It is rarely kings who die in battle. Notable exceptions to this rule include Harold II (Hastings), Richard III (Bosworth), and James IV (Flodden). And of all the many battles of the Thirty Years’ War, it’s perhaps Lützen that most deserves detailed analysis, as it added another name to this roll-call of reigning monarchs who got too near the action.
One of the war’s most significant tussles, the Battle of Lützen, on 16 November 1632, was arguably a narrow Swedish victory. However, it came at considerable cost as the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, was killed. It was otherwise a relatively even contest, with around 19,000 troops on either side, and similar numbers of casualties: around 5,000-6,000 for both the Swedish-German Protestant allies and the Imperial forces of the Holy Roman Emperor. In this, Lützen stands as an exemplar of the wider war, illustrating how well-matched the sides were, and how hard it was to achieve an advantage.
Build-up: Swedish advance
As we have seen, the Thirty Years’ War entered a new phase in July 1630, when Sweden and its king, Gustavus II Adolphus, entered the conflict. Prominent among his war aims was an extension of Swedish hegemony at the expense of Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor – or, put more defensively, securing Sweden from Imperialist aggression. By the spring of 1631, the Swedes’ beachhead in Pomerania, on the Baltic’s southern shore, was secured – so Adolphus began his long march south, aiming for Catholic Bavaria. Adolphus achieved a thumping victory at Breitenfeld, north of Leipzig, on 17 September 1631. The wars had by then churned for more than a dozen years but this was the Protestants’ first major success. Adolphus crossed the Rhine on 17 November, establishing winter quarters as the campaigning season waned.
In April 1632, Adolphus crossed the River Lech, near the Bavarian town of Rain, where Baron von Tilly, commander of the Catholic League, was killed in battle. On 17 May, Adolphus captured Munich, the Bavarian capital – a high-water mark for Swedish endeavours in this phase of the war. It had been an extraordinary advance from his Baltic landing, marching south-west, then south-east. For his part, the Emperor hoped a recalled Albrecht von Wallenstein – appointed generalissimo just over a month before Munich’s fall – might save him. The summer of 1632 saw Adolphus bogged down with siege and counter-siege at Nuremberg, while Wallenstein’s move into Saxony threatened his route back to the Baltic.
On 7 November, Adolphus concentrated his forces at the city of Erfurt, dining with his wife for the last time. On the 12th, he found his quarry – at Weissenfels, 80km to the north-west, where Wallenstein had shifted HQ – but didn’t risk battle against a superior foe, waiting for reinforcements instead. The lack of aggression from Adolphus convinced Wallenstein that he was secure. On 13 November, Wallenstein opted to withdraw, content that Adolphus’ army was ‘totally ruined’ after the events at Nuremberg. The dispersal began the following morning. On Sunday 14th, Adolphus was informed – and early the next morning, his forces began approaching the Imperial army, intending to strike while it was divided. The Swedish vanguard caught the Imperial rearguard at the Rippach, a tributary of the Saale River, about 5km south of the town of Lützen. Although the skirmish was brief, with the main Swedish army crossing, Adolphus was out of time on the 15th, with light fading and forcing him into camp. The night’s respite allowed Wallenstein to re-form, including summoning back field marshal Count Gottfried Pappenheim, who had intended to resume his campaign in north-west Germany. Now, Adolphus and Wallenstein were around a mile apart.
An even contest
Lützen was typical of the war, a protracted slog between evenly matched opposition. There were around 19,000 troops either side (around half those involved at Breitenfeld). At the time of Lützen, Adolphus commanded some 150,000 troops on German soil, so just a fraction was deployed, with most Swedish and Finnish infantry guarding supply lines. Relatively speaking, it was a modest affair. The Swedish army is accurately counted at 12,786 infantry and 6,210 cavalry, a total of 18,996, with 60 cannon. There were British troops involved: the regiment of Ludovick Leslie, the Scottish colonel who transferred to Swedish service in c.1629, including the remnants of six Scottish and English units. Adolphus happily utilised mercenaries and employed Lutherans and Calvinists in this capacity, shoring up fault lines on the Evangelical side. The cannon were noteworthy. Adolphus took a special interest in artillery and oversaw the weapon’s transformation from army novelty to battle-winning force, aided by his country’s rich metal reserves and new alloys that permitted lighter barrels. Firing speed was increased by having cartridges fastened to powder charge by wire – a simplification of an otherwise laborious manoeuvre – which saw Swedish cannon firing three shots to their opponents’ two.
