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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Twenty One
Last updated: Tuesday, November 15, 2016 06:54 EST
Six miles east of Zolling
For Jeff Higgins and his Hangman Regiment, the second day of the Battle of Zolling started off well and kept going that way — as of eleven o’clock in the morning, at any rate. The 1st Brigade’s commander, von Taupadel, had ordered the Hangman to take positions well inside the town itself and fortify them. If von Taupadel’s three regiments found themselves forced to retreat from their positions on the western outskirts of Moosburg, he wanted them to be able to retreat to the east of the town while being covered by the entrenched Hangman.
Moosburg hadn’t been badly hit by cannon fire, so the Hangman had to build the fortifications partly by tearing down otherwise-undamaged buildings. Jeff felt a bit of guilt over that, but not much. Bavarian troops — more precisely, troops employed by the duke of Bavaria; most of them weren’t Bavarian themselves — had conducted themselves in such a foul manner for years that none of their opponents had any empathy for them or the realm that paid them. Jeff Higgins and most of the soldiers in his regiment understood on some abstract level that the average inhabitant of Bavaria had no control over the actions of Duke Maximilian or the forces he put in the field. That understanding was probably enough to restrain them from committing atrocities against civilians they encountered — of whom there had been a few, including one entire family hiding in a cellar, whom they’d escorted safely out of town. But they would have had to possess a superhuman level of restraint to extend that same mercy to buildings as well. And if that meant that eventually the residents of Moosburg would return and discover that their homes and businesses had been partially or fully wrecked, so be it. Better that, than a righteous and upstanding soldier in the righteous and upstanding army of the righteous and upstanding United States of Europe should have his brains spilled by a musket ball because he hadn’t possessed sufficiently adequate cover when the foul minions of the still-fouler duke of Bavaria launched their assault.
Which they did, right at sunup. But — so far, at least; it was still short of noon — the 1st Brigade was standing its ground. So, the worst that the Hangman faced was some hard labor and suffering some minor casualties: one man’s helmet dented and his senses sent reeling by a canister ball; one man’s cheek sliced open by a piece of splintered stone sent flying by an errant cannon ball; and one man’s leg broken by the collapse of part of a wall that the same cannon ball struck and from which the splinter derived — but it was just his fibula, and a clean break at that.
Bavaria, on the Isar river between Moosburg and Freising
Thorsten Engler had found the night that had just passed rather nerve-wracking, and the following morning had been even worse. He’d decided to have his flying artillery squadron use the ford to cross over the river and establish themselves on the north bank. They’d had no time before sundown to erect fieldworks, however, and he hadn’t wanted to risk doing so thereafter. The moon was almost full but the visibility still wasn’t good enough for soldiers to work.
Besides, Thorsten didn’t want a lot of noise, and there was no quiet way to cut down enough trees to build a bridge big enough for thousands of infantrymen and artillery units to cross over. There had been no sign as yet that they’d been spotted by any Bavarian forces and he wanted to keep things that way. So, once the squadron crossed the river and took positions he had sentries posted and ordered the rest of the men to get some sleep.
They started work just before sunrise, as soon as there was enough daylight to see what they were doing. They were still be making noise, of course, but hopefully the sounds of the battle on the Amper would drown it out. While they worked, Mackay and his cavalrymen maintained patrols that would warn them of any approaching enemies.
There were none, thankfully. Without an infantry shield, Engler and his volley gunners were at a terrible risk. Flying artillery had tremendous offensive power, especially against cavalry. But if they had to go on defense they were more vulnerable than just about any military force. They lacked the ability of infantry to hunker down in defensive positions. A man can fit into a foxhole or a trench or hide behind a tree or even a fencepost; a volley gun and its crew can’t. And they didn’t have the ability of cavalry to just ride away from danger. Volley gun carriages were too clumsy to make good getaway vehicles, and while the horses could be detached and ridden, they had no saddles. There were precious few gunners who could stay on a galloping horse which he was trying to ride bareback.
