The Battle of Rocroi is traditionally seen as the battle that ended the dominance of the Spanish tercios over the battlefields of Europe.
Although, in reality, the defeat was not the fault of the Spanish infantry, which held its own with courage and great determination that even impressed their French enemy, the dating of this defeat as the end of Spain’s military might is probably correct.
Political background of the battle
Spain, ruled by the Habsburg dynasty, was embroiled in one conflict or more throughout nearly all the late 16th and early 17th centuries. A small respite of peace between 1609 and 1621 was soon ended by the ministers of King Philip IV, who seeing the progress their Dutch enemies made in extending their commercial influence, argued that war was the only solution that would allow the Spanish to subdue their former subjects.
The war between Spain and the Dutch Republic resumed in 1621. Simultaneously the Austrian branch of the Habsburg dynasty was fighting against the Protestant Princes and nobles of the Holy Roman Empire. The much poorer Austrian branch received both subsidies and military assistance from their richer Spanish cousins.
The chief minister of Philip IV, the Count-Duke Olivares, preferred to wage a naval and commercial war against the Dutch, rather than trying to conquer the heavily fortified towns of the Republic. He increasingly utilized privateers from Dunqueque, who sank and captured many Dutch merchant ships. Simultaneously the Spanish banned Dutch goods from their Iberian, Italian and Colonial ports.
This strategy was working up to a point, however, the Dutch, despite their commercial losses, were not interested in making an accommodation that would have been acceptable for Madrid. The expulsion of Dutch ships from Spanish ports opened the way for other commercial entities to fill their places like the English and North German towns, but the expected revival of Spanish trade was nowhere to be seen. If anything, the already impoverished Castille became even harder hit by the high taxes that were needed to maintain the war effort.
Spain’s chief continental rival, France, was not sitting idle on the fences either. The cunning Cardinal Richelieu subsidised the enemies of the Habsburgs at every opportunity he had. He partially financed the Swedish intervention in the Thirty Year’s War. After the death of Gustavus Adolphus and the crushing Habsburg victory at the Battle of Nordlingen in 1635, Richelieu finally brought France directly into the Thirty Year’s War.
French armies attacked Spanish and Imperial troops in Northern France, Flanders and along the Rhine in Franche-Comte, Alsace and Lorraine. Despite the great manpower France had, at first the French armies struggled to make serious advances, as the country was largely at peace in the previous decades and lacked experienced generals and officers.
Contrary to the inexperienced French armies, the Spanish armies were filled with veterans. Despite being pressured from two sides in Flanders, from the north by the Dutch and from the south by the French, the famous Army of Flanders was more than able to hold its own.
Between 1635 and 1643, both sides attacked and launched raids and forrays deep into enemy territory, but generally struggled to make lasting headway, as the overextended armies were forced to retreat when their supplies were starting to run out. Still, French advances on the Rhine succeeded in severing the Spanish Road( the road of Spanish reinforcements from Italy to Flanders), which made the life of the Spanish armies harder. There was of course the option of ferrying men to Flanders on the sea, passing through the channel, but the southern part of the channel was controlled by the French, and after French water followed next to the water of the Dutch Republic, guarded by its mighty navy.
But the struggles of the Spanish were matched by the struggles of the French. The heavy taxation that was levied was resented by the population, and Richelieu and King Louis XIII crushed many uprisings. Their heavy-handed, even tyrannical way of governing also alienated a good part of the aristocracy, who later rebelled against the crown during the tenure of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin.
Depiction of the battle from the movie Alatriste
The Battle of Rocroi
As the French army gained more and more experience and improved after their entrance to the war, one could say that the Spanish army slowly, but surely deteriorated. The infantry was still superb, disciplined and brave, but the cavalry became much weaker. The leadership of the army was becoming increasingly aristocratic from the late 16th century onwards, which meant that the senior officers got their position thanks to their court relationships or their wealth. This was very similar all throughout Europe, but rather surprisingly not in Spain throughout the 16th century, as the Spanish army was a rare army where officers of the lower class rose high under the command of the Iron Duke Alba and his predecessors.
