Siege of Alte Feste, (August 24-September 18, 1632)

The battle at the Alte Veste, 31 August to 4 September 1632

The Alte Veste

Wallenstein had already won round one of the contest by the time his army came face to face with the Swedes outside Nuremberg. His move against the Saxons had not only covered his own rear by driving them out of Bohemia, but had also brought Gustavus hurrying northwards to counter the threat to his ally. Wallenstein had not fallen into the trap of making a hasty and ill-prepared foray with an insufficient number of men in an attempt to relieve Bavaria, but Gustavus had walked right into its counterpart. He had neither moved fast enough to evade Wallenstein, nor brought sufficient forces to fight him. Unable to reach Saxony and join up with Arnim’s army, nor to prevent the Bavarians joining up with the Imperialists, he found himself isolated and outnum- bered by more than two to one. According to Guthrie, Gustavus had 18,500 men to Wallenstein’s 41,000, although others have said 48,000, while Wallenstein himself referred to 40,000 men before the Bavarians reached him and 50,000 thereafter. Whatever the precise numbers, the disparity was far too great for Gustavus to contemplate a battle, and instead he was forced to run for cover.

Nevertheless it was only round one, and there was a long way to go before the final bell. Gustavus had at least found himself a strong defensive position. Nuremberg was sympathetic, well provisioned and already fortified, and he had arrived in time to extend and strengthen the protective earthworks around the city and his army. Wallenstein would have preferred to catch him in the open where he could be forced to battle, but he was probably not surprised by the situation he found. Despite his superior numbers he also knew that there was little chance of quick success by a direct attack on the Swedish camp.

Experience had repeatedly shown that relatively small garrisons in well- fortified cities could hold off full-scale armies for prolonged periods, Stralsund and Magdeburg being two prominent examples. Positions defended by a force the size of the Swedish army would be still more difficult and costly in terms of attackers’ lives to take by storm. Tilly had withdrawn rather than make such an attempt against Gustavus’s camp a year earlier at Werben, while Gustavus himself had recently marched impotently away from the fortifications of Ingolstadt and Regensburg. On the other hand Wallenstein could not simply lay siege to Nuremberg and the Swedish camp. He knew that Gustavus would send for reinforcements, but he did not know from which direction or in what strength they would come, nor how long they would take to arrive. History offered too many examples of besieging forces defeated by surprise attacks from the rear for him to make such a simple error.

Wallenstein’s answer was to build a heavily defended encampment of his own, from which he would be equally safe from attack while he watched and waited. Gustavus could not escape until he had accumulated reinforcements, but he would then have to stand and fight, or else retreat ignominiously back to Saxony with the Imperialist army hard on his heels, and he might well be driven back to his Baltic base. Wallenstein also had another reason to be patient. Storming the camp and defeating Gustavus’s relatively small army, even were it possible, would not be final. The king himself would probably escape – generals usually did – to rally the much larger balance of his forces and fight again. Waiting for him to bring in his reinforcements offered the chance of inflicting a much more decisive defeat, particularly as he would then be able to force Gustavus to take the initiative simply by staying behind his own defences. In the meantime the spectacle of the Swedish king trapped at Nuremberg could cause second thoughts among some of his more uncertain recent allies.

Wallenstein chose his position carefully. The River Rednitz flows northwards past Nuremberg four to five miles west of the city centre, and although it is not large it provided protection for the camp which he established beyond it. The road from Nuremberg to Rothenburg crossed the site, running due west somewhat above and parallel to a tributary river, the Bibert, from which the land rises gradually to a ridge which became the southern boundary. At one end of this ridge a small hill, the Hainberg, overlooks the Rednitz, while at the other a strong artillery fortress was established on the high ground of the Petershöhe, outside the main defences and standing above the more open territory to the west. From the Bibert valley the land rises higher to the north, culminating in a heavily wooded ridge, beyond which the ground falls away steeply again. Here the perimeter ran just short of the crest, west to east and on to the Weinberg, a hill forming the end of the ridge a little way back from the Rednitz. Strong defensive outworks were constructed at the top, including another substantial artillery battery as well as forti- fications around the Alte Veste (Old Fortress), a ruined medieval castle at the summit from which the whole camp takes its name.