The Imperial force initially mustered 9,870 infantry and 6,900 cavalry – a total of 16,770, with 38 cannon – but this disparity was rectified when Pappenheim arrived with another 2,300 cavalry, bringing the total strength to 19,070, with an equine advantage. There was more diversity in Wallenstein’s army, with forces garnered from throughout Catholic Europe, its German, Austrian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Croat and Italian contingents giving it a cosmopolitan flavour. Homogeneity when the firing started was another matter. There was a battle cry for Lützen, ‘Jesus, Maria!’, which hopefully the polyglot Imperial formations understood as it identified them as being on the same side. The religious nature of the conflict was also emphasised by the cry chosen by Adolphus for this battle, ‘Gott mit uns!’ (God with us), which had brought luck at Breitenfeld.
Strategy and dispositions
Wallenstein halted at the small town of Lützen, some 20km south-west of Leipzig. His front line stood on the post road to Leipzig, running north-east from Lützen for some 2.5km to where there was a bridge over the Flossgraben canal. On the other, south-western side of the field was another canal heading into Lützen, the Mühlgraben, which was fordable across boggy ground. Wallenstein entrenched the drainage ditches on either side of the road. At the western end of his front line, just to the eastern side of Lützen, were three windmills on a modest hill, where Wallenstein plonked most of his cannon; a smaller battery was on the other flank. Lützen was surrounded by garden walls, which provided cover for Imperial musketeers eager to fire into the Swedish left wing. Wallenstein had the perfect position for holding the line, one that was hard to outflank, with the Flossgraben protecting his left wing and Lützen his right.
Adolphus’ dilemma was how to shift Wallenstein from his strong defensive position before reinforcements arrived. He lined his forces up in three ‘battles’ as per medieval armies, Adolphus commanding cavalry on the right, which was mixed with infantry, with field marshal Dodo zu Innhausen und Knyphausen in reserve. Infantry under Count Nils Brahe and cannon occupied the centre, with Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar commanding cavalry on the left, again mixed with infantry, supported by Christian of Anhalt in reserve. Imperial forces were commanded by Wallenstein (on the right), who galloped the line during the battle; the Danish-German mercenary Heinrich Holk (on the left), who would hand over to Pappenheim when he arrived; and Rudolf von Colloredo (in the centre). Cannon were mostly on the right, with a smaller number left of centre. The Imperial army set up with infantry and cavalry supporting one another, with the cavalry mostly on the wings and a greater preponderance of infantry in the centre, the infantry arranged in three lines with five ‘bodies’ in the front line, three in the second, and one in the third, so resembling a reverse arrowhead.
Both the Imperial right and Swedish left were anchored by Lützen, while the front lines stretched in a rough south-west to north-east alignment. The more open attack for Adolphus was on his right, the Imperial left, where he hoped to turn the enemy flank thereby cutting Wallenstein’s retreat towards Leipzig and Bavaria. It was the right wing of the Swedish army that was therefore bolstered, with the King assuming personal command. There was a frustrating wait, however, as morning mist delayed the early assault he’d planned.
Battle is joined
The Swedish approach occurred between 7.30 and 9am on 16 November, fog preventing a pre-dawn move; the first sighting of the advancing army being in the last half-hour of that time. The first Imperial troops seen would probably have been a contingent of Croat cavalry positioned ahead of the front line on the right, to the side of Lützen’s garden walls. Adolphus crossed the Flossgraben, which snaked across his line of advance. Some likely used the bridge at the nearby village of Meuchen, which ended up to the rear of the King’s second line of battle, while others constructed makeshift crossings.
Lützen became an all-day tug-of-war. There was an ineffectual artillery exchange at around 10am, which persuaded Adolphus to change his steed for a less-spooked one. With Croats also evident on the Imperial left, Adolphus took three squadrons from the reserve to beef up his attack on the right, and to reduce any threat of being outflanked himself. In terms of overall numbers, Adolphus had an opening advantage with considerably more infantry, but this would be nullified the longer the battle lasted as more Imperial reinforcements arrived, including Pappenheim. It was now that Wallenstein torched Lützen, a defensive move stopping Adolphus from taking it intact and achieving an outflanking manoeuvre on the Imperial right. The wind blew smoke towards the attacking Swedes, inconveniencing them as much as the mist. At about 11am, the King’s battle lines began their final advance. The line began as one entity, but the smoke sowed confusion, leading to sections acting independently. The reserve line lay 500-600 paces behind.
