Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly The most underrated general of the Thirty Years war

Aug 2012
189
United States
I recently got around to finally studying the military aspects of the thirty years war. Specifically the three books "The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy"(Peter H. Wilson), "Battles of the Thirty Years War"(William P. Guthrie) and The Later Thirty Years War(William P. Guthrie) as well as other material that mention the certain aspects of the war.("Lives of the warriors of the thirty years' war. Warriors of the 17th century", "Wallenstein: the enigma of the thirty years war" "Battles in Germany 1631-1704: Decisive Conflicts of the Thirty Years War & War of Spanish Succession to Blenheim" etc)

One of the most surprising misconceptions that I found has to do with two of the most gifted generals of the war Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly and Gustav II Adolf. It is often said by historians such as Hans Delbruck and Theodore Ayrault Dodge just to name a few, that Gustav was the brilliant military mind that brought decisive battles back to warfare. It has been mentioned that warfare during the early part of the thirty years war was indecisive, somewhat devoid of strategy and marred by unruly mercenaries that hindered operations.

Although some of this is true, when I began a detailed study of the period I began to see how it was actually Tilly more than Gustav that brought a more decisive form of warfare(Although it was not quite to the level of a Napoleon). When I look at Tilly's early campaigns which include: White Mountain campaign (1620) Palatinate Campaign(1621-1622) Stadtholn Campaign(1623) Lutter Campaign(1625-1626), I see a decisive outcome to each campaign:

At White Mountain the Bohemian revolt was ended and Bohemia came under the control of Austria, the Palatinate Campaign ended the participation of the Palatinate in the war and scattered the armies of Mansfeld and Christian of Brunswick, the Stadtholn campaign essentially put an end to the major fighting in germany until the Danish phase of the war, and Lutter played a large part along with Wallenstien's contributions to bringing an end to the Denmark phase of the war. So to me it flies in the face of reason to say that Gustav was the one to bring decision back to warfare, i would go even further and say that Tilly's campaigns were the most decisive of the entire war.

One of the interesting things I also discovered was Tilly's strategic methods. As I said before it has been mentioned that strategy during the early part of the war, was largely based on what is called "stomach strategy" and this hindered the use of brilliant strategy that would be common place is later periods of warfare. From what I learned about Tilly's campaings this is not completely true. Although logistics played a large part is the Thirty Years War, even more than it would in later wars due to the mercenary armies and decentralized governments, there were still displays of brilliant strategic movements.

Lets take the Palatinate campaign for example, where after Tilly was defeated at Mingolsheim he was outnumbered in the entire theatre. He had three armies threatening to coalesces while the spanish allies were less than enthusiastic about leaving there war with the dutch to assist in Germany. Tilly first sent urgent messages to the spanish army under Cordoba which finally began to move to unite with Tilly. Mansfeld decided to spilt his army either for logistic reasons or to try and force Tilly to do the same. Tilly instead of listening to Cordoba who wanted to send a detachment to stop Mansfeld, decided top keep his army concentrated and attack the individual army of Georg Friedrich who had a strong fortified position at Wimpfen which ended in the destruction of Friedrich' army. He then planned to prevent Christian of Brunswick from joining with Mansfeld. He first moved with speed to a central point between the two armies and first forced Mansefeld to retreat back south away from Christian, then he caught up with Christians' army at Hochst. Although the battle wasn't as decisive in casualties as Tilly wanted, Christians lost 2000 men and was able to combine with Mansfeld, the defeat had two significant outcomes. It helped to demoralize Christian's army and due to the loss of men to desertion his army was severly weakened when it reached Mansfeld and it forced Mansfeld and Christian to evacuate the Palatinate which allowed Tilly to capture Heidelberg and Mannheim which essentially knocked The Palatinate out of the war.

In that campaign you saw the principle's of concentration vs dispersal, the fruits of decisive action, the use of interior lines and the speed of operations. Which goes to show that the period was not wholly devoid of any brilliant strategic methods.

