In 1709, after nine years of fighting, Peter the Great destroyed archrival Charles XII’s tough Swedish army— marking the rise of modern Russia.
Sweden’s king, once considered invincible among European monarchs, lay helpless on a stretcher, his left foot wrapped in bloody rags. All but three of his escorts had been shot down, the bodies marking their ruler’s path of retreat through the Ukrainian countryside. Surrounded by the dead and dying, the king could only stare at the summer sky as the remnants of his mighty infantry fled. The young ruler faced certain capture or violent death, until one alert trooper galloped up and hoisted his sovereign onto his saddle. Carried to safety, Charles XII, Europe’s most feared warrior-king, would never again decide the fate of nations.
The man responsible for Charles’ downfall was Pyotr Alekseyevich Romanov, known to his Russian subjects as God’s anointed tsar and to history as Peter the Great. Ascending the throne in 1682 at age 9, Peter worked tirelessly to tie his backward Muscovite empire to the modern West through trade and diplomacy. In 1696 he captured the Ottoman-held port of Azov, on the Don River, and established a naval base at Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, giving him an outlet to the Black Sea. By 1700 Peter’s southern navy was a force to be reckoned with, and he concluded a 30-year truce with the Ottoman Empire that affirmed Russian possession of Azov.
Peter’s need to forge diplomatic ties with the Turks was driven by intrigues to the north. Poland, Denmark and Sweden dominated the lands around the Baltic Sea. Russia, lacking a port for its northern rivers, had little influence over trade with the two great maritime powers the Netherlands and England. To Peter, Russia’s modernization depended upon access to the Baltic.
Sweden, which fielded Europe’s best armies, had been master of the north for nearly a century. In Peter’s time, Sweden controlled the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, as well as Livonia, Pomerania, Holstein and territories traditionally belonging to Poland, Russia and Denmark. Upon the death of King Charles XI in 1697, his 14-year-old son, Charles XII, sought to reaffirm Sweden’s various treaties with the surrounding powers, including Russia. However, a group of Livonian nobles chafing under Swedish rule secretly convinced King Frederick IV of Denmark-Norway and Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, to wage war against the boy king, whom they viewed as weak. Enticed by promises of Russian annexation of Karelia, adjacent to Finland, and Ingria, at the Neva River estuary on the Gulf of Finland, Peter joined the secret Northern Alliance and raised an army for a hard struggle against the major Western power.
Peter formed 27 regiments, uniformed, equipped and trained on the German model and commanded mostly by foreign officers. When the Saxon and Danish-Norwegian forces invaded Swedish territories in February 1700, Peter waded into what would become the Great Northern War.
The Northern Alliance’s underestimation of the youthful Charles XII ranks as one of history’s great miscalculations. Charles proved to be the most aggressive commander of his day. His 77,000-man army fielded some of Europe’s finest cavalry and infantry. Physically tough and personally fearless, the then 17-year-old Charles was the perfect warrior to wield such a well-honed weapon. Time and again, he would endure great hardships and display a ruthlessness in attack, a willingness to break accepted rules of 17th century warfare and the single-mindedness to pursue his enemies to the ends of the known world.
Betrayed by nations with which he’d had treaties of friendship, the pious Charles embarked on what he saw as a crusade sanctioned by God. He quickly struck back at the coalition, putting Denmark-Norway out of the war in August 1700 by landing troops in Zealand. While Charles was occupied with Denmark-Norway and Saxony, Peter marched more than 35,000 men to Narva, a Swedish fortress city off the Gulf of Finland, and encircled it. Charles advanced to the besieged enclave’s rescue and, though outnumbered 4-to-1, launched his assault on November 30 in a fierce snowstorm. Peter’s inexperienced conscripts fell back, while his cavalry— mostly noblemen and Cossacks —panicked and fled. Only Peter’s guard regiments maintained their cohesion, barricading themselves behind a wall of supply and artillery wagons. But at dusk they too surrendered. Charles lost 677 men killed and another 1,205 wounded; Russian losses were estimated at about 8,000, plus virtually all of Peter’s artillery. To Peter, Narva was a humiliation, while Charles assumed the mantle of Swedish invincibility once held by King Gustavus II Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War. He also developed a lasting contempt for Peter and his undisciplined Muscovite army.
Leaving a small force to hold Peter, Charles thrust west in the summer of 1701, routing Augustus’ Saxon army at Riga, Estonia. The following summer he invaded Poland and defeated Augustus at Kliszów. But Charles’s small army became bogged down another five years in the vastness of Poland, first installing a puppet king, Stanislaw I Leszczynski, in the summer of 1704, then chasing Augustus and his Saxons around the country through the end of 1706. All the while, the young king knew the campaign to settle the fate of the Baltic region would have to be waged against Peter’s Muscovite empire.
After his defeat at Narva, Peter reorganized his army for the inevitable fight with Sweden. His officers mustered some 23,000 stragglers into new regiments at Novgorod, and Peter summoned reinforcements from the Ukraine. He updated Russian training manuals to organize drill along Western lines, raised taxes and standardized his army’s uniforms —green for infantry, green and red for cavalry. Purchasing more than 30,000 British flintlock muskets, he ordered factories built to copy and mass-produce these weapons. With no time to mine new iron, copper and tin, he ordered one-fourth of all the town and church bells in Russia melted down and reforged into cannon; by the end of the year he had more then 300 new guns. In short, he put the Russian economy on a war footing.
In December 1701, Peter won a small but psychologically important battlefield victory when a force of 12,000 infantry and dragoons under veteran General Boris Petrovich Sheremetev attacked some 3,000 Swedes stationed by Charles at Erastfer in Livonia, driving them back with 1,000 casualties. Sheremetev completed his work in Livonia the following summer at the Battle of Hummelshof, wiping out a Swedish holding force and capturing all its artillery, standards and drums. The following year, Peter captured the last Swedish settlement on the Neva, finally gaining access to the Baltic —and founding the city he named St. Petersburg.
By 1704 Peter was in position to take the offensive. His first order of business was to recapture Narva and the Estonian town of Dorpat. Both fortresses fell that summer, securing Peter a buffer zone in the Baltic and signaling to Western Europe that the Russian army was no longer a mere peasant mob.
While Peter expanded his Baltic and Russian fortifications, Charles built up his veteran army of 32,000 men, arranging for another 9,000 recruits from Swedish Pomerania, plus some 26,000 men then under his commanders in the Baltic regions. If all went well, 67,000 of the most feared soldiers in Europe would converge on Moscow, enabling Charles to depose Peter.
The long-anticipated Swedish invasion of Russia began on August 27, 1707, when Charles moved east from Altranstädt in Saxony, initiating a two-year campaign that would span almost 1,000 miles, spark dozens of battles, cost thousands of lives and, ultimately, lead to the clash at Poltava and the crushing defeat of one of Europe’s great empires.
Peter, convinced his army was still no match for the Swedish juggernaut in open battle, ordered his generals to withdraw from Poland behind a vast swath of razed crops, demolished bridges, poisoned wells and smoldering towns. At the same time, he sent a dragoon force under General Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov to delay Swedish crossings of the Vistula, Narew and Neman rivers.
Charles advanced toward Warsaw, as Peter had anticipated. But in November, when autumn rains had ended and the roads began to freeze, the Swedish king, instead of going into winter quarters, abruptly turned north and crossed the Vistula above Warsaw, forcing Menshikov’s dragoons to withdraw. In late January 1708, Charles took the bridge over the Neman at Grodno and camped a small advance guard under the city walls, unaware that Peter himself was sequestered inside with Menshikov’s dragoon force. Believing the entire Swedish army was upon them, an unnerved Peter ordered Grodno evacuated and retreated to a new line beyond the Berezina River.
