Warfare in the Baltic – Early 17th Century


Polish hussaria


Horse lancers versus reiter cavalry and pike infantry battle, took place near a town of Salaspis (then Kircholm) in Latvia (then Livonia).
Forces were not large – some 11-12,000 attacking Swedes (mostly infantry with 2,500 cavalrymen) and 3,500 to 9,000 defending Polish Crown army, mostly cavalrymen with their camp servants (including 1,000 Polish infantry ) plus some 400 reiter cavalrymen from the Duchy of Curland.

Warfare in the Baltic was dominated by the rivalry between Sweden and Denmark. Populations were sparse, resulting in both conscription and the widespread employment of mercenaries. Whereas campaigns in Central and Western Europe were conducted between late spring and mid-autumn, in the Baltic lands the summer season was shortened by spring mud, caused by the melting snows, and autumn rains. Usable roads were scarce everywhere in Europe but even more so in the North: armies often campaigned in the depths of winter when frost had hardened the ground. Ski-troops were regularly used in the wars between Sweden and Muscovy along the Finnish-Karelian border and between Sweden and Poland in Livonia. Four hundred reindeer pulled the supply sledges of the Swedish army that attacked the fortress of Kola on the White Sea in 1611.

Despite its remoteness, the Baltic was increasingly important to the European economy: Swedish copper and iron; Norwegian cod; Russian hemp, tar and timber; and, particularly, grain from Poland and German lands east of the Elbe. Much of the trade rested with Dutch and English merchants but every ship had to pass through the Sound, controlled by the Danes.

Gustav II Adolf, better known as Gustavus Adolphus, ascended the Swedish throne at the age of 16 during the Kalmar War with Denmark (1611-13). The Treaty of Knäred brought peace at the price of Sweden’s surrendering in perpetuity Gothenburg and Älvsborg, possession of which had allowed the Swedes to outflank the Danish Sound tolls, unless she could redeem them by a payment of 6 million riksdaler within six years. Much too Danish annoyance, with the help of heavy taxation and Dutch loans, the money was paid in 1619 and the region reclaimed. At Stolbova in 1616, in return for renouncing her claims to Novgorod, Sweden received Ingria and Keksholm from Muscovy, completing a land bridge between Estonia and Finland and bringing the whole coast of the Gulf of pinland under Swedish occupation. Having achieved peace with both Denmark and Russia, Gustav turned his attention to Poland, his position strengthened by a fifteen-year defensive alliance with the Dutch, signed in 1614. A premature attempt to seize Pernau from Poland in 1617 misfired and Sweden agreed a two-year truce in 1618.

The failure at Pernau convinced Gustav that the Swedish Army needed radical reform. Accordingly, during the 1620s he improved the conscription machinery. The 1620 ‘Ordinance of Military Personnel’ registered all males over 15 years of age in every parish and grouped them into ‘files’ of ten men; as many as required could then be drafted from each file. Sweden-Finland was split into eight recruiting districts, subdivided into two or three provinces each raising one ‘provincial’ infantry regiment consisting of three field regiments comprising two 408-man squadrons apiece. Recruiting districts were allocated to the cavalry in 1623, each field regiment consisting of two 175-man squadrons, and, later, to the artillery. Light cavalry was recruited by offering tax exemptions to any farmer willing to provide a fully equipped trooper. A War Board, an embryonic ministry of war, supervised military administration – a much-improved system that produced the largely national army with which Gustav Adolf invaded Germany in 1630. The human implications, however, were considerable. The village of Bygdeå in northern Sweden sent 230 young men to fight in Poland and Germany between 1621 and 1639; 215 died overseas and only five returned home, crippled.

Equally important were the tactical innovations devised by Gustav. Many links existed between the Dutch Republic and Sweden – economic, military, naval and diplomatic. When reforming the Dutch Army during the 1590s, Captain General Prince Maurice of Orange and his cousin, Louis-William of Nassau, had drawn upon the writings of Vegetius, Aelian, Frontinus and Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium as well as the ideas of mathematician Simon Stevin and the philosopher Justus Lipsius. Previously the Dutch Army had assumed the tactical organization of the Spanish, French and Swiss whose pike-and-halberd squares, or tercios, initially of 3,000 men, later reduced to about 1,500, were fringed with arquebusiers. They were essentially defensive formations against which enemies hurled themselves until spent, at which point the tercio counter-attacked. Such formations, although preferred by under-motivated mercenaries, were ill-suited to Dutch bogs and deployed firepower inefficiently, only the arquebusiers facing the enemy being able to use their weapons, whilst most of the pikemen could not participate directly in combat.

