Clockwise from top: Battle of Narva, Battle of Düna, Battle of Poltava, Battle of Gangut, Battle of Gadebusch.
Campaigns and territorial changes 1700–1709.
Campaigns and territorial changes 1709–1721.
The enterprise that was to become known as the Great Northern War was not entirely Peter the Great’s own idea. Frederick IV of Denmark was eager to recapture Scania, the southernmost province of the Swedish peninsula, which had once been a Danish possession. And Augustus of Poland, the third member of the coalition, had an even more complex scheme in hand. Having been elected king of Poland, he wished to convert the republic into an absolute monarchy, with himself as the founder of a new hereditary dynasty. Augustus had been approached by a Livonian noble by the name of Johann von Patkul with an offer that might make this wish a reality. Patkul had been condemned for treason by the Swedish king for speaking out against the seizure of Livonian estates by the Swedish crown. He had come to the decision that if the Polish were to take Livonia, they would allow Livonian nobles a greater degree of freedom than they had enjoyed under their Swedish masters. Patkul’s argument was that, if Augustus, who was Elector of Saxony in addition to being king of Poland, used his Saxon soldiers to conquer Livonia, he could then present Livonia to the Polish Diet as a sort of gift, in exchange for being made hereditary king.
Between them, so the plan went, Augustus and Frederick of Denmark would engage the Swedish forces on three fronts. Denmark would attack Scania and drive Swedish troops out of the German principality of Holstein-Gottorp to the south; Augustus would attack Livonia. Peter, tsar of Russia, was invited into the enterprise almost as an afterthought, and not without some hesitation. There was always the chance that Peter would seize Livonia for himself, if they were not careful.
Peter agreed that he would join Denmark and Poland in the offense against Sweden, but the date was left unspecified, and there was a catch: the Russian ambassador in Constantinople was in the process of negotiating a thirty-year temporary peace treaty between Russia and the Ottoman empire, and until it was formalized, he could spare no troops to fight the Swedish, lest negotiation prove unsuccessful and war break out with the Turks. Confident of their success, Frederick and Augustus did not wait for Russian assistance before Saxony attacked Livonia (without going through the formality of declaring war first, an insult that Augustus’s cousin, Charles XII, would not forget) and Denmark attacked Holstein-Gottorp. On August 8, 1700, Peter received word from his ambassador that the peace had been secured in Constantinople. He had spent the past six months preparing Russia for war, and now at last he knew who he was going to war with.
When the formal declaration of war against Sweden was read out in Moscow, the casus bellum was phrased in simple terms that simple Russians could understand. The tsar was going to reclaim Ingria and Karelia, which had belonged to Russia before the Romanov dynasty was founded. And he was going to attack Livonia, because it was there, in the city of Riga, that Peter had been treated with such churlish inhospitality at the beginning of his Great Embassy to Europe three years before.
All three members of the coalition, Peter, Augustus, and Frederick, had been in agreement on at least one point: now was the opportune moment to break the might of the Swedish empire, because Charles XII was still only eighteen, and it was assumed that he would be flustered and over-awed by the sudden assault.
But as the coming conflict was to prove, Charles XII was “the most daring and aggressive soldier of the age.” One historian writes that he was “anxious for battle, at any time and at any odds.” In other words, no one was prepared, or could have foreseen, that the teenage king whose youth and inexperience was supposed to open the doors of his empire to foreign aggressors would prove to be nothing less than a military genius. When Charles received news that the Polish king had attacked Livonia, he addressed the Swedish Parliament, declaring that, because Augustus had broken his word to honor existing treaties between Poland and Sweden, Sweden occupied the moral high ground. This was an important distinction to the deeply religious Charles, and to his subjects, because it meant that God was on their side and would uphold the justice of their cause.
Charles attacked the Danes first, leaving the defense of Livonia to the garrison in Riga. He was supported by Holland and England, as William of Orange wanted the conflict in the north ended quickly, so that Europe would not grow distracted while Louis XIV threatened to annex Spain. The Danish had attacked the Swedes in Holstein-Gottorp, but the Swedish, Dutch, and English coalition struck directly at Copenhagen, on the island of Zealand. Frederick IV was entirely unprepared for an assault against his capital; Copenhagen surrendered under siege, and Denmark was forced to sign a peace treaty with Sweden and withdraw its soldiers from Holstein. The entire campaign lasted only two weeks. Now Charles, who made a firm policy of only fighting wars in one place at one time, was free to turn his attention north.
The Polish siege of Riga had not been immediately successful, and by the time Charles had won his swift, decisive victory in Denmark, Augustus was ready to retreat for the winter. Peter, meanwhile, was two weeks into the siege of Narva, a coastal city close to the Estonian border with Ingria. Charles was spoiling for a fight, and since Augustus had forsaken the field of battle, his sights landed on Narva. This was more than mere belligerence; if the Russians took Narva, then Estonia, Ingria, and Livonia would fall to them in short order. Even if Charles had not been determined to fight someone, the Swedish regiment at Narva was badly in need of relief.
When Peter received word that the Swedish army was approaching, he was prepared for a long wait before any fighting broke out. The Swedish forces were outnumbered by the Russians four to one, and they had just finished an exhausting march over hundreds of miles of territory. They would need time, he thought, to build encampments and regain their strength. