July 8, 1709. As one power falls, another power rises. King Charles XII of Sweden, “Carolus Rex,” has been on a magnificent winning streak for most of a decade in his war against an enormous coalition, but his luck will run out today. The harbinger of Sweden’s downfall is Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, who will take its place among the Great Powers at the Battle of Poltava.
In 1700, Sweden – yes, Sweden – was one of Europe’s great military powers. It had not gained this status easily. A series of strong, brilliant monarchs such as Gustavus Adolphus, Queen Christina, and Charles X Gustav had built a professional army second to none in Europe and repeatedly faced down and beaten much more powerful enemies such as Prussia, Austria and Poland. In fact, Sweden dominated Poland so badly in their wars in the 1650s that it put Polish power on permanent decline. Sweden had an outstanding professional military, a modern centralized state, great leaders and enormous prestige. From about the period 1630 to 1700, Sweden was one of Europe’s most powerful countries and dominated the north of the continent.
Sweden, however, was not as strong as it looked. A small population, a lack of resources and the fragility of its position surrounded by strong enemies remained a constant threat, but as long as it had strong leaders and continued to win wars these disadvantages didn’t seem to matter much. Great powers, though, rise and fall on factors like these; a nation that has strong leadership might not have it forever, and military success is rarely sufficient to stay on top. You can gain power with bayonets, but they don’t make a good throne.
The European Great Powers were in constant struggle throughout the early modern period, shifting alliances, making diplomatic maneuvers, and declaring wars based on a subtle balance of power. War was not a moral crusade or a religious calling, but an instrument of state policy, a way to achieve a higher place in the power structure of Europe.
When our story begins in 1700, most of Western Europe’s Great Powers – England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria and Prussia – were embroiled in yet another of their unending series of conflicts, called the War of the Spanish Succession. The issue was whether the French King’s grandson would inherit the throne of Spain, which would upset the balance of power. Just to give you an idea.
This war created an opportunity for several other countries in Europe to get rid of a long-term enemy. Sweden had been a long-term ally of France, which helped keep the Austrians and Prussians in check. With France out of the way, though, three nations that had suffered from Swedish attacks in the last century decided it was time to gang up on the lone kingdom to take what they wanted. Denmark wanted control of the Baltic Coast, Poland wanted southern Latvia, and Russia wanted Estonia and Ingria – which could be Russia’s only chance to gain a port to the outside world.
In 1700, Russia was not a major power whatsoever. Most Europeans regarded them as something close to barbarians, a backwards nation on the fringes of real civilization. The current Tsar of all Russia, a man named Peter I, was determined to bring Russia kicking and screaming out of the medieval age and into the modern world. He had travelled all over Europe in disguise, visiting the great shipyards of England and the training camps of the French Army. Even though his rule was autocratic and brutal – virtually every Tsar was – he did everything in his power to modernize, reform, and rebuild Russia on civilized lines (civilized in the manner of England, France, and Austria.)
To achieve his dream, Peter needed a port that could bring in experts, materials and books from Europe. Russia, though, had no coastline that could communicate with the outside world; their only ports were to the far north in the Arctic, frozen over for most of the year. To get land for a warm-water port – his “window on the west” – Peter would have to conquer territory owned by Sweden. That meant the conquest of a strip called Ingria, which bordered the Baltic Sea. If Peter could conquer it, he could challenge Sweden as the dominant power in the Baltic
Against three powerful nations, Sweden looked helpless at first. Her King, Charles XII, was 15 years old when he ascended the throne, and the three attacking nations doubtless thought this was a great opportunity. Swedish territory was promptly invaded from every corner, with Denmark, Poland and Russia all storming in to take what they wanted. What was this boy going to do to stop them?
They had singularly underestimated Charles XII, better known to many as “Carolus Rex.” Charles was one of history’s few true military geniuses, a brilliant and confident young man with absolute faith in himself and his army. Even at his young age, he took personal and direct command of the Swedish army and struck like lightning. He first drove out the Danes, besieging their capital and forcing them to surrender. Then he struck Peter’s army in Ingria. Charles, at 18 years old, overrode the advice of his generals and led a night attack, during a blizzard, against a Russian army that outnumbered him five to one – and smashed it. This victory at Narva in 1700 was the first of many.
This was the opening round of what was called the Great Northern War. Charles smashed his way across Eastern Europe and Poland, destroying any enemy army that crossed his path. Usually outnumbered two or three to one – or more – in every battle, Charles not only won but won decisively each time. He was aggressive, decisive, and ridiculously brave, often personally being the first man into a castle or the first to cross a river under enemy fire. How else is a teenager going to get grown men to follow him?
There is such a thing as “victory disease,” though. Charles won so many battles that he became overconfident, assuming that both he and his army were undefeatable. Worse still, his ambitions grew larger with each victory until he was biting off more than he could chew. At first his objective in the Great Northern War had been to defend Swedish territory from the invader; now his mission became the outright overthrow of his enemies. He spent years in Poland trying to force the Polish king off the throne – years that Peter the Great used to rebuild and retrain his army after Charles had mangled it in battle. If Charles had invaded Russia directly after Narva, Peter might have been helpless – but Charles assumed that there would always be time to take care of the Russians.
By 1708, with the Poles and Danes out of the way, Charles was prepared to invade Russia and deliver payback to his final foe. But ever since those first few defeats, with Charles bogged down in Poland, Peter had been preparing. He had built a massive, well-trained army – even if he couldn’t beat the Swedes man-for-man, he could at least even the odds. He had also reconquered Ingria behind Charles’s back, where he had begun to build his new capital, the much-desired warm-water port on the Baltic. Being a bit of an egotist himself, Peter had been happy to name his grand new city after himself – Saint Petersburg. He also built up a fleet to challenge Charles’s control of the Baltic.
