Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=First Battle of Breitenfeld

caption=Gustavus Adolphus at the "Battle at Breitenfeld" .
partof=the Thirty Years' War
date=September 7 (O.S.)September 7 (old style or pre-acceptance of the Gregorian calendar in the Protestant region) September 17 (new style, or Gregorian dating), 1631.>
September 17, 1631 (N.S.) Ibid]
place=Breitenfeld, Saxony, north of Leipzig, present-day Germany
result=Decisive Swedish victory
combatant2=flag|Holy Roman Empire
[ [ Huszár (Hussar)] , [] ]
commander1=Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden
John George I, Elector of Saxony
Robert Munro, 18th Baron of Foulis
commander2=Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly
strength1=Sweden 23,500
Saxony 18,000 (deserted during onset of battle)
strength2= 31.300
casualties1=3,500 Swedes dead or wounded, 2,000 Saxons dead
casualties2=7,600 dead
6,000 captured
12,400 deserted
3,000 more captured
on September 19
(by pursuit at
Merseburg [Cite 1632|pp=pp. 287] )
The Battle of Breitenfeld ( _de. Schlacht bei Breitenfeld; _sv. Slaget vid Breitenfeld) or First Battle of Breitenfeld (sometimes First Breitenfeld) was a "World Changing Battle" [Cite 1632|pp=pp. 269|q=The Father of Modern War, Gustavus Adolphus almost certainly was not. But he may very well have been the Father of the Modern World. Because "then", at "that" place, at the moment when the Saxons broke and the Inquisition bade fair to triumph over all of Europe, the king of Sweden stood his ground. iAnd proved, once again, that the truth of history is always concrete. Abstractions are the stuff of argument, but the concrete is given. Whatever might have been, was not. Not because of tactics, and ...] fought at the crossroads village of Breitenfeld near the walled city of Leipzig on September 17, 1631Ibid]

Under the leadership of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the Protestant forces, which had previously been steadily and systematically defeated, achieved their first major victory during the Thirty Years' War. Afterwards Gustav II Adolf became famous and known soon thereafter as "Gustavus the Great". The key outcome was that it ensured that the Germanies would not be forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism or remain subject to the Holy Inquisition— that Gustavus had "all but destroyed" a Catholic field army (for the first time in over a century); that he had defeated a heretofore undefeated commander with twice his experience as a general— was all just icing on the cake, of interest mainly only to students of military science.

A monument to Gustavus, the Swedish king, was later erected on the battle site two centuries later, since he had ensured the principle of religious freedom for all by his victory that day. It is true, at least in Europe, despite the later confirmation by treaty of the base cause underlying the near-century of religious conflicts, of the principle of cuius regio, eius religio during the Peace of Prague (1635). While an individual's freedom of belief in the Germanies had to wait for changes induced by Napoleon, at least the first steps leading to peace and some stability of religion across the region were established by the battle's outcome and that of its successors. Under the statue of Gustavus the Great, the monument's simple inscription reads:cquote|"FREEDOM OF BELIEF FOR ALL THE WORLD" [Cite 1632 |pp= pp. 270] The victory confirmed the Swedish king as a great tactical leader and induced many Protestant German states to ally themselves with Sweden against the German Catholic League lead by Maximilian of Bavaria, and the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II of Austria.

Gustavus reforms the army

After coming to power in 1611, Gustavus had campaigned in Poland and Prussia with mixed but mainly good results [cite 1632
pp=275|q=The first Imperial cavalry charge shattered against Horn's defense. The Catholic horsemen had been astonished at the speed with which the Swedes took new positions. They had been expecting the sluggish maneuvers of Continental armies. IOthers could have warned them. The Danes and Poles and Russians had been bloodied enough, over the past twenty years, by Gustav's small army. The Danes could have told them of Borgholm, Christianopel, Kalmar, and Waxholm—all places where a teenage Swedish king had bested them. The Russians could have told them of Angdov, and Pleskov, and the Poles could have recited a very litany of woe: Riga, Kockenhusen, Mittau, Bauske, Walhof, Braunsberg, Frauenbeurg, Tolkemit, Elbing, Marienburg, Dirschau, Mewe, Putzig, Wörmditt, Danzig, Gurzno, and the Nogat.
] . [cite 1632
pp=275|q=In all those years Gustav II Adolf had suffered defeats as well. The Danes had beaten him at Helsingborg, and the Poles at Honigfeld. But the Danes and the Poles could have warned the forces under the Hapsburg banner of the incredible elasticity of the Swedish king. He rebounded from reverses with renewed energy, using defeat as his school.
] . Using "classical" formations of pike and shot and cavalry armed with pistols and sabres, Gustavus suffered a number of reverses at the hands of the Polish and Russian cavalry. After concluding a temporary peace and returning to Sweden, Gustavus set about reforming his army, first using the more modern "Dutch formations", and then adding several innovations of his own. (It is because of this sequence of evolutionary changes that some dispute that he invented modern warfare. That he revolutionized it, in the end of day, is beyond doubt.) Primary among these was the abandoning of the traditional "pike square", the unmaneuverable Tercio, for a more mobile longer rectangular formation not nearly as deep.

