“What shall we do next?”
“I dunno, Italian Wars?”
“OK, I’ll find a refight”
And so a refight of Bicocca was born, narrowly missing the 500 year anniversary. This is the battle that is anecdotally used as an illustration of what a liability Swiss mercenaries were, for it is here that they demanded a battle be fought or they would go home!
The history is as follows. In the campaign season of 1521 the French under Odet de Foix, the Marshal Lautrec, were expelled from the Duchy of Milan by the Imperialists under Prosper Colonna. In the spring of 1522 Lautrec was reinforced by 16,000 Swiss and resumed the offensive, taking Novarra and besieging Pavia; Colonna took up a strong position at Certosa which Lautrec decided against attacking, opting instead to starve Colonna out. Great strategy but then the Swiss went and spoilt it by demanding their back pay (there was none😮) or battle the next day, the reasoning being that loot would be to hand after a victory. Lautrec had no choice but to agree and march on the Imperialists who had now moved to the fortified park of Bicocca where they was joined by Francesco Sforza of Milan with reinforcements.
The French deployed with 8,000 Swiss front and centre screened by some 3,000 Italian foot arquebusiers & 300 mounted arquebusiers under Giovanni del Medici (the ‘Black Bands’), the Duke of Montmorency notionally commanded the Swiss. Behind this were the French guns being dragged forward and behind them some 6,000 crossbowmen under Pedro Navarro flanked by companies of Gendarmes & Archers under such luminaries as, the Chevalier Bayard, the Duke of Lescun, and the Duke of Ponteformy. Out on the right flank was a mercenary condottiere force under the Duke of Urbino representing Venice.
Inside the park the Imperialists sat and waited. The park was bounded by high walls with an entrance over a bridge in the eastern wall which was covered by Sforza’s contingent from the outside of the park and the west nestled against a marsh, but the most daunting aspect of the position was the sunken road that ran in front of the park directly opposite the French line of advance. The Imperialists lined the wall overlooking the sunken road with Spanish arquebusiers and artillery and behind them some 2,000 Spanish pike and around 8,000 Landsknechts under Georg von Frundsberg; the back of the park had several hundred Spanish & Italian men at arms under Antonio de Leyva in case there were any break throughs. Out in front of the road were around 1,000 Spanish Genitors detailed to be a nuisance.
The original French plan called for Medici to clear away the Genitors which would allow the artillery to move close enough to deploy and batter down the ramparts, engineers under Navarro would then fill the ditches and the Swiss would attack. Out on the flanks, Urbino would turn the Spanish left (they obviously didn’t know about the marsh or had no time to scout forward) and Lescun would lead the Gendarme companies in an attack that would drive off Sforza and break into the camp via the gate. None of this went well at all 😧; as soon as the Genitors were driven off the Swiss ignored Monmorency’s order to halt and continued on to the Imperialist position where they came under artillery fire and then sustained harquebus fire which caused heavy casualties but being Swiss they just shrugged it off. At the sunken road the impossibility of the task became apparent, once they had jumped down into the road the Swiss found that the height to the Imperialists above them was as tall as their pikes! So with all formation lost (the famous Swiss column was no use here) the Swiss floundered around at the mercy of the enemy arquebusiers and the few that did gain a foothold were soon thrown back. After about an hour of this the Swiss gave up and marched back leaving half their number behind, dead or wounded. Elsewhere, Urbino made a half hearted attempt at the marsh and then gave up but Lescun did actually managed to get over the bridge and into the camp but de Leyva showed him the exit.
How to refight a battle that shouldn’t actually have been fought? Firstly did we have the numbers? This is a big battle and even at the 1:50 ratio we use in our rules it was still going to be a stretch, so rather than beat ourselves up about it we went for representation by block. We had 4 Swiss pike columns so that was our base line; the Spanish colunellas we easily matched and our 4 Landsknecht blocks matched the Swiss, the Gendarmes/Archers were an exact match to the numbers along with Medici’s Black Band and the Italian and Spanish cavalry, the various supporting cast crossbowmen and pikemen (French and Italian) were slightly under represented but they did nothing in the real battle and did nothing in the game! The big task was the park of Bicocca; the size we just built around the deployment of the Imperialist force which in itself was based on the contemporary maps that are available but a sunken road on a 2D table is a challenge; after a bit of thought we opted for sections of Last Valley road with a wall running along one side (the Imperialist) and a hedge the other thus guaranteeing cover and advantage of ground for the Imperialist arquebusiers and ‘double disorder’ for the advancing Swiss. Our next problem was the Swiss; no self respecting wargamer is going to do what they did (well we would because its history so why wouldn’t we?) so we amended the command rules slightly so that the Swiss would be forced to advance unless the general used command points to actively stop them – in the rules each commander has command points reflecting his historical performance (or at least our interpretation of such) and uses these to move his troops but Gendarmes need points to NOT move (reflecting their lack of discipline) so we just widened this category to include the Swiss – Monmorency was a 2 so even if he did spend his points at least 2 Swiss would be on the move and then co-ordination would really be lost!
