By Alex Richards
As September 1631 dawned, the trend of the Thirty Years War appeared to be fixed. Initial Protestant rebellions would be speedily crushed when Imperial forces arrived at the scene, outside assistance or not. While not every battle had been a complete victory for the Emperor, it is fair to say that there hadn’t been a single major defeat inflicted upon them. As such, when Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, victoriously entered Leipzig on September 15th 1631, it seemed that history was about to repeat itself and the Swedish incursion under Gustavus Adolphus would soon be beaten back.
Instead the following year would see the biggest reverse of Imperial fortunes since the war began, a near-uninterrupted succession of victories that some thought heralded the end of the entire concept of the Empire as a Catholic state. These victories were not, however, inevitable and even a minor change to fortunes in the run up to Lützen could have had dramatic changes for Europe.
The Battle of Breitenfeld
The key moment of change was the Battle of Breitenfeld, just north of Leipzig. A total of 37,000 men of the Catholic League (the Bavarian-led pro-Imperial faction of Catholic princes) under Count Tilly met a mixed army of 21,000 Swedes and 16,000 Saxons - though only 3,000 of the latter had experience in battle. This lack of experience showed relatively quickly, with the Saxons holding firm against an artillery barrage only to rout when Count Egon VIII von Fürstenberg-Heiligenberg attacked in force. This complete collapse of the Swedish left-flank was contrasted with their right, where Gottfried zu Pappenheim’s attempts at an advance were continuously repulsed in pistol exchanges.
Count Tllly’s attempts to exploit this were hampered by the fact that most of his troops proceeded to chase after the Saxon troops in hope of looting their baggage train, and this allowed Gustav Horn to rotate the Swedish left flank and strike at the Imperial infantry before they could line up into a new position. Meanwhile Gustavus Adolphus attacked Pappenheim’s weakened troops, forcing them to retreat before moving to envelop the Imperial army. Perhaps as much as eighty percent of the Imperial army was killed, captured, wounded or deserted, and most of the rest took several days to be re-gathered. Gustavus Adolphus had achieved not just a major military victory, but a spectacular feat of propaganda, both allowing him almost free reign to advance in the short term and easy recruitment of allies among the Protestant states of northern Europe.
Yet battles, especially at this time in history, are chaotic affairs and Breitenfeld was no exception. Neither Pappenheim’s attempted attacks (which some have speculated might have been part of an attempt to carry out a double-encirclement of the Swedish army) nor Horn’s manoeuvre appear to have been directly ordered by Tilly or Gustavus respectively. Had the former held his fire, potentially inviting the Swedish to attack and weaken themselves instead, it may have been possible for his more rested troops to hold off the late Swedish advance preventing the encirclement of the army and, if not securing victory, at least allowing the bulk of the army to retreat in good stead preventing Gustavus Adolphus from capitalising so significantly from the battle. Still further, had Horn not manoeuvred into his new position so promptly the Swedish left flank may have been further rolled up, potentially setting up for an encirclement of the Swedish army, or at least have set up its defeat.
With a smaller scale victory, the Swedish army may well have found itself hampered in its efforts to advance to the south, forcing them to rely on the lands of their allies Brandenburg and Saxony for victuals rather than those of their enemies. An outright defeat meanwhile would have been disastrous for not just Sweden- who would have been forced to retreat back towards Pomerania- but the Protestant cause as well. Brandenburg would probably have defected to the Imperial side quickly (with a justifiable claim to have been pressured into their declaration of war) and Saxony- isolated and militarily defeated - would have soon followed. The French gamble would appear to have failed, and the sole hope for the opponents of Emperor Ferdinand would probably have been an early direct intervention by France.
From the Main to Bavaria
From Breitenfeld a direct strike into the Habsburg crownlands would have been possible, but the Bohemian revolt was now some 12 years past and there was little appetite now for the repeated rebellion that would have been required to combat the 60,000 Imperial troops gathered in Franconia and Silesia. Instead, Gustavus made swiftly for the River Main and South West Germany, hoping to secure the Catholic Electorates of the Rhineland, including the now Bavarian controlled Palatinate. By Janaury 1632 the Swedish had taken the Mainzer exclave of Erfurt, looted Würzburg in a brutal sack – explicitly framed as revenge for Magdeburg - conquered Mecklenburg and most of the Lower Palatinate, and taken the key cities of Frankfurt and Mainz. Meanwhile the Saxons under Hans Georg von Arnim-Boitzenburg undertook a more limited invasion of Bohemia, taking Prague and reaching as far as Nimburg on the Elbe. The Swedish war at this point devolved into a series of regional conflicts- Hesse-Kassel’s war of conquest in the Westphalian church lands, Württemberg’s battles with Archduke Leopold’s widow, Princess Claudia of Tuscany, in southern Swabia, and the ongoing efforts by smaller Swedish forces to secure control over the southern flanks of the Baltic.
The 10th February however saw the final breaking of what had long been only a very nominal truce between Sweden and Bavaria as Horn launched a direct attack on Bamberg, successfully taking the city, only to be forced out once more by Count Tilly. With the potential that defeat could end the momentum upon which he had been relying to gather more men and allies, Gustavus Adolphus made a rapid advance from his position in Mainz, entering Nuremberg on March 31st and gathering 37,000 men for an invasion of Bavaria.
His attempts to cross the river Lech were opposed by 21,000 men under Count Tilly, supported by the Bavarian Elector- Maximilian II- and his general Johann Aldringen. Just south of the bridge at Rain am Lech, Gustavus made an attempt to cross the river, to be met with fierce opposition from the Imperial forces. With the situation closely poised, the Swedes sent a force of 2,000 to circle south, cross further down the river, and attack into the rear of the Imperial forces. In the ensuing chaos, Aldringen was temporarily blinded and Tilly received a cannonball to the thigh, knocking him unconscious and inflicting what was to be a fatal wound. Maximilian took command and, lacking the experience of either incapacitated general, retreated, crossing north of the Danube and allowing Gustavus to enter Munich and ransack much of the southern half of Bavaria.
Much as with Breitenfeld, the Swedish victory at Rain was far from a foregone conclusion. Had the attempted strike from the south failed- from Tilly remaining in a position to command for example, it is quite possible that the Swedish attack across the river would have been repulsed – potentially blunting Gustavus’s future advances as allies such as Württemberg may have taken the opportunity to secure a separate peace. In these circumstances the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt’s attempts to create a compromise- forcing Ferdinand to withdraw the Edict of Restitution in return for a complete peace settlement.
Even in the event of a Swedish victory, had Tilly survived the Battle of Lech it would have bolstered the Imperial position- by retaining one of their best and most experienced commanders, future battles could have proceeded more favourably for the Imperial forces. Meanwhile the death of Tilly led to the need for Ferdinand to recall Wallenstein from a position of forced retirement where he had been languishing since 1630 due to a mixture of concerns over his loyalty and disputes with other commanders. Whether his continued absence from the field here would have led to a fuller reconciliation with the Emperor, or to his defection to the Swedish side, is a matter which in no small part relies on considerations of the events leading up to his historical assassination in 1634, which I shall cover at a future point.
As was, the Swedish entry into Munich was to be their deepest incursion into the Empire. With Maximilian’s army on the north bank of the Danube, it was impossible for Gustavus Adolphus to risk pressing on into Austria, and the stage was set for the two battles that between them would change the trajectory of the war once more – the Swedish defeat at Alte Veste, and the Battle of Lützen itself.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP