Austro-Swiss War (1385–1388)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Austria vs. Switzerland
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Switzerland
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Hapsburgs invaded
Swiss Confederation lands, seeking additional territory.
OUTCOME: The Austrians suffered a series of defeats,
resulting in a two-decades-long peace and strengthening
the Swiss Confederation, thereby establishing the
foundation of modern Switzerland.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: At
Battle of Sempach (July 9, 1386), the Swiss fielded 1,600
pikemen against 6,000 Austrians.
CASUALTIES: Unknown, but heavy among the Austrians
TREATIES: Zurich Treaty of 1388
Throughout most of the Middle Ages the cantons of
Switzerland had existed in competition with one another,
and there was virtually no sense of a Swiss nationality.
However, in response to oppression from the Hapsburgs,
the cantons and other Swiss communities, loosely constituted
as they were, banded together for the purpose of
defense. The most important of the cantons, Uri, Schwyz,
and Unterwalden, created the Everlasting League in 1291,
which led to the creation of a Swiss Confederation early in
the 14th century.
In 1385 the confederation was put to the test when
Duke Leopold III of Austria (1351–86) encroached on confederation
territory. This brought a preemptory response
from the confederation, which took the initiative by invading
Hapsburg-controlled Rothenburg and Sempach. Provoked,
Leopold launched a full-scale invasion of Swiss
territory. On July 9, 1386, 6,000 Austrians attacked a mere
1,600 Swiss pikemen. Austria’s heavy cavalry was not
much use in the broken mountain fields and so fought dismounted.
They were at first successful against the outnumbered
Swiss but eventually fell victim to their own heavy
armor. Exhausted in the difficult terrain, the Austrians
allowed gaps to develop in their line of attack. The highly
skilled Swiss were quick to exploit these openings. In a
counterattack they readily penetrated the faulty Austrian
lines and devastated the numerically superior army.
Leopold III was killed in the final assault on the dismounted
Sempach was the decisive battle of the war. However,
one more great battle was fought at Näfels in 1388. Again
showing themselves masters of tactics suited to mountainous
terrain, the Swiss set up an ambush in which they let
loose an avalanche of boulders on the advancing Austrians.
Thus, thrown into panic and disorder, the Austrians were
handily defeated in detail and concluded a hasty truce,
which was soon formalized as the Zurich Treaty of 1388.
The victory greatly enhanced the prestige and power of the
Swiss Federation, which, by the beginning of the 15th century,
would include a total of eight member cantons.
Further reading: Douglas Miller, The Swiss at War
1300–1500 (London: Osprey, 1998); William E. Rappard,
Collective Security in Swiss Experience, 1291–1948 (Westport,
Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1984).