28 June 1709

In late June 1709, a large Swedish army led by the ambitious young king Charles XII, which had swept into Russia to enjoy one victory after another, met its match at the hands of a Russian army under the command of the reforming tsar, Peter the Great. The victory went against the expectations of Europe, where the martial skills and courage of the Swedish forces enjoyed a formidable reputation. The Swedes had expected another victory against an enemy they always underrated. Peter, on the other hand, knew that he had to turn his unskilled peasant army into a real fighting force. The explanation for Russian victory lies in Peter’s use of mass artillery. Its success marked the opening of an age in which large guns came to dominate the battlefield.

This painting of the Battle of Poltava in 1709 by Pierre-Denis Martin was commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great to mark his decisive victory over the Swedish Army of Charles XII. Russian success was brought about by the development of extensive and effective artillery fire.

The battle came at the climax of the long conflict known as the Great Northern War. Tsarist Russia was the one remaining obstacle to Swedish domination of a large area of northeastern Europe. The Swedes began a major offensive in 1707, which took them on a long and bloody march across present-day Poland and Belarus, and into Ukraine. The Russian army refused to stand and face a major engagement and used harassing, guerrilla tactics to exact a persistent toll of Swedish forces. Charles wanted a major engagement because he was confident that in a pitched battle his disciplined troops would overwhelm the Russian masses. In May 1709, his forces arrived at the small town of Poltava in southern Ukraine, 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) away from the Swedish homeland. Here they laid siege and waited to see if the Russians would seek battle.

Tsar Peter now moved his large army closer, crossing a river north of Poltava and, on 26 June, setting up a large fortified camp a few miles distant. His engineers began work on a system of fortified redoubts on the approach to the camp. Peter brought with him around 25,000 foot soldiers and 9,000 cavalry, with numerous Cossack irregulars in support. Above all, he had more than 100 pieces of artillery and large supplies of cannon balls, grenades and canisters – deadly projectiles of wood or iron containing scraps of metal, flint, lead shot or nails, capable of killing and maiming many soldiers at once.

Russian artillery was reorganized to make it more flexible on the battlefield: cavalry units had their own mounted artillery to support them in action, while regimental commanders of infantry also had control over their own artillery, moving it around the battle to support their troops. Heavier artillery, capable of firing 10-kilogram (20-pound) or 20-kilogramme (40-pound) projectiles, was less mobile but could be concentrated to provide devastating long-range fire. Against this novel field of fire, the Swedes, whose king preferred his men to fight rapid, mobile contests, unburdened by artillery, were armed with just four three-pound guns and a few ammunition wagons.

Battle was not yet inevitable, but having come so far, with dangers all around them, the Swedish leaders could see that they had to inflict a decisive defeat or be worn down piecemeal on the wide Ukrainian plain. Charles and his leading field marshal, Carl Gustav Rehnsköld, decided to move from Poltava under cover of night in four large columns, with the cavalry following, and fall on the Russians before they awoke. The plan was to sweep through the redoubts, with their dangerous guns, and then for the cavalry to destroy the Russian horse on the flank, while the infantry stormed and destroyed the Russian camp.

The reality was a tactical disaster. At night the infantry found it difficult to form up in their units; they arrived late in front of the Russian redoubts, and then had to wait for both wings of cavalry, which had lost their way in the dark. A Russian scout spotted them in the murky dawn and the element of surprise was completely lost. Fire began to pour onto the Swedish army. Two soldiers next to the king were killed by a cannon ball. Charles had no alternative now but to order the advance. At 4 a.m., the blue and yellow army began to move.

For the Swedes the situation went from bad to worse. The first two redoubts were stormed and their guns captured, though not spiked. The third redoubt was more sturdily built and had a deep ditch. Repeated efforts to storm it ended in failure and piles of Swedish corpses lay below the makeshift walls. Heavy gunfire cut gory swathes through the Swedish ranks. The Swedish left wing, under command of General Carl Gustav Roos, became stuck in the redoubts while the rest of the Swedish line skirted them and moved towards the Russian camp. As a result, one-third of the Swedish infantry lost contact with the rest. The Russians reoccupied the redoubts that had first been captured and turned the guns round to fire at the rear of Roos’s force. The Swedish left was surrounded and worn down. No quarter was given on either side. Roos finally negotiated surrender for himself and the handful of men left, a mere 390 out of the 2,600 men he had set out with.The rest of the Swedish right moved towards the Russian camp until they realized that the left wing was missing. Rehnsköld called a halt to wait for the remaining cavalry and infantry to reform, hoping that Roos would join them. After a long delay it was evident that one-third of the Swedish army had been lost.

The Russians waiting in the camp were puzzled by Swedish inaction, but in the end Tsar Peter ordered them to form up and march out to engage with the enemy. They were sprinkled with holy water as they marched past their monarch, battalion after battalion, with artillery pieces in the gaps between them. Cavalry protected each flank and heavy guns stood behind them, ready to fire their lethal missiles over the Russian ranks. The Swedish infantry now numbered around 4,000 against 22,000 Russians.They were ordered forward into attack as the only method they knew. Russian grapeshot, canisters and balls opened up a terrible fusillade, smothering the battlefield with a smoky fog. The Swedish ranks thinned, but marched on. ‘It was like a heavy hail from Heaven,’ recalled one of the Swedish survivors; hundreds were mown down or mutilated by the hail. Somehow enough got through to begin to push the Russian tide back on the right of the line, but the Swedish cavalry, crushed behind the foot soldiers at the start of the advance, could not organize their units in time to support their front line. On the left, the weight of fire broke the Swedish line and soldiers began to panic. What had briefly looked like an unlikely Swedish victory now turned into a spectacular rout.The Swedish commanders swiftly lost control of the battlefield entirely, covered as it was by dense smoke and islands of disorganized resistance. The Russian elite cavalry, under the command of Prince Alexander Menshikov, swept round the faltering Swedish line and attacked it from the rear. The line split apart, the left running in disordered flight, the right increasingly isolated by a press of Russian infantry and horse.

Those who were caught in the trap were slaughtered almost to a man, the Russian infantry scenting victory, eager to kill any survivors and loot their weapons and clothes. The battlefield descended into a terrible chaos, but it was the Swedish soldiers who lay dead and dying in heaps, stripped naked, torn apart by the almost 1,500 rounds fired by the Russian guns.The remnants of the Swedish army, grouped around the wounded figure of the king, staggered back to their base camp and the baggage train. Peter did not order a large-scale pursuit, which would have resulted in complete annihilation, but instead ordered a halt in order to celebrate a triumphant victory. The ragged remains of the army were allowed to move away to the south. Charles hoped to reach Ottoman territory, but the Russians caught up with him at the village of Perovolochna. The king managed to cross the river there and make good his escape, but the only senior Swedish commander left, the infantry general Adam Lewenhaupt, after consulting with his men, surrendered to Menshikov on 1 July. Except for 1,300 men, many wounded and sick, who left with the king, all the other Swedes went into captivity. Sweden’s army disappeared.

At Poltava the Swedes lost half the army, killed, wounded or captured. The rest went into captivity three days later. The thousands of captured Swedes were kept prisoner and only slowly returned to Sweden, the last thirty-six years after the battle. Swedish power was broken permanently. The Russians lost just 1,345 on the battlefield. Thanks to the devastating effects of the massed artillery, the ‘primitive’ army of Russia had become a force to be reckoned with. Poltava marked the beginning of the long and painful ascent of the Russian superpower.