Another major change was to his cavalry deployments and usage. In traditional battle tactics, the cavalry lined up on either side of the primary infantry force, protecting their flanks. In most battles, the cavalry forces would attempt to drive off the opposing force, exposing the infantry's flank. It was considered the offensive arm, the prestigious force, and most commanders gave it precedence over the other types of units—this is no doubt cultural as well, for most cavalry was made up of younger noblemen, of those with lesser prospects (second and third sons, et. al. who would not inherit lands and property) or their relations for no others could afford expensive horses.

In order to upset the balance of what was largely one-on-one cavalry-on-cavalry combat, Gustavus mixed infantry heavily weighted with musketmen among the cavalry in their "starting positions" on the flanks. This allowed opposing cavalry to be attacked at long range, before their pistols became useful, the thinner pike wall was sufficient to prevent breakage of the line, through which the cavalry of Gustavus could withdraw and reform while protected by the infantry. Normally detached infantry would be easily run down, but by being placed in the midst of the cavalry, if the opposing force did rush they would do so right into the Swedish cavalry's own pistols. It was Gustavus' policy to have each arm support the other, so demonstrating an early appreciation of the benefits of combined arms tactics, though long before the term was coined. In the traditional square, muskets at the rear or sides of the formation could not fire effectively due to the ranks in front. The Dutch had thinned out their formations to place more men at the front, a concept Gustavus took much further, turning his formations into rectangles only six ranks deep (as opposed to ten or more). This became known as a linear formation, and in historical terms, by one modification or another, it persisted thereafter in warfare right up to World War II. Additionally, whereas the typical pike-and-shot formation placed the shot on the flanks of a full pike square in the middle to overcome the friendly fire issue mentioned above, Gustavus placed most of the shot at the front, with the pike at the sides strictly in support, with a smattering of pike to keep charging cavalry at bay. In the common tercio of the day, the ratio of pikes to shot was generally about 2:1; Gustavus's armies were recast to ratios between 3:2 and sometimes approached 1:1—giving his forces a much greater amount of long range fire power.

Along the same line of "rate of fire" thinking, he also placed small cannons, or so called infantry guns among the units (Highly mobile, lightweight three-pound brass cannon, by some called the worlds' first field artillery). Loaded with canister or grapeshot as formations closed, they were devastating—huge shotguns capable of gutting an opponents formations. At long ranges, they employed solid shot aimed to bounce through the enemy's ranks doing nearly as much damage. This positioning allowed his battalions to continue to have cannon support even if the battalion became detached from the main force, or was deployed so that it was isolated from the bigger guns that were normally always massed at the center of the field by prior practitioners of tactics.

These changes also made Gustavus's formations much easier to maneuver on the battlefield; whereas the line formations he fielded could easily turn to face a new direction, compared to the squares everyone else had been using— where the line of march was typically fixed (else the unit would spear each other in turning the unwieldy pikes) once a unit took up positions in the field—his forces were able to change facings and march a different direction lightning fast. Gustavus' main formations could easily be re-aligned, even those where his mixed units used his concept of combined arms, although at the cost of some confusion while the pikemen reformed on the shot's flanks, the cavalry paraded back around and came up again, etcetera. Only Napoleon in a much later day was as famed for his ability to turn the attack on a field of battle while the battle raged in all its confusion.


Gustavus was considered a minor concern in western Europe, as his only battles to this point were the inconclusive ones like at Honigfelde in Prussia against Imperial troops under Hans Georg von Arnim-Boitzenburg sent by emperor Ferdinand to aid hetman Koniecpolski troops of Sigismund III of Poland-Lithuania, which ended in Fall 1629 with the Truce of Altmark. When Gustav Adolph landed with a force of 13,000 men at Peenemünde in 1630, the commander of the Imperial Commander and Champion of the German Catholic League, Tilly, did not immediately respond, being engaged in what seemed to be more pressing matters. Over the next few months Gustavus was able to consolidate his bridgehead and moved to expand out across northern Germany, gaining mercenary forces along the way and expanding his army to 24,000 men.

