As soon as one reads the title of this post, I am willing to bet a handful of names pop into your mind. This initial thought is most likely followed by a quick passing of puzzlement that the “Father of Modern Military History” would most likely been after the era of the American Revolution. More closely connected with the French Revolution or Prussia or even later after the unification of Germany in the 19th century.
None of those thoughts land on what European historians contend is the “Father of Modern Military History.” Bear with me a moment though before you click off this post. Have you ever browsed the aisles of Barnes and Noble? Of course you have, history enthusiasts tend to be book enthusiasts. A few weeks back that is what I was doing over my weekend. I strayed too far, however, and left the “United States History” section and ventured into the “World History” section. Ever done that?
That is when this book caught my eye, “A Warrior Dynasty, The Rise and Fall of Sweden as a Military Superpower, 1611-1721.” I can safely say, I knew exactly nada about Sweden and their era of being a “military superpower.” So, I figured I would take the plunge. One more book in the personal library cannot hurt right?
After an introduction outlining the need for a book of this history in English and a brief overview of Sweden up to the 17th century, the author, who happens to reside in Southwest Florida now, introduced me to the monarch of Sweden. In addition to being the king, he was the greatest military mind in Europe during this time frame of the Thirty Years War.
Gustav II Adolf or his Latinized name, Gustavus Adolphus. He served as King of Sweden from 1611 to 1632, when he was killed in action and was the primary reason that Sweden rose to such military prominence during this time frame. After his premature death he was posthumously given the title Gustav Adolf den store which translated means Gustavus Adolphus the Great by the Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament.
Besides the other title he earned posthumously, “Father of Modern Military History.” Why is he deserving of this title? Let’s examine.
First, one word, shock.
On the battlefields of the 18th century, the “shock” factor was a major component of psychological warfare (granted on battlefields of many a different century). The idea of shocking the opposing side be it with a cannonade, bayonet charge, or on fields of the 18th century a grand cavalry charge. Unnerving the opponent and causing them to lose focus, fire indiscriminately, or flee precipitously would earn victory quickly and decisively.
Adolf understood that with the advent of better musketry and artillery, this element was enhanced in early modern warfare. He grasped that shock was an element of both fire and movement.[i] He formed his infantry in brigades with exact proportions; two-thirds carrying muskets and the other third with pikes and he promoted the advancement of lighter cannons, which turned out to be 3-pounders that could advance with the infantry and pulled by a single horse if need be. The artillerymen could fire eight shots in the time it took infantry to load and fire their muskets six times. Adolf did not eschew heavier artillery pieces but formed them into reserve battalions (sound familiar from the parlance of the American Civil War?) which masked their firepower to rain destruction down on the enemies of Sweden.
“Volley firing” was another military tactic that Gustav II Adolf introduced to the Swedish army that was copied by other European powers. The Swedish monarch added a wrinkle to this tactic, having the first rank advance ten paces before firing. As this rank reloaded the second rank would proceed through the intervals of the first rank and in turn advance another ten paces to deliver their fire. This produced a rolling fire effect in addition to shortening the distance between the forces.
The weaponry used; including pikes, which were shortened and an iron plating near the upper portion of the pike and implementation of the “Swedish feather” to hold the arquebus was given to the soldiery. When placed in the ground this also added as a defense against onrushing cavalry. The less weight carried by the soldiery with the “Swedish feather” allowed for them to be armed with a saber, adding to their repertoire of weaponry. Gustav also took advantage of Swedish manufacturing which had come up with lighter weight mechanisms for the muskets that began dominating the European forces in the 17th century.
Cavalry also saw a modernization under Gustav. Their usage, to add to the “shock” factor mentioned above and to work in tandem with the infantry. He also mandated smaller formations which were good for a myriad of duties, such as scouting or raiding. This also made it easier to manage and train.
These three branches would also combine to keep an attack going, harkening back to that “shock” factor but lending support to one another to defeat and attempt to annihilate the enemy. Gustav counseled speed. Albrecht von Wallenstein, who faced Gustavus as an enemy leader during the Thirty Years War would remark one time that “The Swedes came as if they had flown” to the battlefield, amazed at how quickly the Swedish forces descended on his position.[ii]
Along with implementing training, Gustav revived the military staff which also led to better planning and logistics. A general staff or council of officers would meet to go over the details and feasibility of plans that the king was currently considering for the next campaigning season. In 1621 he also issued field regulations that governed the army. Every month these regulations, which came to be known as the “Articles of War’ was read to the troops in his army.
Gustav II Adolf died in 1632 at the age of 37 years old but his legacy in the military arts shone through the ages. Napoleon I of France had a biography on his camp table of Gustavus during his ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. Later Prussian general and war theorist Carl von Clausewitz thought him one of the great military minds of his age. A sentiment echoed by George Patton in the 20th century. Even the Duke of Wellington was a student of his battlefield exploits. The Italians referred to him as the “The Golden King” and others simply knew him as “The Lion of the North.”
“The archetype of what a king should be and one of the few European kings and sovereign princes during the seventeenth century worth of the office.”[iii] He ushered in the “Era of Great Power” or the “Golden Era” for Sweden in which he helped grow the size of the kingdom to be the third largest nation behind Russia and Spain during that time. In the process he became the “Father of Modern Military History.”
Not a bad find on the shelf at Barnes and Noble on a Monday.
[i] https://www.historynet.com/true-warrior-king-gustav us-ii-adolphus.htm (accessed May 10, 2021)
[ii] Lunde, A Warrior Dynasty, page 132
[iii] https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Gustavus_Adolphus_of_Sweden (accessed May 12, 2021)