Graf von Tilly (1559-1632) is considered to be one of the greatest generals of the Thirty Years' War. His career spanned almost sixty years, from entering the military as a 15-year-old cadet until his death from wounds suffered on the field of battle at the age of seventy-four. His piety earned him the nickname "The Monk in Armor."
Johann Tserclaes, Graf von Tilly was born in February 1559 at Castle Tilly, in Brabant (about 50 kilometers southeast of Brussels), in what was then known as the Spanish Netherlands. This area was part of the Holy Roman Empire under the rule of the House of Habsburg. His father, Martin Tserclaes, was the lord of Tilly and an associate of Egmont, a local aristocrat. As the Duke of Alva's "Council of Blood" strove to put down the loyal Spanish subjects in the Netherlands, Egmont was executed in 1568. Martin Tserclaes was forced to leave the Spanish Netherlands. The family remained loyal to the Habsburgs, and Johann and his brother Jakob were sent to Jesuit institutions to be taught doctrine more acceptable to the Holy Roman Empire.
By 1574, the family was allowed to return. Fifteen-year-old Johann became a cadet in a Walloon regiment under the command of General Alesandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma, who was considered a tactical genius in the use of infantry. From 1583 until 1585, Tilly fought in the campaign that took Antwerp. The tactical skills of Farnese would influence Tilly's later style. He served under Farnese in the French religious wars and as governor of Dun (on the Meuse) and Villefranch in Lorraine until the Duke's death in 1592.
In 1594, Tilly joined the army of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, who was engaged in a campaign against the Turks, under their grand vizier, Sinan Pasha.. Several promotions followed including colonel of a Walloon regiment under the Austrians in 1602, artillery general in 1604, and field marshal in 1605. When Rudolf guaranteed freedom of religion to his Bohemian subjects in 1609, he angered the Catholic leadership of the Empire. Tilly had remained loyal to Rudolf. When the emperor was ousted by his successor, Matthias, in 1611, Tilly found it prudent to seek employment elsewhere.
At that time, Maximilian I, the Duke of Bavaria, invited him to head the newly-formed army of the Catholic League. The core of the new force was the Bavarian Army, which Maximilian had worked to strengthen. For the next ten years, Tilly polished his troops to create one of the most powerful and efficient forces in the region. The League was first tested in 1620, when the new emperor, Ferdinand II, went to war against his Bohemian subjects, who were aided by unhappy Austrian nobles. Maximilian was willing to ally himself and commit his forces in return for his share of the spoils, namely the territories of the Elector Palatine, Frederick, who had sided with the Bohemians.
Tilly was very successful in this, the first major campaign of the Thirty Years' War. The 25,000 members of his Catholic League moved into Bavaria in July. A month later, the Austrian rebels were forced into surrendering at Linz. He outflanked an army of Bohemians and Hungarians in September and October, then joined an Imperial army led by Count Buquoy, to advance on Prague. On November 8, 15,000 Bohemians tried to stop the advance at Weisserberg (White Mountain), about three-quarters of a mile west of Prague. Tilly attacked at dawn with 20,000 men, and was victorious. Then Tilly headed back into Germany and began to conquer the states—nominally Protestant—which had supported Frederick.
In 1622, Tilly met the Palatinate army, under the command of Mansfield, at the battle of Mingolsheim. Although he lost that battle, Tilly joined with a Spanish army under Gonzales de Cordoba and was victorious over the rebel Protestant forces under Georg Frederick at Wimpfen on May 6. Moving northward, Tilly beat Christian of Brunswick at Hochst on June 20, catching the rebel army as it tried to cross the river Main. After this battle, Tilly was made a count. He now had control of the Palatinate.
Tilly took the city of Heidelberg on September 19, 1622, after an eleven-week siege that laid waste to the town. The following year, on August 6, he devastated the last important German army, when he once again defeated Christian of Brunswick, at Stadtlohn near the Netherlands border. Christian's army of 12,000 troops suffered 10,000 casualties. All of northwest Germany was now under Tilly's command. His success in this period has to be credited to the years he spent preparing his troops. The experience and quality of his army were deciding factors in the victories he enjoyed. Only Mansfield's army could possibly best Tilly. However, when the two met at Wiesloch, Tilly received his revenge with a victory. After that, even Mansfield tried to avoid further confrontations.