Some aristocratic generals turned out to be success stories like Ambrogio Spinola or even the Cardinal-Infante, the problem was, however, that by 1643 both of them were dead.
The man who took command after the death of the Cardinal-Infante, Francisco de Melo, had little military experience. Nor did his senior officers have much more experience either, and the one infantry commander, a man of common origins, was so old that he had to be carried.
The revolt of the Portuguese and the Catalans made the already hard political situation of the Spanish crown even harder in 1640, but the death of Richelieu in late 1642 and the imminent death of Louis XIII gave Spain a chance to force France out of the war.
De Melo scored a morale-boosting victory over the French in 1642 at the Battle of Honnecourt. De Melo believed that by defeating France again in 1643, he would force the fragile regime of the infant Louis XIV to come to terms with Spain.
With that objective in my mind, de Melo began the campaign of 1643 full of hopes. He marched into France and besieged the fortified town Rocroi. The French response came soon, and a French army under the command of Louis de Bourbon, the Prince of Conde, marched to relieve the town.
De Melo, contrary to the military doctrine of the age, failed to fortify his own positions, which left his army vulnerable. During the late 16th and most of the 17th centuries, besieging armies dug perimeter trenches around their own position and fortified themselves to defend themselves from both sorties and a relief army, which made most sieges look like the Siege of Alesia of Caesar.
De Melo could also have blocked the advance of Conde, as the road to Rocroi was through a narrow forest passage. Nonetheless, de Melo allowed the French to pass through and lined up his army to meet them. He left a small detachment to keep blockading the town and sent word to his subordinate Beck, to rejoin him with the 6,000 troops he had earlier detached from his force.
A deserter told Conde of the possible arrival of Beck and a Spanish ambush in the forest.
The battle began with an artillery exchange, followed by the attack of the French cavalry from the left. The French were beaten back by the Spanish, who counterattacked and scattered most of the French left. The cavalry then attacked the French infantry’s left wing and was joined by two tercios. The attack was successful, they captured most of the French guns and were pushing back the French. Though the lack of support from the rest of the Spanish infantry and French reserves stabilised the situation.
The French right cavalry, personally led by Conde, attacked the Spanish left. Conde used the intelligence he received from a deserter to ambush the Spanish forces in the forest. He set up his own trap after this was done. While his flank was fighting the Spanish left, his troops from the forest attacked the Spanish, who quickly collapsed under the attack from multiple angles.
Conde then decided to continue his attack against the second line of the Spanish infantry, who unlike the frontline formed in the rock-solid tercios, were formed in line. As de Melo was too busy trying to rally his fleeing cavalry from the left, the command structure in the Spanish centre collapsed.
The paralyzed Spanish watched as Conde rampaged through and routed their second line of infantry, before turning around and hitting from the back the Spanish troops engaged with the French centre.
With most of their cavalry and part of their infantry gone, the Spanish gun crews fled.
The veteran tercios from the frontline of the Spanish centre stood their ground, but Conde ordered his army to encircle them. The French massed their own batteries with the captured Spanish ones and unleashed devastating volleys into the Spanish infantry from close range.
The grit of the Spanish troops impressed Conde, who offered surrender terms to the Spanish, which they accepted. Unfortunately for them, not all troops knew about this, so when Conde rode ahead to accept the surrender, infantrymen mistook his advance for another attack and opened fire. Angered by this seeming treachery, the French attacked again, this time without quarter and with devastating result. The Spanish army was virtually destroyed. Some Spanish sources state that only three of the five Spanish infantry battalions were destroyed by the French, while the remaining two were allowed to leave the field with deployed flags and weapons.
The battle ended in a crushing Spanish defeat, who may have lost as many as 12,000-15,000 men killed and captured, while the French suffered around 4,000 casualties.
Conde’s victory saved the regime of the young Louis XIV and made certain that the war continued. The defeat at Rocroi shattered the myth of invincibility of the Spanish armies for good.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler