The Horrors and Wolves of War

By 1632 war was an inescapable reality in northern Europe. To the west in the Spanish Netherlands the Dutch under their new commander Frederick Henry were laying siege to Maastricht. Conquering this would bisect the remaining Spanish area, and only Dutch intolerance for Catholicism seemed to stall a general revolt across the remainder of Belgium. Hans-Georg von Arnim led an allied force of Saxons, Swedes, and Scottish mercenaries into an invasion of Bohemia. By the end of the year he had stormed and looted Prague, and carved a path straight towards the heart of Wallenstein’s private Duchy of Friedland. And in the south, Gustavus Adolphus himself thrust towards Bavaria as Maximillian and Tilly wracked their brains for a way to stop him. Collectively both sides fielded over a hundred thousand men spread across their field armies, the highest number at any point in the war. As often happens when large groups of humans move about, imperial reinforcements from Italy had inadvertently brought a new round of the plague with them as they marched north. Thousands more died as it swept through the camps. The plagues were also not contained to people. By 1630 reports of “horrible cow and horse disease” and even anecdotal accounts of mass die-offs of dear and wild boar in the nearby forests indicate how indiscriminately damaging the outbreaks could be.[1]

While the major armies continued to grapple, much of their forces would wander the countryside looking for anything edible or valuable. Even for these soldiers it was a dangerous time to be wandering about. One of the rare firsthand accounts is a diary kept by Peter Hagendorf, a soldier who fought first for Tilly’s army. He writes of being shot multiple times[2], burning and looting towns, his wife and children who accompanied him[3], and of being robbed by vengeful peasants when he accidentally wandered away from his company. Another anonymous imperial soldier reported a similar mugging in 1642:

The Peasants Revenge, by Jacques Callot, from the Miseries of War, an 18 sketch series. Callot was effectively a correspondent to the French invasion of (then Hapsburg) controlled Lorraine in 1633. Callot’s series is remarkable not just for its quality and the short accompanying poems, but for the unflinching brutality on display. Callot does not try to capture heroes and villains, but the entirety of the soldier’s life. Here, a column of soldiers are ambushed by the local peasants.

“I had a bit to drink in the evening and fell behind my regiment in the morning because of a hangover. Three peasants hiding in the hedge beat me up thoroughly and took my coat, satchel, everything…Thus beaten up, without coat or bag, I rejoined my regiment and was laughed at”.[4]

But for all the dangers the soldiers faced, the average villager faced much worse. After Breitenfeld, the Bavarian town of Erling was repeatedly sacked and raided by both Swedish forces, and even the Imperial and Bavarian forces nominally there to protect the town. Already struggling with imposed taxes, forced appropriations, plague, and the mini ice age, the town’s population dropped from over 500 before the war to under 190 by the end. When a troop of soldiers marched into town in mid-December 1634 and found,

“nothing but empty houses and no people [nor any food], something terrifying took place. The whole village seemed to go up in flames. They took the stools and the benches out of the houses, tore down the roofs, built terrifying fires in the streets, and filled the village with screams and shouts, which could only have been caused by hunger and despair”.[5]

Torture of locals was also common. Perhaps xenophobia made it more apparent to the locals, but the Swedes especially were considered monstrous. Most notorious, “Swedish Drink (Schwedentrunk)” involved force feeding a man liquid waste or other vile substances to force the location of any hidden stockpiles in a town. If they still refused, the torturers would then stomp on their bloated stomachs. While at times this brutality was met with an equally harsh execution by the army’s officers, often as not most commanders were aware that their grip on their men was tenuous to begin with and would look the other way from the looting.

A traveling column is waylaid by soldiers. Callot’s style is hugely influential on other war artists like Francisco Goya.

Small tragedies like Erling were one of the hundreds of cuts from which the Empire bled, to say nothing of the larger atrocities like Magdeburg that punctuated each campaign. Any town within a stone’s throw of marching armies soon found itself caught in the ripples of war. Beyond the immediate rape, torture, murder, and damage posed by marauding soldiers, villagers had to contend with the time and resources lost. Planting seasons, especially in the colder climate, were already short enough. One bad raid could be enough to put an entire community on track for starvation by the following spring. In the case of the town of Bächlingen, “those who survived…did so by eating cats, dogs, the bark of trees, and the stubble off the field”.[6]

The end result of war, pestilence, and famine changed even the landscape of Germany. With fewer families working their farms in some areas, “fields, pastures, and vineyards turned back into forests and swamps”.[7] With the returning forests, extirpated predators like wolves began to make their own comeback to the consternation of villagers everywhere. By 1640 farmer Hans Heberle noted that,

“…For, as punishment, God sent us evil animals into the land to devour our sheep and cattle. Before the war, it was a wonder if one saw a wolf; but now and in these years, it is not unusual for us to have seen many together, for they run everywhere, young and old. They run among the livestock, even when two or three men are with the livestock, and take from the herd nanny goats and sheep. And they do not allow themselves to be taken, even if one goes after them with full force. Yes, they even come into the villages and in front of the houses and take cats and dogs away, so that one can no longer have any dogs in the villages…”[8]

A gray wolf in Bavaria, photographed in 2014. The debate over the survival and role of wolves in a human dominated world remains ongoing and at times quite fierce.

Wolf attacks on living humans were also more common, as the animals ranged into towns in search of food.[9] As wolves begin to migrate once again into modern Germany, the lingering psychological fear of wolves is just one of many long cultural scars left behind by the Thirty Years War.

[1] Martines 2013

[2] “I entered [Magdeburg] by storm without incurring any injury. But once in the city, at the Neustadt Gate, I was shot twice through the body. That was my booty”. (Hefferich, T. (2009) The Essential Thirty Years War: A documentary history.)

[3] In life and in death. While Hagendorf himself was seemingly immune to every disease on the planet, his first wife and seven of his children were not. Death rode with every army.

[4] Wilson 2009

[5] Martines, L. (2013). Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700.

[6] Martines 2013

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hefferich 2009

[9] Though for what it’s worth, modern wolves, like their ancestors, don’t exactly go after people by choice. Deer, pigs, smaller prey when they get their jaws on it are the preference. The war marked a lean time for all animals.


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