Book Review: Alexander Leslie and the Scottish Generals of the Thirty Years War

alexander leslieIf y’all are getting sick of endless reviews of military histories, I do apologize, though I have no plans to stop in the foreseeable future. I just like this kind of stuff. That being said, this book, a rather academic tome by Alexia Grosjean and Steve Murdoch, was a somewhat less than thrilling experience.

But that’s okay, because it accomplished what it set out to do, which was provide greater understanding of the role of the Scottish soldier in 17th-century European warfare. The Thirty Years War was known for its use of mercenaries, but among this diverse group, the Scots stood out in the sheer numbers and status of troops provided.

PD-ART via Wikipedia Commons

Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven PD-ART

Grosjean and Murdoch follow the career of Alexander Leslie, a Field Marshal in the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years War. Though he attained the highest rank, other Scots such as James King, Patrick Ruthven and Robert Douglas distinguished themselves as well. Leslie was one of eighteen Scots who attained the rank of major general or higher during the war. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these served Sweden, whose military meritocracy provided an excellent path for social and career advancement.

Murdoch and Grosjean explain at some length how the feuding, militaristic culture of Scotland contributed to the creation of so much talent. Different regions of Scotland fostered different military skills, though nearly all of them were geared toward infantry or artillery. A complex web of kin and clan relations extended to the overseas Scots and played an important role in unit cohesion and individual promotion.

Field Marshal Johan Baner PD-Art via Wikipedia Commons

Field Marshal Johan Baner
PD-Art via Wikipedia Commons

In this work, the role Scottish soldiers played in the armies of Sweden, the Dutch Republic and France are explored in the most detail, and the analysis shows that often, their contributions were played down or overlooked. Some of this was intentional, as when Swedish Field Marshal Banér minimized the role of Leslie and other Scots at the Battle of Wittstock, being notoriously jealous of sharing glory with anyone.

And some of this was a function of personal modesty as a common trait of Scottish Calvinists. Leslie never went out of his way to make himself look good, or shied away from giving someone else credit when it was due. There is also the ongoing issue of confusing and incomplete accounts of battles during that time period, which still leave contemporary historians sorting out a lot of details.

Leslie and many others paused their involvement in Europe with the outbreak of the Bishop’s War in Scotland and the following English Civil War. While Leslie led the Army of the Covenant that fought on the side of Parliament, one of his closest friends and colleagues, James King, supported the Royalists (as did the Ruthvens, father and son). Their friendship survived anyway, and they continued to work together and support each other as the fighting continued in Europe afterward.

The authors bring the same critical eye to the Civil War battles and show how inaccurately Scottish contributions were portrayed at key battles like Edgehill and Marston Moor. In addition, they give lie to the belief that Scottish involvement in Europe ended with the English Civil War. In fact, the opposite was the case. At the end of the  Thirty Years War, both France and the Dutch Republic had full-strength Scottish brigades, while twenty-three Scottish colonels commanded regiments of the Swedish Army.

The authors leave little doubt that the Scottish contribution to warfare in this time was highly significant. Unfortunately for the casual history reader, this means a lot of time spent going over very detailed information proving the presence and actions of one Scottish officer or another. Mostly not very exciting. It doesn’t help that everyone seemed to be named Douglas and Campbell. All the same, it was very informative and a highly up-to-date look at the state of early modern warfare.

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9 comments on “Book Review: Alexander Leslie and the Scottish Generals of the Thirty Years War
  1. calensariel says:

    (Scottish Calvinists with personal modesty… Sounds like the CRC we went to. Grin) Girl, you should have just become a history professor!

  2. Natalie K. says:

    Sick of reviews of history books? That’s never going to happen with me! 🙂 Keep up writing these—this era is out of the scope of what I focused on (late Imperial and Soviet Russia), so I really like learning about this. 😀

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