A Warrior Dynasty – Henrik O. Lunde

The Rise and Fall of Sweden as a Military Superpower, 1611-1721

This book is an overview of the short period when the tiny nation of Sweden became the not only a superpower in Europe, but nearly the arbiter of Germany and the Baltic.

This period was punctuated by the short careers two famous warrior kings – Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII.  Gustavus is famed for his intervention in the Thirty Years War and major victories that stabilized the situation and kept Protestantism viable in Germany.  Charles XII is noted more for his struggles against Poland and Russia in the Great Northern War.

Sweden early in this period gained a technology advantage over standard military practice which gave their armies more flexibility in battle and attached light artillery that could pound the unwieldy square pike formations then in vogue.  This advantage and the ability of Gustavus Adolphus led to a crushing victory at Brietenfeld and moved he theater of war from the Baltic Coast to south Germany.

While the able general Wallenstein was able to fend off Gustavus for a time, a second victory at Lutzen confirmed the superiority of Swedish arms.  Sadly for Sweden, the king Gustavus was killed at the battle and the war was put in the hands of a Chancellor while a young Queen waited to grow up.

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The German Way of War – Robert M. Citino

This is the first in a trilogy that examines the way Germany (and before unification, Prussia) made war from the Thirty Years War up until the first years of the Second World War.

In the Thirty Years War Brandenburg-Prussia was a scattering of principalities in North-East Germany with no secure borders. Nearby were much larger and more powerful states like Sweden and Poland.  A strong and well-trained army was a way to keep enemies at bay, and a source of income in these days of mercenary armies.  A country as poor as Prussia was could not easily sustain this kind of force on its own resources.

Picking and chosing its sides to fight on also was a way to grow Prussia itself.  But these sides had to be carefully chosen, as the country could not sustain a long war itself.  An example of this was the Wars of Frederick the Great, where fast campaigns to grab a province (Silesia at the start of the War of the Austrian Succession and Saxony at the start of the Thirty Years War) were the opening of the war.  Frederick managed to hold onto Silesia, but was nearly brought to ruin during the Seven Years War.

Tactically, the Prussians needed a fast decision, so they relied on fast marching and decisive attacks to gain the day.  To limit bloodshed, they tried to use outflanking moves to gain access to the rear and avoid a long campaign.  The fact that Prussian troops could appear out of nowhere and attack hard put a damper on the spirits of the opposing French or Austrian or Russian troops that made the advantage even greater.

To support this kind of army, a kind of collegiate common outlook was cultivated in the aristocracy of Prussia.  Commanders needed to be aggressive and be able to take initiative in reaching the common goal.  As the marching columns needed to be on their own frequently, these leaders were encouraged to act as they thought best – even if this went against the overall master plan.    Loose cannons were rarely punished even when the errors cost battles or lives.

Prussia had a major setback when it was crushed by Napoleon in 1806.  The reforms were to add a staff officer to the command tent that paired a good thinker with a noble general  to provide a better mix of plan versus man of action.  But the man of action was in charge and still could override the plan at will.

Even as Prussia grew, it still felt itself to be a small state surrounded by larger ones.  Its war plans were still to strike hard and fast, and to use a short, limited war to gain its ends.  Bismarck was able to do this to unify Germany by striking the Austrians and French one at a time, but after that nations learned to group together.

As always, the German plan was to grab a province fast and strike the opposing armies hard to win a short war – in 1914 to hit the French hard and then turn on Russia.  This time it did not work, and the long war against all comers led to defeat.  This just reinforced the German feeling that wars needed to be quick and decisive, which led to the experimentation with tanks and airborne forces to break the stalemate.  Ironically, the limits on the army imposed by the Allies after WWI probably helped this process out, as the small size led to a concentration on theory and good cross-fertilization of ideas.  Perhaps a better idea would have been to force them to keep a few thousand generals over the age of sixty in charge instead!

These young Turks were the core of the German Generals that began the Second World War with a bang.  For a time, the quick blow worked and the armies took country after country.  But the ideology of a limited war by the army tied to the Nazi ideology of permanent societal change was always a bad pairing – there was no way to make a quick peace with just a province or two changing hands here.

And with that. the Germans were out of their depth even from the start.  The need for resources that were exposed to attack led to campaigns all over the map – Norway to protect the Swedish iron shipments, the Balkans and North Africa to protect Romanian oil…it was never a German priority to think these things through before getting into a war.

There was a story I read once that in WWI the Germans were shocked to find out that the supply of certain vital military supplies needed to fight the war came from Chile and France!  It was only due to breakthroughs by the chemists that they could fight the war without running out of ammunition.

The book ends with Barbarossa.  Why attack Russia?  The Germans were already stalemated in Britain and North Africa.  To win in North Africa would require a major change in logistics or a sea invasion of Malta, or both.  It was almost a sense of frustration that the army turned to striking Russia – this was the kind of war they were trained to fight in!

