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The savage European conflict known to history as the Thirty Years’ War was in its 13th year. For seven months the Protestant city of Magdeburg, in northern Germany, had been under siege by Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Empire. Then, on the morning of May 20, 1631, the Imperial besiegers launched their final, and this time successful, assault. It would trigger the worst massacre of the war.

From the east they rushed the bastion guarding the bridgeworks over the Elbe River. Through the outlying suburbs, razed and gutted with trenchworks, they pressed on to the foot of the city’s north wall, where one of the towers guarding the gate had crumbled under relentless Imperial cannon fire. Caught in the middle of morning prayers, the handful of Protestant sentries posted there were quickly dispatched. The remaining defenders, outnumbered more than 10-to-1, surrendered or died — usually both — as 25,000 Holy Roman Empire troops stormed into the city.

Ever since the Imperial cavalry general Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim had been sent to besiege the Lutheran-dominated city in November 1630, the hard-bitten mercenaries who made up the bulk of his army had lain in the mud and filth of the trenches outside Magdeburg, dreaming of the loot within. Now they filled the streets. Drunken pikemen and musketeers dragged ill-gotten plunder and captive women, and cuirassiers plunged their chargers through shop windows and over fleeing burghers, while officers vainly tried to marshal their uncontrollable men. Drumbeats, gunshots, pleading and screams resounded through the streets, accompanied, inevitably, by the crackle of flames.

At noon some 20 fires blazed up almost simultaneously. Within hours they were consuming the city. It was all the Imperial commanders could do to herd soldiers and citizenry alike beyond the walls; as it was, large numbers were cut off and perished as the city was incinerated blocks at a time. Of Magdeburg’s 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived — mostly women spirited off to the Imperial camp before the onset of destruction. In their anguish, they asked each other only one question: Why had their deliverer not come? Where was the king of Sweden, the ‘Lion of the North’? Where was Gustavus Adolphus?

Some 120 miles to the east, at Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, the Swedish king sat mired in fruitless entreaty. His paltry force of peasants had driven an Imperial army into the city and successfully taken it days before. He was poised to plunge cross-country to the aid of Magdeburg. All that prevented him from doing so, and saving Germany, was the Germans themselves.

Thirteen years into the Thirty Years’ War, only losers remained on the field of northern Germany. The Holy Roman Empire, if nominally united by force, was, in fact, irrevocably sundered, its German princes and potentates hopelessly divided into hostile camps. The rebellious Lutherans and Calvinists of the Protestant Union had lost nearly everything; their counterparts in the Catholic League had lost their independence to Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II. Victorious Imperial General Albrecht von Wallenstein had claimed 66 estates and a duchy as his personal spoils of war and had become the most powerful man in Germany — too powerful for the comfort of the emperor, who had cashiered him. Wallenstein’s subordinate, Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, now placed in overall command of the army of the Catholic League, found himself reluctantly saddled with Wallenstein’s nefarious mercenaries as well. Ferdinand himself, his grip on the empire finally secure, had suddenly grown too strong for the balance of European power. What had begun as a minor religious struggle had become a European war of international proportions, in which Germany would ultimately lose a third of her population, and in some areas more than half.

From Sweden, King Gustavus II Adolphus had viewed with apprehension the Catholic expansion in Germany, especially along the coast of the Baltic, which he aspired to make a Swedish lake. Born on December 9, 1594, Gustavus Adolphus had taken full part in Swedish affairs and had helped lead the armies of his father, Karl IX. He had studied the doctrines of Maurice of Nassau, the Dutch general who had fought the Spanish to a standstill in the long struggle for his country’s independence. In that age, infantry still relied on the pike as much as on gunpowder. Cavalry, on the other hand, had grown so enamored of the gun that, except for its heavy armor, it little resembled the hard-charging knights of old. In an age dominated by siege warfare, pike formations and mercenary armies, Maurice favored native-born conscripts fighting a war of movement and firepower.

Upon Karl’s death, 16-year-old Gustavus had inherited a nascent Swedish militia of woodsmen and peasants — and a war with Poland. Following the example of Maurice, he had formed the militia into the hard core of what was to become Europe’s most formidable army, defeating Poland, Denmark and Russia in succession.

The rise of Swedish power had not gone unnoticed in the south. Ferdinand had, in fact, sent aid to the Poles to forestall the Swedish threat. But France’s prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, preferred a Germany of bickering Protestants to one of Catholics united under the Hapsburgs, and countered with an offer of truce and financial backing for the Swedes. By 1630, Gustavus was ready to invade Germany. The ‘Swedish phase’ of the Thirty Years’ War had begun.