So how went the refight? The early moves were much like the real thing, just a bit less well co-ordinated. In the centre the Swiss trundled forward as Medici took on the Genitors which took a while longer than history, this wasn’t due to the Genitors being particularly effective (they weren’t) but due to the fire coming from the park which at one point halted the foot arquebusiers who the Swiss just marched right through 😂. Eventually the Genitors were cleared out and Medici headed his force towards the left side of the park (seen from the French side) to try and keep the defenders occupied while the Swiss attacked on the right.
On the French right, Urbino decided to use his points to get his crossbowmen forward to maybe shoot the Swiss attack in by clearing the Imperial skirmishers out from where they had jumped into the sunken road which they were using as a trench (sneaky!) – in the long run this kind of worked in that the skirmishers in front of the manor house were eliminated but it didn’t do much to help the Swiss. On the French left, Lescun duly advanced but Sforza decided to come and meet him and use his crossbowmen to wear down the Gendarmes – it took a while for Sforza to convince his mercenaries to get moving and their firepower wasn’t that effective but they did managed to kill Ponteformy which stopped his company (rules note, no Captain, no move).
But it was the centre that mattered. The Swiss skirmishers soaked up most of the Imperialist fire and frankly it wasn’t that good (sometimes the dice gods just don’t smile on you) but one Swiss column lost its captain and so was stood waiting for Montmorency to come over and appoint a new captain (rules note, replacement captains have to be appointed by a command figure joining the unit). Eventually however the Imperial skirmishers were cleared out of the road and the Swiss started to climb in.
Despite their disorder two of the Swiss ‘charged’ their opponents at the wall. One column overran the guns it was facing and ploughed on into the park, the other was stopped briefly by one of the Spanish harquebus colunellas but then they routed with heavy losses. The problem for the Imperial player in this was when and how to commit his pike although in these two examples it didn’t matter too much, the Swiss who overran the guns then ran straight into Frundsberg’s veteran Landsknechts who held and then inexorably pushed the Swiss back into the road and the other ran into von Sickingen’s Landsknechts who scattered with the loss of their captain after a couple of rounds of melee.
The other two Swiss were a little tardy, one was the one that had to wait for Montmorency but once it had it’s new captain it too was over the wall and into Frundsbergs block – normally this would have finished the Landsknechts but the lack of ranks the Swiss could count plus their disorder and the fact that they hit Frundsberg as he was pushing back the other column meant that his momentum trumped their ‘charge’ and they were stopped. The 4th block had taken the more serious losses from fire and so as it assaulted the walls it had already lost supporting ranks and was held at the wall for two embarrassing turns of melee by a harquebus colunella; once they had seen off the the arquebusiers they were then charged by one of the Spanish pike colunellas and held.
The pike blocks were now locked in combat; both sides tried to use their forlorn hopes to turn the tide but they largely cancelled each other out (the rules allow bases of halberdiers/sword & buckler men to issue out from the blocks). The deciding moment was when the 2nd Spanish colunella managed to align itself on the flank of the Swiss that had seen off von Sickingen, there was no need to fight that out, those Swiss were done and knew it and so fell back. It was over for the Swiss, so near but so far.
We could have played it on for several more turns but the result was always going to be the same, the Swiss, disordered and lacking effective supporting ranks, had just not been able to punch an immediate hole and follow on.
On the flanks it was all a bit of a non event; Urbino performed much as history and was defeated by the terrain, Lescun actually did worse than history, being held by Sforza long enough for him to be unable to make any difference.
The performance of the Swiss in actually getting into the park was pleasing given the historical impossibility of it happening and we had some tense moments as we rolled for the pike melee’s. All in all a good scrap and a lesson in what not to do either historically or in recreation 😊