The Single-Leaf Prints of the Zurich Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft

Target practice of the Zurich Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft with cannons and mortars. Neujahrsblatt of the Zurich Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1693.

Complete collection of the 114 Neujahrsblätter of the Zurich Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft from the years between 1689 and 1758.

On the second weekend of September, an annual target shooting competition called “Knabenschiessen” takes place in Zurich. It is a last reminder that Zurich did not have a standing army in early modern times but a citizen militia, i.e. soldiers who pursued other professions in their civil life.

A militia has both advantages and disadvantages. Military theorists acknowledged early on that the most important advantage of a militia was that the soldiers did not only fight for money but for their motherland and were thus prepared to take much higher risks. On the other hand, they knew from experience that these soldier weren’t able to spend as much time and commitment on perfecting their military training than professional soldiers. This was particularly relevant regarding the branches of the army for which extensive training was necessary, such as modern artillery. Using a cannon or a mortar in a successful and effective way is a complex operation that requires a lot of mathematical and physical knowledge and even more practice. And there was no quick and easy way of getting that experience.

The siege of Rapperswil in 1656. City Museum Rapperswil. © Roland Fischer, Zurich (Switzerland)/ Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 Unported.

Defeat leads to the founding of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft

The people of Zurich had to experience this first-hand. In the First War of Villmergen, in which the Reformed cities of Zurich, Bern and Schaffhausen fought against an alliance of Catholic regions, the Zurich artillery failed miserably outside the city walls of Rapperswil. Their commander Hans Rudolf Werdmüller had 7,018 men of infantry, 326 dragoons and 19 guns at his disposal. This should have been well enough to make the siege successful, however, particularly the artillery was barely of any use. On the very first day of the siege, 60 shots were fired within nine hours. Regarding the success of the siege, the Schultheiss of Rapperswil wrote in his diary: “nobody in the town was harmed by the shots except an honest man from the surrounding countryside who had a leg shot off on the sconce, and died immediately.”

After a whole day of heavy shelling, there was only one victim! In fact, within one month of heavy (and expensive!) artillery fire, the Zurich militia “only” managed to destroy 34 buildings to a greater or lesser extent. The artillery did not destroy the city walls enough for the soldiers to be able to storm the town, and they also failed to demoralise the citizens of Rapperswil to the extent that they would have opened the gates. On 10 February 1656, the Zurich army had to withdraw, deeply humiliated. And of course, people all over Zurich discussed how such a failure could be avoided in the future.

Just one year later, the city council decided to reorganise the artillery. A relative of Hans Rudolf Werdmüller, who had failed spectacularly in the siege of Rapperswil, initiated a casual discussion group of educated officers who would regularly talk about the latest developments in artillery. Just like many others in Zurich, this man called Heinrich Werdmüller held a military office: he was Unter-Zeugherr, i.e. he was in charge of the city’s cannons and bombards stored in the Zeughaus of Zurich.

In 1686, this discussion group became an official institution, the “Gesellschaft der Constaffleren und Feuerwerker” (Society of Constables and Ordnance Technicians), which still continues to exist in Zurich to this day as the “Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft” (Society of Ordnance Technicians).

The purpose of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft was to train its members in the use of cannons and bombards in such a way that they would be able to use the weapons stored in the armoury in an ideal way.

How to use guns during a siege: the principles of setting up cannons and mortars. Neujahrsblatt of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1708.

New Year’s Publications Teach Basic Military Knowledge

Such a society, just like any association today, depended on its members to cover the costs through membership fees. It was a tradition for these fees to be handed over in sort of a ceremony on Berchtold’s Day. In Switzerland, Berchtold’s Day is still celebrated today as a public holiday on 2 January. Nobody knows for sure why the festival is called like that. There certainly was no Saint Berchtold. And the theory that the name is reminiscent of the wild hunt led by Mrs. Perchta couldn’t be proven either.

The first Neujahrsblatt of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1689.

Be that as it may, in the 17th century, the citizens of Zurich sent their festively dressed children to the various societies they supported with their fees on 2 January. The children delivered their parents’ money – the fees were also called “Stubenhitz” (parlour heater) because the money was used to heat the parlour where they met. Of course, the money could also be used to cover other expenses. In return, the children got a sip of wine, pastries and, for the first time in 1644/5, the association that covered the costs of the citizens library gave them a pretty copper engraving featuring a depiction and a poem.

