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Chapter 35

"Those bastards!" snarled Bernard. The younger duke of Saxe-Weimar glared at the Saxons racing toward the safety of Eilenburg. "Wretched cowards!"

Bernard shifted his gaze to the oncoming tercios, lurching at an oblique angle toward the ruptured left flank of the Swedes. He turned a pale face to Gustav Adolf. "We can hold them off, Your Majesty—long enough, I think, for you to organize a retreat."

Gustav's light blue eyes were alive and dancing. "Retreat?" he demanded. "Are you mad?"

The king pointed a thick finger at his left flank. "Race over there, Bernard—fast as you can—and tell Horn to pivot his forces to the left. Tell him to keep his right anchored to the center, but to form a new battle line at right angles to our own. Do you understand?"

Bernard nodded. An instant later, he had spurred his charger into a gallop. His older brother made to follow, but Gustav restrained him. "You stay with me, Wilhelm."

The king smiled. "Your impetuous and hot-headed brother is enough to pester Horn—who won't need the pestering anyway."

Wilhelm nodded obediently. Gustav twisted in his saddle. As usual, his small band of couriers were sitting their horses not many yards behind him. Most of these were young Swedish noblemen, but there were two Scots in the group. The king snatched the broad-brimmed hat from his head and used it to summon them forward. The flamboyant gesture was quite unnecessary, being due simply to Gustav's high spirits. For all the world, the king seemed like a man facing a ball rather than a disaster.

He spoke to the Scots first. "Tell Colonel Hepburn to move his brigade over in support of Field Marshal Horn. Understand?"

The Scots nodded. Hepburn's brigade, along with that of Vitzthum, formed the second line of the Swedish center. They constituted the bulk of the Swedish reserves. The king, logically enough, was now using them to shore up his threatened left.

The Scots had barely left when Gustav was issuing the same orders to two other couriers. Vitzthum the same!

The king eyed the center of the battle. Tilly's tercios were rippling slowly down the gentle slope where the veteran Catholic general had positioned them. Even with the advantage of downhill movement, across unimpeded ground, the imperial soldiers were making slow progress.

Gustav gave them no more than a quick scrutiny. He was quite confident that his infantry in the center, anchored by Torstensson's guns, could repel any direct charge. The Habsburg tercios would probably not even drive directly forward. The danger was on the left, and he had done what he could to support Horn against the coming hammer blow. The opportunity—

On the right!

Eagerly, Gustav examined his right flank. For a moment, he silently congratulated himself for having kept Banér from pursuing Pappenheim's broken cavalry. The temptation had been almost as great for the king as for his Field Marshal. But Gustav had distrusted the steadiness of the Saxons. Better to have Banér available if the battle went sour.

Which it most certainly had! But now—now!—Gustav could turn disaster into triumph. Banér and his men were back in line, organized and ready. Most of all, Gustav knew, those cavalrymen would be infused with self-confidence. They had already broken Pappenheim's famous Black Cuirassiers. Why should they not do the same to the rest?

"Why not?" demanded the king aloud. He grinned at the four couriers still around him. "Why not?" He waved his hat about cheerfully.

The young noblemen grinned back. One of them lifted his own hat in salute, shouting: "Gott mit uns!"

A few feet behind them, Anders Jönsson slid his saber an inch or so out of its scabbard, before easing it back. He did the same with his four saddle-holstered pistols. Those weapons would be needed soon, and he wanted to be certain they were easy to hand. The huge Jönsson was the king's personal bodyguard.

The dozen Scotsmen under his command followed suit. They knew Gustav Adolf. The king of Sweden was utterly indifferent to personal danger. There had been few enough battles in which the king was present where he did not lead a charge himself.

Clearly, this was not going to be one of them. His Scots bodyguards were about to earn their pay.

One of the Scotsmen tried to be philosophical about the matter. "Ah weel, he's a braw lad, no' like yon God-rotton Stuart king o' England." He spit on the ground. "Ae fuckin' papist, tha' one be."