In late August 1631, Tilly invaded Electoral Saxony in hopes of forcing its ruler, John George I, to abandon an alliance he planned to conclude with Gustavus. The Swedish king responded by uniting his army with the elector's 18,000-man forces, hoping to fight Tilly and force him to leave Saxony. Tilly arrayed his forces north of Leipzig at Breitenfeld and prepared to meet Gustavus Adolphus.

In the Catholic army battle to four hungarian and a croatian mounted regiment. [ [ Huszár (Hussar)] , [] ] [Z. Barczy – Gy. Somogyi: Hungarian Hussars (Magyar huszárok), Móra P., 1987]

Forming up

The Imperial and Catholic League forces arranged their army in regiments of infantry and cavalry. The infantry formed up in large blocks of about 1500 men each, with a front of 150 men and a depth of 10 men. The center comprised pikemen with supporting units of musketeers on each flank. The Imperial army comprised fourteen such formations, twelve arranged in groups of three blocks, with the center block placed slightly ahead of the other two. The final two regiments were attached one each to the right and left wings. The cavalry was drawn up on each flank; Pappenheim commanding the left, and Fürstenburg, the right. The left flank was close by Breitenfeld; the right, by Seehausen. Tilly had no reserves except for some cavalry placed behind his infantry.

Gustavus Adolphus, however, arranged his forces in two long lines. Each line was five men deep for pikemen, and six men deep for musketeers. The use of linear tactics enabled Gustavus to create a front that matched Tilly's, while still giving him troops to keep in reserve. The Elector of Saxony arranged his forces in the traditional formation on the Swedish left, and all commanders placed most of their cavalry on their flanks. Since the Swedish and Saxon forces deployed separately, this placed cavalry in their center as well as on their flanks.


The combined Swedish-Saxony forces were oriented to the north of Leipzig centered about hamlet of Podelwitz facing down the road towards Breitenfeld and Leipzig. The battle began around noon with a two hour exchange of artillery fire, during which the Swedish fire power was demonstrated in a rate of fire of three-to-five volleys to oneCite 1632
pp= pp. 268-269
note=Flint's description of the details confirms this paragraph (as it was) in nearly all details. The only additions are the name of Pappenheim's Black Cuirassiers and the identity of the light cavalry, and the 'military-speak' about extending the line... for which about which I've clarified the text.
q="Pathetic the Swedish nags might be, but there was nothing pitiful about the men astride them. Neither they, nor the infantrymen who formed their shield. Seven times his Black Cuirassiers had charged the Swedish line. Seven times they had been beaten back—and then routed by a countercharge." (etcetera)
] . This uneven exchange ended when Count Pappenheim led a charge of the heavy cavalry on Count Tilly's left. These cuirassiers, the famous "Pappenheim's Black Cuirassiers"Ibid] , advanced seven timesIbid] , but each time was turned back by the Swedes, whose muskets proved upsettingly bloodthirsty, and whose combined arms formation remained unshakenIbid] . Swedish reserve cavalry (Swedish and Finnish light cavalryIbid] ) were also able to extend the Swedish line and at times countercharge with sabers against the Imperial cavalry while Field Marshal Banér held his heavy cavalry in place with their fire power aiding the infantry pouring fire into the confused Black CuirassiersIbid] . Gustavus had also trained his men to aim for the cavalry mounts, and the falling horseflesh did nothing good for the Catholic formations. The same tactics would work a while later in the charge against the Swedish left.Cite 1632
pp= pp. 276
q=Those men were mercenaries when all was said and done. They could not afford to loose their precious horses. And they had already learned, as Pappenheim's men before them, that the Swedish tactic against heavy cavalry was aim arquebus and pike at the horses. They had been trained and instructed in that method by their king. Gustav Adolf had long understood that his Swedish ponies were no match for German chargers. So kill the chargers first.
] Following the defeat of his seventh assault, General Banér sallied with both his light (Finnish and West GothlandersCite 1632
pp= pp. 274-275
] ) and heavy cavalry (Smaanders and East GothlandersIbid] ) and Pappenheim and his cavalry quit the field in disarray, retreated to HalleIbid] . He was initially pursued by some Swedish cavalry, but these were called back by GustavusIbid] while the Swedish guns continued to pound the troops of the Catholic LeagueIbid] .

