21 May 2012

"Ofredsår" / "Years of war" (book review)

Swedish historian Peter Englund has written two companion books about Sweden during the 17th century and the first book "Ofredsår" has a focus on the Thirty Year War. I found this book to be a wonderfull crash course on 17th century politics, tactics and perhaps most of all warfare.

If you thought WW1 (on the western front in particular) was the most meaningless war in human history you will be astonished at the disregard for human life in the armies of the 17th century taking part in the TYW. I've been listening to this lengthy volume as audiobook during my "By Fire & Sword" themed painting sessions over the past weeks. The book may focus on Sweden and TYW but it gives excellent insight into the mindset and warfare of pretty much the entire central and western Europe.

It starts out with descriptions of the battle of Warsaw in Poland and continues with the rampant adventures of Gustavus Adolphus in the German states until his death, then goes on chronicling the continuation of the Swedish involvement in the war under the Swedish generals Johan Banér, Lennart Torstensson and finally Carl Gustaf Wrangel. it also documents many of the famous commanders fighting for other countries such as Wallenstein and Tilly.

As a novice of 17th century warfare I was pretty shocked upon learning several things.

The author raises a lot of points that were known to commanders at this time.

Such as "You need a big army to win decisive battles, however big armies often starve to death due to supply problems in pillaged countryside. Small armies can survive long campaigns but aren't able to either capture strongholds or win any decisive battles".

There were a lot of camp followers and civilians travelling with each army, most of the time the civilians outnumbered the fighting men- this added to the difficulty of supplying the army with adequate amounts of food.

Armies marched up and down the German states for 30 years, burning, raiding, pillaging, collecting war taxes and tributes - after a while only a desolate wasteland remained in which episodes of impending defeat could swing to total victory as the starved small remnant army managed to outlive the fresh huge enemy army arriving in the province only to find itself out of supply and whither down within weeks!

Armies were raised and lost in a sloppy manner, there are numerous tales about the Imperial commander Gallas who was known as the "destroyer of armies". Not because he annihalated his enemies, but because he ruined his own armies by being a complete idiot.

And even when armies were raised, everyone tried to avoid pitched battles as they were extremely risky - instead they tried to use the armies to outmaneuver each other, make their enemies starve and use the military presence in a region for their political gains through diplomacy.

Diplomacy on the other hand during the TYW was a complete joke. Everyone involved stalled any kind of talks as the diplomates were keeping up with news from the front which they tried to use to wheel and deal better arrangements from their enemies. As the war just kept going on and on the diplomates spent most of their times doing ridicilous things such as arguing about who would sit next to whom, on what row and in what order people would arrive to a meeting and who would take of his hat first.

Soldiers went to war wearing their everyday clothes, their "uniform" completed perhaps with a helmet or cuirass. Most of the clothes rotted and fell apart during the long campaigns which resulted in armies that at times looking like a band of homeless people. There is a wonderful description of a battle where the Swedes and their allies were going to fight the Imperial forces. The Swedish army dressed in rags was ridiculed by their allies and enemies, but once the fighting began the superior modern tactics of the Swedes prevailed and whipped the ass of their enemies (while the Swedish allies left the field in panic early on in the battle).

The book is just filled with this kind of amazing and macabre historical accounts, aneqdotes and excerpts from letters revolving around important characters of the time and chronicling the time leading up to and including the entire Thirty Year War. A perfect opening for anyone who want to learn about this period of history and don't know where to start. The book is very well written does a great job of explaining the war, politics and the warfare of this period.

I know many of Peter Englunds books have been translated from Swedish to English but I don't know if this particular book has an English version...

1 comment:

  1. We have the second book here at home, depicting the next king's (Charles X in English) short reign of intense warfare. Whilst romanticists may look upon these two as the ones that brought about the "glory days" of Sweden, they neglect the fact that they committed atrocities. Charles X's wars killed of about 30% of the Polish population, for instance. Good review, I hope people become interested and read it!


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