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Part Three

What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

Chapter 34

In the centuries to come, they would call Gustavus Adolphus the Father of Modern War. Then they would take to quarreling over it.

For he wasn't, really. That title, if it can be given to anyone, more properly belongs to Maurice of Nassau. Gustavus Adolphus learned the modern system from the Dutch, he did not invent it. True, he refined Maurice's emphasis on the line rather than the square, and extended it to his arquebusiers. True, also, he gave particular emphasis to artillery. Here, too, myths would abound. People would talk of the famous "leather guns," never realizing they failed the test of battle and were soon discarded. The guns had a tendency to overheat and burst. Gustav brought none with him to Germany.

His greatest accomplishment, others would argue, was Gustav's creation of the first national army in the modern world. His Swedish army was an army of citizen conscripts, rather than mercenaries. But, again, the claim was threadbare. The Swedish system was actually pioneered by his uncle, Erik XIV. And, in truth, Gustav soon came to rely on mercenary soldiers—värvade, the Swedes called them, "enlisted" men—almost as much as his opponents. Sweden was a sparsely populated country, whose citizenry could not possibly provide the number of soldiers Gustav required.

So it went . . . 

He introduced the light musket, which eliminated the clumsy musket fork. But many other European armies used light muskets, and as late as 1645 musket forks were still being issued to Swedish soldiers.

He abolished the bandolier and introduced cartridge pouches for his musketeers. Another exaggeration. The Stockholm Arsenal would continue issuing bandoliers at least until 1670.

He invented uniforms. Not true. Uniforms were already coming into existence throughout Europe. If anything, the ragged Swedish troops were more haphazardly garbed than any.

He shortened the pike to eleven feet, making it more maneuverable in battle. False—even silly. What use is a short pike to an infantryman? That legend was begun by a parson, who mistook an officer's partisan for a pike.

Legend after legend. Gustavus Adolphus seemed to attract them like a magnet. For each legend refuted, two more would come to take its place.

He reintroduced shock tactics into cavalry warfare. He replaced the ineffective caracole, where cavalrymen would wheel around and fire pistols from a distance, with the thundering saber charge. There is an element of truth to this claim, but only an element. Many German armies were abandoning the caracole already, and Gustav learned the value of shock tactics from the ferocious Polish lancers that his army faced in the 1620s. In truth, the Swedish cavalry took many years to become an effective force. Sweden had never been a cavalry nation. Swedish kings—Gustav no less than his predecessors—leaned heavily on their half-civilized Finnish auxiliary cavalry. Even the Swedish horses were small and stout. As late as Breitenfeld, Tilly could still sneer that Gustav's cavalry was no better mounted than his own baggage-boys.

As late as Breitenfeld . . . 


After Breitenfeld, of course, Tilly could no longer make the boast. All of central Germany was now open to Gustav, along with its magnificent horses. Soon enough, his Swedish cavalry was as well-mounted as any in the world.


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. Never seeing it, but knowing it is there.

The legends would be advanced, and refuted, and advanced again, and refuted again—and it mattered not in the least. Breitenfeld remained. Always Breitenfeld.

After Breitenfeld, how could the legends not be true?


Breitenfeld was a rarity in those days. Pitched battles on the open field between huge armies were a thing of the past. For well over a century, warfare had been dominated by the trace italienne, the new system of fortifications developed in Italy and perfected by the Dutch in their struggles against Spain. War was a thing of long campaigns and sieges, not battles. The strength of nations was measured by the depth of their coffers, not the names of victories emblazoned on their standards. Attrition, not maneuver—and even there, attrition was measured in coins rather than lives. Lives were cheap, bullion was hard to find.

On the rare occasions when armies did collide in the open, the queen of battle was the tercio. Swiss pike tactics—with Swiss élan long gone—married to blocks of arquebusiers. Generals "maneuvered" armies only in the sense that the pharaohs maneuvered great stones to make pyramids.


