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Prince Rupert and the Thirty Years War: “The School of the Soldier”

Military History

Prince Rupert and the Thirty Years War: “The School of the Soldier”

Because of the calamity that had befallen his family during the Thirty Years War, Prince Rupert would lead a life of exile and master the art of war.

Because of the calamity that had befallen his family during the Thirty Years War, Prince Rupert would lead a life of exile and master the art of war.

by Arnold Blumberg

Born on December 17, 1619, at Prague, Rupert was given the title Prince Rupert of the Rhine because he had come into the world while his father was still king of Bohemia. By his late teens he had grown into a handsome youth. He stood 6’4”and was an accomplished athlete and horseman. Although given an education the equal provided to any member of royalty of the time, the Prince’s personal interest—from an early age—concerned military matters.

With no formal war colleges or course of study in civilian institutions of higher learning yet established, an aspiring military commander in 17th-century Europe had to acquire his knowledge of strategy and battlefield tactics by reading about them, and—when the opportunity arose—taking part in actual campaigning. Rupert was fortunate to be able to do both in the 1630s. As a personage of note (Rupert’s mother was the sister of King Charles I of England) the young Prince was allowed to mingle with the leading elements of Dutch society, including the hereditary Stadtholders (political leaders) of the country. He was deeply influenced by them, especially Maurice of Nassau, who rose to prominence in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as commander of Holland’s army in its wars against Spain.

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Maurice implemented a thorough reorganization of his army which would prove to be the basis for many 17th- and 18th-century military reforms. He led the way by creating a modern force that included a program of year-round training and prompt regular pay for soldiers. Further, he devised and instituted what would be called the Dutch System. A Dutch regiment was transformed from a columnar formation to a linear one. The latter—about 200 yards wide and only six yards deep—placed matchlock musketeers on both flanks of a pike-armed center. The result was a tactical organization whose firepower (muskets) could decimate an enemy while still protecting itself from opposing cavalry by employing pikes. The Dutch System gave greater mobility to infantry on the battlefield while generating a steady “rotation of fire.” Maurice’s reforms would remain the basis of infantry tactics for the next 200 years.

King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

Whereas Rupert absorbed Maurice’s infantry practices through discussions and training with the Stadtholder’s veteran officers, he learned the new ways of cavalry combat from the officers of another great soldier of the age. This was King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who had conducted military campaigns during the 1620s and early 1630s in Denmark, the Baltic, Poland, and Germany. His genius for war and lengthy experience in waging it spurred the King to devise an even more effective firepower regimen—using muskets and artillery—than that of the Dutch model. He also made lasting changes in the sphere of cavalry tactics.

Gustavus wanted his mounted service to be fast and powerful and to have a decisive effect on the battlefield; in short, he wanted the mounted arm to be an offensive force. To these ends he lightened the load carried by the trooper and his steed. He did away with the practices of the previous century that advocated the pistol as the cavalryman’s main weapon against opposing horse and foot, and an advance toward the enemy conducted at a walk or canter. Under the King’s reforms, the Swedish cavalry relied on shock delivered by the sword from lines of mounted men riding boot-to-boot at a trot.

The School of the Soldier

Adding to the education he received from lectures and stories—and the many tracts and treatises available to him—Rupert was able to enter the “school of the soldier” by taking part in several active campaigns against the Spanish. At the sieges of Louvain (1635) and Bfeda (1637) Rupert distinguished himself in open combat and learned the many fine points of siege warfare. In 1638 the young royal assumed his first command as colonel of cavalry in his brother’s ill-fated expedition to retake the Palatinate from the Hapsburgs. Early in the operation Rupert led a cavalry charge against enemy horse soldiers outside the town of Rheine and totally defeated them. On October 17, 1638, at the Battle of Vlotho, Westphalia, the Palatinate army was beaten, but not before Rupert injected himself into the fight.

As his brother’s army took flight after being attacked, Rupert ordered a cavalry charge that drove a body of enemy horse from the field. Rupert’s regiment hotly pursued, but upon reaching the end of a narrow valley his troopers were set upon by a fresh enemy mounted regiment. After a prolonged engagement with this new foe, Rupert and his command dispersed them and again gave chase. A short time later, horses blown and men bloodied and fatigued, the Prince’s unit was surrounded by more Hapsburg cavalry and forced to surrender. During the entire episode, from his first charge of the day to his capture, Rupert led his comrades in every encounter, firing pistol and wielding saber, always disdaining the opportunity to escape even when it was certain that the battle had been lost.

The Battle of Vlotho showed that the 19-year-old Prince Rupert was a gifted cavalry commander and one of the bravest soldiers in Europe. So impressed were his Austrian captors that they repeatedly, over the three years of his imprisonment, attempted to persuade him to enlist in their army! The Holy Roman Emperor himself requested his enlistment, but the young Protestant soldier continually refused.

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One Comment

  1. Hartog Benjamin
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Why was Rupert defeated at Marston Moor? In fact he barely escaped with his life when he was pursued by Cromwells cavalry. How did he manage to elude his enemies and recover his tactical genuis that he used with such daring dexterity in subsequent battles?

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