Peter’s scorched-earth policy had succeeded, however, and with scant fodder available for his horses, Charles was forced to halt his campaign until the following summer. Peter again put the time to good use: Peasants were ordered to hide or destroy all hay and food. Barns, houses and anything else the Swedes might find useful were burned to the ground. A belt of destruction 250 miles long, from Pskov to Smolensk, denuded the countryside.
On June 6, 1708, Charles advanced toward Moscow with an army of about 38,000 men, intent on forcing a decisive battle. Peter’s army—its infantry commanded by Sheremetev and its cavalry under Menshikov—numbered just under 58,000 men and spanned a broad north-south arc along the Vabich River in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Peter had an additional 24,000 soldiers at St. Petersburg and 16,000 at Dorpat.
Charles himself led a surprise predawn attack on July 3, 1708, that punched a hole in Sheremetev’s line near the town of Holowczyn, inflicting more than 1,650 casualties. Peter withdrew his forces to Gorky, on the road to Smolensk, while his Cossacks again devastated the countryside that lay in the invaders’ path. Charles summoned his 12,500-man army at Riga under the able General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt to move south with ammunition, medicine, food, clothing and other vital supplies. Peter, no longer threatened at Riga, responded by ordering his 16,000 troops in Dorpat to join Sheremetev’s main army.
On August 31, Peter sent 9,000 infantry and 4,000 dragoons on a daring attack on Charles’ army on the Chernaya Natopa River. The Russians failed to break through and suffered 2,700 casualties to 800 for the Swedes, but Peter was elated that his Westernized troops acquitted themselves well in their first major encounter with the main Swedish army. Farther east, Charles, still in dire need of supplies, waited while Lewenhaupt’s supply column from the Baltic crawled south, slowed by inefficiency and poor weather.
Knowing he could not overtake the retreating Russians, Charles gave up his march on Moscow for the year in mid-September and turned south toward Russian and Ukrainian fields that had not been ravaged by Peter’s horsemen. That turn, fatefully, created an 80-mile gap between Charles’ main army and Lewenhaupt’s approaching supply train. Peter exploited that gap, leading 10 battalions of mounted infantry and 7,000 more heavily armed dragoons to intercept Lewenhaupt’s force at Lesnaya on September 28. Unable to break through the Russian lines, Lewenhaupt was forced to withdraw, abandoning his artillery and most of his supply wagons during the retreat. He then led survivors—scarcely half his force—on a rapid march to join Charles. An overjoyed Peter sent word of the victory to St. Petersburg, Moscow and the courts of the West.
Charles spent the remainder of that fall moving his army south into Ukraine, seeking alliances and aid from the region’s Cossack chiefs, as well as cold-weather haven. But detachments of Peter’s army under Menshikov pursued the Swedes. A harsh winter, one of the worst in Russian memory (which killed some 3,000 Swedish soldiers), was among the many setbacks Charles encountered. Peter’s marauding forces also attacked his Cossack allies, devastating their homelands. By the summer of 1709, Charles was isolated on the Ukrainian steppes, hundreds of miles from his base and bereft of any significant allies.
Supremely confident in both his army and the righteousness of his cause, Charles concentrated his army around Poltava, a small, lightly fortified town on the west side of Ukraine’s Vorskla River. He planned to capture the town, hold out until reinforcements arrived from Poland, then use Poltava as a rallying point for possible Tatar and Cossack allies.
On May 1 Charles commenced his bombardment of Poltava, and the Swedish trenches steadily snaked toward the town walls. But Charles soon slackened the barrage, worried he might expend his gunpowder. The attack deteriorated into an ineffectual siege that dragged on for long weeks as Swedish food and powder stocks ran low.