The battle only happened because Tilly made a profound strategic error. Brought on, perhaps, by the overconfidence of seven decades of life without a defeat.

Tilly's greatest asset, since Gustavus Adolphus landed in Germany—on July 4, as it happens, in the year 1630—had always been the vacillation of Sweden's Protestant allies. The Saxons, in particular. Saxony was the most powerful of the German Protestant principalities, and it had always been Tilly's anchor.

One Saxon, rather: the elector of Saxony, John George. For whatever reason—stupidity, cowardice, or simply the cumulative effect of his constant drunken carousing—John George could never make up his mind. The Prince of Yes and No. The Knight of Doubt and Hesitation. Hamlet without the tragic grandeur; certainly without the brains.

John George had been one of the princes who invited Gustav's intervention; and then, when it came, foremost among those who quibbled and lawyered. Elector Hem and Haw. History would blame Tilly for the slaughter at Magdeburg, but the charge is more properly laid at the feet of the prince who was not there himself and would not allow another to come to Magdeburg's aid. When Tilly's soldiers ran amok, Tilly himself rode into the city to stop them. He failed, but at least he tried. And when nothing else could be done, the old soldier plucked a baby from the arms of its dead mother and carried it to the safety of his own tent. John George, secure in the safety of his palace in Dresden, saved not even the dregs of his tankard. As was the prince of Saxony's custom, he poured the dregs over the head of a servant, signaling his desire for another draught.

Tilly should have left him alone. So long as Saxony barred the way, Gustavus Adolphus was safely penned in Pomerania and Mecklenburg. Let the Lion of the North roar in the Baltic, far from the fertile plains of central Germany.

But Tilly grew too bold. Or, perhaps, he was offended by the constant complaints and the whispering sneers of the imperial courtiers. Tilly was past the age of seventy, now, and had never been defeated in battle. Who was this Swedish upstart—a man barely half his age—to sully that reputation?

So, when the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand insisted that the Edict of Restitution be enforced—at long last!—on Saxony, Tilly was obliging. He marshaled his forces, pulling them out of Thuringia and Hesse-Cassel, and marched on Saxony. Along the way, as always, his soldiery ravaged and plundered. By the time his army reached Halle, on September 4, two hundred villages lay burning behind them.

Tilly moved on. Near Merseburg, his army went into camp and began devastating the region. Tilly sent his demands to John George. The Saxon elector was required to quarter and feed the imperial army; disband his new levies; place his troops under Tilly's command; formally recognize the emperor as his sovereign; and sever all ties to the Swedes.

Even now, John George vacillated. Tilly moved again, capturing the rich Saxon city of Leipzig after threatening it with the fate of Magdeburg.

The loss of Leipzig finally convinced John George he had no choice. He offered to join his army to Sweden's, and Gustavus Adolphus immediately accepted. The Swedish army joined with the Saxon forces on September 15 near the town of Düben. The next day, the combined Swedish-Saxon army marched from Düben to the hamlet of Wolkau. There was nothing between them and Leipzig but a level plain; vast, open, and unwooded. Ideal terrain for a battle.


On the morning of September 17, Tilly led his army into position before his opponents arrived. His left flank was anchored by the town of Breitenfeld; his right, by Seehausen. The old veteran's position was excellent. His army commanded what little high ground there was in the area, and he had the sun and the wind at his back.

His army's numbers are uncertain—somewhere between thirty-two and forty thousand, a quarter of them cavalry. The infantry was drawn up in the center into seventeen tercios—or "battles," as Tilly's men called them—massed side by side. Each tercio numbered between fifteen hundred and two thousand men. The cavalry was drawn up on the flanks. Pappenheim's famous Black Cuirassiers were on the left—the same men who had breached the defenses of Magdeburg, and initiated the city's massacre. On the right, under the command of Fürstenburg, was the newly arrived cavalry from Italy.

Later in the morning, the Swedish and Saxon armies arrived and took their own positions. The Swedes held the right and the center; the Saxons, the left. The Saxons were on the east of the road to Düben; the Swedes, to the west.

Like Tilly, Gustav Adolf concentrated his infantry in the center. His right wing, mostly cavalry, was under the command of Field Marshal Banér. His left, also made up of cavalry, under Field Marshal Horn. The core of his artillery was massed on Gustav's left center, young Torstensson in command. But, unlike Tilly, Gustav Adolf interspersed cavalry units among his infantry. The phrase "combined arms" had not yet entered the military lexicon, but its logic had already been grasped by the young Swedish king.

Of the Saxon formations, there is no record. They were simply "on the left"—and not for very long.


The Protestant allies enjoyed a slight advantage in numbers, it seems. And they held a definite superiority in artillery. But their Catholic opponents were not fazed. No, not in the least. And why should they be? Tilly's men had only to look across the field to see that victory was certain.

The Saxon troops—well over a third of their opponents—were a semirabble, untested in battle and obviously disorganized. The Elector John George himself, surrounded by young Saxon noblemen wearing flamboyant scarves and cloaks, commanded the Saxon cavalry on the far left. Resplendent figures, those newly equipped cavalrymen, with their polished arms and shiny uniforms. Tilly's veterans were not impressed. A sheep looks resplendent, too, before it is shorn.

The Swedes presented a different picture, but Tilly's soldiers were unequally unimpressed. True, the Swedes were arrayed in excellent order, but—

What a ragged lot of vagabonds!

On this, every eyewitness account of the battle is agreed. The Swedish troops, said one Scottish officer later, "were so dusty they looked like kitchen servants, with their unclean rags." A Swedish observer would say much the same, contrasting the appearance of Gustav's men to Tilly's:

Ragged, tattered and dirty were our men (from the continual labors of this last year) besides the glittering, gilded and plume-decked imperialists. Our Swedish and Finnish nags looked but puny, next to their great German chargers. Our peasant lads made no brave show upon the field when set against the hawk-nosed and mustachioed veterans of Tilly.

Tilly's army had followed him for years, and had known nothing but victory. In truth, those "hawk-nosed and mustachioed veterans" included many neophytes. The desertion rate in armies of the time was astronomical. But, because of the chaos which engulfed central Europe, men who deserted would usually join other armies—or, often enough, simply "recycle" through the army they had abandoned. And there were always new men available for recruitment, due to that same chaos. The formalities and rigidities which would characterize armies of a later day were almost entirely absent.

Yet even the rawest recruit, once they joined up, absorbed the mystique and prestige of the past. Whether veteran or not, hawknosed or not, mustachioed or not—they acted that way. And so, to those who faced them, there was nothing quite as intimidating as facing "Tilly's men" across a field of battle. The image may have been skewed, but it was an image carved out of history's true granite.

The Catholic soldiers began binding white scarves in their hats. As the old general—he was seventy-two, then, not a day less—trotted down the line on his familiar white battle-charger, shouts of "Father Tilly!" passed from tercio to tercio. And, along with it, the triumphant battle cry of the empire: Jesu-Maria!

Gustav Adolf likewise addressed his troops. The king was a famous orator—the best in Sweden, by all accounts—and his men greeted him with enthusiasm. Gustav Adolf was the boldest figure of his time. Not since Alexander the Great had a ruling monarch shown such personal daring—to the point of recklessness—on the field of battle. By the day of Breitenfeld, he bore the scars of many wounds on his huge body. He wore no armor, because he could not. A Polish bullet which had struck him four years earlier at the battle of Dirschau was still lodged in his neck. Armor chafed that wound, so the king went into battle protected only by his buff coat and the Will of his God.

As they listened, the Swedish troops tied green branches into their own helmets and headgear. When he finished, they roared their own battle cry: Gott mit uns! Gott mit uns!


