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Mikael Ranelius




Location: Sweden
Joined: 06 Mar 2007

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PostPosted: Mon 06 Aug, 2012 9:02 am    Post subject: Battle of Alcácer Quibir         Reply with quote

At the battle of Alcácer Quibir ( Ksar El Kebir) on 4 August 1578, the Portuguese suffered an annihilating defeat against the sultanate of Morocco, with their king Sebastião I counted among the many dead. Among the few things I have learnt about the subject so far is that the Portuguese had adopted the Spanish tercio, terço, and their army who fought in the battle where made up of five terços as well as mercenaries and Moroccan allies.

I have always thought of the tercio as one of the most formidable formations in early modern warfare, so I was very surprised hearing about the Portuguese failure at Alcácer Quibir. How was the Saadi Moroccan army (which I admittedly know very little about) able to overcome the Portuguese terços? Was the Moroccan victory a mer fluke, or was it that European formations based on "pike and shot" were inherently inferior to Middle Eastern tactics using light cavalry and infantry? Are there more examples of European tercios (or their like) pitted against North African or Middle Eastern adversaries?
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Daniel Staberg




Location: Gothenburg/Sweden
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PostPosted: Mon 06 Aug, 2012 1:17 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

To begin with a Tercio is not a combat formation at all, it is an adminstrative unit. The battlefield unit of the Spanish infantry was the Escaudron (made up of pikemen with a small number of arquebusiers as escorts on each flank) and the detachments of musketeers & arquebusiers called Mangas which supplied most of the firepower.
What made the Spanish infantry so formidable was not the tercio or the escaudron, it was the espirit de corps, training and experience of it's officers and men which made the Spanish infantry the best in Europe at the time.

At the time the Moroccan army was not only able to raise a large number of traditional troops such as spearmen, light cavalry and lancers but it was also well supplied with firearms wielded by Morisco exiles, as well as Turks & Christian renegades.
These also supplied mounted arquebusier and manned the artillery. The Moroccans may well have outgunned the Portugese in the frontal clash as many portugese arquebusiers were used to defend the wagons protecting the flanks of the Portugese army. Last but not least the Moroccans fielded a lot more cavalry than the Portugese.

The Portugese army was a very mixed force, veterans from the Tangiers garrison, volunteers from Castille, mercenaries from Italy, Germany and Flanders, Portugese gentry fighting on foot as "aventuros" and a large mass of hastily raised "regular" Portuges infantry. There were also some Moroccoan allies whose numbers have been the subject of some debate. There only a small number of Portugese cavalry present, light cavalry from the Tangiers garrison and heavy cavalry fron Portugal. The hastily raised regulars had more men armed with pikes than with firearms if some of the secondary sources I've read are correct.

As far as I have been able to find out the battle developed as follows

1. There was an artillery & musketry duel between the Portugese & Morocan artillery and their supporting shot.

2. While this was in progress Moroccan light cavalry and mounted arquebusiers began to harass the flanks of the Portugese army.

3. The Morisco foot advanced and captured the Portugese artillery

4. The Portugese infantry counter attacked with the gentry forming the Escaudron of Aventuros in the center advancing faster than the Castilians & Italians on their left and the Germans&Wallons on their right. The Aventuro charge breaks through the Moriscos but are halted by the 2nd line of Moroccan infantry which contained a significant number of christian renegades.

5. The infantry on both sides becomes locked in intense close combat, seeking to break the stalemate the Portugese cavalry makes a charge which shatters part of the Moroccan infantry and starts a rout among the light cavalry.

6. The arrival of fresh Moroccan cavalry from the reserve allows the light cavalry to rally . Part of the Moroccan cavalry encircles and overwhelms the Portugese cavalry while others strike at the flanks of the Portugese army.

7. The Portugese begin to collapse and seek refuge among the wagons but the panic spreads to the units defending the wagons and their entire army falls into chaos. The King is cut down while öeading a futile charge into the midst of the Moroccan army.

The Portugese lost because they engaged a larger army without having an advantage in cavalry, firepower or troop quality. While deployements which used a wagon fort to protect the flanks from attack proved successfull against both the Ottomans & Tartars the Portugese seem to have lacked the firepower & cohesion necessary to make this type of defence work in the fact of a sustained attack. The shortage of cavalry meant that if the charge failed there was no cavalry available to sustain the attack or to cover the withdrawal of the now disordered and blown cavalry.

For other examples of combat in North Africa you have the Conquest of Tunis 1535. Do you count the Ottomans as middle eastern? If so the fighting in Hungary after 1526 during the various Ottoman wars provide ample scope for studying combat between Eastern & Western methods though much of it was siege operations and raiding. Habsburg military writers wrote extensivly on how to fight the Ottomans and the strenghts and weaknesses found in the opposing armies. There is an good article on the subject, Parry's La Maniere de Combattre published as a part of "War, Technology and Society in the Middle East" (Oxford university Press 1975) and a Phd thesis "The art of war during the habsburg ottoman long war 1593-1606" by Tibor Szalontay available in English.

