Battle of Hemmingstedt: Peasant Militia Defeats Danish Army by Opening Dikes and Drowning Them
"Battle of Hemmingstedt" (1910), by Max Friedrich Koch
Wall painting in Office Building assembly hall of former Süderdithmarschen District in Meldorf, Germany
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: February 17, 1500
Today's excursion in military history involves a European peasant republic resisting an attempt by Royal Danish and Dutch forces to subdue them. [Can't have these frightful bumpkins ruling themselves, don'tcha know?]
The medieval district of Dithmarschen was part of the larger German provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. Located very close to the border with the Kingdom of Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein was constantly fought. [It was not until 1866 when the two provinces were fully absorbed by the Kingdom of Prussia, prior to the unification of German prior to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.]
The Dithmarschen district had exercised a great deal of autonomy from its nominal overlords, usually the Prince-Archbishop of Bremen. Situated on the banks of the North Sea, the natives had rich agricultural land, tilled with the help of manmade dikes. The independent-minded small landowners, merchants, fishermen, and peasants formed a loose confederation, with a ruling council of 48 "Masters," each one representing one of the key families of the district, that met once a year. This was a rather unusual arrangement, considering that all the nearby lands were still subject to the grim vicissitudes of feudalism.
Several attempts were made during the twelfth through fifteenth centuries to subdue the autonomous district. Forces from Germany (or, rather, the Holy Roman Empire) and Denmark attacked Dithmarschen, only to be defeated time after time. Or, if the invaders were successful, they were unable to follow up their successes, allowing the Dithmarsians to return to their self-reliant ways.
District of Dithmarschen (red), part of province of Schleswig-Holstein
Denmark to the north (top of map), Germany to the south,
North Sea to the west (left), Baltic Sea to the east
In 1499, the Danish dukes Frederick and John – respectively rulers of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein – demanded that Dithmarschen surrender without a fight, acquiesce to Danish plans to construct fortifications on Dithmarschen's soil, and pay 15,000 marks in recognition of Danish sovereignty. Not surprisingly, the autonomous folk flatly refused. Using this as a casus belli, the Danes decided to bring great force to bear on the peasant republic.
Duke John was also the ruling monarch of the Kalmar Union, a state that brought together the three Scandinavian nations (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) and their territories under one ruler. John recruited troops not just from Holstein and Denmark but from all the lands of the Kalmar Union.
In addition, he hired some 4000-6000 German mercenaries known as the Schwarzen Garde (Black Guard). The Black Guard (in some histories referred to as the "Great Guard") was comprised of landsknechts, the pre-eminent mercenary soldiers of Europe. They were created specifically to battle the Swiss and their blocks of pikes, and the rivalry between these two renowned groups was legendary.
The landsknechts wielded pikes, two-handed swords, and even arquebuses (early firearms) or crossbows. They dressed in flamboyant, sometimes multi-colored costumes in imitation of their mortal enemies, the Swiss. In addition, they achieved a fearsome reputation for hard-bitten cruelty not just to their opponents, but to the common people whom they pillaged and committed other atrocities. In later years, the landsknechts would hire themselves to whoever could pay their price, at times fighting on both sides of a conflict (as happened during the battle of Pavia in 1525).
In addition to the Black Guard, John's army (which I will refer to as the "Danish Army") consisted of some 2000 Schleswig, Holstein, and Danish knights, about 5000 infantrymen – many recruited from nearby Frisia – and perhaps 1000 artillerymen (I have found no mention of exactly how many cannon were part of the Danish force, only a vague "several").
"Landsknecht with his Wife," carrying a 2-handed sword
Etching by Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470-1536)
(The sword on his left side is a katzbalger, or "cat-gutter)
The autonomous Dithmarsians were not entirely powerless in the face of the Danish invaders. One of their leaders, a farmer named Wulf Isebrand, a Dutch immigrant, took charge of the situation and called for the people to form their militia units to resist the attack. Several chronicles state that up to 6000 militiamen were formed. However, within days, many of these units had either scattered to protect their holdings or disbanded entirely. By the morning of February 17, Isebrand had between 500 and 1000 stalwart defenders to resist the Danish tidal wave.
Some of the more affluent landowners probably possessed arms and armor similar to a knight. The rest of the lower-class members carried spears, halberds, crossbows, and javelins. There are indications that some of the militiamen wielded arquebuses, but they were certainly few in number. If any possessed armor, it was probably just a leather jacket or vest, maybe with some metal plates sewn onto it. There is also evidence that the Dithmarsians had at least one cannon at their disposal, perhaps more.
Prelude to the Battle
The Danish invasion force entered Dithmarschen on February 11, 1500, entering the province from the southeast. As a sign of their over-confidence, the Danish force carried with it the Dannebrog, the national flag with miraculous origins from around 1200 (since brought into doubt). They quickly marched upon and occupied Meldorf – the oldest town in Dithmarschen and site of the annual ruling council meeting – on February 14. The Danes met no resistance, and promptly took out their frustrations on the town and its inhabitants. A bloody whirlwind of pillage and rapine ensued over the next two or three days, with women, children, and old folks killed out of hand. In the end, the town was put to the torch.
On February 16, Dukes John and Frederick decided to move north toward their next objective, the town of Heide, the largest town of the province. They expected little to no resistance from the Dithmarsians, putting their trust in their superior numbers and training to brush aside the "peasant army" rumored to be gathering to oppose them. It seems likely that, in their arrogance, the Danish leaders failed to send out many scouts or advance guards; it would be a fatal error…
On the same day the Danes left Meldorf, Wulf Isebrand's militia captured a Danish scout. After torturing the man, the Dithmarsians learned the Danish invaders were advancing on Heide, and would probably reach the town the next day. Energized by this news, Isebrand decided to force a battle at the place of his choosing.
There was only one usable road between Meldorf and Heide, which was likely a raised road several feet above the surrounding farmland. In addition to the low agricultural lands, a large amount of swampy land added to the daunting terrain. A few miles south of Heide, a slight elevation dominated the otherwise flat landscape. Over the course of the day and into the night, the "peasant" militia transformed this slight rise into an earthen defensive mound effectively blocking any progress up the road. Finally, in what could be considered an act of either desperation or clever planning, Isebrand ordered the sluice gates of the dikes opened, flooding the land around the mound.
Battle of Hemmingstedt
The Danish army left the ruins of Meldorf early in the morning of February 17. Mother Nature decided to enter the story, sending snow with intermittent rain and hail, with whipping winds. As they proceeded north on the elevated roadway, the invaders began to notice that the farmland to either side of the road was becoming waterlogged, nearly impassable to the 12,000 or so marching men.
Finally, about noon, the Danes approached the town of Hemmingstedt and were shocked to see a defensive mound blocking the road. A bit of reconnaissance revealed a force of several hundred Dithmarsian militiamen occupying the fortification. [Some chronicles state that Wulf Isebrand's men received a few hundred reinforcements on the morning of the battle, but this is not fully confirmed.] The men of Dithmarschen were probably outnumbered about 30-to-one.
In a bit of bravado left over from the days of chivalry, the Black Guard's commander Thomas Slentz sent forward a herald. He asked that the peasant army's strongest man come forward and fight him in a one-on-one duel to avoid excessive bloodshed. Not unexpectedly, the offer was refused. Sometime in the early afternoon, the battle began.
The Danish army formed into three columns – one on the road and two initially on either side – to attack the Dithmarsian works and to attempt to outflank them. Each side opened the engagement with cannon fire. The pike- and spear-wielding landsknechts formed the front line, followed by footmen, with the knights in the rear. [Apparently, the lessons of the Hundred Years' War had penetrated to Scandinavia, as most knights wanted to strike the first blows in battle.] As they charged the Dithmarsian works, the members of the Black Guard shouted, "Look out, peasants, here comes the Guard!"