In July, he crossed the Baltic with 13,000 men, mostly native Swedes with a complement of Scottish and Irish mercenaries, but a puny force with which to take on the 100,000 soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire. Gustavus, as the self-styled ‘Protector of Protestantism,’ expected to fill his ranks with grateful Germans. But the presence of another army, even a friendly one, in those days when all armies lived off the land — that is to say, by looting — did not thrill his hosts. Although Gustavus kept his men on a tight rein, the Saxons and the Brandenburgers remained as suspicious of him as of their emperor, and were determined to remain independent of both. ‘They know not whether they would be Lutheran or popish, imperialist or German, slave or free,’ fumed Gustavus. Their de facto leader, the Saxon Elector Johann Georg I, avoided commitment to Gustavus, sought a settlement with Ferdinand, and set about raising an army of his own.

Meanwhile, Count Tilly, his troops quartered in the Oder Valley, also found himself on unfriendly ground. Wallenstein, now the landlord of that part of Germany, not only refused to feed and shelter his former army but also threatened to ally with the Swedes. The Catholic forces would not survive another winter where they were. The 72-year-old Tilly had grown exceedingly cautious and indecisive, but at the urging of his heavy cavalry commander, Count Pappenheim, he settled on laying siege to Magdeburg, the prosperous fortress city that commanded the Elbe River and had so far resisted Imperial domination.

To champion Magdeburg would prove Gustavus’ sincerity and give him a strategic base, but without German aid he could do little. He sent Hessian Colonel Dietrich von Falkenberg with orders to hold the city until the main Swedish force could relieve him. Falkenberg found it easier to strengthen the city’s fortifications than its fortitude. The mixed population of Lutherans and Catholics, uncertain whether his presence would prevent or invite attack, included a large contingent of Imperial sympathizers. ‘There is little wisdom here, we live from day to day,’ reported the colonel to the king. With Gustavus still loose on the field, Tilly, who had doubts that Magdeburg could be taken, sent Pappenheim to conduct the siege. Bold, dashing and wholly unsuited to the slow reduction of fortifications, Pappenheim set about knocking off the city’s outlying redoubts one by one.

As the Imperial noose tightened, Falkenberg set fire to the suburbs, destroyed the bridge over the Elbe and withdrew the defenders behind the city walls. The citizens, frantic to avoid the sacking that inevitably followed a city’s capture, began to urge surrender.

Johann Georg still refused to back Gustavus, who in fact was afraid to come to Magdeburg’s aid with the Saxon army jeopardizing his rear. Tilly arrived outside the city walls, unaware of his foe’s predicament. When Gustavus tried to distract him by capturing Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, Tilly gave Magdeburg’s city council a choice: unconditional surrender or total destruction.

Despite Falkenberg’s efforts, the council seemed ready to yield. But on the morning of May 20, 1631, with Tilly’s messenger within the walls awaiting an answer, the Imperialists attacked. Some said the treachery was Tilly’s; others said that Pappenheim, afraid the city might avoid a sack, attacked on his own. In any event, the surprise was total. Falkenberg, killed in the first moments, did not live to see the burghers’ fears borne out beyond their worst nightmares.

It took three days for Magdeburg to burn itself out, leaving only a blistered, blackened wasteland where the city had stood. To make way for Tilly’s grand entrance, 6,000 bodies were dumped into the Elbe; it took two more weeks to clear the rest of the city of corpses, which choked the river for miles downstream. By then, Tilly had ceremoniously renamed the newly Catholicized city Marienburg, but he knew its destruction would haunt him. ‘Our danger has no end, for the Protestant Estates will without doubt be only strengthened in their hatred by this,’ he stated. He also realized that Magdeburg’s destruction deprived him of the strategic base — his ulterior reason for trying to take the city in the first place.

For Johann Georg, pinned between Tilly’s rapacious mercenaries and Gustavus’ invaders, the time had come to choose sides. With his source of provisions gone up in smoke, Tilly now had little option but to turn east, into Saxony. At the end of August, he invaded with 36,000 men. On September 11, Johann Georg signed a treaty of alliance with Gustavus. The new allies got off to an inauspicious start. Facing the same harsh fate suffered by Magdeburg, Leipzig surrendered to Tilly on September 15. Barely had the Imperial troops begun to loot the city, however, when word came that as many as 45,000 men of the combined Swedish-Saxon army were advancing down the road from Dben.

