There was not a lot of actual fighting between the Swedes and the Imperial army in the first stage. But where there was no clash with the enemy, there was no success and the life of the common soldiers was reduced to simply marching, without any apparent destination. Erdhart returned to what he knew like the back of his hand. He marched or he stood guard, and when he was not doing either one of those duties, he was eating or sleeping. He was a regular soldier – one of thousands – and it was not within his means to be able to tell how the campaign was going. The only thing that he could tell was that there were few clashes with the enemy. Every now and then, a rumour would spread among the troops that the Swedes were within sight, but only to the effect of the direction of the march suddenly changing and nothing came out of it.
The campaign of Matthias Gallas was not going well at all. Gallas was no longer the same successful commander that crushed the Swedes at Nördlingen in 1634. He was now an elderly alcoholic, plagued by indecision, discontent and doubts regarding everything.
His rival, Field Marshal Lennart Torstensson, did not hesitate and used every tactical error of the Imperial Army to his advantage. The initiative was absolutely in Swedish hands. The Swedish army manoeuvred undisturbed towards the Elbe and was leaving a wasteland in its wake. For Gallas' troops, which were already having problems with supply, this was a catastrophe. The imperial forces were not superior in numbers, their cavalry was less numerous than the Swedish and, additionally, in poor condition. Under these circumstances, apart from the manoeuvres in the northern territories of Germany, fighting was limited to several skirmishes and artillery exchanges. This “little war” was mostly fought by the cavalry and Torstensson (and his commanders) were really good at it.
And so it happened that the imperials were, at first, pushed to Bernburg. Here, the Imperial Army defended itself bravely under the Swedish siege, but the supplies started to run out soon and morale was sinking. And most importantly, the imperial troops could hardly fulfil their main strategic mission in a besieged city and prevent the Swedes from advancing further to Bohemia and to the south.
That day, on the 20th of September, I helped bury Peter, others are sick. We have our quarters in Bernburg, but nothing good awaits us here. But our cannons are having a brave exchange with the Swedish artillery.
Gallas managed to manoeuvre his way out of the encirclement still and, in the course of a single day, retreat to the only place left where he could resist the Swedes – Magdeburg.
On the 23rd of November, after an arduous and hasty escape we retreated to Magdeburg. We managed to evade the Swedes several times. I do not know if we even want to face them. Pointless to write about such misery.
Finally, the Imperial Army retreated within the very walls of Magdeburg. The same city that was plundered and burned down by the imperial forces in the May of 1631 and whose citizens died by the thousands. Now the Imperial Army moved back there again, breached the neutrality of Magdeburg and was left at the mercy of the Swedes.
These were terrible days for Erdhart. He saw nothing but suffering and destruction around himself. Morale was at rock bottom, the supply chain was almost non-existent. His comrades in arms were being lost dozens at a time. Desertion, sickness and death were a daily occurrence and in the evening, there was often no trace of whomever you greeted in the morning. Erdhart was fully hit with the realization of the horrible state the army that he served in was when he saw a horse drop with exhaustion and hunger right under its tattered rider. The rider then shrugged and continued further on foot with his equipment tossed over his shoulder. For Erdhart, the initial days of the siege of Magdeburg were but a gloomy blur soaked in fear.
Georg was an experienced soldier and he was properly hardened by life, but now he was truly afraid. Crystalline, tangible fear for life, a feeling of being imprisoned in a besieged city that was not prepared for a prolonged defense. Fear for his wife, who was left somewhere in the country. All of that was impacting his morale.
Everyone knew about the small groups of soldiers that were sneaking past the fortification works and were trying to defect to the enemy. But everyone also knew that the Swedes showed no mercy to such deserters. Some ended hung from the trees immediately, some disappeared from the surface of the Earth. It was even rumoured that some soldiers were planning to attack Gallas himself and then perhaps broker a peace with the Swedes. Gallas, always falling-down drunk, barricaded himself in a luxurious bourgeois palace in which he was staying, together with about 50 of his most loyal men.