"There is nothing more hazardous than to venture a battle. One can lose it
by a thousand unforseen circumstances, even when one has thorougly taken all
precautions that the most perfect military skill allows for."
-Fieldmarshal Lennart Torstensson.
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Mikael Ranelius




Location: Sweden
Joined: 06 Mar 2007

Posts: 252

PostPosted: Mon 06 Aug, 2012 1:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks Daniel for your comments. Is it known how well trained the Portuguese pikemen were? Would it be wrong to assume that they were less trained and coordinated than were their Spanish counterparts in e.g. the Dutch war of independence?
By reading descriptions from e.g. the Swiss wars and Italian wars, one gets the impression that pikeblocks were able to pretty much "steam-roll" through anything in their path, but why where the Portuguese pike halted at Alcácer Quibir? did the terrain play a part? Did the sultan have access to pikemen and/or rodeleros of his own, or was the Moroccan artilley bombardement enough to seriously disrupt the Portuguese ranks? I have still a hard time picturing how light spearmen and light horsemen were able to stand up to and lock with pikemen, even when the latter were ill-trained and ill-led.
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Kurt Scholz





Joined: 09 Dec 2008

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PostPosted: Mon 06 Aug, 2012 11:57 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Moorish pike is a term from the Anthony Roll (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Roll). It is suggested that it was somewhat longer than a half pike. So pikes were likely not limited to Portugal. The earlier Wars of the various Islamic factions during the Late Reconquista already feature pikemen and javelineers as the basis of Islamic armies. The Spanish tercio replaced the javelin with other ranged weapons and I'm still not sure to what degree that development was indebted to the Maghreb, probably a lot.
Noteable about Semitic military tradition are the half-moon formations that aren't as much highlighted in the Indoeuropean traditions (although known since Cannae and still a problem in most battle maps). There are some Medieval Yemeni works on the different types and uses of such formations, but I couldn't yet find an English translation.
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Daniel Staberg




Location: Gothenburg/Sweden
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PostPosted: Thu 09 Aug, 2012 5:48 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Mikael Ranelius wrote:
Thanks Daniel for your comments. Is it known how well trained the Portuguese pikemen were? Would it be wrong to assume that they were less trained and coordinated than were their Spanish counterparts in e.g. the Dutch war of independence?
By reading descriptions from e.g. the Swiss wars and Italian wars, one gets the impression that pikeblocks were able to pretty much "steam-roll" through anything in their path, but why where the Portuguese pike halted at Alcácer Quibir? did the terrain play a part? Did the sultan have access to pikemen and/or rodeleros of his own, or was the Moroccan artilley bombardement enough to seriously disrupt the Portuguese ranks? I have still a hard time picturing how light spearmen and light horsemen were able to stand up to and lock with pikemen, even when the latter were ill-trained and ill-led.


The "Portuguese" were a mixed force, you had good native troops such as the Aventurieros & veterns from Tangiers but also the regulars of the "Tersos" who were a more mixed bag. Some did not fight at all, others fought on long after thay had been surrounded by enemies. The Portuguese way of war was rather diffrent from the Spanish:
Quote:
"Courage, honor and recklessness were regarded above all else and many rank and file believed it to be cowardice to obey orders in a renowned lack of hierarchical discipline. "

There was little of the discipline and unit cohesion found among the Spanish or Swiss, rather the troops relied on individual bravery and toughness.

A good part of the army was not Portuguese at all with some 2000 Spanish, 600 Italians and 3000 Germans & Wallons present all of whom were deployed in the front line. The only native Portugese infantry in the front line were the Aventurieros and the veteran arquebusiers from Tangiers. (Of the 5 Tersos, 2 were deployed to protect the rear of the army and 2 protected the flanks. Even if you count the 1500 cavalry the majority of the troops in the front line were not Portuguese, any blame for the defeat must be shared by the other troops as well.

The Swiss of the Burgundian, Swabian & Italian wars were a very diffrent force as far as training, cohesion and tactics were concerned. Beyond having some men armed with pikes there are not many similarities between the two forces.
The pike was no wonder weapon, to be effective it requires the proper training and supporting troops, Flodden 1513 is a good example of the failure of pikmen against a force of light billmen, archers and cavalry which they should have been able to overrun easily if not for the terrain and the fatal flaws in the Scots formations and their training.

There was a lot more to the Moroccan army than "light spearmen and light horsemen". the lancers were not light cavalry at all but rather similar to the Ottoman siphais (but without bows) and known for their fierce charge. The infantry with spear, shield and sword were famed for their agility and agressivness and would have made good ersatz rondeleros.
Then you had the exiled Moriscos from Andalusia who seem to have regarded the battle as a grudge fight as well as the numerous christian renegades and the turkish infantry.

The 3 frontline Escaudrons (Italians & Castilians, Aventurieros & Tangiers veterans, Germans & Wallons) would have been exposed not only to artillery fire but also suffered from arquebus fire, indeed the Moroccans may well have had more arquebusiers in the firing line. Once the Portugues infantry got into close combat they did so divided, the Aventurieros had charged faster and broke through to the 2nd line of Moroccan troops unsupported which would have left them outnumbered as well as with exposed flanks. Flank attack have always been one of the best ways to halt pikemen, not even the Swiss could advance and fend of serious flank attacks at the same time.

"There is nothing more hazardous than to venture a battle. One can lose it
by a thousand unforseen circumstances, even when one has thorougly taken all
precautions that the most perfect military skill allows for."
-Fieldmarshal Lennart Torstensson.
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Mikael Ranelius




Location: Sweden
Joined: 06 Mar 2007

Posts: 252

PostPosted: Thu 16 Aug, 2012 3:46 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks Kurt and Daniel, I appreciate your comments. The comparison to Flodden is interesting as that battle also came to my mind. Could it be that the Portuguese invasion force also suffered from logistical problems and friction/disunity between the different ethnic contingents? Are there any detailed descriptions of the Moroccan lancers and spearmen? How important was the Ottoman contribution to the Moroccan army?
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