Breitenfeld 1631

Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Breitenfeld, painting by J. Walter, 1632

Date: 17 September 1631.

Location: About 5 miles north of Leipzig on the road to Düben (Road No. 2).

War and campaign: The Thirty Years’ War; German Campaign of 1631.

Object of the action: Gustavus Adolphus and the Elector of Saxony desired to recover Leipzig from Count Tilly and defeat the Imperialist army.

Opposing sides: {a) Gustavus Adolphus commanding the Swedish and Saxon armies. (6) Count Tilly commanding the army of the Emperor and the League.

Forces engaged: (a) Swedes: 192 infantry companies; 131 cavalry companies; 54 guns. Saxons: 56 infantry companies; 39 cavalry companies; 10-20 guns. Total: 40,000. (b) Imperialists: approx. 21,000 infantry; 1 1,000 cavalry; 30 guns. Total: 32,000.

Casualties: (a) Approx. 4,000 Swedish and Saxon casualties (equally divided), (b) 7,600 Imperialists killed and wounded; 6,000 captured; a further 8,000 lost subsequently.

Result: Swedish victory leading to the virtual destruction of Tilly’s army; the salvation of German Protestantism; the emergence of Sweden as a great power.

Until the early autumn of 1631 the Swedish intervention in Germany had been handicapped by inadequate resources and by lack of German allies. But in August the Emperor’s insistence that the Elector John George should stop his precautionary arming, and the invasion of Saxony by Tilly to enforce this order, led the Elector at the last moment to throw in his lot with Gustavus Adolphus. While Tilly occupied Leipzig the Saxon army effected its junction with the Swedes, and after a historic council of war at Düben it was decided to offer Tilly battle. Tilly, although slightly inferior in numbers, and with less immediate prospect of reinforcement, was himself anxious to fight. He chose his battleground in the treeless undulating country to the north of Leipzig, on terrain which permitted the easy movement of his massive tercios, and the caracole tactics of Pappenheim’s cavalry. His army was drawn up in traditional style: a centre consisting of 14 tercios, flanked by two cavalry wings, the left under the command of Pappenheim, the right under that of Fürstenberg, with a reserve of cavalry only, behind the centre. He made no serious effort to oppose the allied army’s advance and deployment, and Gustavus was able to cross the Lober stream and draw up his army without interference. The Swedish order of battle was in complete contrast to the Imperialist: though it too placed infantry in the centre and cavalry on the wings, it was essentially drawn up in two distinct lines (while Tilly’s was not really a linear formation at all), and each line had its own reserve. Moreover, the cavalry of the wings had detachments of musketeers attached to them, trained to fight in combination with them; each of the 7 brigades of the Swedish centre was equipped with 6 light regiment-pieces, which could be served and moved by only two men. The formation of the Saxons is unknown in detail. They had little experience of fighting; and the event showed that their infantry was not to be relied on.

