Robert Ditmore is a student of history, and as both a Christian and a veteran, he is particularly fond of military and religious histories.
17th Century King and Military Genius
The king of Sweden, Gustavus II Adolphus, stunned the European continent with his highly trained, well disciplined, and modernized army during the Thirty Years War of the 17th century. The Holy Roman Empire had been at war for twelve years when the Swede crossed the Baltic Sea and established his army on the Pomeranian coast.1 It is interesting to note that most scholars agree Gustavus’ grand strategy was three fold. First, Gustavus wanted to gain control of the Baltic Sea and its major ports. Second, by doing so he hoped to force his old enemy Poland to sue for peace. Third, Gustavus was a Protestant; he felt led to intervene on behalf of his Protestant brethren who were being heavily persecuted in the empire.2 It is not his long range strategy, however, for which military theorist consider Gustavus; rather, it was his amazing application of leadership, battlefield strategy, and tactics which were relevant to the 20th century armed forces.
What Made Gustavus a Great Military Leader
Some scholars contend his “tactics . . . were of minor value”; it was instead, the “conduct of his campaigns” for which he is most remembered.3 LTC Dennis Redmond of the U. S. Army War College* argues otherwise; that it was Gustavus’ tactical use of his resources which were so inspirational. Certainly, the manner in which Gustavus’ army conducted their campaigns was admirable; however, this study will focus on five points which helped make Gustavus the great general that he was; one who’s military spirit would centuries later influence the greatest military in history. The five points of interest are, first of all, the training and experience gained in his youth. Second, the leadership qualities he possessed as king and commander. Third, new technology and formations he employed. Fourth, the manner in which he deployed these new weapons and ideas. Fifth and most importantly, the military spirit that drove him and how it infused his army.4
* The Army War College is located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and is an institution which trains officers of all branches, national and international, in strategic theory.
Considering the Sources: Pros and Cons
In substantiating the argument secondary sources have provided the larger portion of the evidence; however, two primary source documents have been utilized as well. While an abundance of material exist on Gustavus Adolphus and the Thirty Years War, very little exist pertaining to his use of tactics and technology during the war. Too, the majority of that available appears as very dated. Available primary sources are nearly non-existent. Nevertheless, enough material is available to make a strong case for the thesis; Gustavus II Adolphus deserves to be credited for his influence upon the chief 20th century armed forces of the world.
A Look at Strategy and Tactics before Gustavus
Prior to Sweden exploding on the scene of the Thirty Years War and ushering in the era of modern warfare, the strategy and tactics utilized by those forces already involved had become antiquated. The Advent of modern warfare witnessed an end to small armies which were capable of sustaining themselves as they moved through conquered territories. Opposing armies would no longer march to battle, face each other in parallel order, and annihilate one another in what shortly became hand-to-hand melee. At the opening shots of battle cavalry had predominately been stationed on the flanks of the army, being used primarily for turning the flanks of the enemy upon themselves. It was common for heavy artillery to be placed on high ground overlooking the battlefield. Once placed in position, artillery was seldom moved, its usefulness ended once the enemy had closed; even those shoulder arms carried by soldiers were often inefficient, heavy, and clumsy. Because armies of antiquity were small, nimble, and capable of sustaining themselves, they had no need for fortified garrisons, depots, or communications linking them with their rear; this stratagem would also fade away. The idea, held by pre-modern commanders, supposing the enemy could only be hurt in battle also dissipated. As this study will illustrate, Gustavus completely disregarded former tactics and strategies, re-inventing the manner in which modern wars would be fought. This re-invention reached fruition with the introduction of combined arms warfare.5
Grooming of a Leader
