmas-New Year's follies and the awful weather that went with it, plus a crazy work schedule.
The other was that there just aren't that many battles for December, January and February.
Prior to the development of agriculture nobody really fought in the winter outside the tropics, anyway. Food didn't keep so you had no rations, travel was crap and the weather sucked bad enough without someone trying to kill you. Sod that for a game of soldiers.But even after the development of organized armies and logistical trains, winter campaigns were hard to start, hard to manage and hard to get a real result out of. Certainly there were winter battles in the preindustrial age such as Trenton and Eylau. But the list of truly decisive battles in the northern hemisphere in winter is pretty slim. November yields Bun'ei/Hakata Bay in 1274. But although a pretty decisive Japanese win the long-term effect is questionable, since the Mongols were back again seven years later. December is vacant, and in January there's really only the fall of Granada in 1492, which as a battle is minor although the Reconquista itself is one of history's enormous watersheds.
So we come to February, and one of history's most problematic "decisive" battles. Those of us who believe that sometimes war does in fact solve things are well advised to look long on this engagement, a testimony to the ugly reality that you can do something really, really well, and get what to all appearances is the outcome you want and still end up, in the end, with absolutely nothing. This, then, is the Battle of
Pavia Date: February 24, 1524Forces Engaged: French: initially about 21,000 footsoldiers (including 10,000 Swiss and 5,000 German mercenary [landsknechte]) and an estimated 6,000 handgun-armed infantrymen (arqebusiers); 3,500 cavalry, of which 1,500 are what we would call armored knights (French “gendarmes”, noblemen and their armed retainers) and 2,000 are lance-and-sword-armed light to medium cavalry; 53 cannon. Roughly 28,000 total under Francis I, Valois king of France.
(Note: somewhere between 2,000 to 6,000 troops – the “Black Band” mercenaries of the Medicis (not the "Black Legion" mentioned later!) and some 4-5,000 Swiss mercenaries of the Grison cantons - decamped from the French force before the battle, leaving about 23- 25,000 troops to face the Imperialists before Pavia)
Imperial: 19-20,000 infantry (including 11,000 landsknechts, 3,000 arqubusiers and 5-6,000 Spanish tercio combined arms infantry – more about which later); about 5,000 cavalry, mostly Imperial men-at-arms, 17 cannon. Also roughly 25,000 under a group of divisional commanders: nominally Charles of Lannoy but particularly with the cooperation of the Spanish professional officer Antonio de Leyva commanding the 6,000-man garrison of Pavia.
The Situation: There is probably no more forgotten (and even less understood even when recalled) set of conflicts – to an American audience, especially – than the dynastic wars that consumed Europe pretty much from the fall of Rome the late 5th Century AD to the Concert of Vienna in the year 1815. It seems to a latter-day dweller of the Western Hemisphere that the Europeans did nothing but fight each other, catch plagues and fornicate when they weren’t writing plays and persecuting Jews. The permutations are baffling and the personalities and polities even more so. Which pope did what (other than the Borgia popes who were doing all the fornicating)? What the hell was the Holy Roman Empire? It wasn’t Roman, that’s for sure, and its holiness is pretty questionable, too. What the hell were they fighting about? It all seems way too European, quaint, peculiar and dated to an American observer.
The sixty-year period (1494 to 1559) that contains the so-called “Great Italian Wars” is like a poster child for these wars. I mean, here’s the opening two paragraphs in the Wiki entry for the Italian War of 1494:
“Pope Innocent VIII, in conflict with King Ferdinand I of Naples over Ferdinand's refusal to pay feudal dues to the papacy, excommunicated and deposed Ferdinand by a bull of 11 September 1489, then offered the Kingdom of Naples to King Charles VIII of France, who had a remote claim to Naples through the Angevin line. Innocent later settled his quarrel with Ferdinand and revoked the bans before dying in 1492, but the offer remained an apple of discord in Italian politics. Ferdinand died in January 1494, and was succeeded by his son Alfonso II. In October 1494, Ludovico Sforza, who had long controlled the Duchy of Milan, finally inherited the ducal title. He was immediately challenged by Alfonso II, who also had a claim on Milan. Ludovico decided to remove this threat by inciting Charles to take up Innocent's offer. Charles gathered a large army of 25,000 men and invaded Italy.”Ludovico Who? An apple of what? WTF? Why the hell were these mooks fighting, and for what? And keep in mind that this is only the FIRST of the six or seven of these damn things – the players and the stories get MORE complex in the 16th Century!
