Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Historical Conceit, by Robin Alexander Smith

A Historical Conceit

What if someone told you that a widely-accepted event from history didn’t happen the way you think it did? This story reimagines a well-known chapter from Brno’s history-and might just have you second-guessing what you think you know.

Brno, April 1645

The bastard Scotsman, Ogilvy, stood atop the battlements at Špilberk. The ground to the North of the city walls was the most obvious side for attack. Lines of attack from the South would be hampered by a rough, scrabbly cliff face covered in thorn bushes and easily defended. No—if attack came, it would come from the North: the ground was solid and sloped gently down from the hill. Ogilvy gave orders for the city walls to be manned and for scouts to be sent out. He scratched his scarred chin, enjoying for a moment the warmth of the South Moravian spring sunshine on his face, and turned inside.

Vienna, April 1645
The impetuous Frenchman, De Souches, saluted smartly, turned and left. He quickly gave orders to ready his horse and went to pack. He’d be back with that grumbling Scotsman before the week was out—he smiled. They’d seen action together: they both fought for Denmark, then Sweden, and then they’d both changed sides after the Battle of White Mountain. It was funny that fate would draw them together again—and again—with that maniac Torstensson, although this time, Torstensson was the enemy.

Brno, May 1645
De Souches and Ogilvy greeted each other curtly and officially, with their men standing around watching the awkward greeting in the central courtyard of the castle. Ogilvy took De Souches up to his private chambers which looked out over the scree and cliffs and away down to the flat plains that stretched down to the distant, hazy hills at Palava.

“I can’t believe they’ve sent you to replace me,” grumbled Ogilvy dropping the feigned formality as soon as they were alone. He groaned and pulled out two chairs by the window and removed a stoppered bottle from a drawer. “Join me in a Slivovice, won’t you?”

“I’m sorry about that. I guess my old papers were more convincing than yours. The Habsburgs have some odd notions about rank and title. Idiots, but I’m not complaining.”

Ogilvy grunted and grinned at De Souches with his head turned sideways. “You were always more suited to that courtly nonsense. It suits you and your floppy French hair.”

De Souches gave him a playful kick. “And you are more suited to being a grumpy castle guard.”

“Listen, Torstensson is coming,” Ogilvy said, getting down to business. “He made a mess of Jihlava—knocked a hole in the castle wall the size of a church inside two days. He’s gonna make short work of us here. Brno isn’t built for siege.”

“I know, we’re almost certainly doomed. I suggest we try to hold out for a few weeks at least. He won’t be able to put his siege engines to the South, so at least we know where he’ll attack from. If we can hold out a few weeks, then we can always surrender without too much embarrassment. It’s Torstensson, after all—no one beats him.”

They grinned mirthlessly and drank.

Brno, May 1645
The most obvious approach to Brno brought Torstensson round from the Southwest. Once his armies were out of the hills to the West and on the plains, they were an imposing sight. The men settled in a large encampment deliberately visible from the castle. They set up camp with ease and comfort. The warm weather had made the area around the rivers very pleasant, even for an army of 28,000. There was no need for an advanced scouting party, no need to prepare the ground—it was 28,000 men with outstanding siege equipment and one of the greatest military tacticians of the Thirty Years’ War against a provincial castle and city with—maybe—1,000 people inside.

Inside the city walls, the inhabitants, a mixture of German- and Czech-speaking shopkeepers and artisans, crowded around the Church of St. Thomas, where the priest, Father Martin Středa, came out to talk to them. He held his hands up for calm.

A woman wailed, another sobbed. Gruff male voices swallowed back tears. They’d seen the soldiers to the South.

Brno, February 2017
“Wait, stop!” blasted the editor, Holsteinová, a severe, bespectacled woman with grey hair pulled back tightly on her head. “It’s rushed. The tone is messy. Muddled, even. There’s no description. It’s not supposed to be genre fiction.”

“You asked for it to be in an approachable style,” said Anna Kovářová, the young historian, with a submissive, apologetic shrug.

“OK, well, get to the point—what have you discovered that’s new? Up ‘til now, that’s all in standard history books. Well, apart from the fact that the three men knew each other, perhaps.”

“Well, here’s the thing.” Anna straightened herself in her seat, pulling down the hem of her serious grey skirt. “Torstensson and his men camped to the South, naturally enough, but there was plenty of room to the East to skirt the city and attack from the North. But he didn’t—he attacked up the hill from the South, where the train station is today. Torstensson was a master gunner, he was used to lining up his heavy artillery and blasting apart castle walls, yet here he doesn’t use them.”

