1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 45

Chapter 21


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.