Due in part to its readiness to fight, Switzerland has spent centuries in relative peace

Behind Switzerland’s long-standing policy of armed neutrality is a tradition of maintaining a strong citizen militia ready to defend the nation’s land and airspace with proven ferocity. Beginning with the victory of the cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden over Hapsburg Duke Leopold I at Morgareten on Nov. 15, 1315, Switzerland expanded into a confederation of cantons that united against any threat—as demonstrated in battle against Austrians at Sempach on July 9, 1386.

Although Swiss national expansion ended after its defeat by a Franco-Venetian force at Marignano on Sept. 13–14, 1515, Swiss mercenary companies continued to provide foreign armies with a formidable edge. That tradition survives in the Vatican’s Swiss Guard.

Switzerland’s last major conflict was the internal Sonderbund War of Nov. 3–29, 1847, after which its principal martial—or rather, anti-martial—contribution was Henry Dunant’s conceptualization of the International Red Cross in 1863.

  • Konrad Grob’s painting of the 1386 Battle of Sempach shows Swiss hero Arnold von Winkel- ried sacrificially impaling himself on Austrian pikes to create a gap through which his comrades stormed and routed the enemy, killing Duke Leopold III and some 1,500 of his soldiers. While the decisive victory cemented the Old Swiss Confederacy, Winkelried’s very existence remains the subject of debate. / VBS
  • German and Swiss soldiers meet along their shared border in 1917. Switzerland remained neutral through World War I, although Swiss volunteers fought on both sides. / Bundesarchiv
  • Members of the 3rd Howitzer Battery train on their 150 mm gun during World War I. / Swiss Federal Archives
  • During World War I a soldier patrols the Pennine Alps along the Italian border, with Monte Rosa in the background. / Swiss Federal Archives
  • A Swiss Messerschmitt Me 109E-3 sports the red-and-white identification bands adopted during World War II. Nazi Germany’s 1940 invasion of France was attended by intrusions into Swiss airspace, resulting in several dogfights, with Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe getting the worst of it. / Hermann Keist
  • A British-made Swiss army Centurion tank negotiates city streets during winter maneuvers in 1970. / Ullstein Bild, Getty Images
  • French-built Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopters participate in combined-arms maneuvers in 1986. / Ullstein Bild, Getty Images
  • A McDonnell Douglas F/A-18D Hornet is towed out of its hardened hangar for a patrol in 2008. / Mike Niederhauser, VBS
  • A Panzer 87 Leopard, a Swiss-made variant of the German Leopard 2A4, participates in winter maneuvers in 2013. / Nicola Pitaro, VBS
  • Swiss soldiers, their faces masked against the COVID-19 virus, greet the visiting chief of staff of neutral Liechtenstein at the Castelgrande in Bellinzona, Ticino, on Aug. 31, 2021. Swit- zerland responded to the COVID-19 threat with its largest troop mobilization since World War II. / Alexander Kühni, VBS

The Swiss managed to keep largely out of both world wars, although venturesome individuals fought in the French Foreign Legion and other forces. In World War II the Swiss air force did clash with German aircraft that violated its airspace in May–June 1940, shooting down 11 for the loss of two fighters and a reconnaissance plane. Swiss fighters and antiaircraft batteries also shot down 15 encroaching Allied aircraft, killing 36 airmen, while losing one plane to combat with a U.S. fighter in September 1944.

The present-day Swiss armed forces comprise a small nucleus of regulars, the rest being male conscripts aged 19 to 34 and male or female volunteers aged 18 to 49. Obligatory service lasts 300 days, followed by 10 years in reserve. Like the U.S. Army National Guard, Swiss forces assist in the event of local emergencies.

In 2003 Switzerland deployed 31 soldiers to Afghanistan for service alongside Germans in the NATO-affiliated International Security Assistance Force. Its last two officers returned home in 2008. MH

This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.