Forget the Boyne. Protestants should celebrate this one instead.
Name: The first Battle of Breitenfeld
The War: The Thirty Years War(s), specifically the “Swedish phase”
When: 17 September 1631
Where: The village of Breitenfeld, 5 miles north of Leipzig
Forces/Commanders: Circa 40’000 Swedish and Saxon troops under King Gustavus Adolphus against 31’000 Catholic League troops under Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly
“Freedom of Belief for the World, salvaged at Breitenfeld, Gustav Adolf, Christian and Hero”
-Inscription on the Breitenfeld monument
Breitenfeld. All the legends revolve around that place. They pivot on that day. Wheeling like birds above the flat plains north of Leipzig on September 17, 1631, they try to find sharp truth in murky reality…The legends would be advanced, and refuted…and it mattered not in the least. Breitenfeld remained. Always Breitenfeld. After Breitenfeld, how could the legends not be true?
-Eric Flint, 1632
The Thirty Years War is a difficult one to sum up.
At its heart, the war was a conflict between the Protestant and Catholic factions of the Holy Roman Empire with internal disputes of a political and dynastic nature also being a large factor. Eventually, it became a European wide war involving nearly all the major dynasties of the time.
Roughly midway through the conflict, the Swedes decided to become involved. Under the leadership of King Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish army – an effective, disciplined force that had extensive experience fighting in the Baltic, landed on the coasts of northern Germany in 1630.
Their intentions were manifold: One was to increase Swedish power and influence in the area. As well, Adolphus saw the constant success of the Catholic forces (see below) as a threat and wanted to maintain the independence of the many Protestant states in Germany.
Landing in Germany with a force of 13’000, Gustav spent most of the following year increasing his armies size through the hiring of mercenaries and alliances with various German city-states. But he still lacked extensive support, both politically and monetarily. France was an option for the latter, but choose to remain on the sidelines of the Swedish campaign until its result could be better determined.
The Catholic forces, under the Count of Tilly, were having a better time of it, winning great success in the south and proving a very real threat to the autonomy of the Imperial princes. With the support of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, he had gone on a brutal campaign in the north of the country, noted for the vicious sack of Magdeburg in May of 1631.
Both armies now began to move towards the other, the meeting place certain to be the province of Saxony, an area of the Empire hitherto untouched by the war. That meant it was unplundered and as such, full of supplies, horses and other vital material. Tilly forcibly invaded Saxony in order to get at these supplies and its ruler, John George I, choose to ally with the Swedes. Gustav had to go through Saxony to strike at the southern Catholic states anyway, so battle was inevitable. When it came, it was just to the north of Leipzig, near a village called Breitenfeld.
The Swedes deployed their army in two lines, while Tilly choose to limit himself to one. Both sides kept their cavalry at their flanks, with cannon interposed at various intervals.
The first two hours of battle consisted of an artillery duel between both sides and the Swedes had a much better time of it. Gustav’s cannon and crews were of a much higher standard firing three to five times as many balls as their Catholic counterparts. Following this demonstration of Swedish metallurgic power, the Catholic cavalry of Pappenheim launched several attacks on the Swedish positions, but all were beaten back by the infantry.
They were able to do so due to their own disposition which differed crucially from their Catholic counterparts. Tilly’s ground troops were placed in a traditional tercio fashion, squares of roughly 1500 men consisting of a centre of pikemen and a periphery of musketeers. The Swedes, instead, organised in straight lines, pikemen in back, musketeers to the front. With their method of firing – first rank kneeling, second crouching, third standing – they were able to mass their fire far more effectively. The Swedish infantry could also manoeuvre better than the packed imperial tercios.
Unable to make a dent in the Swedish right, and losing valuable horsemen, Pappenheim retreated south. Perhaps due to his repeated attacks (the historical record leaves no hint as to whether his actions were mandated by Tilly or not) imperial cavalry on the right launched their own attack on the Saxon forces holding the Swedish left. The Protestants routed leaving Gustav’s flank dangerously exposed. Tilly, ever the aggressor, moved to take advantage. Moving his tercios diagonally, his army looked to smash through the exposed flank.
