1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 33

Chapter 16

The Saxon plain, near Zwenkau

Mike Stearns was stunned, the first time he saw a battlefield. He’d expected to be stunned — horrified, rather — by the carnage of a battle’s aftermath. What he hadn’t expected was the sheer thrill of the spectacle, before the battle had started.

He’d seen more people gathered in one place before, of course. There were somewhere around fifty thousand men assembling on this field not far from the small town of Zwenkau. Any modern baseball stadium in the United States they’d left behind would hold that many, and some of the biggest football stadiums could hold twice as many.

But except for a tiny number of athletes on the field, almost all of those people would be sitting down. Their most strenuous activity would be getting up to go to the bathroom.

Here, every single one of those fifty thousand men was doing something — and doing it in unison, to boot. Marching into position, riding horses, hauling up artillery. Most of there were moving fairly slowly, but individual couriers were racing all over carrying messages from commanders to their subordinates.

There were pennants and banners flying everywhere and the sound of musical instruments filled the air. Drums and fifes mostly, for the moment. Once the battle started, the brass could come to the fore. Over the din of a battle — so Mike had been told; this would be his first personal experience — about the only instruments which could be heard clearly would be bugles and the like. Torstensson had told him that the Republic of Essen favored bells for the purpose, but Torstensson himself thought they’d be too clumsy.

For the first time, he really understood the remark made by Robert E. Lee at the battle of Fredericksburg. It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it.

That ancient notion of the glory of war had pretty well vanished by the time Mike Stearns had been born. Seeing this incredible display, he understood why. By the end of the nineteenth century, battles had grown so great that they could no longer be encompassed by the human eye and brain. What remained what simply the brutality. Death in the trenches, during the First World War. Skirmishing tactics and maneuvers on a gigantic scale during the Second World War, far too huge for a man to really see what was happening beyond his own small corner of it.

But here in the seventeenth century, a battle still fit in its entirety on a single stage. Mike could see all of it, except for some cavalry units scouting on the margins. Just to complete the picture…

He swiveled in his saddle. The observation balloon Torstensson had brought with the army was hanging in the sky, a mile or so in the rear. The thing was colorfully painted too.

Why not? In the universe Mike had come from, camouflage was an essential part of war. But in this one, military technology was still too primitive. It was more important for a commanding officer to be able to see his troops than for them to be hidden from the enemy. Yes, all units the size of battalions or larger had radios. But the weapons themselves were just coming into the technical range where fighting would have to start taking place at a considerable distance. For a time yet, battlefields would be dominated by men firing in formation.

As for the balloon, why bother camouflaging it when the only other flying objects in the sky were birds? Anyone could and would spot the thing. You might as well make it bright and vivid to improve the morale of your own soldiers.

There should be at least one airplane in that sky, too, but Mike couldn’t see it. Gustav Adolf had taken most of the air force with him into Brandenburg. That was fair enough, since he’d left all of the APCs to the USE army. He’d left one plane behind, though — one of the older Belles — so that Torstensson would have a longer range reconnaissance than the observation balloon could give him.

The plane must be too far away to be spotted. Torstensson had probably ordered it to stay in the vicinity of Dresden. Mike knew that Gustav Adolf had left orders that he wanted John George captured. A reconnaissance plane could hopefully give early warning if the Elector tried to make his escape. Torstensson had two cavalry regiments held in reserve, specifically for the purpose of intercepting the Saxon Elector if he tried to escape into Poland. He’d already sent one of them to circle around Dresden.

Mike turned back to examine the field where the battle would be taking place soon. There were no woods in sight, and only a handful of trees. The terrain very flat except for two rises: one where Torstensson had set up his headquarters; the other, across the field to the east, when von Arnim was presumably stationed. The whole area was farmland.

There wasn’t much left of the crops by now, though, except for a space of about half a mile between the two armies. That area hadn’t been trampled flat yet. It would be soon enough, Mike figured. Fifty thousand men and half as many horses — not to mention artillery balls — would probably turn that area into a wasteland within minutes.

They were no longer oriented directly west to east, in terms of the directions the armies faced. Since the march started at dawn, as he had done for the past two days, Torstensson had continued to move his troops south as well as east. He’d done so in order to force his opponent to come out of Leipzig and meet him on favorable ground. No doubt von Arnim would have preferred to remain in the city and turn a battle into a siege. But by moving around Leipzig to the south, Torstensson had given him no choice. Dresden was not far to the east and whatever else he did, von Arnim was surely under orders from John George to protect the Saxon capital.

There was another advantage to the maneuver, too, Mike now understood. The USE army’s orientation this morning meant that the sun wouldn’t be directly in their eyes when the battle started. That was a small thing, almost any other time. But Mike could see where it would matter during a battle. With bullets and cannonballs flying every which away, the last thing a man wanted to deal with was having to shade his eyes in order to see anything. Which even officers would have to do at least some of time, despite the broad-brimmed hats they favored.

That was Torstensson’s experience showing. Experience which Mike himself lacked.

“There’s more to this general business than meets the eye,” he murmured.

“What was that, sir?” asked Christopher Long, who was writing next to him.

Mike waved his hand. “Just talking to myself.”

Mike had originally intended to use all three of the officers he’d rescued from England to serve as his staff, in addition to Long. But it had become clear to him soon enough that Anthony Leebrick was the only one really suited to the task of being a staff officer. Richard Towson and Patrick Welch were much more comfortable commanding their own units. So Mike had given each of them a battalion. For a staff, in addition to Leebrick and Long, he’d taken on a crusty old German veteran. Ulbrecht Duerr had a generally unpleasant personality and was perhaps more foul-mouthed than any man Mike had ever met. Unusually, for this day and age, he was also given to blasphemy. That perhaps explained why a professional soldier who was well into his fifties and seemed to have been in practically every war fought in Europe for the past four decades was still a colonel.

Mike rather liked the man, though. And he found his advice quite helpful.

Those three were his only immediate staff. He planned to enlarge the staff over time, but wanted to wait until he had a better assessment of the many officers in the Third Division. Most of them were still strangers to him.

One was not, of course. As Mike looked to his right he could see the ranks of the Second Brigade moving forward. Somewhere among them — they should be right about in the middle — was the Black Falcon Regiment, and somewhere in that regiment was its 12th Battalion, now commanded by the newly-promoted Captain Jeff Higgins.

Mike was feeling doubly guilty, today. First, because he’d thrown Jeff into the deep end of the pool by putting him in charge of a battalion. Technically, Brigadier Schuster had made the decision, but Mike had gone along with it.

Secondly, because he was planning to use Jeff as part of the bait.

No, trebly guilty. He also hadn’t told Jeff what he was going to do. He’d been tempted, but from a security standpoint there was really no justification for telling all the battalion commanders what he’d planned for their divisions. He’d told the brigadiers and the regiment commanders, and that was enough. They’d pass along the information to whichever other officers in their units they thought needed to know. Mike was sure that didn’t include mere captains, even if they did command battalions.

Mike had known Jeff since he was a kid. He hadn’t known him well, since they weren’t related and Mike had been a teenager by the time Jeff was born. Still, Grantville was a small town and few of its residents had really been strangers.

And now, he might be responsible for getting him killed.

“Like I said,” he murmured again, “there’s more to this general business than meets the eye. And a lot of it sucks.”

“What was that, sir?” asked Christopher Long.