4 October – On this day

The Battle of Wittstock took place during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). It was fought on this day in 1636. A Swedish-allied army commanded jointly by Johan Banér and Alexander Leslie, decisively defeated a combined Imperial-Saxon army, led by Count Melchior von Hatzfeld and the Saxon Elector John George I.

The Holy Roman Emperor, with Saxon and Roman Catholic allies, was campaigning for control of northern Germany against the Swedes and an alliance of Protestant princes opposed to them. The Imperial main army was screening the Swedish army behind the Elbe while a smaller army under General Klitzing was overrunning Brandenburg. Field Marshal Banér commanding the main Swedish army was joined by Field Marshal Leslie commanding the Army of the Weser which comprised German, Scottish and English regiments. Together they crossed the Elbe with a surprise march and met their opponents in the forested hilly landscape slightly south of Wittstock (about 95 klms north west of Berlin).

While the Imperial army was larger in strength than the Swedish army, at least one-third of it was composed of Saxon units of questionable quality. The Swedish artillery was considerably stronger, leading the Imperial commanders to maintain a largely defensive position on the hill tops.

This position was on the Scharfenberg, a range of sandy hills with the Imperials generally facing south. The position was further strengthened with sections of their front covered by ditches and a wall made of linked wagons as a defended obstacle. Their commanders awaited the arrival of the Swedish army for some time, but the Swedes did not appear on the open fields to their front as the Imperials hoped. Instead, the Swedish army was turning the Imperial left flank, moving behind the cover of a series of linked hills to appear to the east and rear of the Imperial army. This forced the Imperial troops to completely redeploy their lines and set up a new front without the benefit of their earlier preparations.

The battle began with small detachments of Swedish troops moving to secure the hills in the path of their attack while the Imperials reorganised their front. The Swedes, under Banér and Leslie had problems moving up reinforcements through the marshy ground before the hills, but battle was eventually joined along a wide front.

Banéér and Leslie had detached one-fourth of the army under General James King and General Torsten Stålhandske to take a long detour around the Imperial right flank. They found the traverse difficult and slow, and this meant Banér’s troops took heavy casualties in their attack and they began to fall back. Leslie reacted by moving five of his regiments to Banér’s relief, taking heavy casualties in the process with the Scottish and English regiments being particularly badly mauled. Nonetheless they were able to relieve Banér in time for King’s cavalry to finally outflank the Imperial troops and cause a rout to begin on the right flank of the Imperial army. Major-General John Ruthven (Leslie’s son-in-law) led in the reserve forces positioned to deliver the final blow to the Imperial lines. Now attacked on two fronts and with the reserve brigades engaged, the Imperial forces, having lost all their artillery, retreated under the cover of dusk in full rout towards Wittstock.

Casualties were heavy, with some 3000 dead and wounded on the Swedish side and the Imperials losing almost half their army, over 7000 dead or captured. In the accounts of the battle Johan Banér credits the victory to Field Marshal Leslie. Leslie, in his personal correspondence, was clearly horrified at the losses sustained by his army and implies there had been a disagreement about the wisdom of Banér’s tactics before the battle. Nevertheless, Wittstock was a resounding victory for the Swedish forces and corrected any delusions harboured by the Imperialists that they were a spent force after the earlier battle of Nördlingen.