By Alex Richards
As summer dawned in 1632, Gustavus Adolphus found himself in a challenging position. Despite his advance into the Empire reaching Munich, and the acquisition, more or less willingly, of allies across the Empire, popular discontent against the Swedish army was on the rise in Bavaria and Swabia, and Wallenstein remained in the field with a sizable force.
Gustavus thus chose to turn north, aiming to return to Saxony and ensure the loyalty of Elector Johann Georg, who was widely known to be attempting negotiations for a peace deal via Albrecht von Wallenstein. The stage was thus set for what were to be the final two battles of Gustavus’ life- Alte Veste, and Lützen.
The Battle of Alte Veste
Having already pushed the Saxon forces out of Bohemia with ease, Wallenstein decided against advancing into Saxony itself - which would potentially have left him vulnerable to being caught between the Saxons and an advancing Swedish army - and instead moved to meet up with Maximilian of Bavaria and lay siege to Gustavus while he was still in Nuremberg, gathering 55,000 troops for this purpose.
Sieges of the time were, in essence, a waiting game of seeing who would reach the end of their supply limits first. Initially, Gustavus found himself with the disadvantage, with only 18,000 men under the command but with refugees swelling the population trapped in Nuremberg to 140,000 and with most supply lines cut off by the Imperial forces. We might indeed have seen a rather ignominious end for the Lion of the North had Wallenstein successfully intercepted Oxenstierna’s relief column in the summer- the Swedish army would probably have been forced into attempting a break-out at this point, despite the near certain odds of defeat, or into simply surrendering outright.
As was, Wallenstein’s decision not to repeat Count Tilly’s mistakes in carrying out risky assaults eventually saw his own supply chains begin to break down, and with four tonnes of human excrement being produced by the camp every day - plus animal waste from 45,000 horses on top of tha t- disease and malnutrition began to stalk the army. By August, Gustavus had been reinforced with another 24,000 men by Oxenstierna, while Wallenstein had sent a detachment of 10,000 men north to pillage the Saxon Vogtland as revenge for the Silesian campaign (of which see below), which combined with his losses to disease had narrowed his advantage to a mere 31,000 compared to Gustavus’ 28,000.
Gustavus chose late August as the moment to attempt an attack on Wallenstein’s positions, but the latter was entrenched on a high hill topped with the small ruined castle of the Alte Veste, reducing the potential approaches and preventing Gustavus from repeating the surprise encirclements of Breitenfeld or the Lech. Despite an initial artillery bombardment failing to silence the Imperial guns, Gustavus launched his attack, repeatedly trying to advance as the rain and night drew in, before finally acknowledging defeat and retreating under the cover of the Swedish cavalry. On September 15th, he withdrew from Nuremberg entirely - having lost 2,400 men to death or serious injury in the battle, and another 11,000 to desertion after it. Wallenstein had lost less than 1,000 men, but with the army increasingly ill and lacking horses, no effective pursuit was possible. Instead he chose to turn north and focus on Saxony and the Swedish supply lines.
Alte Veste was a severe defeat for Gustavus as it was, and could potentially have been even worse if the cavalry had failed to cover his retreat, leading to more severe losses extricating himself from the battle. The natural question is whether Gustavus could have won.
The hardest part about this to answer is the extent to which the desertions after the battle were a direct consequence of the demoralisation of the first Swedish defeat since breaking out of Pomerania, or whether they were poised to happen regardless - potentially prompting Gustavus to attack in the first place. Had a longer bombardment been possible, or Gustavus been able to wait for a drier day, a more successful attack may have been possible, but it still seems unlikely that a complete victory was possible for Gustavus. Even an inconclusive clash that forced both sides to withdraw might, however, have allowed Gustavus to overwinter in Bavaria and potentially seen Wallenstein distracted by efforts to prevent his enemies from securing his dismissal.
The Silesian Campaign
While the Siege of Nuremberg was ongoing, Saxony was manoeuvring to improve their negotiating position, launching an attack into Silesia. Commanded by Arnim, this consisted of some 12,000 Saxons, 3,000 Brandenburgers and 7,000 Swedes under the command of Jacob Duwall - another of Gustavus’ generals to have originally come from Scotland. On 29th August, they met a force of 20,000 Imperial troops under Balthazar Marradas y Vique at the town of Steinau (now Ścinawa). The combination of an impetuous Scotsman eager for glory and an elderly opponent promoted to high rank more due to his loyalty than any great skill soon bore fruit for Saxony, with Marradas retreating under first Duwall’s attack, then a Saxon artillery barrage, then finally a further attack from Duwall which circled round to the Imperial rear. Marradas withdrew back to Bavaria, effectively abandoning the whole of Silesia to the Saxons who soon entered Breslau.
It was a stunning success that severely damaged the creditability of one of Wallenstein’s chief opponents in Bohemia, and led directly to his decision to divert troops from Nuremberg north to the Saxon Vogtland, but it was by no means certain. Not only was Arnim facing worse odds than Frederick the Great’s own conquest of Silesia a century later, but he and Duwall were barely on speaking terms - Duwall in particular was convinced Arnim was secretly negotiating with the enemy. With the army’s leadership divided thus, any setback inflicted by Marradas would have had a high chance of fracturing the army altogether. Such a setback would, however, have relied on Marradas showing more of a desire to actually fight the Saxon advance. A worse Saxon performance in Silesia would probably have seen Wallenstein keep more troops in Franconia, potentially giving him a greater victory over Gustavus, and would have made any later advance into Saxony an easier affair for the Imperial side.
