Absent Players Choose the Victors: Sekigahara (1600) and Breitenfeld (1631)

Absent Players Choose the Victors

             Within the space of thirty years, two able commanders fought battles that determined the fate of their respective countries. Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rival at Sekigahara in 1600 and thereafter created a Japanese shogunate that would last for over 250 years. Gustavus Adolphus defeated the forces of the Holy Roman Empire at Breitenfeld in 1631 and thereby assured that Protestantism would survive on mainland Europe. Both commanders used mixed forces, mobility, and new military technology in their battles. Nevertheless, it was the startling removal from the battlefield of key fighting units that transformed probable defeat into victory.

The death of Toyatomi Hideyoshi in 1598 created a familiar succession struggle in medieval Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyatomi’s main general, was opposed by a low-born but ambitious bureaucrat, Ishida Mitsunari. Ishida managed to get control of Toyatomi’s heir, thus becoming the protector of the shogunate. Daimyo around Japan began aligning with one faction or the other. Ishida waited until Tokugawa went north to suppress a minor rebellion and then moved to take control of Kyoto, the imperial city. Tokugawa responded with a forced march and captured one of his rival’s castles. The scene was set for a final confrontation at Sekigahara on October 21, 1600.

The opposing armies were similarly composed. Tokugawa assembled about 75-80,000 men. Historians differ on the number of troops Ishida brought to the field. Most place the number at 82-85,000. Both sides deployed mixed forces consisting of infantry, cavalry, bowmen, and harquebusiers/musketeers. Prior to the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, Japanese battles had normally consisted of a large number of single combats and small melees.[i] Such engagements featured mounted samurai bowmen supported by infantry.[ii] By 1600, mounted bowmen were giving way to forces composed of infantry and cavalry armed with a variety of pole arms.[iii] Bows were still used, but in declining numbers since they required longer training and more expensive support.[iv]  Muskets were in increasing use. Tokugawa had written “…guns and gunpowder are what I desire more than gold brocade.”[v] Pikemen shown in printed screens of the battle are not bunched in tight formations as in 16th century Europe, but are standing in loose lines with room to use their weapons, more like 17th century Europe.[vi] In the same screens, soldiers have swords in their belts, but are fighting with pole arms or missile weapons.[vii] The Japanese used cannon at sea, but at this time they were still rarely deployed in land battles. Ishida used five cannon at Sekigahara with little effect. Tokugawa would later use cannon at the two sieges of Osaka in 1614 and 1615, but not at Sekigahara.[viii] The reason for this is unclear, but problems in manufacturing may have existed.[ix] Troops fought in units commanded by, and loyal to, individual daimyos. Each typically consisted of mixed formations.

Ishida had carried out a night march to reach the battle site. He took an excellent defensive position, flanked by two streams, with additional reserve troops stationed on high ground nearby. He planned to hold Tokugawa’s center in place while others maneuvered to the enemy rear.[x] Battle opened as Tokugawa sent Fukushima Masanori on his left flank forward into the center of Ishida’s fortified defensive line. This was just what Ishida had planned. The ground was sodden from an earlier rain and the battle quickly bogged down into a “slug fest.”[xi] Tokugawa then ordered attacks from his right into the enemy center, and his center to support Fukushima’s attack. This left Ishida’s center untouched, but when he ordered this unit forward, its commander (Shimazu Yoshihiro) refused to move because he had been insulted by Ishida the night before. The forces of Mori Terumoto stayed out of the battle for similar reasons, thus many of Ishida’s forces were “taken off the field” early. Meanwhile, Fukushima’s attack was gaining ground, further exposing Tokugawa’s left flank. Troops of Otani Yoshitsugu attacked them immediately. If the 15,600 fresh samurai of Kobayakawa Hideoki had charged down from their hillside position and joined the attack, Tokugawa might have been defeated then. Kobayakawa attacked the Ishida collation instead. He and other Ishida loyalists had been contacted by Tokugawa prior to the battle, and were waiting their chance to defect.[xii] Kobayakawa also had a grudge against Ishida, who blamed him for losses in the Korean campaign.[xiii] At the same time, reserve troops under Kikkawa Tsunie had also decided not to attack Tokugawa.[xiv] Kobayakawa’s action snowballed as other Ishida confederates threw their lot with Tokugawa. When Ishida made a run for it, he discovered that his reserves on Mount Nango, troops that might have been able to reverse his defeat, had either deserted to Tokugawa or turned and marched away from battle.[xv] These multiple acts of treachery meant that only about 30,000 of Ishida’s troops actually participated in the battle.[xvi] Although further battles were required to cement the victory, Sekigahara permitted Tokugawa to establish a shogunate in 1603 that would last until 1867. Tokugawa’s victory in Japan resulted in the devolution of armies to local lords. The fact that the samurai succeeded in pacifying Japan before the full-scale development of artillery, influenced the political, social and cultural history of early modern Japan.[xvii]

