Battle of Breitenfeld II

Battle of Breitenfeld II

At the beginning of the 17th century, Germany was bitterly divided. The 300-plus states that constituted the Holy Roman Empire, most of them German, were held together only loosely by an elected emperor who endeavored both to impose his will and enforce religious conformity. The Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 when Martin Luther publicized his Ninety-Five Theses at Wittenberg, had led to widespread warfare in Germany. Serious religious strife also wracked the Netherlands, France, Hungary, and the British Isles in the 16th century, but it had the most devastating and prolonged effects in Germany. The Knights’ Revolt (1522) and the Peasants’ Revolt (1524) in the German states were failures, but that of the higher orders of the Holy Roman Empire enjoyed considerable success. Many German princes embraced Lutheranism as a means of seizing lands belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and resisting the centralizing efforts of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–1556).

Widespread fighting began in the German states in 1546 and did not end until the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. The Peace of Augsburg was a victory both for religious toleration and states’ rights, the former because it permitted Lutheranism in addition to Catholicism and the latter because it allowed the government of any state to decide which faith its citizens would practice (cujus regio, ejus religio, or “whose region, his or her religion”). The so-called Ecclesiastical Reservation provided that if a Catholic spiritual prince (such as a bishop ruling a bishopric) became Protestant after 1552, his lands were to remain with the Catholic Church.

This compromise did not last. By the early 17th century Protestantism had made great advances. Militant Calvinism that preached the formation of a religious commonwealth was making serious inroads, and the Ecclesiastical Reservation had been repeatedly violated. At the same time, the Catholic Church had done much to reform itself. The formation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and the accession of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (r. 1576–1612), who was determined to restore the position of the Roman Catholic Church (and, not incidentally, his own authority), set up the clash. With the formation of the Protestant Union in 1608 and the Catholic League in 1609, Germany was divided into two hostile camps spoiling for a showdown.

In addition to being fought over religious and constitutional issues, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was an international event. The leaders of France, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Sweden, and Denmark all had ambitions in Germany. There were also soldiers of fortune who fought at their convenience and endeavored to carve out territories of their own. The Thirty Years’ War was extraordinarily complex; it was also the greatest of all European wars prior to the French Revolution (1789–1799).

Historians usually divide the Thirty Years’ War into four phases: the Bohemian (1618–1625), the Danish (1625–1629), the Swedish (1630–1635), and the French or Franco-Swedish (1635–1648). The Catholic side, led by the Holy Roman emperor, emerged as the dominant force during the first two phases. The war began in May 1618 when Bohemians, fearful that they were about to lose their Protestant liberties and endeavoring to prevent Ferdinand, Duke of Styria, from being named Holy Roman emperor, hurled two imperial representatives from a castle window in Prague (they fell 50 feet to the ground but lived) and declared the emperor deposed. The Bohemian Diet subsequently elected the Calvinist Frederick of the palatinate as king (Frederick V). Meanwhile, the staunch Catholic Habsburg Ferdinand became emperor as Ferdinand II (r. 1619–1637).

Ferdinand II was determined to restore his authority in Prague. On November 8, 1620, in the Battle of White Mountain just west of Prague in fighting that lasted little more than an hour, the imperial forces under Johan Tserclaes, Count Tilly, defeated those of Frederick V (known thereafter as the Winter King) under Christian of Anhalt-Bernberg. Imperial troops conquered all Bohemia, which was reCatholicized, and Tilly’s troops and Spanish forces under the Marquis Ambrogio de Spinola overran the Palatinate.

This situation greatly alarmed the Protestant powers of England, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, and Denmark. They now entered into discussions. With King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden busy with Russia and Poland, Danish king Christian IV became the Protestant champion. England, the Dutch Republic, and France all pledged financial support, and the fighting shifted from southern to northern Germany in 1625 when Denmark entered the fray.

To deal with the new Protestant threat, Emperor Ferdinand commissioned Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein, military governor of Prague, to raise a private army and come to Tilly’s support. On April 25, 1626, Wallenstein defeated Protestant forces under Count Ernst von Mansfield at the Bridge of Dessau on the Elbe and then pursued him through Hungary. On August 27, 1626, in the Battle of Lutter am Barenberge in Brunswick, Tilly routed Christian IV. With Tilly wounded, Wallenstein led the subsequent imperial invasion and conquest of much of the Danish peninsula. In the Treaty of Lübeck in May 1629, Christian was forced to yield to the emperor a number of German bishoprics.

Meanwhile, in March 1629 Ferdinand II had issued the Edict of Restitution. This document was the high-water mark of the Catholic offensive. It demanded strict enforcement of the Peace of Augsburg (thus denying toleration to Calvinism and insisting on the return of extensive lands taken since 1552 to the Catholic Church). The preeminence of the Habsburgs now raised opposition, even from Catholic powers and Pope Urban VII. This found tangible expression when chief minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu, agreed to provide a subsidy of 1 million livres a year to Gustavus Adolphus to maintain a Swedish army of 40,000 men in Germany in support of the Protestant powers.

Gustavus was a gifted leader and an important military reformer. When he landed with his army in Pomerania in July 1630 he was only 35 years old, but he had already been king of Sweden for 16 years. He brought with him a well-equipped and well-trained military force honed in fighting against Russia, Poland, and Denmark. Gustavus was a deeply religious Protestant, and his army went into battle singing hymns, but he and Sweden, not Germany, stood to gain by his intervention.

Gustavus’s first operations in Germany were directed at establishing a secure base of operations in Pomerania and other areas along the Baltic. Emperor Ferdiand had concentrated most of his forces in northern Italy, believing that the Swedes were little threat. Indeed, Count Tilly, the leader of the imperial forces in the north, took by storm and sacked the great Protestant city of Magdeburg on the Elbe in May 1631. Much of the city was subsequently destroyed in a sudden fire, and only about 5,000 of 30,000 people survived. This event shocked the heretofore reluctant Protestant princes and brought both Saxony and Brandenburg into alliance with Gustavus.

This enabled Gustavus to march south and seek a decisive battle with Tilly. When Duke Johann George of Saxony formally allied himself with Gustavus on September 11, Tilly with about 36,000 men began laying waste to Saxony. On September 15 Tilly took Leipzig, which his men looted. At the same time, Swedish and Saxon forces (26,000 and 16,000, respectively) joined at Düben, some 25 miles north of the city. On the urging of his subordinate commander, Count Gottfried H. zu Pappenheim, Tilly abandoned Leipzig and took up position at Breitenfeld, 4 miles north. The Battle of Breitenfeld (also known as the Battle of Leipzig) occurred on September 17, 1631. Tilly drew up his army with his infantry in the center and his cavalry on the wings. Tilly commanded the center and right, with Pappenheim in charge of the imperial left. The imperial artillery was massed in the center and center-right of the line.

Gustavus, on the other hand, had arranged his men not in the traditional Spanish-designed tercio (square) formation of massed pikemen with harquebusiers or musketeers on its corners but instead in smaller, more mobile formations where musketeers predominated, protected by pikemen. Gustavus’s artillery was also lighter and more mobile than Tilly’s heavier guns and throughout the battle exacted a heavy toll on the densely packed imperial formations. Saxon forces of infantry and cavalry, supported by artillery under Duke Johann George, held the left of the Protestant line opposite Tilly, while Swedish and other German infantry occupied the center. Swedish cavalry were on the right wing opposite Pappenheim. Additional Swedish cavalry were positioned in the center of the line, between and behind two lines of infantry.

The imperial artillery opened up as Gustavus’s force was deploying. This continued until midday, when the impetuous Pappenheim, acting without orders, attacked with his cavalry in an attempt to turn the Swedish right flank. Gustavus wheeled his cavalry reserve, catching Pappenheim between his two cavalry forces. Gustavus was also able to reposition his lighter guns and open up with grapeshot against the imperial cavalry. These guns and the musketeers, outranging the pistol fire of Pappenheim’s cavalry, forced an imperial withdrawal.

Tilly meanwhile advanced against the Saxons, whom he believed to be the weakest part of the Protestant force. After routing the Saxons, Tilly turned against Gustavus’s now-exposed left flank. The more maneuverable Swedes countered and held against Tilly’s attack. Gustavus then led his own cavalry, with the infantry closely following, against Tilly’s left flank, retaking the artillery lost by the Saxons in their precipitous retreat as well as many of the heavy imperial guns. The quickerfiring and more mobile Swedish artillery combined with the captured imperial artillery to devastate the massed imperial formations.

Tilly’s forces fled the field that evening after some seven hours of fighting. The Swedes pursued until nightfall and a stand by Pappenheim’s reformed cavalry. Gustavus lost some 6,500 men killed or wounded, with most of these casualties occurring in the early artillery fire. The imperial forces lost some 13,000 (7,000 dead and 6,000 taken prisoner). Tilly, badly wounded, escaped. The battle was the first major Protestant victory of the war. Gustavus’s victory completely reversed the situation on the ground, giving the initiative to the Protestants and opening all Germany to him. Gustavus entered Leipzig the next day and then moved, without serious imperial opposition, to the Rhine.


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