Charles XII, the dynamic young king who led Sweden into the Eighteenth Century, is not nearly as well known today as his contemporary Peter the Great, Czar of Russia. In his own short lifetime, however, Charles also was a shaper of history. Both drawn and undeterred by the challenge of conquering Russia, he was in fact Peter’s greatest foreign nemesis.
The French philosopher Voltaire described the two rival sovereigns as, ‘by common accord, the most remarkable men to have appeared in over 2,000 years. Otherwise, said Voltaire, he would not have written his own History of Charles XII. Considerable praise for a man who lived only to the age of 36.
Charles, raised from infancy to be king, was well-read and scholarly, an excellent organizer and even a reformer. He personally was an ascetic–he never married, and he seemed to prefer the life of the military campaign trail. He was reputed to be uncompromisingly honest, and yet skilled at the nuances of diplomacy. He was adept at choosing subordinates to run his country while he was absent, which he was for most of his reign. The domestic affairs of Sweden, however, did suffer for those long absences.
His tactics ranged from the impetuous to the downright insane at times–not for nothing was he known as the Madman of Europe. Like Hannibal, he almost always was outnumbered in battle, and still he won usually. Totally fearless, he was described as a beserker and a knight errant in one, and he could inspire his men to incredible heroic feats. Yet he was described by one contemporary as gentle as a lamb, shy as a nun.
When Charles XII, great-great nephew of the famed tactician Gustavus Adolphus, came to power in 1697 at the age of 15, the Baltic Sea was virtually a Swedish lake. As well as his throne, Charles inherited from his father, Charles XI, an efficient army and bureaucracy that the elder king had labored most of his life to build. The new king was soon to need both–especially the army.
Wasting no time, Frederick IV of Denmark, Peter I of Russia and Augustus, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, entered into a secret alliance (1699) to curb Swedish power. They determined to take advantage of Charles’ youth and inexperience with a relatively simple plan: Danish King Frederick would invade Swedish territory in the west, and, while he kept the Swedes busy, the Russians and Poles would attack in the east.
In April of 1700 the Danes launched their attack, to begin what was to become known as the Great Northern War. Frederick was confident his superior fleet would protect him from retaliation. Meanwhile, the Russians confidently invested Narva on the Baltic coast in October of the same year.
Under cover of a naval demonstration by a friendly British fleet, Charles surprised everyone by slipping into Jutland and threatening nearby Copenhagen to the south. Frederick was forced to return home, where the young Swedish king dictated peace terms. Having dispatched Denmark in six weeks, Charles then turned his attention to the rest of. the coalition.
He arrived in the east before Peter was even aware of his approach, to relieve the siege of Narva (near the Gulf of Finland in Estonia of today). Charles had an army of only 8,000 men to attack an entrenched Russian force of 40,000. The odds of five-to-one didn’t bother Charles, who proceeded to attack in a blinding snowstorm on November 30, 1700. Now is the time, with the storm at our backs, he said. They will never see how few we are. Charles routed the Russians, capturing more prisoners than he had men in his army.
Charles then concentrated on a campaign to unseat Augustus as Polish king. By mid-summer, 1701, he had defeated the Saxons and Russians at Dunamünde; he then occupied Warsaw in May of 1702. In July he and 12,000 men routed the Saxons and Poles (24,000) at Klissow, 110 miles southwest of Warsaw. He took Cracow three weeks later. On April 21, 1703, he defeated the Saxons at Pultusk, and on September 22 he subdued the fortress of Thorn. He next deposed Augustus and had Stanislaus Lecycznski, Palantine of Posen, crowned as king of Poland. In many of those engagements, Charles was outnumbered by two or three to one. Meanwhile, the Czar Peter had not been idle. In 1702, Peter took Ingria along the Gulf of Finland. He then founded St. Petersburg on May 16, 1703. In July of 1704 he re-took Narva after a long siege and massacred the inhabitants. In 1705 a Russian force under Scottish general Ogilvie appeared at Pultusk in Poland, forcing Swedish commander Adam Lewenhaupt to fall back to Riga. Ogilvie then set up to winter in an armed camp at Grodno. Charles attempted to draw Ogilvie out, but the Scot refused to fight. Meanwhile, Augustus advanced to attack a small force under Karl Rehnskjold in preparation to fall upon Charles’ rear. But Rehnskjold routed the Saxons at Fraustradt. Soon after, Ogilvie was forced to withdraw.
