Saturday, June 16, 2018

In War There Is Neither Fortune Nor a Star

was the motto of a one-day colloquium at the Hotel Stadt Breisach on the city’s Münsterberg. Already occupied by the Romans as a strategic landmark, this rock was later disputed by many rulers, in particular during wars between Germany and France.

The coat of arms of Breisach’s rulers throughout the centuries
 are painted on the wall of the town hall (©Flominator/Wikipedia)
At the time of the Holy German Empire, Fort Breisach was described as the key to enter into German territory. The fortified city and its inhabitants, in particular, suffered during the Thirty Years’ War.

Fortification of Breisach on the Rhine under French rule (©Bertram Jenisch)
In the wake of the 500th anniversary of the outbreak of the traumatic war, Breisach was the "suitable" place for a colloquium on forts, entrenchments, and battlefields during this sinister era of German history. Although Red Baron has covered the period extensively he still learned a lot of details.

Initially, the southwest of the Holy Roman Empire was spared by the war, for the Dukedom of Württemberg worked like a protective shield for the Habsburg territories located further west on the two banks of the Rhine river. Duke John Frederick was a member of the Protestant Union standing against the Catholic League, but after the defeat of the Union at the Battle of Wimpfen on May 6, 1622, where he lost his youngest brother the Duke concluded a non-aggression treaty with the Habsburg emperor.

In the countryside, the impact of the Battle of Wimpfen is still visible (©Rudolf Landauer)
This favorable political situation came to an abrupt end on March 6, 1629, when Emperor Ferdinand II decreed the Edict of Restitution demanding the return of territories which had come under Protestant rule after the Treaty of Passau in 1552. Tis involved more than one-third of Württemberg’s territories that once had belonged to monasteries and bishops. When Catholic troops invaded Germany’s southwest to force implementation of the edict, Duke Eberhard III fled to Protestant Strasbourg and only Fort Hohentwiel in Württemberg resisted the Catholic assault.

The Spanish Road (©Miguelazo/Wikipedia)
In 1635 Catholic France entered the war supporting the Protestants against the Habsburgs. One of their first war goals was cutting the Camino de los Tercios españoles, the road on which Spanish foot soldiers marched from northern Italy to Flanders in 60 days, feeding the war between the Protestant Netherlands and the Spanish Habsburgs. By cutting these Spanish supplies, France gained passages into the Empire in particular following the fall of Breisach, the key to the Reich.

Red Baron also learned that one of the reasons why Emperor Ferdinand III ceded the German-speaking Alsace to France in the Peace Treaty of Westphalia was that he did not want the French having a seat and a vote at the Imperial Diet. On the other hand, occupying the German territories of Verden and Pomerania, the Swedes had that right.

The Battle of Wittstock (©Sabine Eickhoff)
The audience learned that modern forensic techniques were applied when some years ago a common grave was discovered containing 131 skeletons of soldiers killed in the Battle of Wittstock 100 kilometers north of Berlin. On October 10, 1636, a combined Swedish-Scottish army defeated the Catholic imperial troops decisively. The latter were seconded by forces of Protestant Saxon Elector John George I, the initiator of a German peace, i.e., the 1635 Peace of Prague, with the aim of dislodging foreign troops from German territory.

Man is man’s death (©Stefan Mäder)
Smashed skulls and damaged bones partly destroyed by bullets were the causes of death. Examination of teeth allowed the determination of the age of the men who measured between 160 to 182 centimeters where the median age was 24 years. DNA analyses of bone material confirmed the predominant Scottish and Swedish origin of the men killed in action. In fact, an action was a rare activity for soldiers in the Thirty Years' War compared with marching and digging trenches. Subsequently, most of the skeletons show heavy osteoarthrosis. Effects of earlier wounds with bone damage and chronic illnesses (syphilis) were also diagnosed, i.e., the general health of those buried was bad. Artifacts except for bullets were rarely found so it is assumed that the men, stripped of any clothing and equipment items, were buried naked. Rest in peace!

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