"Aye. Near's ca' be," agreed one of his mates.

Gustav Adolf spurred his horse into a canter, and then a gallop. Duke Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar rode at his side, with the couriers and bodyguards thundering just behind.

As they neared the Swedish right flank, Gustav could see Banér trotting out to meet him. But the king gave the Field Marshal nothing but a moment's glance. His gaze was riveted on a large body of cavalrymen waiting behind Banér, under green standards. Those were Erik Soop's Västgöta. Over a thousand horsemen from West Gothland, organized into eight companies. Gustav thought highly of them. Just the thing!

When he reached Banér, Gustav reined in his horse and shouted gaily: "And now, Johann? You see?"

The Field Marshal nodded his bullet head. "You were right, Majesty. As always."

"Ha!" cried Gustav. "So modest! Not like you at all!"

The king was grinning fiercely. His own combative spirit seemed to transfer itself to his horse. The great charger pranced about nervously, as if impatient for battle.

"I want you to take the Västgöta, Johann." The king pointed to the left flank of Tilly's battle line. With Pappenheim's cuirassiers routed, that flank was unguarded. Unguarded, and getting more ragged by the moment. Tilly's oblique advance, marching from left rear to right front across the field in order to fall on the Swedish left, was straining the rigidity of his tercios. The Spanish-style squares were not well suited for anything but a forward advance.

"I intend to do the same to Tilly that he plans for me," the king explained. "Ha!" he barked happily. "Except I will succeed, and he will fail!"

For a moment, Banér hesitated. The king was proposing a bold gamble. It would be safer—

As if reading his thoughts, Gustav shook his head. "Horn will hold, Johann. He will hold. Horn will be the anvil—we the hammer."

Banér did not argue. He trusted his king's battle instincts. Gustav II Adolf was young, by the standards of generalship in his day. He was thirty-six years old. But he had more battle experience than most men twice his age. At the age of sixteen, he had organized and led the surprise attack which took the Danish fortress of Borgholm. By the age of twenty-seven, he had taken Livonia and Riga and was already a veteran of the Polish and Russian wars.

Banér had been with him there. Banér, Horn, Torstensson, Wrangel—the nucleus of that great Swedish officer corps. Along with Axel Oxenstierna and the more recently arrived Scots professionals—Alexander Leslie, Robert Monro, John Hepburn, James Spens—they constituted the finest command staff in the world. Such, at least, was Banér's opinion.

The king's also. "We can do it, Johann!" he cried. "Now be off!"

Banér turned his horse and shouted orders at his own couriers and dispatch riders. Within seconds, the neatly arrayed Swedish right wing erupted into that peculiar disorder which precedes coordinated action. Company commanders and their subofficers dashed about, shouting their own commands—unneeded commands, for the most part. The Swedish and Finnish cavalry were veteran units themselves, as such things were counted in those days. Within a minute, the scene was one of individual frenzy. Men jumped to the ground to cinch a girth, or checked the ease of a saber's draw, or changed pyrites in the jaws of a wheel lock, swearing all the while. Cursing their refractory horses and equipment, perhaps; or clumsy mates who impeded them; or their own clumsiness—or, often enough, simply the state of the world. Many—most—took the time as well for a quick prayer.

The Brownian motion of a real battlefield, nothing more. Logic and order emerged from chaos soon enough. Within five minutes, Banér and his West Gothlanders began their charge.

The king, in the meantime, had been organizing the heavier forces which would drive home the assault. Four regiments, numbering perhaps three thousand men.

The Smalanders and East Gothlanders were Swedish. Heavy cuirassiers, in their arms and armor, although the term was mocked by the puny size of their horses. The two Finnish regiments were more lightly armed and armored, but their Russian horses were much superior.

The Finns, like their mounts, favored the wild Eastern European style of cavalry warfare. What they lacked in discipline they made up for in fervor. They were already screeching their savage battle cry: Haakkaa päälle!