Much more than usual is known about this camp, because after the armies had moved away the Nuremberg authorities commissioned cartographers to make a detailed plan, which is still in the archives. Perhaps the most striking thing about the layout is its size, which contrasts sharply with the usual image of such camps as small and hopelessly overcrowded. Although not neatly rectangular the enclosure was some three miles long, north to south along the Rednitz, and a mile and a half wide, with ten miles of perimeter fortifications enclosing an area of almost four square miles. To put this in perspective, this is approximately half the area inside the modern city of Nuremberg’s ring road, within which lives most of its population of half a million. Looked at in another way, the three or four villages which were inside Wallenstein’s camp have grown into the spacious modern communities of Zirndorf and Oberasbach, with a combined population of 44,000, the great majority of whom live inside the camp area, despite which a significant part of it is still open farmland. For two months in 1632 the camp housed something like this number of soldiers, together with a similar number of dependants and camp followers, as well as a great many horses, so that while it was no doubt a bustling place it was probably not unmanageably congested. The Rednitz, the Bibert and another stream, the Asbach, provided water, while for most of the time the camp was not besieged so that there was relatively free access to the country- side beyond.

The standard construction method for the fortifications was to drive in large stakes and weave a six-foot-high fence from saplings and the smaller branches of felled trees. Immediately outside this a ditch was dug, the earth from which was piled up against the front of the fence, while more stakes with their ends sharpened into spikes were driven into the bottom. Inside the fence a step was built to provide a platform for the musketeers, enabling them to fire over the top but to reload in relative safety at the lower level. A local historian has calculated that the ten-mile perimeter would have required the felling of 13,000 trees and the excavation of 64,000 cubic metres of earth (about 80,000 tonnes), and the whole task is said to have been completed in three days. Formidable though this sounds, with some 40,000 men available it reduces to two tonnes of earth per man and one tree between three, without allowing for women and boys pressed into service for the work. Once finished, the fortifications on the north and east sides supplemented the already strong natural defences provided by the steep wooded slope and the River Rednitz respectively, and while the ridge to the south was somewhat less daunting it was still challenging enough for an attacking force. Only to the west were the fortifications largely unsupported by nature, but this weakest side was furthest from Gustavus’s position in Nuremberg, while from the top of the Alte Veste not only the city and the Swedish camp but also the entire countryside around could be seen.

When the digging and building were complete the long wait began. Outside the camps patrols probed, foraged, escorted their own supply trains or attempted to seize those of their opponents, and they skirmished from time to time. Although the Swedes had some significant successes the Imperialists were in the stronger position, not only because of their greater numbers at Nuremberg but also as a result of their hold on much of the surrounding territory. Roads were crucial both for supplying the camps and for bringing up relief forces, but they were few and poor, and Wallenstein set out to control them. Strategic towns and castles along most of the routes radiating out from Nuremberg were occupied, and although their garrisons were not strong enough to prevent reinforcements from eventually reaching Gustavus they considerably hampered his movements of men and supplies in the meantime. Nor was the attempt to blockade the Swedish camp completely successful, but its effect was cumulative in reducing the availability of food and fodder for the troops and for the city. Wallenstein himself remained busy, not only as general of the army on the spot but also as generalissimo responsible for the Imperial forces in all other theatres of war, in addition to which he found time for his own lands, sending out a stream of enquiries and instructions to his governors. Maximilian fretted and criticised the military inactivity as the summer wore on, but Wallenstein knew what he was trying to achieve, and he had the last word.

The waiting took its toll on both sides. Disease was endemic in army camps of the time, even ones as spaciously constructed and relatively well supplied as Wallenstein’s, but he was at least able to move some of the sick out to recuperate elsewhere, helping to limit the spread of infection in his camp. Conditions for the Swedish army were worse, as although Nuremberg was well provisioned at the outset it could not feed so many for so long, and the blockade soon started to pinch. Soldiers and their dependants fell sick and died. Horses died or were slaughtered, although mostly draught animals rather than cavalry mounts. The citizens, also besieged, suffered most of all, both from disease and from hunger, as they took second place to the troops in the queue for food. According to the Theatrum Europaeum 29,406 people died in Nuremberg during 1632, many times more than in a normal year, indicating the scale of their tribulation.

During this time reinforcements were assembling. Wallenstein brought in some himself, but the Swedes were busily gathering all their avail- able forces, principally from the Rhine and southern Germany. Count Axel Oxenstierna, the Swedish chancellor and Gustavus’s confidant, headed the operation, slowly but surely gathering together a reported 30,000 men before starting to move on Nuremberg in the latter part of August. It has been suggested that Wallenstein could have intercepted this army, but this is an unrealistic view. Intelligence was poor and armies had been known to slip past one another, so that interception was by no means certain, as demonstrated by Gustavus’s own recent failure to catch the Bavarian army. Moreover had Wallenstein moved to meet the reinforcements the king would have been able to follow and to attack him from the rear as they engaged him from the front. The general was not inclined to such risky undertakings, and he preferred to confront the full Swedish force from the strength of his carefully prepared  position.

