Part 20 - the Swedish army
by George Gush
THE SWEDISH ARMY was borne of the struggle against the Danes, which in the 1520s became a national fight for independence, successful with the crowning of Gustavus Vasa in 1523. The Swedish infantry of these wars were drawn from the peasantry, who from early times were obliged to possess folk-weapons for national defence, and who showed themselves tough adversaries even for professional soldiers, as at the battle of Brunkenberg in 1471, where they were able to mount a successful assault on a strong position even after two bloody repulses. Their arms were mainly crossbows and assorted pole-weapons.
Cavalry, were provided by the nobility, whose obligations in this respect were regularised by Gustavus Vasa; the horsemen provided were half heavy (full-armoured lancers) and half light. Gustavus also supplemented the infantry with mercenaries, but found Swedes cheaper to hire than foreigners, and thus like his successors tended to rely on an army of his own subjects, giving the Swedish forces already their distinctive 'national' stamp in what was generally an age of mercenary forces.
Under him, and his successor Erik XIV, a system developed whereby the infantry were largely drafted, one man in ten from the peasantry aged 15 to 44 having to serve on a semi-permanent basis. Noble cavalry were supplemented by volunteers (farmsteads supplying man and horse escaping both draft and land-tax). Unlike infantry, who were billeted or kept in garrisons, cavalry seem to have gone home in time of peace. The system did not work entirely satisfactorily until Gustavus Adolphus' time, and ambitious plans, such as those of Erik or Gustavus Adolphus, still called for the employment of mercenaries also.
Swedish 16th Century infantry were organised in a 'Fanika' (ensign or company), which could be of varying composition and size, as these examples from Gustavus Vasa's time show:
Date 1552 1552 1556
Halberds etc 4 29 19
Firearms 183 69 210
Crossbows 499 506 223
---- ---- ----
Totals 686 604 452
These are largely of missilemen, and Gustavus Vasa, who tried to increase the use of pikes, which he introduced to Swedish service; met a great deal of resistance, the soldiers preferring missile weapons. Erik XIV had the same problem.
Erik was an extravagant and unbalanced monarch, and was quickly deposed (1568).
However, he not only once more involved Sweden in external war, but also showed himself one of the first 16th Century military reformers to try to apply the principles of classical military writers to the new conditions of war.
He attempted to standardise the infantry Fanika at about 500 men, with the composition shown. Twelve formed a regiment, but in battle they were drawn up spaced out in two lines as shown, with two of the five 'quarters' of each Fanika detached as a 'forlorn hope' or screen - a disposition to some extent anticipating Maurice of Nassau's battalions. Equipment was supposed to be standardised also, with pikemen wearing helmet, gorget, corselet and armour for the arms, the shot having helmets and long or short arquebusses.
The cavalry 'Fana' (cornet) was standardised at 300 men (in five 'quarters', of which one formed a reserve). The heavy cavalry retained three-quarter armour but were equipped with two pistols, the lighter ones having arquebusses. Both were formed in near-square formation, 15 ranks deep, and employing caracole tactics.
Probably these plans had limited success in practice; certainly the effects were temporary, Erik's successor John Ill again allowing the proportion of shot to rise at the expense of pikes. Infantry companies tell to about 300 men, and the composition of a 2,000 man force of 1573 is probably fairly typical - 45 per cent pikes, six per cent halberds, 38 per cent arquebusses and 11 per cent crossbows (the latter evidently a favourite weapon since it was retained so late by the Swedes. Gustavus Vasa had increased crossbow production, and by this time most were of steel).
By the 1590s, the musket began to replace the arquebuss, but pikes were still relatively in short supply and war against the Poles in open terrain at the end of the century showed this up and forced the Swedish musketeers to protect themselves against the cavalry with sharpened stakes, later formalised as 'swine-feathers' (known elsewhere as 'Swedish feathers').
When, in 1611, the 17-year-old Gustavus Adolphus inherited a throne; an army; and three wars, his forces could not match the 'quality of the professional soldiers of Denmark or Poland, the recruitment of the Swedish forces was imperfect, and their battle-organisation on an improvised and temporary basis which did not conform to their administrative arrangements.
The young king, however, was already well-versed in the military lore of the ancients, and was also acquainted with, and influenced by, the Dutch example (especially after his meetings with John of Nassau in 1620). With the practical experience of his wars with the Russians, Poles and Danes, the King evolved by stages a highly effective system of organisation, equipment and training, which, with his own generalship and gallantry (he was wounded 13 times - an unusual record for a supreme commander, even in the 17th Century'), allowed the 'Lion of the North' and his national army to pursue a brief but brilliant, comet-like career across the wider stage of the Thirty Years' War.
Like his predecessors, Gustavus built on the foundation of a national army, raised by the methods already described from Sweden and Finland (the Finns in fact providing a disproportionately large contribution amounting to nine infantry and three cavalry field-regiments). However, he also hired mercenaries, predominantly Scots and Germans; the Scots providing a field marshal, at least six generals, nearly 30 colonels and some 13,000 men. By the time Gustavus entered the German war, some 40 per cent of all his forces, and over half his forces in Germany, were foreign. All, however, were trained and organised on the lines of the Swedish units.
For recruiting and administration, the Swedish army was organised in Provincial 'Landsregements', each of which by the 1620s provided three infantry 'Field-Regiments', each of which had eight companies (at least after the adoption of small Dutch-style companies in the 1620s). The tactical unit, established as early as 1618, was the 'Squadron', which had tour of the new-style companies, containing in all 216 pikemen and 288 musketeers. 96 of the musketeers would normally be detached or 'commanded' as a forlorn hope, to support the cavalry, guard the baggage train or for similar duty, (This represents four 'Corporalships' - a corporalship was either four six-man files of musketeers, or three of pikemen). The Squadron corresponded to the Dutch battalion; in battle the Dutch normally drew up in three large groups - battles' or 'brigades', and Gustavus in the 1620s evolved the famous 'Swedish Brigade' originally of six, later of four or three squadrons. These brigades, rather than the regiments, were the higher tactical units. In the 30 Years' War they were kept permanently together, and stood at seven brigades of three squadrons each, as follows:
The Yellow Brigade This was named after its leading unit, the Yellow or Household Regiment, Teuffel's Germans.
The Green Brigade Led by Hepburn's Green Regiment, and including Mackay's this was largely or wholly of Scots.
The Blue Brigade Led by Winckel's Germans, and chiefly German.
The Red Brigade Hogendorf's Red Regiment, Erik Hands' Ostgota Regiment, Kari Herds Vastgota Regiment.
The White Brigade Led by Vitzthum's Regiment.
The Black Brigade (?) Led by Thurn's German regiment.
Ake Oxonstierna's Brigade All Swedes.
Though the organisation of Squadrons and Brigades was kept up fairly well, it must be realised that, as in all armies of the period, there was a gap between this paper organisation and reality. Thus, in Germany, Gustavus' infantry regiments, though mainly of eight companies, were often down to a strength of only 500 to 600 men, and thus formed in practice one Squadron rather than two. Several German regiments had 12 companies (but again fell short of two-Squadron strength) a few 16 companies.
As usual discipline and training were probably more significant than the precise type of organisation, and Gustavus army excelled in both respects:
The national basis gave a firmer foundation for discipline than in most contemporary armies, and religion reinforced this. Though all denominations were tolerated, the army had its own preachers and every man was issued with a prayerbook. Though there was no flogging, punishments were severe including the 'gatlopp' (the origin of running the gauntlet') and death for such offences as despising divine service a third time in these respects as in others the Swedes provided a model for the later times of Cromwell and the Covenant.
The tactics of the Swedes were a further development from the Dutch model. The musketeers, drawn up only six ranks deep, were trained both to fire by countermarch, two ranks at a time, and to double the files extending into three-deep formation to deliver concerted volleys, every man firing at once, the front rank kneeling, the second crouching and the third standing upright.