Perhaps the best way to think of this mess is to stick to the basics:
1. France was the biggest and meanest power in Europe at the end of the 15th Century. Her Capetan royalty, never famous for their military acumen – let’s face it, this was the gang that kept charging English longbow formations – was feeling pretty cocky and wanted a piece of everybody’s action, especially in Italy, their weak and divided neighbor.
2. The Spanish (fresh from the Reconquista) and the Holy Roman Empire saw France as their natural enemy and ganged against her whenever possible.
3. The ankle-biters: the princely states of Italy, England, later the Dutch, kept an eye open for ways to discomfit France whenever it looked cheap and easy. The Italian states, of course, feuded interminably with each other. It was their pastime, and a more disastrous one can barely be imagined.
4. As always, the Ottomans lurked over the horizon, ready to make trouble whenever possible.
In this particular case, Charles Hapsburg of Spain was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Francis I of France had wanted the job. The bribery and chicanery involved in the election were Chicagoan in scale, and eventually Charles got the nod because he bent the electors the old fashiond way: he marched an army to Frankfurt, where the electors were meeting, and let them know that they could receive silver externally or steel internally (what any Columbian drug lord would recognize: plombo o plata). They got the hint, he got the job, Francis got pissed and it was game on, muthafucka.The Sources: As befits a historical event in the midst of the High Rennaissance we have several good sources including the correspondence of the commanders involved. Francesco Guicciardini, servant to the Medici, published the Storia d'Italia, a political history of Italy covering the Italian Wars to the mid-1530’s that is a valuable summary of the period, though Guicciardini’s faults as an author are nearly as prolix as his failings as a man.
The Campaign: The North Italian campaign of fall 1524 and winter 1525 was a confusing as all the rest of this Italian Wars nonsense. I could tell you about the French capture of Milan, the retreat of Lannoy and the Imperial army towards Lodi, Francis’ diversion from the pursuit and destruction of the Imperial field force to besiege Pavia.
Or I could discuss the movements of the French detachment under Montmorency, or the brief, odd intervention of a Spanish force under Moncada that landed at Genoa in December, was immediately cut off by a combination of French land force and a Genoese Italian-but-in-Valois-service fleet and surrendered. Or Lannoy’s skittish maneuverings towards Pavia in January and February, 1525. But why bother? They are, as a better writer than me would say, but a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
The bottom line was that at nightfall on February 23rd things in and around Pavia looked like this:
1. Leyva and his 5-6,000 were still hemmed up in Pavia, but were in close contact with Lannoy and prepared to move to support him.
2. Francis and his entire force were camped around the north side of Pavia within an immense walled park or forest preserve of some sort called Mirabello. Francis, for some unknown reason, apparently believed that the walls of this park were a functional barrier without observation; he does not appear to have set listening or observation posts on the wall itself or close enough to the wall to detect a breach. Within the park his troops are spread out in seperate cantonments beyond supporting distance of each other
3. Lannoy and the main Imperial force was camped just outside the east and northeast walls of the Mirabello park. The sources do not say whether Francis knew where the Imperials were, whether he cared, or not.
At any rate the Imperials were convinced that they were already beaten. They began a night attack merely to disarray the French long enough to retreat unmolested. As Murphy’s Laws of War would say: when both sides are convinced they will lose, the may both be right. But for the Imperialists, today was their lucky day.
The Engagement: After what must have been a truly shitty night march in a drizzling rain and fog the Imperial sappers knocked a hole or holes in the Mirabello park walls sometime after midnight on 2/24; a force of some 3,000 arquebusiers under the mercenary leader d’Avalos were first through the breach and headed directly south to attack the castle or lodge in the centre of the park – this was where Lannoy assumed Francis and the French nobility would be camped.The main French force, however, was posted well west of the breach, so the actual battle probably began sometime before dawn, about 5:00 am, with a meeting engagement between French light cavalry and Imperial horse near the opening in the wall. The imperialists had been sent in behind the handgunners to attack targets of opportunity and generally f-up the French encampment to prevent the besiegers from organizing. Instead, the French cavalry tied up the Imperialists until the sounds of the fighting dragged in a force of Swiss pike, which in turn overran a Spanish battery while in march order passing the breach. The entire north end of the park was a bloody, confused mess as Georg Frundsburg’s 6,000 German mercenary infantry piled into the scrum.
By sunrise (7:00am) a flailing mass of infantry was hacking and slashing away at each other near the opening in the wall.Francis of France was in a pretty bad way: his troops were scattered all over the Mirabello park, and, to make matters worse, de Leyva sortied his tercios from Pavia, pinning the French forces nearest the town.
The troops in the best position to hit the advancing Imperials were those camped near the Francis’s headquarters, his gendarmerie and a small artillery reserve. Moving up in support were the mercenaries in French pay: Swiss pikemen and German landsknecht infantry including the so-called Black Legion, “renegade” former Imperialist landsknechts turned by the French.