When all were assembled they constituted the largest armies to face one another during the Thirty Years War, estimated to number around 45,000 on each side, although Gustavus had significantly more cavalry and correspondingly fewer infantry than Wallenstein. Both sides also had a formidable array of guns, but the Swedes had the larger number, having seized many in Munich which had been captured by the Bavarians earlier in the war. Still Wallenstein made no move, but Gustavus did not have the option of blockading him until he was forced into the field to offer battle. His men in Nuremberg were already far too short of supplies, and the arrival of 30,000 reinforcements had made the position still more critical. As Wallenstein had anticipated, he was forced to take the initiative, and quickly. Oxenstierna’s relief army arrived on 27 August, but they were granted only three days respite after their long march before being ordered into action. 9

Gustavus had had six weeks to study Wallenstein’s finished camp, and given his habit of carrying out often risky reconnaissances personally it would be surprising if he had not looked at it very closely. He will have known the western side to be the weakest, but to attack from that direction involved a long march around the Imperialist  encampment, particularly difficult for the artillery over poor roads, and with his columns at constant risk from sallies out of the defences. The alternatives were little better, as the other three sides of the camp had stronger natural defences, and thus Gustavus found himself in the same position as Wallenstein almost two months before, facing a well-prepared fortification occupied by a large army and with no obvious way of attacking it successfully.

Hence Gustavus’s first move can be seen more as a probe for weak- nesses than as an all-out attack. Early on 31 August 1632 the Swedish forces moved out of their encampments and took up position some distance back from the east bank of the River Rednitz, opposite the eastern defences of the Imperialist camp. The whole army was then drawn up in battle array in what amounted to a challenge to Wallenstein to come out and fight. It was a challenge which no competent general would have accepted, as it would have meant leaving a superior defensive position, crossing the river under Swedish gunfire, and then fighting with the river behind cutting off the line of retreat. Later in the day Gustavus moved his troops up closer and began to build emplacements for his guns in positions where they could fire right into the Imperialist camp. Wallenstein sought to hinder this both with his own artillery and with sallies from his defences, so that some skirmishing took place, in course of which one of the Swedish generals, Johan Banér, was severely wounded by a musket ball. Dusk brought this action to an end, but during the night the Swedes installed their heavy guns in the prepared batteries ready for the morning.

The following day, 1 September, opened with an artillery battle, and it was soon clear that the better-equipped Swedes had the advantage. Wallenstein countered this by moving his own guns back from the perimeter to new positions in which they were out of effective range of the Swedish batteries but still able to strike at troops attempting to cross the river. The Swedes then bombarded the camp for much of the day in an attempt to drive the Imperialists out, but Wallenstein’s men and guns were well dug in and survived with little serious loss. More probing and skirmishing followed, but by evening it was clear to Gustavus that the fortifications were too strong and well defended to be taken by storm across the river, so he broke off the action.

At dawn on 2 September Wallenstein was probably not surprised to find that the Swedish army had moved during the night. Gustavus had marched four miles north to Fürth, where he had been able to cross the Rednitz and draw up his forces in defensive array in case of any counter-attack. Wallenstein assumed that his intention was to move on around the Imperialist camp in order to attack from the west, and he made his own preparations accordingly. This time he was ready to give battle, both because his weaker defences on this side made it advisable and also because the ground here was to his advantage. According to the contemporary Nuremberg plan he arranged his forces on a north-south line in front of the southern section of his camp, with the left (south) flank secured by the high ground of the Petershöhe and its artillery fortress, and the right by the Bibert river. A smaller artillery fort outside the perimeter was included in this line, while a third battery inside the camp was so placed as to be able to fire between or over the Imperialist formations. Cavalry were stationed to the left on the Petershöhe, as well as within the perimeter ready to emerge where needed, while the main infantry reserve was also kept behind the defences. This was a strong position, as the ground, although not steep, slopes steadily upwards towards the camp, while both wings were well secured and the perimeter fortifications provided shelter for an orderly retreat should it be required. However the historians of the Swedish General Staff show a different configuration, with the Imperialist army arrayed on an east-west line above the south bank of the River Bibert, and with its right flank on the camp defences. It is possible that both are correct. Wallenstein may well have stationed an advance guard along the Bibert in order to hamper a Swedish crossing, or to threaten their flank should they have attempted to attack the camp on the rising ground north of the river. If so this advance guard could have been intended to fall back as the battle progressed, joining or withdrawing behind the main body positioned as previously described.

