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Decisive Battles of History: Poltava

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Read on to learn about the Battle of Poltava, a decisive battle in Sweden's military history which led to the fall of Sweden as a superpower.

Read on to learn about the Battle of Poltava, a decisive battle in Sweden's military history which led to the fall of Sweden as a superpower.

Political Background

After the Swedish intervention in the Thirty Year’s War, Sweden has become the greatest power in Northern Europe and the dominant power in the Baltic.

The rise of Sweden, of course, meant that other powers such as Denmark-Norway, Russia and Poland-Lithuania were put in the shade by the rising Swedes. Russia, in particular, was hard-hit by the rise of Sweden as the Russians lost their access to the Baltic and became more or less landlocked.

The main port and point of access of Russia were Archangel, but the port in the Arctic Sea was nowhere near able to replace the losses of the Baltic ports. The young Tsar of Russia, Peter (the later Peter the Great), was fully aware that his hopes of turning Russia into a great power were simply impossible without getting access to the Baltic and the Black Seas.

Peter soon received an offer of alliance from the jealous neighbours of Sweden, Denmark and Poland-Lithuania. When the King of Sweden, Charles XI, died he was followed on the throne by his 15-year-old son. The neighbours of Sweden deemed it the perfect moment to redraw the map of Northern Europe and partition the Swedish Empire among themselves.

Louis Caravaque- Battle of Poltava 1709

Louis Caravaque- Battle of Poltava 1709

The War Began

The three agreed on a three-pronged attack, and the war, which later became known as the Great Northern War, began in 1700. If the allies expected to have an easy ride, they were in for a shock. With the help of the maritime powers (Great Britain and the Netherlands), the Swedes attacked Denmark. Before the year 1700 was over, the triple alliance of Russia, Denmark-Norway and Poland-Lithuania-Saxony was reduced to a double alliance.

After the defeat of Denmark, the Swedes turned their attention to their Baltic provinces, which were under attack. A large Russian army was besieging the fortress of Narva. Despite being greatly outnumbered by the Russians, Charles and his officers decided to take the offensive in late 1700.

Despite the well-defended position and numerical superiority of the Russian besieging force, Charles ordered an attack and succeeded in routing the large Russian army in November 1700.

The great victory at Narva left the King of Sweden with two options. He could either continue his offensive against Russia and try to depose Tsar Peter or turn his attention to Augustus, King of Poland-Lithuania and Elector of Saxony.

Nils Ström: The Bombardment of Copenhagen

Nils Ström: The Bombardment of Copenhagen

Charles chose to attack Augustus, and during the next five years, he invaded Poland-Lithuania. The constant defeats of Augustus led to the emergence of a rival faction in Poland that flocked to Charles, and in the end, led to the deposition of Augustus as king of Poland.

Charles set up his puppet Polish King, Stanisław I Leszczyński. The Russian armies were present in Poland throughout this period, but despite an improved performance from the Russian forces, the Swedes still had the upper hand over them.

Once it became obvious that Augustus was beyond saving, Peter ordered most of his troops to retreat from Poland, though raiding continued to pressure the Polish nobility to abandon Stanislaw.

Once it became clear that he could not dislodge Stanislaw from the Polish throne, and after Denmark, his second ally, was also defeated by the Swedes, Peter tried to negotiate with Charles. As the Swedish armies were stretched thin by the multiple-front wars, Charles preferred to keep the bulk of his force in Poland, which allowed the Russians to conquer parts of the Swedish territories in the Baltic region. Peter offered to give up nearly all his conquests in exchange for peace. He only wanted to keep the territory of his new capital, Saint Petersburg.

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The offer was generous and could have put an end to the bloodshed, but Charles was confident that he could dispose of the Russians and recapture all his lost territories. He spent a year and a half in Saxony, arranging his troops and preparing for his invasion.

Swedish Invasion of Russia

The Swedes departed for Russia in August 1707; Charles had an army of around 44,000 men at his disposal. He moved rapidly, and by the early months of 1708, he was within striking distance. The Swedes made the area of Minsk their winter quarters, and thanks to the poor weather and atrocious roads, they were forced to remain in their winter quarters until late spring.

Once the Swedes left their winter quarters, they advanced along the Dnieper river and defeated a Russian army at the Battle of Holowczyn. However, defeating the armies of the Russian state did not make the life of the Swedes much easier. The Russians used scorched earth tactics and laid waste to the road along where they retreated. The Swedes—who were having supply problems—were simply unable to follow them, as starvation would have destroyed their army.

