Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

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See also Battle of Breitenfeld (1642) for a related battle later in the same war.
First Battle of Breitenfeld
Part of the Thirty Years' War
Gustavus Adolphus in the battle of Breitenfeld
Gustavus Adolphus in the battle of Breitenfeld
Date September 7 (O.S.)[a]
September 17, 1631 (N.S.)[a]
Location Breitenfeld, Saxony, north of Leipzig
(present-day Germany)

51°24′N 12°20′E / 51.400°N 12.333°E / 51.400; 12.333Coordinates: 51°24′N 12°20′E / 51.400°N 12.333°E / 51.400; 12.333
Result Decisive Swedish victory
Belligerents

Protestant States:

Sweden
 Saxony

Catholic League:

 Holy Roman Empire
Hungary
 Croatia
Commanders and leaders
Sweden Gustavus Adolphus
Sweden Gustav Horn
Electorate of Saxony Hans Georg von Arnim-Boitzenburg
Scotland Robert Munro
Electorate of Saxony John George I
Sweden Johan Banér
Holy Roman Empire Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly
Holy Roman Empire Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim
Friedrich
Egon VII
Strength

23,000 Swedes
18,300 Saxons

11,319 Musketeers 4,812 Pikemen 3,928 officers 8,700 horse

28,750 Swedes and Saxons at Breitenfield[1]
35,000 men
Casualties and losses
5,550:
3,550 Swedes dead
2,000 Saxons dead
27,000:
7,600 dead
6,000 captured
3,000 wounded
4,000 deserted
3,400 missing
3,000 more captured on September 19 by the pursuit at Merseburg

The Battle of Breitenfeld (German: Schlacht bei Breitenfeld; Swedish: Slaget vid Breitenfeld) or First Battle of Breitenfeld (sometimes First Breitenfeld and in older texts Battle of Leipzig), was fought at a crossroads near Breitenfeld approximately five miles north-west of the walled city of Leipzig on September 17 (Gregorian calendar), or September 7 (Julian calendar, in wide use at the time), 1631.[a][b] It was the Protestants’ first major victory of the Thirty Years War.

The victory confirmed Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus of the House of Vasa as a great tactical leader and induced many Protestant German states to ally with Sweden against the German Catholic League, led by Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, and the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II.

Preliminaries[edit]

The Swedish phase of the Thirty Years War began with Gustavus Adolphus and his force of 13,000 landed at Peenemünde in 1630. Initially, Sweden’s entrance into the war was considered a minor annoyance to the Catholic League and its allies; his only battles to this point had been inconclusive ones, or fought against generals of modest military ability.[2][3] Consequently, the Imperial Commander of the German Catholic League, Tilly, did not immediately respond to the arrival of the Swedes, being engaged in northern Italy.[4] However, the effective end of the Mantuan War in 1631 ensured that the large Imperial army previously tied up there was now free to move into the German states.[2][3]

Creating alliances[edit]

Contemporary etching of troop disposition at the beginning of the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631), painting in the Musée historique de Strasbourg.

When the Protestant princes showed little interest in attaching themselves to the Swedish cause, Gustavus opted for “rough wooing.”[5] His troops moved south into Brandenburg, taking and sacking the towns of Küstin and Frankfurt an der Oder. It was too late and too far to save one of Gustav’s “occupied” allies, Magdeburg, from a horrific sack by Imperial troops, beginning on May 20, in which a major portion of the population was murdered and the city burned. The Swedes turned the sack of Magdeburg to good use: broadsides and pamphlets distributed throughout Europe ensured that prince and pauper alike understood how the Emperor, or at least his troops, treated his Protestant subjects.[6][7] Over the next few months, Gustavus consolidated his bridgehead and expanded across northern Germany, attracting support from German princes and building his army from mercenary forces along the way. By the time he reached the Saxon border, his force had grown to over 23,000 men.