In 1689, the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft also started issuing such a New Year’s publication. It looks similar to other single-leaf prints published on this occasion and combines a copper engraving with an instructive poem: the wise Athena/Minerva shows the somewhat desperate looking Ares/Mars how to aim a cannon. The instruments needed for this are lying on the table in front of her. In the upper right field, Fama rushes over with her long trumpet to let everyone know what a great glory one can achieve by being an artilleryman.

The poem emphasizes that one must first acquire knowledge before one can successfully wage a war:

What the muses’ art devises
What Minerva’s brain contrives
And Mars ever begins
Must be applied to this ends.

In the foreground on the right, you can see various instruments and tools that were needed by the artillery to successfully attack a fortress of the kind that is depicted on the plan on Athena’s table.

Unlike other New Year’s leaflets, the target group of these publications doesn’t seem to be Zurich’s youth but the members of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft. And these images were supposed to provide them with the theoretical knowledge needed for their practical manoeuvres. We should keep in mind that especially the plain citizens, who were obviously needed in the artillery, were probably unable to afford a comprehensive manual.

The art of breaking open the gate of a fortress with a petard. Neujahrsblatt of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1720.

Many of these single-leaf printes issued before to 1751 adhere to a set pattern that is ideal for conveying knowledge. We will illustrate this by means of the 1720 publication on the petard. A petard was a small bomb used to force open the gates of a fortification.

The larger depiction in the middle shows how the explosive device is attached and ignited. The four small pictures illustrate details about how to manufacture a petard. Everything you need to know about petards is laid out in rhymes, including that they were a bit outdated, as by the beginning of the 18th century it was no longer possible to get close enough to the gate of a fortress in order to use a petard.

Cover page of the new cycle of the Neujahrsblätter of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1751.

A New Cycle Starts in 1751

By 1750, all topics that were deemed worthy of dealing with had already been dealt with. However, artillery had developed so much that some of the old publications no longer seemed to be up to date. Therefore, the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft began a new cycle of New Year’s publications.

How to build artillery fortifications in the open field. Neujahrsblatt of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1764.

The new cycle was designed much more didactically than the first. The individual lessons were divided into several tasks that had to be mastered one after the other. We’ll illustrate this with an example: a problem that every good artillery faced was the question of how to defend the guns in the open field in front of the enemy’s fortress during a siege. In the past, woven constructions that were easy to transport had proven to be useful for this purpose, and a member of the artillery had to be able to build them quickly on the spot. The members of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft practised how to do this during manoeuvres. This depiction shows us how these constructions were made: the men planted poles in the ground, wrapped flexible willow rods around them and filled the inside with soil.

However, that’s not everything this New Year’s publication tells its readers. It describes various tasks that a soldier had to perform during the military exercises, one after the other. In 1764, we’re already at the 33rd task, the construction of a battery by means of wickerwork (on the left), making gabions (task 34, in the middle) and assembling an artillery battery using gabions and fascines (task 35, on the right).

At this point, we can see how much the didactic approach of these prints differs from those of the 17th century. Whereas the first publications featured verses that were easy to remember along with illustrative depictions, in the 18th century soldiers were given explicit tasks and written instructions.

The second Neujahrsblatt of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1690.

The Difference Between Cannons and Mortars

But let’s get back to our early New Year’s publications. The issue of 1690 illustrates what artillery was used for at the end of the 17th century. On the left, we can see a siege scene. Guns are fired at a city fortified with modern bastions. The copper engraving illustrates the different purposes of a cannon (on the left) and a mortar (on the right): while the cannon fires shots in a straight line and is supposed to destroy the bastion, the mortar is aimed at a point above the wall in order to devastate the interior of the city.

The cannons, the mortars and all the guns!
They flash and crack like lightning and thunder,
When Jupiter wrathfully appears in the sky,
And seems to turn everything into ashes.

Those are the first lines of this single-leaf print. The compare the effect that cannons and mortars have on a city with the destructive power of the lightning of the God Jupiter.

However, you can spot in the background on the right that the artillery also served a completely different purpose. You can see magnificent fireworks above a peaceful city. It demonstrates that the roots of public fireworks – as we can experience them on the evening of Zurich’s city festival, the “Züri-Fäscht” – go far back into early modern times, when every artillerymen was proud of their magnificent firework displays.

Although this festival was introduced much later, we may well assume that, in the 17th century, the people of Zurich also celebrated festivals and enjoyed firework displays.

