Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Lion of the North - 30 Years War

King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Breitenfeld, 1631
In the Musée Historique de Strasbourg - Artist: Johann Walter
King Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus is the Latinized version of the King's name) is perhaps one of the most brilliant soldiers you've probably never heard of, unless of course you are a military historian. Which I am, though strictly of the amateur variety.

In Sweden, he is remembered as Gustav Adolf den store, Gustav Adolf the Great. The 6th of November is celebrated as Gustavus Adolphus Day in Sweden, Estonia and Finland, the anniversary of the King's death at the Battle of Lützen, leading a charge. He died at the age of 37, little less than a month shy of his birthday.

He had been King of Sweden since he was 16.

He is called, by some, the first modern general. A master of combined arms and a brilliant administrator as well. Prior to his reign, Sweden was, at best, a regional power. From his reign until the defeat of Charles XII at Poltava by Peter the Great of Russia, Sweden was a major power in Europe.

In those days, when the Swedes marched, Europe trembled.

When I was a lad I was heavily into war gaming. Which I discussed a while back in this post. One of the companies I purchased quite a few games from was SPI, Simulations Publications Inc. One of the concepts they came up with was the "Quad Pack." Four board games using a common set of rules covering a single period of history.

They had a couple of Quad Packs on the American Civil War, I bought both. They had at least one Quad Pack covering the Napoleonic Wars. Yes, I bought that. In those days I was single and had very few expenses. What's more, those games, they were rather addictive.

They had another Quad Pack called "Thirty Years War," a conflict of which I had zero knowledge. So I did a little research, learned a little about that time period. Then I recalled a movie I had seen before joining the Air Force. The Last Valley, starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharif, that movie had been set during the Thirty Years War.

Long story short, I went out and bought that Quad Pack. The four battles were Lützen (1632), Nördlingen, Rocroi (1643) and Freiburg (1644). There were actually two battles of Nördlingen during the Thirty Years War, one in 1634 and the second in 1645. I don't recall which one the Quad Pack covered.

Gustavus Adolphus praying before the battle of Lützen
Artist Unknown - Public Domain (Source)

Battle of Lützen
The Death of King Gustavus Adolphus
Carl Wahlbom - Public Domain (Source)

Rocroi, the last tercio
Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau (CC- Source)

Playing those games generated an interest in the Thirty Years War.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the year 1648 saw the end of the Thirty Years War and the date also marks the rise of the modern nation-state. The Thirty Years War also marked the beginning of modern warfare. In essence, the warfare of the Middle Ages was at an end, modern war, the mass wars which killed so many thousands in the centuries to come, had begun.
The Thirty Years' War saw the devastation of entire regions, with famine and disease significantly decreasing the population of the German and Italian states, the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the Low Countries. The war also bankrupted most of the combatant powers. Both mercenaries and soldiers in armies were expected to fund themselves by looting or extorting tribute, which imposed severe hardships on the inhabitants of occupied territories. W
The Spanish army was also a power heading into the war, their tercios were built around a corps of professional soldiers. The formation (which on paper had a strength of 3000) consisted of pikemen, swordsmen and arquebusiers or musketeers.

Arquebus firing during the Geneva Escalade of 2009
Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr
Musketeer from the Swedish Altblau regiment (1624–1650) with musket and bardiche (long poleaxe)
Photograph by Michal Maňas 
, Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

One thing that is worth noting in the picture of the arquebusier is that he is being protected by pikemen. The arquebus and the old muskets of the time took quite a while to load. While they were loading their weapons, these men were very vulnerable to cavalry or really just anybody with an edged weapon. So the formation had pikemen.

Until the bayonet was invented (which wasn't common until after the Thirty Years War) the pike was a major component of a fighting formation. Like the Spanish tercio.

The tercio had a block of pikemen at the center of the formation, a formation that Alexander the Great would recognize. At the corners or along the sides were blocks of arquebusiers. They provided the fire, the pikemen the shock. Surprisingly those blocks of pikemen maneuvered pretty well for such a seemingly unwieldy looking grouping.

The Siege of Breda in 1624 by Jacques Callot, showing the tercios of the Army of Flanders.
(Public Domain)
Artillery at the beginning of the period was nearly immovable. The guns would be positioned on the field prior to a battle. Hopefully where they would be useful. Moving them after the battle started was difficult as the cannon were so heavy. One of Gustavus Adolphus' innovations was to lighten the cannon so that they could be moved once battle was joined.

Another somewhat unusual feature of the time was how cavalry was used.
The caracole or caracol (from the Spanish caracol - "snail") is a turning maneuver on horseback in dressage and, previously, in military tactics.

