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Thirty Years' War: Battle of Breitenfeld

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Thirty Years' War: Battle of Breitenfeld

King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Breitenfeld - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Breitenfeld was fought September 17, 1631, during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

Armies & Commanders

Protestants

  • Gustavus Adolphus
  • John George I
  • 41,500 men

    Catholics

  • Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly
  • Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim
  • 31,300 men

  • Battle of Breitenfeld - Background:

    Crossing the Baltic Sea in 1630, Swedish forces, led by King Gustavus Adolphus, entered the Thirty Years' War. Allying with France and several Protestant German states, the Swedish king possessed an army of around 13,000 men and began consolidating his position. Dismissing the Swedish threat, the commander of the Catholic League's armies, Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, elected to continue campaigning in northern Italy. It was only with the conclusion of these operations in early 1631 that he began moving north to deal with the Swedes.

    During this interlude, Gustavus worked to build alliances and enhance his army. As the two armies maneuvered towards each other, they were blocked by the Electorate of Saxony. The region had yet to be touched by the conflict remained a rich source of supplies and wealth. Wishing to pass through Saxony, Tilly requested permission from Elector John George I. This was denied as the elector wished to remain out of the conflict. Requiring food for his army and wishing to prevent an alliance between John George and Gustavus, Tilly invaded Saxony.

    Different Approaches to War:

    The two armies which moved against each other in Saxony were constructed along very different lines. Gustavus' infantry consisted of a mixed force of light and heavy infantry along with several ranks of musketeers. These utilized a linear formation which generally saw six ranks of musketeers formed in front of the heavier pikemen. Trained in volley fire, the Swedes were capable of unleashing a steady and deadly fire upon an approaching enemy. In addition, while the majority of artillery in this period was slow and heavy, the Swedes had developed light 3-pdr guns which could be incorporated into their infantry.

    Conversely, the Catholic League's Imperialist troops were typically deployed in Spanish tercios. These consisted of around 1,500 densely-packed men, the majority of which were pikemen. Four groups of musketeers were included and were generally placed at the corners or on the side. As a result, only a small number of the musketeers could be engaged at any one time. Though a strong defensive formation, the tercio was slow to maneuver and did not incorporate artillery. Cavalry tactics also varied with the Swedes preferring a fast charge and swords, while the Imperialists used a caracole (turning) pistol approach.

    Making Contact:

    With the invasion of Saxony, John George moved to join Gustavus Adolphus with his army. Linking up north of Leipzig, they prepared to meet Tilly who had captured the city on September 15. Having taken Leipzig, Tilly soon learned of Gustavus' approach. Though he was reluctant to leave the city's defenses, his cavalry commander, General Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim was eager for battle and rode north seeking the enemy. Making contact on the evening of September 16, he informed Tilly that he was unable to withdraw. As a result, Tilly was forced to march north to the rescue.

    The Battle of Breitenfeld:

    Forming on a ridge between the villages of Seehausen (Göbschelwitz) and Breitenfeld, Tilly's men created seventeen tercios with the army's artillery deployed to the fore. His cavalry was deployed on each flank. Moving south, Gustavus and his allies crossed the Loder River and prepared for battle. The Swedish infantry moved into two lines with the bulk of the cavalry on the right, though some was placed in the center and left as well. The Saxons and other allied forces formed on the Swedish left extending the line. Around mid-day the fighting began with a two-hour exchange of artillery fire (Map).

    During the course of this, the Swedish artillery quickly showed its skill by achieving a superior rate of fire. As the firing slowed, Pappenheim began a series of seven attacks on the Swedish right. Turned back each time, he was then counterattacked by General Johan Banér's Swedish horse and driven from the field. On Tilly's right, he ordered his other cavalry forces to attack. Moving forward, they scattered their Saxon counterparts. Sensing an opportunity, the Imperial commander directed his tercios to begin an oblique march to the right to sweep away the Saxons and strike the Swedish left Map.

    Seeing his allies crumble under Tilly's attack, Gustavus shifted his second line, under General Gustav Horn, to meet the threat. Forming a right angle to the original front, these forces began a heavy bombardment of the approaching enemy (Map). Tilly's maneuver left the Swedish right unopposed and Gustavus began efforts to bring these troops into the fight. Accompanied by Banér's heavy cavalry and some infantry, Gustavus personally led his light cavalry across the original front on an attack against the Imperial artillery (Map).

    Capturing the guns, they were soon turned against the flank and rear of Tilly's slow-moving formation. Under heavy fire on multiple fronts, Tilly's men exchanged shots with the Swedes as their advance ground to a halt. Taking more punishment than they were able to give, the Imperial troops held their position until evening when their lines began to crumble. In the course of the fighting, Tilly was wounded and had to be removed from the field. Falling back, the retreat quickly became a rout as the Catholic League's army lost cohesion and fled the field.

    Aftermath of Breitenfeld

    In the course of the fighting, Gustavus lost around 3,000-3,500 men, while his allies suffered around 2,000. Tilly's losses totaled around 7,000-7,600, while an additional 6,000 were captured. Many of these prisoners were permitted to join the Swedish army further swelling its ranks. A decisive Protestant victory, Breitenfeld saw the effective destruction of Tilly's army. In the wake of Gustavus' triumph, additional German states rallied to the cause and the French government began greater financial support of the Swedish campaigns. The victory at Breitenfeld was also a validation of Gustavus' new, combined arms approach to warfare in which infantry, artillery, and cavalry worked together in self-supporting units.

    Selected Sources

  • HistoryNet: Battle of Breitenfeld
  • History of War: Battle of Breitenfeld

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