THE THIRTY YEAR WAR
THE WINTER COUP OF 1640-1641
THE DEATH OF JOHAN BANÉR
The army had rested a while and since new financial means had arrived Banér
felt tempted to conduct a winter campaign. The ground was frozen and most
waterways and lakes frozen as well so speed should be high. In late november the
army moved to the southwest and Erfurt under the usual quarrels in the command.
The french refused to go too far from the Rhine and parts of the bernadines had
left the army under the guise of a prestige argument and started a looting raid
disguised as a campaign in Westphalia. During the advance Banér recieved news
on the german reichstag in Regensburg.
Emperor Ferdinand III had summoned all his princes and electors to a meeting
in Regensburg to discuss the situation. Regensburg was 200 km from Erfurt
and on the other side of the Danube but still a bold and dashing plan (typical
of Banérs generalship) formed in Banérs head. The ground and rivers were
frozen, wasnt it possible to capture all the catholic lords in one swift dash?
Wasnt it possible to capture...the emperor himself? A decicive way to end the
The army started to move quickly in late December. On the 3rd of January
Auerbach was reached and no sign had been recieved that the enemy had been
alerted. He was still in his winterquarters.
But in Auerbach 500 rather confused imperial musketeers from the Gonzaga
regiment were captured. They had bad news. The enemy had been alerted was
rallying his army at Amberg. A town right between Banérs army and Regensburg.
Banér grew cautious. To blindly run ahead into a possible enemy army was too
dangerous. He had scout quickly sent out to verify the information. The days
passed. 1, 2, 3. But no reports on enemy units in arms arrived. 4, 5. On the
contrary. A swedish cavalry unit stumbled over an enemy wagontrain with clothing
that had no idea of the swedish prescence. Another force captured a huge supply
depot at Hersbruck. Everywhere silence, tranquility and surprised faces when the
riders with frost in their beards and ice on their harnesses appeared. 6 days.
The news on the enemy being alerted was clearly a mistake. They were not.
But they became during the six day wait in Auerbach. The alarm had sounded.
Banér still wanted to try. The emperor was not easily scared and refused to end
the reichstag and leave regensburg. The swedish army went on. Three cavalry
regiments were sent as an advanced detachment. They had to hurry. But now it
happened. The thing Banér had feared. A change in weather.
It started to thaw. That was bad since the ice on the Danume might not be
able to let the cavalry pass. The three regiments managed to across before the
ice cracked however. On to Regensburg! Unnoticed they rode towards the town.
Outside it they caught up with parts from the imperial court and captured it. It
proved to be the imperial hunting party that the emperor had planned to join but
he had been delayed. The three regiments had to ride back over the melting ice
on the Danube. The bold coup had failed.
The swedish army split up. Banér broke all promises and marched to the east
and Bohemia. Evidently he hoped that the french would rather come along than be
left alone in the middle of enemy lands. The french commander Guébriant grew
furious and threatened to cease all cooperation and started to march to the
west. Banér finally reached Cham and went into winterquarters. It was an
exposed position and the army was considerebly weaker without the french but
Banér thought the enemy would not be able conduct a campaign in the poor late
winterweather. And it was a good starting position for the summercampaign so
close to the emperors lands. No enemy was spotted. The soldiers rested.
Equipment was repaired. Banér corresponded with the french. The grey February
On the 7th of March, a sunday evening, a lone rider rode into the swedish
camp at Schwandorf. He told that he belonged to a cavalry unit that had been
detached as a garrison at a castle outside Regensburg. Now all his comrades were
dead. The enemy had stormed and taken the castle a few hours earlier. The
entire imperial army was now headed at Cham. The enemy had managed to gather his
army without being detected by the swedish scouts and intellegence agents and he
was now performing a pincer maneuver centered at the swedes in Cham. Banér had
evidently underestimated his opponent. Now he had to act fast to get out of the
The artillery fired the alarm and the units started to gather. The imprials
had reached Neunburg, northeast of Cham. Some swedish units in that town had
been unable to withdraw and were now trapped inside its walls. Their commander
was Erik Slang, a one armed colonel. He made it clear to Piccolomini, who had
arrived with his cavalry, that he intended to fight. Since Neunburg blocked the
way to Cham the recistance should be subdued to able to continue with working
lines of supply. The imperials brought up infantry from the main force and on
the 10th of March the artillery was in place as well. The assault could begin.
