Gustavus Adolphus faced big problems when he came to the Swedish throne in 1611. The 1.5 million Swedes were surrounded by enemies with 14 times their population.
And his country was at war with Denmark, Poland and Russia.
King Gustavus countered with such innovation and bold leadership that Napoleon and Patton later ranked him as one of the greatest military leaders of all time.
“He created the first mobile field artillery, restored the role of cavalry after long decline, developed the modern role for infantry and instituted closely coordinated movements for combined arms operations,” Henrik Lunde, author of “A Warrior Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of Sweden as a Military Superpower,” told IBD. “He organized the first national professional army, the first effective supply system and laid the foundation of military law. It’s hard to find anyone who so successfully bridged the gap between theory and practice with an integrated system. He’s been fairly called the Father of Modern Warfare.”
Rise To The Throne
Gustavus (1594-1632) was born in Stockholm to Duke Charles of Vasa and his second wife, Kristina.
Five years later, the Lutheran duke seized the throne from his Catholic nephew, Sigismund, and was formally crowned as Charles IX in 1604. The nobility supported him on condition that his son not become king until he was 18 and that he be advised by a council until he received full power at 24.
Charles had Gustavus study with the best tutors. The boy mastered six languages, sat in on council meetings, read everything, asked questions and learned rhetoric to persuade others in debate.
“It was in his study of diplomacy and military affairs that he really excelled,” said Lunde. “He was a strong athlete and became adept at horse riding and the use of various weapons, displaying an early contempt for physical danger.”
By the time his despotic father died in 1611, the nobility hated how it had been treated and didn’t want to help Gustavus fight Sweden’s wars. Gustavus, just 16, negotiated a deal: He would be granted full powers as Gustavus II Adolphus the next year in exchange for having a strong advisory council.
Gustavus listened to those who disagreed with him so he could adopt their ideas or defend his own. He also endeared the people to him with reforms of everything from the judicial system to education, putting competent officials in charge. He changed laws to encourage foreign investors and built towns in the largely rural country.
“He was tall and well formed, of fresh, fair complexion, blue eyes (and) bright yellow hair — foreigners bestowing on him the name of ‘the golden king of the North,'” wrote John Stevens in “History of Gustavus Adolphus.” “To his thoughtful, grave and earnest expression were added a grace and dignity of bearing, an affability of manner and a personal magnetism, which gave him a powerful influence over all who were brought into relations with him.”
At the Battle of Vittsjo in Denmark in 1612, Gustavus nearly drowned, but the next year he repelled a Danish invasion and negotiated a peace treaty.
The war with Russia ended four years later, with the giant country blocked from Baltic Sea access.
In 1618, the Thirty Years’ War started between Protestant and Catholic nations, though Sweden delayed its involvement as it built up its military power.
Meanwhile, Gustavus organized an army based on the revolutionary concept of universal conscription. When the soldiers weren’t fighting, they worked on farms, where they were paid in land, food and clothing. The new discipline meant that anyone who raped women or looted was hanged. Training was rigorous; he emphasized the use of small, mobile units over traditional battlefield outfits.
He drove innovation to make muskets more reliable, developed more effective volley firing tactics, shortened pikes to make them easier to wield and invented light artillery to zip around the battlefield.
In 1620 he married Mary Eleanor. Two of their first three children were stillborn; another died in infancy. Kristina was born in 1626.
Also that year came the Battle of Wallhof in today’s Latvia. Gustavus used what is now called combined arms, coordinating infantry and cavalry — a first in military history.
He then defeated the Poles at Gniew. The next year, Gustavus was wounded at Danzig and Dirschau in Prussia, but recovered.
In 1629, in the Battle of Trzciana, also in Prussia, against troops from Poland and its Catholic allies, he dodged death and capture.
Later that year, he concluded a treaty in which Poland ceded what today are parts of Latvia and Estonia to Sweden.
The next year, he landed an army in Germany as the champion of the Protestants in the long European war. In January 1631, he signed a treaty with Catholic France, which agreed to help finance his army.
Victory In Germany
Later in 1631, the Swedes defeated forces of the Holy Roman Empire (Spain, Austria and their allies) at Frankfurt, Werben and Breitenfeld in today’s Germany.
Gustavus had 24,000 Swedes and 18,000 less reliable German allies facing 35,000 Imperial forces. The enemy was deployed in the traditional manner: in large squares of 2,000 men armed with long pikes, with cavalry on their flanks.
The Holy Roman Empire’s cannons began firing at Gustavus’ men, who had been organized in small units in two lines, with gaps between them so that many of the balls missed completely.
His artillery responded with devastating effect on the packed enemy formations, and his musketeers repelled cavalry charges.
Gustavus’ 9,000 allies from Saxony, however, soon deserted and exposed his left flank. After redeploying against a charge of Imperial pikemen, he led his cavalry in a sweep to the enemy rear, capturing cannons. With the Protestants now firing from the rear and front, the Imperial squares collapsed.
The Protestants took 3,000 casualties; 7,000 Catholics were wounded or killed and 6,000 captured.
“Breitenfeld … signaled the introduction of his style of fighting (to European war),” wrote historian Paul Davis in “100 Decisive Battles.” “By introducing smaller brigades … and depending more on (mobile) firepower … (he) destroyed and, after the Thirty Years’ War, replaced mass formations. Gustavus also introduced professionalism to warfare. … Up to this time in history, the mass of the soldiery was either mercenaries paid by loot and therefore without loyalty or men off the streets and fields pressed into service or joining out of desperation.”
Killed In Action
“The Swedes were motivated instead by nationalism,” Davis wrote. “(Breitenfeld) marked the beginning of the modern age … in military affairs.”
In 1632, Gustavus defeated the Imperial forces at Lech, Germany, and captured Munich but was repulsed by the entrenched enemy at a castle named Alte Veste.
Then in November at Lutzen, also in Germany, Gustavus was leading a cavalry charge, but got separated from his men in the thick smoke and fog and was shot dead. He was 37.
The sides were roughly matched at the start, with 20,000 each. But the well-trained Swedish commanders drove the enemy from the field. Lunde says that the Imperial killed, captured or wounded were as high as 12,000, while the Swedes’ losses were estimated at 6,000 to 10,000.
Princess Kristina was 6 at the time and became queen at 18.
“By the enduring force which (Gustavus’) genius and character imparted to the Swedish nation,” wrote Stevens, “it maintained an influence nearly a century among the leading powers of Europe much beyond what (its) natural strength and geographical position gave it.”
Lunde says that key military lessons can be taken from Gustavus:
Well-driven offensive tactics trump defensive ones.
Having senior commanders lead from the front is a bad idea for tactical movements.
Gathering intelligence on the terrain and enemy are critical.
Wars cannot be won without solid logistics.
Proper financing is crucial for national security.
Countries that request aid should contribute funding and/or manpower.
Nations must control advanced military technology.
The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 concluded the Thirty Years’ War and recognized the principles of national self-determination.
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