Why did Charles XII of Sweden fail to conquer Russia in 1708?

Tsar Peter the Great

The failed invasion of Russia by Hitler and Napoleon are well known. Less well-known is invasion of Russia by the Swedes under their most famous king, Charles XII. Sweden in 1700 was the greatest Northern European power and this provoked the jealousy of its neighbours. This led to the Great Northern War.

The culmination of this war was the Swedish monarch’s invasion of Russia and his subsequent defeat by Tsar Peter the Great at Poltava (1709). The failed invasion of the Russian Empire by Charles XII has been largely forgotten but had he succeeded the fate of Europe could have been different. This article discussed the background the Swedish invasion, the military campaign and the defeat of Charles and his army at Poltava. It demonstrates that the failure of the Swedish army’s invasion was due to the geography of Russia, bad luck and the dogged stubbornness of the Russian people.

Background

Today we associate Sweden with liberal values and a peaceful society. It has not been involved in a war since the Napoleonic era. However, in the Early Modern Period the Kingdom of Sweden was one of the powerhouses of Europe and the greatest power in Northern Europe.[1] Under the House of Vassa the kingdom had expanded greatly. It had emerged as one of the real winners from the Thirty Years War. By the 1660s the Kingdom of Sweden directly controlled the modern states of Finland and the Baltic States. It also had extensive possessions in Northern Germany, Poland and Russia.[2] Its fleet also dominated the Baltic. Charles XI of Sweden had managed to defend the extensive Empire and had greatly expanded its influence. This able king died while still a relatively young man. His son became king of Sweden at the age of fifteen. The young monarch belonged to the Royal German House of Palatinate. Charles was the only surviving son of Charles XI and his German wife Ulrika Eleonora the Elder.

The young monarch at first had been controlled by a council of regents but at the incredibly young age of fifteen he became the sole ruler of the kingdom. The sight of a mere boy on the Throne of Sweden alerted the neighbours of the Swedes. They all had grievances with the Swedes and resented what they saw as their domination in the Baltic Sea. In 1700, a triple alliance of the kingdoms of Denmark, Poland and Russia launched a three-pronged attack on the Swedes. The Poles and Danes attacked the Swedes in Northern Germany and the Russians attacked them in the Baltics and thus began the Great Northern War. It seemed that the young Swedish monarch would lose his empire but the young man was to prove himself to be a military genius. Charles launched a surprise attack on Copenhagen and knocked the Danes out of the war. Charles then secured major victory over a much larger Russian army in 1700 at the Battle of Narva, when Peter the Great narrowly escaped with his life. Later Charles campaigned in Poland and imposed his choice of king on the country. The Swedes secured devastating victory by Swedish forces under the general Rehnskiöld over the Russians and their Saxon allies at the Battle of Fraustadt in 1706.[3] By that year all the enemies of Charles XII had been vanquished and only Peter the Great remained at war. The Russian Tsar sued for peace but Charles rejected the overtures and decided to invade Russia. By this time, he was popularly known as ‘The Alexander of the West’, a comparison with Alexander the Great.[4]

Charles XII invasion of Russia, 1708-1709

Tsar Peter the Great

While Charles was bogged down in the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the Russian Tsar Peter the Great reformed the Russian military and ironically modeled his army on the Swedish forces. While the Swedes were campaigning in Germany and Poland after 1706 Peter ordered his forces into Ingaria and found a new port that was to become the City of St Petersburg. This gave the Russians an outlet to the sea, from which they could threaten Sweden in the Baltic. Charles was outraged at what he saw as a surprise attack.[5] According to Voltaire, he wanted to annihilate Peter the Great. The Swedish monarch was quoted as saying ‘"I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies."[6] In 1708, he ordered a general invasion of Russia and he decided to ally himself with the rebellious Cossacks who had revolted against Peter in the Ukraine. Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks, had managed to secure a vast area that was independent of the Russians.

Charles assembled a large army but at the last minute was obliged to leave some of his troops with the Polish King who was his puppet. In total, the Swedish army was composed of 50,000 men, mostly Swedes, and Finns. Many units were needed to defend Sweden and its extensive Empire. Charles marched his army into Livonia (now Belorussia). The Russians and the Swedes clashed in a great Battle of Holowczyn. Charles was confronted by a huge Russian army that was numerically superior to his own. The Swedish king secured a great victory with only minimal losses. The Russians decided that it was best not to meet the Swedes on the field of battle and they adopted guerrilla and hit and run tactics. At this point, Charles was urged to march on St Petersburg but the young monarch wanted to seize Moscow and put a puppet on the throne. He ordered the troops he had left with the Polish king to join him, no sooner than they had left that his Polish ally faced a general revolt. The reinforcements were attacked by Peter’s army and suffered many casualties and lost many precious cannons. Charles was now reliant on the support of the massive Cossack rebellion led by Mazepa in Ukraine.[7] The Swedes had been told by the Hetman of the Cossacks that he could provide them with 40,000 men.

However, the Russian army was quick to react and they launched a surprise attack on the Cossacks at their capital Batruin in the Ukraine. They did so before the Cossacks could rendezvous with the Swedish army.[8] The invasion force of Charles was now in the vast Steppes of the Ukraine with little support and an overextended supply line. Winter was approaching and in the cold many, soldiers succumbed to frostbite. The Swedes decided to retreat to their winter camp in Western Ukraine in November 1708. In the following summer of 1709 in a skirmish with some Russians, Charles was wounded and fell into a coma. The leadership of the army passed to Rehnskiöld. The Swedes came across the army of Peter the Great at the fort of Poltava in June 1709. Despite being inferior in numbers they besieged Poltava. Rehnskiöld launched several assaults on the fortifications but all ended in failure, one assault ended in disaster and the entire army retreated in chaos. The Swedish king was by now able to once again lead his men but it was too late. The bulk of the Swedish army retreated to Perevolochna, where they were soon encircled and forced to surrender. Charles XII managed to escape with a small number of followers into Ottoman territory and he later returned to Sweden. The invasion of Russian was a disaster and it spelled the end of the Swedish Empire and marked the advent of Russia onto the European stage as a major power.

