The Great Game: From Berserker to Battleship

May 17, 1776
Olaf Kyrre Street, Bergen

The drums were continuous, overwhelming. They shattered all attempt at speech or thought; but the men lining the street, and watching from every window, had no desire for that. Their cheers formed a vast, rolling counterpoint to the drums, swelling as each new regiment marched up the street towards the ships that would carry them south. Flashes of red-and-gold were everywhere; children, released from their units for the occasion, ran about, swinging flags with the Lion Rampant blazing on them, and bunting hang from every house. The black uniforms formed a splendid backdrop, giving the flags the look of fireworks on a night sky.

The regiments that had been given the honour of marching thus fully-formed to their ships were the finest of the Ynglinga Hird; tall, shaggy men two years into their three years’ service. They fairly strutted with the vigour of their youth and power; there was not a man among them who could not run twenty miles in full gear, and fight a battle afterwards. The money that maintained their drill was squeezed from continents, and it showed. They had each, from the age of five, run daily courses of miles, lifted heavy weights, sparred with every weapon from bare hands to muskets. Now, in the first full flush of their manhood, they were a magnificent sight, marching with the deadly grace and pride of wolves. Their faces showed the same confidence and joy that the cheering watchers displayed; they had trained for this moment all their lives, and now at last the time had come to use their skill and strength.


The war opened with the combined English and Norwegian fleets, together slightly outnumbering the Spanish, taking their station off Valencia and daring the Armada Real to come out and fight. This challenge was promptly answered, the Spaniards knowing as well as their foes that command of the sea would be utterly vital in a war fought across all the continents. The resulting battle, prepared for long years by the full strength of nations, and fought by men not yet worn down by the long strains of war, was a slaughter of immense proportions. It is estimated that of the three thousand or so ships which took part, more than half were burnt or scuttled; or in other words, fully a third of the world’s tonnage of warships was destroyed in a single day. And yet for all its fury, the battle was not decisive; the Spanish fleet, much reduced in number, escaped, to hole up for a while in Tangiers. A close blockade of that port enabled Norwegian and English ships to dominate the Atlantic, which for a while gave rise to a considerable advantage in the African campaign; but imperial commitments against Spain’s Pacific fleet eventually led to the withdrawal of the English blockaders, and the subsequent breakout of the Armada.

Gibraltar IGibraltar II

Breakout battles. Alas, I wasn’t quick enough to get a screenie of battles with 1500 warships on each side.

The war on land, meanwhile, was equally bloody and indecisive. Thrusting across the Pyrenees, Burgundian and English troops at first had considerable success in their attack towards Madrid; but full Spanish mobilisation, together with guerrilla risings in their rear and the difficulty of supply across the Pyrenees, soon compelled them to withdraw. The Iberian front then took on a curiously modern aspect, lacking only machine guns and barbed wire; the passes of the Pyrenees, offering only a short frontage on which practical attacks could be made, lent themselves easily to fortification and defense in depth. Trench lines multiplied, as did futile attacks upon them; of the million men who are estimated to have died in the war, approximately two-thirds fell here, in attacks that rarely moved the front by more than a few miles.


An early stage of the Iberian campaign. Note that Spanish and Burgundian flags are identical! But you can tell the difference by the uniforms. Here the Burgundians seem to have the advantage, and indeed they managed to press inland a few provinces. It’s not going to last.

Norwegian troops took little part in this campaign, both for practical reasons of supply – there were sharp limits on how tightly armies could be packed into provinces fed only by horse and cart – and because the Yngling commanders saw no advantage to throwing their troops into such a caldron. A strong detachment was sent to form a reserve against any gaps opening in the Burgundian line; but in the main, the staff at Håkon’s Hall were quite content to let the occupiers of Holstein do the bleeding. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the absence of the Spanish fleet, a vigorous campaign was waged along the western coast of Africa; however, the numerous Spanish colonial garrisons proved able to defend the line of the River Zaire, and the rich prizes of the Moroccan coast eluded the Yngling grasp.

African Campaign

The African campaign. It is to be admitted that the fighting here is on a slightly smaller scale. Fortunately, that’s just where Yngling training and initiative shows to its best advantage! Throwing masses of troops at well-fortified mountain passes we leave to the other Powers. In this case, the Spaniards are about to reinforce their garrison with the 17k troops hiding in Nouakchott; but a brilliantly executed fighting retreat will prevent them from pushing their advantage, and the front will settle along the Zaire.

