Battle of Lützen: Swedes Defeat Imperial Army, but Gustavus Adolphus Dies

 
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Battle of Lützen: Swedes Defeat Imperial Army, but Gustavus Adolphus Dies

"Battle of Lützen" by Carl Wahlborn (all illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 16, 1632 (N.S.)

Today's highlight clash involves a Swedish monarch still highly revered by his countrymen, and the decisive victory which cost him his life.

Background

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) was the most devastating war in Europe until the beginning of the First World War. It was a war of religion, pitting the mainly Catholic Holy Roman Empire against various Protestant states of central and northern Europe. In 1630, the Lutheran kingdom of Sweden entered the war, hoping to expand its current holdings on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. Very soon, the Swedes became the leading player on the Protestant side. Their tireless king, Gustav II Adolph (but better known as Gustavus Adolphus) was a military innovator who modernized the Swedish army and made it one of the wonders of the 17th century.

Gustavus took command of his nation's armies in 1611 at age 17. Sweden was involved in three wars with Denmark, Poland, and Russia. He managed to conclude all three conflicts by 1629, just in time to insert his nation into the fighting in Germany in 1630. After nearly 20 years of constant fighting, the Swedish army made an immediate impact and turned the tide of the war in favor of the Protestants.

Gustavus Adolphus Magnus (1594-1632)
Gustavus Adolphus Magnus (1594-1632)

Seventeenth Century Military

At this time, continental European military developments were evolving, thanks in large part to the Swedes. Most of the armies were divided into three distinct arms: the infantry, the cavalry, and the artillery. The infantry was still considered the foremost part of the army, the decision-maker. It consisted of both heavy and light infantry. The "heavies" were pikemen, wielding a 15-18 foot long pike. These men were usually armored with breastplate, backplate, helmet, and tassets to protect the upper legs. They formed up in large blocks (sometimes up to 22-25 ranks deep).

The light infantry were the musketeers. They carried matchlock muskets, slow to reload and limited in range. They were also susceptible to wet, rainy weather. These men were arranged on the corners and around the edges of the pike block to provide missile fire and to protect the flanks of the pikemen from cavalry attacks. The ratio of pikemen to "shooters" was usually 1:1. As the war progressed and the Imperialist were exposed to the tactics of the Dutch and Swedes, some changes were made to increase the number of musketeers and decrease the number of pikemen. These modifications were not entirely successful.

Spanish tercio, with pike block in center
Spanish tercio, with pike block in center

The artillery was the arm that was least affected by new technology and/or battlefield tactics. Most of the armies deployed large caliber guns, which provided heavy-duty fire on the battlefield, but were unwieldy to move once deployed. On the battlefield, each of the cannon had particular names indicating the size of the piece and the size of the cannonball it would discharge. These included the saker (5 ¼ pound shot), the minion (4 lbs.), the falcon (2 ¾ lbs.), and the falconet (1 ¼ lbs.). The next largest artillery piece was the demi-culverin, which fired an 8, 9 or 10 lbs. round shot. This beast – weighing in at 3400 pounds, and possessing an 11-foot long barrel – was used primarily in siege operations.

Demi-culverin, c. 1587
Demi-culverin, c. 1587

Cavalry was used on the wings of most armies, seeking to outflank the opponent. Also, many cavalrymen carried single-shot wheel-lock pistols as their main weapons. One particular maneuver used by most horsemen was the "caracole." A cavalry unit twelve ranks deep and 6 to 20 men wide would charge an enemy unit – usually infantry – and fire their pistols to disrupt the enemy's ranks, then fall back to reload. Then, a heavier cavalry unit, perhaps armored lancers, would charge the flummoxed enemy infantry.

Another highlight (lowlight?) of this conflict was the continued use by most of the combatant nations of mercenaries. As the war dragged on, many countries found it impossible to recruit men, therefore were forced to take on "soldiers for hire" to fill their ranks. The biggest negative to employing these men was their tendency to plunder and pillage when their pay was late.

Enter the Swedes…

When Gustavus Adolphus landed in Germany in 1630, he brought new developments to pike and shot. First, Swedish pike formations were generally 4-6 ranks deep, occasionally 8 ranks, making these units more rectangular than square. Many of the Swedish pikemen were not equipped with large amounts of armor. This was due to Sweden's industrial capacity at the time.

Next, he moved all the musketeers to the front of the pike unit, putting them into a single unit of up to six ranks deep. The major innovation was that as the enemy approached, the Swedish musketeers would then re-order themselves into three long ranks. The three ranks would then prepare to shoot – one rank kneeling, the next crouching, and the third standing erect. On the given order, all three ranks would fire simultaneously. This blast of firepower was called the "salvee" at that time; today it would be termed a volley. Such a concentrated blast of firepower could probably stop an enemy unit in its tracks. Sometimes, the three ranks would fire separately and in succession – first rank, second, then third. The Swedish ratio of musket to pike was 2:1.

