At the end of the 15th century, a whole series of military conflicts broke out, which are commonly called the Italian Wars. The largest countries of Europe for half a century, fought enthusiastically, trying to take control of politically weak, but rich Italy. France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire wanted to seize as much land as possible on the Apennines and prevent their rivals from strengthening in this region. At the same time, the Italian rulers (first of all, Venice and the Pope) sought to strengthen themselves at the expense of their neighbors and at the same time not be crushed by major powers. The protagonists changed partners like gloves: alliances were short-lived, and betraying an overly strong ally became commonplace.
In January 1509, another war began, the so-called war of the Cambrian League, which got its name in the city of Cambrai on the border of France and the Empire, where this alliance was concluded. A whole conglomerate of European rulers: Emperor Maximilian, French King Louis XII, King of Castile and Aragon Ferdinand, and even Pope Julius II opposed Venice.
Italy in 1490
It seemed that the days of the trade republic were numbered, because, despite financial strength, it was no longer able to fight on equal terms with the major powers of the continent. However, the Venetian condottieri were able to tighten the campaign, and thanks to the flexible policy of the head of Venice from the war managed to withdraw the Spanish king (giving possession in Apulia), and then the Pope (returning his land to Romagna).
However, the French and the Emperor still posed a serious threat to Venice. During the campaign of 1510, the Allies had already entered Veneto and occupied one city after another, preparing to enter Venice itself, which the Venetians strongly resisted. At this time, the Pope decided to take advantage of the fact that all the forces of the allies are concentrated in Veneto: he claimed the Duchy of Ferrara, the former ally of France. The Duke of Ferrara was excommunicated, and the Kingdom of the Neapolitan Pope recognized Ferdinand of Spain, not Louis.
Portrait of Pope Julius II, Rafael Santi
However, the apparent ease in the occupation of Ferrara and Modena, turned into a collapse for the Pope and his plans. It is one thing to build political intrigue and quite another to fight. By the middle of 1511, the Pope, despite initial successes, found himself in a very difficult situation: the road to central Italy was open to the French, and Louis and the Emperor decided to assemble a church council to investigate the crimes of Julius II. For the pontiff, a real possibility of land confiscation and deposition loomed.
In such difficult conditions, Julius II decided to create a new alliance against the French king. In October 1511, he proclaimed the creation of the Holy League, which included Spain, Venice and England. The Spanish king received those lands in Italy that he wanted and was now ready to prevent the French from strengthening, the English king Henry VIII was in uneasy relations with the French crown and readily supported the proposal of his son-in-law Ferdinand of Spain to join the league. Emperor Maximilian took a waiting position, remaining formally an ally of Louis, but not taking an active part in hostilities.
French army commander Gaston de Foix, duke of Nemours
Both sides were preparing for the campaign of 1512: the Spaniards were sending reinforcements to Italy to help the Venetians, the league troops were pushing towards Bologna. At the head of the French army was put Gaston de Foy - the king's nephew and a very young man, who, however, had already managed to detect the inclinations of a talented commander. Throughout the winter, opponents replenished their supplies, recruited troops, and pulled up artillery.
In February 1512, Venetian troops marched on Bologna, intending to occupy a poorly protected city, until the French gathered their forces. However, Gaston de Foix reacted with lightning speed to the advancement of the enemy, spoke out with his forces to meet the enemy and managed to smash him. Then he immediately returned to Milan, replenished his army and went to Romagna, which turned out to be open after the defeat of the league troops near Bologna.
The Spaniards were not interested in a decisive battle: the reinforcements from the Swiss cantons were about to come to the league’s troops, and Henry VIII promised to start a war with France in the north from day to day. Gaston de Foy understood all these motives well and therefore he tried his best to cause the enemy to fight. It got to the point that he invaded Romagna and laid siege to Ravenna - an important fortress in the region - in fact before the eyes of the Neapolitan Viceroy Ramon de Cardona.
Losing Ravenna, and even without a fight, Cardona could not afford: he moved with the army to the city and camped on the Ronco river, blocking the supply of food for the French army. Gaston de Foy did not have to beg - in the morning of April 11, 1512, the French army began to cross the river to attack the forces of the league.
Forces of the parties and the position of the Spaniards
The French army consisted of 23 thousand people: 5-6 thousand German landsknechts, 5 thousand cavalry and infantry recruited in France. In addition, the French hoped for excellent artillery - about 50 guns. The Spaniards had only 16 thousand people (Spanish and Italian infantry and 3 thousand cavalry) and were twice as inferior to the French in artillery (24 guns).
The scheme of the Battle of Ravenna
The commander of the Spanish infantry Navarro found an excellent defensive position, on which, at his suggestion, the army entrenched itself, awaiting the approach of the French. From the left flank, the troops were covered by the Ronco River, to the right with swampy meadows and marshes. The front of the Spaniards was further strengthened by a moat and a peculiar wagenburg from wagons, behind which the Spanish arquebusiers took refuge. For the line of shooters were placed columns of the Spanish infantry, and the Italians were concentrated in the third line. From the flanks the infantry was covered by heavy knightly cavalry (left) and light cavalry (right). Artillery was distributed along the front between the arrows. The front of the Spaniards was no more than a kilometer away.
The French commanders, they doubted: is it worth it to attack the Spaniards in such an advantageous position? Even despite the superiority in forces, the matter seemed too risky. But Gaston de Foix was adamant.
Crossing and building the French
So, early in the morning of April 11, 1512, the French army is transported across Ronco via bridges that have been built in advance. The commander of the Spanish cavalry Colonna offered Cardone to attack the French at the crossing (it was only 500 meters from the positions of the Spanish cavalry), but the viceroy decided to hold on to the position proposed by Navarro.