To the weight of fire which this gave (it enabled Scots musketeers at Leipzig, 1631, to break an attack by Imperial cuirassiers-by their fire alone) was added the fire of up to 12 light regimental guns attached to each brigade - a much closer combination of artillery and the other arms than previously attempted. After abortive experiments with copper and leather 11/2 pounders had been dropped (unkind Germans accused the hungry Swedes of having eaten these weapons!) Gustavus Scots artillerist Sandy Hamilton evolved light 3 pounders, which with the aid of pre-loaded cartridges could fire (usually 'hail shot') more rapidly than the musketeers, while keeping up reasonably well with an infantry advance (they were, incidentally, Bofors' guns),
A 'fire-shock' was thus achieved, to be exploited by the Swedish pikemen, trained to charge in after a volley rather than passively defend the 'shot'. They could then fall back to allow the musketeers a second volley (volley-firing of course meant a fairly long interval between bursts of fire). Michael Roberts, in Essays in Swedish History, points out that the offensively-minded Gustavus had actually increased the proportion of pikes compared to that in the essentially defensive Dutch army. However, it must be pointed out that the actual pike strength in the Swedish army was below the theoretical - in the Thirty Years' War by up to 25 per cent - whereas the musketeers were much closer to their establishment (perhaps the earlier Swedish anti-pike attitudes persisted?).
Infantry equipment was also improved, though some of the more; radical innovations attributed to Gustavus appear to be mythical. So far as possible musketeers were given uniform weapons, probably firing a ball of ten to the pound, as in the Dutch army, and in the later part of Gustavus' reign Swedish-made muskets were shortened (to 1.2 metres overall). This, with a lighter stock, cut the weight by about a third (judging by weapons in the Stockholm Armemuseum).
Gustavus did not achieve complete standardisation, nor did he go over to flint or wheel-locks, the majority of Swedish weapons retaining the matchlock, which was more reliable and more within the capabilities of Swedish lockmakers.
Though he abolished the 'swine-feather' Gustavus did not, as is often said, abolish the musket-rest (though 'commanded' musketeers may have dispensed with it).
Much the same applies to his reputed shortening of Swedish pikes to 11 feet. This error seems to arise from the 11 foot partisans which were carried by the King's lifeguard of Foot (one company), and possibly also by the Household Regiment, in place of pikes.
Swedish regulations originally called for pikes over 18 feet long, and a 1619 Order only reduced them to 17 foot 6 inches, though some were probably unofficially shortened by those who had to carry them.
Musketeers were supposed to wear an open helmet, and carried the usual sword and bandolier with 12 cartouches, while pikemen had helmet, garget, corselet, and, originally thigh-pieces or short tassets, though these may have often been omitted. Officers carried partisans, and up to the Thirty Years' War were distinguished by gilded gorgets; under-officers of pikes carried pikes, while those of musketeers carried partisans.
a pikeman of Erik XIV's reign in half armour. b crossbowman of the earlier 16th Century. c arquebusier of Erik XIV's reign. Note widely worn fur-trimmed hat. He may be wearing a 'jack'. d Swedish soldier of early 16th Century. He wears a pot helmet and may have a breastplate. His odd trousers look almost like cowboy 'chaps'. As well as his peculiar 'knavelspjut' he bears a very large sword - probably a two-hander. e 30 Years' War musketeer wearing a very wide skirted buff coat, trimmed in red, and very floppy boots. f early 16th Century soldier with spear and crossbow. Felt hat, trousers and boots black, coat white with green trim edged red, leggings white, quiver brown. g musketeer of Gustavus Adolphus' period. Sleeveless buff coat, trimmed with ribbon, and boots. h pikeman of the same period in morion and corselet. He wears a long-skirted buff coat and winter boots. i Scot in bonnet, thin trews, and sleeveless buff coat. j pikemen, probably end of 16th Century although frilled sleeves seem to have lingered among the Swedes as late as the 30 Years' War.
k 'Swinefeather' or Swedish Feather. Note attachment for resting musket barrel.
A Swedish Brigade, according to Lord Reay's diagram. This appears to have two regiments of two squadrons each. Small 'boxes' are four files wide by six ranks deep, large blocks of pikemen are 36 files wide by six ranks deep. P = pikemen, M = musketeers, A1 and A2 = the Colonels in front of their regiments.
