Battle of Poltava II
The Battle of Poltava on July 8, 1709 (N.S.; June 27, O.S.; June 28 by the transitional Swedish calendar) marked the end of Sweden as a major military power and the rise of Russia. In the 18th century small states could play a major role in European politics if they properly mobilized their resources. Field armies in this period were small—on the average only about 40,000 men—and a force of this size was within the reach of a small power. Sweden and Prussia are prime examples of this fact. Under its king, military innovator, and great captain Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden played a major role in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Although Gustavus was killed in battle in 1632, at the peace Sweden secured western Pomerania and the former bishoprics of Bremen and Verden on the Baltic Sea.
A series of confused wars followed in which the rulers of Poland and Sweden each claimed the kingdom of the other, but Sweden went on to control most of the Baltic region. The final Swedish effort came under King Charles XII. Known as the “Alexander of the North” or the “Madman of the North,” he became king in 1697, at age 15, on the death of his father. Russia, Poland, and Denmark then formed the Northern Union, an alliance that sought to take advantage of Charles’s inexperience and end Sweden’s domination of the southern Baltic.
Not waiting to be attacked, Charles invaded the weakest power arrayed against him: Denmark. This began the Great Northern War (1700–1721). After forcing the Danes to conclude peace in August, Charles XII turned his attention to Russia. He landed in Livonia with only 8,000 men to relieve the Russian siege of Riga but then learned that a force of 40,000 Russians was besieging Narva. Charles came on the Russians unawares at Narva in a snowstorm on November 30, 1700, and utterly defeated them. The Russians suffered 10,000 men killed or wounded—more than the strength of Charles’s entire army—and the remainder were scattered. Russian czar Peter I thus learned a hard lesson about the need to modernize his military. Fortunately for Peter, Charles spent the next eight years campaigning in Poland, allowing Peter time to bring in Western military experts and reform his army.
In 1706 Charles managed to place his own candidate on the throne of Poland and forced that country to break its alliance with Russia. Rejecting peace overtures from Peter, Charles departed Saxony on August 22, 1707, and marched east. He entered Polish territory in mid-September. The Swedes waited for the Vistula River to freeze and crossed it on January 1, 1708. Charles invaded Russia from Poland with a well-equipped force of between 36,000 and 44,000 men,almost equally divided between infantry and cavalry. He hoped to ultimately capture Moscow. Charles secured Grodno at the end of January after Peter abandoned it but then halted near Minsk to await spring. The Swedish army then crossed the Berezina River at the end of June and defeated a larger Russian army at Holowczyn (Golovchin) on July 14. The Swedes reached the Dnieper River on July 19.
Peter had adopted scorched-earth tactics that denied the Swedes needed supplies. The Russians also attacked the increasingly long Swedish lines of communication. Charles therefore adopted a southern strategy, turning south and allying himself with the Cossacks of Ukraine under Hetman Ivan Mazeppa. Charles would then drive on Moscow from that direction. This plan collapsed when Mazeppa was ousted from power in October, and a Swedish relief corps of 11,000 men marching from Livonia under General Adam Loewenhaupt met defeat at Lesnaya (presentday Lyasnaya in Belarus) during October 9–10, 1708. Only 6,000 men of this force, including the wounded, were ultimately able to join Charles; 2,000 supply wagons and all their cannon had been lost.
agons and all their cannon had been lost. Charles managed, with great difficulty, to hold his army together during the winter (November 1708–April 1709), but his army was reduced to only 20,000 men and 34 guns. With the spring thaw Charles advanced on Voronezh but stopped to besiege Poltava on the Vorskla River in Ukraine. The siege began on May 2. Peter put down a Cossack uprising along the Dnieper, convinced the leaders of the Ottoman Empire not to intervene, and ordered the Crimean Cossacks not to assist the Swedes. He then brought up a large force to relieve Poltava.
The fortress of Poltava proved more difficult to take than Charles had anticipated, and the Swedes were low on both food and gunpowder. Adding to Swedish difficulties, Charles was wounded in the foot and had to be carried about in a litter. Aware of the approach of Peter’s relief force of 80,000 men and more than 100 guns, Charles should have ended the siege and withdrawn east into Poland. Instead, demonstrating both his aggressive nature and his disdain for the Russian soldier, he decided to stand and fight. Learning of Charles’s wound, Peter resolved not to refuse battle. Indeed, to provoke Charles to attack, Peter ordered a fortified Russian camp constructed several miles north of Poltava. Its eastern flank rested on the Vorskla, and its southern flank was on a marsh and small stream.
Charles was equally ready for battle, and he attacked early on the morning of July 8, 1709. The initial Swedish assault was successful, but there was little coordination between the major elements of the army, and Peter was able to rally his forces to meet the final Swedish attack by 7,000 men, carried out against frightful odds. The Russians had 40,000 fresh troops and, with 102 guns, a crushing superiority in artillery. (Most of Charles’s guns were still at Poltava.) The czar took personal command of an infantry division, riding among his men and shouting encouragement. Charles’s wound prevented him from similarly rallying his men. The Swedes were cut down in large numbers by the Russian guns.
The battle was over by noon. It claimed some 3,000 Swedish dead and a like number captured. Russian losses were given as 1,345 killed and 3,290 wounded. Charles, removed from his litter, fled by horse with Ukrainian Cossack leader Ivan Mazeppa and about 1,500 Cossacks and Swedes into Ottoman Moldavia. Loewenhaupt surrendered the remaining 12,000 Swedes at Perevolchina on July 30. Total Swedish losses were 9,234 killed or wounded and 18,794 taken prisoner.
The Battle of Poltava marked the turning point in the Great Northern War. Its immediate impact was to revive the coalition of powers against Sweden. Charles XII found refuge at Bendery in Ottoman Moldavia, and two years later he induced Turkey to enter the war against Russia. He returned to Sweden in 1714 and made a last effort against his many enemies but was killed in 1718. Three years later the Treaty of Nystad ended the Great Northern War and gave Russia control of the Baltic shore. It also granted Peter the warm water ports and “windows on the west” that he so desperately sought.
Anderson, M. S. Peter the Great. New York: Longman, 1996.
Cracroft, James E., ed. Peter the Great Transforms Russia, Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1991.
Konstam, Angus. Poltava 1709: Russia Comes of Age. New York: Praeger, 2005.