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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 21 — The Thirty Years' War

Chapter 2 — The army and the camp

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The Battle-fields of the Seventeenth and of the Nineteenth Centuries – All Nationalities drawn into this War – Motley Host around the Banners of the League – Carnage – The Camping-ground – The General's Tent – Officers' Tents – Soldiers' Huts – Change in Method of Fortifying Camps – Sentinels and Outposts – All Languages heard in the Camp – A Flying Plague – Plundering of the Surrounding Country – Prayers and Divine Service – Gambling – Huts of the Sutlers – Camp Signals – Oscillation between Abundance and Famine – Scenes of Profusion – Picture of Famine in the Camp – Superstitions – Morals – Duels.

BEFORE narrating the successive stages of this most extraordinary war, and summing up its gains to the cause of Protestantism, and the general progress of the world, let us briefly sketch its more prominent characteristics. The picture is not like anything with which we are now acquainted. The battles of our own day are on a vaster scale, and the carnage of a modern field is far greater than was that of the battle-fields of 200 years ago; but the miseries attending a campaign now are much less, and the destruction inflicted by war on the country which becomes its seat is not nearly so terrible as it was in the times of which we write. Altogether, the balance of humanity is in favor of war as carried on in modern times, though it is still, and ever must be, one of the most terrible scourges with which the earth is liable to be visited.

The Thirty Years' War was not so much German as (ecumenical. Not only did individual foreign nationalities respond to the recruiting-drum, as crows flock to a battle-field, lured thither by the effluvia of corpses, but all the peoples of Christian Europe were drawn into its all-embracing vortex. From the west and from the east, from the north and from the south, came men to fight on the German plains, and mingle their blood with the waters of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Elbe. Englishmen and Scotchmen crossed the sea and hastened to place themselves under one or other of the opposing standards. Danes, Swedes, Finns, crowding to the theater of action, and mingling with the Netherlanders, contended with them in the bloody fray in behalf of the Protestant liberties. The Laplander, hearing amid his snows the bruit of this great conflict, yoked his reindeer, and hurried in his sledge across the ice, brining with him furs for the clothing of the Swedish troops. The imperial army was even more varied in respect of nationality, of speech, of costume, and of manners. A motley host of Romish Walloons, of Irish adventurers, of Spaniards and Italians were assembled under the banners of the League. Almost every Slav race broke into the land in this day of confusion. The light horseman of the Cossacks was the object of special terror. His movements were rapid, and he passed along plundering and slaughtering without much distinction of friend or foe. There came a mingling of Mohammedans in the corps raised in the provinces which abutted on the Turkish frontier. But most hated of all were the Croats, because they were of all others the most barbarous and the most cruel. So multiform was the host that now covered the Fatherland! We know not where in history another such assemblage of ruffians, plunderers, and murderers is to be beheld as is now seen settling down in Germany. Had the slaughter been confined to the battle-field, the carnage would have been comparatively trifling; but all the land was a battle-field, and every day of the thirty years was a day of battle, for not a day but blood was shed. The times of the Goths furnish us with no such dark picture. When these nations descended from the North to overthrow the Roman Empire, they pressed forward and did not return on their course. The cities, the cultivation, and the men who were trampled down in their march rose up again when they had passed. But the destroying host which we now see collecting from the ends of the earth, and assembling in Germany, does not depart from the land it has invaded. It abides for the space of a generation. It comes to make the land a tomb, and to bury itself in the same vast sepulcher to which it consigned the Germans; for only the merest remnant of that multitudinous host ever returned home. It drew destruction upon itself in the destruction which it inflicted upon the land.

When the field-master received orders to look out for new camping-ground, he chose a spot if possible near a flowing stream, and one capable of being fortified. His first care was to measure off a certain space, in the center of the ground. There was pitched the general's tent. That tent rose in the midst of the host, distinguished from the others by its superior size and greater grandeur. Over it floated the imperial standard, and there the general abode as in the heart of a fortress. Around this central tent was an open space, on which other tent must not be pitched, and which was walled in by spikes stuck in the ground, and sometimes by a more substantial rampart. Immediately outside the space appropriated to the general and his staff were the tents of the officers. They were made of canvas, and conical in form. Outside these, running in parallel rows or streets, were the huts of the common soldiers. They were composed of boards and straw, and the soldiers were huddled together in them, two and four, with their wives, daughters, boys, and dogs. The whole formed a great square or circle, regiment lying alongside regiment, the encampment being strongly fortified; and out beyond its defense there stretched away a wide cleared space, to admit of the enemy being espied a long while before he could make his near approach.