At about 2 pm, after almost 2 hours of preliminary cannonading, Pappenheim advanced to the attack; and a violent cavalry action developed which continued for more than 3 hours. Tilly seems from the start to have designed to outflank his enemy on both wings simultaneously, and Pappenheim made desperate efforts to turn Gustavus’s flank. He did not succeed; partly because the flexibility of the Swedish order of battle made it easy to move units to extend the line farther and farther to the right to counter the threat of envelopment; partly because he was baffled by the new Swedish style of fighting which combined musket salvos and cavalry charges in close alternation. But the Imperialists had what seemed to be decisive success on the other wing. Soon after Pappenheim began his attacks, the tercios of Tilly’s centre moved forward, protected on their left by a cavalry detachment, and accompanied on their right by the advance of their right wing under Fürstenberg. Their objective appeared to be the Swedish left wing, commanded by Gustav Horn; but when within a short distance of the enemy they suddenly inclined to their right, so that Furstenberg’s cavalry enveloped the Saxon left, and the whole force of Tilly’s infantry crashed into the Saxon centre. Taken by surprise, and hopelessly outnumbered, the Saxon foot was soon overwhelmed, and fled in panic; with the result that Horn found himself confronted with two-thirds of Tilly’s army on his now-exposed flank. The time w^as now about 4 pm, and the Imperialists considered the victory as good as won: Horn had about 3,500 cavalry and musketeers to oppose some 18,000 foot and 5,000 horse. However, their shouts oi ‘Victoria!’ were premature. The tercios were still in some disarray after their victory over the Saxons, and time was required to bring them to bear on their new objective. But time was not allowed them. It happened that the cavalry which had covered the left flank of their advance had contrived to put itself between the tercios and the Swedes. Horn, who had immediately realised that his only hope of survival lay in attack, seized this opportunity. He threw himself on the Imperialist cavalry with every man at his disposal; he drove them back into the ranks of the tercios; and so staved off the impending onslaught. He thereby gained time to bring up considerable reinforcements-from his reserve, from the second line, and presently from the other wing: the handy size and high training of the Swedish units made it possible (as it would not have been to Tilly’s formations) to transfer units swiftly and in good order from one part of the field to the other. For the first time in modern warfare, in fact, Horn formed front to his flank in the heat of battle. The Imperialists had originally attacked with the sun and the wind behind them: important advantages, for after the long drought the battlefield was darkened with clouds of dust. But now the wind shifted to the north-west and blew directly in the faces of the tercios. Moreover, as more and more Swedish reinforcements came to Horn’s assistance, he was able gradually to compress his enemies within an arc which was drawn steadily tighter: the tercios were never given a breathing-space in which to get themselves regrouped in an orderly manner; they were taken aback by the Swedish combination of pike and salvo, cavalry and musketeer; their very numbers became a fatal handicap, since they became so tightly packed together that they could not use their pikes effectively. By 6 pm, despite fierce resistance, Tilly’s right and centre was facing total disaster, and Tilly himself was wounded and had to be escorted from the field. At the same time, Pappenheim’s resistance broke on the other wing. The resilience of the Swedish defence had finally worn his cavalry out, and when at last Gustavus passed to the attack Pappenheim was swept from the field. By this time the Imperialist wings were separated by a broad belt of country, with the Imperialist artillery hopelessly isolated in between them. The Swedish centre now advanced, took the Imperialist guns and turned them on the wreckage of the tercios. The remnants of 4 Imperialist regiments, escaping from the carnage on the right, made a last stand at sunset on a wooded hillock to the rear of Tilly’s original position. They were cut down to the last man; but their resistance probably facilitated the escape of a group of 4 tercios and 4 cavalry regiments which had got themselves isolated from the battle on the wrong side of Göbschelwitz, and had prudently waited there for further orders which never arrived. They capitulated later in Leipzig.

The political effects of Breitenfeld are writ large over the subsequent history of Europe: it was one of the battles which seem really to have changed the course of history. Its significance in the history of the art of war is scarcely less. Breitenfeld marked the definitive triumph of the new linear tactics, and the end of the old massive systems which had dominated Europe since the days of the Swiss column: in this respect, Rocroi was no more than a superfluous epilogue. Victory was won by a better peace-time organisation of cadres, better training, superior fire-power, an effectiveness in the combination of arms much in advance of that offered by any contemporary, the initiative and resource of subordinate commanders, and the aptitude of Gustavus’s tactical innovations to attack no less than to defence. Gustavus, while intensifying missile shock by the device of the salvo and the invention of really effective light guns (the ‘regiment-pieces’ had all the mythical virtues traditionally associated with the now-discarded ‘leather guns’, and more), never forgot that a decision can hardly be won by missile weapons alone; and he was the last great commander to rehabilitate the pike, and make it once more an offensive weapon. The linear formation of Maurice of Orange had been effective only in defence – hence the survival of the rival Spanish school which relied on mass and depth – and contemporaries were still divided on its merits. Gustavus transformed it in such a way as to silence all controversy: the best commentary on Breitenfeld is that at Lützen Wallenstein attempted to imitate the Swedish order of battle and the Swedish tactics.

Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim, (1594–1632)

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