Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Great Victory that never was
Lutzen, 1632

Gustavus Adolphus (left) Wallenstein (right)

In a previous posting I reviewed a book1 on the Thirty Years War. In the review I stated that I felt that the reputation of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus was seriously overrated.

In fact this inflation of reputation is such that a sort of massaging of the actual historical record is required. An excellent example of that is the battle of Lutzen, November 16, 1632, during which Gustavus Adolphus got himself killed.

Now the mythologizing about Gustavus Adolphus is to a large extent from him being celebrated by military men and his use in Military colleges and other educational institutions as a an example of military genius. For example “Gustavus Adolphus was the one great captain of this century”2. What is interesting is that the very account of Gustavus Adolphus’ own military operations in the book do not support this assessment at all.3

In the nineteenth century celebrations of Gustavus Adolphus would break all barriers and approach incredible heights of hagiography and hero worship. An excellent example is Gustavus Adolphus, by Theodore Ayrault Dodge.4

This massaging is especially necessary when describing the battle of Lutzen and in fact what happens is in effect outright falsification. However before we go into the falsification let us review what actually happened before and during the battle.

Gustavus Adolphus had after his crushing victory at Breitenfeld, September 17, 1631, gone on to undue most of the successes achieved by the Imperial armies since 1618. In fact Gustavus Adolphus seemed to have become arbitrator of central Europe and on the verge of achieving final victory over the Emperor and giving the Protestant cause hegemony in central Europe.5

Of course those dreams were mere delusions and fantasies. Gustavus Adolphus managed to alienate many of his allies, and he, himself showed a singular lack of diplomatic ability. This was not helped by the fact that the Imperialists led again by Wallenstein staged a remarkable military recovery.6

The campaign that resulted is embarrassing to those who promote the idea that Gustavus Adolphus was a “Great Captain”. In a campaign of maneuver and entrenchments Wallenstein out thought Gustavus Adolphus.

Basically Wallenstein maneuvered Gustavus Adolphus into the city of Nuremburg and so stymied him that Gustavus Adolphus, his army wasting away from disease etc., in exasperation attacked Wallenstein’s entrenched army at Alte Veste, September 3 & 4, 1632. Gustavus was defeated losing at least 2,400 casualties, (probably more than 3,000). Wallenstein lost less than 1,000. Further c. 29,000 men had died in the Swedish camp and after the battle 11,000 men deserted his army. Shortly afterwards Gustavus Adolphus retired from Nuremberg intending to winter in Swabia, in southern Germany. Wallenstein instead of going into winter quarters invaded Saxony and by threatening to cut Gustavus Adolphus’ communications with Sweden forced the Swedish King to come north.7

So far in the contest between Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus, Wallenstein was winning.

The Saxons had sent most of their army into Silesia and so were almost entirely defenceless when Wallenstein invaded. He very quickly occupied large areas of the duchy.8

Gustavus Adolphus with his communications threatened had no choice but to go north, he also had to prevent his most important ally Saxony from making peace or going over to the Imperials. Further Gustavus Adolphus’ prestige had been seriously undermined by the campaign so far.

In this situation Gustavus decided he had to seek and win a battle to restore his prestige and shore up his faltering system of alliances.

Wallenstein had other ideas. Winter had set in and he was dispersing his army for winter quarters. Wallenstein just did not think Gustavus Adolphus would try for battle at this time of cold and when food was hard to find. Further Wallenstein had detached c. 5,000 men under Pappenheim, (at Pappenheim’s request) to reinforce Imperial garrisons in Westphalia and Wallenstein sent 2,500 men to watch the city of Torgau. Gustavus was almost desperate for a battle and Wallenstein, very ill, did not think anyone would want to fight a battle under the conditions prevailing.

Wallenstein when he found out that Gustavus Adolphus was marching on him gathered together what troops he could. Even so he only had c. 12,350 against Gustavus Adolphus’ c. 19,200. Wallenstein not surprisingly sent urgent requests to Pappenheim to return as soon as possible.9

It is entirely in order to praise Gustavus Adolphus for surprising Wallenstein at this stage and forcing a battle with him having a numerical advantage. For once Gustavus Adolphus had outsmarted Wallenstein. Gustavus Adolphus however proceeded to lose most of the advantage gained.

