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PoDs of the Thirty Years War - Part IV

by Alex Richards

Over the last three articles, we've looked a lot at the politics of the first phase of the Thirty Years War and the potential PoDs that can be found there, but a war is not a war without its battles. In this final article on the Bohemian Revolt, therefore, I'll be turning to the potential military PoDs of this first phase of the war.

Early Manoeuvres

Given the paucity of information on exact troop movements and army strengths in early 17th Century Europe, it's somewhat reasonable to invent a battle from whole cloth to serve as your PoD. For this, it's worth remembering that the available troops for the Bohemians by November 1618, approximately, 20,000 men under Ernst von Mansfield who were initially tied down besieging Pilsen, and about 15,000 under Count Heinrich Matthias von Thurn when he left on his journey towards Moravia and Vienna. The Habsburg side was initially less organised and more dispersed, and, apart from the local militas and garrisons of those towns that remained loyal, available troops were somewhat under 10,000.

To this we must add the military practices at the time, which increasingly came to a question of slow manoeuvring of armies across the countryside (usually to the detriment of civilian food supplies) with occasional minor skirmishes in order to establish the best position to either lay siege to key fortified locations, screen a sieging force from attack, or prevent your own positions from being besieged. Mercenary troops still made up the majority of armies- even in Bohemia where an initial call-up of the peasantry failed to have much effect- and the advances in musketry and artillery led to increased army sizes in order to maximise the effect of firing en masse when using somewhat inaccurate weapons.

Siege of Pilsen

To turn from the general to the specific, the main conflict of the early stages of the war, save for Count Thurn's march to Vienna and subsequent retreat, revolved around the Bohemian attempts to capture the towns of Pilsen (Plzeň), Budweis (České Budějovice) and Krumau (Český Krumlov) which had stayed loyal to the Habsburgs, and Habsburg's attempts to relieve them. Count Thurn spent most of 1618 repelling attempts by Heinrich von Dampierre to relieve Budweis while von Mansfeld invested Pilsen and eventually captured the city after a 2 month siege. The early struggle by the Bohemians to recruit troops in significant numbers offers some opportunities here, and there's a possibility that Dampierre could have managed a lucky breakthrough against a still growing army under Thurn.

Meanwhile the siege of Pilsen was unusually short considering the available supplies for the defenders, and was a slightly rushed affair as von Mansfeld pushed to take the city before a significant Habsburg relief force could arrive, even then having to repel attacks by the Charles Bonaventure de Longueval, theCount of Bocquoy, and his then subordinate Torquato Conti. If he'd failed, retaining Pilsen would have put Habsburg forces virtually within striking distance of Prague, and would probably have seen the war restricted to the Kingdom of Bohemia proper, with Count Thurn likely under pressure to turn north rather than make his historic sweep to effectively take Moravia for the Bohemian cause.

Battle of Sablat

On the other hand, more decisive action from the Bohemians could have put them in a stronger position. Boucquoy, now commanding the attempts to relieve Budweis, was badly defeated by Count Thurn in the Battle of Lomnice on November 9th 1618, but was able to retreat due to a lack of follow-up action from the Bohemians. Had they harried this army successfully, potentially forcing a second or third follow-on battle and capturing Boucquoy, the loss of troops would likely have delayed the Habsburg response of the following year that eventually saw Boucquoy defeat von Mansfeld at Sablat on June 10th. As the defeat at Sablat forced the Bohemians to lift their siege of Budweis, a delayed or weakened force may have been unable to prevent the Bohemians from taking the town, which at the very least extends the lifespan of the revolt.

Whether even a longer-lived revolt would have been successful militarily depends on if the rebels can secure outside backing. Historically the Danish would intervene to protect the Protestants of the Empire in 1625, but as we'll see in the next article, this owes far more to Imperial actions after the defeat of the Bohemians than to any sort of moral calling. On the other hand, more military success for the Bohemians may have encouraged others to begin supporting them who historically held their hand.

The Battle of White Mountain

No discussion of the Thirty Years War would be complete without an examination of the Battle of White Mountain. It marked the culmination of the Habsburgs advances after Sablat, pushing deep into Bohemia and finally advancing on Prague itself. With about 15,000-20,000 men under Count Thurn on the Bohemian side against 27,000 under Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly on the Imperial side, this was the largest battle of the war so far and pitched perhaps the finest commanders either side had to hand at the time against eachother. Secondary commanders included Christian I of Anhalt-Bernberg on the Bohemian side, and both Bucquoy and Albrecht von Wallenstein on the Imperial side, making it a veritable Who's Who of the early war.

The battle itself was something of a desultory affair. Neither side was particularly enthused to fight, with both the weather and the fact that neither side's mercenaries had been paid for some time serving to dampen spirits. In the end, what was meant to be a minor probing attack by the Imperial troops created an unexpected opening for an advance and the entire Bohemian flank began collapsing before anyone had much time to react. The battle itself was over in under an hour, and the revolt collapsed soon afterwards. The subsequent confiscation of land and property from those on the losing side, and its redistribution to Habsburg loyalists, has seen the Battle of White Mountain become a foundational myth for the Czech people, characterised as the last expression of a free Czech nobility before being crushed by German Habsburg rule. The reality of that idea, as with much else, is rather more debatable.

Could White Mountain have gone otherwise? Perhaps- the disaster that unfurled historically required something of a string of bad luck for the Bohemians after all, but outnumbered and facing a more skilled commander, it's likely that at most the Bohemians could have forced a strategic draw or temporary reprieve over the winter- Imperial troops had taken most of western Bohemia and were in a much better strategic position after all. In such a world, the revolt would likely have fizzled out in a death from a thousand cuts, rather than the dramatic end it had historically, but without the sort of outside help that wasn't forthcoming at the time White Mountain is probably just too late in the day to change the general course of the revolt.

Of course there are possibilities of more minor effects even if the overall arc of the Revolt occurs as historically. A stray cannonball at the Battle of White Mountain taking out Count Tilly- who historically would play such a large role in the later war- or the philosopher René Descartes who was present as an observer, could have profound effects on the later 17th Century and beyond even if the Revolt still ends in failure. Similarly the minor Bohemian victories at Wisternitz and Neu Titschein were responsible for keeping Moravia in Bohemian hands, and eventually allowing some of the remnants of the Bohemian army under Johann Georg von Brandenburg to link up with Gabriel Bethen in Transylvania and assist his efforts in Hungary.

If nothing else, the military course of the Bohemian Revolt demonstrates that sometimes it's the smaller battles that can have a more profound effect than the more well known battles.

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