So, the volley gunners worked like demons until the fieldworks were finally erected, a little after eight o’clock in the morning. Thereafter, they could relax a bit — physically, at least, if not mentally. With the rate of fire experienced volley gun crews could maintain, and fighting behind shelter, they would be extraordinarily hard to overrun unless they ran out of ammunition — and that wouldn’t happen for hours.
By then, of course, the enemy could move up their own light artillery units and once they began firing the squadron would be forced back across the river. Even three-inch guns and six-pounders would quickly reduce the fieldworks they’d been able to erect.
But by then, the bridge would be finished. Unless the 1st Brigade and the Hangman at Moosburg collapsed entirely, forcing Stearns to bring back the other two brigades, the lead infantry regiments from the 2nd and 3rd brigades would have made it to the ford and begun crossing the Isar as well. Thorsten and his engineers had designed the flying artillery’s fieldworks so that some infantry units could take places immediately while other units expanded the fieldworks down either side of the riverbank. By nightfall of that second day of the battle, they’d have a well-nigh impregnable position on the north side of the Isar.
Bavaria, the Isar river
About two miles northeast of Moosburg
Mike Stearns was feeling fairly nerve-wracked himself, a sensation he found particularly aggravating because he was so unaccustomed to it. As a rule, he didn’t worry overmuch. He didn’t have the fabled temperament of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman — What, me worry? — but he had been blessed with very steady nerves and a sanguine disposition. Since he’d been a boy, his operating assumption as he went about his life’s affairs was that things were generally going to work out well, if for no other reason than that he’d damn well see to it that they did.
Perhaps for that reason, he’d never spent much time gambling. He enjoyed an occasional night of low-stakes poker, but simply because of the social interaction. Before the Ring of Fire, he’d been to Las Vegas twice, on his way to Los Angeles and on his way back. He’d fiddled with the slot machines for a while, on his first trip, more out of mild curiosity than anything else. On his second and final visit, he’d spent about an hour at a blackjack table, despite the fact that he found that particular card game quite boring. He’d done it from a vague sense of obligation that since he’d taken the time to pass through Las Vegas he owed it to someone — maybe himself, maybe the goddess of luck, who could say? — to do some Real Gambling.
So, gamble he had, losing about fifteen dollars in the process. When he walked away from the table he didn’t mind having lost the money but he did mildly regret the waste of his time.
The problem with gambling, from Mike’s point of view, was that a person was voluntarily placing himself at the vagaries of chance. That just seemed monumentally stupid to him. No one except a hermit could get through life without at one point or another — usually more than once — giving up hostages to fortune. But it was one thing to have your destiny kidnapped by forces beyond your control, it was another thing entirely to go looking for the bastards so you could hand yourself over to them.
He felt firmly — had felt firmly — that there were only two circumstances when a person should do anything that rash: when you got married, and when you had children. Even then, the degree to which your fortunes were no longer in your own hands was restricted. You did, after all, get to pick your spouse, so if the marriage turned out sour it was mostly your own screw-up. And you did, after all, occupy the parent half of the parent-child equation, so if your kids wound up being dysfunctional, you were probably the main culprit involved.
And now, on May 15 of the year 1636, Mike Stearns was realizing that he’d just made the biggest gamble of his life. True, he’d thought and still did that the odds were in the Third Division’s favor. Pretty heavily in the division’s favor, in fact. Nevertheless
There was a chance that the 1st Brigade might collapse under the pressure of the Bavarian assault that had been going on since the day before. Yes, the brigade was a good one, full of veterans of the Saxon campaign, some of whom had been at Ahrensbök as well. True also, they were fighting on the defensive behind solid fieldworks and could always retreat into Moosburg if necessary. True as well, they had the Hangman regiment — probably the division’s best — in reserve.
They were still heavily outnumbered, and facing an army that was also largely made up of veterans and with an experienced and capable commander. So it was a gamble.