Hack them down!

Gustav would lead the charge, at the head of his Swedish regiments. He hesitated only long enough to gauge the battle on his left. He could see nothing now. The farmland dust thrown up by thousands of chargers, mixed with billowing gunsmoke, had turned the battlefield into a visual patchwork.

But he could hear the battle, and it did not take him more than a few seconds to draw the conclusion. Horn—good Horn! reliable Horn!—was holding Tilly at bay.

He drew his saber and pointed it forward. "Gott mit uns!" he bellowed. "Victory!"


The first imperial cavalry charge shattered against Horn's defense. The Catholic horsemen had been astonished at the speed with which the Swedes took new positions. They had been expecting the sluggish maneuvers of Continental armies.

Others could have warned them. The Danes and Poles and Russians had been bloodied enough, over the past twenty years, by Gustav's small army. The Danes could have told them of Borgholm, Christianopel, Kalmar and Waxholm—all places where a teenage Swedish king had bested them. The Russians could have told them of Angdov and Pleskov, and the Poles could have recited a very litany of woe: Riga, Kockenhusen, Mittau, Bauske, Walhof, Braunsberg, Frauenburg, Tolkemit, Elbing, Marienburg, Dirschau, Mewe, Putzig, Wörmditt, Danzig, Gurzno and the Nogat.

The haughty cuirassiers in Tilly's army never thought to ask. They were south Germans, in the main, taking the coin of Maximillian of Bavaria. The peculiar-sounding names of Baltic and Slavic battlefields and sieges meant nothing to them.

In all those years Gustav II Adolf had suffered defeats as well. The Danes had beaten him at Helsingborg, and the Poles at Honigfeld. But the Danes and the Poles could have warned the forces under the Habsburg banner of the incredible elasticity of the Swedish king. He rebounded from reverses with renewed energy, using defeat as his school.

Tilly's men would study in that school themselves—study long and hard, before this day was over. They were not, alas, apt pupils. Arrogant Pappenheim, now trying—and failing—to rally his cavalrymen somewhere on the Halle road, had learned one lesson. Pathetic the Swedish nags might be, but there was nothing pitiful about the men astride them. Neither they, nor the infantrymen who formed their shield. Seven times his Black Cuirassiers had charged the Swedish line. Seven times they had been beaten back—and then routed by a countercharge.

Not apt pupils, no. Now, on the opposite flank, the imperial cavalry failed the lesson for the eighth time. The first charge, headlong, exuberant, certain of victory—no caracole here!—broke like a wave against a rock. They had been expecting a confused and shaken enemy, disorganized by the sudden rout of the Saxons. Instead, the Catholic cuirassiers found themselves piling into a solid and well-positioned defense. Horn had even managed to seize and prepare the ditches alongside the Düben road.

The Swedish arquebus roared; the Swedish pike held firm. The imperial cavalry fell back.

Back, but not dismayed. Tilly and his men had won the first great Catholic victory in the Thirty Years War, the Battle of the White Mountain. Eleven years had since passed, and with them came many more triumphs. That army had been accused—and rightly—of many crimes over those years. Of cowardice, not once.

Again, they charged; again, with sabering fury. And, again, were driven back.

The infantry tercios lumbered nearer. The cavalrymen, seeing them come, were driven into yet another headlong charge. For them the victory! Not those wretched footmen!

No use. The tercios crept forward.

Finally, the imperial cuirassiers abandoned the saber and fell back on the wheel-lock pistol. They began wheeling in the caracole, firing their pistols at a distance and circling to reload. Those men were mercenaries, when all was said and done. They could not afford to lose their precious horses. And they had already learned, as Pappenheim's men before them, that the Swedish tactic against heavy cavalry was to aim arquebus and pike at the horses. They had been trained and instructed in that method by their king. Gustav Adolf had long understood that his Swedish ponies were no match for German chargers. So kill the chargers first.