However, desperate courage was building up in Erdhart. The kind a trapped animal has, trying to get free. Anything would be better than to slowly die like a dog, under siege. Late autumn brought short days and long dark nights providing a good chance for an escape. Georg did not want to take the same path as everyone else. During the days on guard duty and while serving on the walls of Magdeburg, he found a section of the fortification that seemed to him to be little guarded by the Swedes. All that was needed was to overcome the high wall and the almost suspiciously empty trenches and in the dark, he might hopefully be able to somehow make it to the Swedish supply section and then run further away.
The idea was insane. But the brain tortured by hunger and fear saw no other alternative. From his time spent on river boats, he could handle a rope well, and as a little boy, he was quite a tree climber, despite his parents always telling him off. To find a sufficiently long rope was a tough nut to crack, but Erdhart eventually managed to do so during one of his night guard duties near the artillery position. He waited for the moment just before the dawn, when everything was the calmest, and swung himself over the wall. The way down was faster than he expected and he almost peeled the skin off his palms, but he managed not to cry out and to carry on along the wall.
The siege hermetically closed the entire city off, smothering it, but the trenches began further away from the walls. The Swedes wanted to starve out Gallas and force him either to counter-attack or to capitulate. It played into Erdhart’s hand that there was a no man’s land between the walls and the Swedish positions, and so he was almost able to slip past one of the artillery redoubts. Just almost, unfortunately. He managed to walk only a couple of dozens of metres when the Swedish soldiers on guard noticed him. In the end, Erdhart had to get down on his knees with a sword on his neck and plead for mercy.
… I managed to escape then, when I scaled down the wall. It seemed that I will be able to slip past but before I knew it, the Swedish guards fell upon me. Fortunately, the Almighty was with me and they did not bust me up. They took everything I had, bound me and dragged me to some building where they kept all the prisoners...
Events then took a quick turn. The sun had barely started to rise when Erdhart found himself among the other prisoners. He was sitting amongst men that he knew by sight. Wretched, broken. He recognized one German among them, if he remembered right, he was from somewhere around Baden. The man had been injured and sick already before entering the city and then he suddenly disappeared. The retreat had been helter-skelter then and nobody felt like concerning themselves with a couple of deserters. He didn’t say his name and Erdhart didn’t ask, but he eventually blurted out that altogether, there were eight of them that escaped. But seven of them refused to simply surrender to the Swedes, who eventually caught them and hung them for defiance. As for him, he didn’t have any strength left to run and so he just sat down, leaning against a stump next to the road. The Swedes took him and tossed him in here. In the end, Erdhart pulled away from him to the other side of the room because the man obviously had the chills, he was sweating and he didn’t look healthy at all. In the end, Georg Erdhart, resting his face against his arms and knees, with dark thoughts of what will become of him, cursing his own name, tried to sleep through his imprisonment.
For lieutenant Alexander Mörner, that day began the same as any other. He woke up at dawn, listened to the sergeants’ report of the state of the company and the sentries and had his breakfast in the captain’s tent to find out if anything new was to happen that day. But the imperialists were still playing hide and seek behind the walls of the city and his grace Field Marshal Torstenson had his siege so well organized that the cavalry was hogging all the work and merit and the infantry spent their time on watch, constantly. He got ready and went to inspect their little “dominion” which he was in charge of. His path led past the building where they gathered the captives from last week. He decided to have a look at what it actually was that had fallen into their clutches.
There was plenty of captives and he could use couple of men for his company, which had grown thin, and there was no time to chase after those scattered across the countryside. He knew that the prisoners were unreliable, deserters, cowards, who ran at the first opportunity. But nobody said that they had to last for long. The lieutenant could imagine that they had a lot of sieges, similar to the one of Magdeburg, ahead of them, and a siege such as this took its toll on the condition of the army with desertions, disease and, every now and then, some leaden surprise from the enemy.