Charles and his generals had a solution to the problem, but they had to be patient. Charles ordered his commander in Courland to gather supplies and reinforcements and join him once he was ready. The Swedish commander in Courland moved slower than expected, and the impatient Charles decided to move southwards into Ukraine, to join forces with Ivan Mazepa, a Cossack hetman.

Disaster followed the Swedes from this moment on, as the reinforcements with the supplies were ambushed by the Russians, and they lost half their army and their baggage train. Mazepa’s capital, Baturyn, was also sacked by the army of Peter once he realised that Mazepa had betrayed him.

The Swedish reinforcements reached Charles only in October 1708, but it was only an army of 6,000 that joined him, with few supplies.

To make the situation of the Swedes even more desperate came the Great Frost of 1708-09, the coldest winter Europe had seen in over 500 years. The Swedish army was reduced to little more than 24,000 men by the time winter was over. They had some additional Cossack troops and Polish cavalry, but their overall number was around 30,000 men.

The Swedes were running low on food, fodder and ammunition also. The more cautious officers of Charles advised him to retreat from Ukraine, gather more men and attempt another invasion in the following years. Charles, however, was not the man to retreat. He knew perfectly well that he needed the resources of a town to feed his army, so the Swedes besieged the nearby Poltava.

Battle of Poltava

Charles might also have hoped to draw the Russians out and force a decisive battle.

If this latter was his wish, it soon materialised when a Russian army of around 70,000-80,000 soldiers arrived in the area to relieve Poltava.

The Russians crossed the river that separated them from the Swedes and built a heavily fortified camp. The road to the Russian camp was heavily forested, but a path between the forested areas led to the Russian camp. The Russians built several redoubts to block any Swedish attack on their camp.

The Swedes were considering their options in the days coming up to the battle, and they finally decided to attack the Russians. They intended to use around 2/3 of their regular forces to storm the redoubts and attack the camp itself. The plan was highly aggressive and heavily relied on the element of surprise to achieve the desired result.

Unfortunately for the Swedes, bad luck once again hit them. Their most capable commander, King Charles XII, was incapacitated when a bullet hit him in the leg. The injury was so bad that the king could not stand on his feet and thus was rendered incapable of commanding his troops during the battle.

Charles was forced to delegate overall command to Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld, but this was a disaster for the Swedish army, as Rehnskiöld and the other commanders were on bad terms. Unfortunately for the Swedes, Rehnskiöld and the rest failed to communicate the battle plan properly, which led to misunderstandings and confusion once the battle was underway.

Once the battle was underway, the Swedes stormed the first few redoubts, but some troops got bogged down, attacking the third, while the rest of the army pushed forward. As the small Swedish army lost its cohesion a part of the army was forced into surrender, while the rest had to face the Russians who were alerted by this time and lined up ahead of the camp to meet them.

The rest of the heavily outnumbered Swedes continued their attack. Still, unfortunately for them, the odds were too much against them, and not even the iron discipline of the Carolean infantry was able to turn this battle into a victory. Had the cavalry reinforced the initial charge of the infantry, they may have achieved a breakthrough, but poor coordination once again cost the Swedes.

The Swedes retreated into the forest once it became clear that their attack was a failure and later retreated to their camp. They gathered whatever they could and left Poltava to escape Russia and enter the Ottoman Empire. The king, with an advanced guard of around 1,000 men, succeeded in entering the Ottoman Empire and sought refuge in modern-day Moldavia. Still, the rest of the army, under the command of general Lewenhaupt, surrendered three days after the defeat at Poltava.

Aftermath

The surrender at Perevolochna virtually meant that the entire Swedish army that invaded Russia was lost, either killed or captured.

The defeat at Poltava crippled the Swedish military and turned the tables around in the Great Northern War. King Charles spent five years in the Ottoman Empire and tried to convince the Sultan to enter the war, which happened for a brief time in 1711, but the Russians survived the encounter.

Charles returned to Sweden in 1714, but not even he could turn the course of the war around. From Poltava onwards, Russia became the strongest state in the Baltic region, and it has remained so ever since then.

Sources

Henrik, Lunde. (2014). A Warrior Dynasty: The Rise and Decline of Sweden as a Military Superpower. Casemate.

Massie Robert K. (2012). Peter the Great: His Life and World. Modern Library.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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