former times it had been customary to utilize the baggage wagons in fortifying an encampment. The wagons were ranged all round the tents, sometimes in double, sometimes in treble line; they were fastened the one to the other by iron chains, forming a rampart not easily to be breached by an enemy. Such, as we have already seen, were the fortifications within which the Hussites were wont to encamp. But by the time of which we write this method of defense had been abandoned. Armies in the field now sought to protect themselves by ditches, walls, and other field fortifications. At the outlets or portals of the camp were posted sentinels, who stood grasping in the one hand the musket, its butt-end resting on the ground, and in the other holding the burning torch. At a greater distance were troops of horsemen and pickets of sharp-shooters, to detain the enemy should he appear, and give time to those within the entrenchments to get under arms.

The camp was a city. It was a reproduction of the ancient Babel, for in it were to be heard all the tongues of Europe and some of those of Asia. The German language predominated, but it was almost lost within the encampment by adulteration from so many foreign sources, and especially by the ample addition of oaths and terms of blasphemy. Into the encampment were gathered all the peculiarities, prejudices, and hates of the various nationalities of Europe. These burned all the more fiercely by reason of the narrow space in which they were cooped up, and it was no easy matter to maintain the peace between the several regiments, or even in the same regiment, and prevent the outbreak of war within the camp itself. Other cities cannot change their site, they are tied with their wickedness to the spot on which they stand; but this city was a movable plague, it flitted from province to province, throwing a stream of moral Poison into the air. Even in a friendly country the camp was an insufferable nuisance. Within its walls was, of course, neither seed-time nor harvest, and the provinces, cities, and villages around had to feed it. Hardly had the ground been selected, or the first tent set up, when orders were sent out to all the inhabitants of the surrounding country to bring wood, straw, meat, and provender to the army. On all the roads rolled trams of wagons, laden with provisions, for the camp. Droves of cattle might be seen moving toward the same point. The villages for miles around speedily vanished from sight, the thatch was torn off their roofs, and their woodwork carried away by the soldiers for the building of their own huts, and only the crumbling clay walls were left, to be swept away by the first tempest. Their former inhabitants found refuge in the woods, or with their acquaintances in some remoter village. Besides this general sack a great deal of private plundering and stealing went on; soldiers were continually prowling about in all directions, and Sutlers were constantly driving to and from the camp with what articles they had been able to collect, and which they meant to retail to the soldiers. While the men lounged about in the rows and avenues of the encampment, drinking, gambling, or settling points of national or individual honor with their side-arms, the women cooked, washed, mended clothes, or quarreled with one another, their vituperation often happily unintelligible to the object of it, because uttered in a tongue the other did not understand.

Every morning the drum beat, and an accompanying herald called the soldiers to prayers. This practice was observed even in the imperial camp. On Sunday only did the preacher of the regiment conduct public worship, the soldiers with their families being assembled before him, and seated orderly upon the ground. They were forbidden, during the time of Divine service, to lie about in their huts, or to visit the tents of the Sutlers; and the latter were not to sell drink or food to any one during these hours. In the camp of Gustavus Adolphus prayers were read twice a day. The military discipline enforced by that great leader was much more strict, and the moral decorum of his army far higher, as the comparatively untouched aspect of the fields and villages around bore witness.

In the open space within the enclosure of the camp, near the guard-house, stood the gambling-tables, the ground around being strewed over with mantles, for the convenience of the players. Instead of the slow shuffling of the cards, the speedier throw of the dice was often had recourse to, to decide the stakes; and when the dice were forbidden, the players hid themselves behind hedges and there pursued their game, staking their food, their weapons, their horses, and their booty, when booty they happened to possess. Behind the tent of the upper officer, separated by a broad street, stood the stalls and huts of the Sutlers, butchers, and master of the cook-shops; the price of all foods and drinks being fixed by a certain officer. The luxury and profusion that prevailed in the officers' tents, where the most expensive wines were drunk, and only viands prepared by a French cook were eaten, offered an indifferent example of economy and carefulness to the common soldier. The military signals of the camp were the beat of a large drum for the foot-soldier, and the peal of a trumpet for the cavalry. When any important operation was to be undertaken on the morrow, a herald, attired in a bright silk robe, embroidered before and behind with the arms of his prince, rode through the host on the previous evening, attended by the trumpeter, and announced the order for the coming day. This was fatal to discipline, inasmuch as it gave warning to the lounger and the plunderer to set out during the night in search of booty.

