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Battle of Lützen (1632)
The Battle of Lützen was one of the most decisive battles of the Thirty Years' War.
Description of the battle
On November 14th (in the Gregorian calendar) Wallenstein decided to split his forces and retreat his main headquarters back towards Leipzig. He expected no further move that year from the Protestant army, led by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, since unseasonably cold winter weather was making it difficult to camp in the open countryside. Gustavus Adolphus, however, planned otherwise. On the early morning of November 15 his army marched out of camp towards Wallenstein's last-known position and attempted to catch him by surprise. Unfortunately, when night fell the two armies were still separated by about 2-3 kilometres (1-2 miles).
Wallenstein had learned of the Swedish approach on the afternoon of November 15. Seeing the danger, he dispatched a note to General Pappenheim ordering him to return as quickly as possible with his army corps. Pappenheim received the note after midnight, and immediately set off to rejoin Wallenstein with most of his troops. During the night Wallenstein, conscious that he was badly outnumbered, deployed his army in a defensive position along the main Lutzen-Leipzig road which he reinforced with trenches. He anchored his right flank on a low hill, on which he placed his main artillery battery.
Morning mist delayed the Swedish army's advance, but by 9 AM the rival armies were in sight of each other. Because of the complex network of waterways it took until 11AM before the Protestant force was deployed and ready to launch its attack.
Initially the battle went well for the Protestants, who managed to surround Wallenstein's weak left wing. Just as disaster seemed imminent, Pappenheim arrived with 2,000-3,000 cavalry and drove the Swedes back. This made Wallenstein exclaim, "Thus I know my Pappenheim!". But during the charge Pappenheim was fatally wounded by a small-calibre Swedish cannonball. He died while being evacuated from the field in a coach.
Soon after midday Gustavus Adolphus was himself killed leading a cavalry charge. However, in the thick mix of gunsmoke and fog covering the field his fate remained unknown for some time. The infantry of his army continued to follow orders and attempted to assault the strongly entrenched Imperial centre, but were decimated by artillery and infantry fire and then cavalry charges. A panic began among the Protestant ranks, made worse as rumours spread of the king's death. Soon the Swedish army was in chaotic retreat. Thanks, however, to the cool-head of the Swedish third-in-command Dodo von Knijphausen , the Protestant forces were rallied. By about 3PM the Protestant second-in-command Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, having learned of the king's death, returned from the left wing and now assumed command over the entire army. It seems that contrary to popular myth he kept the secret of the king's death from the army as a whole, but vowed to personally avenge the king by winning the battle.
The final Swedish assault took place towards 4PM. It was a grim fight, with terrible casualties on both sides. Finally with dusk falling the Swedes captured the main Imperial artillery battery. The Imperial forces retired back out of its range, leaving the field to the Swedes.
At about 6PM Pappenheim's infantry, about 3,000-4,000 strong, arrived on the battlefield. Although night had fallen they wished to carry out a counter-attack on the Swedes. Wallenstein, however, believed the situation hopeless and instead ordered his army to withdraw to Leipzig under cover of the fresh infantry.
Strategically speaking the battle of Lutzen was a Protestant victory. Wallenstein was forced out of Saxony where he had hoped to winter his troops at Saxon expense, and retreated to Bohemia. However, contrary to myth, the Swedes lost far more troops winning the battle than did the Imperial army. Having been forced to assault an entrenched position they lost about 6,000 men including badly wounded and deserters. The Imperial army lost perhaps 3,000-3,500 men.
The Protestant army achieved its main goal of the campaign - to rescue Saxony from the Imperial onslaught. A more long-lasting effect of the battle was the death of the legendary Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus. Without him to unify the German Protestants, the war lost direction. The Catholic Habsburgs had time to recoup their losses and regain their balance, and the war rumbled on for another 16 years until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
At this time the Catholic Holy Roman Empire used the Gregorian calendar, but Protestant Sweden still used the Julian calendar. Hence the Battle of Lützen occurred on November 16 for the Catholics but on November 6 for the Swedes.
Richard Brzezinski, Lützen 1632, London 2001. ISBN: 1-85532-552-7
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