Sunday, June 18, 2017

Battle of Fehrbellin: the Start of Prussian Military History

A drawing of one of the flags carried by Brandenburg militia troops from Altmark at the battle.

Dear Reader,

Although of late, I have been focusing on the middle and late eighteenth century, this blog is dedicated to covering all of the Kabinettskriege era. While many of us doubtless remember June 18th for a much more famous battle occurring on that date, (take your pick, Kolin or Waterloo), I want to take a moment to remember an older battle, one which had vital consequences for European history.

Swedish Empire in  late 17th Century

In the 1670s, there was no state of Prussia, much less Germany, on the map of Europe. Rather, in Northern Europe, the dominant state was the Swedish Empire. Since the 1630s, Sweden had played the role of great power in Northern Europe, controlling parts of modern Germany, Norway, Finland, and the Baltic States. Gustav II Adolph (often rendered Gustavus Adolphus in English) had managed to forge a competent military force. His successors, most notably Karl X Gustav, had repeatedly enlarged Swedish holdings and confirmed Swedish military power. Since 1660, under the leadership of King Karl XI, Sweden had embarked upon a series of successful wars against its neighbors.

An artists reimagining of a Swedish Soldier in the Scanian War

One of those neighbors, Brandenburg-Prussia, had formerly played the role of an ally to the Swedish forces. Elector Friedrick Wilhelm had successfully managed to rebuild his North German state, crippled by the Thirty Years' War, into a small regional power.  Swedish and Brandenburg forces had fought together in Poland, often with great success. However, when the Elector moved his forces south to campaign with the Holy Roman Emperor, disaster struck. During the Scanian War,  French envoys to Sweden convinced the Swedes to attack Brandenburg-Prussia. The French argued that this was the perfect time to strike, since the Elector was away with his army.

A Map of the Battle of Fehrbellin

This set the stage for one of the more memorable moments of early Prussian history: the Battle of Fehrbellin, fought on June 18th, 1675. In this battle, Swedish and Brandenburg forces clashed over the future of Brandenburg. Would the state of Prussia continue to be a relatively minor power subject to Swedish ambitions, or would Brandenburg-Prussia be free to manage its own affairs?

The Elector quickly brought his troops back to Brandenburg, where the Swedish forces were waiting for his return. The Swedish army under the command of Waldemar Wrangel anchored its forces between a small village and some marshy ground, with their cavalry on the wings and infantry in the center. The Swedes numbered around 7,000 men and 28 cannon, with 4,000 more troops in the area.The Brandenburger forces initially numbered around 5,000 men and 13 cannon, with 2,000 more soldiers arriving in the course of the battle.

German reenactors portraying Brandenburg artillerists at Fehrbellin, in 2010

Friedrich Wilhelm noticed that the Swedish forces had failed to occupy some small hills to the right of their formation, so he send dragoons (mounted infantry) and his artillery to occupy this high ground. From this position, the Brandenburgers were able to enfilade the Swedish line with artillery fire, causing large losses to the Swedish army. The Brandenburger cavalry, under the command of George von Defflinger, attacked the Swedish cavalry in the flank, routing it, and forcing the Swedish army to withdraw. The battle had lasted barely two hours, and ended in a decisive victory for the Brandenburg-Prussian army. The Swedish forces lost between 2,500 and 2,800 men, while the Brandenburger losses amounted to slightly less than 500.

A soldier of the Scanian War 
This battle, although small by our standards today, had far-reaching consequences for Northern European history. Brandenburg-Prussia would continue to grow and professionalize its army, eventually creating the state of Prussia and the nation-state of Germany. Sweden, although still a great power, would eventually crumble under the pressure of Russian forces during the Great Northern War, less than 40 years after the Battle of Fehrbellin.

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

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