It was here, with his army close to apparent disaster, that Gustav became a legend.
First, he altered his own lines, sending the second to the far left of the overall position, thereby forming an angle secured in the new centre of the best of the Swedish artillery. It was a classic example of refusing the line, not allowing the imperial infantry to mass their fire on the whole of the Swedish army. Instead, the Protestant artillery began to make mincemeat of Tilly’s troops.
While all that was going on, Gustav was leading his own cavalry in an attack across the barely defended imperial left and centre. Most of Tilly’s artillery was captured and Gustav wasted no time to turning it against the Catholics.
From a position of near victory, Tilly’s army was suddenly trapped. To their left and their front, they were being shredded by cannon shots. The infantry was coming off the worst in a battle with their Swedish counterparts, and the remainder of the Catholic cavalry was useless. They were utterly unable to make a breakthrough against the disciplined Swedish lines.
As sunset approached the battered imperials broke and ran. Tilly was badly wounded by shrapnel as the retreat became a rout. The following morning, it was clear that Gustav had won an immense victory.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
Between their heavy losses and subsequent desertion, Tilly’s army was nearly completely destroyed. Tilly himself never recovered from his wounds, dying within six months. The Imperials were forced into major strategic and operational changes in the face of the Protestant threat. Following Breitenfeld, they faced a considerable amount of time on the defensive.
The Swedish alliance had no lack of allies following Breitenfeld with Brandenburg, Hannover and France all lending their wholehearted support.
Adolphus wouldn’t be around much longer, dying in the forefront of the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. But his alliance and his army remained one of the key players in the conflict which would continue on for 15 bloody years before peace was made at Westphalia in 1648.
Gustav was an innovator. From his double lined infantry arrayed with pikes in the rear and muskets in front to his habit of intermixing elements of cavalry and infantry in order to make up for the deficiencies in both, Adolphus proved himself a master of contemporary warfare. At Breitenfeld, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat through his superior cannon, his fast-moving infantry formations and the clever use of his cavalry contingents.
Using combined arms tactics and cross-trained soldiers (long before such ideas even had those names) Adolphus was able to smash Tilly’s army and its predictable assaults.
The Swedish light cannon would soon become the norm in war, its high rate of fire being far more effective than the bigger balls of the Imperials forces. Moreover, Adolphus’ type of army, a well-trained , disciplined professional force, would soon become the norm in Europe.
Within the swirling confusion of the Thirty Years War, hard to tell. An imperial victory would have ended the Swedish involvement in the war: Adolphus’ allies would have melted away, his finances would have dried up. If he survived, Sweden would be gone from Europe within a year, its role a great power neutered before it had really begun.
The Catholics would have been rampant, with no one of any sufficient power able to stop them. It is hard to imagine a result that would have been beneficial to the Protestant princes.
It would be naive to think that Protestantism would have been done in Germany. More likely would be the dominance of Catholicism for the forseeable future, but if the Reformation proved anything, it was that the tide of religious change was unstoppable. But it may not have had the strength in central Europe that it has today.
In National Consciousness
Breitenfeld’s memory has faded somewhat. A monument to Gustav, proclaiming him to be a hero that brought religious freedom to the world, is present on the battlefield but, then again, so is a motorway.
Adolphus is remembered as the “Father of Modern Warfare” though that title might be a bit of hyperbole. Sweden (and Finland) remembers him and his immense achievements each year on November 6th.
Breitenfeld deserves a place in historical memory, especially in that of the Protestant religions. It was a battle that insured its survival in Germany, and also helped to establish the sovereignty of individual states of central Europe. It made Sweden a great power in Europe and changed the face of ground warfare.
Perhaps, Breitenfeld can be viewed as the beginning of true “modern warfare”.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.