The war was largely centered around fights for towns and castles. The new
artillery had forced newer fortresses than the simple high but thin medieval
city walls. Low but thick earthen walls that were sloped, built in starshapes
was the new ideal. A small defender could defend such a fortification for a long
time against a much larger enemy. Sieges were popular since they were much
more predictable and systematic than the wild, hazardous, frictionridden battles
in the field. The lack of fortresses in eastern Europe had made the swedish army
much more inclined to fighting campaigns of maneuver and battles and this had
paid off in this war as well since the opponent were slow and fond of sieges.
There were several different flavours of siege, differing in the amount of
trenches, batteries, mines etc that were empoyed to subdue the enemy. The ritual
demanded that the defender refused to surrender when offered to do so but
pledging to fight to the death instead. The attacker stated that so would be the
case if they did not surrender. Rarely the fighting was carried to such
extremes. Once a breach had been blown in the defences and the defender realized
that resistance was futile a surrender was usually accepted.
Neunburg had walls of the old medieval style and after a days barrage a
breach had indeed been blown. A surrender was offered again. But the swedes had
blocked the breach with debris and the courir was shot by the defending swedes.
The imperial storm columns immidietly charged but were repulsed with heavy
losses. The next day the imperial artillery destroyed two towers and the
imperial infantry tried to force their way through the openings but they failed
again. Some of Slangs officers wanted to surrender but he refused. Now the wall
between the two towers was totally destroyed and the enemy had a clear line of
sight to the town square. Even Slang realized the futility and surrendered. 90
officers, 180 musketers and 1600 cavalrymen were taken prisoner. The imperials
But they had been dangerously delayed by Slangs stubborn defense. Not that
there had been any such plan, Slang had simply been caught by the rapidly
advancing enemy. Banér used that to his advantage by leaving his friend Slang
to his destiny. On the 8th of March the imperials had been close to closing the
door behind behind Banérs back, but when they stopped and gawked at the sight
of heavy artillery demolishing the city walls of Neunburg Banér acted with his
usual furious velocity. At high speed the column of his army escaped north
On miserable roads destroyed by the spring thaw the army struggled to elude
the pursuers. The rearguard fought continously with the enemys advance guard. At
more than one instance the rear guard was caught and had to be replaced. The
soldiers worked hard at night to chop down trees to block the pursuers way. On
the 17th of Mach the army crossed over a temporary bridge over the Eger and
entered the mountainpasses that was to take it from Bohemia to Saxony. They
escaped the enemy by 30 minutes and the rearguard was engaged in the tight
passes entrance by a creek were the they were left behind to keep the enemy at
bay. Due to this sacrifice the army slipped into Saxony.
Casualties had been severe during the retreat and panic had gripped the
wagontrain at time. Disciplinproblems had been many but the army had kept
together and endured without dissolving and being destroyed. Almost a miracle
during the circumstances, but a miracle that can be atributed to Banérs
excellent generalship. An undisputable master of retreats even if his offensives
not always accomplished what he had hoped. The enemy seemed to have given up on
the pursuit and when contact was established with the french and the Bernadines
it slowly became apparent that the crisis was over. For this time...
The big wheel had turned again. Banér himself was ill and taken to the
castle Merseburg. He coughed blood and had fever. His condition deteriorated and
doctors were summoned. The state of the nedical art of the time being rather
horrifying to us however and the cures were wildly fanstastical as dissolved
pearls and laxatives were used for everything. Astrology was important as were
prayers. Banér seemed to recover and immidietly started to dictate letters and
bark orders with customary speed but he soon got worse again and on the 10th of
may 1641 he died. Today an analysis of his symptoms points to the diagnosis of
liver cirrosis. He boozed himself to death.
Under his command more than 600 colors had been taken and 80 000 enemy
soldiers killed. No one knows how many villages and towns that had been torched.
Swedens enemies rejoiced now that "the old arsonist" was dead. In
Bohemia a parody requiem was written were Banér was wished to burn in hell and
a choir of looted peasants sang a song of joy since the swedish devil couldnt
plunder them anymore. If they thought that his successor would be a less able
general they were sorely mistaken however.
After Banérs death, partly due to it, the worst crisis for the swedes in