Strategic importance of Saxony[edit]

In order for Swedes to attack the Imperial troops in the south, they needed to pass through Saxony. In order for Tilly’s forces to attack Gustav's army, they too needed to pass through Saxony. The Electorate of Saxony had not been affected by war and had large quantities of resources that each army could utilise. In midsummer, General Tilly asked John George I for permission to pass through the territory; the elector declined permission, noting that Saxony had not been ravaged by war yet. Later Tilly invaded the Electorate of Saxony due to the fact that it was the shortest distance between his army and Gustav's and it possibly annulled the chance of a potential alliance between Saxony and the Swedes.[4][8] His plan was to avoid contact with the Swedes, and ultimately the Saxons, until his troops could unite with the units near Jena (about 5,000 seasoned professionals), and the larger force of Count Otto von Fugger, en route from Hesse.[8] Gustav and John George united their forces, planning to meet Tilly somewhere near Leipzig.

Tactical overview[edit]

In this contemporary drawing, the Imperial formations (to the left) are deployed two companies deep, while the Swedish (to the right) are deployed just one company deep

The battle was overall a meeting engagement with both combatants agreeing to battle on the field. The forces all had different structural organization. The level of technology was roughly equivalent, with newer, lighter cannon and matchlocks giving the Swedes a slight advantage. Both armies were well supplied, and the terrain gave neither a distinct advantage.

Forces deployed[edit]

The forces deployed were roughly equal in strength. The Protestant coalition fielded about 42,000 troops (18,000 of them German), and the Imperial army about 35,000. The Protestants had a considerable edge in cavalry numbers, about 13,000 (5,000 from Allies) to 9,000. Strength of heavy artillery was comparable, with the Swedes having a slight edge in quality and Imperial forces a marginal advantage in quantity. The Swedes had additional small artillery pieces (3 and 6 pounders) integrated into their infantry brigades and regiments, giving them a larger number of tubes overall. The Imperials had a considerable advantage in the number of trained infantry deployed, about 25,000 to the Swedes 15,000. The Saxons (Swedish allies) fielded about 9,000 untrained conscripts and militiamen, and had very few muskets. The Swedish brigade had more matchlocks and fewer pikemen than the Imperial tercio; overall, the Protestants fielded about the same number of matchlocks as Imperial troops.

Force assessment[edit]

The overall balance was relatively even. The disparity in overall numbers resulted from large levies of untrained soldiers. The number of heavy cannon was relatively close, with the Swedish having newer models and light cannon compensating for the disparity in heavy field pieces. The Swedes had a considerable advantage in cavalry while the Imperials had a considerable advantage in trained infantry. With the forces deployed, the key difference was the light/heavy infantry ratio of Swedes. The Swedes fielded considerably more muskets by ratio, had more advanced equipment, and better drills to increase their rate of fire. More important, the Linear Formation allowed most Swedish musketeers to engage, while less than half in a tercio could engage.

Disposition of forces[edit]

Battle of Breitenfeld – Initial dispositions, 17 September 1631
Swedish-Saxon forces in Blue
Catholic army in Red

The Swedes deployed their 15,000 infantry in brigades and two lines. The imperial army deployed 25,500 infantry in a single line of seventeen tercios (1,500 infantrymen in each). The German allies extended the Swedish-Saxon front to be overall slightly longer than the Imperial. The imperial line had its cavalry evenly distributed on its flanks. The Swedes had their cavalry weighted to their right. The Saxon allies fielded their infantry in wedge formation with units in squares, and cavalry on their flanks. With their Saxon allies extending the Swede’s line, the Protestants had cavalry at the centre and their flanks.

Battle[edit]

The battle started in the middle of the day and lasted over six hours. The first two hours consisted of an exchange of artillery fire. This was followed by an Imperial attack with cavalry from both wings to both ends of the Protestant line. The cavalry attack routed the Saxon troops on the Swedish left flank. The imperial army then conducted a general attack to exploit the exposed left flank. The Swedes repositioned their second line to cover the left flank and counterattacked with their cavalry to both imperial flanks. The attack on the Imperial left was led personally by Gustavus Adolphus, capturing the Imperial artillery and enveloping the Imperial left flank. The Swedes now had much greater weight of fire from their artillery, infantry, and the captured Imperial artillery. The Imperial line became disorganized under the heavy fire and was enveloped. The Imperial line collapsed and over 80% of Imperial forces were killed or captured.

Opening moves[edit]

Battle of Breitenfeld – Opening moves, 17 September 1631
Swedish-Saxon forces in Blue
Catholic army in Red

The combined Swedish-Saxon forces were to the north of Leipzig centred around hamlet of Podelwitz, facing southwest toward Breitenfeld and Leipzig. The battle began around mid-day, with a two-hour exchange of artillery fire, during which the Swedes demonstrated firepower in a rate of fire of three to five volleys to one Imperial volley.[9] Gustavus had lightened his artillery park, and each colonel had four highly mobile, rapid firing, copper-cast three pounders, the cream of Sweden’s metallurgical industry.[10] When the artillery fire ceased, Pappenheim's Black Cuirassiers charged without orders, attempting to turn the Swedish right. Instead, their attack fell between Johan Banér's line and the Swedish reserves.[11] They attacked with a caracole and were driven back, repeating the maneuver six more times to little effect.[12] The small companies of musketeers dispersed between the squadrons of horse fired a salvo at point blank range, disrupting the charge of the Imperialist cuirassier and allowing the Swedish cavalry to counterattack at an advantage. The same tactics worked an hour or so later when the imperial cavalry charged the Swedish left flank. Following the rebuff of the seventh assault, General Banér sallied forth with both his light (Finnish and West Gaetlanders) and heavy cavalry (Smalanders and East Gaetlanders). Banér’s cavalry had been taught to deliver its impact with the saber, not to caracole with the hard-to-aim pistols or carbines,[10] forcing Pappenheim and his cavalry quit the field in disarray, retreating 15 miles northwest to Halle.

During the charges of the Cuirassiers, Tilly's infantry had remained stationary, but then the cavalry on his right charged the Saxon cavalry and routed it towards Eilenburg. There may have been confusion in the imperial command at seeing Pappenheim’s charge; in their assessment of the battle, military historians have wondered if Pappenheim precipitated an attempted double envelopment, or if he followed Tilly’s preconceived plan.[13] At any rate, recognizing an opportunity, Tilly sent the majority of his infantry against the remaining Saxon forces in an oblique march diagonally across his front.

Battle of Breitenfeld – Thwarting the Imperial attack, 17 September 1631
Swedish forces in Blue
Catholic army in Red
Battle of Breitenfeld – Annihilation, 17 September 1631
Swedish forces in Blue
Catholic army in Red

Thwarting the Imperial attack[edit]

Tilly ordered his infantry to march ahead diagonally to the right, concentrating his forces on the weaker Saxon flank. The entire Saxon force was routed, leaving the Swedish left flank exposed. Before the Imperial forces could regroup and change face towards the Swedes, the commander of the Swedish Left, Marshal Gustav Horn, refused his line and counter-attacked before the tercios could regroup and change face.[14]

Annihilation of the Imperial force[edit]

With the Imperial forces engaged, the Swedish right and centre pivoted on the refused angle, bringing them in line with Horn. Banér's cavalry, under the direct command of Gustavus Adolphus, attacked across the former front to strike the Imperial right and capture their artillery. As Tilly's men came under fire from their own captured batteries, the Swedish cannon, under Lennart Torstensson, rotated, catching the tercios in a crossfire.[15]

After several hours of punishment, nearing sunset, the Catholic line finally broke. Tilly and Pappenheim were both wounded, though they escaped. 7,600 Imperial soldiers were killed, and 6,000 were captured. The Saxon artillery was recaptured, along with all the Imperial guns and 120 regimental flags.[16]

Aftermath[edit]

The outcome of the battle had a significant impact in both the short and long terms.

Short-term effect[edit]

In the short term, the Catholic and Imperial forces were significantly hampered by the loss of most of the force. 120 standards of the Imperial and Bavarian armies were taken (and are still on display in the Riddarholm church in Stockholm).[13] After the battle, Gustavus moved on Halle, following the same track that Tilly had taken coming east to enforce the Edict of Restitution on the Electorate of Saxony. Two days later Gustav's forces captured another 3,000 men after a brief skirmish at Merseburg, and took Halle two days after that.

After the battle, the Catholic League or Imperial army under Tilly could field an army of only 7,000 men. The army had to be rebuilt. Gustavus Adolphus, on the other hand, had a larger army after the battle than before. The battle's outcome had the political effect of convincing Protestant German states to join his cause. Finally, with the seventy-two-year-old Tilly's recovery far from certain (and he did indeed die within six months while crossing the Lech river), and with no alternative commander at hand, Emperor Ferdinand II had no choice but to rehire Wallenstein.

Long-term consequences[edit]

For more details on Consequences of the Thirty Years' War, see Thirty Years' War § Political consequences.

The totality of the victory confirmed Gustav's military innovations and guaranteed that the Swedes would remain engaged in the war for the foreseeable future. In the long term, the significant loss of forces and the creation of a strong Protestant anti-Imperial force required the Emperor and the Protestant and Catholic princes to rethink on the operational conduct of the war, and the diplomatic avenues they would pursue with it.

Gustav's success encouraged several other princes to join the cause of the Swedish king and his few allies. By the month's end, Hanover, the Hessian dukes, Brandenburg and Saxony were officially aligned against the empire, and France had agreed to provide substantially greater funding for Gustavus' armies. Although Gustavus was killed a year later at the Battle of Lützen, the military strength of the alliance had been secured through the addition of new armies. Even when Swedish leadership faltered it did not fail, and the influx of French gold ensured that the hostilities could continue.[17]

Battlefield today[edit]

The battlefield today is bisected by the A14 autobahn, which slices through the fields where the majority of the action occurred, between the original position of Tilly, at Breitenfeld, and the original positions of the Swedes and Saxons, around Podelwitz.

Monument commemorating First Battle of Breitenfeld, 1631. Photo by Nino Schramm, 2005.

In the eastern portion of the village of Breitenfeld stands a monument to Gustav Adolf and the victory his army accomplished there in 1631. It was erected in 1831 on the two hundredth anniversary of the battle and bears the following inscription:

„Glaubensfreiheit für die Welt, rettete bei Breitenfeld – Gustav Adolf, Christ und Held. Am 7. September 1631."
Freedom of Belief for the World, saved at Breitenfeld, Gustavus Adolphus, Christian and Hero. 7 September 1631.

See also[edit]

Sources[edit]

Citations and notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c September 7 (old style or pre-acceptance of the Gregorian calendar in the Protestant region) September 17 (new style, or Gregorian dating), 1631.
  2. ^ The battle was fought at the crossroads villages of Breitenfeld 51°24′N 12°20′E / 51.400°N 12.333°E / 51.400; 12.333, Podelwitz 51°24′N 12°23′E / 51.400°N 12.383°E / 51.400; 12.383, and Seehausen 51°24′N 12°25′E / 51.400°N 12.417°E / 51.400; 12.417
  1. ^ http://www.cgsc.edu/CARL/nafziger/631XAC.PDF
  2. ^ a b Parker 1997, pp. 111–113.
  3. ^ a b Meade 1976, pp. 13–16.
  4. ^ a b Parker 1997, p. 130.
  5. ^ Parker 1997, p. 112.
  6. ^ Parker 1997, p. 110.
  7. ^ Meade 1976, p. 14.
  8. ^ a b Meade 1976, p. 174.
  9. ^ Jones 2001, p. 235.
  10. ^ a b Meade 1976, p. 175.
  11. ^ Tucker p.194
  12. ^ Davis p.292
  13. ^ a b Meade 1976, p. 179.
  14. ^ Davis p.292-293
  15. ^ Dodge, 2012
  16. ^ Davis, p.294
  17. ^ Parker 1997.

Bibliography[edit]