Learning from the articulation within the Roman legion, Maurice split the tercios into five-company battalions of 675 men, each combining the pike with the arquebus, later superseded by the matchlock musket. Battalions were arrayed in ten ranks, pikemen in the centre and ‘shot’ to either flank. In theory the arquebusiers could maintain continuous fire, each rank successively discharging its weapons before ‘countermarching’ to the rear to reload. The pikemen protected the arquebusiers from attack by cavalry: the 16-foot pike out-ranged the cavalry lance, and formed the offensive arm of the battalion in an advance or charge – the ‘push of pike’. In the cauldron of the war with Spain, Maurice forged a system of drill and discipline, reduced his artillery to four basic calibres, reorganized logistics, and, in 1599, equipped the troops with firearms of the same size and calibre. Stevin and the engraver Jacob de Gheyn translated Maurice’s infantry drill into a series of pictorial representations, Wapenhandlingen van roers, musquetten ende spiessen, published in Amsterdam in 1607 and quickly followed by English, German, French and Danish editions. Reinforced by the conquest of Geertruidenberg in 1593 and victory at Nieuport in 1600, the reputation of the ‘Dutch method’ spread rapidly.

Polish armies were rich in cavalry, both heavy horse recruited from the aristocracy and light horsemen from Volhynia and Podolia, their skills honed by constant raiding across the Turkish and Muscovite borders. Polish and Turkish horsemen charged at a fast trot with the lance or sabre. Unable to penetrate tercios bristling with pikes, most West European cavalries, the Swedes included, practised the caracole, in which several ranks of horsemen trotted towards the enemy, discharged their pistols, and retired to the rear to reload while another rank moved forward. Only when the pistol fire had ‘disordered’ the enemy foot did the horsemen close in with the sword. Charles IX of Sweden, who was well informed about Dutch innovations by Jacob de la Gardie, unwisely introduced them into an army of mercenaries and reluctant conscripts when already fighting Poland during the early stages of a sixty-year conflict. In 1605, at Kirkholm outside Riga, Charles met a small Polish corps commanded by Karl Chodkiewicz, but was uncertain whether to employ the new-fangled tactics or accustomed formations. The Swedish cavalry was initially positioned between the infantry squares but, in response to enemy attacks, was switched to the flanks, where it was charged and broken by lancers. Outflanked and split into three separate bodies, the Swedish infantry suffered 9,000 casualties (82 per cent) as the Polish hussaria and Cossacks penetrated their pike squares: the Poles lost just 100 men. On 4 July 1610 a Russo-Swedish army under Jacob de la Gardie was smashed by the Poles at Klushino while attempting to relieve the siege of Smolensk, only 400 survivors straggling back into Estonia; the remainder of Gardie’s mercenaries joined the victors.

War against the Poles and Prussia (1620-29) was the laboratory for tactical experiment. Gustav Adolf abandoned the caracole and imitated the Poles, training his cavalry to charge at the trot with the sabre. In addition, sections of musketeers accompanied the horse to disrupt enemy formations by fire prior to the charge. The introduction of the pike and the musket increased the shock and firepower of the infantry. Battalions were thinned from ten ranks to six, with pike in the centre and ‘shot’ on either wing, increasing both the frontage and the volume of fire sufficiently to break up enemy formations and allow the pikemen to attack. The counter-march was employed only when the battalion was engaged at extended range, typically about 100 metres. At close range of 30 to 40 metres, where battles were decided, he introduced ‘volley firing’ by advancing the three rear ranks of musketeers into the intervals between the front three. Volleys were usually delivered as the prelude to a ‘push of pike’. At Breitenfeld in 1631 the Scots Brigade in the Swedish army:

ordered themselves in several small battalions, about 6 or 700 in a body, presently now double their ranks, making their files then but 3 deep, the discipline of the King of Sweden being never to march above 6 deep. This done, the foremost rank falling on their knees; the second stooping forward; and the third rank standing right up, and all giving fire together; they powered so much lead at one instant in amongst the enemy’s horse that their ranks were much broken with it. (Robert Monro, Monro his expedition with the worthy Scots regiment call’d Mackays, London 1637)

Alternatively, when within pistol-shot, the first three ranks of musketeers gave a volley, followed by the remainder, before the battalion charged home with pike, sword and musket stock. The emphasis on volley firing, rather than the Dutch rolling fire, rendered musketeers vulnerable while reloading, and dependent upon the pikemen for protection. However, battles were won and lost by furious close quarter combat and Gustav’s tactics ensured that his men enjoyed maximum advantage when they closed with the enemy.

