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Spanish Tercios

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  • Spanish Tercios

    Really hard to find information about the Tercios in English. I think Gregory Hanlon in his book "Italy 1636" describes them as an embryonic regimental system but from other sources I thought it was a tactical formation.

    Here is a book I found but have yet to look at.

    The Spanish Tercios 1536–1704 (Osprey Men-at-Arms 481)

    A mixed infantry formation made up of about 3,000 men armed with pikes, swords and handguns, the innovative and influential tercio or ‘Spanish square’ was the basic combat unit of the armies of Spain throughout much of the 16th and 17th centuries. Arguably the first permanent tactical formation seen in Europe since the Roman cohort, the tercio was the forerunner of modern formations such as the battalion and regiment. The variety of different weapons fielded in the tercio meant the Spanish infantry could resist opposing cavalry forces while overcoming every kind of enemy infantry deployed against them. Featuring full-colour artwork and photographs of rare items held at the Spanish Army Museum, this study covers the whole period during which the tercios were active, opening with the third Italian war between the forces of France and the Holy Roman Emperor and concluding with the final transformation of the Spanish tercios into regiments in 1704.

  • #2
    I have this also which if I can find the time I would love to indulge in reading.

    Fernando Gonzáles de León, "The Road to Rocroi (History of Warfare)"

    The Eighty Years War (1567-1659) has been the subject of important monographs but the high command of the Army of Flanders, which played a decisive role in the making of Spanish strategy and was in charge of its tactics, has eluded detailed scrutiny.

    This work, the first study of an early modern officer corps, examines the culture, class structure, and combat effectiveness of the largest army of its day. Combining approaches and insights from social, cultural and military history, it traces the evolution of the leading cadres of the legendary tercios in relation to major trends such as aristocratization and military modernization while revising recent perspectives on Spain's war against the Dutch and the French in the Low Countries.


    • #3
      You really need to know Spanish. There has been a lot of research in the past two decades and we now have much better understanding.

      Unfortunately, whatever is available in English is the same old regurgitation of trite cliches of biased Protestant and anti Spanish historiography. Also, the whole Spanish Empire period is a black hole for English authors. And they better stay that way looking at how abysmal is the work of some authors that have dabbled in the field.

      Geoffrey Parker who is the least bad of them all really had no clue.

      Here's a short basic introduction I wrote in my tumblr gallery in response to some nonsense posted

      The Spanish Tercio was the ultimate incarnation of Pike and Shot formations, popular during the 16th and 17th centuries.

      It’s a really odd formation, and overly complex. You can tell that from the diagram above. It had a complex mix of 3000 mutually supporting pikemen, arquebusiers, and sword-and-buckler men. The basic idea is that it can handle anything, most importantly cavalry. This came to a head at the Battle of Pavia, when a Spanish tercio in the service of the Holy Roman Empire annihilated the French heavy cavalry and captured the French king.

      The Swiss, who achieved their fame and notoriety in this period, also used mixed formations but instead used it aggressively. They would deploy into long, thick columns and charge with those pikes.

      The Tercio looks, essentially, like the medieval equivalent of a child’s conception of a huge tank with guns everywhere. It eventually suffered from the same problems that such an impractical tank would: maneuverability.

      The success in the Thirty Years War by Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus is in lighter artillery, and more flexible, lighter formations. He still used large numbers of mercenaries, but organized them more effectively as individual formations in better coordinated strategy. This would later evolve into the more musket-based warfare of the 18th century.
      Sorry but your post about the Tercio is completely rubbish. The same old and trite cliches from English sources. Recent research from Spanish historians in the past two decades has buried those myths. Some points to get you and the others that liked this started:

      Fact 1) Swiss pikemen were the best infantry in Europe until they came up against the Spanish and were soundly beaten again and again. Massive pikeblocks are the hallmark of the Swiss, not the Spanish, who found the antidote: fieldworks and lots of firearms Edit: Sword and buckler men were succesfully used during the Great Captain campaigns but soon they were replaced by more arquebusiers. Spanish soldiers skill with sword was however very useful in all the raiding and skirmishing actions outside of battle , though

      Fact 2) There was no such thing as a “Tercio” formation, a massive pike block with shot in the corners. That was just a parade ground formation, sometimes used as a square in the napoleonic period, for defensive purposes. Basically all pike and shot formations were a pike block, more wide than deep (even the Swiss block was more like a phalanx rather than a long column), and arquebusier and later muskets in the wing

      Fact 3), though some of the most celebrated victories of Spanish infantry were defensive, like Cerignola and Bicocca, pike blocks did advance to clash, the “push of pike”. The Swiss tactic of just forming in massive columns and charging became obsolete. Also the Swiss never got beyond that. Spaniard infantry were as skilled in drawing up in battle array as in irregular guerrilla warfare, skirmishing, raiding and siege work

