Ruminations On The Thirty Years War.

by Daniel Russ on January 5, 2011

The Thirty Years War was a difficult, confused and extremely bloody confrontation between a numbers of city-states in Europe. The city-state was beginning to emerge as populations in northern Europe grew and local lords gathered armies and attacked neighbors to try and expand and solidify their own power. By 1618,

Gustavus Adolphus, Leader Of The Protestant Forces.

the Hapsburgs had sided with the Holy Roman Empire to expand their own power by combining forces with the already robust armies of the Vatican, and to impose strict Roman Catholicism upon the Protestants. Ever since Martin Luther had made his stand in the early 16th century, deeply held Protestant notions of independent thinking and worship had taken hold in Bohemia. Ferdinand II, recently voted into Empire leadership by the Bohemian Diet, decided to march into Saxony, Bohemia and surrounding areas and quell a revolution that began when two representatives of the Holy Roman Empire, two imperial governors accused to violating rights of Protestants, were thusly thrown from open windows in Prague into piles of horse manure.

City-states immediately took sides. Ferdinand claimed authority over Bohemia, but the Protestant rebels chafed at the tyranny and refused to relent. Instead they openly recognized Frederick V, leader of the Protestant Union, as their ruler. Philip III, leader of the Catholic League and other Catholics in Bavaria supported the Holy Roman Empire. At the Battle of White Mountain on November 8th, 1620, a unified and disciplined Catholic League force of 20,000 infantry, cannoneers and cavalry launched a surprising frontal attack uphill at a loosely formed Bohemian rebel force of 24,000. The rebels broke and were routed and Ferdinand went into hiding.

Gustavus Adolphus came to power in Sweden, and cemented his legacy in a series of land grabbing moves at neighboring city-states on the Baltic coast. He organized his army into a series of nimble 1200 man brigades, specially trained them, and made Sweden a military power.

Albrecht Von Wallenstein created one of the world’s first private armies. His forces were the Xe corporation of their day. A strict Catholic, he supported the efforts to brutally quell the Protestants and forced Catholicism upon Europeans quite effectively. He lacked any real kingly roots but his power  unnerved

Engraving Of Swiss Pike Men

the German princes and he was removed from power in 1630. He had to be hired back at a high price. Eventually he was assassinated.

The army commanded by the Catholic League was a formidable force with blooded cavalry, well-trained pike men and musketeers, and the best artillery money could buy. They bested the Swedes who took up the Protestant cause under Christian IV. Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly was another military commander for The Catholic League. In the Battle of Dessau in April 1626, 20,000 Imperial troops crushed 12,000 Protestants when Wallenstein correctly guessed which bridge the Protestants would have to cross to bring battle. Tilly and Wallenstein positioned cannons properly and killed thousands of Protestant troops crossing the Dessau Bridge. 4000 Protestants died that day. Later in 1631 at Magdeburg, one of the most lavish cities of the Holy Roman Empire and a staunchly Lutheran population, Adolphus moved his troops there to defend them. The Holy Roman Empire’s army laid siege to the city, breached the walls with cannon fire and then sacked the city. The Imperial troops killed 25,000 people in the aftermath. Tilly and Pappenheim, the Imperial commanders, could have cared less. They felt they were killing unbelievers and were in no mortar danger for their souls at least.

The slaughter at Magdeburg called into question the Godliness of the Imperial cause. It did put the war firmly in the column of a war of power and control. The Holy Roman Empire caviled at some hermeneutic that defied their own specific fiats on worship, and they started a war, or quelled a rebellion that started the war. The Thirty Years War was incredibly bloody and it was one of the first drawn out conflicts where civilian populations were so close to the battle lines that non-combatants were often killed in the crossfire, or worse, populations of nearby towns on the losing side were put to the sword. The anomie in Protestant German city-states did not help the Protestant cause either. People want their own countries to win and create stability. This was more confusion and death for the Germans.