The group of the captives awaiting their fate were pitiful to behold. The men that could still be useful, that were physically not in the worst shape, had inscribed in their looks that this was the end for them anyway. The emptiness and resignation in their eyes did not make the lieutenant happy.
All the more for that, one of them sparked his interest. He would not be his first choice to replenish the ranks. For a moment, he watched the man with a stern look. On one hand, his frame was so slender that it looked emaciated, but there were apparent strings of muscle and tendons on his hands. The lieutenant shouted at the man: “Hey, you there, man! Did you shit into your own boots or is there a bit of courage left in you?”
Erhardt had had enough of all the bad times and fearing his own fate. Sitting on his butt with the prospect of the noose breaks a man in the end and Erdhart saw that all around him. He ran away to escape a trap, where everybody was just looking at their feet, trying to figure out when they would fall down to the ground, only to get into another trap, where it was the same. It was this very irony of fate that was keeping Erdhart afloat the entire time and filled his head with a stream of sentences and speeches he’d use to get out of this pickle. The fact that somebody accused him of shitting into his own boots was the last drop. All the misery and fear of uncertain outlook were suddenly off his mind. He didn’t even know who it was that was talking to him, he just sprang to his feet and shouted in his direction: “Give me a coat, a musket and something to fill my stomach and pockets and I’ll show you so much courage that you’ll wipe the stairs to hell with your ass on your way there.”
The lieutenant did not really anticipate a reaction like that at all, but after the initial surprise, he half-smiled. Something would become of this band of wretches after all. First of all, the lieutenant ordered this daredevil to be pulled up and then he spoke to him in a much calmer voice: “Surely you don’t feel like rotting here, right? The rest of them are given up completely, but one gets a feeling looking at you, that you could handle hauling a musket around, what’s your name and what’s your experience?” And so Erdhart started to speak immediately. The lieutenant listened. And then the verdict came. Erdhart was taken to the company scribe and was signed into the musterrolle. He was given different clothes, a musket and the rest of the equipment. When the day was over, Erdhart was in the service once again, this time in the Swedish army, under captain Willhelm Du Rees.
Everything changed for Erdhart once again. He had no idea when, or if, he was ever to see his family again. First he had to properly learn the ropes of his new service.
The differences between the individual “employers” were easy to spot. In the Swedish army, the daily system was much stricter than it was under Gallas’ command. He belonged to a “rott” (Swedish word for a single file in infantry formation), a part of his company which consisted of 6 men, fewer than was the case in the imperial regiment. They were to always be accommodated in quarters together and they joined the formation together as well. He noticed the different equipment of the cavalry and other battalions. And he almost broke into tears, appreciating the blue coat, one of entire heaps of them that they brought in on wagons, together with plenty of fabric to be used by the soldiers to sew more clothes for themselves. He received regular rations of food and generally, there were lot of differences from the ill-supplied Imperial Army. Even the general atmosphere was different. This army was not retreating, it was not defeated. The soldiers were exhausted, yes, but one could feel in the air that the direction of the march was forward.
The Swedish army was divided up for a moment for their winter quarters and was gathering strength after the year of intense campaigning in Denmark and northern Germany. The men could take a break from the days of being constantly on the road and it was also an opportunity to replenish their weaponry and equipment. Erdhart received, apart from his new coat, pants and decent wool for stockings. Finally, he bought a new pair of shoes from his first paycheck.
Nobody was looking down on Erdhart for being a new soldier, and a deserter on top of that. After a couple of days, nobody knew where the new soldier came from anyway. Erdhart used his life-long experience and a bit of his famous audacity and quickly learned his way around the new environment. Despite the new army in which Erdhart coincidentally continued his military career being generally called the Swedish army, there were not a lot of Swedes. Erdhart immediately realized that there were mostly Germans from various regions serving there, several Dutchmen, Scots, and Englishmen. He heard French too and every now and then he thought he heard other languages as well.
