A Brief History
On August 26, 1444, the Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs was fought between an army of mercenaries representing France against a much smaller force of pikemen from the Old Swiss Confederacy. The battle was part of the Old Zürich War, fought between 1440 and 1446.
The Old Zurich War was one of the many wars fought in Europe regarding the rights to succession when a ruling member of the nobility died, in this case Count Friedrich VII of Toggenburg, who died in 1436. The Toggenburg lands, which include Zurich, were contested along with other Swiss Cantons as the Count had not left an heir or even a will regarding succession. The fighting spread beyond the Swiss Confederacy to surrounding countries when the Canton of Zurich went to war with other Cantons. Zurich responded to the aggression of its neighboring Cantons by seeking an alliance with with Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor of the house of Habsburg. Frederick in turn sought the assistance of King Charles VII of France (r. 1422-1461), who saw an opportunity to get some troublesome Armagnac mercenaries out of France. (The Armagnac political movement in France was somewhat of a constant threat to the stability of the reign of Charles VII.) Charles sent a large force of 30,000 mercenaries under the command of his heir, the Dauphin via Basel, the future King Louis XI (r. 1461-1483) to relieve the plight of Zurich’s defenders against the coalition of other Swiss forces that were besieging Zurich.
The Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs was a disproportionate mismatch between the huge army of the Dauphin against a mere 1300 to 1500 Swiss pikemen. The pikemen formed into the prickly and almost impenetrable formation of 3 separate boxes called “Pike Squares,” a close formation with the pointy ends of the spears facing outward presenting a formidable barrier to any attackers. Attack the French did, and repeated cavalry charges failed to break the Swiss pikemen’s formations. Eventually, the weight of numbers wore down the valiant Swiss, and the pikemen were killed virtually to a man. The Armagnac force also suffered heavy losses, about 2000 killed. The battle waged by the young Swiss force became legendary, as the brave outnumbered army fought fiercely to a fault, to the point of ripping out arrows and crossbow bolts from their own bodies and continuing the fight, sometimes even after having their own hands chopped off!
Although the Swiss army, mostly from the Canton of Bern, had been annihilated, they had sold their lives so dearly that the larger force was actually turned back, the Dauphin being dismayed by the heavy casualties his army had suffered against so few defenders. Compelled to complete a peace treaty with the Swiss, the French force turned around and left for France, leaving the Swiss alliance of Cantons against Zurich to ultimately win the war.
Similar to the better known Battle of Thermopylae, the smaller Swiss force that fought a desperate and impossible battle against a greatly numerically superior force has been transformed into a legendary example of a doomed underdog force fighting with incredible bravery, losing the day but providing the basis for eventual victory. The Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs thus enters Swiss folklore and serves as a prime example of the fighting spirit of the Swiss people.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other battles can you think of where a small force doomed to lose fought a magnificent fight? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
O’Dea, Clare. The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths. Schwabe AG, Bergli Books, 2016.
Steves, Rick. Rick Steves Switzerland. Rick Steves, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Paebi of a painting depicting the Battle of St. Jakob an der Birs, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.