The personality most credited with the development of Combined Arms Warfare (CAW) was Gustavus II Adolphus, King of Sweden. As a young man Gustavus already exhibited several great leadership qualities. He was said to have a “strong earnestness” possessed a “clean-cut courage,” and perhaps most important of all, he had “acquired exceptional self-control.”6 Enhancing his natural leadership abilities, Gustavus received a great deal of quality military training.Gustavus began his training as a young prince. As the son of Sweden’s King Charles IX, Gustavus would inherit several conflicts upon his father’s death. It was necessary then, that young Gustavus be schooled diligently in military affairs and leadership techniques. By the age of seventeen, having advanced through “every step of military rank and training,” Gustavus was well prepared for his role as Sweden’s future king and commander.7 Sweden was not destined to wait long for Gustavus’ reign as King to begin; that same year, in which Gustavus completed his formal training (A.D. 1611), Charles IX died leaving to his son the burden of three wars.8
By 1614 Gustavus had managed to bring closure to wars with Poland, Russia, and Denmark; conflicts his father had failed to resolve before his death. During these conflicts Gustavus led “six campaigns against Poland, and two against Denmark and Russia.”9 With so many major campaigns under his belt, Gustavus would certainly have benefited from growth in leadership abilities, as well as tactical and strategic experiences, all of which would serve him well in Germany. In fact, Dodge writes, these campaigns were to him “a practical school of war, in which both he could learn his trade and his army, be disciplined and toughened.”10 Gustavus gained a great deal of tactical knowledge and ability during these early wars.11 Taking advantage of the opportunity to observe enemy field commanders, he studied them. In some instances Gustavus imitated them, such as when he chose to model his cavalry after the famed Polish Cavalry. Studying disastrous mistakes made by his enemies he developed tactics which would enable him to overcome obstacles which brought them defeat. Gustavus and his army become very disciplined and efficient in their trade.12
Gustavus Establishes Strict Military Discipline
A major contrast between the army Gustavus fielded and those which had already been campaigning in Germany was that of discipline. Gustavus had learned in Sweden’s earlier wars “that mercenary armies were not worth the price paid for them unless under a discipline Spartan in character.”13 Discipline is one attribute no commander of any army can shun and remain hopeful of success. That commander may win battles; however, he is fighting on borrowed time and will likely loose the war.
Discipline is necessary for an army to maneuver in the field, stand its ground in the face of extreme provocation, bring the proper forces and weapons to bear at the proper time, and for the commander to lead. Gustavus realized too, that in order to win over the populace in enemy held territory, discipline must remain the order of the day. He would not allow his army to “behave as if the populations of the countries they traversed were of less consequence than the beast of the field.”14 Gustavus had noted that mercenary armies, which were so common in that era, were generally much undisciplined, and as a result had little consideration for the sufferings of the populace.
As King and commander, Gustavus issued 32 articles of war in which he forbad course treatment of innocent populations caught up in the middle of this horrible war. Many crimes listed, for which a Swedish soldier may be convicted of committing against civilians, were punishable by death. Gustavus demanded discipline. Proof that the nature of the Swedish army reflected their leader’s disciplinarian tendencies is obvious in the way they were welcomed throughout the Holy Roman Empire by the common people.15 Not only did the Swedish army benefit from Gustavus’ disciplinarian tendencies; they benefited from his exploitation of new technology as well.
Gustavus a Far-sighted Leader Who Sought Out New Military Technology
In all wars contending armies have benefited from technological advances occurring during interludes between conflicts. Often, these technological advances single-handedly revolutionized warfare. Such an example would be the “stirrup,” which completely transformed the art of war during the medieval era.16 Gustavus and his army was no different. A far sighted leader, Gustavus had zealously sought out new technology with which to arm his army. Another earlier revolutionary technology, gunpowder, led to the development of various forms of field artillery; a technology Gustavus utilized with devastating effect.