Peter then sued for peace, but Charles had decided to invade Russia–he said he would discuss peace terms when he took Moscow. On New Year’s Day, 1708, having left 10,000 men in Poland to support Stanislaus, Charles crossed the Vistula with 44,000 men, the largest force he had ever commanded in the field.
In June, Charles forced the crossing of the Benezina and defeated a force of 20,000 Russians at Holowczyn. In September, he defeated a Russian army of 16,000 near Smolensk. At this point he was only ten days’ march from Moscow. But the Swedes by now had encountered the same scorched-earth policy that the Russians were to use on later invaders, and they were running short of supplies. Charles ordered General Lewenhaupt from Riga to join him with 11,000 reinforcements and, more importantly, a large baggage train of supplies. Charles halted at Mogilev to wait for them.
Then, while Charles was at Mogilev, he received an emissary from the Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks, Ivan Mazeppa. Mazeppa, once an ally of Peter’s, had fallen into disfavor and was seeking a way to free the Ukraine from Russian suzerainty. He promised Charles that if the Swedes came to the Ukraine, he would lead a general uprising and gather an army 100,000 strong. Charles, against the advice of his generals, marched to join Mazeppa–he left word for Lewenhaupt simply to catch up with him.
It was a disastrous decision. The Russians learned of the planned uprising, and a force under Prince Menshinkoff occupied Baturan, Mazeppa’s capital, killing many of his supporters and capturing most of his money and supplies. Lewenhaupt’s column was intercepted at Liesna by a superior force. The general and about 6,000 men managed to fight their way through, later to join Charles, but they had to abandon the baggage train and its fresh guns. Meanwhile, a force of 12,000 that was supposed to invade Ingria from Finland and burn St. Petersburg had found the city too well defended and retreated to the fortress Of Viborg, with the loss of 3,000 men along the way.
As a result of his own setback, Mazeppa was able to raise only a fraction of the men he had promised. Nevertheless, Charles settled down to winter in the rich Ukraine, still confident. Nature then took a hand. The winter of 1708-09 was the worst in a century. The Swedish interlopers continued to fight and win battles, but they suffered terribly from the cold.
By spring, Charles had only 20,000 men, 2,000 of them too crippled to fight. The Zaporozhian Cossacks, at the instigation of Mazeppa, had rebelled, providing both extra troops and a diversion to draw Peter’s attention. With supplies still a problem, Charles decided to besiege the city of Poltava on the Vorskla River, a storehouse for huge stocks of powder and supplies that also controlled the southern approach to Moscow. He invested the city in May, expecting a swift surrender, but the Russians reinforced the garrison and held out.
By June, Peter had subdued the Zaporozhian Cossacks and marched with an army of 60,000 to relieve the city. At that point, Charles had about 24,000 men, only about half of them Swedish. Peter crossed the Vorskla River and set up a fortified camp a few miles north of the city.
As was his style, Charles rode out to personally reconnoiter the enemy positions–he was wounded in the foot by a Russian patrol. Confined to a litter, he passed his active command to Field Marshal Rehnskjold. When Peter heard of his incapacity, he abandoned his policy of avoiding battle and moved his camp closer to Poltava.
Charles decided to attack the fortified camp on the morning of July 8, 1709. Lewenhaupt urged him to raise the siege, but Charles refused, leaving men behind to guard the city and remaining supplies. Only 12,500 were actually to be used in the battle. Because powder was so short, the men were to charge with fixed bayonets, their rifles empty, and only four cannon were taken along to support the attack. Charles was counting on a combination of speed and shock to force the Russians back onto their own ranks in helpless confusion.