If the 1st Brigade collapsed, Mike’s whole battle plan went up in smoke. He’d have no choice but to bring the rest of his division back across the Isar in the hope that he could keep von Taupadel and Higgins and their men from being slaughtered. Whether he could do that in time
Was another gamble, and one with fairly long odds against success. That was the reason he’d decided to stay at the ford on the Isar just downstream of Moosburg, while he sent the 3rd Brigade and most of the 2nd Brigade up the river to find the ford that Colonel Engler was holding for them. Mike was keeping the Gray Adder regiment with him, to provide cover for the 1st Brigade if they needed to retreat from Moosburg and cross over the Isar.
That would leave the entire Third Division strung out for miles along the banks of the Isar, from the ford below Moosburg to the ford between Moosburg and Freising. Strategically that would leave him with a mess, since he’d be on the wrong side of the river for an assault on Munich. But if the 1st Brigade was broken at Moosburg he’d have a much more pressing tactical mess on his hands, and the fact that most of his forces would now be across the river from Piccolomini’s army would put them in a good defensive position. With Heinrich Schmidt coming south with the SoTF National Guard, Mike was sure that Piccolomini wouldn’t risk making an assault on the Third Division across the river. He’d just withdraw up the north bank of the Isar and take up defensive positions at Freising or somewhere south of there.
So Mike wasn’t likely to face a disaster no matter what happened. But if his plans failed, he’d have led his army into a pointless and brutal killing field due to his own over-confidence. Jimmy Andersen and hundreds of other soldiers would wind up in graves whose headstones might as well read Here lies a good man, killed because his commanding general was a cocksure jackass.
Maybe the worst of it was that Mike might kill hundreds more of his men because he was still gambling like a cocksure jackass.
He’d know by nightfall, one way or the other.
Bavaria, on the Isar river between Moosburg and Freising
Thorsten Engler didn’t think he’d ever in his life felt quite as much relief as he did while watching Colonel Amsel’s Dietrich Regiment coming across the bridge onto the north bank of the Isar. Within minutes, the infantrymen were taking positions behind the fieldworks that the flying artillery had hurriedly set up.
And, naturally, complaining bitterly that the fieldworks were just the sort of ramshackle crap that you’d expect lazy and pampered artillerymen to set up, while the infantry set about correcting all that was wrong, subtracting all that was useless, and adding almost everything that would actually do any good if it came to a real fight.
Very satisfying for them it was, no doubt — and the flying artillery couldn’t have cared less. Insults from infantrymen were of no more moment than mist in the morning or the chattering of tiny rodents. Who cared?
What Thorsten did care about was that by the time the Dietrich Regiment had taken positions and the Lynx Regiment began coming across, there was no longer any realistic prospect that the Bavarians could overwhelm the flying artillery even if they did finally arrive in force. Which —
They still hadn’t. In fact, so far as Thorsten could determine, the Bavarians remained completely unaware that the Third Division had — in almost the literal sense of the term — stolen a march on them.
That blissful ignorance — blissful for the Third Division, at any rate — ended a little after noon. Alex Mackay, accompanied by a small party of his cavalrymen, came cantering across a field toward the new fieldworks. By the time he arrived, both Thorsten and Brigadiers Derrflinger and Schuster had ridden out to meet him.
“They finally spotted us,” Mackay reported, twisting in his saddle and gesturing to the rear with his hat. He did so in the effortless manner of someone who’d been riding horses since he was a boy and had been a cavalryman his entire adult life.
“We encountered a Bavarian cavalry patrol about half a mile back. There was no clash, though. Clearly enough they’d already spotted your fieldworks. As soon as they saw us they took off. They’ll be giving a report to Piccolomini within the hour.”
“All good things come to an end,” said Thorsten. His tone was philosophical, however. By then, the Lynx Regiment had extended the fieldworks further down the Isar in both directions, a good half of the Yellow Marten regiment had crossed the bridge and the White Horse Regiment had arrived and was waiting its turn.