“Go on.”

“In fact, there are only two days of fighting in a siege lasting more than three months. And no real casualties on either side.”


“Let me go back to the narration—I’ll pick it up from the first parley.”


Brno, May 1645
De Souches sent out two men under a white flag. They approached Torstensson’s entourage slowly and nervously and were shown into a field tent. The pennants and tent flaps shrugged lazily around in a silky spring breeze.

Brno, February 2017
“OK, now you’re overdoing it—ha!” The older woman sneered.

“OK, look. Simply put, the general arranges a secret meeting with the two men later that night. They are nervous but trust him to a certain extent. They meet him in his private quarters late at night. Torstensson is lying in bed, wincing. You see, he’s got gout—it’s well-documented. He’s also been on the road on one campaign or another for twenty years or more. He’s done in. And if he defeats and conquers Brno, it’s a straight run down to Vienna, and he’s not going to get within 60 miles of Vienna before they throw the full might of the Imperial Habsburg army at him. He’s done for.”

“This is good, you can back it up?”
“Yes, there is all kinds of good evidence, even from Habsburg sources, talking about Torstensson being carried around on a litter for the whole campaign.”

“OK, so he’s sick, old, tired and doesn’t want to attack Vienna.”

“So, what does he do? He calls Ogilvy and De Souches in for meeting.”

Brno, May 1645
The three old comrades reclined around a brazier in the centre of the field tent.

“Gentlemen, I’m finished. I don’t want to fight. I cannot continue. I could send the might of my 28,000, with 15,000 reserves a week away, against the city and crush it by nightfall tomorrow. But...”

“My Lord?” Ogilvy and De Souches looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

“I have the makings of an idea. Let us sojourn here and enjoy this warm season and this pleasant land. I’ll move up into the castle with you. You can continue to use the secret entrance to the Church of St. Thomas as a passageway for getting supplies in and out of the city—yes, I know. My troops will camp to the South of the city and enjoy the spoils of the land. We can dine and drink and enjoy each other’s company in the castle. Then, at the end of the summer, after we’ve failed to break into the castle, we’ll head home with our tails between our legs. Defeated but not
embarrassed. You two will be made freemen of the Empire and will dine out for years on the defeat of the Swedish. And I can go home and retire before the road kills me.”

“My lord, a noble plan! We’ll save lives and make names for ourselves.” Ogilvy and De Souches looked visibly relieved.

Brno, February 2017
“Jumping Mary!” exploded the editor. “You’re joking! That turns everything on its head. But what about the heroic defence of Brno by 1,000 soldiers? What about ringing the midday bells at 11 o’clock on the information of spies to make the Swedish leave early? Are you sure about this? Have you made this all up? This is the Siege of Brno you’re messing with.”

“No, there’s good evidence. I have documents showing requisition orders actually went up during the siege—you’d expect them to stop completely if the city was under siege. There are Swedish army documents showing all three men fighting together in the same division earlier in the Thirty Years’ War. There are all kinds of documents.”

“What about the noon bells at eleven story?”

“Well, any local historian will tell you that part is suspect. I think the main part of their plan was carried out in secret but that most people guessed something was up. Perhaps they just made up the story of the bells after the fact to make it seem more realistic. I, uh, don’t actually know that part.”

The editor snorted with good humour. “Anyway, it’s brilliant. Are you sure about the main parts of the thesis?”

“Yes. As I said, I have good documentary evidence from the city and castle archives and from Vienna, Scotland and France.”


Holsteinová, certainly the older of the two, had heard the original story of the Siege of Brno countless times, but this... This was shocking. She looked up, took her glasses off and stared out the window. Heavy rain battered the crumbling white window and rattled the old pane in its frame. The padded inside of the typical Czech institution door was patchy, and many of the rivets had popped off and the stuffing was poking out. The peeling wooden sign swinging outside the window read, at a squint, “The Journal of the Historical Society of Brno”.

Holsteinova seemed lost for a moment, eyes defocusing in a middle-distance stare. Her face changed, moving through pinched concentration and into set-jaw determination. Her eyes drifted onto the papers between them on the coffee table, and she let out a big sigh. The two women sat opposite each other, a heavy tension in the air. The silence making the rain seem louder. Then, all of a sudden, the editor’s posture changed again, and she sat up and turned slightly to focus on Kovářová. She put her glasses back on and said,

“No, I’m sorry. We can’t publish it.”

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