The company of captain Willhelm du Rees belonged to the regiment of Kaspar Kornelius Mortaigne de Potelles. There were mostly Germans from Hessen, Westfalen, and several Flemings and French serving in it. There were a couple of officers from Sweden, but that was it. And from what Erdhart could tell, it was similar in the rest of the regiments.
Of the entirety of the Swedish army, which was quartered in Saxony at the beginning of the year 1645, an absolute minority were Swedish. The Swedes (and Finns) were mostly officers. Additionally, there were two Swedish cavalry regiments, although a lot of Germans served in those as well, then there were two regiments of infantry, which were also recruited directly from Sweden. Altogether, there were less than 2000 of them. The Swedish army was not quite so Swedish. Wherever they came from, these 16,000 men, complete with the accompaniment of the supply train, their families and supplies, were to set off in the direction of the Bohemian border.
Things were set in motion again at the beginning of 1645. The war had been taking too long already and so a plan had been drawn up. The plan of a big French-Swedish-Transylvanian campaign against the Habsburgs. There was only one target, the conquest of which would mean the end of the war. The goal of general Torstensson was the heart of the Habsburg Empire and the most important target - Vienna. So far, there had been no rival military force worth a mention standing in the way of the Swedish army and the road to Vienna seemed to be free.
Fleeing the army, leaving the service or changing sides were common in the Thirty Years’ War era. Life in the army was hard even under normal circumstances and if the armed forces got into a crisis, soldiers were facing existential problems, and flight, meaning desertion, was the first among all the choices of how to deal with the issue.
A crisis like that could arise with a lack of money to pay the soldiers or insufficient supplies. These problems could be solved by plundering and pillaging, nevertheless, the number of deserting soldiers was rising in a prolonged crisis. The commanders themselves counted with the fact that in this manner, their formations would lose as many as 10% of all their soldiers. Disease was an issue taking the biggest bite off the soldiers’ numbers, desertion was the second and injuries or death in a battle were only the third.
Crises would come during a siege as well. A siege of a fortified city was a long-term, extremely complicated and logistically taxing undertaking. It was not always possible to seal off the city truly hermetically and if there was any way to get supplies into the city, the siege would get longer. But an army stuck in one place was not able to “live off the land”, and so it only took a couple of weeks for the close surroundings to be completely ransacked and plundered. It was necessary to go further away to get supplies and to wait for them to be delivered back. If bad weather was added into the mix, a catastrophe hit the besieged and the layers of siege alike. The siege of Brno by the Swedish army in 1645 could serve as a typical example of that, but we will get to that one some other time. For a different example, we can turn to the siege of Bergen op Zoom in 1622. The conditions in the trenches of the siege layers were so horrific, that 2,500 of the soldiers laying siege went to the besieged city itself to seek rescue. This irrational act was described by one Italian soldiers as “having escaped from Hell itself”.
In this episode, Erdhart did not really encounter an existential crisis, true, but thanks to his experiences, he recognized the airtight siege of the city as the death-trap from which he had to escape as soon as possible. It might be impossible later on, or he might not have enough strength left, and who knows, what would have become of him then.
The fear for one’s own life and livelihood had always been superior to the loyalty to a sovereign or previous service. There were exceptions of course, but there are many cases of soldiers switching sides just to protect their own life or their livelihood as soldiers.
The German mercenary Hagendorf can serve as an example again. By a twist of fate, he managed to defect to the other side not once, but twice. In 1633, after the siege of Straubing on the Danube, the defenders were allowed to leave the city in accord with an agreement they struck. However, two hours later, the Swedish soldiers forced them to hand over all their equipment and belongings and sign up for the Swedish military service.
