Monday, 26 February 2018

Graf von Bek's North German Horse, 1688


From the journal of Don Fernando de Torrescusa, Marquess de Girona, Envoy of His Most Catholic Majesty, Carlos the Second, King of Spain, to the Flemish Free City of Laarden in 1688.

There were six of them, and then the rest of the squadron rode into view from behind the black, winter trees. Against the frozen field, the grass thick with hoar frost, I could see them clearly although we were some way off from our position on the hill. De Gautier's excited chatter was momentarily silenced as they accelerated quickly from a canter to a gallop. I snatched my spyglass from its tubular case of Andalusian leather. I could plainly pick out their clothing and equipment: deep brown, ochre, buff and carmine riding coats - with front breastplates in blackened steel, swords curved as I had seen in Hungary, and stirrups shortened in the Polish fashion. Several of the troopers had fair, straw-coloured hair, sometimes curling down onto their shoulders, unfashionably long. 

Their coats were trimmed in animal furs to keep out the cold. Ostrich feathers, dyed deep Hapsburg scarlet, were secured to their hats in an overly ostentatious display of loyalty to their paymaster. Their standards - of Fortuna, Goddess of Fortune, the Imperial Eagle and a prancing horse - were very different from the familiar Burgundian cross displayed on the standards of the Laarden regiments and squadrons I had seen so far, and from the flags of His Majesty's Spanish tercios.


They were fast, gliding at speed over the snow-flecked downland, scattering the hussars and forcing the French dragoons to mount hastily and ride off. I could pick out the small puffs of smoke of a few dragoon muskets being fired in a ragged fusilade against the horsemen, just as I could see the glint of pale sunlight catching the cavaliers' swordsteel as they broke the French dragoons' threadbare line.


The horsemen were barely a formation by the end, much less a squadron. They did not pursue their enemy. No doubt their capitan, or the Graf von Bek, had ascertained that there were far greater opportunities for plunder and looting in the location of the now-reclaimed supply wagons than in an effective pursuit of the French raiders. 

Nevertheless, even despite the lack of rigorous pursuit, de Gautier had wound himself into a corkscrew of excitement, clapping his hands, his arms gesticulating like the sails of an Antwerp windmill in a firm wind. During the looting, he even instructed his trumpeter to mark the skirmish with a brassy clarion note in the icy morning air.

 

I had seen it all before, although not for several years. Just as the Swedes have their Finns, and the Poles have the Tartars, the Imperial forces of the Emperor Leopold are currently augmented by mercenaries recruited from the Baltic towns, even as far east as Livonia and Courland. I had seen their like before on the fields of Honigfelde, Rennenberg, Wolgast and Bredtstede.


I had guessed as much when I had first seen the squadron galloping hard into the attack, but their standard of a Hapsburg eagle on a golden field confirmed my suspicion. Even without the Imperially-sanctioned heraldry of von Bek’s cavaliers, the eastern-fashioned arms, cold weather clothing, unfashionable hair and rapacious brutality were as bold a signature as I would have recognised anywhere.

*******

My first inspiration for this squadron of North German Horse was a curious reference to William III bringing within him 200 Finnish troops “in bearskins and black armour” for his invasion of England in November 1688. To my knowledge, no picture exists of these Finnish troops. No uniform, no standard, nothing. But I very much liked the idea of troops being clothed in fur and armour against cold winter weather. I've always been fascinated by the winter campaigns fought in the late 17th Century - both from the Scanian Wars, Turenne's winter campaigns in 1674-75 and the petit-guerre fought almost endlessly in Flanders in the Nine Years War between troops supposedly resting in their winter quarters.

My other inspiration was the frequent reference to cavalry, or 'reiters', being "Hungarian" or "Polish" in German-language accounts of horse squadrons in the 1670s and 1680s. This is normally taken to be that the troops in question were equipped in the style or fashion of, or with equipment typical of, Hungarian or Polish troops, without being themselves from Hungary or Poland.


I tried to keep the tones of the clothing to an authentic brown-red-grey theme - typical for late 17th Century cavalry on campaign. I painted the hair on several of the reiters in pale, Nordic tones, again suggesting of a Baltic location for their recruiting ground. With green-stuff, I added feathers to hats, fur-lined trim to coats, gauntlets, and deep late-17th century cuffs with additional buttons to try and give the horsemen an individual look.

The figures started life as Foundry ECW cavalrymen, but I tried to convert them into a distinctive, if undisciplined, squadron of aggressive North German Horse from the 1680s.
 

I painted the standard of Fortuna by hand from an online collection of German standards from the 1650s - so a few liberties have been taken with history in that regard by placing Fortuna in a squadron from the 1680s.


One of the fascinations of the 1670s and 1680s for me is trying to balance the painted images of the period with the battlefield history we actually know, and then trying to fathom out where the gaps are. Part of the fun with the Lord of Bek's Horse has been trying to create a squadron which was certainly not in the Imperial battle-line of 1688, but which very well might have been.




21 comments:

  1. Lovely stuff. The prose really sells the unit. You should make your opponents read it before you deploy them on the field.

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    1. Thanks Whiskey Priest! I'd not thought of that. Maybe an optional extra for the players before the game - a Laarden Gazeteer, or copy of Don Fernando's diary...

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  2. Exciting narrative Sid. Brings the period to life.

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    1. Thanks Charles! That's definitely the idea - particularly when the period is, maybe, a bit obscure or off-the-beaten-track.

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    2. Yes, Spanish Netherlands less well known than TYW in Bohemia-German States. Thanks

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  3. Well done! Yes the narrative brings the units and the period to life.

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    1. Thanks very much, William. Really pleased you liked it.

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  4. Those are a very fine body of men.

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    1. ...just don't play a hand of cards with them in 'The Harvest Goose'...

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  5. Oh my, they are lovely! And the standard is icing on the cake.

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    1. Thanks very much, Monty. The standard wasn't easy - my hand kept shaking at the awkward bits!

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  6. A jolly fine post and captivating read.

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