Further to augment infantry firepower, in 1629 two or three light, 3-pounder cannon – infantry guns – were attached to each battalion: over eighty accompanied the army to Germany in 1630. Pre-packed cartridges increased the rate of fire. Gustav deployed his heavier field guns in mobile batteries. Although Maurice’s and Gustav’s reforms enhanced the efficacy of infantry, the shallow, linear battalions were more vulnerable than the older pike squares to attacks on their rear and flanks. Consequently, battlefield deployment assumed a chequer-board appearance with the spaces between the battalions in the first line covered in echelon by the battalions of the second and, if present, third lines. Cavalry, supported by parties of musketeers, was customarily positioned on the wings where it had the space and freedom to charge before turning against the enemy’s flank or rear.

Gustav, with 18,000 men, renewed the campaign in Livonia in 1621, culminating in the capture of Riga. Employing modern siege techniques acquired from the Dutch – an ability and willingness to dig was another characteristic of the new military discipline – 15,000 Swedes overcame the garrison of 300 regulars and 3,700 militia after a six-day bombardment. With only 3,000 field troops available, the Poles were unable to intervene. Mitau in Kurland was the next target but that was the extent of Swedish achievement; the men were weary, their ranks emaciated by sickness and the constant harrying of the Cossacks. Gustav had also run out of funds. Mitau was lost in November 1622 but Sigismund III Vasa of Poland was in an equally parlous condition, defeated by the Turks in 1621 and no longer in receipt of Danish support, Christian IV being more interested in northern German;: Sigismund and Gustav were content to sign a truce until 1625.

When hostilities resumed, Gustav quickly overran Livonia north of the Dvina, capturing Mitau and Dorpat, but an expedition into Kurland stalled before Windau and Libau. In January 1626, at the battle of Wallhof, south of Riga, Gustav employed his new tactics to smash the Polish arm;: The Swedes next invaded and occupied Royal Prussia, a rich province where ‘war could be made to pay for war’. This was imperative because the Livonian campaigns had been financed from Sweden’s own scarce resources. Prussian ports exported Polish grain, and their annual customs income averaged 600,000 riksdaler. In addition, Sweden levied tolls on all ships visiting the southern Baltic ports between Danzig and Narva, the ‘licence system’, which yielded a further 500,000 riksdaler. Taken together, these dues realized more money for Sweden than later French subsidies.

Having subdued Prussia, Gustav struck inland to force Sigismund to make peace. The famous Polish cavalry was overcome by the remodelled Swedish horse at Dirschau on the Vistula in August 1627, but an advance on Warsaw in 1629 was halted at Stuhm (Honigfelde) on 27 June by the Poles, reinforced with 12,000 men from Wallenstein. After failed efforts to negotiate peace in 1627 and 1628, the French, anxious to deploy the Swedish army in Germany to counter the emperor and the Catholic League, brokered a deal in 1629. By the terms of the six-year Truce of Altmark of September 1629, Gustav abandoned most of his Prussian gains but retained the 3 ½ per cent tolls from the Prussian ports and direct control over Elbing, Braunsberg and Pillau. In 1630 the Duke of Kurland surrendered the customs from his ports of Windau and Libau. In total, Gustav gained 600,000 riksdaler per annum, one-third of Swedish military expenditure.