… And then they led us back to Straubing. From Straubing, they took us to the river Isar. I was assigned to the red regiment as a sergeant. My captain’s name was Albrecht Stengel, from Sweden…
Hagendorf experienced various things in the Swedish service. From success when pillaging a city to being robbed of everything. However, he did not last long in the Swedish service. As a Swedish sergeant, he took part in the Battle of Nördlingen in the September of 1634, where the Swedish army suffered a crushing, overwhelming defeat. Most of the Swedish soldiers fell, were injured or captured. Hagendorf himself was captured too.
… This time, the Almighty was truly protecting me and so I have to thank my precious Lord most ardently for all those days of my life when I escaped without a scratch, even though there was not a single uninjured man other than me among all of those who returned to the regiment. After the battle, all those who had served in the Bavarian or the imperial army in the past, but had been captured at some point, now returned to their old regiments. An hour later, I and my young servant reunited with my old company, in which I used to serve before all this. The captain, who was taken in Straubing, same as I, reinstated my former position of a captain…
And so Hagendorf defected to “the enemy” again and returned to his old service. By the grace of fate, or coincidence, uninjured.
Another story was described by the English mercenary Sydnam Poyntz in his memoirs. He had been captured at the very beginning of his military career. By the whim of fate, he got to captain Sidnam during his capture. Poyntz’s bright mind and silver tongue, which handled the truth very freely, took care of the rest…
… I embarked on the journey to Dover, then to Calice, to Graveling, to Dunkirk, to Newport, to Ostend, to Bruges, to Gaunt, to Antwerp, to Termonde, here my needs pushed me, because my savings were running out quickly, to become a common soldier in the regiment of my master, lord Vaux, under captain Reysby, and so we presently moved towards Bergen op Zoom, where Marquess Spinola made his camp. It was then that Fortune played with me and I became a prisoner of the men of captain Sidnam. But knowing that captain Sidnam was is my godfather, I made him aware of the fact and he, like a noble gentleman, offered to give me new clothes if I stayed with him or some change for the journey back to my country. But I wished to carry on… (note: Poyntz’s memoirs are in certain sections a highly unreliable source and it is probable that Poyntz embellished many facts, be it in his memoirs or during his adventures. However, it is very much possible, that he simply “lied his way out” of the captivity).
According to other memoirs and sources of the soldiers of the Thirty Years’ War era, switching armies in this fashion was nothing extraordinary, and if it is possible to assume that from what we know, it was not viewed as something condemnable or criminal. Deserters were viewed as criminals only when they left the army entirely and began to earn their livelihood in a truly criminal fashion – with thieving etc.
It was not just the common soldiers that would defect to the enemy. Some aristocrats and officers behaved similarly.
One of such high-born turncoats was for example Jean-Louis Raduit de Souches, originally a French Huguenot, who fought in the famous siege of La Rochelle (1627-1628) in 1628. After La Rochelle had fallen, he managed to leave France and join the service in the Swedish army in Germany. There he was gradually building up his military career. Thanks to his intelligence, experience and education, he was a success, there is mention of him being a captain in 1635. But he also had an overly confident, quick-tempered nature and when he did not like something, he did not spare his superiors of open criticism. Between the years 1636 and 1639, he therefore left the army for a short time, to return and carry on with his career later on. Eventually, he was appointed colonel. After the campaign in Silesia, he got under the command of the Finnish general Torsten Stahlhansen. But de Souches was again openly critical towards him, the strict general did not let it pass and imprisoned him. And so Raduit de Souches learned first hand, that his career in the Swedish military had come to an end. He escaped his captivity and managed to enter into the service of the Habsburg Imperial Army, where he could apply his military experience and his knowledge of the Swedish army.
It should also be noted that it was only considered a desertion or defection to the enemy if, and only if, one really joined those, whom they fought against in the past. It was not considered a desertion for example to join a different, allied army. This “transfer” was viewed as a career or a political choice.
For this episode, thanks are due to Ctibor Ostrý and to the Brno City Museum – Špilberk.
Translation by Vojtěch Březík
Edit by Ivana Nemčoková