The training of the original bands was carried out over a three-year period (1480-1483) at the famous camp of Pont de l'Arche by a body of Swiss infantry commanded by Guillaume de Diesbach. Besides the infantry, other elements of the national army, including the gendarmerie, passed through the camp, and for the first time in French history, combined arms training maneuvers were attempted. By all accounts the camp was a success, and the most obvious problems revealed by the disgrace of Guinegatte were solved. The infantry acquired discipline and a battle-proven drill, and the horse learned to cooperate with the infantry in the combined arms team.
Unfortunately, the death of Louis XI in 1483 brought an end to the camp of Pont de l'Arche. The bands were put into garrison in Picardy on France's northeast frontier (hence the title "vieux bandes de Picardie" -- "old bands of Picardy") and gradually lost their skills and readiness. By 1497, when Charles VIII launched his Italian expedition, they were in a deplorable state. The king, who had largely neglected the military reforms of his father, was forced to recruit mercenary bands to supply his need for heavy infantry.
The mercenaries -- Swiss, when they were available, and Germans or "counterfeit Swiss" (the men of the Grisons and the Valais) otherwise -- became the most important infantry element in French armies of the period. The Swiss, above all, were valued for their discipline and proven military prowess, but their German imitators, the "landsknecht," were accounted their near equals. Indeed, the two groups were so similar in drill and tactics that contemporaries often confused them. D'Auton, for example, calls the Swiss serving in the French army at Cerignola "Allemans," and Machiavelli identifies the French landsknecht at Ravenna as Swiss.
Under the circumstances the native French infantry became an almost negligible adjunct to the mercenary bands. There is no evidence that any of the old regular bands served in Italy or any that new regular bands were formed for the Italian campaigns. Instead, temporary bands of regional infantry, often composed of specialist missile-men (gens de trait), were recruited to provide the firepower and skirmishing capabilities that the Swiss lacked. But the importance of infantry firepower was not yet recognized, and the French tactical system of the early Italian Wars, which was based squarely on the tremendous shock power of cavalry gendarmes and Swiss pikemen operating in tandem, would admit no substantial battlefield role for the missile men. They were useful for opening an action but otherwise only insofar as they relieved the Swiss of the outposting and garrison duties which the mercenaries found onerous.
There is some question regarding the armament of the French temporary bands. The traditional view, which has much documentary support, is that the French infantry for the greater part of the early Italian wars were mostly crossbowmen. Oman, for example, quite rightly remarks that there was scarcely any contemporary mention of French pikemen until Ravenna (1512). He also dates the widespread adoption of the arquebus by the French to the period following the Battle of Pavia (1525), where the French gendarmerie was so roughly handled by Pescara's Spanish arquebusiers.
On the other hand, there is evidence that both arquebusiers and pikemen were to be found among the native French in significant numbers. La Trémoille's description of Charles VIII's invasion army mentions a variety of infantry types, but the pikemen were undoubtedly a Swiss corps. Villeneuve says that the assault on the citadel of Naples (1495) was made "by the French with thrusts of fire lances and pikes." Finally, both Guicciardini and Giovio describe the native French infantry as modelling their drill and battlefield formations on those of the Swiss. This, manifestly, would have been impossible had not the French units included a proportion of pikemen.
There is thus documentation for both views, and it is plausible that both views are correct. This was still an age in which armies were comparatively heterogeneous in their makeup, and certain military specialties were still closely associated with certain ethnic groups. Among the French, for example, it was practically an article of faith that crossbows (and, later, arquebuses) were best employed by the active, excitable Gascons and other Mediterranean types and that trailing a pike was the true metier of dour northern types like Picards. Thus, at Ravenna, the native French infantry consisted solely of Gascon crossbowmen and Picard pikemen. Assuming that contemporaries reported accurately what they saw, it is altogether likely that French bands reflected these regional specialties and that this in turn was reflected in the reports of observers. When we recall that the bands were administrative units and that tactical units comprehended a mix of missilemen and pikemen -- as at Ravenna -- it is clear how misconceptions and apparent contradictions regarding the armament of the French infantry might have arisen.
As mentioned above, mercenary heavy infantry, primarily Swiss, typically formed the most important infantry component of French armies in this period. The Swiss, of course, were preferred, having the deserved reputation of being Europe's finest infantry, and the French, since the days of Louis XI, had built up a special relationship with the Swiss Confederates. The relationship began, in fact, as a result of a bitter Pyrrhic victory gained by Louis, then dauphin, over the Confederates at St. Jakob-on-the-Birs (1444). Louis was so impressed by the resistance a handful of Swiss made against his "Armagnac" mercenaries that he concluded a treaty of friendship with the Swiss and withdrew his army to France. Subsequently, as we have seen, Louis as king employed a corps of Swiss infantry under Diesbach to train the native French infantry he raised after Guinegatte.
Diesbach's Swiss were largely disbanded at Louis's death, but Charles VIII hired 8,000 Swiss for his Italian expeditionary force, and thereafter, except on occasions when the Confederates were for one reason or another temporarily alienated from France, large Swiss contingents were to be found composing the infantry backbone of French armies. This was the case at Cerignola where a Swiss unit under Chandieu was the mainstay of the 4,000-man infantry force Nemours conveyed to the field.
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