First Gustavus Adolphus was delayed for one day by a small cavalry detachment and second of all Wallenstein guessed what Gustavus Adolphus would do and planned accordingly.

Map of Battle of Lutzen
Swedes White, Imperials Black

Wallenstein took up position next to the village of Lutzen. He stationed troops in the village and posted musketeers in the road just out side his front lines. He organized his camp followers to suggest his army was larger than it was. Wallenstein guessed that Gustavus Adolphus would try to outflank him and so organized his army that Gustavus Adolphus would gain nothing from his manoeuvre except having to make another frontal attack. Of course Wallenstein sent another urgent message to Pappenheim and expected him to arrive just before or during the battle.10

The battle started at c. 10:00am in the morning when Gustavus Adolphus mounted an all out attack. This frontal attack made little progress has Gustavus Adolphus’ troops were unable to take Lutzen or the hill in front of it, (Windmill hill) where Wallenstein had posted artillery. Gustavus Adolphus’ troops were able to make progress on the other flank, but by then smoke from fire and gunpowder was making it difficult to see what was going on. About 1:00pm Pappenheim returned with 2,300 cavalry and drove the Swedes back on the flank that they had been pushing back. Pappenheim was killed in the attack. The battle now degenerated into mishmash of small units attacking and defending and both Gustavus Adolphus and Wallenstein largely lost control of the battle.

In the confusion Gustavus Adolphus was wounded twice by bullets the second wound killing him. His body was not retrieved until later. Moral in the Swedish army was adversely affected by Gustavus Adolphus’ death. It appears that at least some of the Swedish commanders suggested retreat but Bernard, a German in Swedish service, managed to get the Swedes to agree to more attacks. These attacks finally took Windmill hill and captured some of Wallenstein’s artillery.

Fighting subsided and finally ended around 5:00pm. About an hour later Pappenheim’s 3,000 infantry arrived. Wallenstein had suffered 3,000 casualties. The Swedes had suffered c. 6,000 casualties.

Wallenstein, ill and shaken by his severe casualties and unsure that Gustavus Adolphus was actually dead decided to retreat; abandoning his artillery. Interestingly the Swedes where on the point of retreat when they found out the Imperial army had withdrawn.11

So basically the battle was tactically indecisive although because of the Imperial retreat the Swedes were able to claim victory and certainly the imperial evacuation of Sweden’s ally Saxony after the battle would seem to indicate a strategic Swedish victory. However this “victory” had cost the life of Sweden’s King, created a dangerous situation in Germany for Sweden and put Gustavus Adolphus’ 8 year old daughter Christina on the throne.12

It was only Wallenstein’s retreat that allowed the Swedes to claim victory and that was likely the worst military decision Wallenstein ever made. Otherwise Wallenstein had managed to recoup quite successfully from being caught with his pants down and despite being outnumbered through out the battle, (this includes the reinforcements that arrived during it) had fought the battle to a draw and inflicted significantly greater casualties on his enemies. Gustavus Adolphus’ generalship just before and during the battle are not impressive. Gustavus Adolphus seems to have tried simply to use his large superiority of numbers to crush his enemy in an unimaginative frontal assault. Wallenstein was overall better that Gustavus Adolphus just before and during the battle. It was after the battle that Wallenstein lost it so to speak.13

Now calling this mess of a battle “a great Swedish victory”14 seems at best to be an exaggeration and most likely simply false.

Now my account of the battle is largely from Wilson’s book on the Thirty Years War,15 and it appears to be overall accurate. What do other accounts say?

Now accounts that describe the battle has a less than a stunning Swedish victory do exist and are not new.16 So this is hardly revisionism. It appears that the sources of this error are the result of a whole series of mistakes and revisions that work to inflate the Swedish kings reputation.

For example various accounts state that the Imperials either out numbered the Swedes or had equal numbers to them at the beginning of the battle. Even some of the accounts that dispute the idea of a “great Swedish victory” accept this. To give a few examples. Fuller gives Wallenstein 25, 000 men excluding Pappenheim who he says had 8,000 with him. He gives Gustavus Adolphus 18,000 men.17

The Dupuys give Wallenstein 20,000 men excluding Pappenheim’s 8,000. Gustavus Adolphus is given 18,000 men.18

Dodge says:

It is only certain that Gustavus’ army was much weaker than Wallenstein’s. It may have numbered eighteen thousand men, while the Imperialists can scarcely have had less than twenty-five thousand; and this number was to be reinforced by fully eight thousand more, whenever Pappenheim should come up.19

Parker states that both sides had about the same number of men; 19,000. It is unclear if Parker is including the forces of Pappenheim that arrived during and just after the battle. If it does the statement is true if it is meant to just indicate forces that each side had at the beginning of the battle it is incorrect.20

Wedgwood gives Swedish forces as c. 16,000 strong and gives Wallenstein including Pappenheim 26,000 men. Assuming that Wedgwood thought Pappenheim had c. 8,000 men this would give Wallenstein 18,000 men to Gustavus Adolphus’ 16,000.21

Thus Gustavus Adolphus’ actual out numbering Wallenstein by more than 50% at the beginning of the battle is turned into being slightly outnumbered or significantly outnumbered by Wallenstein. Even historians who do not buy the “great Swedish victory” myth accept part of the myth of at least equal odds at the beginning of the battle.

Further is the idea that all of Pappenheim’s 8,000 men during the battle arrived at once is stated in some accounts.22 This is false 2,300 arrived during the battle and 3,000 just after it ended. I further note that the forces Pappenheim brought to join Wallenstein did not number 8,000 but 5,300. Altogether with Pappenheim’s reinforcements Wallenstein had 17,650 men brought to the battlefield. As against Gustavus Adolphus’ 19,200 men.23

Now the matter of casualties Fuller gives the number as the Imperials losing 3-4,000 dead and the Swedes 1,500.24 Dodge gives Imperial casualties as between 10-12,000 and Swedish as comparable.25 Dupuy & Dupuy, give Imperial casualties has c. 12,000 and Swedish has c. 10,000.26 Parker gives the Imperial dead has 6,000 but gives no other casualties.27

The above figures have one thing in common they greatly inflate the actual casualties of the battle. As indicated above it appears that Swedish casualties were about double Imperial (6,000 against 3,000). Given the size of the armies involved these are certainly severe losses. But the figures giving more Imperial losses than Swedish are simply wrong and part of the effort to inflate the battle as “a great Swedish victory”. In fact rather than inflicting more losses than they suffered the Swedes in fact suffered double the losses of their enemy. But of course in order for it to be “a great Swedish victory” casualties must be large and the "loser" must lose more than the "winner".

Finally accounts of the battle must be amended Fuller for example says:
The King’s body was recovered, Wallenstein’s guns were retaken, then lost and captured again, but after this the Swedes carried all before them and the Imperial army broke up and scattered as night crept over the field.28
Well the part about recovering the King’s body and taking the guns is correct but the rest did not occur in this Universe but in an alternate one. Dodge however manages to be really over the top:

One more effort was made for the manes of the dead hero, and the charge was given with the vigor of loving despair. The decimated ranks of the Northlanders closed up shoulder to shoulder, the first and second lines were merged into one, and forward they went in the foggy dusk, with a will which even they had never shown before. Nothing could resist their tremendous onset. On right, centre, left, everywhere and without a gap, the Swedes carried all before them. The imperial army was torn into shreds and swept far back of the causeway, where so many brave men had that day bitten the dust. At this moment some ammunition chests in rear of the imperial line exploded, which multiplied the confusion in the enemy's ranks. Darkness had descended on the field; but the Swedes remained there to mourn their beloved king, while the imperial forces sought refuge from the fearful slaughter and retired out of range.29

