For his infantry, Gustav made sure that he had men trained in specific styles of fighting, whether it was pike or shot. Cavalry was integrated into the wings or rear of much thinner infantry lines of 5-6 ranks. The thin formations allowed for rapid redeployment in the changing conditions of a battle and made it easy for the cavalry to execute a quick charge before finding safety behind the ranks again.
Such small formations seemed vulnerable, but they were often supported by other similar formations, perhaps ones with more guns. The mobile artillery was key in putting pressure on a weakened enemy or helping out a struggling line. It would have been unnerving on the other side as they had to worry about the infantry and also be ready for a sudden cavalry charge or a barrage of artillery. Flanking attacks were also made much easier by the more mobile formations.
Cavalry utilized firearms as much or more than any other European cavalry. They had range as well as shock value when charging. Gustav’s cavalry could be found all over the battlefield, they rarely sat around waiting for the one decisive charge common for most cavalry of the era.
Lastly, Gustav was adamant that his troops should be able to take on any role in his army. Cavalry were trained and skilled horsemen, but if their horse should fall during the battle they should be able to seamlessly fill in with the infantry and fire a musket. A man with a musket should be comfortable picking up a pike to defend against a cavalry charge.
Such cross-training was extremely rare in this period and Gustav saw it pay off a number of times. Most notably, a successful cavalry charge was able to capture the enemy cannons at the Battle of Breitenfeld. Instead of simply leaving or destroying the cannons, the cavalry dismounted and fired barrages of shells into the enemy army.
Poland and Gustav’s Shiny New Army
Though Gustav fought well and implemented some reforms, he had yet to have a complete army that embodied all his ideas and reforms through his first few wars. In a long rivalry and war with Poland, the Swedes just couldn’t gain the upper hand. That is until 1626 when Gustav worked with his trusted advisor Axel Oxenstierna to create an army with a core of highly trained Swedes instead of the core of mercenary troops common in most armies.
The Battle of Wallhof saw the debut of the new Swedish army as Gustav laid an ambush for a marching column of Poles. The Polish force lost over half of their 2,000 man force dead, wounded or captured. The Swedish force launched their swift attack with cavalry charging out from the depths of the infantry formations. When the Polish cavalry counter-attacked the Swedish infantry took cover in nearby trees and drove off the charge. The stunning victory saw no dead on Gustav’s side and a reported zero wounded, though that is always doubtful in battles with thousands of troops.
The Swedish Intervention
A peace with Poland concluded the war by 1629 and gave a fairly balanced peace. Poland was well respected at the time for having the most renowned cavalry in Europe. They were certainly a force to be reckoned with and it was a great victory for the young King to get a balanced peace out of the war.
Less than a year later Gustav would find the need to directly intervene in the 30 Year’s war. Sweden was a protestant nation, and by 1630 the Protestants active in the war against the Catholic Hapsburgs were near their breaking point. Gustav had been committed to the war against Poland, but with a peace finally signed, he was ready to enter the war against the Hapsburgs.
Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly (Tilly), was one of the reasons the Protestants were in such bad shape as he had won an impressive string of victories for the Catholic league. When Gustav and his forces landed in Germany they won enough victories to force Tilly to march north to face him.
The Battle of Breitenfeld
At Breitenfeld, the Protestants and Catholics had roughly an equal amount of power with Gustav’s Swedes and allies (Saxons) having more men but the Catholics under Tilly having far more trained and professional soldiers.
The battle began with a trading of artillery barrages with Gustav’s well-trained crews firing two to three times faster than Tilly’s men. They had more smaller cannons and more high-quality cannons thanks to the burgeoning Swedish cannon industry. Deciding to put an end to the barrage, the Catholic cavalry charged at either flank.
Against the Saxon left, the Catholics had success, forcing a retreat. On the Swedish right, however, the professional charge met the combined arms of the Swedish cavalry. Musket-armed infantry were interspersed with the Swedish cavalry and their volleys beat back the Catholic charges several times. When they were ready, the Swedish cavalry launched a decisive and aggressive counterattack that drove the Catholic left flank of cavalry from the field.
Tilly had decided to commit his infantry to collapsing the Saxon and Swedish left flank and they marched in oblique order to their right. It was a smart move and this tactic would easily win the day in most battlefield scenarios, but the Swedes had other plans.
The Swedish left, now vulnerable due to their fleeing Saxon allies, did not simply wait for the disorganized Catholic infantry to envelope them. Waiting for the right moment, the Swedish infantry charged into the individually maneuvering Catholic units and turned sure defeat into a more even struggle.
Gustav’s victorious cavalry on his right took full advantage of the Catholic focus on their left; they charged the vacant field on their right and easily defeated the Catholic artillery. Again, not resting, they took over the stolen cannons and fired into the rear of the enemy infantry. The original Swedish artillery had already moved into position to fire as well.
The punishing fire from multiple angles turned the even struggle into a Catholic rout and Gustav won his first great victory. The Catholic league lost 25,000 men and all of their artillery, expensive pieces worth a great deal to the struggling Protestant cause.
The victory crippled the Catholic army in Germany, one that had come quite close to ending the war in a victory. Several German states that had Protestant connections decided to break from the Catholics and join Gustav, whose army grew tremendously from new recruits.
The Battle of Breitenfeld was a perfect example of Gustav’s superior tactics and training. His hard-pressed left held in the face of annihilation. His mixed unit formations repeatedly broke the enemy cavalry charges and successfully counterattacked, and his artillery performed admirably the entire time. For a unit as noble and high-class as the cavalry to immediately become artillery men during the battle was something that would happen in few other medieval armies.