It was at this point that Peter proposed a peace deal to Charles. He would surrender every bit of territory he had gained, except for Saint Petersburg itself, for both peace and a payment of cash. Charles probably wasn’t going to get a better deal at this point, but he refused. He didn’t just want to defeat the Russian Tsar; he made it his goal to humiliate and overthrow him completely. Charles wanted a total victory.
Charles left Poland on January 1, 1708, with Moscow as his goal. He had won so many battles and campaigns that it didn’t seem like invading Russia would be that big of a deal. Much like Napoleon and Hitler after him, though, Charles gravely underestimated his task and the commitment of his enemy. Peter used scorched-earth tactics, slowing Charles down by destroying the farms, bridges and roads in his path. He accomplished the desired goal of starving Charles of men and supplies through attrition rather than risking a decisive battle.
By late 1708, Charles had still not reached Moscow and had not managed to destroy the Russian Army – and winter was approaching. A less confident, less victorious, maybe older and wiser king would have cut his losses, pulled back, and waited until next year to try again. Charles was none of these things; instead, he doubled down. Rather than pulling back to Sweden or Poland to rebuild his army and gather more supplies, Charles marched south into the Ukraine, seeking an alliance with the Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa.
This move meant that Charles’s supply line become badly strained and open to attack, so even as Charles moved into Ukraine Peter struck. Charles had a much-needed supply train advancing through the forests of Belorussia to join his force in Ukraine, but Peter ambushed and destroyed it, leaving the young Swedish king high and dry, isolated in the vast wastes of Russia.
Charles spent the winter of 1708-09 skirmishing with Peter and trying to recruit more men – Mazepa had overpromised his support amongst the nomadic Cossacks, and failed to deliver enough men. The harsh winter and constant fighting cut the Swedish army in half, so that Charles had only 20,000 men when he resumed his march on Moscow in July. Again, a wiser and more experienced king would realize how desperate this was and turn back – but this was Carolus Rex, undefeated, young, brilliant and aware of it. He could win, damn the odds. He and his Swedes had never lost before.
Directly in Charles’s line of march sat the town of Poltava, and it would have to be taken before the young king could continue his march to Moscow. Charles laid siege to the town on May 2. Peter recognized his chance – the Swedish army was pinned down, and now was his chance to destroy it. He marched his Russian army towards Poltava, arriving in front of it in early June and establishing a fortified camp.
Poltava had held out much longer than Charles expected, and the Swedes were running low on food, gunpowder, and men. The Russians numbered almost 45,000 men, while the Swedes counted only 17,000 – odds of about three to one. But Charles had beaten the odds before, and he was confident he could do it again.
Several things made it more likely that he wouldn’t. First, on June 17 Charles was wounded by a musket ball in the foot, making him unable to lead his troops in battle with his usual energy and zeal. The Swedish king had to be carried around on a litter, but refused to give up command to one of his experienced generals, insisting that he be carried around so he could command his army from a reclined position.
Peter learned that his old nemesis was wounded, and decided the time to fight had come. He constructed a second camp much nearer to the Swedish lines, correctly guessing that it would goad Charles into an attack. I keep saying it – this is where Charles should have turned back, cut his losses, saved his army and lived to fight another day. Charles, for all his brilliance, had been spoiled by victory. He simply couldn’t grasp when he had gone too far.
On July 8, 1709, Charles decided to attack. At 0300, his army began its march to battle. He left 6,000 men behind to guard his camp, leaving only 12,000 men for the attack. Though Charles moved in the dark of night, Peter was not about to be fooled again as he had at Narva. He had already built a small line of forts in secret in front of his camp, and moved out his troops to receive the Swedish attack behind the forts.
Charles split his force in two, travelling with the western half on his litter. He planned to rush past the fire of the forts and engage the Russians behind, who he was sure would not stand and fight; he assumed that nothing had changed from their shoddy performance at Narva. He refused to tell his subordinates the plan, though; much like Alexander, with whom he has been compared, he was a lead-from-the-front general who liked to be in the midst of battle and change his plans on a whim. Because he was on a litter, though, he could not do that, and none of his generals were allowed to act on their own initiative. Charles’ overconfidence and overcentralization doomed the Swedes.
On the left flank, the Swedes stormed past the forts with few losses, Charles bumping along in his litter. On the right, though, the Swedes attacked the forts frontally since they thought that’s what they were supposed to do. When late in the morning Charles had defeated the Russians behind the fortresses and was prepared to attack Peter’s camp, the other half of the Swedish army had been pinned down, surrounded and captured. When Charles redeployed his 6,000 men that he had left to prepare and storm the Russian camp, Peter emerged with 40,000 men.
Charles absolutely should not have attacked this vastly superior force, but his disdain for the Russian foe – and for his nemesis Peter – overrode common sense. His tiny army advanced across the open plain into the teeth of Russian cannon and were mowed down by the hundreds. Peter rode in front of his line to rally and inspire his men; Charles was unable to do so. By noon, Charles was forced to order a retreat – possibly the first time he had given that order in ten years of war. He should have given it much sooner. Even as they retreated, Charles kept losing his stretcher-bearers to enemy fire, placing an exclamation point on how low he had fallen after so many years of victory.
Charles’ retreat was a disaster. Cut off in the middle of Russia with few supplies, low on ammunition and food, his army disintegrated as he tried to lead it to safety. Only 1,000 men survived to make it to neutral territory.
Peter the Great – for now we can call him that – had won a decisive victory at Poltava. In another ten years, Charles would be dead and Sweden forever broken as a great power. With the emergence of Russia onto the Baltic, soon she would take Sweden’s place in the vast battle tournament that was Europe. The Russians, in a sense, had arrived.
Hubris, thy name is Charles.