Thursday, March 19, 2009

Reiters (Part 4)

Above: Reiters (NYPL, Vinkhuijzen Coll.)

Reiters in Combat
The first campaigns of note in which reiters participated were those of the Schmalkaldic Wars during the German Civil Wars (1546-1553). Incidentally, the reiters then fought for both the Imperialists (Holy Roman Empire) and the Protestant League of German princes.

Following these actions, the reiters took advantage of the discord in Western Europe, some fighting for France under Henri II against Spain at St. Quentin (1557) and Gravelines (1558), in addition to serving in various Italian armies.

With the cessation of Franco-Spanish hostilities, reiters found new employment with both the Huguenot and Catholic (Royalist) parties in the French Religious-Civil Wars. The reiters were considered tactically superior to the Catholic gendarmerie, who adhered to the feudal tactic of attack in line with lances. (Note: Blaise de Monluc, a Royalist, felt that the reiters possessed the advantage of attacking in one great body, not spread out in a thin line. He confirms the effect that the reiters had in changing the tactics of their adversaries: “We quit them (lances) for the German pistols.”)

Accounts of various actions are too varied for proof positive, but the high loss rate among reiters indicates determination, if not effectiveness. In a campaign of 1568, one reiter army was reduced to 1,200 men (slightly larger than a squadron). Schwartzreiters fought at Dreux (1562), Jarnac (1569), and Moncontour (1569), but at Ivry (1590), everything went wrong. From the start, the Royalist squadrons were formed too close to one another; firing ranks were unable properly to caracole in order to reload. The units that did close with the Huguenot foot found that arquebusiers had been situated within the ranks of pikemen, and these mauled the surprised Germans. After being disrupted by shot, the squadrons found themselves smashed by Huguenot cavalry and were forced to retire.

In addition to combat in the Wars of Religion, reiters served with the Dutch rebels against Spain in the Netherlands Wars of Independence (1568-1609). Following varying performances, the reiter units gradually faded from the battlefields of Europe, being replaced by more disciplined horsemen. Their tactical style, however, had been adopted nearly universally by all types of firearm-equipped cavalry by 1600. It would take the Thirty Years’ War and the professionalism of the hard-charging, determined Swedish cavalry, led by the “Lion of the North,” King Gustavus Adolphus, to make them truly obsolete.

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