Old Technology Meets New
As stated earlier in this study, artillery was typically located on the highest ground which presented the best view of the battlefield. From this vantage point, artillerists were able to watch the main body of the enemy’s army as it approached. Once the enemy came within range of the artillery, the artillerist unleashed deadly fire devastating their enemy’s infantry and cavalry, as well as their batteries if they were present. Once this type of engagement commenced it usually did not end until one or the other army had been destroyed. Because this heavy artillery was capable of firing over their heads retreat was seldom possible. This same artillery was ineffectual once the enemy had closed. It could not be depressed enough to lay on the enemy; and, the mass of these weapons kept them from being redeployed after their initial involvement.17 Gustavus realized the need for a much smaller, lighter weight field artillery piece. While hunting for the right weapon to fit his needs he actually considered the “Leather Gun;” an artillery piece which utilized a thinned barrel wrapped with leather. The leather wrapping enabled the gun to withstand chamber pressures associated with firing.
It is believed that Gustavus actually utilized these guns on a few occasions; however, as a more logical choice, hefinally settled on a smaller caliber, iron weapon weighing between “295 and 475 pounds.”18 This weapon could be redeployed by “4 to 6 men pulling on ropes.”19 With the conventional artillery piece of the period weighing between “4 1/2 to 7 tons” and requiring between “12 to 50 horses” to redeploy, it does not take a genius to realize the advantages of the new field artillery employed by Gustavus.20 Instead of being saddled with artillery, which was only briefly useful, Gustavus was able to integrate these lighter weapons with his crack infantry units; the results staggered his enemies.21
Battle of Breitenfeld
During the battle of Breitenfeld Gustavus utilized his highly mobile artillery elements with great affect. Gustavus interspersed his artillery elements among his infantry and cavalry. As those elements closed on the enemy, the light artillery was able to move with them; artillery, cavalry, and infantry all mutually supporting each other. Gustavus’ opponent, Tilly, became “visibly restless” as he watched the Swedish army enter the field; even at this point, before the battle opened, Tilly new he was in trouble.22 He had easily defeated mercenary armies commanded by Mansfield and the Brunswickers; however, by sight alone, he realized he was no match for the Swedish army of Gustavus Adolphus. Weinstein writes of the battle,
"A furious fight ensued. Pappenheim (one of Tilly’s commanders) endeavored to force a victory, but the combined effect of the cavalry-men’s swords, the infantry’s guns, and the small easily handled cannon was irresistible. A regiment of infantry following Pappenheim was entirely destroyed."23
Clearly, Gustavus’ determination in finding new, lighter weight, highly mobile artillery had paid off. His method of utilizing this new artillery was an early introduction to CAW.
Introduction of the Wheel-lock Rifle and Paper Cartridges in the 17th Century
Small arms of the era, such as muskets, were typically very heavy and clumsy. To be used effectively these weapons often required supports. Incredibly, it required between “140 and 160” separate motions for a man to load his matchlock musket; musketeers could only fire “one round every 8 to 10 minutes.”24 Matchlocks were notoriously unreliable as well. Matchlocks utilized a burning wick as an ignition source, any moisture in the air could cause failure to fire. They were also extremely dangerous. Gunpowder powder in the flash pan, being necessarily exposed, meant a spark, or an ember could cause premature ignition.*
As with artillery, Gustavus went in search of new small arms technology; the weapon he chose was the Wheellock. Rather than burning wicks, the Wheellock utilized flint, which upon coming in contact with a strike plate produced a spark thus igniting the powder in the flash pan and discharging the weapon. Motions required for loading and firing were reduced fifty percent and only five minutes were required to reload and fire. Gustavus then introduced paper cartridges which could be carried in cartridge boxes further increasing the infantry’s rate of fire.25 The rate of fire of these weapons may not impress today’s riflemen, but it was an incredible step forward in Gustavus’ era.
Devastating Effects of Military Technology at Breitenfeld
The affect that Gustavus’ infantry had on Tilly’s forces at the battle of Breitenfeld were as devastating as the artillery had been. With his infantry divided up and interspersed with cavalry, Gustavus delivered a horrific beating to Pappenheim. Determined to break Gustavus’ right, Pappenheim launched assault after assault on the King’s weakened flank. However, the Swedish infantry, armed with flintlocks, delivered three and four volleys to the enemy’s one. Pappenheim renewed the assault “seven times . . . and was as often driven back with shattered ranks, covering the ground with his dead.”26 Gustavus’ high tech weapons had proven their worth; however, it was advanced formations, which he developed, that made it possible for infantry, artillery, and cavalry elements to support one another so effectively.
