1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 27
The sudden blood of these men
Lower Silesia, near Boleslawiec
By the time he got to the outskirts of Boleslawiec — or Bunzlau, as the town’s mostly German inhabitants called it — Jozef Wojtowicz was in a quiet rage. Once he’d gotten beyond Görlitz, which marked the easternmost outpost of Saxony, the area he was passing through had quickly come to resemble a war zone — and a very recent war, at that.
What infuriated him was that the destruction had not been caused by Poland’s enemies but by soldiers who were officially employed by King Wladyslaw to protect the area. That would be the army commanded by Heinrich Holk, a man who had one of the worst reputations of any mercenary in Europe — which was saying a lot, given how low that bar had been set by now.
Holk had been employed by the Elector of Saxony, John George, right up until the moment that Gustav Adolf invaded Saxony and John George had need of his services. At that point — he might have taken ten minutes to decide, but probably less — Holk immediately fled across the border into Lower Silesia and offered his services to the king of Poland.
Who, for reasons known only to himself and God, had chosen to accept them. Jozef’s best guess — which did not mollify his anger in the least — was that Wladyslaw had been preoccupied with the threat that Gustav Adolf posed to Poland and had no troops he was prepared to send into Silesia to deal with Holk. So, he hired him instead. In essence, he bribed Holk to leave him alone.
The up-timers had a term for this sort of arrangement. They called it a “protection racket.” Which wouldn’t perhaps have been so bad if Holk had been an honest criminal and satisfied himself with the bribe. Instead, he’d made no effort to keep his soldiers under control and they’d set about plundering the countryside.
And that was another thing which enraged Jozef. Silesia was a borderland between the Germanies and the Slavic nations, and had been for centuries. At one time or another Silesia or parts of it had been under the control of Poland, Bohemia and Austria. Its inhabitants were a mix of Germans, Czechs and Poles. The rough rule of thumb which held generally through most of the region was that the towns and cities were heavily German, sometimes with a Czech and/or Jewish element, and the countryside was mostly Polish.
The largest city in Silesia was Wroclaw, known to its mostly-German inhabitants as Breslau. By 1518, the city had joined the Protestant Reformation but a few years later, in 1526, it came under the control of the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs. Until the Bohemian revolt of 1618, however, the Habsburgs had allowed a considerable degree of religious freedom. Thereafter, Ferdinand II had imposed his harshly Catholic policies over the area, although the brunt of those policies had initially been borne by Bohemia more than Silesia.
The war itself — what the up-time histories called the Thirty Years War — didn’t reach Silesia until 1629, when it was invaded by a Protestant army under the command of the German mercenary Ernst von Mansfeld. In response, the Austrians sent their mercenary commander Albrecht von Wallenstein to drive Mansfeld out, which he did — and followed by imposing his own harsh rule.
And then, just five years later, Wallenstein himself rebelled against the Habsburgs and restored Bohemia’s independence with himself as the new king. At the same time, he laid claim to all of Silesia — but that had been mostly a gesture, since the Polish monarchy seized Lower Silesia and Wallenstein was too pre-occupied with the Austrian attempts to restore Habsburg rule to pay much attention. All he really cared about was Upper Silesia, anyway, which was still largely under his control.
And there things stood. Most of the peasants were Polish Catholics, who lived in reasonable amity with the inhabitants of the towns and cities, who were mostly German Lutherans. Both Poland and Bohemia claimed to rule Silesia, but the Bohemians made no attempt to enforce their claim except in some immediate border areas and the Polish claim was enforced by a German mercenary thug whose real allegiance was to lucre and liquor.
As stinky situations went in the already quite smelly continent of Europe, Silesia was a veritable cesspool.
The worst of it was born by the Polish peasants. The German towns and cities generally governed themselves and had sizeable militias at their disposal. Jozef thought Holk’s army was large enough and strong enough that it could have overrun any of the cities of Silesia except possibly Breslau — but only at a significant cost. That was the sort of cost in blood and treasure that even very competent mercenary commanders tried to avoid. Holk and his men satisfied themselves by extorting bribes from the towns to leave them alone and periodically ravaging the villages.
As he passed through one small and deserted village, Jozef’s angry musings were interrupted by an odd little sound. Turning quickly in his saddle, he saw a small foot vanish around the corner of a house — not much more than a shed, really — that hadn’t been as badly damaged as most of the village’s buildings.
That had been a child’s foot. He got off his horse, tied it to a nearby post, and went to investigate.
Coming around the corner, he saw the foot again — the foot and most of the leg — sliding under a pile of debris that looked to be the burned remains of another shed.
“Come out, child,” he said in Polish. “I won’t hurt you.”
Moving slowly, making sure to keep his hands outstretched a bit so the child could see that he held no weapons, he advanced on the shattered and burned wreckage.
As he got close, he heard a little whimpering sound. He leaned over and — carefully, he didn’t want to dislodge a pile of wooden slats to fall on whoever was hiding there — lifted the largest of the intact boards and peered beneath.
Looking up at him, their faces full of fear, were two small children. A boy and a girl. The boy was perhaps six years old, the girl no more than four. From the mutual resemblance, he was pretty sure they were brother and sister.
“Where is your family?” he asked.
The children stared up at him, mute and silent.
He moved the board entirely aside. “Come out, children. I won’t hurt you, and you must be hungry. I have some food.”
He glanced around the village square — such as it was, which wasn’t much — and saw there was no well. “And water,” he added. There was stream fifty yards away which the village had probably used as its water supply. But the children would have been too frightened to leave their hiding place except at night — and possibly not even then.