Ludwig von Gress
392 years ago to a day a battle took place just outside Prague, on a hill (380m) called White Mountain. In order to save myself time, there is a background, somewhat Protestant biased, from Wikipedia. I trust that by now my readers take Wikipedia with three grains of salt (and 200 ml of tequila):
In the early 17th Century most of the Bohemian estates, though under the dominion of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, had large Protestant populations, and had been granted rights and protections allowing them varying degrees of religious and political freedom. In 1617, as Emperor Matthias lay dying, his cousin Ferdinand – a fiercely devout Catholic and proponent of the Counter-reformation – was named his successor as Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. This led to deep consternation among many Bohemian Protestants, who feared not only the loss of their religious freedom, but also of their traditional semi-autonomy, under which many of the estates had separate, individual constitutions governing their relationship with the Empire, and where the King was elected by the local leaders.
Particularly galling to Protestants were perceived violations of Emperor Rudolf II‘s 1609 Letter of Majesty, which had ensured religious freedom throughout Bohemia. Wanting to air their grievances over this and other issues, a group of Bohemian nobles met with representatives of the Emperor at the royal castle in Prague in May, 1618; the meeting ended with two of the representatives and their scribe being thrown out a high window and seriously injured. This incident – the so-called Second Defenestration of Prague – triggered the Bohemian Revolt.
In November 1619, Elector Palatine Frederick V – like many of the rebels, a Calvinist – was named King of Bohemia by the Bohemian Electorate. In 1620, now fully established as Emperor, Ferdinand II set out to conquer Bohemia and make an example of the rebels. King Frederick and his military commander, Prince Christian of Anhalt, had organized a Protestant army of 30,000 men; Ferdinand countered with a force of 25,000, many of them seasoned soldiers, under the expert leadership of Field Marshal Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, a Catholic Spanish-Flemish nobleman. Tilly’s army enjoyed the advantage of including two of the most successful military leaders in European history- Tilly himself and the future General Wallenstein.
The protestant rebellion, or as described above, the Bohemian Revolt comprised also of aristocrats and burghers in areas now known as Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Germany. The general population, particularly in the countryside, was robbed, raped and murdered by mercenaries on whichever side of religious divide with equanimity. Sometimes the country folks organised themselves in armed resistance to the Protestant soldateska. Revolting peasants also looted monasteries, not already acquired and robbed by Czech Protestant aristocracy and often even those. However, when Austrian count Tsechernebl suggested that the peasants be given the freedom, to get them on the side, the Czech leaders in Prague demurred.
In August 1620 the very same Czech leaders sent a hundred strong deputation, bearing gifts, to the Sultan in Constantinople. They wanted the Muslim help to fight the Christians, i.e. the nasty Catholics. The Sultan accepted the gifts gratefully, immediately forgot about Bohemia and used the proceeds to fight Christian Poland. The valuable gifts could have financed more mercenaries in Bohemia, but …
The Protestant English King James I, a son of Mary Stuart was of as little help as any Muslim. Religion is one thing, but rebeling against a God given king is unforgivable. So Czech rebels only received help in form of two thousand English brigands (the Australian solution to crime was not an option at that time). On the way to Bohemia about half of them was executed or otherwise disposed of for theft, robbery, rape, murder and arson. The remainder of those forefathers of English football hooligans conveniently avoided the Battle of White Mountain by protecting Karlštejn, some 35 km south. Since Karlštejn still stands, they must have been tired.
Enthusiasm for battle was low on both sides. After the reverses of the previous several weeks, Christian of Anhalt’s army had been reduced to about 15,000 men, with little prospect of victory; mercenaries on both sides had not been paid in months; and with Winter approaching, cold, wet weather made for less than ideal combat conditions.
On November 8 a small Catholic force was sent to probe the Protestant flank. To their surprise, the Bohemians retreated at their advance. Tilly quickly sent in reinforcements, and the Bohemian flank began to crumble. Anhalt tried to retrieve the situation by sending forward infantry and cavalry led by his son, Christian II. The cavalry charged into the Imperial infantry, causing significant casualties, but Tilly countered with his own cavalry, forcing the Bohemian horsemen to retire. The Bohemian infantry, who were only now approaching the Imperial army, saw the cavalry retreating, at which they fired one volley at extreme range before retreating themselves. A small group of Imperial cavalry began circling the Protestant forces, driving them to the middle of the battlefield. With the Bohemian army already demoralized, company after company began retreating, most without having actually entered the battle. Tilly and his Imperial cavalrymen advanced with 2,000 Bavarian hussars, steadily pushing Protestant forces back to the Star Palace (just west of Prague), where the rebels tried without success to establish a line of defense.
The Battle of White Mountain was more a skirmish than a full-fledged battle. The Bohemian army was no match for King Ferdinand’s troops. The actual battle lasted only an hour and left the Bohemian army in tatters. Some 4,000 Protestants were killed or captured, while Catholic losses amounted to roughly 700.
Five days later 201 Bohemian aristocrats asked Ferdinand for mercy and promised to be good Catholics and faithful subjects from then on. Hapsburgs ruled for the next three hundred years. The myth of Czechs and Moravians bravely fighting mostly Germanic foreigners is not based on truth. There were Hungarians fighting on Bohemian side and Polish cossacks on the Catholic side. The mercenaries were from all over Europe and only proved Czech involvement was ten artillerymen. Some thirty thousand Czech families emigrated. If, as pointed out by Czech historian Blažej Ráček, each family had sent even only one male to fight, the Battle would have almost certainly ended differently. [Fog of Chaos – Bílá Hora a počátky terorismu v Austrálii]
Which brings us back to the present century and yesterday’s lost battle for the American Presidency. We can expect excuses, more excuses and later myths. Now, as about 400 years ago, those who stayed home bear the blame.
Karel Kryl’s song takes the White Mountain myth for granted. I like the song. Perhaps the heroic myths are more to our liking than heroic actions.