Rethinking Military Battle Formations
The Standard infantry formation of the 17th century was based on the old Spanish “battalia.” By this standard the infantry formation consisted of several thousand men arranged in lines ten ranks deep. These were usually armed with long pikes or muskets (matchlocks). Cavalry, which in this era was usually heavily armored (considerably affecting speed and maneuverability), was generally situated on the flanks in somewhat equal numbers. The massive artillery pieces, as discussed earlier, were typically placed on the high ground providing over-watch. Logistics, once again, did not exist in any significant form; there were no supply trains, engineers, or administrative types. Such formations, while they may appear daunting, proved to be very sluggish and were appreciably limited in mobility. This “old standard” is characteristically the manner in which armies faced off against each other; that is until Gustavus Adolphus unleashed his incredible army on the enemy.27 Everything changed at that point!
Gustavus was not old school! In addition to seeking out new weapons technologies, he realized a need to develop new battle formations which would allow those new technologies to be used to their maximum potential. One of the first changes he introduced was the ratio of pike-men to musketeers. Decreasing significantly the number of pike-men, he replaced them with musketeers who were now armed with the new flintlock muskets. His pike-men were armed with a new, shorter version of the pike which again provided greater flexibility and mobility for the pike-men. His cavalry would no longer be heavy, but light, allowing them much greater maneuverability and speed. In essence, what Gustavus did was sacrifice mass for mobility.28
Next Gustavus reduced his battle formations from the old standard of ten ranks deep to six ranks deep; pike-men and musketeers were interspersed among the ranks. This formation allowed for three ranks to fire simultaneously. Several formations such as these were also interspersed with the new light, highly mobile cavalry. And of course, interspersed within all of these, were the lightweight cannon discussed earlier. Not only were these well developed formations far more maneuverable than the enemy, but massive amounts of firepower could be brought to bear on the enemy at one time.29
The Swedish army was able to strike fast and hard; causing the enemy to quickly lose their footing, and with the Swedes able to sustain the tempo of the battle, the enemy were unable to successfully hold their ground, much less make any gains. Stevens wrote “The Swedes were formed under the direct orders of their King; and his newly improved tactics were made use of to great advantage, as the result was speedily to show.”30 These tactics Stevens spoke of are known as combined arms warfare; tactics which Gustavus Adolphus left as an inheritance to the military world.
Gustavus’ Genius Fully Realized in the Swedish Order of Battle
The improvements Gustavus made in Sweden’s three combat arms were genius; however, it was the manner in which he deployed them that proved an even greater contribution.31 Brian D. Moore writes of Gustavus “order of battle”:
"His regiments were merged into brigades on line (linear tactics) and integrated with cavalry and artillery (combined arms) to form self-sustaining combat groups which could also provide mutual support when acting in concert. The cavalry could be used to overrun the enemy infantry and artillery (shock action) or neutralize the opposing cavalry. . . . The artillery would suppress the enemy supporting arms (gain fire superiority) while the infantry would advance firing by salvo (fire and maneuver) until near enough for the “push of the pike”
As additional support, Gustavus introduced the concept of a reserve force to his order of battle.”33 To take it one step further, Gustavus also required each infantry formation to have a reserve force of its own.34 Gustavus’ superior genius, military capabilities, and innovative ideas wrecked his enemy. Clearly, as the evidence shows, Gustavus Adolphus was far ahead of his time.
Military Spirit: The Binding Agent of Gustavus’ Army, and All Successful Armies
There is one element which acted as the bonding agent for the Swedes, bringing together tactics, technology, leadership and ideas thus forming the most formidable force of the Thirty Years War. Today’s military officers and men know well the value of the military spirit. It is written in their value statements, as well as in their mottos and hymns. It is the military spirit which enables men, under the direst of circumstances, to persevere. Without the military spirit the men and women of our armed forces could never have been victorious at the Battle of the Bulge, the battle of Midway, or in the ghastly battles of the pacific island campaigns during World War II. Gustavus II Adolphus exuded this spirit; not only was his army infected with it, but his country as well.