At noon, the battle of Breitenfeld began. But for the first two and a half hours, it was simply an exchange of cannon fire. Tilly and Gustavus were still measuring each other.

As time went on, it became obvious that the Swedish artillery overmatched their opponents. The king had more guns, better guns, and better trained gunners. Most of all, he had Torstensson in command. Once they were into their rhythm, the Swedish artillerymen were exchanging three shots for one with their imperial counterparts.

Pappenheim, rash and impetuous as always, broke the impasse and led his Black Cuirassiers in the first charge of the day. Not waiting for Tilly's command, the commander of the imperial left launched a thundering cavalry charge on the Swedish right.

It was a foolish gesture, and Tilly cursed him for it before Pappenheim had ridden a hundred yards. "They have robbed me of my honor and my glory!" he cried, throwing up his arms in despair.

Pappenheim thought to outflank the Swedes and roll them up from the side. But his Swedish counterpart, Field Marshal Banér, was prepared. His king's combined arms approach proved itself on the defense as well as the offense. Pappenheim's cuirassiers were held off by the salvos of the infantrymen, while Banér's Swedish and Finnish cavalry launched their own sharp sallies.

Seven times Pappenheim drove his men against the Swedish lines, ignoring all of Tilly's commands to retire. Seven times he was driven back. Then Banér launched a massive counterattack and drove the Black Cuirassiers from the field. In complete disorder, Pappenheim's heavy cavalry fled toward Halle. Banér made to pursue, but Gustav Adolf recalled him to the line.


The king was cautious. Things were not going well on his left. Seeing Pappenheim tangled up, Tilly sent the imperial cavalry on the opposite flank into battle. Here, Tilly's forces met with far better results. The Saxons, for all their glitter, did not have the years of Polish and Baltic wars behind them that Gustav and his Swedish veterans enjoyed. The very first charge of the imperial cavalry shattered them.

True to his nature, the elector himself led the rout. Seized with terror, John George and his splendiferous noble bodyguard galloped off the field, leaving their army behind. The army followed soon enough. Within half an hour, the powerful imperial cavalry had driven the entire Saxon army into headlong retreat.

The Swedish left flank was now open, bare, naked. The imperial cavalry began curving in upon it. Disaster loomed, as certain as the tide. The Swedish camp followers, panicked by the Saxons, began their own scrambling dash for the safety of Eilenburg. Tilly, whose veteran's eye immediately saw the coming glorious victory, gave the order for his entire army to advance on his enemy's shattered front. The tercios lurched forward, angling to the right in order to bring their full weight to bear on the broken Swedish left. As cumbersome as a glacier, that mass of tercios—and just as unstoppable.


There. Then. That moment.

That is where the legends pivot and wheel. Decade after decade, century after century; never reaching agreement, but always circling.

The Father of Modern War, Gustavus Adolphus almost certainly was not. But he may very well have been the Father of the Modern World. Because then, at that place, at the moment when the Saxons broke and the Inquisition bade fair to triumph over all of Europe, the king of Sweden stood his ground.

And proved, once again, that the truth of history is always concrete. Abstractions are the stuff of argument, but the concrete is given. Whatever might have been, was not. Not because of tactics, and formations, and artillery, and methods of recruitment—though all of those things played a part, and a big one—but because of a simple truth. At that instant, history pivoted on the soul of one man. His name was Gustavus Adolphus, and there were those among his followers who thought him the only monarch in Europe worthy of the name. They were right, and the man was about to prove it. For one of the few times in human history, royalty was not a lie.

Two centuries later, long after the concrete set and the truth was obvious to all, a monument would be erected on that field. The passing years, through the bickering and the debates, had settled the meaning of Breitenfeld. The phrase on the monument simply read: freedom of belief for all the world.


Whatever else he was or was not, Gustavus Adolphus will always be Breitenfeld. He stands on that field for eternity, just as he did on that day. September 17, 1631.

Breitenfeld. Always Breitenfeld.


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