A second effort was prevented by the conjunction of two events : First, the Spanish fleet’s breaking out from Tangiers, which stopped all shipments of reinforcements and supplies from the Norwegian colonies on the Gold Coast; and second, the entry of Poland into the war.

This seeming triumph of Spanish diplomacy, in fact, proved the turning point of the war for Norway, although not in the sense its authors intended. With the opening of a Baltic front, close to the centers of Yngling strength, the full power of the Ynglinga Hird could at last be unleashed. The wide-open spaces of the Polish plain offered a scope for action which neither the deadlocked Iberian front, nor colonial campaigns with all their difficulty of supply, could equal; the massive reserves that had been mobilised in Scandinavia were thus offered a splendid target for their attack. The Poles, obligingly advancing three strong columns into Germany to invest the Burgundian holdings there, found their supply lines cut off by the sudden appearance of Norwegian armies rapidly shipped across the Baltic. (The Polish Navy, to the extent that it existed, stuck throughout the campaign to its colonial ports, conceding uncontested use of the Baltic – a strategic advantage the Ynglings used to its utmost.) A scrambling retreat through Bohemia saved half the force the Poles had used for their initial attacks, but could not halt the momentum of the Yngling advance; the Polish army did not regroup until it had crossed the Vistula, three hundred miles east and after losing a desperate battle for Warsaw.

The defenses of that fortress city, once a bastion in the long feud between Piast and Yngling, had become outmoded, and it fell in three days to modern guns and the ferocity of an Yngling assault into the breaches. The sack that followed was notable for its ferocity even by the rough standards of the day. If this was intended to overawe and cause the Poles to surrender from terror, it failed signally of its purpose; Polish records of the time make it clear that the sack of Warsaw was a major factor in convincing the people to fight on, and indeed a new army was swiftly raised from the vast Ukrainian and Siberian domains of the Polish crown. However, it seems more likely that the sack was simply the result of the Yngling troops’ impatience with their commander’s attempt to curtail their traditional privileges in the field. The sufferings of Warsaw can thus be viewed as the fallout of an internal power struggle in the Yngling army – a power struggle won decisively by the traditionalists in the lower ranks, since it proved impossible to punish so large a number of looters and rapists. The modernisation movement that had been advocating the adoption of Laws of War – perhaps as a prelude to loosening the restrictions on the strils, the Laws of War being loosely based on contemporary notions of the Rights of Man – was thus effectively shattered in its first real test .

Polish Campaign I

Initial stages of the Polish campaign.

Polish Campaign II

Second stage, after the Poles scrape together a new army. It’s not as bad as it looks, the 41k men in Vorpommern are about to be joined by another 60k or so being built in Jylland and Sjælland.

Polish Campaign III

Third stage; by this time I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for manpower, but stab-hitting the Poles every month. Rebellions everywhere!

Notwithstanding brave Polish efforts at raising new armies, which did indeed for a time retake the ruins of Warsaw, the outcome was never in doubt after such a disastrous opening campaign; enthusiastic raw recruits were no match for the well-trained and well-equipped Ynglinga Hird, which cut apart the Polish armies in battle after battle. Nonetheless, that perennial concern of Norwegian warfare, lack of manpower, was again rearing its head. The initial high level of mobilisation was proving difficult to maintain, as obligatory terms of service ran out and disease took its toll in the Polish winter; and even where the Poles lost, they always sold their lives dearly. Although the situation was not yet critical, sober voices pointed out that Poland was a sideshow, and that Spain remained a formidable adversary; a widely published calculation showed that, if the Polish campaign were continued for two more years, the Ynglings would find themselves in the uncomfortable position of either recruiting widely among the strils, with all the attendant dangers, or else arming the women of the ruling class to fight. Indeed, the latter proposition was seriously discussed in the Ting, as being the best means of bringing Poland to its knees. Eventually, however, this plan was abandoned and a compromise peace arrived at, whereby Norway regained Brandenburg, took Bohemia, and the African border was moved a few hundred miles. (The new borderline gives one the impression that the negotiators finally drew a pen more or less at hazard through Africa, perhaps as compensation for Poland retaining Memel – long a contentious issue at the conference.)

The center of gravity of the war thus turned westward, as troops freed from garrison and combat in Poland were shipped across the now-friendly Atlantic…

From Berserker to Battleship : Norway 1066-1920, Bergenhus University Press.


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