In order to allow the pike and shot units not to worry about artillery support, Gustavus assigned each battalion its own battery of 2 4-lb. guns. Any cannon heavier than that were stationed on the flanks or rear of his army to provide overall support. He also developed a combined powder and shot cartridge that reduced reload times immensely.

Swedish light field gun, c. 1630
Swedish light field gun, c. 1630

Another innovation involved the cavalry. Rather than continue the tactics of the caracole familiar to most European armies, Gustavus had his horsemen carry only one pistol, but also a heavy sword. In addition, he assigned small units of about 200 musketeers with each cavalry unit. This would offer flank protection to the cavalry from enemy units. [Gustavus learned this lesson in his war with the Poles, whose winged hussars played havoc with his Swedish horsemen.]

One of the more interesting units in the Swedish army was the Finnish light cavalry known as the Hakkapeliitta. They were well-trained Finnish light horsemen who excelled in sudden and savage attacks, raiding and reconnaissance. [At this time, Finland was a possession of Sweden, and would be until 1809.] The greatest advantage of the fast and lightly armored Hakkapeliitta cavalry was its charge. They typically had a sword, a helmet, and leather armor or a breastplate of steel. They would attack at a full gallop, fire their first pistol at twenty paces and the second at five paces, and then draw their sword. The horse itself was used like another weapon, as it was used to trample enemy infantry. These men got their name from their battle cry of "hakkaa päälle!" Roughly translated, the phrase means "Hack them down!"

Prelude to the Battle

On November 14 – two days before the battle – Imperialist commander Albrecht von Wallenstein decided that the coming winter would shut down military operations. Therefore, he decided to retreat to the nearby city of Leipzig for the season. He split his army up, sending a force of 2000-3000 cavalry and 3000-4000 infantry under Count Gottfried Pappenheim, with the intention of sending them to winter quarters in the Rhineland. Wallenstein began marching his remaining army – 10,000 infantry, 7000 cavalry, and 24 guns – toward Leipzig.

The Swedes marched out of camp the same day, hoping to take the Imperialist force by surprise, apparently not knowing of their movement toward Leipzig. The Swedish army consisted of 12,800 infantry, 6200 cavalry and 60 guns. On the next day, November 15, an advance force of Swedes ran into an Imperialist rearguard, alerting Wallenstein that the Swedes were approaching. Wallenstein sent a message to Pappenheim after learning of the skirmish with Swedish in the afternoon of the same day. He ordered his subordinate to reunite with the endangered Imperialist army immediately. Receiving the message near midnight, Pappenheim set out immediately, marching through the night. At one point, Pappenheim joined his cavalry and led them separately toward the battlefield.

Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634)
Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634)

As November 16 dawned, the Imperialists had arrayed themselves in a defensive posture along the road to Leipzig, to the east and north of the town of Lützen. Wallenstein placed four large pike blocks in the center, and put his cavalry on both flanks. He reinforced his right flank by placing nearly all of his guns on a low hill north of Lützen, and put several small units of pike to guard them. He emplaced some of his artillery in the front of his army. In a bold move, Wallenstein placed nearly all of his musketeers in a forward position along the Leipzig road. To further strengthen his army's center and right wing, he ordered trenches dug.

The Swedish dispositions were delayed by a thick fog, as well soggy ground. Gustavus placed his eight infantry units in the center, two lines of four each. He further placed his cavalry on the flanks of his center, but strengthened the right wing, and left some of his horsemen in reserve. The Swedish monarch took his place with the cavalry on the army's right. The cavalry on the left wing was commanded by Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, a very well-trained German general who would figure prominently in the battle.

Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar (1604-1639)
Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar (1604-1639)

During his pre-battle preparations, he was urged by his subordinate to wear his armor and helmet. Gustavus demurred, saying that a bullet still lodged in his shoulder made it uncomfortable for him to wear any armor. The king gave several inspirational speeches to various Swedish units before the battle started.

Battle of Lützen

The fighting commenced at about 11:00 am, with a general advance of the Swedish center and wings. The Imperialist firepower at first held up their enemy's advance, but only temporarily. Meanwhile, a fierce cavalry fight on the right wing went on for almost two hours. [This would have seemed a disadvantage fight for the Swedes, whose cavalry was mostly light horsemen armed opposing the Imperialist heavy cavalry.] Also, the Imperialists set fire to several building in Lützen; the smoke of this arson added to the "fog of war" that engulfed most of the battlefield.

Shortly after first contact, Count Pappenheim and his horsemen came on the field. The count threw his men into the fight on the Imperialist left flank. Though their appearance was fortuitous, these reinforcements only prolonged the fighting. In fact, not long after joining the battle, Pappenheim was fatally wounded by a Swedish cannonball. He died later in the day as he was being evacuated from the field on an artillery cart. Finally, at about 1:00 pm, the Swedish horsemen – which included the Hakkapeliitta – managed to outflank and push back Wallenstein's left flank, threatening his center.