The cautious Tilly, with reinforcements gathering in the south and nothing to gain by battle, probably would have settled for a siege. Pappenheim, however, rode out seeking contact. Late on the evening of September 16, word came back that he had found it — that he was, in fact, unable to safely withdraw. Gustavus’ dispatches make no mention of action that night; whether Tilly believed Pappenheim or not, he was obliged to support him.

September 17 dawned misty and muggy. ‘In the gray of morning,’ wrote Gustavus, ‘I ordered the bugles to sound the march, and as between us and Leipsic [sic] there were no woods, I deployed the army into battle order and marched toward that city. After an hour and a half’s march, we saw the enemy’s vanguard with artillery on a hill in our front, and behind it the bulk of his army.’

It was about 9 a.m. The Swedes and their Saxon allies had reached the Lober River, today an inconsequential brook but then an obstacle of some import, running east-west across the vast Leipzig plain. A little more than a mile away, on a brow of slightly rising ground between the villages of Seehausen and Breitenfeld (‘wide field’), the morning sun rose over the 36,000 men of the Imperial army: a wall of pikes, muskets, cannons and horseflesh fully 2 1/4 miles from end to end.

Fronted with cannons and flanked with heavy cavalry, the Imperial forces stood in the Spanish fashion, in 17 enormous battalions of up to 2,000 men each — each a bristling battle square of pikemen protected by small detachments of musketeers at the corners. These squares were Macedonian phalanxes for the gunpowder age, mobile fortresses of flesh and steel that had lumbered roughshod over Europe and made the Hapsburgs masters of half the known world. They fully expected to crush the Swedes by the sheer weight of their forces, as they had all enemies before them. Cheers of ‘Father Tilly!’ and ‘Jesu-Maria!’ followed the Imperial general as he rode down the line on his famous white charger.

The Swedes and Saxons formed columns to ford the Lober. Pappenheim’s horsemen did what they could to disrupt the crossing, but soon fell back to the Imperial army’s left flank, out of the way of the Imperial cannons. Tilly had artillery pieces, the lighter ones in front center and the heaviest on the center right, where they covered the allied advance. The Swedes and Saxons emerged from the Lober onto the Breitenfeld plain under a pall of black powder smoke and dust, out of which poured a slow but steady rain of heavy cannon balls.

On the left, Johann Georg’s well-equipped Saxons lined up in gleaming armor and resplendent accouterments. ‘A cheerful and beautiful company to see,’ remarked Gustavus, with markedly little comment on their fighting ability. (For his part, Johann Georg described the Swedes as ‘not nearly as bad as we were led to believe.’)

Gustavus had spent his French money on arms and training rather than finery; his men were not so richly caparisoned. They had none of the looted ornaments that decorated the Imperial ranks. They wore uniforms only in that their outfits were cut from the same cloth; as a recognition sign, they stuck green branches in their hats and helmets. Gustavus himself went without armor (the heavy cuirass bothered an old musket-ball wound) and wore only his customary buff leather coat and a green feather in his hat.

The Swedes were deployed not in squares but in formations developed by their king to make up for his smaller numbers. Infantrymen — predominantly musketeers — were spread just six deep, with light cavalry and artillery interspersed among them instead of concentrated at key points in the line. To Tilly and his veterans these brigades, as Gustavus called them, must have seemed flimsy compared to their own massive squares. But Gustavus put his faith in muskets protected by pikes, not pikes protected by muskets.

To avoid the acrid clouds of dust and smoke coming off the Imperial ranks, Gustavus shifted his entire line to his right. It was a dangerous move that exposed his weakest flank — the left, manned by the Saxons and already bearing the brunt of the Imperial artillery barrage — to possible attack.

Tilly, reluctant to attack prematurely, was content to let his cannons tear up the enemy ranks. The thinly spread Swedish brigades, however, offered little impediment to the passage of cannon balls, and by noon the Swedes’ guns were ready to reply.

Gustavus and his artillery commander, Lennart Torstensson, had cut down the number of gun types in order to simplify and increase production. In addition to the usual battery of 24-pounder field guns, they had furnished each regiment with a pair of 4-pounders, useless against city walls but quite sufficient as anti-personnel weapons in the field. To increase their rate of fire, the Swedes had come up with the first artillery shell — a wooden case wired to the shot — and had drilled their gun crews relentlessly. Now it paid off. The Swedish gunners began to return fire three times more quickly than the Imperials.

