Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gonzalo de Cordoba: Revolutionizing Warfare

Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba
The 16th century saw many changes in world history. New continents found. New ideas spread. Era of Henry VIII, Leonardo Da Vinci, and many more became well known during this century. Along with new lands and new ideas, a new weapon was crafted that would change the world forever – the gun. It revolutionized warfare, but during the 16th century it was in its infancy. Many was still dumbfounded of its capability. But one country managed to found its potential and used it, the country of Spain.

Europe was at the height of the Renaissance. It brought new sciences and technology and culture to the world. The Reformation and the idea of Humanism shocked the foundations of the continent. It was also the peak of the age of exploration, led by the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain. The two countries redraw the map of the world. Spain, in particular, was on its path to glory.

Spain was a rising star in Europe. In 1492, it ended the last vestige of Islamic states in the Iberian Peninsula after it defeated the Muslims during the Granada War. King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella de Castile rose to become the first monarchs of the united Spain. From the Granada Wars, they funded explorations across the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean to discover new lands and riches.

The Spanish military also saw a rise to become one of the most formidable forces in Europe. Conscription was introduced and led to the increase of soldiers in the army. New powerful weapon, the arquebus, added firepower to the large manpower. Finally, veteran generals from the Granada War, led the Spanish Army to greatness. Among these great generals was Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba.

In 1494, when France marched to Italy and towards the Spanish controlled Naples, Cordoba and the rest of the Spanish army landed in Italy to push back the French. During the war, Cordoba suffered a defeat in the hands of the French and their Swiss mercenaries in Seminara. From the Battle of Seminara in 1495, Cordoba learned lessons from his lost. He began to experiment on a new formation which would create a good combination between the pike men and arquebusers.

The tercio was introduced as a result of the Cordoba’s defeat. The tercio meant a third in Spanish. This name was because most of the Spanish tercios composed of 3,000 men. But some tercios could compose as low 1000 men. A usual tercio was composed of 12 companies, each having 250 men. Each company would be composed of 200 pike men and 20 – 250 arquebusers, later on by the end of the century, the arquebusers would be replaced by the musketeers. Each tercio were placed under the command of a Maestro de Campo or Colonel and a Sergento Mayor or Major. Each of the companies were placed under a command of a captain, an ensign, and other lower ranks such as sergeant and corporal.

Tercio in battle
However, the development of the tercio did not reach the first Italian war that ended in 1498. But the tercios would play a key role in the following war, a year after the first Italian War. In 1499, the French allied with the Spanish marched to Italy once again to take the riches of the peninsula, and began the Second Italian War. But, interest of the two kingdoms collided with each other and in 1501, hostilities between the two kingdom resumed. Cordoba once again was sent to Italy to fight the French and its Swiss mercenaries. He had his chance of revenge against the French and the Swiss in the Battle of Cerignola in 1503. In the battle, he used his tercios wisely and combined the strengths of the tercios with other new tactics. To weaken the enemy, he sent cavalry units to hunt down French or Swiss forgers of food in the countryside to cut the supplies of his enemy. He besieged also small enemy garrisons. To maintain the strength of his army, he tried to avoid skirmishes. To protect his troops from any cavalry charge, parapets were placed in the middle of the field. The parapets caused horses to be stopped and impaled in their tracks. Then when the heat of the battle came, he positioned his tercios behind a trench, so that when the advancing French and Swiss came, they would fall into the trenches and become sitting ducks for the Spanish gunners.

His soldiers in the tercios were discipline but also flexible. The pike men were trained like the best soldiers in Europe, the Swiss. The tercios would form squares and keep it in the middle of the battle. The pike men were ordered to advance forward to defend the gunners once they fired a shot and had to reload. They also would step forward to fend the gunners of from any cavalry charge. At the moment of advance, the tercios can move into linear positions in order to crack the lines of the enemy.

In the Battle of Cerignola, Cordoba stroked a major victory. He destroyed the 200 year invincibility of the Swiss. He dealt a blow to the French. And finally, he revolutionized warfare forever, introducing field obstructions, trenches, and guerrilla tactics. And his tercios would win the envy of Europe. He then once again demonstrated his new tactics in Garigliano River in 1503.  He later became known as El Gran Capitan or the Grand Captain for his skills.


Cordoba’s brilliance in the battlefield brought victory to the Spain. King Ferdinand II of Spain won back Naples from the French. As a sign of gratitude, after the war in 1504, Gonzalo de Cordoba was appointed first Viceroy of Naples, which he would hold until 1507. He would live for another 8 years and in 1515, Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba died.

Cordoba’s tactics changed the face of battlefields forever. Many armies like the Swedish and Portuguese emulated Cordoba’s tercios. His idea of battlefield obstruction were also used and became well known in era of modern warfare. His trenches and parapets in the field became normal images of trench warfare during World War I. Without Cordoba, Spain would not become a European power, and without him, tactics with guns would not advance towards the future.

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