A Battle of Short and Long


A Battle of Short and Long

I am now age 58. When I was about 6 or 8 years old, I remember my father telling me about an ancient battle, in which one side had very long spears, and the opposing side had very short spears. My father said that one brave soldier, among those with the short spears, intentionally impaled himself upon a number of the long spears. This opening allowed the short spear warriors to get very close. Being close, the long spears were too long to be effective, and the short spear forces won a victory.

My father is now age 90. I asked him, in recent years, if he remembers telling me that story, but he has no memory of it whatsoever.

I have searched in google on various occasions, but have found nothing.

I would love to know where the story came from. What was the century of the battle? Which nations or city-states were at war? Which historian wrote of the battle?

Thanks for any light you may shed on this question.


The only example I know of of such an act took place at the Battle of Sempach in 1386. The Swiss Confederation had rebelled against the Holy Roman Emperor, and Duke Leopold III was trying to crush the rebellion.

According to legend, the troops of the Swiss Confederation was unable to break an Austrian phalanx at Sempach. In desperation, one Arnold von Winkelried led a charge of Swiss infantry arranged in a wedge formation, with him at the apex. Throwing himself on the spikes, he brought down enough pikes with his own body for the infantrymen following him to smash a breach in the Austrian phalanx, thus routing them, and securing Swiss independence.

According to the same legend, von Winkelried shouted “Make way for liberty!” as he flung himself on the pikes. Stirring stuff!
I can imagine how intriguing this must be!

While I cannot answer the question from the top of my head, maybe this helps:

Long spears vs short spears seems to point to long pike (the 5.5 metres ‘sarissa’) wielding Macedonian phalanx vs traditional (‘short speared’) Greek phalanx, but as I said I cannot come up with a single recorded battle where this incident took place.

As Macedonian – Greek battles were mostly won by the the Macedonian ‘long spear forces’ perhaps we should not be looking in this period, but to a later one: where Roman legions faced the Macedonian ‘hedgehog’ and won, though through other tactics than the one you described.

Lastly: IIRC a similar incident was discussed in the Medieval Era forum: perhaps in ‘Swiss vs. Landsknechte’? where a contingent of pikemen was broken into through a similar sacrifice by swordfighting opponents.
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you!” – Leon Trotsky, June 1919

Here’s a fuller account:

ABOUT seventy years later the Austrians made another attempt to conquer the patriots. They collected a splendid army and marched into the mountains. The Swiss at once armed themselves and met the Austrians at a place called Sempach. In those times powder had not been invented, and men fought with spears, swords, and [232] battle-axes. The Austrian soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, each grasping a long spear whose point projected far in front of him. The Swiss were armed with short swords and spears and it was impossible for them to get to the Austrians. For a while their cause looked hopeless, but among the ranks of the Swiss was a brave man from one of the Forest Cantons. His name was Arnold von Winkelried. As he looked upon the bristling points of the Austrian spears, he saw that his comrades had no chance to win unless an opening could be made in that line. He determined to make such an opening even at the cost of his life. Extending his arms as far as he could, he rushed toward the Austrian line and gathered within his arms as many spears as he could grasp.

“Make way for liberty!” he cried—

Then ran, with arms extended wide,

As if his dearest friend to clasp;

Ten spears he swept within his grasp.

“Make way for liberty!” he cried—

Their keen points met from side to side.

He bowed among them like a tree,

And thus made way for liberty.

Pierced through and through Winkelried fell dead, but he had made a gap in the Austrian line, and into this gap rushed the Swiss patriots. Victory was theirs and the Cantons were free.

Here’s another account:

The Swiss at Sempach – 1386
When Leopold III of Austria led his 5,000 knights and 1,500 infantry into Switzerland in 1386, it was the culmination of numerous attempts by the Hapsburgs to force feudal claims upon the cantons. In the past, the highly respected Swiss infantry had always successfully defended their freedom. The citizens were summoned to arms, and 1,500 men assembled to meet the Austrians at Sempach. As the immediate terrain was not conducive to a cavalry charge, Leopold ordered his men to dismount and form into bristling phalanx of spearmen. Although unplanned, this trapped the Swiss. For the Swiss to attack a force that was four times larger seemed suicidal, and to withdraw they would have to retreat over ground that favored a cavalry attack. Their cause appeared hopeless until one man, Arnold von Winkelreid devised a plan.

Arnold convinced his comrades to form a wedge, and he stood at the apex of the triangle. At the command to charge, the Swiss rushed forward with Arnold at the point. As he approached the Austrians, he stretched out his arms and legs and hurled himself into the enemy line, simultaneously impaling himself on ten spears. The Swiss rushed through the gap that Arnold created and broke the Austrian line. Those Austrians on the flanks and in the reserve panicked and began to flee the battlefield. This was fatal mistake for any army to make when fighting the Swiss. They pursued the Austrians relentlessly and killed them almost to a man, Leopold included. The Austrians never attempted to invade Switzerland again.

* As Arnold von Winkelreid lunged at the Austrian spears, he is alleged to have shouted “Make way for liberty!” Although this sounds like no more than a battlefield legend and a similar incident is also said to have occurred over a century later, a man named Winkelreid is, in fact , listed in records of the Swiss killed that day, and at least one contemporary ballad records the deed as happening at Sempach.

I remembered reading about this incident when I was reading up on the Battle of Thermopylae (quite some time ago, before all this excitement about 300 )

What is it about these last stands, battles of the-few-against-the-many, or fights for freedom? They had such good lines just begging to be made into a movie!


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