Much to Wallenstein’s surprise the Swedish army did not appear, although he kept the Imperialist forces in the field ready for battle for the whole of 2 September and through the following night. Instead Gustavus spent the day constructing a defensive position at Fürth, on an east-west line parallel to Wallenstein’s northern perimeter and about a mile and a half back from the ridge which led up to it. At the same time he was making preparations and giving orders for the quite different plan he had for 3 September, an unconventional surprise attack on the strongest part of Wallenstein’s defences around the Alte Veste. This was a major error, as will be seen, but first we need to consider the reasons for it.

It has often been claimed that Gustavus was misled by information from prisoners or his own scouts into believing that Wallenstein’s move out of his camp was not to prepare for battle but to make a hasty retreat, so that he decided to attack from the north, expecting that the fortifications would be defended at most by a small rearguard. This tale probably stems from contemporary pro-Swedish sources which preferred to blame faulty intelligence rather than the king’s judgement, but it is not credible. Gustavus was noted for his careful reconnaissance, and it is inconceivable that he or his scouts could have mistaken an Imperialist army standing in the field all day in battle order for one hurriedly  making its escape. One of those best placed to know, Oxenstierna, wrote an account of the battle for the Swedish council, and he does indeed mention reports of an Imperialist retreat and a prisoner who confirmed them on 2 September, but he goes on to say that Gustavus immediately set out with an escort to make a personal assessment, that there were skirmishes, and that `the enemy was thus forced to battle, and had to bring back his guns and look to his defences’. The king himself, in a letter to the elector of Saxony, also refers to information that Wallenstein was withdrawing, leaving only a few regiments as a rearguard, but he immediately adds that the report of the retreat was found to be false and that the enemy had only changed position some- what. Hence when he launched his assault Gustavus was well aware that Wallenstein and his army were still drawn up for battle outside the western perimeter. If not there would have been no point in attacking an almost empty camp on its strongest side. Nor was the plan an impromptu response to an unforeseen development. Robert Monro, a Scottish colonel in Gustavus’s army, states in his memoirs that the king’s plan was to capture the high ground to the north in order to drive Wallenstein out of his camp, and hence `we marched in the night through Furt, towards the other side of the enemies Leaguer, of intention to take in the hill’. Furthermore the coordinated attacks at multiple points early on 3 September had clearly been carefully planned, while the only apparent reason for building the defensive line at Fürth the previous day was to cover a retreat if they did not succeed.

The truth was probably simpler. As an experienced general Gustavus knew that Wallenstein would expect him to attack the camp next on its weakest side, but he also knew that if it came to a battle there between armies of similar size Wallenstein would have the advantages of the ground, of being in position first, and of having his defences to fall back upon, whereas the Swedes would have no ready line of retreat. Faced with this unattractive prospect Gustavus decided, as he had at Rain, to do the unexpected and to attempt what others thought could not be done. Had a commando-style attack from the north succeeded quickly, he could have captured Wallenstein’s camp behind him, together with most of his munitions and supplies, completely turning the tables and forcing him to withdraw. However Wallenstein had anticipated the possibility of an attack from the rear, and he had left Aldringer with a complement of guns and six regiments of infantry – probably of the order of 6000 men – to defend the camp if necessary until reinforcements could be sent. Gustavus also underestimated the difficulty of the uphill assault through the woods, and the strength of the Alte Veste fortifications, while he was too confident of the ability of his veterans to overcome such problems. It was a gamble which did not pay off.

The fighting on 3 September was bitter and prolonged. The Swedish plan was to attack early and simultaneously at points across the northern perimeter of the camp, but this quickly fell behind schedule. Wallenstein had stripped the top of the ridge of trees, as well as clearing part of the way down the slopes to provide lines of fire for his  defenders, but lower down they remained thickly wooded, while some of the felled timber had been left to lie there to act as a further impediment. The Swedish troops were hampered by long, heavy pikes and muskets, difficult to carry at the best of times but particularly unsuitable for traversing steeply sloping woods, and they found the going hard and slow. Soon they came under fire and started to take heavy casualties, but although they persevered bravely valuable time was lost and the attacks were no longer coordinated. Wallenstein quickly learned of the assault, but he was confident of Aldringer’s ability to hold the fortifications for some time, so that he waited until he was sure that this was the main attack rather than a diversion. Once convinced, he sent his army flooding back into the camp to reinforce the northern defences.