On September 17th, 1631 at the Battle of Breitenfeld, Adolhus had joined forces with the army under the Elector of Saxony. For the first time, the Protestants outnumbered the army of the Catholic League, 42,000 to Tilly’s 35,000. This was a battle where the infantry made a difference. Adolphus had restructured the

Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, The Imperial Commander For Much Of The Thirty Years War

formations and training of the infantry, so they could change positions swiftly, and move in more fluid, smaller and lethal forces. To the North was Gustavus, cavalry right behind a large formation of musketeers on his right flank, cavalry behind large artillery positions in the center, and musketeers on his left flank. Facing him lined up to the South were the Imperial forces under Papenheim and Tilly. Facing Gustavus’s right flank was Pappenheim directing a large cavalry force. In the Center was Tilly with a large infantry formation, and on the Imperial right flank was Furstenberg with another huge cavalry formation.

The battle began when Pappenheim commanded seven massive cavalry charges into Gustavus’s right flank. The musketeers and accompanying infantry pike men held their lines and held off each thrust. Tilly’s cavalry, on the Imperial right flank successfully routed Aolphus’ cavalry and threatened to roll up the entire Swedish line. Also, Tilly’s infantry sent Adolphus’s left flank infantry reeling. Things were not looking so good for the Protestants. However, Adolphus’ disciplined infantry pike men and strategic reserves he held until the last moment grabbed victory out of the jaws of defeat and his lines held. Reserves, disciplined and courageous showed up and held Adolphus’s crumbling left flank. In a sudden change of events, Adolphus’s cavalry counter attacked and routed Furstenberg’s cavalry. Adolphus’s center then pushed through the lines of Tilly’s infantry and Tilly’s soldier went fleeing.

Horses Will Not Charge Into A Wall Of Pikes

It was not the first major defeat of the Holy Roman Empire, but it was a telling blow. Adolphus vacated the caliginous smoke and dust of Breitenfeld, and delivered a little good news to Bohemia. For a while, they were sure that they were free to live there outside of the yoke of the Catholic Church. It didn’t last long though as the war ended 17 years later. Some say four million people died as a result of The Thirty Years War. Some estimate eight million died. At the end of the day there were over 150 different players in this confused war.

First Battle Of BreitenFeld, 9/17/1861


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 1, 2017 at 8:20 am

As a besserwisser, and nitpicker, I have some points to add, and some opinions that differ with what you wrote above.
You write about this being a war of City States. That is both true and very misleading. It was a war fought over, and with cities, but it was a war of (proto) countries within the Holy Roman Empire. Bohemia, Bavaria, Saxony and Hanover were all large dukedoms and counties (mostly the wealtiest) within the larger Empire. Most of the cities that were attacked during the war were “Free Imperial Cities”, which meant that they had all kinds of medieval rights and priviliges, but that the empire also had to protect them. The fact that the HRE (Holy Roman Empire) was either unwilling (when it was a protestant city) or unable to do so drove quite a lot of those cities to become part of those (proto)countries during and after the war.
And as a previous war had decreed that the religion of the ruler would be the religion of his country, there was in the years before the thirty-years war a lot of jockying for position on who would rule where, and with what religion. The fact that the new king of Bohemia would be Catholic was the incident that sparked the whole war. His subjects (already protestant before Luther – Jan Huss and his armies – see another of your own posts: were not amused, but the Catholics saw an opportunity to extend the Catholic holdings. And after the protestants were defeated at the White Mountain, the Catholic armies more or less went on a rampage, to bring more land, and cities, back into the Catholic fold. This provoked a reaction by the Protestant countries around the HRE. The Christian IV that you mentioned as being defeated was the Danish king. And after his defeat, and the fact that the Imperial armies came very near Swedish territory on the south shore of the Baltic, the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus came to the rescue of the Protestants. Which he did for a time financed by the French, who, although gouverned by a cardinal (Richelieu) and very much Catholic, were staunchly anti-Habsburg, and therefor pro-Sweden (even if they were protestant).
That is basically the tragedy of the whole war: every time people were having enough of it, somebody else who saw a political, or military advantage in participating in it, would then make sure it would go on.
In a way it reminds me of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the basic conflict has been hijacked by lots of external forces, in order to be able to get some political advantage, which often is not even connected to the original conflict.

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