This is the recounting of the dramatic life of the “The Golden King” and “The Lion of the North” Gustav Adolf, and the Swedish Empire during stormaktstiden – “the Great Power era”.
As Gustav II Adolf (King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden) waited in Werben, Germany, Johann Tserclaes, the Count of Tilly (Field Marshall of the Catholic League’s forces) received a message from Field Marshall Pappenheim requesting that he come to Magdeburg and aid in its defense against the Swedes. After some time, Count Tilly decided to send three cavalry regiments on a recon mission towards Werben on July 27, 1631. After a few days, Gustav received word of the cavalry advance and quickly assembled 4,000 cavalry and led them towards the enemy force and surprised them at Burgstall and Angeren on August 1, 1631. The imperial forces suffered heavy casualties and lost their baggage.
During this engagement, Gustav himself almost became a casualty. Those who were captured provided the Swedish king with valuable information. He soon learned that Tilly was planning to attack his forces at Werben.
When news reached Tilly that the cavalry forces he had sent had been devastated, he fell into a rage. Tilly wasted no time; he mustered his forces, and pushed towards Werben with 15,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry. Tilly’s hurry towards Werben was to prevent the Swedes from fully digging themselves into a defensive position. However, when Tilly arrived, he saw that Swedes had already set up defensive fortifications, for it was standard procedure among the Swedish military to do so once they set up camp. Tilly, seeing that the element of surprise was out of the question, positioned his forces and opened fire on the Swedish camp with sixteen heavy guns, and the Swedes obliged Tilly with a volley of their own.
Illustration of the Battle of Werben, detail.(Deutsche Fotothek/CC BY-SA 3.0 de)
The first day of fighting was primarily sorties and heavy skirmishing outside the Swedish perimeter. The second day was much the same, as each side exchanged cannon fire and engaged in limited skirmishes. While Tilly was poking and prodding the Swedes, he received intelligence that a German unit within the Swedish ranks would mutiny. Tilly, understandably suspicious of the information, decided that it was something he could not ignore. Therefore, Tilly gave the order to launch a full-scale assault on the Swedish entrenchments. This would be a grave mistake. As the imperial forces advanced, they came under a well-organized concentration of artillery and musket fire. The imperial forces began to drop quickly. Sensing that any further advancement would do them no good, they retreated, but as they did so, the Swedish cavalry fell on them. Six thousand imperial forces lay dead on the field of battle, while the remaining wounded and untouched scattered.
A scene of battle and death from another engagement during the Thirty Years’ War (Battle of Fleurus, Aug 20, 1622.) (Public Domain)
Battle of Breitenfeld, Clashing Forces
After Werben, Tilly had received orders from the emperor to invade Saxony and force Elector John George to pledge his allegiance to the emperor and disband his army. John George did not answer Tilly but stalled to see what terms Gustav could offer. John George gave Tilly a negative answer but by that time Tilly’s forces had swelled to 36,000 troops who need supplies. Sensing that John George was not going to join the imperial forces, Tilly decided to move his forces into Saxony where he besieged, plundered, and raped the countryside for supplies.
By September 8, 1631, Tilly was quickly approaching Leipzig where he positioned his forces on the level terrain of Breitenfield, north of Leipzig. On the September 11, 1631, Gustav and John George came to a treaty in which Saxony would place its forces under the command of Gustav, along with one month’s pay, food, shelter. Most importantly, Saxony would make no peace with the empire.
On September 15, 1631, Gustav and John George meet, and began to maneuver around Leipzig to disrupt the imperial forces, to root out any enemy units, and to find an advantage before digging in for battle. The next day, the Swedes and their allies marched towards the city. As Gustav moved towards Leipzig, the garrison defending against the imperial forces, unaware that Gustav was on his way, surrendered to Tilly. Soon after the surrender, the imperial force began to pillage the city until news arrived that the Swedes were not far away.
Once the Swedish forces had arrived with their allies, Gustav arrayed his army that evening, and his men slept in the order in which they would march into combat. The battlefield they and the imperial forces agreed to engage upon was relatively broad, on a rolling plain north of Leipzig. It stretched for miles and was void of woods and rivers, making it ideal for two large armies to clash. The Swedish forces boasted 13,000 to 26,800 soldiers, while their Saxon allies reportedly had from 12,000 to 18,000 troops. As for field guns, numbers are disputed, as the number of cannons ranged between 51 to 100 heavy guns and every regiment each had their field guns. The same can be said for the imperial army, wherein it’s said they fielded anywhere from 27 to 36 cannons.