The Art of Conquering a Fortress

Cannons and mortars weren’t the only weapons used by the artillerymen of early modern times. Mines were much more dangerous. When employed by trained artillerymen, they were a serious threat even to the most modern fortresses.

We should not forget that, in light of the ever evolving artillery, the fortifications of the cities were upgraded too. As the New Year’s print of 1707 illustrates, simple city walls were replaced with complex fortifications with various bastions at different heights in front of them. These new fortifications had one thing in common: they no longer consisted of vertical stone walls but of ramparts that were fortified with stones and had an angle of inclination that was as low as possible enabling them to absorb the force of the guns in an ideal way. A completely preserved fortress from the beginning of the 18th century can still be admired today in Neuf-Briesach. The bird’s eye view demonstrates how difficult it could be to get through such a star of bastions into the city.

It was difficult, but it wasn’t impossible. At the beginning of the 18th century, the soldiers mastered a technique that could be used to defeat even such a fortress. Not by shooting guns directly at the fortress – that would have been a waste of precious resources. Instead, the besiegers dug tunnels according to a system that is well-known to all military theorists. It is illustrated by the New Year’s publication of 1707. Through these tunnels, the pioneers systematically approached the walls of the city. Once they reached a point directly under the wall, they blew it up with a mine. The tunnel collapsed, as did the bastion, opening an entrance through which the army could begin the assault.

Of course, this technique had to be practised, as the New Year’s publication of 1691 demonstrates. The members of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft had built a tunnel during one of their exercises. We can see the entrance at the centre of the depiction, slightly to the left, underneath the enormous cloud of smoke caused by the explosion of the mine, which would have caused great damage to a bastion in the case of an actual siege.

Neujahrsblatt of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1712.

The single-leaf print of 1712 shows how these tunnels were built and used. What is hardly illustrated here is the fear and the danger of those who built the small tunnels at the risk of their lives. For the defenders were busy, too. They built counter-tunnels in order to locate the enemy’s tunnels outside the city and to destroy them. Once they found a tunnel of the enemy, they ignited a mine and the hostile pioneers were buried alive. Every now and then, there were underground fights when two hostile units encountered each other. Sources tell us about terrible battles that took place in confined spaces, completely in the dark.

Neujahrsblatt of the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft of 1725.

The Art of Producing Good Gunpowder

Many other facts about the art of artillery could be told with the help of these New Year’s publications. We end our text with a glance at the powder mill used by the Zurich artillery to produce gunpowder. The mill was obviously not located inside the city, as this depiction demonstrates. Producing gunpowder was a dangerous task. Often a single spark was all it took to blow up the entire building. The Nuremberg powder mill is said to have exploded eight times between 1532 and 1780!

Zurich even had two powder mills. One was located near Höngg on the Werdinsel. However, it is impossible that this depiction refers to that location because the mill was only built in 1753. The other powder mill was located in Altstetten on the Limmat.

We learn from the large illustration that “mill wheels” were not only used for grinding grain but for many other similar activities prior to the invention of the steam engine. In this case, the mill wheel powered a stamp mill used to mix the components of gunpowder to create homogeneous powder. The text tells us about the ingredients needed for producing gunpowder:

For this we need six parts of saltpetre
One part of sulphur and one part of coal
We put it in the oak wood pot
Where it is finely stamped. Then you add some water.
For nothing shall be covered in dust. And then by much sifting
The powder gets properly grained
On a round piece of wood, the flour will be wetted again
And put into the pot to be stamped once again.

Thus, a lot of knowledge was and is needed to be a successful militiaman. In 1798, the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft was disbanded after Napoleon defeated Switzerland. It was re-founded in 1806. In fact, at that time the association picked up the custom of issuing New Year’s publications once again. However, the prints would from then on focus on the great past of the Swiss military and not on the training of the society’s members.

The look at the past concealed how little chance a single city like Zurich stood against the great national armies of France and Russia.

By the way, the Feuerwerker-Gesellschaft continues to issue New Year’s publications to this day. Every year they are sold on January 2nd in the guildhall “Zur Meisen”.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Another popular annual publication was the Appenzell Calendar, a calendar for the people that kept them up-to-date on all things local and useful around the year.

Centuries before the invention of gunpowder, tournaments were the place to fight out who was the strongest, most capable knight – but only according to the rulebook.

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