The tercios advanced across the battlefield, at the oblique. Grinding toward the Swedish left, now bent at a right angle away from the original battle line. Like a glacier, those seventeen tercios seemed. Slow—and unstoppable.


But that too was illusion. The glacier was about to calve, under gunfire it had never before encountered. The finest artillery in the world was on the field, that day, under the leadership of the world's finest artillery commander. Torstensson had needed no orders. His king had not even bothered to send a courier. The young artillery general, as soon as he saw Gustav sending Hepburn and Vitzthum's men to reinforce Horn, had known what was coming. For all the Swedish king's strategic caution, he was invariably bold on the battlefield. Torstensson knew that a counterattack was looming, and it was his job to batter the tercios in advance. Batter them, stun them, bleed them. Like a picador in a bullring, he would weaken the beast for the matador.

"Swivel the guns!" he roared. Torstensson, afoot as always in a battle, raced to stand at the front. It was a day for hat-snatching, it seemed. He tore his own from his head and began waving it.

"Swivel the guns!" That second roar caused him to choke. There had been a drought in the area that summer, and the plains were dry. The dust thrown up by thousands of horses caught in his throat. Using his hat as a pointer, Torstenson silently emphasized his command.

His gunners were all veterans. Immediately, grunting with exertion at the levering spikes, they began swiveling the field guns to bring enfilade fire on the tercios crossing in front of them.

There were two types of guns in the batteries. The majority, forty-two of them, were the so-called "regimental guns." Three-pounders: the world's first genuine field artillery. These cannons were made of cast bronze, with a light, short barrel to make them easily maneuverable in the field. The Swedes, after experimenting, had discovered that by using a reduced powder charge the guns could be fired safely time after time. They were of no use in a siege, but were superbly effective on the battlefield.

The heavier field guns were twelve-pounders. Gustav Adolf had simplified his ordnance drastically over the past years, based on his experience in the Polish wars. He brought only three sizes of cannon with him to Germany—the light and heavier field guns, and twenty-four-pounders for siege work. He had dispensed altogether with the forty-eight-pounder traditionally used in reducing fortifications.

The three-pounders were firing within a few minutes. The twelve-pounders quickly followed suit. By the time Tilly's infantry neared the angle in their opponent's line, they were coming under heavy fire from the Swedish artillery.

Understanding that the battle had reached a critical moment, Torstensson was ordering a rate of fire which was just barely short of reckless.

"I want a shot every six minutes!" he bellowed, trotting up and down behind the line of his guns. "Nothing less!" He practically danced with energy, waving his hat. "I'll hang the crew who gives me less!"

His men grinned. Torstensson always issued blood-curdling threats on the battlefield. And never carried them out. Nor was there any need. His men were well into the rhythm again, and had already reached the round-every-six-minutes rate which was considered the maximum of the day.

They could not keep that up forever, of course. The problem was not with them, but the guns. The cannons had been firing for three hours, now. Each of them had discharged close to thirty rounds. After another ten rounds, at that rate of fire, the guns would be so hot that they would have to sit idle. For at least an hour, probably, to allow the barrels to cool enough to be used safely.

"Let the blasted things melt!" roared Torstensson. He flung his hat toward Tilly's tercios. "I want those battles broken! Broken in pieces, do you hear?"

The grins faded from his gunners' faces. Torstensson was dead serious now, they knew. If need be, he would keep the guns firing long past the point of safety. The artillerymen sweated through the rhythm. So be it. If a crew died because of a burst cannon, so be it. Torstensson himself would pick up the rammer.

Cannonballs began tearing great holes in the tightly packed Catholic formations. Torstensson's gunners were the finest in the world, and they knew what their commander wanted.

"Grazing shots!" Torstensson slammed the flat of one hand into the other, as if skipping a stone off a lake. "Nothing but grazing shots! I see two balls in a row plunge into the ground I'll hang the crew! Hang 'em, do you hear?"

