Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hakkapeliitta: Thirty Years' War and the Rise of Sweden

Hakkapeliittas in a 1940 Finnish Stamp
The early 17th century became a period of war and religious divide. Central and Eastern Europe became the battlefield of two sides of Christianity. A bold and innovative Swedish King joined the fight and showed his Kingdom’s new military capability. With new tactics, he amazed the world. His soldiers also became fabled. Among his warriors were cavalrymen from the icy terrains of Finland. They were known as the Hakkapeliittas.

The Hakkapeliittas or Hackapells were the famous cavalry units of Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus during the bloody and long Thirty Years’ War. Made of men and horses from the then Swedish province of Finland, they were recruited to join the army and fight in the battles in Germany and Poland. There, they earned a reputation as brave and brutal warriors along with their famous cry: Hakkaa paalle or hack them down. A cry which brought fear and their name.

The Hakkapeliitta were made famous by the Thirty Years’ War. It was a war of politics and religion. By the entry of the 1600’s, Europe was divided religiously. Catholics against the Protestants. The religious conflict escalated into political division when many states began to adopt Protestant ideals. The Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, the political master of Central Europe, saw himself as the defender of the Catholic faith. The position of Holy Roman Emperor, which he held, came from the papacy itself dating back the Medieval Ages. In 1618, Ferdinand began to march his army against the Protestant German states, reclaiming them in the name of Catholicism. Other major Protestant power saw the need to defend their fellow Protestants from the influence and power of the Holy Roman Emperor. Great Britain and the Dutch Republic joined with several German Protestant States to fight the Holy Roman Empire. Then, although majority Catholic, France joined the Protestants to fight the Holy Roman Emperor for political reasons. The Holy Roman Emperor ruled Spain also. Thus, if Ferdinand II consolidated his control in the west, France would be encircled in continental Europe. The religious conflict developed into a full scale continental war.

In 1629, the victory of the Holy Roman Emperor seemed imminent. Most of the Protestant German states were taken by the Imperial Army and the Dutch and their allies gained loses in their battles against Emperor Ferdinand’s army. The Protestants, however, saw hope when a brave king from the Baltic Kingdom of Sweden intervened and landed his forces in Germany. Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden and a military innovator, joined the fight against the Holy Roman Empire in 1630.

Gustavus Adolphus was military genius during his time. He adapted his army to the new technologies of cannons and guns. He revised the tercio formation of Spain and made it more efficient. Another change he made was in the use of cavalry. He began to rely in fast moving light cavalry units to attack the enemy lines. And among these light cavalry units, none done it better than the celebrated Hakkapeliittas.

The Hakkapeliittas were a unit of Finnish cavalry men serving under Sweden. Back then, Finland was part of the Swedish Kingdom. And like other provinces, it also provided additional troops for the army. In the early 1620’s four companies of Hakkapeliittas were formed. Later on, it grew to 24 companies by 1628. Each hakkapeliitta companies were assigned into different garrisons in different provinces. All of the hakkapeliittas were placed under the command of the Colonel of the Finnish Cavalry or an Overste. By the time of Sweden’s entry to the Thirty Years’ War, under the command of Colonel Torsten Stalhandske, twelve companies of Hakkapeliittas joined King Gustavus Adolphus in his campaign in Germany.

The Hakkapeliittas were light and looked funny in the eyes of the Imperial commanders. They wore breastplates and helmets. They were armed with carbines and two pistols. Then, they had sabers for close quarter combat. The Finnish horses of the Hakkapeliitas were small compared to their German counterparts. Imperial army General did not take them seriously because of the small horses. Soon, they were proven wrong.

The Swedish Army then displayed their new formidable capabilities in 1631 during the Battle of Breitenfeld. The commander of the Imperial Army, Count Johan de Tilly, laughed at the sights of the Finnish horses in the battlefield. But later on, as the battle progressed, he was proven wrong. The Hakkapeliittas had horses that were small but terrible. The horses were fast and highly maneuverable. In the battle, they prove their worthiness during a charge against the flank of the Imperial Army.

The Hakkapeliittas used their famous tactic with Finnish characteristic of savagery and tenacity. They charged the enemy and fired their carbines and pistols towards their enemy. They cried the famous lines: Hakkaa paalle or cut them down! When they came contact with the enemy they used their swords and sabers and slashed their enemy to pieces. They left no quarter for their enemies.

After Breitenfeld, they fought many more battles for Sweden. In 1632, 500 Hakkapeliittas fought in the Battle of Lutzen. In 1633, they fought in the Battle of Oldendorf. The Hakkapeliittas, with their speed and mobility, served also as ambush and raiding units. They attack small units and disrupted supply lines of the enemy. They fought hard alongside King Gustavus Adolphus. And King Gustavus Adolphus then earned a lot thanks to his army and his Hakkapeliittas. His victories earned him the title Lion of the North.

Meanwhile, the Hakkapeliittas became also well known throughout Europe. A Scotish Mercenary labelled them as cold blooded and offered no quarters. A German cleric described them in agmen horribile haccapellitorum. Depicting the terrifying presence of the advancing hakkapeliittas. Soldiers in the Imperial Army told tales of hakkapeliittas having strange magical skills of crossing rivers with no bridges or the skill to change the weather to their favor. The Hakkapeliittas became a stuff of legend throughout the war.

The Hakkapeliittas was a well-known unit from Finland that showed bravery and brought fear to their enemies. Their prowess as horsemen in war contributed to the rise of the Sweden as a major power during and after the Thirty Years War. They displayed the ideals of King Gustavus Adolphus for a fast moving shock troops in the battlefield. In Finland, they became celebrated warriors in its military history. The March of the Hakkapeliittas is one of the well-known marching songs of the Finnish Army. The name itself is used to promote tire products. They also became recognized in many computer games. The Hakkapeliittas galloped their way to glory in war and to pages of history as one of the notorious and celebrated military units of all time.

Brzezinski, R. Lutzen 1632: Climax of the Thirty Years War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001.

Scott, R. B. & N. Gaukroger. Clash of Empires: Eastern Europe, 1494 – 1698. Oxford: Osprey, 2011.

Wilson, P. The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy. London: Penguin Group, 2009.

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