The only problem was that it was one they couldn’t win, as the poor roads, maps, and the ability of the Russians to raise more and more troops to face them made the limits of German war-making apparent early on.  And when the Russians became as battle seasoned as the Germans were, the handwriting was on the wall.

Vanished Kingdoms – Burgundia

This was an interesting chapter, because this kingdom is a pretty plastic concept that has moved around over the centuries in the ‘seam’ between France and Germany, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. When these areas were strong, they were absorbed, but in other periods some pretty significant districts and kingdoms appeared.

In the end Norman Davies comes up with fifteen distinct “Burgundy”s:

  1. The First Burgundian Kingdom in Gaul (410-436).  Destroyed by Attila the Hun at Aetius‘ bidding which has been preserved in Germanic Nibelung saga.
  2. The Second Burgundian Kingdom (451-534).  Set up by Aetius after defeating Attila in Gaul.  A player in the fall of the West, conquered by the Franks.
  3. Frankish Burgundy (590-734)
  4. The French Duchy of Burgundy (843-1384)
  5. The Kingdom of Lower Burgundy (879-933)
  6. The Kingdom of Upper Burgundy (888-933)
  7. The united Kingdom of the Two Burgundies (933-1032)
  8. The County-Palatinate of Burgundy (1000-1678)
  9. The Imperial Kingdom of Burgundy (1032-?)
  10. The Imperial Duchy of Lesser Burgundy (1127-1218)
  11. The Imperial Landgravate of Burgundy (1127+)
  12. The united “States of Burgundy” (1384-1477)
  13. The French Province of Burgundy – Bourgogne (1477-1791)
  14. The Imperial Burgundian Circle (1548-1795)
  15. The French Region of Bourgogne (1982-present)

Some of these were major historical players.  In the Hundred Years War, the Duchy and County were unified and joined the English, nearly breaking France entirely.  When Joan of Arc brought a French resurgence, the moment was gone.

While the political fortunes of these states waxed and finally waned, it is interesting how for fifteen hundred years the concept of “Burgundy” has risen again when given the chance.


Notable Historical Trials II – The Salem Witch Trials

The text of this chapter is pulled from Cotton Mather’s history and is kind of sad.  The theory of the court is that the evidence of the ‘innocents’ could be relied on to convict, and any contradictory evidence that they might be faking was ignored.  Apparently the judges had forgotten how nasty they had been at the same age.

Like usual in these matters, the convictions come fast and furious and then seem to sputter out when someone influential or important, like the Governor’s wife is named.

Notable Historical Trials II – Alice Lisle

I recently finished this chapter in the Folio Society’s collection of historical trials.  This trial is part of the “Bloody Assizes”, where after an abortive rebellion by the Earl of Monmouth, James II dissipated his support amongst the Protestant nobility by conducting a number of treason trials in the country near where Monmouth’s army was defeated.

Alice Lisle was accused of harboring a pair of refugees from the final battle to help them escape pursuit.  While the protestations of unknowingness are a bit strained, still it was not uncommon to give some slack for women who did such things, since they were considered ‘the gentler sex’ and not part of politics as such.  The trial reads strangely for our ears since the judge is the prosecutor, and the punishment of burning alive seems a little much.  In the end it was commuted to death by sword by the king, but, again, James made no friends by savagely going after the remnants of a rebellion that was almost comical in its ineptness.

This would be remembered three years later, and the next attempt to unseat the King would work bloodlessly. The judge in this trial was imprisoned and died in custody.

Notable Historical Trials II – Titus Oates

The updates have been slow of late – I’m on the point of finishing a few, and am not reading as much.  I did finish another chapter in the Folio Society set on Historical Trials – working on Volume II.

This chapter is on a man called Titus Oates, who , being pretty much a failure, decided to parlay his skills at fast talking with the current English fear of Catholics into power, influence and money.

While it had been a while since the Reformation and the Wars of Religion right after, England still was opposed by France and other Catholic Powers in Europe, so there was an understandable nervousness. Coupled with this was the heir to the throne, James II, was pretty unlikeable and was a not-so-closeted Catholic himself.  There was a growing fear  of what a Catholic King would mean.

So when Oates started claiming that he had been involved in secret Jesuit plots to kill the KIng, he was believed no matter how poor his evidence was. And as a result a number of prominent Catholics were put to death. After years of this and many victims, he began to fall out of fashion. When the climate had finally turned completely, he was tried himself and sentenced to be lashed.  The relatives of his victims were said to have gotten to the lasher, since he did it full bore the entire walk to the place of punishments, so that it was said that Oates took 3000 lashes (!).  He was also sentenced to be pilloried for an hour once a year in several places about the country each year.

