Battle of Breitenfeld, 1631 animated battle map
Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly versus Gustavus Adolphus: A Swedish-Saxon army under Gustavus fields new, innovative tactics against an Imperialist army under Tilly. Will these superior tactics matter if Gustavus’ Saxon allies flee the battlefield in the face of Tilly’s fierce attack? Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation. | Legend |
Commentators typically note how Gustavus’ victory was “the first great test and trial of the new tactics against the old, and therefore the first great land battle of the modern age, a victory of mobility and firepower over numbers and push of pike” (Fuller, 1954: 64). The Swedish infantry brigades – the brigade itself making its first appearance – utilized twice as many musketeers as pikemen, reversing the traditional ratio. Considered the decisive battle of the war, Davis adds that the Thirty Years’ War overall “marked the beginning of the modern age, not only in military affairs but in religious and political arenas as well” (1999: 213). The battle ensured Germany remained outside of Catholic-Hapsburg influence, which helped characterize the eventual Peace of Westphalia. This treaty permitted each sovereign to choose which religion his state followed without others interfering. This concept was soon expanded to greater politics to create a system of sovereign states, still in use today.
Aside from the tactical organization of the opposing armies, operational maneuver did affect the battle’s outcome. Tilly’s long line of troops aimed to “concentrate a formidable shock” against the entire Swedish-Saxon line (Bonney, 2002: 47). In this sense, this deployment achieved what it was intended to, as the weaker Saxon forces were routed from the field, exposing the Swedish left flank to attack. Tilly’s exploitation of the Saxon rout with an oblique advance by his infantry against the Swedish left flank is lauded by commentators:
Tilly had in fact conducted a tactical manoeuvre of some skill, following up Fürstenberg’s success against [Johann] George with an oblique advance, to bear with his full weight on the now depleted and vulnerable Swedish wing. It was a manoeuvre worthy Alexander the Great and Epaminondas and one that was to be repeated with startling success by Frederick the Great. (Goodenough, 1979: 74-75)
Of course, Gustavus had the time to reinforce his left due to the Imperialist infantry’s unwieldy and slow-moving formations. It was then the Swedes’ effective combined arms cooperation between pikemen, musketeers and cavalry which crushed the Imperialist attack. Imperialist tactical deficiencies doomed their operational maneuvers.
Tactics did play a more prominent role in this battle but operational maneuver also affected the scale of the Swedish victory. Despite the murderous barrage that was raining down on the Imperialist army, Tilly did not intend to open to battle with cavalry attacks on both wings. So when Pappenheim surged forward, prompting Fürstenberg to advance, Tilly cried out that “he was ruined” (MacMunn, 1931: 203). Fürstenberg routed the Saxons but Pappenheim was utterly defeated, exposing the Imperialist left flank to Gustavus’ decisive counterstroke. Even had the Imperialist infantry faltered, the Imperialist defeat would not have been so decisive had Pappenheim’s cavalry engaged the Swedish right throughout and prevented it from seizing its army’s guns.
This battle presented me with some difficulties in deciding how to best illustrate what occurred. Each sector of this battle was decided by tactics which seemed to be at too low a level to properly illustrate. The solution was a lengthier narrative, subtle visual sequences and a brief zoom-in to compare how each infantry unit was organized as a starting point. While I strive for standardization, each battle presents its own unique dilemma, which must be resolved on a case by case basis to determine the best way to visualize the battle.
For such a well-documented and popularized battle, sources were relatively vague in many respects especially as the battle developed. For example, Adolphus fielded seven infantry brigades, three of which were held in the second line. When Tilly advanced against the Swedish left flank, Adolphus sent two of them to reinforce Horn. However, the sources I consulted did not explicitly mention the third brigade’s activity during the battle. There is a similar discrepancy when MacMunn writes that Tilly sent one of his seventeen infantry regiments to reinforce Pappenheim’s attack on the Swedish right (1931: 203); no other source mentions this maneuver. Such minute discrepancies frustrate me when I am in the midst of animation. If I create seven infantry boxes for example, I need to have some idea as to where each of them is and what they are doing. Unlike written narratives which can just omit these details, a visual presentation requires the creator to resolve the issue.
- Jonathan Webb
Bonney, Richard. The Thirty Years War 1618-1648. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.
Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History: The Modern Era Vol. 4. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Fuller, J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World Vol. 2. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956.
Goodenough, Simon. Tactical Genius in Battle. Oxford: Phodian Press, 1979.
MacMunn, George. Gustavus Adolphus: The Lion of the North. New York: Robert M. McBride & Co.,1931.
Wilson, Peter H. The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Gustavus Adolphus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavus_Adolphus_of_Sweden
Imperialist artillery: Brnardic, Vladimir. Imperial Armies of the Thirty Years’ War: Infantry and Artillery. Oxford: Osprey, 2009.
Imperialist cavalry: Brnardic, Vladimir. Imperial Armies of the Thirty Years’ War: Cavalry. Oxford: Osprey, 2010.
Imperialist infantry: Brnardic, Vladimir. Imperial Armies of the Thirty Years’ War: Infantry and Artillery. Oxford: Osprey, 2009.
Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Tserclaes,_Count_of_Tilly
Swedish & Saxon artillery: Brzezinski, Richard and Richard Hook. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus: Infantry. Oxford: Osprey, 2000.
Swedish & Saxon cavalry: Brzezinski, Richard and Richard Hook. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus: Cavalry. Oxford: Osprey, 1999.
Swedish & Saxon infantry: Brzezinski, Richard and Richard Hook. The Army of Gustavus Adolphus: Infantry. Oxford: Osprey, 2000.
Tags: 1600s, attack in oblique order, cavalry, envelopment of a single flank, envelopment of both flanks, Gunpowder Era, Gustavus Adolphus, Holy Roman Empire, Imperialists, infantry, John Tserclaes Count of Tilly, land, modern day Germany, Saxon, Saxons, Season 8, Sweden, Swedes, Thirty Years' War, Western Europe
Weider History Group