The Imperial battle squares were simply too big to miss, and the effect on them was disastrous. The forward ranks took the brunt of it, but any ball passing through a man in front still had 10 or 12 more behind him to hit, and for every pikeman who went down there fell a 30-foot iron-tipped pike to trip and impale his mates.

The Imperialists faced the punishing fire for 2 1/2 hours. Finally, Pappenheim had had enough. Gustavus’ move to the right threatened his left; the impatient cavalry commander would not sit still to be outflanked. Moreover, a family legend had it that a Pappenheim would save Germany by slaying an invading king. Gottfried Heinrich meant to make good that prophecy, with or without orders from Tilly.

With his 5,000 crack cuirassiers, he circled wide to the left, keeping just outside musket range, intending to come in behind the Swedish line and carry all before him in a single shattering blow. By riding down musketeers and exposing the helpless pikemen to fire before the two could support each other, such a move stood a good chance of taking even a heavy infantry square by storm.

Perhaps Tilly understood Swedish tactics better than Pappenheim gave him credit for. Seeing his impetuous cavalry leader ride out, the Imperial general muttered, ‘This fellow will rob me of my honor and reputation, and the emperor of his lands and people.’ Nevertheless, while Pappenheim occupied the Swedes, Tilly set about striking their weakest point — their Saxon allies.

The massive Imperial squares turned ponderously oblique right and began to move forward; the light cavalry on their right made straight for the Saxon lines. As the Croatian horsemen, hardened by generations of conflict with their neighbors in the Turkish empire, emerged screaming from under the dust and smoke, Johann Georg’s green recruits began to waver. The Saxons had barely held up under the pounding of the Imperial cannons; faced with the oncoming mass of Tilly’s veterans, they broke with barely a shot fired. Johann Georg himself was said not to have reined in until he was 15 miles away; some of his cavalry found enough courage to sack the helpless Swedish baggage wagons before following him.

It was about 4 p.m., and the tide had turned against the Swedes. Tilly now had half again as many men. Poised on the Swedish left flank, swinging the captured Saxon cannons around to fire down the length of the enemy line, and with the Croatians sweeping around to take the enemy in the rear, Tilly had all but won the battle. If Pappenheim’s impetuous charge had succeeded, he had won. The prospect of achieving a double envelopment — the dream and nightmare of all generals since Hannibal annihilated the Roman legions at Cannae — presented itself to the Imperial commander. It was a brilliant maneuver, one that few other generals could have gotten out of his large battle squares. (In fact, one of Tilly’s battalions had moved so far out in pursuit of the Saxons that it was out of the fight.)

On the far side of the field, however, things were not all going Pappenheim’s way. Behind the thin Swedish brigades, up to now hidden from Pappenheim, stood a second echelon — a reserve of musketeers and cavalry. The Imperialists had charged not into the Swedes’ rear but between their ranks — and into a cross-fire.

For the cuirassiers, it was too late to back out. They fancied themselves the last vestiges of medieval chivalry, and indeed Pappenheim’s favorite tactic — a full-speed gallop with sword and lance — might have carried the day. But as an Imperial officer, he adhered to Imperial doctrine.

The cuirassiers’ foremost ranks came within range, stopped and drew not swords but wheel lock pistols. Loosing a ragged volley, they wheeled about on their big German chargers in a maneuver known as the caracole, and rode to the rear to make room for the next in line to fire.

As with Tilly’s cannon fire, however, most of the fusillade passed harmlessly through the Swedish ranks. Gustavus’ musketeers then knelt, revealing a second rank crouching over them, and a third standing behind them, all leveling advanced snap locks and wheel lock muskets. The cannoneers, meanwhile, had wheeled their light guns completely around; packed full of grapeshot, they amounted to huge shotguns.

A thunderous volley slashed through Pappenheim’s cuirassiers, a murderous sleet of grapeshot and 20mm musket balls that cut down horses and horsemen alike without regard for rank or armor. While the Imperialists still reeled from the impact, the Swedish musketeers rotated rearward with clockwork precision, using the shortened reloading drill and paper cartridges that their king had provided for them, even as the next ranks moved up to maintain the fire.

To their credit, the Imperialist troopers carried through with the caracole seven times, even while their comrades tumbled screaming from the saddle and their horses tripped over the broken remains of the fallen. Finally, the Swedish cavalry judged the time right to put the determined Imperialists out of their misery, and they countercharged.