      Fact 4) Again forget the diagramas and the cliche about the Tercio as a massive, ponderous pike square. Formations grew progressively smaller and thinner and the proportion of shot to pike increased throughout the entire period wich encompasses one and a half century. “Tercio” is an administrative unit, not a tactical one, pike squares deployed in tactical formations of varyiing frontage and depth depending of the period, number of men, and tactical situation. And they weren’t really “squares” just as Napoleonic “columns” aren’t columns, just rectangles several ranks deep, but always with way more frontage than depth

      Fact 5) Warfare in the pike and shot period was complex and cannot be reduced to simple diagramas and one liners. Fact is that the Spanish tactic was not rigid, but like the Roman legions, adapted to ever changing tactics and enemies. That is why their military supremacy lasted one and a half centuries. The Swiss got stuck with one tactic that worked, and faded into obscurity after being decimated at Bicocca and Pavia during the Italian Wars

      Fact 6) Gustavus Adolphus is hugely overrated, though he did introduce some tactical innovations, (look up the difference between strategy ad tactics) wich were promptly copied by the German armies he faced, like it happened during the period, reciprocal development, as soon somebody tried a new tactic, everybody would copy it or develop a counter: muskets, caracole, light artillery, cavalry charge.. etc. He was certainly not the military genius he is made to be, and would not even meet the criteria to be rated one of the top generals of the period. Napoleon himself said that he acquired his glory at a bargain price: won one battle, was defeated in the second, and was killed in the third

      Fact 7) The Swedes were victorious (well, they got some beatings from the Poles before as well) until they met the Spanish and they were utterly crushed at Nördlingen in 1634. One should not confuse the outdated methods used by the German Catholic Habsburg armies to those used by the Spanish Habsburg armies. In fact, those tried and proven methods couldn’t have been that bad, the Catholics were winning the 30 Years War up to that moment. I think the German commanders were so shocked by their defeat in Breitenfeld that they rushed to imitate Swedish methods, attributing their defeat to Swedish tactics, while the real cause of the rout of Breitenfeld seems to be the raw Saxon recruits on teh flank breaking and running, not a Swedish tactical advantage.

      Fact 8) Gustavus Adolphus didn’t create any military transition towards musket warfare, muskets did. Tehcnology advancements made muskets lighter, and the number of pikes declined, throughout the period there is a decline in the shock action of pike clash and a rise in the shooting duel, but pikes remained neccessary to fend off cavalry charges until the combination of flintlock musket and bayonet made pikes obsolete at the end of the 17th century. Yet that solved some tactical problems and created new ones. The “ponderous” pike blocks were actually more flexible and easier to maneuver than the long unwiedly lines of fusiliers of the 1700s, that sacrififed manevuer in the name of firepower. It took another century and the napoleonic wars to break from the rigidity of linear tactics

      Fact 9) The ancients were ancients but not stupid. They did things for a reason, even if it may seem stupid to us, because we don’t know the context of why they did things the way they did. The Spanish couldn’t have been that stupid if they conquered a empire where the sun didn’t set and held their military supremacy in Europe for almost one hundred and fifty years. They weren’t beaten because they were stupid, rigid, conservative or failed to adapt. They finally lost in the end because they were always too few to begin with and there were too many enemies and too many wars. But even if they lost the supremacy to France in the second half of the 17th century, the crisis of the end of the century was temporary, spanish army and navy adapted to the new way of warfare and the Spanish empire lasted for another century.
      CANNON, n.
      An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

      The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce


      • #4
        Thanks for your information von Junzt.


        • #5
          Since I am in Madrid and learned some Spanish, which of course I use for vino tinto, iberico and military history I find it difficult to find fault with von J.'s above post. Not that I am surprised at that
          BTW love the comparison with a child's rendering of a tank Ritter

          Indeed the success of the tercio's declined after the number of Castilians serving in the tercio's decreased, that was well after the Battle of Nördlingen where the tercio's withstood 12 Swedish cavalry charges and then grimly moved forward to finish their murderous work.

          You may not be interested in War, but War is interested in You - Leon Trotski, June 1919.


          • #6
            Originally posted by von Junzt View Post
            Fact 5) Warfare in the pike and shot period was complex and cannot be reduced to simple diagramas and one liners. Fact is that the Spanish tactic was not rigid, but like the Roman legions, adapted to ever changing tactics and enemies. That is why their military supremacy lasted one and a half centuries. The Swiss got stuck with one tactic that worked, and faded into obscurity after being decimated at Bicocca and Pavia during the Italian Wars.
            My knowledge of this topic is limited, so I will merely reply to this part.

