Johann von Tilly: the Holy Roman Empire’s Underrated Hero

The Thirty Years War raged across Europe in the 17th century with the Habsburg powers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire clashing with Saxony, Sweden, France, and many others. While many place Albrecht von Wallenstein at the height of Habsburg strength, one commander of the Catholic League forces is overlooked- Johann Tserclaes, count von Tilly.

Johann Tserclaes, Count von Tilly

Tilly was born in the Spanish Netherlands in 1559 to Jesuits, the “warriors” of the Catholic Church. Tilly’s first combat experiences were in the 80 Years War against the Dutch with the Spanish. When Tilly was 35, he joined the Habsburg forces to fight the Turks in the Hungarian plains.

In 1609, Maximilian I of Bavaria created the Catholic League as opposition to the Protestant Union and Tilly was called upon to reform the Bavarian forces. The league would offer military support to any of its allies when provoked, and in 1618, the Holy Roman Empire called upon the League for aid. Ferdinand II claimed to own Bohemia & the Palatinate, ruled over by Frederick V, since his father had previously ruled the land. In an attempt to reclaim their lands, the Habsburg monarch turned to his Catholic allies to the west. Tilly’s forces combined in 1619 at Wurzburg, where the entire force numbered around 20,000. 7,000 of these men were Bavarian soldiers whom Tilly had previously commanded. The Bohemian revolt spread into Moravia, Styria, the Tyrol, and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire.

On November 8, 1620, Tilly’s Catholic forces clashed with the Czechs at the Battle of White Mountain. Outnumbering his opponent by almost 10,000 men, Tilly knew this battle would clear the way to Prague and it was imperative for him to win. The Czech forces of the Bohemian Estates (hereby known as the Estates) positioned themselves on high ground overlooking a valley. Artillery was places throughout the Estates’ lines while the middle was populated by Czechs and Austrian mercenaries. The Imperial forces under Count von Tilly were set in three lines with Cossacks from Poland and Spanish cavalry on the flanks. Imperial cavalry on the right wing charged the Estate positions to which their commander, Christian Anhalt, could not respond to. The left collapsed as the Estate infantry and cavalry routed. Anhalt commanded his middle to attack the Imperial forces but Tilly absorbed these assaults and managed to surround the Czech, who was captured. Irish Catholic Henry Fitzsimon led his troops to crush the rest of the Estate forces and Tilly achieved a stunning victory. Tilly continued past Prague and into Germany where he continued his string of impressive victories, much to the admiration of Ferdinand II.

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Estate forces being surrounded by Catholic cavalry at White Mountain

By 1625, Christian IV of Denmark sought ambitions to the south in the ever expanding 30 Years War. Tilly and Albrecht von Wallenstein led their forces north in order to confront the Protestant forces and in 1626, Tilly confronted the enemy at the Battle of Lutter. Tilly’s artillery was used to a massive advantage and when they repulsed a Danish assault, a cavalry charge routed the reorganizing Danes from the battlefield. Lutter cost the Danes some 6,000 men out of their 20,000; Tilly lost 200 men. With the Imperials in Jutland, Christian IV was forced to sign the Treaty of Lubeck which made him abandon support to the German Protestants.

Tilly was appointed commander of the Imperial Army afterthe Wallenstein debacle. Wallenstein’s power hungry manner and ignorance toward the Emperor cost Wallenstein his life. With Count von Tilly in command, Ferdinand II ordered him to move against the Swedish forces of Gustavus Adolphus who had invaded Germany in 1630. The Swedes had adopted Maurician tactics of the 80 Years War and created arguably the best fighting force of the pike and shot era. Tilly’s siege of Magdeburg ended in a victory, but his invasion of Saxony cost him an important ally. At Breitenfeld in 1631, Gustavus Adolphus’ forces devastated Tilly as his flank attempt was refused and eventually slaughtered by the Swedish-Saxon force. Tilly was forced to retreat back to Bohemia after losing 27,000 soldiers. Tilly positioned his troops on the River Lech and Gustavus Adolphus attacked rapidly. Tilly was wounded and died two weeks later.

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A statue of Tilly in Munich, Bavaria

While not the most notable general of the 30 Years War, Johann von Tilly remains an intriguing man whom we do not explore often. From being a Flemish soldier in the armies of the Holy Roman Empire to fighting off Czechs in the Bohemian Estate Wars, Tilly proved to be a major player of early 17th century warfare. His quick and comitted decisions led to many victories, but also drastic defeat at Breitenfeld. His quick death in a minor engagement really puts a stamp on his life and makes one realise how quickly even a general can fall from grace.