In the early 17th century, Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, created Europe’s first modern professional army based on universal conscription. Between 1611 and 1629 he led his forces to victory against Denmark, Russia, and Poland, establishing Sweden as the leading power in the Baltic.  In 1631 Gustavus entered the Thirty Years War to save the Protestants from utter defeat by the armies of the Hapsburg’s Holy Roman Empire. His army of 13,000 Swedes was highly motivated by long training, nationalism, and religious fervor. Nevertheless, when employed offensively, neither Swedish tactics nor resources were sufficient for victory. Good order under fire was essential.[xviii] Gustavus’s army was soon augmented by 10,000 mercenaries and approximately 18,000 Saxons under Johann Georg, elector of Saxony. The first major confrontation was at Breitenfeld on September 17, 1631. Breitenfeld was the first great engagement “in which modern tactics of mobility opposed the Middle Ages tactic of weight.”[xix] Gustavus faced an estimated 36,000 veteran Imperial troops under the command of the count of Tilly. Imperial forces were largely composed of mercenaries paid by loot.

Tilly was an experienced field commander with over 50 years of battle victories and no losses.[xx] He deployed his men in the standard tercio formation, a huge square of massed pikemen protected on four corners by musketeers.[xxi] Pikemen permitted musketeers to leave fortifications and fight behind a “wall” of pikes, thereby defended against cavalry.[xxii] Breitenfeld was a flat field with no major timber and with raised ground for Tilly’s artillery. It was thus perfect for his 17 huge tercios, which were 30 ranks deep and 50 across.[xxiii] These formations could move forward with crushing strength, bristling with 30-foot pikes, but they could not maneuver well. Use of the tercio had been successful in “slug fest” battles for hundreds of years. Tilly supported his squares with massive cannon placed to bear down on the Swedes and he placed his 10,000 cavalrymen on his wings.

Gustavus, on the other hand, formed his own men in parallel lines only six ranks deep, interspersing musketeers, cavalry, pikemen and light artillery. Each dispersed Swedish brigade “was like a little movable fortress.”[xxiv] Gustavus put his trust in musketeers protected by pikemen, not pikemen protected by musketeers. Further, he had developed 3-pound cannon that could be pulled by two horses, compared to the Imperial 24-pounders that required teams of up to 30 horses to move.[xxv] Gustavus alternated cavalry, infantry and artillery so they could support each other in advance.[xxvi] His revolutionary “shallow” formation also allowed a higher proportion of manpower to be engaged at one time. His front three ranks of musketeers would fire, then the back three would move forward and fire.[xxvii] Further, the Swedes had developed muskets that were much lighter than their contemporaries, thus not requiring a crutch. They had “fixed ammunition”, a cartridge made up of a premeasured bag of gunpowder attached to the projectile. This made loading more precise, faster, and safer.[xxviii] In addition, they used a wheel-lock mechanism that was superior to Imperial matchlocks.[xxix] Imperial muskets were able to penetrate the heaviest armor, but could not be fired without a fork-rest.[xxx] This severely limited their use. The Swedes were thus able to fire three times for every one volley by the imperial musketeers.[xxxi] Gustavus’s intent was to use his greater mobility to maneuver around the ponderous Imperial squares.[xxxii]

Tilly opened with his heavy artillery but the dispersed positioning of the Swedes and their shallow formations limited its effect. Swedish artillery, although smaller, wrecked havoc in the deep, densely-packed tercios. Eventually, Tilly’s headstrong cavalry commander Pappenheim charged the Swedish right, hoping to turn their flank. Like Ishida at Sekigahara, Tilly had planned a defensive battle. Pappenheim’s impulsive action forced him to commit his tercios toward the Saxon formations.[xxxiii] He had judged correctly. The Saxons quickly buckled and fled the field, leaving Tilly with a sudden 3-to-2 advantage over Gustavus.[xxxiv] He quickly committed his 25,000 infantry against 4,000 on the Swedish left. Tilly had all but won the battle. But the Swedes could maneuver much faster than Tilly’s forces and Gustavus ordered a “cold steel” cavalry charge into the Imperial left flank.[xxxv] Meanwhile, instead of charging the Swedish infantry, Pappenheim’s cavalry used the caracole maneuver, whereby cavalry pull up to the enemy and fire their pistols at close range, then retire to reload. The conversion of Imperial cavalry to somewhat ineffective pistols meant they had given up their role as shock troops.[xxxvi] This permitted the Swedes to use the greater range of their muskets to disrupt the attack. The Swedes again used their mobility to extend their left line to defend the flank.[xxxvii] Pappenheim attacked seven times. His cavalry was cut to pieces, as was a relief of infantry sent by Tilly.[xxxviii] After suffering terrible losses, Pappenheim deserted the field. His desertion removed Tilly’s only mobile force from the battle, leaving Tilly with only his ponderous tercios. Gustavus was free to use this mobile troops and field guns to tear up the tercios. Unlike Imperial practice, Swedish cavalry were employed as shock troops. They used sword and saber to plow into the Imperial flank, capturing Tilly’s massive (and immobile) cannon.[xxxix] Tilly’s forces had moved so far forward that they were now in front of the cannon, and now these were added to the destruction of the tercios. Tilly’s army melted away under withering fire. True to their mercenary heritage, 6,000 captured imperials promptly enlisted in the Swedish army.[xl] The Hapsburgs never recovered from their loss to Gustavus Adolphus. His use of disciplined troops and mobility became the new standard for warfare in Europe. Firing by rank requires discipline and timing, and thus leads to permanent forces. Permanent conscript armies become the standard in Europe.

Both the Battle of Sekigahara and the Battle of Breitenfeld showcase the use of mixed forces, new weapon systems, and mobility. Nevertheless, it is the unexpected removal of key fighting forces from the field that ultimately determines the outcome of each battle. Tokugawa Ieyasu uses clever understanding of human nature to convert and bully key daimyos into allies, delaying their betrayal until the battle is engaged. His victory gives Japan two and a half centuries of peace. Gustavus Adolphus uses superior discipline and movement to force imperial cavalry off the field. Once this essential player is removed he can use his superior maneuverability to destroy Tilly’s tercios. His success assures the survival of Protestantism on the European mainland. Thus in both battles it is the missing players that determine the victor.

[i] Perrin, Noel. Giving Up the Gun, P. 24. David Godine, Publisher, 1979.

[ii] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes, History 4600 at University of Georgia, 2008

[iii] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes, History 4600 at University of Georgia, 2008

[iv] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes, History 4600 at University of Georgia, 2008

[v] Norris, John. Gunpowder Artillery: 1600-1700. P. 69. The Crowood Press, 2005.

[vi] Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. P.193. Cambridge University Press, 2003

[vii] Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. P.193. Cambridge University Press, 2003

[viii] Chase, Kenneth. Firearms: A Global History to 1700. P.193. Cambridge University Press, 2003

[ix] Taniguchi, Shinko. Military Evolution or Revolution? in Knight and Samurai, Rosemarie Deist, editor. P. 194. Kummerle Verlag, 2003.

[x] Holmes, Richard. Battlefield: Decisive Conflicts in History. P. 309 Oxford University Press. 2006

[xi] Davis, Paul. Battles from Ancient Times to the Present. P. 206. Oxford University Press, 1999

[xii] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes, History 4600 at University of Georgia, 2008

[xiii] Bryant, Anthony, “Sekigahara 1600”. December 23, 2002. Visited May 23, 2008. <http:www.every-thing2.com/title/battle%2520of%2520Sekigahara>

[xiv] “Battle of Sekigahara”. October 13, 2007. Visited May 23, 2008. < http://wiki.samurai-archives.com/index.php?title=Battle_of_Sekigahara>

[xv] Holmes, Richard. Battlefield: Decisive Conflicts in History. P. 310 Oxford University Press. 2006

[xvi] Varley, Paul. “Warfare in Japan 1467-1600”. War in the Modern World. Edited by Theodore Ropp. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

[xvii] Taniguchi, Shinko. Military Evolution or Revolution? in Knight and Samurai, Rosemarie Deist, editor. P. 194. Kummerle Verlag, 2003

[xviii] Lynn, John. Tools of War. University of Illinois Press, 1990.

[xix] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 254 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xx] Boot, Max. War Made New. P.52 Gotham Books, 2006

[xxi] Haythornthwaite, Philip. Invincible Generals. P. 21. Indiana University Press, 1992.

[xxii] Black, Jeremy. European Warfare. P. 39. St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

[xxiii] Boot, Max. War Made New. P.53 Gotham Books, 2006

[xxiv] Norris, John. Gunpowder Artillery: 1600-1700. P. 29. The Crowood Press, 2005.

[xxv] Norris, John. Gunpowder Artillery: 1600-1700. P. 28. The Crowood Press, 2005.

[xxvi] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 255 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xxvii] Boot, Max. War Made New. P.54 Gotham Books, 2006

[xxviii] Kinard, Jeff. Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact. P. 98. ABC Clio, 2007

[xxix] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 255 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xxx] Arch, Ronald. Warfare in the Age of the Thirty Years War, in European Warfare, edited by Jeremy Black. P. 209.  St. Martin’s Press, 1999

[xxxi] Eggenberger, David. An Encyclopedia of Battles. Dover Publications, 1967.

[xxxii] Davis, p. 211.

[xxxiii] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 257 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xxxiv] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 266 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xxxv] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 266 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xxxvi] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 254 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xxxvii] Holmes, Richard. Battlefield: Decisive Conflicts in History. P. 69 Oxford University Press. 2006,

[xxxviii] Dodge, Theodore. Gustavus Adolphus. P. 264 Greenhill Books, 1996.

[xxxix] Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution 1500-1600. P. 56 Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[xl] Holloway, Don. “Thirty Year’s War: Battle of Breitenfeld” Military History, published February 1996.