The attack commenced at first light The left side of the Swedish line, where Charles himself was carried into battle on a litter, charged through a series of redoubts built to defend the Russian camp, as had been planned. But the commander of the right wing stopped to take the Russian redoubts, and so became separated from the main force. In addition, the central column, under Lewenhaupt, received a garbled order that he thought meant for him to halt. Peter had been on the point of fleeing but, encouraged by the sudden pause, took advantage of the reprieve to draw up a battle line of 40,000 men and 100 cannon in front of the camp. Charles decided to strike while the iron was hot, even though he had only 4.1000 men available for the final charge, to be led by Lewenhaupt.
Despite the odds, the right side of the Swedish lines did manage to force the Russians back, turning some of the Russian guns upon their enemies. But they soon were riddled by the Russian guns and overwhelmed at either wing by Russian troops.
Some historians are surprised that Peter did not immediately pursue his defeated enemy, but the fact is the Swedish army was still largely intact, and still dangerous. When Charles and Lewenhaupt regrouped at Pushkonivka, below Poltava, they found they still had about 16,000 men. The Russian strategy, of course, would be to force them into the V formed by the intersection of the Vorskla and Dnieper Rivers to the south. For the moment, Charles would accommodate–he had to, anyway.
Charles began retreating south in the hope of reaching Turkish territory and from there to make his way back to Poland to join Stanislaus. To Charles, surrender was impossible, not only because of his own sense of honor, but because he knew that if Mazeppa and his Cossack allies were captured they would be tortured and executed as traitors.
When his army arrived at the Dnieper River, however, there were not enough rafts to take the entire host across. It was determined that Charles and Mazeppa would cross with about 1,600 men and as many of the wounded as possible, while the rest of the army would fight its way south and rejoin them at Ochakov on the Black Sea. But the day after Charles left, the pursuing Russian force of about 8,000 caught the Swedish force left behind. Lewenhaupt, who had fought so well before, seems to have had a failure of nerve–he now surrendered his much larger force of 14,000 to the Russians.
Charles did make it to Turkish territory, not without some adventures on the way, and was warmly welcomed. Lacking an army to fight his battles, Charles turned to the pen–he soon convinced the Turks to declare war on Russia. Peter promptly invaded Turkish territory, where he, too, was subjected to a scorched-earth strategy, and was trapped by a far superior force.
The Turks negotiated a peace favorable to Turkey, but Charles was outraged that Peter had been allowed to escape. Charles’ encouragement led to four more declarations of war, but nothing came of them. Finally the Turkish leadership tired of Charles’ interference and ordered him arrested. After Russia and Turkey signed the Peace of Adrianople in 1714, Charles decided to leave. He made his way incognito through Turkish and Austrian territory to Swedish Pomerania.
Charles spent most of 1715 using a combination of diplomacy and military strategy to defend the remnants of Sweden’s central European territories from a fresh coalition that now combined Russia, Denmark, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover and Great Britain against him He, was forced at last to take refuge in his own Sweden when the Pomeranian port of Stralsund fell after a long siege in December of 1715.
But Charles did not long remain idle. He immediately embarked upon a scheme to take Norway, then a part of Denmark, as compensation for the lands lost in the east. His first invasion was indecisive in outcome. He mounted a second and soon was besieging the fortress of Fredrikshald. He was out inspecting the siege works when he was shot through the head. He was killed instantly. At the time, December of 1718, he was 36 years old.
Amid rumors that Charles had been killed by Swedish fire, rather than Danish, Swedish resolve collapsed on the spot. In effect, the Great Northern War was over. The royal heirs to Charles (sister Ulrika and her husband, Frederick I of Hesse-Cassell) were forced to grant Stettin and western Pomerania to Prussia and Sweden’s eastern Baltic territories to Czar Peter’s Russia. By the Peace of Nystad, which followed argument over succession to the childless Charles, Sweden thus permanently lost Livonia, Estonia, Ingria and the Finnish province of Kershold with its strategic fortress of Viborg on the Gulf of Finland.
While Sweden vanished as a Baltic, even a world, power, Russia now took stage as a colossus with one foot firmly planted in Europe–still shaky, somewhat mysterious, but a colossal presence nonetheless.
This article was written by Gary K. Shepherd and originally published in the December 2001 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!