The invaders stormed the militia battlements, braving the cannon and musket fire. Despite the ferocity of the initial attack, the farmers held their ground. In addition, the flanking forces discovered the shrewdness of Isebrand. The flooded farmlands were now a freezing, sucking morass, with deeper channels pulling in heavily-armored men to their deaths, drowning in a few feet of water.
Battle of Hemmingstedt diorama at Epenwöhrden, Germany
(Note some of the Dithmarsians in lower right poling over the drainage ditch)
[Image courtesy of http://www.genealogy-sh.de]
Observing the attack faltering, Isebrand ordered a flanking counterattack on the Danes. Small groups of Dithmarsian militiamen left the safety of their battlements to attack the wavering enemy. Chronicles state that as they charged the Danes the peasant attackers shouted their own battle cry, "Wahr di Garr de Bur de kumt!' (Look out, Guard, here come the peasants!) As they were wearing next to no armor, the peasants could maneuver over and around the sunken fields. Many chronicles even stated that these attackers used long poles to spring over the channels – much like modern pole-vaulters – to get to the enemy. The Danes met this counterattack, and the Dithmarsians returned to their sheltering works.
Over the next two hours or so, Danish attacks on the Dithmarsian mound intensified. In answer, another counterattack was mounted by the peasant militia. Soon, the Black Guard's situation became desperate: the militia counterattacks, the near-fanatical resistance of the earthworks' defenders, and the push of their own infantry and knight cavalry to their rear made a bad situation even worse. Seeing that the Black Guard was heavily pressed and near the breaking point, Wulf Isebrand ordered a third counterattack. The result was devastating…
After nearly three hours of constant fighting, in freezing water and inclement weather, the Black Guard finally broke. Seeing their elite unit trying to rout from the field, the remainder of the Danish army lost all cohesion. With only a narrow road to use, many of the men who had not been engaged tried to use the water-swollen farmland to retreat. Hundreds of men were drowned in the rout, while others were slaughtered by the avenging peasant militiamen, who took no prisoners.
At the beginning of the rout, many of the knights – none who had managed to unsheathe their swords – were beset by the rampaging militiamen. An order went out, "Leave the men and kill their horses." However, as the knight fell into the freezing water and drowned, the order was modified to "Kill the men and leave their horses." After all, the horses were probably more valuable to the agriculturally-minded Dithmarsians. By nightfall – about 5:30 pm – the battle was done.
The Danish army was completely decimated; over 1000 knights lost their lives, and over 800 of the Black Guard perished, including their commander Thomas Slentz. Total Danish casualties are estimated at over 7000 killed and 1500 wounded. In addition, the Dannebrog, the Danish standard was captured.
Dithmarsian casualties are unknown, but must have been fairly light.
Footnote #1: As a result of the Dithmarsian victory, the province remained free for an additional 59 years. At that time, King Frederick II of Denmark led a final, overwhelming campaign which overcame the independent peasant republic. As part of the settlement, all Danish flags were recovered, including the Dannebrog.
Footnote #2: The province of Dithmarschen remained part of Schleswig-Holstein until the 1860's, when the area was annexed by Prussia as a result of that nation's victory in the Second Schleswig War of 1864.
Footnote #3: In 1900, on the 500th anniversary of the battle, a monument to the defenders was raised. It consisted of a large boulder – with the peasants; battle cry "Wahr di Garr de Bur de kumt!' carved into one side.
Memorial to Dithmarschen victory at Hemmingstedt
Located between Epenwöhrden and Hemmingstedt, Germany
Footnote #4: Just after the end of the battle, a messenger came to Wulf Isebrand telling him his wife had just given birth to a son. The leader of the peasant militia slipped back into obscurity, dying in 1506.