Russia and its geography

Charles XII and the leader of the Cossack rebels after the defeat at Poltava

The sheer scale of Russia and its endless Steppes proved simply too much for the Swedes. Like subsequent invaders, they struggled in the vast landscape with its harsh climate. The Swedes were inured to Arctic weather, yet even they felt it was extremely challenging fighting in the Ukrainian Plains.[9] Charles lost many men to the extreme cold and to frost bite. Furthermore, they were far from home and their supplies were scant. Trying to live off the land was futile as the Steppes had no real population centres and those who lived there were usually destitute.[10] The sheer scale of Russia meant that Charles army was in a state of near physical collapse when it encountered the enemy at Poltava and even if it had won here, it seems likely that it would have disintegrated as Napoleon’s Grand Armee had in the winter of 1813.

The Cossack Alliance

The Ukrainian Cossacks had been in rebellion against Peter the Great for some time. Charles had entered an alliance with them in the hopes of securing a massive army. This alliance did not strengthen Charles as he had hoped it had only weakened him and his army. To link up with the Cossacks he moved away from the Russian heartland and headed into the Ukraine. Furthermore, the Cossacks had failed to meet him as had original been planned and they had been tardy in their deployment. The Cossack Hetman was not decisive and unwilling to leave his home base. This meant that he did not met up with the Swedes but the Russians were able to surround him and his men and end the Cossacks rebellion[11]. The alliance for Charles was a disaster and when the Ukrainian Cossacks support failed to materialize the invasion was in serious difficulties.

Bad luck and judgement

Charles XII was widely seen as a military genius and Voltaire who wrote his biography called him the most remarkable man of his time. However, he made several serious miscalculations. The first was that he should have invaded Russia after his great victory at Narva. Instead he campaigned to no great effect in Poland and this allowed Peter the Great to regroup and to strengthen his military. The army that Charles faced at Poltava was superior to the one he faced at Narva. Then there was Charles XII's strategy of attacking Moscow deep in Russia. He ignored his generals who wanted him to conquer St Petersburg. The Swedish monarch strategy was too ambitious and he was not aware of the sheer extent of Russia. His army was expected to travel huge distances in a terrible climate. These were to prove fatal mistakes. However, it must also be noted that bad luck was also a factor, such as the sudden collapse of the Cossack rebellion in the Ukraine and the Charles XII being unable to lead his men into battle at Poltava.

Russian strategy and tactics

Painting of the battle of Poltava

After the Russians defeat at Holowczyn, they dramatically changed tactics. Peter the Great and his generals adopted a cautious strategy. They decided to avoid a set battle with Charles whose army though inferior was much superior in terms of experience and training. Instead they adopted delaying tactics knowing that the Swedes would suffer in the Steppes during the winter.[12] They also concentrated on attacks on Charles XII supply line and reinforcements. This effectively weakened the invading army. Perhaps the most brilliant piece of strategy in the war was the Russians unexpected attack on the Cossacks. This was to leave Charles isolated during the Steppes at the onset of winter. Tsar Peter the Great and his inner circle, developed a strategy that avoided direct confrontation.[13] Their patience was rewarded and the hungry and cold Swedish army was forced to gamble on a battle at Poltava to quickly win the war. This was a disaster and it sealed the fate not only of the Swedish invasion but also the Swedish Empire. The strategy of Peter was to a large extent like that adopted by Tsar Paul I against Napoleon and by Stalin during Hitler’s invasion.

Conclusion

Charles XII was one of the most talented military leaders of the Early Modern era. Voltaire had no doubt that the entire invasion of Russia was a mistake and in a critical biography he blamed Charles for the collapse of the Swedish Empire.[14] The Swedish king’s entire strategy of invading Russia was arguably unrealistic. He made a cardinal error by marching on Moscow and he should have attacked and conquered St Petersburg instead. Then he placed too much trust in the Cossacks and his trust in them was misplaced, indeed they possibly distracted him from a direct assault on Moscow, which may have given him some chance of success. Then there was the strategy of the Russians. They used the geography and climate to great effect. They adopted a cautious approach, with the knowledge that the elements would help them to defeat the Swedes. Imperial Russian forces were also a modern fighting force and they fought courageously in defense of ‘Holy Russia’. Then there were the vast spaces and inclement weather of the Russian Steppe and these played a crucial factor in the defeat of the Swedish invasion. Charles XII in hindsight did not really have a hope of victory over the Russian Tsar and the invasion was doomed from the start.

References

  1. Peterson, Gary Dean. Warrior kings of Sweden: the rise of an empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (London, McFarland, 2007), p. 2
  2. Peterson, p. 215
  3. Thomas Derry, History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland (2000) p 154
  4. Voltaire. The History of Charles XII (London, Upton House, 1911), p. 34
  5. Voltaire. p. 112
  6. Voltaire, p. 37
  7. Derry, p. 116
  8. Hatton, R.M. Charles XII of Sweden (London, MacFarland,1968), p. 113
  9. Voltaire, p. 89
  10. Hatton, p. 217
  11. Hatton, p. 213
  12. S. Sebag-Montefiore. The Romanovs (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 2015), p. 114
  13. Derry, p. 213
  14. Voltaire, p. 99

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