In late May, Menshikov’s cavalry and Sheremetev’s infantry and artillery converged on the east bank of the Vorskla to force a showdown with the waning Swedish army on the opposite bank. On June 4, Peter arrived with 8,000 reinforcements, giving him a 2-to-1 numerical advantage. Nine years after his drubbing at Narva, he was finally ready to confront Charles in a pitched battle.
The Swedes repulsed Peter’s first attempted crossing of the Vorskla, and Charles was riding to direct another repulse when a Russian musket ball mangled his left heel and foot. He refused to acknowledge the painful wound until he had completed his inspection, by which time he had lost a good deal of blood. Word of the “invincible” king’s injury was a terrible blow to his troops, and when Charles lapsed into what his doctors believed was a mortal fever, command of the army passed to his chief lieutenant, Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskjold.
Learning that Charles had been wounded, Peter decided to throw his whole army—about 32,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry—across the Vorskla, a maneuver he completed around June 19. When the Swedes pulled back to their siege lines, Peter’s army pushed south to within four miles of Poltava, near the village of Yakovtsy. There his men built strong entrenchments abutting the Vorskla’s west bank.
Thick woods to the south and west of Peter’s entrenchments limited the approach to his camp. To command the remaining narrow corridor, he threw up a half-dozen redoubts, each manned by a few hundred infantry and a cannon or two, all backed by 17 dragoon regiments and 13 pieces of horse artillery. Several days later, the Russians began work on four more armed redoubts perpendicular to the first six, forming a T pointed toward the Swedes. Were Charles to storm the six main redoubts, he would run a gauntlet of crossfire from the four supporting redoubts. For early warning, Peter also stationed a screen of Cossacks in the nearby forest.
Around June 20, Charles—crippled and feverish— learned that his allies from Poland would not arrive because that country was too unstable for its puppet king to leave. Worse, the Ottoman sultan had forbidden the Crimean Tatars, his vassals, to aid the Swedes. With no hope of reinforcement and his supplies dwindling, Charles decided to stake everything on one savage attack at Poltava.
Charles’ soldiers began forming ranks around midnight, but the supporting cavalry was slow off the mark, and dawn was nigh by the time the Swedish battalions were in position. As the short summer night lifted, Russian artillerymen turned their guns on the assembled enemy columns, forcing Rehnskjold to move quickly. At 4 a.m. he launched his assault. His columns brushed past the forward redoubts while Maj. Gen. Carl Gustaf Roos’ detachment swarmed around the first and second redoubts, capturing both incomplete works in bloody fighting. But Roos stalled on the third redoubt, and his entire force—2,600 of Charles’ valuable infantry— became enmeshed in savage fighting around the forward redoubts long after the main body had cleared the danger zone.
While Roos was entangled, Menshikov’s dragoons, unaware they were no longer relevant to the larger battle, charged the Swedish cavalry to the west of the redoubts. In an hour-long struggle, Menshikov captured 14 regimental standards and urged Peter to bring up the Russian infantry. Not ready to spring the final blow, Peter ordered a protesting Menshikov back to the fortified lines.
In the Swedish lines, a gap opened as Lewenhaupt, on Rehnskjold’s orders, moved 10 infantry battalions—2,400 men—on his right, ahead of the left and center columns delayed by Menshikov’s dragoons. Drifting ever farther from the planned line of advance as it skirted the eastern redoubts toward Peter’s entrenchments, Lewenhaupt’s small force prepared to attack Peter’s 30,000-man camp unsupported. By 6 a.m. a horrified Rehnskjold, now positioned opposite Peter’s main lines, learned of his subordinate’s whereabouts and ordered him to rejoin the main Swedish force.
Even as Lewenhaupt returned to the Swedish line, Russians within the third redoubt were inflicting heavy casualties on Roos’ force, a full third of the Swedish infantry. After losing about 40 percent of his division, Roos finally concluded he could not take his objective and would rejoin Rehnskjold’s men—if he could find them. Peter, noting Roos’ isolation, sent Menshikov with five infantry battalions and five dragoon regiments to ride down the remainder of the Swedish assault force. This they did in short order. Roos holed up near Poltava, to surrender later in the day. Charles had lost nearly a third of his scarce infantry, and the real battle had yet to begin.