In dressage, riders execute a caracole as a single half turn, either to the left or to the right. The military caracole as it is usually understood today developed in the mid-16th century in an attempt to integrate gunpowder weapons into cavalry tactics. Equipped with one or two wheellock pistols, cavalrymen would advance on their target at less than a gallop in formation as deep as 12 ranks. As each rank came into range, the soldiers would turn their mount slightly to one side, discharge one pistol, then turn slightly to the other side to discharge the other pistol at their target. Since this involved presenting an almost immobile target to the enemy infantry for some time, the temptation must have been strong to fire the weapons without taking an accurate aim. The horsemen then retired to the back of the formation to reload, and then repeat the manoeuvre. The tactic was accompanied by the increasing popularity of the German Reiter in Western armies from about 1540.

The caracole was a tactic very much criticized by military historians who didn't fully understand its use, especially Charles Oman. The caracole was developed as a light cavalry tactic to be used in combination with the fully armoured lancers that made up the heavy cavalry in those times. Pistoleers were to disrupt infantry with their rolling fire, preparing the ground for the heavy cavalry to deliver a decisive charge. This tactic was successfully implemented, for instance, at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh.
Some historians after Michael Roberts associate the demise of the caracole with the name of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Certainly he regarded the technique as fairly useless, and ordered cavalry under Swedish command not to use the caracole; instead, he required them to charge aggressively like their Polish-Lithuanian opponents. However, there is plenty of evidence that the caracole was falling out of use by the 1580s at the latest. Henry IV's Huguenot cavalry and Dutch cuirassiers were good examples of cavalry units that abandoned the caracole early on — if they ever used it at all. W
An interesting time period in warfare. Bloody and brutal. Dominated by a number of "great captains" in addition to Gustavus Adolphus. We shall meet more of them in due time.

The English Civil War also occurred near the end of the Thirty Years War. Think Oliver Cromwell and Charles I of England. Cavaliers and Roundheads. Another event I plan on covering, eventually.

Good movie too.

Spanish Inquisition?

No doubt I'll get to that one of these days.

History, it's a hobby. It's a passion.


  1. Interesting.Never thought about where the various dressage moves originated, and my sister was a national rated judge.

    1. It was news to me as well. An interesting historical tidbit.

  2. If you have not done so, I recommend reading the "Ring of Fire" series. It is scifi about a modern US town dropped into this time frame. The various authors did their historical research, and the reading makes for an entertaining--and informative look at he period.

    1. Sounds outstanding and something that is right up my alley. I'll check it out.

      Thanks Cap'n!

  3. Spanish Inquisition?

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

    Sorry, couldn't resist!

    1. I did provide the straight line, hoping someone would respond.

      (Knew I could count on you Juvat!)

    2. Juvat- you check the Chant much earlier than I- I would have jumped on that line had you not beat me to it!

    3. Well, you are out on the West Coast Tuna. The rest of us are all up and at 'em before you folks get up.

      FWIW, all of my scheduled posts are set to be published at 0400, Sandy Eggo time.

      And yeah, if Juvat didn't mention it, you would have.

  4. Bravo! Your description of the pike preceding the bayonet for some reason really resonated. I know all about cutting and stabbing intellectually but I'd never before tried to imagine myself in a fight like that. I'm a modern guy, right? The thought of some terrified, smelly, garlic-and-sardine-breathed Spaniard ramming a cold, dirty, rusty pike through my gizzard gave me a hell of a shudder. I'm enjoying your history lessons immensely Sarge. Looking forward to more!

    1. Well said Shaun.

      I hope to keep the history lessons coming and keeping them interesting.


  5. Very informative and entertaining. I wonder how much better Europe would have fared with out the widespread economic and human devastation that the 30 years war produced?

    1. Not to mention the hatreds and regional / religious rivalries which have perpetuated to this day.

      The cost in human life was tragic.

  6. Another great history lesson, thanks. My wife is Swedish so I've heard of Gustavus but never knew anything about him
    except that he is greatly admired by the Swedes.

    1. Now you know why.

      Does Mrs K celebrate Gustavus Adolphus Day? I think I will start doing that this year. (Any reason to have a beer is good!)

    2. She doesn't celebrate it but think I will. As you say, any reason to have a beer is good (as if I need a reason). Kendy doesn't
      like beer so she won't have one but I will gladly drink a Moose Drool for her!!

    3. Okay, I did the look up of Moose Drool, now I simply have to try it.

      I truly enjoy a good brown ale.

      So November 6th, must have some Moose Drool available. And thus a new tradition is born!

    4. I hope you can find it and that you enjoy it. I've had better brown ale's but most of the best brown ale's
      and stout beer's seem to be found in the New England area. Here in the Midwest everyone wants the
      wheat beers and while they're okay, I like something with more body and flavor. The best dark beer
      I've ever had was when my son and his family came to visit from Germany and he brought some of
      the local German beer and it was excellent!!

    5. There's a brewery in Maine and another in New Hampshire which make an excellent brown ale. Newcastle is another I like.

      When I was in NATO we lived not far from Düsseldorf, where they are rather famous for their dark beer.

      Local German beer...

      Man, there are days I miss Germany!

    6. A moose once bit my sister...

      No realli!

    7. I've heard they can be mean-tempered!


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