            Many armies went through the same phase of being normally unbeatable on the battlefield, to being a walkover.

            The British learnt that with their longbowmen.

            Further, sieges are more important than battlefield victories, according to Marlborough, one of Britains, and even the worlds, finest generals.

            The French won more sieges in the 100 Years War, which is why, despite Crecy and Poitiers, Edward III controlled less of France at the end of his reign than at the beginning.
            How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic:
            Global Warming & Climate Change Myths:


            • #7
              Everything I know about the Spanish tercios I learned from reading Arturo Perez-Reverte's "Capitan Alatriste" series, and Spanish military blogs. The information is out there, but a reading knowledge of Spanish will increase your range of knowledge.
              dit: Lirelou

              Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá gì!


              • #8
                Hello von...

                Thats probably...(no definately) THE best summary of a Tercoi Ive run across.

                I have often wondered why such a successful commander as count tilly "suddenly" lost the plot at Breitenfield, and pushed his "lumbering" Tercios into the teeth of a weapon he had been fully trained to use effectively...Light Artillery.

                Conclusion: SOmething happened at Brietenfield that we modern folk are not aware of. Maybe Tilly had no idea that Adolphus had any of those light guns with him, or something like that.

                whatever the reason, there was no logic to it from a man that had faced light artiller before and what happened against Adolphus?

                I have always thought that the REAL circumstances of tilly's defeat are locked up in an archive somewhere...waiting for the right man to come along.

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                • #9
                  ...the real cause of the rout of Breitenfeld seems to be the raw Saxon recruits on teh flank breaking and running, not a Swedish tactical advantage...
                  This connotative remark is egregiously misleading! Those Saxons were on the Swedish side, thus their fleeing made bare the Swedish left flank, which Tilly began to envelop with a couple of his ‘tercios’! How could that be the cause of the Swedish victory? As for the Battle of Nördlingen, that was a superior army in numbers, quality and leadership over a nominally-led Swedish one after Gustavus’ death. But it definitely illustrated that a well led ‘tercio’ system could still successfully deal with enemy forces even with improving systems of maneuver, etc. I feel Gustavus is most certainly not vastly overrated - an absolutely arbitrary comment. He’s overrated if the judgment of him is that he was on par with the likes of, say, Napoleon, let alone an opinion that he was the greatest military leader ever. Anyone who would write such a comment claiming it a ‘fact’ needs a red flag appended to their works. I’m sorry, but I find that irresponsible and propagandistically bias. A specific mistake committed by Gustavus Adolphus’ admirers is that they credit him with many innovations before the 19th century, which isn’t true. He never claimed to innovate or institute anything first. But he was no a slavish imitator - as his detractors try to push - but a genius in that he basically synthesized the best of contemporary practice into a coherent doctrine (cf. William Guthrie, The Later Thirty Years War, pp. 21-22) including linear infantry battalions (a Dutch innovation) and shock cavalry charges (a Polish forte).

                  The victory at Breitenfeld was a masterpiece of such combined arms, and there is no question that his innovation of squadrons and brigades of horse and foot, not to mention the nascent field artillery of the time (more of a psychological impact), was less cumbersome than whatever the ‘tercio’ truly constituted. We can describe them as regiments if one prefers. They were ideal amid most of the 16th century, an ideal combination of arms for the tasks at hand, much of it defensive and attritional. The pike could ward off enemy cavalry while shot delivered a steady stream of fire. But they were certainly cumbersome against a more flexible system bringing back the shock element; the verdict of the Battle of Rocroi in 1643 against the Spanish regimental system is what Gustavus in full form would have done to any such system as well.

                  At Breitenfeld, Gustavus and his army, now at its pinnacle after trial and error in Poland, were outnumbered and threatened with envelopment in their left after the Saxons forsook them. The discipline and execution of the Swedish articulated and independent squadrons carried the day against a seasoned army led by a capable commander - possessing unquestionable tactical superiority! I’ll never believe this is ‘Anglo-Swedish’ propaganda. Such a charge could be turned the other way - some writers, etc., are changing details to mitigate their shame and embarrassment for their defeats. Catholics just hate Gustavus, a sentiment not very well obscured by the post above. Oh, those Protestants! I’m glad I’m not wrapped up in religious and nationalistic feelings. I’m sorry if this is insulting to some. I really am.

                  The Poles did not outright beat him, either, as some detractors of Gustavus heavily claim. He tactically beat them at Dirschau/Tzcew before he was seriously injured (they were clearly winning the battle once the Poles retired to their camp) and he received the worst of it in a running fight at Honigfelde/Trzciana, whereby he was being chased north in a race to get to his fortifications. His infantry was hardly scathed. Much depended on his person in his battles.