The French freely crossed the river and lined up to attack. The construction of the French army, in general, was mirror Spanish: in the center were infantry columns of landsknechts, Picardians and Gascons, heavy cavalry on the right flank, light cavalry on the left. Gaston de Foix left 400 copies in reserve at the crossing (the lowest unit in the French army, like the modern squad, consisting of a cavalryman and his assistants, often consisted of 1-2 people at the beginning of the 16th century), and distributed artillery to the front.
A typical tactic of the battles of the Early New Age was a massive attack of a closed mass of infantry, which, as if in a single ram, broke through the ranks of the enemy, forcing him to disperse across the battlefield. The huge squares of the columns of the Swiss and Landsknecht Germans terrified the feudal armies of the Burgundians and the Imperials. Gradually, all the advanced powers of Europe began to recruit and hire pikemen for their armies. The outcome of the battle was now decided by the strength of the onslaught and the number of infantry.
Pikemen of the XVI century - the main striking force of the armies of that time
However, at Ravenna, we see a completely different picture: Gaston de Foix, instead of throwing his infantry into the position of the Spaniards, advanced artillery and opened fire on the enemy. Spanish artillery fired back. Artillery fire began. The Duke of Ferrara Alfonso d'Este, thanks to which the French had such powerful and modern artillery, understood the weakness of the French position and moved part of the artillery to high ground, so that its guns could flank the enemy.
The Spaniards began to bear tangible losses, but the main thing was the moral impact of artillery fire, under which the Spaniards were. The Spanish artillery transferred its fire to the enemy warriors who were in the affected area. Cardona ordered his infantry to lie down, so that the knightly cavalry of the Column carried the main damage from the artillery attack. And here the typical features of knightly cavalry were revealed - instead of retreating and hiding in some hollow, the knights began to grumble and demand from the Column to lead them to attack. Since the Spanish commander did not have complete control over his riders, he sent a proposal to the commander about a one-time attack of the enemy. Cardona, of course, rejected the proposal.
However, soon the Column detachment rushed to the attack on the French gendarmes and turned out to be completely crushed (the gendarmes were backed up with a reserve of 400 copies and turned the enemy to flight). On the right flank of the Spaniards, light cavalry, also suffering from French fire, attempted to attack the French battery, but was scattered. Thus, due to the undisciplined actions of the cavalry of the Spaniards, the flanks of the infantry remained open.
While the Spanish cavalry attacked the enemy, Cardona’s artillery, in turn, provoked the French infantry to attack the Spanish center. In dense columns, French infantry and landsknechts struck the positions of the Spaniards. Under the concentrated fire of the enemy artillery, they overcame the moat, which defended the Spanish positions, and were met with Arquebuzir fire. After the French were upset by enemy fire, the Spanish and Italian infantry of Navarre launched a counterattack.
The opposing army in the Battle of Ravenna, woodcut
Columns of Picardians and Gascons did not withstand the impact of the Spanish infantry and retreated, the landsknechts withstood, but suffered heavy losses. The Spaniards had the opportunity to develop success and cut the center of the enemy, but at this time the outcome of the cavalry attack was decided, and the French cavalry broke into the flank of the Spanish infantry. Under these conditions, the French infantry was able to resume the attack, relying on landsknechts who were not defeated. The massacre began, in which only the detachment of the Spanish infantry (3 thousand soldiers) managed to retreat in an organized manner.
The idea of the French commander led to a complete victory. The winner got the wagon train and all the artillery. Navarro, Colonna, Pescara (commander of light cavalry) were captured. The army of the league lost about 10 thousand people, the French also suffered sensitive losses - more than 4 thousand. The persistence of the infantry battle is evidenced by the fact that 12 out of 15 landsknecht commanders were killed or wounded. However, Gaston de Foix himself did not succeed in celebrating his triumph: with a squad of knights he rushed at the retreating Spaniards and was hacked to pieces during the last counterattack.
After the battle
The French army won an impressive victory, although it paid a high price for it. La Palise, the new French commander, occupied Ravenna and several other cities in Romagna, but did not dare to go to Rome - the army suffered losses and was demoralized.
Soon the Pope announced an alliance with the Emperor, who immediately recalled the landsknechts from the French army and allowed the whole Swiss army (about 18 thousand) to march through the imperial lands to help the Venetians. Active actions began and Henry VIII, so that part of the army of La Palise was withdrawn to Normandy.
Death of Gaston de Foy
La Palise soon left Italy at all, returning to France in August. It seemed that the Holy League had fully reached its goal, but as usual, disagreements arose in the camp of the allies: the emperor demanded land for which the Venetians fought, the Pope threatened to gather another coalition against Venice, after which the Venetians turned for help to ... the French. And the next year, the war resumed. At the same time Julius II, the main instigator of the Cambrai and Sacred Leagues, died.
In the art of war
The battle of Ravenna was the first major battle in which the use of artillery had a significant impact on the outcome of the battle. Large-caliber guns, breaking the line of infantry and cavalry, will soon become an integral part of any battle. Over time, the caliber of field artillery will continue to decrease, and the mobility (as well as the number of guns on the battlefield) will constantly increase.
Artillery of the first half of the XVI century
The commander from this time more and more often divides the battle into "preparation and solution" rather than immediately rushing to the attack, artillery leads a serious firefight, and the commander makes a written disposition of the battle.
Under Ravenna, the armies still retain typical Late Medieval features: the cavalry is still not sufficiently disciplined in order to be able to fully control it in combat conditions. The cavalry as we know it, according to the descriptions of the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon, will not grow out of knightly cavalry: in the middle of the 16th century, raiders armed with pistols and attacking in close ranks would spread across Europe. But that's another story.