Wittstock and Warfare

Imperial forces crossing the Somme in 1636, one of the waves of the invasion. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For all the fanfare of France’s entry into the fray, the initial results of French force of arms was less than spectacular. In the first campaign season, a French army marched into southern Belgium, swatted away the Spanish forces sent to intercept it, and linked up with the Prince of Orange at Maastricht. On paper the combined Franco-Dutch army numbered an impressive 50,000 men, but right from the start clear fractures plagued the alliance. For all their long experience fighting the Spanish, the Dutch were in no hurry to trade one overbearing neighbor for another, and their insistence on looking a French Catholic gift horse straight in the mouth cost valuable campaign time. Though the army dutifully surrounded the key Belgian city of Leuven in Flanders, the defenses proved surprisingly resilient. Several frontal assaults failed to crack the garrison, and an equal number of sorties and night attacks kept the allies on the back foot. Just as awkward were the numerous logistical problems plaguing the army, along with bouts of the actual, literal plague. As a result, desertion especially among the relatively inexperienced French forces was extremely high.

By early July two Spanish armies swooped down on the city and forced the Franco-Dutch forces back into full retreat to defend their own respective borders. The Dutch were left scrabbling to hold on to Maastricht, having seen most of their other gains reversed. Everywhere the story repeated itself. Along the line the dubiously employed Bernhard’s army was pushed off the Rhine entirely by the Imperial army. In the northern Italian region of the Valtelline, a historic zone of proxy war between the Spanish and French, the local French allies abruptly brokered a separate deal with the Hapsburgs and forced out their French commander.

1636 started off even worse for the triple alliance, as Maximilian proposed to go straight for the throat of France. Together with the Spanish, a three pronged Hapsburg assault by Spanish general Piccolomini[1], Gallas, Bavarian Johann von Werth, and the Cardinal-Infante launched a full scale invasion of France. It was the final high mark for the Hapsburgs.

Signaling how cowed the opposition to the House of Austria had become, the younger Ferdinand III was finally appointed King of the Romans, formal heir apparent to his prematurely aged and ailing father the Emperor. The older Ferdinand had compounded the natural stress of ruling in wartime with a diet that perpetually mixed royal feasts with piety imposed famines, and a badly erratic sleep schedule. Still, Ferdinand felt content about going to meet his god, “for [the Empire] is already provided with a successor and indeed an excellent one”.[2] Whether he had any better comment on the ruined condition of his average citizen is less known.

Wittstock part 1
First order of battle and early moves in Wittstock. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Hapsburg’s good fortune did not even last to the younger Ferdinand’s coronation. Gallas’ army had stalled at a village called St. Jean-de-Losne. Nothing could account for the inexplicably fierce resistance the garrison, but the imperial line staggered around it and momentum faltered. Repulsed further by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar and facing the usual problems of desertion and disease[3], Gallas fell back towards Germany. At the risk of being flanked and strategically realizing both the Dutch and the Swedes had taken advantage of the distraction the other invaders reluctantly fell back on all fronts. France was saved.[4]

Thanks in part to French diplomacy and in part due to desperation, the Swedes brokered a twenty-year ceasefire with Poland dubbed the Truce of Stuhmsdorf in 1635. It had not come cheaply, and Oxenstierna ceded much of their Baltic holdings to Poland, but the garrisoned forces there could now be shipped directly to reinforce Baner’s army in Pomerania.[5] They arrived in time to strongarm the mutinous elements back into line, and give the Swedes the power they needed to launch a strike southwards. For his part, Oxenstierna was done with Germany. He packed his bags and returned to the Swedish court in Stockholm to manage the affairs of state, and to assert control over the regency while Gustavus Adolphus’ infant daughter came of age.

Wittstock part 2
Swedish and Scottish forces gain the flank at Wittstock. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Together with the Scotsman Alexander Leslie Baner’s army crossed the Elbe River in the summer of 1636. In sign of how the times had changed, and how they hadn’t, another army was on its way to burn Saxony to the ground. Only the banners of each side had changed. On October 4, 1636, a combined Imperial and Saxon army met the Swedes at Wittstock. The Imperial forces had the advantage in both numbers and dug in on a hilltop, but Baner split his forces in a daring ruse to draw them down the hill. In a brutal and expensive battle, Baner’s Swedes held a grim line while Leslie’s Scots and mercenaries swung around and smashed into the sides and rear of the Imperial line. Wittstock was a bloodbath[6], but it restored a measure of Sweden’s military pedigree, and sent Johann Georg sprinting from the field once again. Occurring parallel to another serious round of peace talks, the destruction of Baner’s army might have ended the war in Germany. As it was, it signaled a new round of doubling down by every player at the table.

[1] And possible woodwind instrument.

[2] Wedgwood 2005

[3] And chronic drinking. Lots of drinking.

[4] Historian Peter Wilson suggests that the invasion itself was never set up for success, and the Spanish had no real mechanism for exploiting their early gains against France.

[5] Along with a welcome if depressingly necessary shipment of new clothes for the existing troops.

[6] And the site of a recently discovered mass grave: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/unusual-discovery-near-berlin-mass-grave-sheds-light-on-europe-s-bloody-history-a-497461.html


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