Gustavus had not settled for the polite caracole. On their wiry mountain ponies, his men charged three deep and all out. As the range closed, the first and possibly second ranks had time for one shot each. Then it was naked steel they drew, as they crashed onto Pappenheim’s stunned cavaliers.

Beneath the cut and slash of gunfire and cavalry countercharge, the Imperial attack came apart. Far beyond retreating to their own lines, the survivors fled the field altogether. Pursuing cavalry would have cut them to pieces. Gustavus, however, ordered his horsemen back into line. Pappenheim had removed himself as a threat, but the Swedes were not out of danger. Most of Gustavus’ troops, in fact, were effectively out of the fight.

On the far side of the field, the greater part of the Imperial army stood poised to concentrate its attack on the very end of the Swedish line. Had that line been composed of ponderous infantry squares, lined up in each others’ way, Gustavus would have had no hope of extricating his men from the ensuing disaster. But this was his moment, and he knew it. Now he would prove the superiority of the brigade over the battalion.

On the left, his reserves had thrown back Tilly’s horsemen much as they had Pappenheim’s. Now they formed a new line, at right angles to their own front ranks, pouring into the ditch along the Dben road and blocking the Imperial advance. The lines had pivoted 90 degrees, from roughly east-west to north-south, with the road running down between them.

While his reserve troops held Tilly at bay, Gustavus put his right flank into motion. With their battle cry ‘God with us!’ the brigades swung across the field like a cracking whip, the line so long that their extreme right ended up entirely across the field, charging down the former enemy line until they came upon the Imperial field guns still in position at the far end.

The 30 or more horses required to move each cannon had gone to the Imperial rear before the start of battle; the big guns were more or less immobile, still facing onto the position formerly held by Johann Georg’s Saxons — and now occupied by Tilly’s squares. Making short work of the Imperial gunners, the Swedes quickly turned the guns loose on their former owners, sending 24-pound balls tearing great bloody swaths down the length of the Imperial lines. Meanwhile, Torstensson turned his own guns to bear. Swedish musketeers moved up to blast the enemy in the face, and Swedish cavalry closed in on both sides to hold their targets in place.

The reversal was swift and complete. Suddenly it was Tilly who was enveloped, and cut off from Leipzig as well. In those ranks where so recently had rung cries of ‘Victoria,’ men now found themselves in a trap. The Imperialists, too disorganized to attack, too disciplined to run, could only stand and be cut down. The ‘wide field’ had become a Cannae after all.

Exposed to the blowtorch of close-range Swedish fire, the stately Imperial squares came apart like melting steel, fragments streaming away in retreat, slumping in defeat. Mercenaries always know when to quit; the survivors of Tilly’s now outmoded strategy could be thankful that ‘Magdeburg quarter’ had not yet become the Protestant battle cry.

By 6 p.m. it was all over. Gustavus, who had been in the forefront of the battle all day, dismounted and led his troops in prayer. His army had lost less than 3,000 men, mostly to the opening cannon barrage.

Tilly himself, with a shattered arm and wounds to his chest and neck, barely escaped from the ring of Swedish fire, at one point having to cut his way free of more than a dozen enemy soldiers. He made it back to Leipzig with about four regiments, not enough manpower to hold the city. The next morning, the Imperialists continued their retreat, linking up with Pappenheim and the wayward infantry square, which by removing itself from the battle had escaped destruction. They left behind them nearly 100 battle flags, all their cannons, and 7,000 dead. As a further insult, the 6,000 captured Imperialists, true to their mercenary heritage, promptly enlisted in the Swedish army. Gustavus marched into Leipzig stronger than ever.

By his military genius, Gustavus saved Germany from Hapsburg domination. The city of Dresden proclaimed September 17 henceforth a holiday. The Battle of Breitenfeld, a victory of movement and firepower over weight of formation, has been called the first battle of the modern age, and Gustavus Adolphus has been hailed as the father of modern warfare. His tactics were still in use by John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, 70 years later. But in a war of unmatched brutality, Gustavus’ conduct and noble purpose were his most lasting legacy.

Some two centuries after Catholic and Protestant Christians had slaughtered one another in the Battle of Breitenfeld, a memorial was erected on the battlefield, with a simple inscription: ‘Freedom of belief for all the world.’

This article was written by Don Hollway and originally published in the February 1996 issue of Military History.

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