His men laughed. Another idle threat. Almost every round they fired was the good artilleryman's sought-after "grazing shot."

The "grazing shot" was useless against fortifications, but against men in the field it was devastating. The balls landed dozens of yards in front of their target and bounced forward at a shallow angle, instead of burying themselves in the ground. From that first bounce, their trajectory was at knee-to-shoulder height. The cast-iron missiles caromed into the packed ranks of the enemy like bowling balls—except these balls destroyed men instead of knocking down pins. Even a three-pound ball, in a grazing shot, could easily kill or maim a dozen men in such close ranks. The twelve-pounders wreaked pure havoc.

Torstensson's artillery was ripping the tercios like an orca ripping flesh from a great whale. Blood began settling the dust. The men in the rear tercios slogged through mud left by their comrades' gore—and added their own to the mix. Graze, graze, graze, graze. Death wielded his sickle that day, and mercilessly.

Not even Tilly's men could shrug off that kind of fire. Courageous as always, the recruits following the lead of the veterans; they obeyed their orders and plowed stubbornly toward the angle in the Swedish line. But their formations became more and more ragged and broken. Pikemen were being injured by the weapons of their mates, now, as men stumbled over corpses and lost control of the great blades.


Tilly saw, and grew pale. Near the front of his advancing tercios, he reined in his horse and stared back at the carnage.

"God in Heaven," he muttered. Wallenstein had tried to warn him of the Swedish artillery. Wallenstein—that black-hearted Bohemian! Aye, he—and a dozen Polish officers in Tilly's service. But Tilly had not believed.

"God in Heaven," he muttered again. For a moment, he thought of changing his attack. Wheeling, and driving down on those cursed guns.

Wheeling . . . 

Tilly dismissed the notion instantly. His battles did not "wheel." Could not wheel. They were instruments of crushing victory, not clever maneuver.

"Victory," he growled. Seventy-two years old he was, not a day less. Seventy-two years, not one of whose days had ever seen defeat.

"Onward!" he bellowed. The old general drew his sword and trotted toward the front. He waved the sword at the Swedish left.

"Onward!" he bellowed. "Victory is there!"

The tercios obeyed, and obeyed, and obeyed—seventeen battles, down the line, slogged tenaciously forward. Not one of them faltered in their duty. Not one tercio, not one rank, not one file, not one man.

Torstensson splattered their entrails across the land. No matter. Those men had marched through entrails before. Torstensson painted the soil with their blood. No matter. Those men had bled before. Torstensson savaged them like no artillery in their grim experience. No matter. Tilly had never failed them before.

Murderers many of them were. Thieves and rapists too. Cowards, never.

The broken Swedish angle was in front of them now. Like a bear trailing gore, the tercios were about to mangle their prey.

At last!

"Father Tilly!" they bellowed. "Jesu-Maria!"


But the angle was not broken. Not any longer. Horn—trusted Horn, trustworthy Horn—had reformed the line even before his king's orders arrived. The Swedish left now formed a solid corner for the battlefield. The imperial heavy cavalry had already broken against that Baltic rock. The tercios lumbered up and did no better.

Pike against pike, the Catholics were easily the equal of their foe. But the Swedish king was a believer in firepower more than cold steel. He had studied the methods of the Dutch, and tested them in Poland and Russia.

At Breitenfeld, the Swedes had a higher arquebus-to-pike ratio than their enemies. More important, Gustav Adolf had trained them to fight in shallow formations, following the Dutch example. Tilly's arquebusiers were arrayed thirty ranks deep. Most of those arquebuses could not be brought to bear. Gustav's, not more than six—just enough to allow time to reload while the front ranks fired.

The Swedish pikes held the tercios at bay long enough for the Swedish preponderance in firepower to bring down them down. Tilly's men never buckled. But they made no headway against the Swedish line. They simply died. And meanwhile, the king of Sweden prepared the death stroke.

Tilly and his tercios could not wheel, but Gustav Adolf could. Could, and did.


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