The camp oscillated between overflowing abundance

and stark famine. When the army had won a battle, and victory gave them the plunder of a city as the recompense of their bravery, there came a good time to the soldiers. Food and drink were then plentiful, and of course cheap. In the last year of the war a cow might be bought in the Bavarian host for almost literally the smallest coin. Then, too, came good times to the merchants in the camp, for then they could command any amount of sale, and obtain any price for their wares. The soldiers tricked themselves out with expensive feathers, scarlet hose, with gold lacings, and rich sables, and they purchased showy dresses and mules for the females of their establishments. Grooms rode out dressed from head to heel in velvet. The Croats in the winter of 1630-31 were so amply supplied with the precious metals that not only were their girdles filled and distended with the number of their gold coins, but they wore golden plates as breast-plates. Paul Stockman, Pastor of Lutzen, a small town in Saxony, relates that before the battle of Lutzen one soldier rode a horse adorned with gold and silver stars, and another had his steed ornamented with 300 silver moons. [1]

The camp-women, and sometimes the horsemen, arrayed themselves in altar-cloths, mass-robes, and priests' coats. The topers pledged one another in the most expensive wines, which they drank out of the altar-cups; and from their stolen gold they fabricated long chains, from which they were accustomed to wrench off a link when they had a reckoning to discharge or a debt to pay.

The longer the war continued, the less frequent and less joyous became these halcyon days. Want then began to be more frequent in the camp than superfluity. "The spoiling of the provinces avenged itself frightfully on the spoilers themselves. The pale specter of hunger, the forerunner of plague, crept through the lanes of the camp, and raised its bony hand before the door of every straw hut. Then the supplies from the neighborhood stopped; neither fatted ox nor laden cart was now seen moving towards the camp. The price of living became at these times exorbitant; for example, in 1640 a loaf of bread could not be purchased by the Swedish army in the neighborhood of Gotha for a less sum than a ducat. The sojourn in the camp became, even for the most inured soldier, unendurable. Everywhere were hollow-eyed parchment faces; in every row of huts were sick and dying; the neighborhood of the camp was infected by the putrid bodies of dead horses and mules; all around was a desert of untilled fields, and blackened ruins of villages, and the camp itself became a dismal city of the dead. The accompaniments of the host, the women and children namely, speedily vanished in the burial-trenches; only the most wretched dogs kept themselves alive on the most disgusting food; the others were killed and eaten. [2] At such a time the army melted quickly, away, and no skill of the ablest leader could avert its ruin." [3]

There arose a mingled and luxuriant crop of Norse, German, and Roman superstitions in the camp. The soldiers had unbounded faith in charms and incantations, and sought by their use to render their weapons powerful and themselves invulnerable. They had prayers and forms of words by which they hoped to obtain the mastery in the fight, and they wore amulets to protect them from the deadly bullet and the fatal thrust of dagger. The camp was visited by gypsies and soothsayers, who sold secret talismans to the soldiers as infallible protections in the hour of danger. Blessings, conjurations, witchcrafts, in all their various forms abounded in the imperial army as much as did guns and swords and pikes. The soldiers fell all the same in the deadly breach, in the shock of battle, and in the day of pale famine, The morals of the camp were without shame, speaking generally. Almost every virtue perished but that of soldierly honor and fidelity to one's flag, so long as one served under it; for the mercenary often changed his master, and with him the cause for which he fought. The mood of mind prevalent in the camp is well hit off by Schiller's Norseman's song – "A sharp sword is my field, plunder is my plough, the earth is my bed, the sky is my covering, my cloak is my house, and wine is my eternal life." Duels were of daily occurrence, and when at last they were forbidden, the soldiers sought secret places beyond the lines, where they settled their quarrels. Gustavus Adolphus punished dueling with death, even in the case of his highest officers, but no law could suppress the practice.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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