Another aspect that gets overlooked with Tilly is his strategic speed. One of the more difficult maneuvers in early modern warfare was to force battle on an unwilling enemy. Due to many factors an army could effectively refuse battle for entire campaigns both before this period and after. Tilly was unique in that he forced battle on multiple enemies. At Mingoslheim, Hochst, Statdtholn and Lutter, Tilly was able to catch a retreating foe and force him to give battle of circumstances favorable to Tilly.

The last thing I learned was in the category of tactics. Again my previous readings told me that Tilly was an old relic, a user of a tactical method that was very much outdated. The truth is Tilly used what was overwhelmingly successful. His tercio armies consistently defeated the protestant armies that were trained in what was considered the innovative Dutch method. It wasn't as if Tilly knew there was a better method but stubbornly stuck to outdated tactics. He basically used the same methods that brought him success against the dutch school of thought when he first encountered Gustav. Also it is hindsight when we look at the superiority of the swedish tactics but at the time it was not a forgone conclusion that Gustav's armies would prove successful against the catholic armies.

Ive come to the conclusion that Tilly is one of the most underrated generals in all of history and imo he was the second best commander of the thirty years war behind Gustav(mostly becuase of Gustav's impact on the art of war was more substantial than was Tilly)
 
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Lawnmowerman

Ad Honorem
Mar 2010
9,842
How has this awesome post got no love????

Anyway How would people say Wallenstein compared to Tilly???
 

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
5,648
Ontario, Canada
I don't remember this post.

But yeah Tilly was pretty underrated it is just that when he battled King Gustav II he met his match. His overly aggressive tactics were unable to break the Swedish line, Gustav countered him expertly and then launched his counter attack which swept Tilly from the field. Looking at their tactics I think Gustav was simply more versatile. Yes Tilly's tactics worked on lesser opponents but against someone like Gustav or Wallenstein it had the potential to be his undoing. Tilly was really not a defensive commander so it is no surprise that he could not hold Rain am Lech. Well that and Gustav's army had significantly grown in size since their clash at Breitenfeld. But compare this to the excellent defense that Wallenstein did at Rain am Lech, against Gustav no less, and won.

If we were to put Tilly on one extreme, that one being aggressive maneuvers and battle seeking, and then Wallenstein on the other extreme, that of reactionary maneuvers and defense, then we could put Gustav somewhere in between but closer to Tilly than Wallenstein.
Now keep in mind that this doesn't mean they are limited in that way although it is how they usually operate. Still Tilly was barely a defensive commander at all, where as Wallenstein had demonstrated his ability to wage the offensive in the past. Gustav for his part was also more interested in the offense than defense as we can see clearly by his battle at Lutzen.
 
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Jan 2016
471
Macedonia
Tilly was a strange mix. On the one hand he was a product of the Spanish-Imperial military thinking, that of Alba, Farnese, Spinola and the tercios, and thus his tactics may seem outdated when compared to Dutch and Swedish ones of the same time. On the other hand, his persistence in seeking decisive victories - even battles of annihilation - distinguishes him from most of his Imperial contemporaries. He was extremely ambitious in battle - that can be seen by his oblique maneuver at Breitenfeld - but he was bested by Gustavus. In the end, this ambitiousness was Tilly's doom. Gustavus wanted an opponent exactly like Tilly, to give open, "crazy" battles like Breitenfeld and Lech. These kind of battles were grist for the mill of the Swedish King and his maneuver-friendly army. It's not strange that Gustavus had much more trouble facing the stubborn defensive caution of Wallenstein.

In his seeking of decisive victory, it can be said that Tilly was like Gustavus, only Gustavus was much better. Tilly was over-ambitious and sometimes careless in battle. At Breitenfeld he overestimated the capacities of his troops and created overly ambitious objectives - like the slow-moving Tercios making an oblique advance hoping to catch the quick Swedes off-guard while his own left wasn't secure, this was a huge risk and it seems he or his army wasn't really prepared to take it - while his coordination of his forces and control over the unfolding of the battle was certainly not-so-great.