On 12 January 1628 the Secret Committee of the Riksdag had given Gustav permission to intervene in Germany if necessary. It was invoked on 9 January 1629 because, with the Imperialists on the Baltic coast and Wallenstein constructing a navy at Wismar, there was a possibility that Sweden herself might be invaded. Gustav aimed to drive the Imperialists from the Baltic, restore the pre1618 political situation in Germany, and establish bases at Stralsund and Wismar through which troops could rapidly deploy should Swedish territory again be endangered. Gustav entered Germany without assurances of foreign aid and uncertain that Denmark would not attack while his back was turned. He did, however, take with him a reformed and battle-hardened arm):

Sailing from Stockholm on 27 June 1630 with 13,000 men packed aboard thirteen transports, escorted by twenty-seven warships, Gustav landed on 6 July at Peenemünde on the northern tip of the island of Usedom in the estuary of the River Oder, whence he probably intended to attack down the line of the Oder into Imperial Silesia, threatening Austria and Vienna. His sole ally was the port of Stralsund, which had withstood an Imperial siege from May to July 1628. Usedom and Stettin were quickly subdued, obliging the Duke of Pomerania to sign an agreement providing the invaders with a larger base area. Only the dispossessed rallied to the Swedish cause, principally the Duke of Mecklenburg and Duke Christian William of Brandenburg (1587-1665), the Protestant ex-administrator of the archbishopric of Magdeburg, who sought to regain the office he had lost following the Edict of Restitution. Magdeburg was a vital post commanding the passage of the Elbe and the routes from Pomerania into Lower Saxony and Thuringia. On 1 August 1630 Magdeburg and Sweden signed an alliance that restored Christian William and inserted a Swedish governor.

Even better was an alliance with Landgrave William V of Hesse-Kassel (r. 1627-37) that gave Gustav a potential opening into Westphalia and the valleys of the Main and Rhine, but for the remainder of 1630 the Swedish army was penned into Pomerania. The major north German princes sat on their hands, especially Electors John George of Saxony and George William of Brandenburg, who were as wary of Gustav as they were of the emperor and Wallenstein.

Another problem was supply. Through Stettin and Stralsund Gustav could receive supplies directly from Sweden, but that negated a prime objective. Gustav intended to support his army from German resources, so he needed to expand his beachhead southwards along both banks of the Oder. Eastern Pomerania was cleared, and by Christmas 1630 the ejection of the Imperial garrisons from Gartz and Greifenhagen (Gryfino) opened the lower Oder, but it was not until February 1631 that Gustav succeeded in seizing most of Mecklenburg.

On 23 January 1631 Gustav and his chancellor, Oxenstierna, signed the Treaty of Barwalde with the envoys of France. In return for a subsidy of 400,000 taler per annum over five years, they agreed to field an army of 30,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry but retained freedom of action, Richelieu calculating that any Swedish success would disadvantage the Habsburgs.

Gustav had been able to land unopposed because much of the Imperial Army had been redeployed to northern Italy, where a dispute over the succession to the Duchy of Mantua, ultimately settled in favour of the French candidate, the Duke of Nevers, gave France control of the Grisons and access to northern Italy via Pinerolo. Gustav was also greatly aided by the dismissal of Wallenstein.

At the height of his territorial power, on 28 March 1629 Emperor Ferdinand issued the Edict of Restitution, which restored all Roman Catholic Church property sequestered by the Protestant princes and cities since 1552. In political terms the edict established Imperial-Wittelsbach control over north-western Germany, displeasing Lutheran, Calvinist and Catholic princes. Associated with this was disquiet at the cavalier manner in which the emperor had transferred the Palatinate electorate to Bavaria in 1625 whilst supporters of Denmark – the Dukes of Calenberg, Wolfenbüttel and Mecklenburg – had been dispossessed and their titles and lands given to Imperial generals. Wallenstein rashly accepted the Duchy of Mecklenburg, and Gottfried Pappenheim wanted the dukedom of Wolfenbüttel but was thwarted by Maximilian of Bavaria and had to be content with becoming an Imperial count. Tilly, older and wiser, accepted a gratuity of 400,000 guilders instead of the Duchy of Calenberg.

Aware that Ferdinand’s dominance rested entirely upon Wallenstein’s army and organization, the anti-Imperial princes undermined the generalissimo. His contribution system, which affected friend and enemy alike, was a major grievance, as was his employment of numerous Bohemian Protestants. At the Diet of Regensburg (June to August 1630) the electors made it clear to Ferdinand that they would elect his son, Ferdinand of Hungary, as king of the Romans (i.e. Ferdinand’s successor) only if he sacked Wallenstein, promoted Tilly to command of the Imperial Army, and revoked the Edict of Restitution. Ferdinand had no option but to concede his entire position.


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