The battle continued all day, and the Swedes managed to capture the artillery emplacement on the ridge as well as various other defensive outworks, but not the Alte Veste itself. Here Monro found the fighting `cruell hot. the Hill was nothing els but fire and smoke, like to the thundering Echo of a Thunderclap, with the noise of Cannon and Musket’. Wallenstein had the advantage of being able to relieve his men on the front line with fresh ones from the camp at regular intervals, and there are reports of him in the thick of the fray throwing handfuls of coins to encourage them. Whether fact or fanciful rumour these con- firm that he took personal command at the Alte Veste, as did Gustavus only a few hundred yards away on the Weinberg. Here the Swedes more than once pushed right up to the camp perimeter, but each time they were driven back by sallies from the defences, while both on this wing and on the river bank below there were sharp cavalry clashes during the afternoon.

As the fortifications seemed to be impregnable an alternative idea was developed, that of dragging Swedish heavy guns to the top of the hill, where they could be mounted in a position to bombard most of the camp below, thus forcing the Imperialists out. Duke Bernhard of Weimar, a German prince but one of Gustavus’s generals, was in command of the troops holding the top of the ridge west of the Alte Veste, so he set men about trying to haul the necessary artillery up a steep track through the woods. The idea may have been good but the execution proved difficult, carried out under fire and harassed by Imperialist light cavalry, and it became impossible when it started to rain late in the afternoon, turning the track into mud. Night fell, leaving both sides standing at their posts on the ridge, but although there was a pause in the fighting it continued to rain. By the morning of 4 September it was clear that there was nothing to be gained from continuing the attack, and Gustavus ordered a retreat.

Wallenstein did not attempt a pursuit, as his own men were exhausted, having been in the field or in action for 48 hours. Moreover the Swedish defensive position at Fürth had been prepared for just such a contingency, and he had no wish to allow Gustavus to salvage some- thing of his reputation by fighting a successful rearguard action. As it was, the aura of invincibility which had built up around the king during eighteen months of successes in Germany was severely damaged by this failure, while from the Swedish ranks Monro criticised him for relying on inadequate intelligence about the strength of the defences, and for continuing the attack long after it was apparent that it had little chance of success. Casualties were high as a result, and it is estimated that the Swedes lost of the order of 1000 dead and 2000 seriously wounded, while the Imperialist losses were no more than a third of this level. In his report to the emperor Wallenstein gave generous credit to Aldringer for his part in the engagement, adding that `all officers and soldiers, infantry and cavalry alike, behaved as bravely as I have ever in my life seen in a battle’.

While Wallenstein went back to his waiting game Gustavus looked for ways to extricate himself from the situation. He suggested peace negotiations, offering to send Oxenstierna to Wallenstein or even to meet him face to face himself, to which the general courteously but firmly replied that he had no authority to discuss such matters but that he would forward the king’s proposal to the emperor in Vienna. Even had there been any prospect of success in that quarter Gustavus could not afford to wait. Autumn was coming and his army was starting to melt away. Disease and casualties had already made inroads, but now hungry men, demoralised by a long period on the defensive followed by two failed attacks, started to desert. Many simply slipped away to the Imperialist camp, where they found food, a welcome and often a reward. By 15 September they were `running away in droves’, Wallenstein reported, noting that his own recruitment was going well as a result. On one occasion an entire company of cavalry, 80 men, killed their own captain and came across. `More will follow them’, he concluded. Within a fortnight of the failure at the Alte Veste Gustavus is believed to have lost a third of his army, leaving him with no choice but to withdraw. 17 Wallenstein noted with professional approval that `he sent six cavalry regiments in advance, their strongest company only twenty horse, before he himself made a fine retreat silently in the night’, adding that he could see `from this as from all his campaigns that unfortunately he understands his calling only too well’.

Much to Maximilian’s annoyance Wallenstein did not immediately follow. His reasons, given in his report to the emperor, were firstly that he had dispersed his own cavalry widely in order to conserve supplies of food and fodder in the camp, and secondly that the Swedes retained pos- session of the route by which Oxenstierna had approached, so that they could retreat safely from one strong point to the next. Instead he was waiting for Pappenheim’s army, which he understood to be marching towards him from the north, in order to trap Gustavus between them, `and then he will be done for’. Although better off than the Swedes, Wallenstein’s own army was also suffering from the effects of the long stand-off over the summer, including illness and shortage of supplies, so that, as he added to the emperor, `I do not want to place at risk what I have made certain of ‘. He stayed five more days in the camp, but as nothing was heard from Pappenheim he then marched off in a different direction. To begin with neither army went very far, Gustavus moving some 30 miles west to Bad Windsheim while Wallenstein headed 20 miles north to Forchheim, where both detached substantial parts of their forces for other purposes while they considered their next moves.

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