No the Swedes did NOT sweep all before them. The Imperial army was NOT torn into shreds. Dodge is describing a battle that never happened. Dodge’s purple prose about the spirit of the dead hero Gustavus Adolphus and his men avenging his death is charming to read but not history but hagiography. Dodge then writes:
Lutzen has been called a drawn battle. It was unequivocally a Swedish victory.30
Well if you say so (sic). Dodge than goes on to give bogus imperial casualties, (12,000) and refer to Imperial units fleeing the battlefield. All of it quite mythical. Has I said before the Imperial army suffered about ½ the casualties of the Swedish army and withdrew it did NOT flee. But then Dodge’s hero Gustavus Adolphus must have a great victory in death even when he did not. Dodge is not finished however:
The Swedes had destroyed the last army of the emperor. At the opening of the year Ferdinand had been at the end of his resources, when Wallenstein came to his aid; and the great Czech had now been utterly defeated.31
This is a collection of falsehoods. The Swedes had NOT destroyed the “last” army of the Emperor. That army was still largely intact. Further the Emperor did have other armies although Dodge does not seem aware of them. Wallenstein was NOT utterly defeated in any sense. It is arguable that Wallenstein was not defeated at all. In fact in the coming year Wallenstein although gravely ill and probably not having much time to live would reach the height of his power, before a combination of his own arrogance and double dealing would lead to him being assassinated with the Emperor’s approval in early 1634.32

Dodge was engaged in what can only be described as telling a big lie that due to constant repetition is believed by so many. In this case the lie is the alleged great victory. Well there never was a great victory at Lutzen. Instead we have a bloody inconclusive battle that ended in a sort of victory for the side losing more men because the other side withdrew from the battlefield.

Gustavus Adolphus is credited with originating many of the features of modern armies, with creating a military machine of unique sophistication vastly superior to the armies of his enemies.33 An unbiased look at his campaigns and battles reveals that this is very overdrawn. His armies were not vastly superior to his enemies. The battle of Lutzen clearly indicates that Swedish superiority was not huge and that whatever elements Gustavus Adolphus’ army had that were superior could be countered. Further it does appear that Gustavus Adolphus although a very competent general was not greatly, if at all, superior to Wallenstein as a general.34

Dodge among many others contends that Gustavus Adolphus would have imposed peace and only his unfortunate death prevented it.35 This is pure fantasizing. This is the idea of the “Great Man” as Saviour and Messiah. It speaks of hero worship and yes again of hagiography. It does not belong in sober historical writing.

Of course a lot of this reflects the stunning long term success of the Swedish and their allies propaganda system that boosted the Swedish king and his accomplishments.36

Wedgwood in her book wrote a sober assessment of Gustavus Adolphus37 that should be required reading for all those who genuflect to the ghost of Gustavus Adolphus. In it Wedgwood writes of the relief of so many of Sweden’s allies in Germany and elsewhere that the Swedish king was dead. That his inability to make or implement practical or even reasonable diplomacy would no longer screw things up; that this bull in the china shop was gone. Wedgwood concludes:
…he [Gustavus Adolphus] could break the Habsburg Empire, but he could build nothing, and he left German politics, as he left her fields, a heap of shards.38
In the end peace was finally made in 1648 at Westphalia with much of the Empire in ruins and everyone exhausted.

In order to properly rate Gustavus Adolphus the battle of Lutzen must be properly evaluated and in this case what actually happened was not what so many since have thought happened. Thus did the real battle of Lutzen disappear down a memory hole to be replaced by a mythical “great victory” that never happened.

Europe in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia

1. Wilson, Peter H., The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MASS, 2009.

2. Dupuy, R. Ernest, & Dupuy, Trevor N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, Revised Edition, Harper & Row, Pub., New York, 1977, p. 522.

3. IBID, pp. 537-539, 573-574, 577.

4. Dodge, Theodore Ayrault, Gustavus Adolphus, Houghton Mifflin and Co., New York, 1895. See especially pp. 398-411.

5. Wilson, pp. 476-487, Fuller, J. F.C., A Military History of the Western World, v. II, Da Capo Press Inc., New York, 1955, pp. 64-66.

6. Wilson, pp. 485-487, IBID, Fuller, Wedgwood, C.V., The Thirty Years War, Penguin Books, London, 193, pp. 268-278.

7. Wedgwood, pp. 283-286, Wilson, pp. 501-506.

8. IBID.

9. Wilson, pp. 507-508, Fuller, pp. 68-69.

10. Wilson, pp. 506-508.

11. Wilson, pp. 507-511, Fuller, pp. 69-71, Wedgwood, pp. 287-291.

12. Wilson, pp. 512-519, Wedgwood, pp. 296-302.

13. Wilson, pp. 510-511.

14. Dupuy, Trevor N., The Military Life of Gustavus Adolphus, Scholastic Library Pub., New York, 1969, p. 147.

15. Wilson, pp. 507-511.

16. Wedgwood, pp. 289-291, Parker, Geoffrey, The Thirty Years War, Second Edition, Routledge, New York, 1997, pp. 117-118, also same author, Europe in Crisis, Fontana Books, London, 1979, p. 228. It is interesting to report that although Parker 1997, although reporting the battle has indecisive in the text has a map, (after p. 202 map 3 of the war) which lists the battle has a Swedish victory. Polisensky, J. V., The Thirty Years, New English Library, London, 1970, p. 212.