Battle of Breitenfeld – Initial dispositions, 17 September 1631 Swedish-Saxon forces in Blue, Catholic army in Red. (Public Domain)
Tilly deployed his imperial forces in fourteen tercio blocks (companies of men with pikes and/or firearms) in the center with his cavalry on either flank. Gustav deployed his forces in a similar fashion, with smaller units drawn up in two lines of musketeers supporting the cavalry while the infantry had the support of 42 two-man battalion guns, (even though the number of guns is uncertain). The smaller Saxon force under John George positioned to the left of the Swedish forces.
In this contemporary drawing, the Imperial formations (to the left) are deployed two companies deep, while the Swedish (to the right) are deployed just one company deep (Public Domain)
At noon, both sides exchanged artillery fire. After two hours of trying to weaken one another with a near constant barrage, Tilly gave the order to move forward. Tilly’s intention was a double envelopment. Leading the way was Tilly’s left-wing cavalry, their goal was to engage and turn the Swedish right. However, the cavalry was stopped when the Swedes extended their lines, and alternated musket fire along with countering the imperial cavalry with their own cavalry.
While the Tilly had little luck attacking the Swedish right, he did find success on the left against the Saxons and were able to disperse them by 16:00. With Tilly’s tercios advancing with the aid of the cavalry, and with the dispersal of the Saxon forces thus exposing Gustav’s left, success seemed imminent. However, the left-wing of the Swedish cavalry was able to make a counter-attack and drive Tilly’s cavalry back into their own tercios, who happened to be reorganizing after their successful assault.
With Tilly’s forces preoccupied with reformation, Gustav took advantage of the moment by extending their flank and he counter-attacked with a steady, combined concentration of shock and firepower which compressed Tilly’s forces, causing confusion. The Swedish push was so successful that they were able to reclaim the Saxon artillery and capture the imperial artillery by steadily pushing the discombobulated enemy back.
With the imperial forces well behind their initial battle line, the Swedes used the captured artillery and turned it on the imperial forces, and by 18:00, Gustav swept the remaining enemy forces off the battlefield. Gustav demonstrated that the combination of finesse and firepower were far more dominant then the cumbrous system used by the enemy.
Battle of Breitenfeld – Annihilation, 17 September 1631 Swedish forces in Blue, Catholic army in Red. (Public Domain)
Battle of Lech and A Clever Plan
After Breitenfeld, Gustav maintained success. He pushed further until he reached the Rhine, where he decided to consolidate his hold and to winter his troops. This gave time to make plans in acquiring an additional 210,000 men for his 1632 campaign, which would allow him to field six other armies and to use the rest to advance on Bavaria and possibly onto Vienna itself.
Once spring arrived, Gustav mustered his forces and began the trek towards Bavaria. However, there was a problem, once he reached the river Lech, it proved to be impassable. The reason f was that Tilly had destroyed all the bridges and had removed all the boats. Gustav quickly came up with a clever plan. He began an artillery barrage to distract Tilly while obscuring the real crossing point, which was three miles south of Rain where the Lech splits into two channels with a sizable island in the middle. It was there where the Swedes began constructing their bridge. The next day, Gustav placed 18 guns to cover the next step of the operation. With musketeers now on the island, Gustav made it lucrative by giving five months’ extra pay to those who would row across the river to the Bavarian bank. Three hundred and thirty-four Finns quickly got to work; carrying across the channel the last pieces of the prefabricated bridge. Once in place, the Swedish army still under the cover of fire, poured across the river. Tilly soon learned what was going on and sent troops to counter the Swedish advance and stop them from penetrating his camp.
A cavalry battle between 1626 and 1628 (Public Domain)
Gustav had also sent 2,000 cavalry to ford the Lech a mile or two away, near the village of Munster. As expected, once the cavalry rolled up on Tilly they struck a decisive blow to the imperial left flank at the climax of battle. As the evening hours wore on, the imperial forces wore out and retreated, leaving their guns and baggage behind— and worst of all, Tilly took a hit to his right thigh by a cannon ball, which mortally wounded him. He died from this wound two weeks later.
As for Gustav, he would continue seeing victories as he pushed on, with his only real defeat coming in September 1632 at the Battle of the Alte Veste. Finally, his day under the sun came on November 16, 1632, at Lutzen.
Battle of Lützen
Late October 1632, word reached Gustav that general Albrecht von Wallenstein had led his forces northward to meet with another Imperial force under Count Pappenheim. Their goal was to subjugate Saxony and to cut off Gustav’s supply line to the Baltic. Gustav quickly headed north. While one might think he would call on the 163,000 troops he had available, the problem was that they were scattered throughout his holdings. Gustav had to make best with the available 19,000 men on hand.