Despite this, he lived for some years after, which is more than you can say for those he lied into their grave.

Notable Historical Trials II – The Marquise de Brinvilliers

This was a particularly interesting chapter in the compilation book published by the Folio Society, because I had just recently read ‘The Sun King’ by Nancy Mitford on Louis XIV and this event and its sequel figured prominently.  The bulk of the chapter was written by Alexandre Dumas in his book “Celebrated Crimes”.

The crime itself was a pretty spectacular one. The Marquise, having a spendthrift husband needed to increase her income.  Since you can’t go work at the 7-11 if you are in the aristocracy, you have to fall back on inheritance.  Sadly, her father wasn’t dying at the moment.

At this time there was a supply of poison experts around, but the Marquise wasn’t going to take their advice on faith. So she went to the city hospitals and brought poisoned treats to some of the poor patients and later inquired as to how they had passed away.

With the right poison in hand, she dosed her father and ‘nursed’ his way into a coffin. To her embarassment, however, she didn’t inherit much at all! So she had to also poison her brothers, and attempted to do in a sister as well.

Eventually, her poison supplier gave up her name to the authorities and she came under investigation. She had written a confession of her crimes and kept it in a box, which was found. So the trial itself was something of an anti-climax.

She was arrested, questioned, tortured after the conviction to smoke out any accomplices, and executed.  Her body was burned outside of Notre Dame in Paris.  There was a current joke that breathing in her ashes put an itch for poisoning in the air in the city, and in fact there was a rash of poisonings and rumors of poisonings leading up to “The Affair of the Poisons” in which members of the court of Louis XIV were implicated , supposedly even his mistress.

Notable Historical Trials II – The Suffolk Witches

I recently finished this chapter in the Folio Society compilation of historical trials.  This one is from the mid 17th Century and apparenly is one of the last ones that ended up with a conviction and execution.

The evidence seems to have been mostly a few girls who were going into states of insensibility and producing pins and nails from their mouths at intervals. Since they got worse in the presence of the witches, there you have it. Of course, when they were not able to see they got worse at the touch of a court spokesman, but this was dismissed. There was also a droll matter where when it was found that the ‘insensible’ girls could remember what went on when they were out, somehow this was considered a credit rather than a sign the girls were faking.

It all seems very familiar to one who has read about the Salem trials later, and nobody who has a sister will be shocked that they might get a charge out of getting somebody into trouble.

Review: The Sun King – Nancy Mitford

I finished this book, another Folio Society book, today.  It is a history of the life of Louis XIV of France with emphasis on his life at Versailles.  It’s a popular work, so it reads more like a chatty gossip column rather than as a dry historical work. So you find out more about if one of Louis’ mistresses made a sacrifice to the devil than what the laws were like or what the soldiers were doing. You meet a general or so, but only when his wife is found in bed with a count.

The final chapters follow the twilight of his reign – he is getting older, and he then gets involved in a ‘world war’ with most of Europe over trying to put a nephew of his on the throne of Spain.  The strain on the country is huge, and the English general Marlborough is bringing him to the brink of destruction. The worst winter known to man brings him to the table to surrender. Only the demand that he send his own army to dispossess his nephew of the Spanish throne (against the wishes of the Spanish, who had grown to like their king) kept him in the fight.  Then the tide began to turn as the nation rallied behind him.

The army fought Marlborough to a standstill. The English changed governments and betrayed their coalition partners by leaving the war. WIthout England, France won a respectable peace.

Then personal disaster struck as three heirs to the throne died in less than a year, leaving only a sickly child as the last of the line. So the final years before his death were less gitter and glory, but gloom.

The book is well written and fast paced. It is more a view of the personages than of the government or the nations of the time.  And its actually the better for it.  It is an interesting change from the usual histories.

Notable Historical Trials II – Charles I

This Folio Society set of three books contains chapters about famous trials in history. I had previously finished the first and part of the second volume before it got pushed down in the stack, but now it is again getting some work. Each chapter consists of excerpts of other works, with some framing text. It’s an informative and enjoyable book, which is especially noteworthy since the subject isn’t one that I go into naturally. So the bar is set a bit higher, which it passes.

I just finished the chapter on King Charles I’s trial.  After winning the English Civil War, Cromwell and the Parliament tried the king on various charges, which mostly came down to tried for losing. Apparently much like in the later French Revolution, the republican forces wanted to put a cap on their win by executing the king.  Tactically this ended up being a mistake, since the king had heirs that were free, and even Parliament itself could think of nothing to do after Cromwell’s death than to restore the monarchy.

Given the nature of the trial, Charles’ basic defense that his trial before Parliament was not valid because they were not a court and he, as king, was above them anyway, hardly mattered.  His behavior after sentencing and at the execution made him a martyr which played a substantial part in the eventual restoration of the line.