17. Fuller, pp. 69-70.

18. Dupuy & Dupuy, pp. 538-539.

19. Dodge, p. 384.

20. Parker, 1997, p. 117.

21, Wedgwood, pp. 287-288.

22. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 539, Fuller p. 71.

23. Wilson, pp. 507-511.

24. Fuller, p. 71. Fuller’s account of the battle is very brief pp. 68-71.

25. Dodge, p. 396-397.

26. Dupuy & Dupuy, p. 539.

27. Parker, 1997, p. 118.

28. Fuller, p. 71.

29. Dodge, p. 396.

30. IBID.

31. IBID. p. 397.

32. Parker, 1997, pp. 123-125.

33. Dupuy & Dupuy, pp. 522-524.

34. See Wilson, pp. 492-511.

35. Dodge, p. 397.

36, Parker, 1997, Plates 9-15, pp. 99-100, 112, Wilson, pp. 475-476, 511.

37. Wedgwood, pp. 291-295.

38. IBID, p. 295.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. Anonymous10:04 am

    Interesting, though not entirely persuasive. You're entire argument seems to rest upon the conclusions of one historian (Wilson), augmented perhaps by your own; and using his to refute (and heap scorn upon) those of virtually every other historian on the subject. Dodge, Wedgewood, Parker, Fuller, the Dupeys: all cited and discounted.
    I admit to not having read Wilson's work, and thank you for alerting me to his iconoclast thesis. I'll certainly pick-up a copy and consider his conclusions.

    Overall well written and elucidated. Good work.

  2. Actually Wilson is not terribly iconoclastic among modern historians who tend to down play just how "revolutionary" Gustavus Adolphus' army and achievements were. Wilson in many respects merely summarizes recent scholarship on the matter.

    There has been much work in the last generation on Gustavus Adolphus’ propaganda machine and how it exaggerated the achievements of the "Lion of the North". Sadly popular views have not caught up with this recent scholarship so that the popular view so to speak still maintains such utter nonsense has as a crushing Swedish victory in the battle of Lutzen.

    As for heaping scorn upon Wedgewood, Dodge, Parker, Fuller and the Dupey's - well. First Wedgewood was far from enamored with Gustavus Adolphus has indicated by the quote I use from her book. Parker for example although listing the battle has a Imperial defeat on a map on p. 208 describes the battle on p. 117-118 has tactically indecisive. Wedgewood pp. 289-290 also describes a battle that was indecisive tactically. Both mention that the Imperials withdrew has night fell.

    My problem is not those historians but with Dodge and those writers who based their accounts on him like Fuller and the Dupey's. Dodge's account is quite simply a travesty belied by the actual facts. Dodge describes a battle that never happened.

    The nonsense Dodge has about the last army of the Emperor being destroyed and the Imperial army being torn to shreds is simply nonsensical. Sadly far too many writers relied on Dodge and those that used him.

    More interestingly are questions about the respective sizes on the Swedish and Imperial army during the battle. Dodge, and Fuller for example maintain that the Imperials significantly outnumbered the Swedes at the start of the battle. (c. 25-26,000 men against 18-19,000). Interestingly both Wedgewood and Parker give both sides about equal numbers. (c.17-19,000 men). Only recently has it become well known among historians that it appears that it was the Imperials under Wallenstein were in fact significantly outnumbered at the beginning of the battle. Wilson merely summarizes this. It is not terribly iconoclastic.

    There emerged in the late 19th century the myth of Gustavus Adolphus "Great Captain", which relied heavily on the propaganda produced during the Kings lifetime and shortly afterwards. The result was risible nonsense like Dodge's.

    As for every other historian. Certainly Dodge's absurd star struck view is far from being widely accepted in fact today it is decidedly old fashioned and out of date.