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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter One

       Last updated: Saturday, August 6, 2016 20:40 EDT




April, 1636

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?

Regensburg, Upper Palatinate

    The march from Regensburg was supposed to have begun at dawn — and so it did, in a manner of speaking. The cavalry patrols had actually passed through the city’s gates before sunrise. Right on schedule.

    But now that he’d been a general for almost a year, Mike Stearns had learned that military time schedules bore precious little resemblance to what he’d considered “punctuality” in those innocent days when he’d been a civilian. In this, as in so many things, Carl von Clausewitz’s old dictum applied. Perhaps better to say, the future dictum, since the man wouldn’t even be born for another century and a half, and then in a different universe.

    By now, Mike had memorized the damn thing: Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.

    He knew Clausewitz’s axiom as well as he knew Murphy’s Law — which applied to military matters even more stringently than it did to the affairs of civilians.

    Civilians. Those happy-go-lucky, carefree, insouciant folk in whose ranks Mike could vaguely remember himself being counted once. Back in those halcyon days when he’d been a coal miner worried about nothing more substantial than methane explosions and roof falls. Or the prime minister of a nation, whose frets over issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, and the schemes and plots of traitors and malcontents had never troubled what he remembered as blissful sleep.

    Pfah. Tell a cabinet member to do something, be it never so problematic and ticklish, and the task would get done — started upon, at least — within the hour.

    Tell an army to do something as simple and straightforward as walk out of a town — just walk, no running required — and move on down the road — fifteen miles, maybe twenty; no more — and you’d be lucky if the ass end of the army made it through the gates by noon. The camp followers coming behind wouldn’t manage the feat until mid-afternoon.

    He could also remember a time when he’d intended to eradicate the pernicious seventeenth century military custom of having camp followers in the first place. He’d been brought up as a stout American lad, watching John Wayne movies. You never saw a mob of camp followers trailing after John Wayne, did you? Sands of Iwo Jima, The Longest Day, The Fighting Seabees — not a camp follower anywhere in sight. Not even in his civil war movie, The Horse Soldiers. For that matter, not even in the movie where he’d portrayed the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, The Conqueror, although Mike wasn’t entirely sure about that. The film had been such a turkey that he’d stopped watching it halfway through. It was possible that a stray camp follower might have wandered across the stage toward the end.

    Not likely, though. And it wasn’t just the movies. Mike had served a three-year stint in the United States Army. That would be the army of the United States of America, long before the Ring of Fire happened.

    Did the U.S. Army have camp followers? Not unless you counted the families living on a military base — but that wasn’t really the same thing at all. When American soldiers went on campaign back up-time, their families stayed behind. They sure as hell didn’t trail after the soldiers like a gigantic caravan.

    Caravan? It was more like a circus train without rails. All that was missing were elephants and a carousel.

    “I’d think you’d have become accustomed to this by now, General.”

    Turning in the saddle, Mike saw that his aide Christopher Long had come up behind him and was now almost alongside.

    “I think a grin like that on an adjutant’s face when addressing his commanding officer is probably a court-martial offense,” Mike said. He wondered if he sounded as sour as he felt. “I still have the occasional daydream about a lightning offensive. We even had a name for it where and when I came from: Blitzkrieg.

    By then, his other aide, Ulbrecht Duerr, had ridden up in time to hear his last sentence.

    “‘Blitzkrieg,’ is it? Lightning war. Ha! No wonder those stupid German descendants of ours lost most of their wars. Went charging out without proper consideration of what it takes to keep the supplies coming.”

    He now looked at Long. “Have you noticed, Christopher, that our commander is always disgruntled at the beginning of a campaign?”

    Long smiled. “Oh, yes. I’ve come to expect it.”

    Mike was about to make some retort but…

    Was it true? What he really that predictable?

    He thought back on previous campaigns.

    Well, maybe. After the first one, anyway. Well. After the first day of the first one.

    “Remind me again why I don’t ban all camp followers,” he said.

    “First, because the men would probably mutiny,” said Duerr. The cheery tone in which he said that was surely a court-martial offense. Court-martialable? Mike wasn’t sure of the proper usage — which just went to show he was still a civilian at heart. Carefree, happy-go-lucky…

    “We’d have to hope they’d mutiny,” added Long, “because if they didn’t, they’d soon enough start dying of hunger or exhaustion or disease — or any combination thereof.”

    “On account of there’d be no one to feed them or keep their clothing reasonably clean,” Duerr continued, still sounding cheery.

    “Or tuck them in at night and sing them lullabies,” Mike grumbled.

    “This sort of bitterness really doesn’t suit a man as young as you are, General. Look at me! Much older than you, I am — not to mention properly scarred in a soldierly manner.”

    He held up a crooked forefinger, which hadn’t healed quite properly after being broken at the Battle of Ostra outside Dresden. Duerr had several scars on his body which were actually more impressive, but they were covered by his uniform — and besides, he was inordinately proud of this one. He’d defeated an enemy cavalryman in hand-to-hand combat even though his injury had forced him to fight left-handed.

    Mike had had his own adventures in that battle, and quite splendid ones at that. He’d had two horses shot out from under him. Not one — two. But he’d come out of it quite unscarred, at least bodily.

    Whether he’d come out of it unscarred mentally as well…

    Too soon to know, he thought. He didn’t think he’d developed PTSD so far, if “developed” was the proper term to use. He’d have to ask Maureen Grady the next time he saw her. She ran the Department of Social Services and was probably — no, almost certainly — the best psychologist in the world.

    Having settled that issue to his momentary satisfaction, he went back to grousing about what really bothered him on this sunny day in April of 1636.

    “Is it really too much to expect an army to move faster than an old lady with a walker?”

    “Is a ‘walker’ something like a cane?” asked Christopher Long. “If so, the answer is ‘yes.’ A competent crone can out-hobble any army in the world.”

    “Taken as a whole,” Duerr qualified. “A detached cavalry unit could certainly run her down. Flying artillery also.”



    Had he cross-checked that last assertion with the commander of the Third Division’s flying artillery, Duerr would have gotten an argument. Lieutenant Colonel Thorsten Engler, normally a calm and phlegmatic officer, was having as close to an apoplectic fit as such a man could manage. He was even swearing a little. At least, by Thorsten Engler values of swearing.

    Only under his breath, though. The actual swearing was being done by a lieutenant whom Thorsten was observing, since it would have been inappropriate for the commanding officer to deal with the problem directly.



    “You — you miserable cruds.” Angrily, the young lieutenant pointed at the wagon’s undercarriage. “What in the name of — of — whatever — is wrong with you? Can’t you see that the axle is broken? If you keep forcing the horses you’ll lame one of them. You have to lift the dam — blasted thing out of the ditch.”

    The lieutenant was being a bit unfair — and certainly too harsh. It was true that the crew of the volley gun which was the focus of his displeasure had somehow managed to run their gun carriage into a ditch and had then broken the axle while trying to get it out. But they were almost brand new recruits, not one of Engler’s experienced crews. Judging from the way they were handling the poor horses, all of them were town youngsters to boot.

    Thorsten’s rank was brand spanking new and he was still trying to adjust to his new status and position. General Stearns had only informed him three days before the march began that he’d succeeded in persuading the Powers-That-Be in the army’s headquarters in Magdeburg — translation: he’d done an end run around the brass and gotten the emperor’s ear directly — to assign the newest flying artillery company — just graduated from training camp, oh joy — to Stearns’ Third Division instead of sending it to Torstensson’s forces outside Poznan. (What possible use is flying artillery in a siege, after all?)

    In his wisdom, Stearns had then decided to detach Engler’s flying artillery company from the Hangman Regiment and put Engler in charge of all the Third Division’s flying artillery units. That being one very experienced veteran company — his — and the newly arrived pack of mewling infants who seemed to have trouble telling one end of a volley gun from the other and one end of a horse from the other.

    Where had they trained them? At sea? On fishing boats?

    There was one — minor — positive note. Thorsten had given all the new officers a lecture on the subject of avoiding undue coarseness in dealing with enlisted men. He was pleased to see that the lieutenant was doing his best to follow the guidelines.

    “Yes, you heard me, you — you — soldiers and I use the term broadly. Lift the carriage out of the ditch. No, no, no — after you unload the volley gun, you — you –”

    The words trailed off, partly from exhaustion — not physical but mental. Spiritual, almost.

    To make things perfect, Stearns had decided to call the new formation a “squadron” — the only squadron in the USE Army — and had promoted Engler to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The promotion was itself problematic. In part because he’d been leapfrogged over a number of majors at least some of whom were bound to be resentful. More importantly — Thorsten didn’t really care what envious thoughts might be infecting the odd officer here and there — because the rank of lieutenant colonel did not officially exist in the USE Army.

    True, Jeff Higgins, the commanding officer of the Hangman Regiment, held the rank as well.

    That made two of them. In the entire army. Marvelous. Should the military hierarchy — translation: pack of wretched bureaucrats who’d put the most hidebound theologian to shame when it came to dogmatic enforcement of regulations — eventually decide to disqualify Thorsten’s service on the grounds that he held no recognized rank, then should he be discharged due to injuries received he’d have neither a pension nor a valid disability claim.

    Fine for Higgins to face such a plight. He was now a rich man thanks to the vagaries of the new stock market. Engler, on the other hand, was just a farmer with no farm whose betrothed had the income of a social worker — which was almost as mediocre in this universe as the one she’d come from.

    One of the members of the gun crew slipped as they struggled to lift the carriage out of the ditch. Not surprising, really — it had rained the day before and the soil was still rather muddy. Thorsten was inclined to be charitable about the matter even if one of the wheels hadn’t broken as a result. The carriage was now effectively ruined.

    The lieutenant was not so inclined.

    “You — you — you — ”



    Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Higgins, on the other hand, was in a fairly good mood. A bit to his surprise —#8212; certainly to his pleasure — his new adjutant Manfred Blecher was proving to be every bit as competent as Eric Krenz, who’d formerly held the post.

    Not as much fun, true — not nearly as much fun, being honest. Blecher wasn’t exactly a dour fellow but no one would ever mistake him for the life of the party. But Jeff would gladly settle for competence. He was by now accustomed to running an entire regiment, but it was still a task that was made much easier by having an energetic and intelligent staff, even if it was only a staff of three people: Blecher, who served as what the navy would call an executive officer, and Rudi Bayer and Ulrich Leitner. They were, respectively, in charge of personnel and logistics.

    The weather was nice, too. There weren’t but a few clouds in the sky and almost no wind. That probably meant there wouldn’t be any rain today, which would give the soil a chance to dry out from the rains of the past week. Thankfully, those hadn’t been particularly heavy.

    Jeff could remember a time — a bit vaguely now, almost five years after the Ring of Fire — when he’d had accurate weather forecasts readily available on what amounted to a moment’s notice. But he didn’t really think much about that, any more. The seventeenth century was what it was, and all things considered he wasn’t a bit sorry to be in the here and now. His wife Gretchen was enough to make up for everything he’d left behind — and then some.

    He would admit to occasionally missing Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. They did have ice cream now, true. But it was a long way short of Cherry Garcia.

    Best of all, on this first day of what was shaping up to be a fairly brutal campaign — nobody took Bavarian armies lightly in the here and now — Jeff finally had a cavalry force he had a lot of confidence in.

    Cavalry had always been the biggest weakness of the new USE Army, and of the Third Division in particular. A very high percentage of cavalrymen came from the nobility and most noblemen weren’t any too fond of the new political dispensation. Not in general — and certainly not when it came to the person of Mike Stearns, whom they blamed more than anyone.

    So, they’d had to make do with what they could scrape up. But here again, as with the beefed-up flying artillery, Stearns’ stature with Gustav II Adolf since the Saxon and Polish campaigns the year before and the Battle of Ostra in February had paid dividends. He’d been able to persuade the emperor to free up some of the cavalry assigned to Torstensson’s two divisions at Poznan and send them to join the Third Division in the Bavarian campaign.

    Jeff would have been glad to get any experienced cavalry force. But to put the cherry on the cake, the emperor had sent them Alex Mackay and his unit of Scots horsemen. After Mackay had recovered from the wound he’d gotten in Scotland from would-be assassins, he’d rejoined the Swedish army and participated in the invasion of Poland the year before.

    Now, he and his men had swapped uniforms and were part of the USE army’s Third Division. They were out there patrolling ahead, making sure there weren’t any Bavarians lurking about intending to commit mischief. Jeff figured they’d all be able to sleep easy for a few nights.

    Not many, of course. War was what it was also.

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