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Researchers Catalogue the Grisly Deaths of Soldiers in the Thirty Years’ War

The 47 bodies were found in a mass grave from the Battle of Lützen, one of the turning points in the devastating conflict

The mass grave recovered from Lutzen (PLOS One)
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Back in 2006, archaeologists in a field south of Leipzig, Germany, found what they believed was the site of the Battle of Lützen, one of the turning points in the devastating Thirty Years' War. Excavations of the site later identified a mass grave. Now, reports Megan Gannon at LiveScience, researchers have finally finished analyzing the 47 bodies contained within it, revealing just who the soldiers were and how they died.

The Thirty Years' War was really a series of wars, waged from 1618 to 1648. The deadly clashes ravaged Europe; 20 percent of the total population of Germany died during the conflict and there were losses up to 50 percent in a corridor between Pomerania and the Black Forest, according to History.com.

The brutal conflict began when Roman Catholics clashed with the Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of states in central Europe. Eventually the conflict drew in Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands. In 1630, the Protestant forces were on their heels when Gustavus Adolphus, the Protestant king of Sweden, intervened, pushing the Catholic Imperial army out of much of Germany. But his aid came at a cost. On November 16, 1632, Adolphus was killed at the Battle of Lützen, while fighting with Imperial soldiers under the command of General Albrecht von Wallenstein.

According to Kristina Killgrove at Forbes, the soldiers in the mass grave died during the same battle. The researchers conducted forensic examinations of the 47 bodies to determine what type of wounds killed each soldier. They found that the soldiers were men ranging from age 15 to 50, and most showed evidence of previous trauma in their lives, meaning they could have been veterans.

The analysis showed there were all sorts of fatal injuries, from stab wounds to bullet holes. Blunt force trauma to the face and jaw was common and was found on 12 individuals. Another six showed signs of fractures to their ribs or limbs and seven were stabbed in the back or the pelvis. But the most frequent injury was gunshot wounds, which were found on 21 of the bodies. In around half of those bodies, a bullet was found in the skull, reports Killgrove. The research appears in the journal PLOS One.

Seth Augenstein at Laboratory Equipment reports that the researchers believe the soldiers may have been infantrymen of the Blue Brigade, an elite Swedish unit, which was hit by a flank attack by opposition cavalry. The researchers write that the injuries, especially shots to the head, are consistent with battle techniques used by cavalry, and that the bullets recovered are consistent with the types of guns cavalrymen would have used at the time.

“It is plausible to assume that men from both the Swedish Protestant side and the imperial Catholic army found their final testing place in the Lützen mass grave,” the researchers write in their paper. “However, the results of our examinations allow us to surmise that perhaps not all but the majority of casualties were infantrymen of the Blue Brigade and thus soldiers serving with the Swedish army.”

Figuring out just who the soldiers were has proved particularly difficult because it is believed the inhabitants of the Lutzen area did a thorough job of stripping the corpses of any clothing or identifying marks. Impoverished by the long-running war, Gannon reports the locals likely had little reverence for the 9,000 soldiers that died on both sides of the conflict and tossed them into the mass graves.

Killgrove reports that even the body of Adolphus, whose forces had won the battle, was stripped of clothing and jewelry by the time it was found several hours after the end of the fighting. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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