                  Circumstances need to be perused on a case by case basis, and here I see a reflection of many Polish and Spanish apologists, etc., carrying this sweeping viewpoint that their history has been wrongly presented. They were truly ‘brilliant’ armies and leaders which the English sources somehow and successfully distorted, and they know the ‘empirical truth’ because their heritage makes it so be default. In relative temporal comparison, the Spanish Empire and her forces were hardly the Roman one and her legions.

                  Forgive my sensitivity, I just don’t admire people who behave like a bringer of ‘truth’ because historians from their country somehow read sources more discernibly. Just because someone is from are in Spain doesn’t make sources more ‘reliable’ on elements of a Spanish history from three and four centuries ago. It’s not esoteric data out there!

                  Last edited by SpartanJM; 16 Feb 20, 13:47.


                  • #10
                    ...the same old regurgitation of trite cliches of biased Protestant and anti Spanish historiography...
                    Sure. The siege of Alkmaar was not a Spanish failure, because if you look it up in English - that it states it was a turning point in the Dutch fortunes against Spain via the original account by a Dutchman named van Foreest, and that the Spanish army failed in this siege - we now know it was merely a successful prevarication for four centuries or so until righteous Spanish historians have righted the wrongs! At the Battle of Turnout, the Spanish tercios were not really broken up and subsequently ‘cut down with terrible slaughter’ in a pursuit by the English and Dutch cavalry because writers such as Charles Knight and Marco van der Hoeven made it up. Rubbish. Sure they were bias, but into the 17th century the tercio system - however nominal and true its composition - was outdone by superior systems by which the likes of Maurice and Gustavus were the primary forgers.

                    I’ve read this before regarding Nordlingen by ‘angry’ Spanish apologists - that it was the ‘proof’ that they were still ‘better’, without any discussion of circumstantial specifics. I feel they would have had no chance against the precision instrument of Breitenfeld! The comment regarding the flight of the Saxons - connoting that it created an advantage for the Swedes - reflects a paltry lack of facts. Now, it could have been an isolated error, but that long, well-received post by impressionable readers on here did not even give us a rundown of what a ‘tercio’ actually was and did, only that Protestant bias regurgitated a bunch of nonsense. The allusion that the Spanish tercio was as flexible as a Roman legion (cohort or maniple wasn’t addressed) is far-fetched. Of course it could and did adapt, but the flexibility comparison should be attributed to the Dutch and Swedish armies. I’ve never read from an English-language source that a Spanish tercio of its heyday was a clumsy, rigid unit that didn’t adapt. Strawmen are being thrown in here. It’s always a red flag when one calls out others for lying yet doesn’t provide any credible retort. I’m sure it isn’t that simple, is it, and I’m ‘angling’ it in a misrepresentative manner. Well, I’m reading those very words; it’s a pretty grim and serious charge and claim.

                    ...Napoleon himself said that he acquired his glory at a bargain price: won one battle, was defeated in the second, and was killed in the third...
                    Napoleon said that about Gustavus Adolphus? Where did you get that from? I agree his impetuous, Alexandrian-style of battlefield leadership cost him his life, but that comment doesn’t reflect a lack of respect. If presented with that quote I’ll acquiesce happily. What I’ve read from Napoleon is that he cited Gustavus as one of his seven best captains of history:

                    Military Maxim no. 78,

                    “Peruse again and again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Engene, and Frederick. Model yourself upon them. This is the only means of becoming a great captain, and of acquiring the secret of the art of war. Your own genius will be enlightened and improved by this study, and you will learn to reject all maxiums foreign to the principles of these great commanders.”

                    He wrote that, everyone. It’s not made up by the fans of those selected commanders. Thus it reeks of hypocrisy for someone to say as fact that Gustavus was vastly overrated yet - in the same context - use a saying by the same figure to impugn his stature drawn - one of admiration from an historical consensus.

                    I hate acting like the bad guy on a crusade here, but I opine what I opine. What does ‘truth’ really mean these days with the smorgasbord of conflicting values?
                    Last edited by SpartanJM; 17 Feb 20, 12:33.


                    • #11
                      For anyone intersted in the reasons for the eventual decline of the Spanish Army of Flanders I'd recommend this :


                      The publication of The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road in 1972 marked the birth of the "new military history", which emphasized military organization--mobilization, pay, supply, morale and, above all, logistics--rather than military "events" such as sieges and battles.
                      Lambert of Montaigu - Crusader.

                      Bolgios - Mercenary Game.


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