Wallenstein had not anticipated Adolphus’ opening gambit. Expecting him to attack the strongest part of the Imperial line, Wallenstein braced for the blow in the centre, where he commanded most of the infantry; instead, he saw his left assailed. It was here on the Swedish right where all hell broke loose. Adolphus used his Finnish horse to see off the Croats screening the Imperial left; but it was what lay behind – Imperial cuirassiers – that troubled him. Wallenstein’s ruse on this flank was to stick his camp followers in the rear, making it look like he had more combatants than in actuality; it backfired as the Finnish charge caused the non-combatants to bolt, sowing confusion as Croats and baggage handlers looted their own baggage train as they quit the field. Another part of Wallenstein’s set-up had fared better, his entrenching of roadside ditches presenting an obstacle to Adolphus’ cavalry. While the King ordered his musketeers to engage, he shuffled right with his cavalry to find a way around. Meanwhile, to Adolphus’ left (but still right of centre), infantry led by Brahe had nullified the smaller of the two Imperial batteries.
The left wing presented greater difficulty as Bernhard faced the larger of the two Imperial batteries – the one placed just to the eastern side of Lützen, on the high ground next to the group of three windmills, with the adjacent building known as the Miller’s House also rammed with Imperial musketeers – while Lützen itself, ablaze on the left, had more musketeers lining garden walls into which they’d punched loopholes. There was also that screen of Croat cavalry, who might prove more effective than their colleagues on the other side. Whether Bernhard could have held this side and relied on Adolphus to win the battle on the right is doubtful as time was short. With Pappenheim expected to join and achieve overall parity, it seemed speed was paramount if the Imperial line was to be rolled up. Screened by smoke, Bernhard’s attack met with initial success. The Croats were scattered and roadside ditches taken, before a rumbustious struggle began around the Miller’s House. Bernhard’s cavalry was held up by Imperial cavalry, while the infantry assault wobbled before the battery and musketry. Casualties on both sides were heavy but Bernhard’s attack lost its initial momentum and was repulsed.
The delayed start mattered as it enabled Pappenheim to arrive at around 12-12.30pm with 1,500-2,000 cavalry, shoring up the Imperial left, which was threatened with rout. This came at personal cost, however, as he was felled by an enemy cannon ball and three musket balls. Never one to hold back, the field marshal personally led the counter-attack but was mortally wounded, removed from the field to expire in a Leipzig-bound coach. Shorn of its inspiration, the counter-attack died. The Swedish position on the right reasserted itself, although the centre-right was more confused where Imperial troops were pushed back from roadside ditches but then rallied thanks to Ottavio Piccolomini’s cavalry, leaving a mêlée of Imperial cavalry and Swedish infantry. With the mist descending again, it was impossible for Adolphus to push on. It was also in this foggy chaos that he was killed.
Arguably Europe’s greatest general before Napoleon, Adolphus perished leading a charge to resolve the tussle on the Swedish centre-right. Heading his Småland horse, Adolphus was struck by a bullet, which smashed his left arm and forced him to retire with his entourage. Fate dictated that Piccolomini’s cavalry smote clean through the Smålanders just as the King was vulnerable and being led back to the Swedish lines. Imperial cuirassiers were on them, one firing a pistol into Adolphus’ back before being shot by the King’s stablemaster. Adolphus was done for, however, the victim of several rapier thrusts as what remained of his entourage fled, then finished off with a bullet in the head.
The next move came in the centre, where the Swedish Yellow Brigade advanced only to be halted by an Imperial musket salvo, with the Blue Brigade supporting to its right, walking into some of Wallenstein’s best troops, held up by infantry, then taken in the flanks by cuirassiers. The near destruction of Adolphus’ Yellow and Blue Brigades saw his best infantry regiments all but wiped out. Fortunately for the Swedes, the mist favoured neither side; and unable to see far enough to contemplate advancing, the Imperial centre consolidated, regrouping behind the post road. It was as well, for the drama on the Imperial left would soon be replicated on the right.
The Swedish left
With the Swedes now leaderless and facing defeat, Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, commanding the Swedish left, stepped up. It was shortly after 1pm when he attacked the Imperial right for a second time, bolstered by reserves and late-arriving field artillery. With musketeers clearing the defended walled gardens, Bernhard’s cavalry made ground, forcing the Imperial horse back. It looked like it was Bernhard’s action that would decide the battle as there was a chance he would outflank the Imperial right wing. The Imperial army was not under such pressure on the left following Adolphus’ death, however, and Holk took advantage, rallying what he could, including Pappenheim’s men, and throwing them into the right. It was enough. Bernhard’s cavalry couldn’t maintain its advance and started to fall back. It was crisis time for the Swedes, who had lost crack infantry in the centre, were held up on the right, and were now retreating on the left. To add to their predicament, they also nearly got overtaken in the rear by Croat horse trying to circle round on the Imperial left. That threat was averted but panic was setting in.