They’d be waiting for a while, though, because the field artillery units were also arriving and Derfflinger and Schuster were both determined to get them across the Isar as soon as the Yellow Marten finished its crossing.
Derfflinger took off his hat. He did so neither to point with it nor to give his head some respite — the temperature was quite pleasant that day — but to swat away some insects. The advantage to riding a horse was that it rested a man’s legs; the disadvantage was that the great beasts invariably attracted pests.
“It looks as if the general’s gamble will pay off,” he said. “Between you and me and the flies, I had some doubts for a while there.”
“Never a dull day in the Third Division,” said Schuster agreeably. The statement was patently ridiculous — the Third Division had as many days of tedium and routine as armies always did. But all four men gathered there just north of the Isar understood the sentiment.
Just west of Moosburg
“You’re certain, captain?” Piccolomini demanded. “Absolutely certain?”
The cavalry officer nodded firmly. “We got a very good look at them, General. We were there for at least five minutes before their cavalry patrol spotted us.” He nodded toward the slip of paper in Piccolomini’s hand. “I made those notes right there on the spot, sir. There’s a lot of guesswork, I grant you, but I’m positive about the essence of the report. The enemy has several thousand men on the north bank of the Isar.
He gestured toward the southwest. “About three, maybe four miles that way, sir. Not too far from the village of Langenbach.”
Piccolomini squinted in the direction the man was pointing. The narrowed eyes weren’t due to sunlight, of which precious little made its way into the interior of the tavern, but to thought.
Not much thought, however. It was now quite obvious what Stearns had done. He’d trusted in the forces he’d left in Moosburg to hold the Bavarian army at bay while he made a forced march, forded two rivers — or rather, forded the Isar in both directions — in order to place most of his troops across Piccolomini’s line of retreat.
The maneuver was bold to the point of being foolhardy. Piccolomini would never have even considered it, himself.
But blind luck or not, the maneuver had succeeded in its purpose. Piccolomini now had no choice but to retreat south of Freising — and he’d have to do so in a forced march himself, in order to skirt the forces Stearns had gotten across the river.
Grimly, he contemplated his options. They were not good. After fighting hard for two days, his men had suffered a lot of casualties. Not as many as the Third Division — although today’s fighting had evened the score quite a bit, since the Bavarians had been the ones fighting on the offensive. But between those losses and the rigors of a forced march which would last at least two days, Piccolomini knew perfectly well that his men wouldn’t be able to fight another battle a few days from now at Freising.
They might be “able,” but they certainly wouldn’t be willing. His men were all mercenaries and they’d be disgruntled. Already were disgruntled, he didn’t doubt. Piccolomini could and certainly would claim that he’d won a tactical victory here at Zolling. But mercenaries didn’t care much about such ways of scoring victories and losses. They’d fought — fought hard — and bled a lot, and a number of them had died. And what did they have to show for it?
Nothing beyond a march back to Munich, the same city they’d marched out of just a few days before. They’d be sullen, and Duke Maximilian — whose temper was always unpredictable these days — might very well discharge Piccolomini before they even reached Bavaria’s capital.
So be it. Piccolomini had probably burned his bridges with the Austrians when he’d accepted Maximilian’s offer, but there was still Spain. With all the turmoil their cardinal-now-pope Borja had stirred up in Italy, there were bound to be employment opportunities.
Perhaps France, though With this new King Gaston on the throne and what looked like a possible civil war in the making
“What are your orders, General?”
Pulling himself out of his ruminations, Piccolomini looked around and saw that most of his adjutants had gathered around by now. He tossed the slip of paper onto the table in the middle of the tavern.
“We have to retreat. Back to Munich. Make sure the ford we’ve used is well-defended. I doubt if the USE forces in Moosburg will make a sally, but it’s always possible. Once we’re back across the Amper –”
On his way out of the tavern, Piccolomini stopped for a moment to study the leather strip someone had used to repair the door.
Then, shook his head. “He just got lucky, that’s all,” he muttered to himself, and went to find his horse.
Wondering, all the while, whether he really believed it.
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