Military Spirit Forged in Battle
As important as the military spirit is, Carl Von Clausewitz tells us there are only two sources by which to gain it. The first “is a series of victorious wars” and the second “is the frequent exertions of the army to the utmost limits of its strength.”35 The victories will inspire a confidence within the soldier like no other. Exertions beyond anything that can be understood by anyone other than a soldier, will also build confidence, and toughen him physically as well. Military spirit actually creates the army. No army, whether highly trained, drilled, educated in military affairs–or proud, will possess this military spirit until they have met the two requirements posed by Clausewitz. The confidence gained by the men is shared mutually with their officers. One of the great attributes of the U.S. Army is the ability of the enlisted ranks to operate independent of commissioned leadership, or junior officers independent of higher command. This de-centralization is possible because of military spirit. Stevens wrote “the innovating chieftain of the North, who comprehended the conquering force of new ideas . . . had imbued his army of twenty thousand with his own invisible spirit and resolution”; this sharing of the spirit was evident.35
Gustavus’ Combined Arms Warfare Remains Relevant Today, Almost Four Hundred Years Removed.
This study has sought to repudiate claims by various historians and scholars, which deny the true value of Gustavus’ tactics in 20th century military thought. Tactics alone can not gain victory. Tactics must be joined together with leadership, technology, and spirit to realize their full potential. This study has focused on Gustavus’ leadership attributes, his understanding of the need for advanced weaponry, and his ability to deploy those weapons skillfully within his reorganized formations. Attention has also been given to his tactics of integrating cavalry, artillery and infantry thereby enabling them to effectively support one another in combat. The importance of military spirit in bringing together these elements has been evaluated. The successes of these five elements were the basis for Gustavus’ major contribution to 20th century warfare. This contribution is realized in his “order of battle” mentioned earlier in this study.
Even during the Thirty Years War, Gustavus’ influence was being felt. Wallenstein, Gustavus’ antagonist, took what he had witnessed and learned of Gustavus and began moving towards establishing a “modern command system and professional officer corps.”37 British historians and military leaders, as late as the mid 20th century, showed a keen interest in the tactics and discipline of Gustavus’ army.”38 The Germans began building their combined arms forces in the interwar years between World War I and World War II.39 Though technology was obviously far advanced from that of Gustavus’ era, the tactics the Germans developed for these new weapons mirrored those of Gustavus Adolphus. Even though 4GW appears to be evolving due to changes in the nature of warfare, the 21st century American military will continue to maintain its combined arms stance. The evidence suggests strongly that Gustavus’ tactics held more than just minimal value.
From the words written by one of Gustavus’ young soldiers upon the king’s death, today’s military and civil leaders can learn one more valuable lesson. George Fleetwood wrote to his father; speaking of the army’s victories in Saxony he says, “but all those seeme but faynte victories, in regard of the losse of our brave Kinge, whose valour and experience was an army alone . . .”40 Gustavus II Adolphus was a great military leader, indeed.
1. Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. The Thirty Years war, 1618-1648. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & CO., 1875, 130.
2. Redmond, Dennis K. “Gustavus Adolphus: Father of Combined Arms Warfare”
Army War College: http://handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA378251. (Accessed June 18, 2011), 6.
3. Dodge, Theodore Ayrault. Great Captains: Showing the Influence of the Art of War of the Campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick, and Napoleon. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1968, 140.
4. Redman, 6.
5. Dodge, 109-10.
6. ibid, 113.
9. ibid, 116.
11. Derdak, Thomas. “Gustavus II Adolphus: King of Sweden” Great Lives from History: The 17th Century 1601-1700, Vol. 1. 2nd edition. Editor Larissa Juliet Taylor.
Pasadena: Salem Press, 2006.
