Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Battle of Como, Summer 1506

Imperial and French armies clash

The battlefield was constrained by steep hills, closely cultivated slopes and stoutly built villages that reflected this part of Northern Italy that bordered Lake Como and the Alps beyond.

The French command had decided to cautiously await the Imperial advance against Como before releasing their heavy cavalry against an enemy that they hoped would be divided by the terrain.  However, there plans seemed misplaced as the Imperials adopted a position covered by high terrain and appeared to await the imminent arrival of the Duke of Milan which would give them an overwhelming advantage against the French.  The French, therefore, felt they had to bring the battle to the Imperials before the Duke could tip the balance against them.

The French commander took the bulk of the Gensd'armes on a wide outflanking manoeuvre on the right whilst the rest of the army moved forward to pin the Imperials.  To the surprise of the French, the Imperial commander had chosen not to wait for the Duke and hoped that a sudden attack would upset any French calculations; it did!

As Imperial knights struggled dangerously through narrow defiles, the few French Gensd'armes on the left flank were hamstrung by their initial orders and failed to contain the Imperial advance.  Brushing aside the limited opposition, the Imperial commander was close to taking the French baggage.  Meanwhile the French commander was appraised of the developing situation and was slowly able to reorder his mass of cavalry towards the baggage and support his centre.  The inferior French Pike in the centre was doing its best the hold the Imperials but a desperate charge by the compromised French left temporarily shut the door on further Imperial reinforcements and slowed the attack against the baggage.

Now the French commander and the van made their influence felt and the Imperial attack stalled amidst the French pike and reinvigorated French left.  Imperial knights were beginning to route off the field and it seemed the crisis point of the battle had been reached .  The French commander urged on his command to crush the Imperials and the French pike reformed and advanced in support; the French were now confident of victory.

However, the Imperial commander still had his uncommitted centre made up of veteran lansknechts and supporting arquebusiers.  These moved forward through the fleeing knights and opened a withering fire upon the advancing French.  Daunted by the covering pike the French were now more cautious and opted to await night and better opportunities in the morning against their half beaten foe.

As expected the Duke arrived during the night with his badly needed reinforcement of Milanese knights.  The Imperial commander had been dismayed at the failure of his attack and the many casualties his knights had suffered.  He advised a retreat onto Milan but the Duke was determined to continue the battle.  He argued that his command amply covered Imperial losses and that many of the routers were returning the to their colours.  The commander of the pike also made it clear that his men were still fresh and willing to fight.  Heartened, the Imperial commander agreed to continue the battle but chose a plan that kept his cavalry massed and in reserve whilst deploying his infantry to make the most of the difficult terrain.

Early the next morning, the French resumed their attack on what they considered to be the demoralised and weakened Imperial right.  Once more, the French commander advanced against the Imperial left in an attempt to pin the mass of Imperial and Milanese cavalry on that flank.

As the French left advanced, the supporting centre once more came under a deadly arquebus and light artillery fire.  French infantry began to route, and as gunners ran from their cannon the pike also began to collapse.  Spurred on to bring the battle to a close, the Gensd'armes of the left charged the arquebusiers in difficult terrain and boldly advanced against a contingent of Imperial knights that they recognised as the defeated remnants of the force that they had routed the previous day.

However, the Imperial commander had fully recovered his composure and in a cunning display of tactics, he manoeuvred his lansknechts into a position that blocked the French but forced them onto their pikes.  The weak Imperial knights had been placed as a lure and the French had taken the bait.  Simultaneously, the arquebusiers had been able to inflict considerable damage upon the French before retiring in the difficult terrain or behind the protective pike.

Again, a tipping point had been reached and the French were quick to see that it was not in their favour.  On the far right, the French commander had been easily contained and was now aware of the disadvantage of his inferior numbers.  The French centre was disintegrating purely from Imperial firepower and the French left struggled not to impale itself on the lansknechts whilst taking fire from enemy skirmishers.

Dismayed, the French commander elected to save his army and retire off the battlefield.  Yet, the French struggled to extricate themselves from the superior pursuing Imperial light cavalry and the army was considerably weakened by the time it reached Turin, having to abandon much equipment and valuable artillery in its retreat.

Commentators were quick to see the Imperial use of combined pike and arquebusier as a decisive development in the art of war, although many advocates for the superiority of the armoured horseman argued that the terrain mitigated against French success.  Nevertheless, the Duke and Emperor were delighted by this famous victory and now looked to see what advantages could be seized, and what vengeance could be wrought!

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