As the main body of the Swedish army waited in vain for Roos, Russian cannon fire began to take its toll. With his forces scattered in the face of 30,000 Russians, Rehnskjold decided to move his remaining infantry, fewer than 5,000 men, closer to his supply wagons. As the Swedes began forming into columns, however, Peter threw open the gates of his parapets, bridged the defensive ditches and sent forth thousands of greenclad musketeers.
Peter formed his battle lines on a traditional Western model. About 9,000 dragoons protected his right flank, while another 4,800 dragoons under Menshikov shielded his left. In the center stood two thick lines of Sheremetev’s infantry, more than 22,000 soldiers in all, each line numbering more than twice the Swedish infantry facing them. Fifty-five guns of the regimental batteries bristled forth from the long green lines. On the Russian left sat Peter, mounted on his favorite Arabian horse, surrounded by crack troops of the Novgorod Regiment.
Rehnskjold launched a preemptive attack against the Russian center, spreading his lines perilously thin to avoid being overlapped. As the Swedish infantry advanced, Peter’s cannon blasted gaps in the blue lines, and when they got within musket range, a sheet of flame erupted from the Russian infantry, sending Swedish officers and men sprawling. On the Swedish left, Russian artillery pounded Rehnskjold’s lines. Stalled by withering fire and poor coordination among the ragged battalions, the left flank slowed to a crawl well short of the Russian lines.
On the right and in the center, Lewenhaupt’s battered force managed to reach the first green line and hack its way through with swords and bayonets. But this hard-won advance left a gap between his lines on the right and the battered regiments to the left. Sheremetev, seeing his chance, immediately threw a mass of guard infantry into the gap. Trapped between the solid second Russian line and Sheremetev’s attacking infantry, Lewenhaupt’s division disintegrated.
The Swedish cavalry—hindered by difficult terrain, a confined battlefield and Russian cavalry on the left—arrived too late and in too few numbers to keep the green tide from engulfing the remaining blue pockets. Menshikov’s dragoons encircled the Swedish horsemen and sent them and their comrades on foot fleeing through nearby woods.
As his attack stalled and the Swedish lines crumbled before his eyes, Charles tried desperately to rally his men, to no avail. Saving its king from capture, his dwindling escort sent him fleeing on a trooper’s requisitioned horse. Charles gathered his remaining force— several thousand infantry, plus most of his cavalry and Cossack allies—near the Poltava siege lines and prepared to evacuate.
The Battle of Poltava was over. Charles’ army lost 6,901 soldiers dead or wounded. The 2,760 prisoners included Rehnskjold, one prince, Sweden’s prime minister, three major generals and five colonels. The Russians lost only 1,345 men killed and 3,290 wounded.
Peter’s men pursued Charles’s shattered army south along the Vorskla. On the evening of June 320, Charles, escorted by Cossack allies and about 900 wounded soldiers, crossed the Dnieper to seek support from the kingdoms to the south. The remaining command—nearly 15,000 exhausted men (including 5,000 Cossacks)—surrendered to Menshikov the following day.
For Peter, Poltava marked Russia’s emergence as a modern European power. The courts of St. James and Versailles signaled their willingness to form alliances with St. Petersburg, while Denmark-Norway’s Frederick IV proposed a Russo-Danish alliance to invade Sweden. Prussia, Hanover and the other great kingdoms of Western Europe also showed a sudden interest in forging ties with the emerging power to the east.
Charles died in battle in Norway in 1718, but few took note. The balance of power in Eastern Europe had already shifted.
For further reading, Jonathan W. Jordan recommends: The Battle That Shook Europe, by Peter Englund, and Peter the Great: His Life and World, by Robert K. Massie.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.