A squadron drawn up in the same proportions of ranks and files (from The Swedish Discipline).
'a Regiment according to the Swedish Brigade', after Richard Elton's Compleat Body of the Art Military. Here the pike blocks are 26 files wide.
Line of 'Fanikas' in action with their 'forlorn hope'. (The units of this had about 20 pikes, 20 halberds, 42 short firearms, 126 longer ones. The complete Fanika had about 101 pikemen, 74 halberdiers and 213 shot).
Part 21 - the Swedish army (continued)
THOUGH GUSTAVUS infantry were the mainstay in his earlier wars, and were, fully capable of offensive action, by the entry into the Thirty Years' War he had developed a highly effective cavalry which became the ultimate striking-force of his army, as it was of most 17th Century armies.
Few, ill-mounted and ineffective at the beginning of his reign, his cavalry were developed in the hard school of war against the Polish lancers, and by Breitenfeld (1631) formed about a third of his army and were superior to their Imperial opponents.
Among the best of his horsemen were the Finns, known as 'Hakkapelis' from their war-cry (which meant 'chop 'em down', the Finns being apt to refuse quarter), who in his earlier wars provided as much as half Gustavus' horse. Gustavus himself normally led one of the cavalry wings.
The mounted arquebusiers, who were usually unarmoured, disappeared early in his reign, as unfit for the offensive. Heavy cuirassiers in three-quarter armour survived into the Thirty Years' War period, but declined in numbers, owing to their high cost. Each was supposed to be accompanied both by a mounted servant equipped like the 'light cavalry' and a baggage-servant with a packhorse. Those who remained were mainly supplied by the nobility.
The standard type of cavalryman became that previously called the 'light cavalryman', equipped with pot helmet, corselet, a pair of pistols and a sword. Following the example both of the Poles and of Henri IV of France, Gustavus taught his horse to charge at the gallop with the sword, firing in the charge being delivered only by the front rank, and that at point-blank range; shock tactics which represented the most effective practice of the time rather than being wholly original, and which became standard in the later 17th Century.
The cavalry were normally disposed on the wings of the army, drawn up in two lines of squadrons, themselves disposed only three-deep. Between these units, bodies of up to 200 'commanded' musketeers were placed, to give fire support.
A cavalry regiment was supposed to be of eight companies of 125 men each, and was disposed in battle in two squadrons; however, in practice the regiment could be of four to 12 companies, while squadrons could have only three companies.
Dragoons were introduced in 1611, equipped like those of other nations, their main role was to provide further fire-support for the cavalry, and they are said to have been less often used on foot than those in other armies, However, under Gustavus they represented only about five per cent of the Swedish cavalry.
The Swedish artillery were more integrated into the army organisationally as well as tactically, than those of other nations, they were made soldiers by Gustavus, rather than the semi-civilian skilled artisans that they tended to remain elsewhere. As a corollary, the Swedes were the first to introduce any real artillery organisation, in the form of companies in 1623, regiments six years later, each of four gunner companies, one of pioneers and one of engineers.
The guns themselves were standardised by Gustavus - 6, 12 and 24 pounders - and were shortened and lightened for mobility. The 6-pounder, like the regimental guns, used cartridges, though not 'fixed' ammunition. Except at sieges the heavier artillery were naturally much less numerous than the infantry pieces - at Breitenfeld 12 to 42.
16th Century dress was mainly either peasant costume or similar to continental military fashions with Lansknecht-style slashing and so on. Some clothing was issued and this may have ended to be of uniform colours. Erik XIV's coronation procession included a 900-man Fanika uniformly clad in blue, white, red and yellow, possibly a guard unit.
Early in Gustavus Adolphus' reign most of the Swedish infantry were in peasant dress, long jerkins or smocks, though the foot guard company were uniformed, probably in blue. By 1625 the Household Regiment (I think, of horse) had blue coats decorated with broad yellow lace, while the Life Guard of Foot company received a black and yellow uniform, with fringes in the same colours for their partisans.
Troops of the line soon started to receive official issues of clothing; this established a uniform style of dress - cassock, sleeveless jerkin, loose breeches and woollen stockings, with, as might be expected, unusually thorough provision for winter, including leather boots and fur cloaks. As usual in this period, the question of actual uniform is a vexed one, but it does seem clear that some - possibly most - of Gustavus' infantry regiments wore coats of uniform colour. Red was certainly ordered for companies of the Smalands, Ostgota and Upplands Regiments, with yellow, blue or black trim. Thurn's regiment seem to have been bluecoats, and there are other references to bodies of Swedish infantry in blue, yellow, black and light grey uniform coats.
This would mean uniformly-clad squadrons, but not brigades. The colour titles of the Brigades seem to be from the leading regiment in each, and these in turn to have been named from the colours of their standards rather than their coats (however this might not always be so - for example the red-coated Ostgota Regiment was in the Red Brigade).
Coat colours certainly did not always or even often match those of the regimental standards.
The Scots infantry probably retained, at least to begin with, some items of national dress, such as the blue bonnet, and, for Highlanders, tartan trews. The Green Brigade certainly had pipers.
Cavalry also had sometimes uniform coats - there was another blue clad regiment beside the Household. However, helmet, corselet, buff-coat, gauntlets and leather breeches and boots would cover up the clothing and convey a fairly uniform impression in any case. Another 'standard' item worn by musketeers and cavalry if not wearing helmets was the wide-brimmed, tall-crowned, Swedish-made felt hat, which was grey.
Like other forces, the Swedes were forced to use field signs (like the green sprigs worn at Breitenfeld) for army identification, with field words for further security ('God with us' at Leipzig, 1631). This was probably especially necessary as in Gustavus Adolphus' time they appear to have lacked a standard colour for officers', cavalrymen's and pikemen's sashes, various colours including sky-blue and green being worn. Earlier, Erik XIV had in one campaign ordered yellow sashes to be worn, together with red feathers or fox- or squirrel-tails in his soldiers' caps, but had later switched to red, then green sashes. In the later 30 Years War, after Gustavus' death, blue sashes, usually with yellow borders, became standard.
The modern national flag was introduced by Gustavus Vasa, and may sometimes have been carried by Swedish troops in the 16th Century, but apparently not in the 17th. Multicoloured flags with stripes of geometrical patterns were common in the 16th and early 17th Centuries, King John III (1568-92) ordering that such flags should carry a yellow cross as national badge, Lions, and the Scandinavian three-crown device, in use since the 15th Century, also appeared.
The earliest Swedish military flag to have survived is the striped infantry one shown, dating from the 1620s, in national-flag colours, and very like Dutch ones of similar period. Blue-and-yellow and orange-and-green infantry flags mentioned as carried by Swedes in the Thirty Years' War could well be of this type.
Under Gustavus, common styles for infantry flags were a plain ground with a crown over either the royal arms or the royal monogram (Gustavus would use G.A.R.S. for 'Gustavus Adolphus Rex Sueciae'). Such flags often bore mottoes, such as 'Gustavus Adolphus Rex Fidei Evangelicae Defensor'.
Other patterns include a white flag bearing a crown surmounted by a rose, and the motto 'Touch me not or you'll get burnt' (presumably in Latin), and a red flag with a flame and a figure of Justice carrying sword and scales, inscribed 'Pro Rege et Grege.' Another showed the sun over-shadowed by clouds, with 'Sero sed Serio'. Judging by later practices these would probably be Colonel's flags: company flags bore devices chosen by the colonel.
In the 1650s Charles X introduced a new system 'in keeping with earlier customs'; the Colonel's flag was white, with the King's monogram or the Swedish arms, the company flags in provincial colours with devices selected as above.
Cavalry flags (the usual small square pattern except for dragoon guidons) were, as usual, more variable. The three-crowns design is often shown; others include a blue and orange flag with an arm holding a sword and the inscription 'Si Deus pro nobis, quis contra nos?' and a sceptre crossed with a sword and the motto 'Ensem Gradius Sceptrum Themis Ipsa Gubernat'. Gustavus' escort carried a black and gold cornet, and other colours included blue and white, blue and red, red, white, blue, orange, yellow, and green.