The Disaster at Lützen
With Gustavus Adolphus forced to retreat south into Bavaria, Wallenstein turned north in an attempt to force Saxony out of the war, removing both a key Swedish ally and threatening the supply chains linking Gustavus’ army to the Baltic ports. By October they had occupied Meissen and Maximilian had been forced to recall Pappenheim from his activity in Lower Saxony to link up with Wallenstein- he was to leave for Bavaria soon afterwards as his personal antipathy to Wallenstein combined with his generals being suborned to the latter became too much for him. Leipzig soon fell a second time, and extensive looting by the Imperial army - who sent a message to Johann Georg in Dresden taunting him that they would burn so many Saxon villages he would have no need for candles- was halted only by Wallenstein’s decision that he would overwinter in the electorate.
Gustavus Adolphus responded by racing north to meet the Imperial army- covering a stunning 650km in only 17 days, though at the cost of 4,000 horses. The run up to Lützen is fraught with opportunities for the battle to have never occurred in the first place - Oxenstierna was against the advance; a slower march north, conserving the horses, would probably have seen Gallas arrive from Bohemia creating too large an Imperial force to attack; and the northward march passed only 25km from where Maximilian was moving south- a potential clash which would have at least required Gustavus to pause afterwards and may have seen him either diverted away from Saxony had he lost, or been able to take a more cautious approach had he won, especially if the latter had included the capture of Maximilian.
As was, Wallenstein fell ill with gout, was unable to argue against Pappenheim taking 5,800 men back towards Lower Saxony, and dispersed his troops. Gustavus took the opportunity to attack, advancing towards Wallenstein’s last known position, but was delayed for four hours by a detachment of dragoons and Croats on the Ripparch stream. Wallenstein was outnumbered- having only 8,500 foot, 3,800 horse and 20 heavy guns to Gustavus’s 13,000, 6,200 and 20 respectively- but anticipated the Swedish king’s predilection for attempting large flanking manoeuvres and thus positioned himself at an angle to the obvious line of battle. Messages were also sent to Pappenheim, 35km away, ordering his return.
The decisive day was to be November 16th, 1632. The place was the small village of Lützen, and the resulting battle is perhaps the only potential PoD of the Thirty Years War to be widely known throughout the alternate history community.
Even by the standards of 17th Century battles Lützen was a confusing and sordid affair. Delayed by morning fog, the battlefield was soon wreathed in smoke from the cannons, muskets, and the fires that soon took hold in Lützen itself. Bernhard von Saxe-Weimar was unable to make progress in his attempts to take the village, or the neighbouring Windmill Hill, but on the right flank Gustavus himself was leading a successful attack which had caused the Croats to scatter. It was at this point that Pappenheim returned and, despite the fact that the General himself was soon felled by a musket ball that would prove fatal, the arrival of the horsemen was enough to blunt the Swedish attack.
Gustavus himself was then shot while searching through the smoke and fog for to rally those of his infantry who had been broken by Pappenheim’s final charge, and he and his entourage then blundered into a group of Imperial Cuirassers who dealt the final, fatal, shots to the Swedish King. His body ended up being left behind by his retreating guard and, as was the way of things, ended up being stabbed and stripped before it was found a couple of hours later and retrieved by the Swedish force.
With Dodo zu Knyphausen doing everything possible to conceal the death of his monarch, the probable defeat was turned into a narrow- and ultimately Pyrrhic- victory by the decision of Bernhard von Saxe-Weimar to launch a final assault on the Imperial position on Windmill Hill, finally breaking the Imperial centre. Pappenheim’s 3,000 infantry arrived a few hours later, but having lost 3,000 men already- including Pappenheim and other senior officers- Wallenstein decided to retreat, leaving almost 1200 wounded men in Leipzig, abandoning his artillery in the field, and withdrawing to Bohemia for the winter. Had he used these fresh troops to attack however, it’s almost certain the Swedish army would have been swiftly defeated- having lost 6,000 men they themselves were on the verge of retreat when it was realised that Wallenstein had left.
Lützen was undoubtedly a disaster for Sweden and the Protestant cause- which would soon find France taking leadership directly- and a more severe defeat would have compounded the issue as, without Saxony, her supply lines would have been severely weakened potentially prompting the country to come to terms earlier, and with a less generous settlement than 1635’s Peace of Prague.
But the opportunities for a more decisive victory at Lützen are many as well. Be it through Gustavus’ survival- thus maintaining the driving energy of the previous year, albeit with a need to seriously rebuild the army over the winter; through Pappenheim not arriving in time to prevent the complete collapse of the Imperial left flank- which would have left Gustavus with a clearer victory but another competent opponent in the field; or through the dragoons on the Ripparch failing to intercept Gustavus- at which point Gustavus would have been able to attack Wallenstein’s less well prepared positions on the afternoon of the 15th, potentially catching the latter unaware and replacing the historic costly slog with a short, decisive victory.
Whatever the reason for it, had Gustavus Adolphus lived, he would certainly have continued his efforts to reshape Central Europe to his own desires. And it is to those desires that we will turn in the next article.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP