The 17th century oversaw the modernization of war, from upgrades in weaponry to revaluations of battle tactics, from the replacement of old arms with new ones to the invention of new army procedures and formations. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), in particular, was one of the largest battles of the century, and it was responsible for creating new dynasties and destroying others, with improved weapons of destruction. Commanders thought of creative strategies to outwit their enemies and new ways to up their efficacy in battle. In this blog, I will be looking at 10 of the most decisive battles of the Thirty Years’ War.
The first battle was fought at White Mountain on November 8, 1620, between the Catholic League and the Protestant Union, shortly after the deposition of Ferdinand II. Leading the Catholics was the Count of Tilly (1559-1632), a Catholic at birth who at one point considered becoming a Jesuit. With an army of 20,000 men, he went to White Castle to confront Protestant commander Christian of Anhalt, who had an army of 24,000. Tilly easily defeated the Protestants, banishing anything that was not Catholicism—a major setback to the Protestants.
The next major battle was fought six years later at Dessau Bridge on April 25. Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634), general of the Catholics, was originally a Protestant but converted to Catholicism, quickly amassing a great wealth for his time, his riches in the billions, it is thought. Wallenstein derived his riches from the land he owned, taxing them, contributing to his power, which he used to raise a massive army, taking with him 20,000 soldiers to defeat the Protestants. Having arrived at the bridge early, Wallenstein stored his weapons and ammunition beneath the bridge, hiding his men there, too, so he could launch a surprise attack on the enemy when they crossed. Ernst von Mansfeld (1580-1626) had no idea what he was walking into when he and his 12,000-man army crossed the bridge. Wallenstein ambushed Mansfeld, utterly destroying his army, using his artillery to blast them, then sending his troops to finish them off. When the smoke cleared, Wallenstein gained an effortless victory, the casualties numbering 4,000. Mansfeld, unlike Wallenstein, went from being a Catholic to being a Protestant; yet like Wallenstein, he was a highly requested general, for he was able to muster up an army whenever he wanted. His loyalty to the Protestants was weak, as he joined only for the money.
So far, the Catholics looked as though they were going to win, having devastated the Protestants in two major battles without breaking a sweat. This changed, however, on May 20, 1626. Imperial forces were launching a full-on siege at the town of Magdeburg, and for months they hammered at it in vain with their cannons. Eventually they brought down the walls, and the soldiers, drunk, rushed in, brandishing their weapons, slaying every innocent civilian, setting fire to the houses, raping women, killing children, stealing everything they could find, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. The massacre was horrendous, and it painted a bad picture of the Catholics. Tilly, who was on duty at the time, was blamed for the massacre, the event permanently tainting his reputation, labeling him a monster. Deaths are estimated to be between 20,000-25,000. It appeared the tides had changed.
Gustav “the Lion of the North” Adolf II of Sweden (1594-1632) had experience leading battles at a young age; upon taking the throne, he had to defend his kingdom from the Dutch and Polish. During that time, the Swedish army was pathetic, its navy even worse. But Gustav, ever the innovative commander, was able to take the untrained Swedish army and turn it into a war machine, hiring trained mercenaries, cutting down the army so that it consisted only of a select few men who were trained. When Wallenstein stepped foot in the Baltics, Gustav got worried and took action, sailing with his men to Pomerania to assist the townspeople at Magdeburg. The Swedish king liked to assemble his men into squadrons of 1,200-1,500 men, packing them six lines deep, alternating lines between pikes and muskets, backing them up with reserves. His tactics differed from other methods at the time, insofar as he prioritized mobility above all else, using only the lightest cannons, favoring the cavalry charge to break up his enemies. Meeting Tilly and Pappenheim at Breitenfeld on September 15, 1631, Gustav set up two lines of soldiers, his Saxon ally John George preparing alongside him. Tilly commenced a slow yet steady barrage of artillery strikes in order, he hoped, to inflict heavy damage upon the Swedish. His cannons were too far to be effective. Tilly used the Spanish formation of the tercio, which consisted of 1,500 musketeers and pikemen in large blocks. The pike, despite being outdated, was extremely popular, as it allowed soldiers to attack from afar, letting them penetrate armor. Pappenheim was getting anxious, so he and his side charged without Tilly’s consent. Using armored horse riders armed with wheel lock pistols, a recent invention allowing the gun to be charged mechanically, called cuirassiers, Pappenheim forced John George, who barely put up a fight, to flee, leaving Gustav to finish the fight by himself. The Swedish army managed to repel the cuirassier charges with their cavalry and arquebuses, or matchlock muskets, which used lead bullets at the time. After taking out the Swedes’ left flank, Pappenheim charged them seven times in a row, each time being rejected by the highly disciplined forces. Gustav sent in his reserves, wounding both Pappenheim and Tilly, forcing them to surrender. Of the 35,000 Catholics that fought, 8,000 of them perished; and of the 42,000 Swedish, 4,000.
The next year, Tilly was hit by a cannonball and died. It was at this time as well that the Battle of Lützen was fought on November 16. Wallenstein was assigned the task of defeating the seemingly unstoppable Gustav, but, come winter, he decided to retreat, 6,000 cavalry on the left, 13,000 footmen on the right. Gustav took advantage of this movement and followed them with his 12,800 men and 6,200 horses. Thick fog had enveloped the area, blinding both forces; Gustav attacked anyway, diving into the battle. About halfway through, Gustav, who always enjoyed leading his cavalry without armor, charged the Imperial forces. The king was wounded during the charge and died, his fellow commander Bernard of Weimar taking over. John Forbes, a soldier who partook in the battle, wrote,
They seing us marching toward them, they advanced likewise toward us, and come so close to an another that joyning battalions together, wee came to pushe of pike and disputed the buysinesse so long, till it pleased God, that we routed them, and gave us the victorie [sic].
The Swedish won the battle, despite losing their king, sustaining 5-6,000 deaths, whereas the Catholics lost 6-8,000 personnel.
Demoralized from the last battle, the Swedish lost again at Nördlingen in 1634. The date was September 6, and the Imperial Spanish had already set up their forces, half of them in front of the town, half of them situated on a hill. Their 20,000 men and 13,000 cavalry were to face off against the Swedes’ 16,000 men and 9,000 cavalry. The Swedish forces found themselves held up on a series of lower hills, and their plan was this: at daybreak, the forces would split up and attack through the valley and the town. Not to their aid was a wooded region through which they would have to traverse first. As they went through the woods, the army got confused, leading to friendly fire, the Swedish killing some of their own soldiers in the mix-up. Disoriented and weakened, the Swedish were like fish in a barrel, surrounded and taken out with ease by the Spanish. Friedrich Schiller said in his History of the Thirty Years’ War, “At this unfortunate moment a barrel of powder blew up, and created the greatest disorder amongst the Swedes. The imperial cavalry charged… and the flight became universal.” After the battle, 7,000 Swedes were dead, another 4,000 taken prisoner.
Once more, a reversal came on November 12, 1642 at the Second Battle of Breitenfeld. Catholics Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and Ottavio Piccolomini had 20,000 men, compared to the new Swedish commander Lennart Torstennson’s (1603-1651) 22,000 men. Similar to the first battle, the Catholics began with artillery fire, proceeding to send their cavalry. Torstensson fought off the invading forces in the left but in doing so lost the right side. He then wrapped around, using his remaining forces to strike the center, finishing off the Catholics. Outraged, Leopold court-martialed his commanding officers, decapitated those below them, and did the Roman tradition of decimation, killing every tenth soldier in line.
The Battle of Rocroi occurred on May 19, 1643, between French commander Duc d’Enghien (1621-1686) and Spanish commander Francisco de Melo. De Melo attacked the left flank and succeeded, while d’Enghien did the same to de Melo’s right. The French then struck the center, but the Spanish regrouped, resisting all further attacks. Determined to break their defenses, d’Enghien charged the Spanish four times, consecutively, until he finally broke them. Now surrounded the Spanish had no choice but to surrender. As the Spaniards were letting down their weapons, though, a stray gun fired, and the French, startled, slaughtered half of the Spanish soldiers on the spot. The Spanish had 8,000 men and 19,000 horses, of which 8,000 died and 7,000 were held captive; the French had 15,000 men and 7,000 horses. Rocroi proved d’Enghien’s battle skills—it should be noted, too, that he was only 22 at the time when he won the battle. He fought after the Thirty Years’ War, participating in the war against Louis XIV but was then recruited by him.
March 5, 1645 was the Battle of Jankov, where Torstensson beat the Imperial forces in an evenly matched battle of 15,000 men.
Finally, on March 17, 1648, the Battle of Zusmarshausen was fought. Peter Melander and Raimondo Montecuccoli went up against Henri, Vicomte de Turenne, by whom they were outnumbered. While retreating, Melander was killed and Montecuccoli was arrested. Later that year, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending the war.
 Grant, Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat, p. 151
For further reading:
100 Battles: Decisive Conflicts That Have Shaped the World by Martin J. Dougherty (2012)
Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat by R.G. Grant (2005)
Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders by R.G. Grant (2010)
Weapons: A Visual History of Arms and Armor by Paula Regan (2006)
War: The Definitive Visual History by Saul David (2009)