Responding to the Danes' entrance into the war in 1625, Tilly found himself allied with the mercenary army of Emperor Ferdinand II, commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein. While Tilly was loyal to Maximilian and the Catholic League, Wallenstein was an adventurer and mercenary who always kept his own ends in mind. The two armies worked well together. After Tilly's experienced soldiers routed King Christian IV of Denmark at Lutter in late August 1626, Tilly and Wallenstein forced the Danes back across their own borders the following year. But the princes in Germany grew wary of Wallenstein's ambition. In return for supporting the emperor, they demanded that Wallenstein be removed from his post. Although there was some opposition to putting a seventy-one year old man in charge of such a large army, Tilly was given the command of Wallenstein's army, while retaining his command of the Catholic League forces. Tilly did not want the combined command, not out of any respect for the departed Wallenstein, but because it was complicated by politics.
During the same period, the Swedish army, no longer involved in a war with Poland, was able to turn its attention to helping the Danes. In order to strengthen his position against the Swedish threat, Tilly attacked the town of Magdeburg, key in his defensive plans. Once he took the city, the men under his subordinate, General Count Gottfried zu Pappenheim, went out of control and brutally sacked the city. Tilly was surprised by his own men. He did not think the city would fall easily, if at all, and was not prepared to stop the frenzy. Of the 30,000 residents and defenders of Magdeburg, 25,000 were killed. Because of the carnage wrought by Pappenheim's men, Tilly's notoriety grew. He was accused of all manner of atrocities by his opponents.
Emperor Ferdinand ordered Tilly to enter and pillage Saxony. This was a tactical error on the emperor's part, and many of his advisors were against it. Tilly followed orders. His action led the Saxons to ally with Sweden, and set up one of the major battles of the Thirty Years' War.
Generals, it is said, always fight their last victory. Like most of us, they assume that whatever had worked successfully for them in the past would continue to do so. Three times in the summer of 1631, Tilly faced the Swedes. The new tactics of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden involved smaller forces in a linear deployment that allowed greater flexibility so that a thin mobile front could to hold off Tilly's massive attacks. These tactics were alien to Tilly and he was unable to adapt. In the third of these battles, at Breitenfeld, on 17 September 1631, Tilly's forces were soundly defeated.
Tilly had hoped to stay within the walls of Leipzig. However, Pappenheim committed the Catholic League forces to battle with the Swedes and Saxons at Breitenfeld, about four miles north of Leipzig. The flanking maneuver employed by Pappenheim had little affect on the Swedes linear formation. Tilly had better success over the Saxon army, then turned to attack the exposed left flank of the Swedish army. In previous years, it would have been an easy, overpowering victory. But a number of factors worked against Tilly that day. He could not overcome bad decisions made by Pappenheim early in the battle. The sheer number of the combined armies of Sweden and Saxony—some estimates put them at near 42,000 troops—outnumbered the Catholic forces by many thousand and overwhelmed Tilly's experienced but weary troops. Most importantly, the flexibility and creative tactics of the Swedes continued to befuddle Tilly. Although the Catholic forces held their ground for seven hours of skillful and relentless attacks from the Swedish forces, a counterattack led by a thousand horsemen Gustavus had held in reserve shattered the Imperial army. The next day, Gustavus entered Leipzig.
The battle of Breitenfeld was the first major victory by the Protestant forces, and was the turning point in the Thirty Year's War. Tilly pulled his decimated forces together, despite losses of 7000 casualties and 6000 men taken prisoner. In October 1631, he was ready with a new army. But the winter was a quiet one. By December, Gustavus had amassed a force of 80,000, and wintered in Germany at Mainz. On February 10, 1632, Tilly encountered and defeated a detachment of Swedes at Bamberg. In April, Gustavus marched into Bavaria. Maximilian had rehired Wallenstein and Tilly was only responsible for the Catholic League troops.
Tilly entrenched his troops at the river Lech to stop the advance of Gustavus. He stripped the countryside of every boat and tree that the Swede could use to cross the Lech. Tilly was sure that Gustavus would not and could not attack. He was wrong. Gustavus used a narrow bridge of boats to cross the river, and smoke from smoldering damp straw to disguise the actual location of his artillery. The Catholic forces, which had camped at the edge of the river, could not respond quickly enough. The battle was decisive: Tilly was wounded and a rapid retreat was led by Maximilian. Tilly was taken to Ingolstadt to tend his wounds. Gustavus sent a surgeon at Tilly's request, but it did not help. Tilly died of his wounds on the last day of April in 1632. Although he may have outlived his usefulness as a general, he never ceased being a man of honor and integrity. He was devoted to his Jesuit upbringing and to his employers. In his prime, those attributes, as well as his tactical abilities, are what made Johann Tserclaes, Graf von Tilly, one of the top generals of his era.
Dupuy, Trevor N., Curt Johnson, and David L. Bongard, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, HarperCollins, 1992.
Keegan, John, and Andrew Wheatcroft, Who's Who in Military History, Hutchinson, 1987.
Windrow, Martin and Francis K. Mason The Concise Dictionary of Military Biography Revised Edition, Windrow and Greene, 1990.