Michael Fredholm von Essen, The Lion From the North (Helion, 2020)
There can be few armies that have impacted warfare so significantly in such a short period as the Swedish Army of King Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War. While the army’s involvement in that war under Gustavus lasted only two years, it had an immediate and lasting effect. In The Lion From the North, Michael Fredholm von Essen analyses Gustavus’s army from its organization, dress, and equipment, to tactics and strategy and finally its legacy.
Gustavus ascended to the Swedish throne in 1611, aged just 16 years old. He was soon on the warpath, fighting against Muscovy before engaging in a protracted war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The charismatic Swedish King was rarely out of his saddle during that period and he then commanded the Swedish intervention in Germany in 1630. Gustavus campaigned relentlessly for the next two years, winning several spectacular victories, until his death at the Battle of Lützen in 1632 while typically leading the Swedish cavalry charge.
The army Gustavus inherited was obsolete and his survival depended on him instituting military reforms, which he did mostly from Swedish resources despite their relative paucity. Von Essen analyses the new Swedish army, which was reorganized to increase its numbers while making it more flexible on the battlefield. The King encouraged the Swedish arms industry and upgraded the army’s weapons, though fully fitting the army was a perennial problem for the cash-strapped Swedes. Gustavus tried to dress his soldiers in consistent uniforms, but on a regimental basis rather than the whole army, though again he was not completely successful.
As much as Gustavus desired to modernize how his army took the field, it was what they did when they got there that had the greater impact on warfare. Von Essen describes how Gustavus eschewed the prevailing Spanish and Dutch tactical models for his own variation of the Dutch system with the emphasis on mobility and firepower. He also added greater shock force for the cavalry and more mobile artillery. Gustavus introduced rigorous training for officers and men so that he could adopt combined arms tactics effectively. Von Essen also examines Gustavus’s less documented strategic thinking, optimized for Sweden’s peculiar situation, and the development of intelligence as part of that. The author concludes with an overview of Gustavus’s considerable military legacy with the adoption of his innovations by other European commanders into their own tactics, and adds useful appendices on Gustavus’s army on the march in 1631, his order of battle at Lützen, and a selection of notable Swedish Regiments. A valuable bibliography rounds off the book, but the lack of index is irritating.
The Lion From the North is an essential book for anyone wanting to understand the Swedish army under its most famous commander. Von Essen’s deconstruction of Gustavus’s reforms highlights the King’s genius, but also the abilities of those around him that made the machine work from recruitment to the battlefield. His clear descriptions of Gustavus’s major battles in the Thirty Years War are particularly good. This book is also packed full of illustrations and informative colour plates, as you might expect from Helion’s excellent Century of the Soldier series. And this is only Volume I of von Essen’s examination of the Swedish army in the 17th Century, so I eagerly anticipate Volume II as I am sure you will too.
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