On November 10, 1632, Gustav reached Naumburg and began to fortify his camp. Wallenstein mistakenly believed the Swedes were suspending their campaign and scattered his own forces about the lands since his camp at Leipzig could not provide enough supplies.
Gustav wasted no time in mustering his troops and marched out of Naumburg in the direction of Wallenstein’s camp on November 15, 1632. Wallenstein sent an urgent message to Pappenheim to bring back his cavalry. That night both armies slept in battle formation. If Wallenstein was not ready once morning arrived, he still had a little luck from nature as a fog rolled in. This allowed him to further prepare what may have been missing due to their hasty preparation. Around late morning, Gustav formed his 18,000 troops in nearly the same battle formation as they had held at Breitenfeld.
Map of the troop dispositions. (Public Domain)
The battle began with Gustav leading a cavalry charge towards the Imperial musketeers in a ditch. This charge, while effective in uprooting them, also cost the Swedish cavalry in many lives due to the musket fire. Driving the Imperial forces out of the ditch, the Swedish cavalry pressed on and were close to falling on the main body of infantry. However, the Imperial cavalry under Pappenheim appeared suddenly and countered the Swedish advance. The tide had shifted in favor of the Imperial forces. Nevertheless, the Swedes would regain the advantage when two musket balls mortally wounded Pappenheim. This would cause panic throughout the Imperial ranks due to Pappenheim reputation as a fine leader.
Gustavus Adolphus in the battle of Lützen. (Public Domain)
With Pappenheim out of action, the Imperial left flank began to fall apart. While this was going on, the Swedish cavalry started hitting the center of the enemy. Victory seemed to be in Gustav’s hands but nature quickly stole it away when an even heavier mist rolled in on the battlefield. With both armies nearly blind by the fog, Gustav, who had the advantage and momentum, stalled. Gustav got word that his left flank was weakening and decided to help strengthen their position; this would be the end of the great king.
Gustav, as usual, led from the front and rode so fast he left his escort behind. In doing so, an Imperial musketeer took aim and shattered Gustav’s left arm. As it was known that Gustav forwent body armor due to an old wound that plagued his shoulder, he was easily shot in the back, and wounded grievously. He fell from the saddle with one foot in the stirrup, and was dragged for some time before being able to twist free. However, once free, lay face down in the mud when a third shot rang out, this time it was the death shot as it penetrated his head.
The Imperial forces seemed to be on the verge of victory but were thwarted by the Swedes who now took revenge for the death of their king. In the end, it was a Swedish victory with a high cost. The Swedes could not pursue the fleeing Imperial forces afterwards due to having lost a third of their men and on top of that, with a dead king on their hands.
The scene shows the death of the “Lion of the North” King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden on November 6, 1632. (Public Domain)
In conclusion, Gustav’s military reforms were revolutionary and evolutionary. In other words, it was just a matter of time and a bit of tinkering that manufactured a superb military force. With combined arms, it was capable of producing a greater volley of fire and an ability to maneuver on the field of battle with speed and precision. No matter how effective Gustav’s forces were in battle, he continued to make changes. He felt all must be scrutinized for inconsistencies in order to stay one step ahead of any future foe. He is regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time.
Ultimately, his legacy is one of military supremacy, in effect determining the religious and political balance of power in Europe, making Sweden a Great Power and empire.
After his death, Gustavus’s wife initially kept his body and his heart. His remains (including his heart) now rest with his sarcophagus at Riddarholm Church, Stockholm, Sweden. (Public Domain)
By Cam Rea
Addington, Larry H. The Patterns of War though The Eighteenth Century. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Boot, Max. War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today. New York: Gotham Books, 2006.
Bradford, James C. International Encyclopedia of Military History. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Brzezinski, Richard and Richard Hook. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus (1): Infantry. London: Osprey, 1991.
Curtis, Benjamin W. The Habsburgs: The History of a Dynasty. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Dodge, Theodore Ayrault. Gustavus Adolphus. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Fissel, Mark Charles and D. J. B. Trim. Amphibious Warfare 1000-1700: Commerce, State Formation and European Expansion. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
Fletcher, C. R. L. Gustavus Adolphus and the Struggle of Protestantism for Existence. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890.
Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. Harlow, England: Longman, 2000.
Hart, B. H. Liddell. Great Captains Unveiled. New York and Washington D.C.: Da Capo Press, 1996.
Häusser, Ludwig, G. Sturge, and Wilhelm Oncken. The Period of the Reformation, 1517 to 1648. New York: American Tract Society, 1873.
Helfferich, Tryntje. The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2009.