The later Swedish army
After the death of Gustavus at Lutzen (1632), the Swedish army continued to play a major role in the Thirty Years' War, but as a mercenary force in French pay rather than a national army, becoming increasingly German in its composition, and like other armies in the awful broken-backed' later stages of that conflict, subsisting increasingly upon loot. Discipline declined, and the Swedes were decisively defeated at Nordlingen (1634) though successful later under Torstensson and Wrangel. Nearly 100,000 men were under arms at the end of the war.
Organisation and tactics remained based on Gustavus' practice, but it would seem that the proportion of pikes fell further, approximating to one-third of the foot by the end of our period. Among the horse, the proportion of dragoons greatly increased. Armour largely vanished from the foot.
After the war, Charles X reorganised the army, returning to national lines and adopting the first complete or nearly-complete system of uniform, half the infantry regiments had matching coat and trousers, the other half contrasting ones. The list below, though from 1675, probably gives an idea of this uniforming, and in some cases the colours go back still further.
Regiment Coat Cuffs
Uppland Red Yellow
Skaraborg Yellow Black
Abo Grey Yellow
Sodermanland Yellow Blue
Kronoberg Yellow Red
Jonkoping Grey Red
Bjorneborg Red Blue
Dal Blue Red
Ostgota Red Black
Tavastehus Red Yellow
Halsinge Red Green
Elfsborg Gray Isabelle
Viborg Blue Red
Nyslott Green White
Vastgota Grey Yellow
Vastmanland Green Red
Vasterbotten Blue White
Kalmar Grey Green
Nyland Gray Red
Narke-Varmland Red White
Osterbotten Grey Blue
Jamtland Gray Green
The Swedish Army at Breitenfeld in 1631. In front of the formation are 12 heavy guns, followed by the First Line (Blue Brigade, Erik Hands' Brigade, Oxenstierna's Brigade and Yellow Brigade). Behind these come the First Line's Reserve then the Second Line (Vitzthumin's, Green Brigade and Thurn's Brigade), and finally the Second Line's Reserve.
A Swedish cuirassier or Senior officer of the 30 Years' War.
Note unusual helmet type, popular with Swedes.
Left to right a Swedish general or marshal about 1650 in very Polish-style uniform. It appears that the fur-trimmed hat had remained in use since Erik XIV's day. Next to him is a cavalryman in 'pot' helmet, half armour and buff coat, 30 Years' War period. The officer behind him wears a grey felt hat and buff coat, with large lying-down white collar and white cuffs, plus a green scarf over his right shoulder. At far right is a Swedish musketeer of 1665, who is very similar in appearance to, for instance, French infantry of the same period.
Key to flags. a cavalry flag of Gustavus Adolphus' time. b National flag, yellow on blue, introduced by Gustavus Vasa. c blue and yellow infantry flag of the 1620s.
d and e 16th Century flags. f Viborg and Nyslott Cavalry Regiment, 1665. g infantry company colour 1658 (inscription incomplete). h Royal Arms, end of 16th Century. In the upper left quadrant are three gold crowns on blue. Upper right, a gold lion on blue with three white stripes. Lower left, a yellow lion and axe on red. Lower right, three blue lions on yellow with red hearts. i company flag of Robert Monroe's Regiment, Gustavus Adolphus' period. Horse white, other colours unknown. j a monogram of Gustavus Adolphus (GARS). These letters could also appear in the style shown on 'g'.
Swedish cavalry helmet, 30 Years' War, from a contemporary drawing. Note 'lobster-tail' neck guard, very large side flaps (much worn by Swedes), plume holder at rear, and single adjustable nasal.
Swedish pikeman's armour, 17th Century, showing simple style, though helmet with moveable peak and large cheek pieces, as shown for cavalry, could also be worn.
Regimental piece and carriage. This unusual shafted carriage with limited traverse is from a book of the early 18th Century. 30 Years' War pieces may have been more simply mounted.