Most underrated? Certainly not. That has to be Franz von Mercy.
 

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
5,648
Ontario, Canada
Well said! I think Tilly was largely influenced by the Imperial/Spanish style of warfare so he definitely had lots of maneuverability. I don't know how Tilly developed his own aggressive style, I wouldn't put it to anything other than himself and his experiences. He had fought in the Netherlands and took part in the Long War against the Turks later in life though in neither conflict did he experience very many offensive campaigns or battles. I would suggest that he developed these methods from his experiences fighting the Bohemian Protestants and those Protestants under Mansfeld. To be fair Tilly's approach could be very effective, he did defeat the Danes as well. It is just that Gustav's application of the Dutch methods which he learnt so well and made it his own, were perfectly suited to counter Tilly's aggression. Tilly for his part was not the reformer that Gustav and Wallenstein were and as such his army was largely brought together under the old system, he saw no reason to change it and he was always in a hurry to defeat the next enemy.
 
Dec 2016
144
India
Torstenson is equally underrated.Tilly was a great commander of his age,he certainly enjoyed a great reputation in his lifetime.
 

nuclearguy165

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
4,842
Ohio, USA
I don't remember this post.

But yeah Tilly was pretty underrated it is just that when he battled King Gustav II he met his match. His overly aggressive tactics were unable to break the Swedish line, Gustav countered him expertly and then launched his counter attack which swept Tilly from the field. Looking at their tactics I think Gustav was simply more versatile. Yes Tilly's tactics worked on lesser opponents but against someone like Gustav or Wallenstein it had the potential to be his undoing. Tilly was really not a defensive commander so it is no surprise that he could not hold Rain am Lech. Well that and Gustav's army had significantly grown in size since their clash at Breitenfeld. But compare this to the excellent defense that Wallenstein did at Rain am Lech, against Gustav no less, and won.

If we were to put Tilly on one extreme, that one being aggressive maneuvers and battle seeking, and then Wallenstein on the other extreme, that of reactionary maneuvers and defense, then we could put Gustav somewhere in between but closer to Tilly than Wallenstein.
Now keep in mind that this doesn't mean they are limited in that way although it is how they usually operate. Still Tilly was barely a defensive commander at all, where as Wallenstein had demonstrated his ability to wage the offensive in the past. Gustav for his part was also more interested in the offense than defense as we can see clearly by his battle at Lutzen.
Pretty much sums up my thoughts here as well. I don't have much more to add. Wallenstein perhaps wasn't always as enterprising/energetic as Gustav and Tilly were, but he WAS more indirect and subtle, and had much greater defensive skill.
 

Lord Oda Nobunaga

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
5,648
Ontario, Canada
Did I say Wallenstein defended Rain Am Lech? I meant Alte Veste, so sorry about that folks.
It is just so strange that despite fact Tilly was already in his old age and twice as old as Gustav he did not seem to lack any energy and was relatively healthy. Anyone who has been on a horse for long periods of time knows how painful it can be on the bottom and thigh areas, for someone as old as Tilly I am greatly surprised that he was able to remain in the field for long periods of time. Not just riding but also walking around on foot.
 
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martin76

Ad Honorem
Dec 2014
6,790
Spain
Cardinal Infante is one of the most underrrated general in thirty year war...he finished with the Swedish myth in Nordlingen and later beat the French and the Dutch...he was bound to take Paris and I don´t remember he lost a battle.. he won each battle over Swedish. Dutch, French and German Protestants he took part...however.. nobody know who was Cardinal Infante, the Hero of Nordlingen (San Lorenzo de El Escorial, May 16th, 1609 - Brussels, November 9th, 1641).