 

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Book Review: Fontenoy 1745

Osprey Publishing’s recent release, Fontenoy 1745, retells the story of the War of Austrian Succession’s most famous battle. An Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian force commanded by the Duke of Cumberland came face to face with Marechal de Saxe’s French forces in the small Belgian town of Fontenoy, just outside Tournai. Written by Michael McNally and illustrated by Sean O’Brogain, this book opens up a near-forgotten war in Europe’s history.

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Osprey Publishing’s new book: Fontenoy 1745

Praise: Cumberland’s tactical errors are pointed out bluntly, and rightfully so. The book makes its statements of how the Anglo-Dutch forces were uninformed and very strong-willed to their plans. Saxe’s flexibility and use of multiple columns is depicted in a few maps and really shows what a complex network the French general made. There are also reconstructed uniforms in the book of many units of interest such as the Mousquetaires du Roi of the French army. On-site photographs are always great, but McNally manages to capture the correct weather too. His misty pictures clearly show how hard it was for the early-morning attacks troops made. Osprey Publishing always do a good introduction to a topic, and the War of Austrian Succession is covered briefly and provides a solution to any confusion one may have about what the British or the French fighting in Belgium has to do with the Austrian throne.

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British and French Guards clash at Fontenoy

Criticism: The two battle maps in the book felt boxy too me. While 18th century warfare was very rigid in its structure, the maps feel odd and seem to exaggerate the number of troops on the field with huge blocks of infantry. The illustrations could also have been placed better in the book, as you find a picture of the French Irish Brigade about 10 pages after you hear about their attack.

The War of Austrian Succession is mostly overlooked, but it still remains a very important war. Maria Theresa kept her claims to the throne, and it eventually led to the Seven Years’ War. Saxe’s strategies influenced Napoleon Bonaparte later in the early 19th century. Seeing the British defeat as an opportunity, the Jacobite Rebellion sprang up in Scotland. While the Battle of Fontenoy was 3 years before the end of the war, it remains a turning point, and a remarkable French victory over the British, Hanoverians, and Dutch.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon

The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms recollects the story of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion at the Battle of Waterloo. The King’s German Legion was made up of infantry, cavalry, and artillery of German states, and they fought valiantly in many battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the original troops were Hanoverian, as are a large portion of the soldiers described in this book.

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Praise: Simms uses over thirty primary sources for his book, making sure this story is realistic. The chaos in La Haye Sainte is described in furious detail that makes you feel as if you are right there in the battle. Some characters are very appealing and you find yourself attached to some of the German officers. Simms provides some background on the KGL (King’s German Legion), its formation, its battle honours, and its members. I definitely learned some interesting facts about the culture of the KGL and how they were a heavily bilingual unit and how some even Anglicised their names and married English women.

Criticism: The book focuses on the theme of how these riflemen “won” the Battle of Waterloo. My personal opinion does come through, in which I view the arrival of Prussian troops to be the cause of an allied victory. It’s hard to believe how some 400 riflemen saved the entire battle, but he does make a good case. The map provided of La Haye Sainte isn’t very good and is missing a lot of labels that Simms talks about in his book. The book is a meagre 128 pages, and was priced quite high at about $20. If you’re interested in a short book, go right ahead and read this, but beware the price and trust your libraries.

This book is very short, but, if you’re interested in the British army or the Napoleonic Wars, you should definitely give this a read. It contains many primary sources from German troops, which provide an interesting background to the battle. La Haye Sainte is also a very underrated portion of Waterloo, and this book definitely places heavy importance on the location (but perhaps a bit too much).

Rating: 3/5

Wargame Figures: The Mexican Adventure 1861-67

The Mexican Adventure was the Franco-Hapsburg invasion of Mexico from 1861 to 1867. With a complex tangle of Imperial Mexico and a Mexican Republican Army led by Benito Juarez, the Mexican Adventure was full of some amazing characters and battles. This collection of wargame miniatures covers most of the units in the war, including the Belgian and Austrian volunteers as well as a wide variety of French soldiers.

The Mexican Adventure

If you would like to use my figures for a wargame, feel free to click the link here.

Be sure to look at the rest of the figures I have created ranging from the Franco-Prussian War, the Second Schleswig War, and the Crimean War.