1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 56
The motion of our human blood
The south bank of the Odra river, near Zielona Gora
“I don’t want a repeat of what happened in Swiebodzin, Captain Higgins. If you have to, shoot somebody. If that doesn’t work, shoot a lot of somebodies. Shoot as many as it takes until they cease and desist. Is that understood?”
Mike Stearns was still icily furious, as he’d been for the last two days. Jeff had never seen him in such a state of mind.
Swiebodzin had been hideous, though, sure enough. Some of the Finnish auxiliary cavalry that Gustav Adolf had attached to the Third Division had run amok once they got into the town and got their hands on some of the local vodka, the stuff they called “bread wine.” They started sacking the town, with the atrocities that went with it. To make things worse, a couple of companies from an infantry battalion joined in. By the time Mike was able to put a stop to it, half the town had burned down and at least three dozen Polish civilians had been murdered and that many women had been raped. Nine of the dead were children. So were six of the raped girls, including one who was not more than eight years old.
There’d been about twenty of the rioting soldiers who’d been too stupid or too drunk to hide once order starting getting restored. Mike’s way of disciplining those soldiers caught in the act had shocked the entire division. He’d had them tied to a wooden fence in a nearby pasture and executed by volley gun batteries at what amounted to point blank range. There hadn’t been a single intact corpse left. They’d just gathered up all the pieces and shoved them into a mass grave.
Some of the Finns started to fight back, but Mike soon put a stop to that also. He had his own cavalry now, and they weren’t fond of the Finns to begin with. Eight of the Finns were killed outright, and about forty deserted. Mike didn’t bother to chase them. A few dozen light cavalrymen simply couldn’t survive for very long in a countryside that was as hostile as western Poland. Sooner or later they’d have no choice but to turn themselves in to one of the army units. Of course, they’d choose one of Gustav Adolf’s Swedish regiments rather than returning to the USE Third Division. But Mike would deal with that problem when the time came.
The reason the Third Division now had its own cavalry regiment was because Gustav Adolf had decided to march into Poland in six different columns. Dividing his forces like that was risky, of course, but he hadn’t really had much choice given that he was determined to move quickly. Marching fifty thousand men through country that had no travel routes except dirt roads and cow trails made spreading out a necessity. Gustav Adolf figured he could take the risk because the six columns were close enough to be able to reinforce each other fairly quickly.
The northernmost column was made up of units representing about half of his own Swedish forces, under the command of Heinrich Matthias von Thurn. That column’s mission was to invest the town of Gorzow from the north, while Wilhelm V and his Hesse-Kassel army would approach Gorzow along the south bank of the Warta River, one of the tributaries of the Oder. Between them, they should be able to take the town. A large part of the population was Lutheran and Gustav Adolf thought they’d be happy to switch sides.
Gustav Adolf himself led the third column, marching south of Hesse-Kassel. That army consisted of the rest of the Swedish army — and all of the APCs. Gustav Adolf’s column was going straight for Poznan, the principal city in western Poland. “Going straight,” that is, insofar as the terrain allowed. Like most of Poland, the area was quite flat. But it was also quite wet, with lots of winding streams; and while it didn’t have the profusion of lakes characteristic of northeast Poland it still had a fair number.
Thankfully, they were mostly little ones. Still, one of the things Mike’s short experience as a general had taught him was the geographic variation on Clausewitz’s dictum. Terrain that doesn’t look too tough is a lot tougher than it looks when you have to move ten thousand men through it. And keep them in some reasonable semblance of order. And provide them with a secure and hopefully dry place to sleep at night, with proper sanitation. And feed them. And do all that while being prepared at any moment to fight the enemy.
Gustav Adolf had put himself in charge of that middle column because he was sure that Koniecpolski would have to defend Poznan. So he would come straight at him while Torstensson and two of the USE army’s three divisions would approach Poznan from the southwest.
That left Mike in charge of the sixth and southernmost column. His job was to take and hold Zielona Gora, thereby providing the Swedish and USE forces with a secure southern anchor. Zielona Gora would also serve later as the base for moving down the Odra to take Wroclaw.
The area they were operating in was a border region that, over the centuries, had been controlled at various times by Poland, Brandenburg and Austria. In the timeline the Americans came from, it might well have been in German hands at this time. Many of these border cities had converted to Lutheranism and gotten out from under Polish Catholic control.
In the here and now, however, Poland had taken advantage of the CPE and later the USE’s preoccupation with internal affairs and the war against the League of Ostend to reassert its authority over the area. Brandenburg had tacitly acquiesced, probably because George William had figured he might someday need Polish support. The border between Polish and German lands now ran along the Oder-Neisse line just as it had in Mike’s universe after World War II. The Odra was completely within Polish territory and Breslau was back to being Wroclaw.
Gustav Adolf didn’t expect Stearns would run into severe opposition. Koniecpolski had fewer forces than Gustav Adolf did, and he’d be hard-pressed to detach any large force to come to the assistance of Zielona Gora. In essence, the king of Sweden had given Mike the easiest and most straightforward assignment. But in order for him to carry out that assignment, Torstensson had had to give Mike one of his cavalry regiments, so he wouldn’t be operating blind. The weather was erratic enough this time of year that the Air Force’s ability to fly reconnaissance missions couldn’t always be counted on.
“Is that understood, Captain Higgins?” Mike repeated.
Jeff nodded. “Yes, sir. But… ah…”
Mike waited, with a cocked eyebrow.
Jeff took a deep breath. “Why me, Mike? Ah, sir.”
For the first time since Jeff had arrived at the Third Division’s field headquarters, Mike’s expression lightened a little. Not much, but Jeff was still glad to see it, he surely was. He’d known Mike Stearns most of his life. This was the first time the man had ever scared him. Really scared him. An enraged Mike Stearns bore no resemblance at all to the man Jeff had grown accustomed to.
“Why you? It ought to be obvious, Jeff. You’re the one commander I’ve got who’s guaranteed to put the fear of God in every man in this division.”
Jeff stared at him. He was trying to make sense of that last sentence and coming up blank.
“That’s ‘huh, sir.’ For Pete’s sake, Jeff, do you think there’s one single soldier in this division who doesn’t know you’re Gretchen Richter’s husband?”
“Huh? Uh, sir.”
“Talk about the innocence of babes. I can guarantee you that at one time or another every soldier in this division has wondered what she sees in you and come to the conclusion that you must have one huge pair of brass balls. Given that she makes kings and dukes shit their pants.”
Mike shook his head. “So do they really want to run the risk of pissing you off, Captain Higgins? No, Colonel Higgins, rather. Now that I think about it, I’ll have to jump you up to lieutenant colonel since I’m going to put a whole regiment under your command.”
“Huh? Ah… Huh, sir. Mike — General, I just got put in charge of a battalion three months ago, and now you want to hand me a whole regiment? But — but –”
He was spluttering a little, he was so agitated. “But, first of all — uh, sir — we don’t have the rank of lieutenant colonel in the USE army. And second of all — uh, meaning no disrespect, sir — but which regiment are you planning to give me? I mean, that’s really gonna piss off whichever colonel — real colonel — you take it away from.” He took another deep breath. “Sir,” he added, not knowing what else to say. He didn’t think Mike would have him put up in front of a volley gun, but…