During this time, Tilly's infantry remained stationary, but then the cavalry on his right charged the Saxon cavalry and routed it towards Eilenburg. Seeing an opportunity, Tilly sent the majority of his infantry against the remaining Saxon forces in an oblique march diagonally across his front, and the whole Saxon body fled the field and stopped only briefly to loot the Swedish camp.

Tilly thus defeated forty percent of his enemy and was seemingly poised to deliver a devastating flank attack on the Swedish forces. As Tilly was ordering his infantry to march ahead diagonally to the right, looking to roll up the Swedish line on its abandoned left, Gustavus was able to reorder his second line, under the capable and steady General Gustav Horn, into an array at a right angle to the front, in a maneuver known as refusing the flank. The Swedish line thus developed a strong angle anchored in the new center under General Lennart Torstenson about the artillery with its preposterously high of rate of fire for the era. Tilly's right flank cavalry preceded his infantry who had yet to engage, save for the Musketeers. Tilly's seventeen Tercios could only angle across the field, as Tercios don't turn easily owing to the length of pikes extending through the faces of the essentially square formations. As they advanced obliquely, it left the Swedish right uncovered and free.

While this was taking place, the Swedish cavalry re-formedIbid] , and then preceded by the Finnish light cavalry (Hakkapeliittas), personally lead by Gustavus a few minutes ahead of Field Marshal Banér's heavier units, attacked across the former front to capture the Imperial artillery, followed by the shortly thereafter by Banérs heavy cavalry and three regiments of infantry. This not only freed up the Swedish field guns from engaging in the ongoing artillery duel, but allowed Gustavus' cross-trained cavalry to turn the captured Imperial guns upon Tilly's seventeen, now out flanked and badly out of position, Tercios.

With the captured artillery hurriedly re-deployed into a new line angled so it could fire on the catholic body while enjoying a position slightly to the rear of the Catholics on what was now the extreme right flank of the developing infantry battle, the unwieldy Catholic infantry was trapped and caught in a crossfire of grazing artillery balls which were aimed to bounce and careen into the rank and files between knee and shoulder height—killing and wounding dozens with each ball.Ibid] With these guns cutting into one end of Tilly's line, and the Swedish center showing no signs of breaking, the exchange of gunfire soon wore down the Imperial troops, and their lines ground to a halt against Horn's infantry.Ibid]

After several hours of punishment, nearing sunset, they finally broke. Tilly was injured twice, regaining his horse after the first, both times by a so-called "piece of battle"—artillery propelled debris, such as a careening pikehead.Ibid] He was carted off to safety under the cover of night, unconscious during the ensuing retreat, which quickly became a rout as the Catholic forces reached the nearby woods. The totally disorganized and demoralized force effectively lost all cohesion after the fall of night, and the desertion rate was consequently higher than the battle losses.Ibid] In effect, Gustavus had entirely destroyed the only army the Catholics had in the field, reducing them to an defensive posture. The result, with Tilly's recovery at the age of seventy-two far from certain, gave Emperor Ferdinand II no choice but to rehire Wallenstein.

The world had changed. The "Lion of the North" was now loose in central Germany, and there was nothing left to stop him. Eleven years of successive Protestant defeats were set aside in one pivotal historic moment. Gustavus could take his army anywhere in the Germanies as he desired. He elected to proceed rapidly on Halle, following the track back that Tilly had taken coming east to enforce the Edict of Restitution on the Electorate of Saxony. Two days later his forces captured another 3,000 men after a brief skirmish at Merseburg, and took Halle two days after that.


The Battle of Breitenfeld served as major endorsement of the linear tactics of Gustavus Adolphus. He was able to inflict more than sixty percent casualties on his opponent, and made up his own losses in recruited prisoners. After the battle, the Catholic League or "Imperial army" under Tilly only had 7,000 men left. Gustavus Adolphus, on the other hand, had a greater army after the battle than before. The battle's outcome also had the political effect of convincing Protestant states to join his cause. France later supported the militarily strong but economically weak Sweden—from 1630 to 1632, the cost of Gustavus' army was shorted by 80%, but the strength was increased to over 350%.Fact|date=February 2007

ee also

* Breitenfeld (1631) order of battle


* C.V. Wedgwood, "The Thirty Years War" (New York: Book of the Month Club, 1995)
* Richard A. Preston, et al., "Men in Arms," 5th ed., (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1991)
* Archer Jones, "The Art of War in the Western World" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)

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