The more numerous French artillery went in battery and began firing on the Imperialist right and rear, doing some damage there. Francis then led a charge into one of the Imperialist cavalry units, killing the commander and putting the unit to rout. But in true wooden-headed knightly fashion the charge masked his own artillery (which had been doing good bloody work on the Imperial infantry) and when Francis’ gendarmes found themselves unable to break through the Imperial mercenary pike they were at a dead stymie.
The French heavy cavalry could not defeat the pikemen without support, and Francis had charged into battle at the head of his knights like a good storybook hero, failing to organize that support. The result of a failed cavalry charge is a mess; tired men and blown horses, their ranks ragged and their impetus lost. The gendarmes found themselves useless in what was rapidly becoming an infantry melee.
And there, the French were failing rather spectacularly. To the left of the gandarmes, the Swiss mercenaries in French pay were not enjoying their sortie against d’Avalos’ arquebusiers and musketeers. It seems that these unsporting little bastards were making use of whatever cover was available in the hunting park and then falling back as the Swiss drew near; shooting and moving, causing casualties but taking few of their own. The Swiss had already learned the lesson polearms against firearms made for a long day unless the polearms could get within arm’s reach. Having taken losses from the gunfire, a brief ‘push of pike’ with Pescara’s Spanish infantry convinced the Swiss that “hier schlagen wir nicht”; they began to fall back.
On the French right, things were even uglier. It was landsknecht versus landsknecht in a chopping match. The French mercenaries were outnumbered and enveloped – the Black Legion was butchered to the man.Without the footsoldiers to cover their flanks, the Spanish handgunners closed in around Francis’ gendarmes “in small units all over the field without a definite battle line according to the long experience and the new precepts of Pescara.”
The French knights were bought and sold: hemmed in by copses, hedges and blocks of Imperialist pikes, the heavy bullets punched through the knightly armor, breaking bones, gutting and splattering lungs, braining and ensanguinating. Francis himself was shot off his horse and captured.
Leyva’s garrison had smashed the 3,000 Swiss holding the siege lines; their panicked flight took them into the Ticino River, where they were butchered and drowned in job lots. The remainder of the French forces, the French rearguard, under the Duke of Alençon, had been unengaged and southwest of the Ticino. Realizing the magnitude of the disaster, Alençon immediately began retreating towards Milan.
By 9:00 am, the battle was over.
The Outcome: Decisive tactical Imperialist victory; however, the long-term effect of Pavia were almost negligible – see below.
The Impact: You would think that Pavia should have been hell and fucking disaster for France. The King in chains. The nobility decimated: Montmorency and Flourance captured; Bonnivet, Le Tremoille, La Palice, Suffolk, and Lorraine dead. The French army butchered, all of northern Italy prostrate before the Imperialists.
You’d think that.
But then you read that a mere eleven years later Francis was BACK, capturing Turin and making a general nuisance of himself in north Italy. Again.
And six years after THAT…this time, he’s allied himself with the fucking Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, capturing Nice, fighting the English and Imperials in the Low Countries.
Francis finally quits messing around in Italy in 1547. Only because the pigheaded persistent bastard finally fucking dies.
Really. Some people...
Pavia is worth considering purely for the light it sheds on the entire concept of a “decisive battle”. Few engagements were won more decisively by the victor or lost more completely by the defeated; Francis famously wrote “..all is lost save honor and life” and that pretty much sums it up.The French were still fighting with steel, and, more importantly, thinking like they were. The Imperialists had begun to learn the lessons of powder and shot. The Imperial and, particularly, the Spanish while hardly that much technically or tactically superior to the French had two great advantages.
First, their command and control was infinitely better. Lannoy and Leyva worked their mousetrap like, well, a mousetrap. Francis couldn’t even coordinate between his own cavalry and his artillery a short round away.And, second, they were learning to fight as a combined arms team. Pavia is usually cited as the arrival on the European military stage of Spain as a military power, and the Spanish tercio as the dreadnought of the 16th Century battlefield. From Pavia in 1525 to Rocroi in 1643 the tercio was the Queen of Battle, and the Spanish Empire the power to reckon with in European politics.
Touchline Tattles: Supposedly Francis, who had lost everything except honor, had also lost any belly timber for his tum-tum.
The story goes is that after the brawl was done all he could find was a bowl of soup in a peasant woman’s hut, and the poor old girl shoved some bread and a couple of henfruit in the soup to make it a little more fit for a king, thus creating Zuppa Pavese.
Good soup, though!