Swedish crisis overcome
The death of a leader spreads panic through the ranks – but the Swedes steadied and held. The story is that the court chaplain, Jakob Fabricius, led the men in the singing of the psalm ‘Sustain us by Thy mighty Word’ and fight was restored to Swedish bellies. There may be mythology around Adolphus’ death – with his men rallying, intent on avenging their monarch. In his book Lützen 1632, historian Richard Brzezinski opts for less romance, arguing that the Swedes fought on because news of the King’s death was hushed. It was Knyphausen steadying the ship in the centre and right, by rallying the reserve line, which saw the smaller of the Imperial batteries taken for a second time as the battle fluctuated. By 3pm, Bernhard’s effort on the left had failed. Finding Knyphausen in the centre, and being assured the reserve was intact for an orderly withdrawal, Bernhard assumed command. A tactical withdrawal was the last thing on his mind, however, as he resolved to avenge Adolphus’ death.
There was a 30-minute lull before the final Swedish assault between 3.30 and 5pm. The Imperial remnants must have rubbed their eyes as the Swedes advanced again and their reserves were pushed into the front line to plug gaps – fresh troops the Swedes mistook for Pappenheim’s infantry (still up to three hours’ distant). It was time for close-quarters combat – including ‘push of pike’. As light faded, Bernhard managed to infiltrate the windmill position and capture Wallenstein’s cannon, while the latter, ignoring urgings from his surviving colonels, elected for a withdrawal to Leipzig (this despite Pappenheim’s foot rolling in at 6pm offering the Imperialists the option of contin,uing into a second day). With darkness falling, Bernhard’s symbolic taking of the artillery meant little as the Imperial army began retreating at about 8pm. Ironically, the Swedish army was already planning to retreat when it learnt the Imperial army had scarpered. Come 11 o’clock on the following morning (17 November), the Swedes also began vacating the field.
The Swedes suffered around 6,000 casualties (deaths, wounded and desertion), representing about one-third of their strength. The Imperial losses remain enigmatic due to Wallenstein’s quitting the field – but it is believed they were probably around the same or less than the Swedes, who were the ones attacking a partially entrenched enemy and trying to force the issue. Historians have often viewed the outcome as inconclusive, yet it was the Swedes who possessed the field after Wallenstein’s withdrawal. Furthermore, Wallenstein was forced from Saxony, so it could be regarded as a Swedish victory – but if so, it was a Pyrrhic one, for in terms of total size of army, the Imperialists undoubtedly held the advantage after Lützen.
In the end, it was arguably a defeat that the Imperialists could absorb, but a victory the Swedes couldn’t afford. Perhaps the historian W P Guthrie calls it right, when he declares it as ‘a defeat for both sides’. There were lessons learned: infantry needed support; cavalry performed better when adequately armoured; attrition among officers was high (they also needed decent armour). Meanwhile, the hold Gustavus had over his troops was tellingly revealed when the Swedish army mutinied not once but twice after his death – a turn of events that would have been unthinkable with the great leader still alive.
The Catholic alliance of Emperor, Spain and Bavaria performed well during the Thirty Years’ War up until Lützen, which precipitated a collapse in the previous Catholic predominance in Germany. This shattering of authority can be partly explained by the loss of some key commanders: Tilly, the experienced commander of the Catholic League army, and Pappenheim, regarded as the foremost cavalry commander in Germany, were both killed in 1632 – with Pappenheim dying at Lützen. It was the battle itself though that really wrecked the Catholic side’s invincible aura. It could be beaten. The rebels’ mojo was burnished; Imperial confidence shot. But the loss of Adolphus also denied the other side the chance to take advantage; without him, the disparate parts of the Protestant alliance couldn’t be held together. The tantalising prospect of an early finish to the war died with the Swedish King.
• Richard Brzezinski, Lützen 1632: climax of the Thirty Years War (Osprey Publishing, 2001).
• André Schürger, The Battle of Lützen 1632: a reassessment, ‘Century of the Soldier’ series #104 (Helion & Company, 2023).
• Peter H Wilson, Lützen: great battles (OUP Oxford, 2018).
All Images: Wikimedia Commons unless stated