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.
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.