The Battle of Lützen in 1632 is noted in history as one of the most decisive battles of the Thirty Years’ War, a Protestant victory, but one which cost the life of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, one of the leaders of the Protestant alliance.
However, the human reality of the battle on that wintry day in 16 November, however, has been captured by der Spiegel Online‘s haunting pictures of an excavated mass grave from the site of the battlefield near Leipzig, Germany.
Maik Reichel, head of the Lützen museum, told der Spiegel, “In this battle the only rule that applied was, ‘him or me’. It was better to stab your opponent one extra time just to ensure there was no chance of him standing up again. About 20,000 men fought on each side and between 6,000 and 9,000 were killed.” It is known that the soldiers involved in the battle comprised Germans, Austrians and Swedes, as well mercenaries from England, Scotland and Croatia. The casualties were injured and died from wounds inflicted by muskets, pistols, swords, knives and halberds [pole weapons with axe blades mounted on top].
The mass grave, which contains the remains of up to 175 soldiers, is probably just one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of similar graves. The corpses were buried almost naked, probably a sign of post-battle looting by surviving soldiers, but were carefully arranged in two rows with some dignity by the citizens of Lützen.
Scientific analysis of the grave is being undertaken in laboratory conditions, rather than on the battlefield site itself. With legendary German efficiency, the 55-ton chunk of earth containing the complete grave was excavated, split into two pieces, bolstered by a wooden casing, hoisted by cranes, then transported on flatbed trucks for the 45-minute drive to the city of Halle.
It is believed that there are several layers of bodies within the two blocks of earth, although researchers at Halle have so far just uncovered the ‘top layer’. Each complete set of remains has been tagged individually from ‘I1’ onwards. The cause of their deaths is often immediately apparent, for example, a lead bullet lodged in the pelvis of ‘I2’ from a musket shot to the buttocks, and a blow to the skull of ‘I9’. Strontium isotope analysis will reveal the nationality of each victim, where they travelled and information about their childhoods. Anthropologists, chemists, historians, soil and weapons experts will all conduct further multi-disciplinary analysis of the remains in the coming months.