The Battle of Lutzen map
The Battle of Lutzen map

It was at this juncture that disaster struck the Swedes. During the fight on the Swedish right, Gustavus was personally leading a charge when he was shot. One chronicler states he was shot by an Imperialist cavalryman with a carbine. The king apparently fell from his highly-recognizable white horse, and promptly received several more wounds. Shortly afterward, because of the still-lingering fog and the smoke of battle, Gustavus' horse was found wandering between the lines. A pause in the fighting took place as the Swedes searched for their monarch's body. It was found, partially stripped and with several sword wounds. Despite efforts to keep his death quiet, rumors quickly spread throughout the army.

The Swedish center had continued to follow its orders to assault the Imperialist trenches. However, the mass fire of the Imperialist muskets and the artillery battery near Lützen held up the Swedish attack. Then, Imperialist cavalrymen attacked the wavering Swedes, nearly wiping out two of the oldest regiments in the Swedish army.

The entire Swedish army was wavering, many men retreating in a blind panic. However, two events occurred which saved them. First, the royal chaplain Jakob Fabricius gathered several officers and they all began to loudly sing a psalm. This act galvanized hundreds of Swedish soldiers, rallying them. At the same time, Major General Baron Dodo zu Innhausen und Knyphausen, third in command of the Swedish army, began to lead forward the Swedish reserve, which had been stationed several hundred yards to the rear of the initial army dispositions. The entry into the fighting of these fresh troops put even more courage into the wavering Swedes.

By 3:00 pm, Prince Bernhard had received the news of Gustavus' death, and rode from the Swedish left to the center to take command of the army. The prince vowed to avenge the death of the Swedish king or die trying. By this time, rumors of the king's death were running rampant. But, instead of demoralizing the Swedish soldiers, it galvanized them. Battle cries of "The King is dead! Avenge the King!" were heard on the battlefield. Over the next few hours, both armies fought bravely and brutally.

Finally, as the sun was setting at 6:00 pm, the Swedes captured the Imperialist artillery bastion. This final act finally cracked the Imperialist position. Shortly after sunset, Pappenheim's infantry arrived on the battlefield. Finding Wallenstein, the infantry's commander urged an immediate counterattack. Wallenstein, however, believed the situation lost and ordered the beaten army to retreat toward Leipzig. The battle of Lützen had ended.

Aftermath

The battle was a definite Protestant victory, as they retained the field. The Swedes sustained nearly 6000 casualties, 3400 dead and 1600 wounded and missing. Many of the missing eventually straggled back to the Swedish ranks over the following weeks. By contrast, most historians believe that the Imperialists suffered equal or perhaps fewer casualties.

The Imperialist army retired for the winter into Bohemia, basically leaving the Protestants in control of southeastern Germany. However, the death of Gustavus Adolphus removed the major unifying element for the German Protestant cause. As a consequence, Swedish military actions deteriorated over the next three years, culminating with major Swedish actions ending in 1635.

Shortly after the Swedish exit, France entered the war on the side of Germany's Protestant population. This move was politically motivated, as France – a Catholic country through and through – still pursued a rivalry with the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. France had been secretly providing financial backing to the Swedes throughout their campaigns in Germany. Eventually, French entry into the war brought it to a conclusion by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Footnote #1: Gustavus Adolphus' body was transported back to Sweden, where it was buried in Riddarholmen Church in Stockholm, where it remains to this day (see photo below). There is a statue in the town of Lützen in his memory. Also, there is a stone, called the Schwedenstein (Swedenstone), covered by a gothic-style monument on the spot on the battlefield where he died. Close to this there is a memorial church in Gustavus' honor.

Gustavus Adolphus' coffin in Riddarholmen Church, Stockholm, Sweden
Gustavus Adolphus' coffin in Riddarholmen Church, Stockholm, Sweden

Footnote #2: Gustavus Adolphus acquired the nom de guerre of "Lion of the North" during his remarkable military career. This is also the title of a children's adventure novel, written by British author G.A. Henty and published in 1886. Coincidentally, Mr. Henty died on November 16, 1902. There is also a boardgame of the same name produced by GMT Games of Hanford, CA.

Footnote #3: Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, a private liberal arts college, is also named for the Swedish monarch. It holds an annual Nobel Conference, which features Nobel Laureates and other world-renowned scholars explaining their expertise to a general audience.

Footnote #4: The Swedish monarch is also a central character in the "Ring of Fire" altenative history novels by Eric Flint and other authors. In these stories, Gustavus avoids death at Lützen, brings 21st century and democracy to central Europe, and expands the Swedish Empire.

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