12. Dodge, 117.
13. Bowman, Francis J. “Sweden’s Wars, 1611 – 32.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1942): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1874537. (accessed
June 29, 2011).
14. Dodge, 134.
15. Helfferich, Tryntje. The Thirty Years War: A Documentary History. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2009.
16. Thompson, William R. “A Test of a Theory of Co-Evolution in War: Lengthening the Western Eurasian Military Trajectory.” The International History Review, Vol.28, No.3 (Sept., 2003): http://www.jstor.org/stable/40111220. (accessed June 30, 2011).
17. Dodge, 108.
18. Stevenson, David and David H Caldwell. “Leather Guns and Other Light Artillery in Mid-17th-Century Scotland.” Archaeology Data Service.
July 27, 2011).
19. Bowman, 366.
21. Stevens, John L. History of Gustavus Adolphus. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884, 331.
22. Weinstein, Loui Lalk. Gustavus Adolphus in Germany. Burlington, IA: The German Literary Board, 1906, 77.
23. ibid, 78-9.
24. Bowman, 366.
26. Stevens, 331
27. Redmond, 7.
28. Bowman, 358-9.
29. Redmond, 7.
30. Stevens, 329.
31. Redmond, 8.
32. Moore, Brian D. “Gustavus Adolphus.” Masters thesis submitted as a requirement for History 635 at Old Dominion University (October 2, 1978), 3.
33. Redmond, 8.
35. Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, 189.
36. Stevens, 335.
37. Mears, John A. “The Thirty Years’ War, the General Crisis,” and the Origins of a Standing Professional Army in the Habsburg Monarchy” Central European
History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jun, 1988): Cambridge University Press
http://www.jstor.org/stable/4546115 (accessed July 24, 2011), 134.
38. Ekman, Ernst. “Three Decades of Research on Gustavus Adolphus.” The Journal of Modern History,Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 1966): http://www.jstor.org/stable/1877349. (accessed June 29, 2011), 250.
39. Hammes, Colonel Thomas X., USMC. The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century. St. Paul: Zenith Press, 2004, 27.
40. Egerton, Sir Philip de Malpas Grey. “Letter from George Fleetwood to his Father, Giving and Account of the Battle of Lutzen and the Death of Gustavus
Adolphus”, 1847, 11.
Robert Henry Ditmore MA MEd (author) from MORRISON on October 02, 2020:
KC, most of my studies covered WWII, WWI, Amercan Civil War, and The Thirty Years War. I touched just enough on the War of 1812 to peak my interest, so I may work on somthing relevent to that. What I find very interesting about the War of 1812 was the timing of the Wars official ending and the surrender of the British at New Orleans. Jackson and the Brits had no clue the war was over when the British surrendered and forfeited control of the Mississippi.
KC McGee from Where I belong on October 02, 2020:
I served in the U.S. Army and retired in early 2001. I do enjoy military history. I do enjoy most the military history that covers the War of 1812, Civil War and WWII. I don't have a whole lot of info about the War of 1812. So, if you have any information you can share it, would be nice to see it in a future article from you. Anyway, again it is a great article you have here.
Robert Henry Ditmore MA MEd (author) from MORRISON on October 01, 2020:
KC, first of all, thank you for your service! What branch did you serve in in? The Thirty Years War was one heck of a mess; most armies involved were mercenary armies, and that did not fare well for civilian population. Gustavus was a great study, as far as his part in that war. Glad you enjoyed it!
KC McGee from Where I belong on September 30, 2020:
I spent 27 years in the millitary before I retired from it.. It's amazing how far military tactics and technology has come in just 4oo years. This is amazing info and clearly you did your homework. Thank you Robert for sharing military history with us.
Looking forward to more like this one too.
Robert Henry Ditmore MA MEd (author) from MORRISON on September 29, 2020:
Thank you Eric. What he managed to do in his short time in the field was incredible.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 29, 2020:
Fascinating. Mobility, technological advancement and formation. I will be back to finish up.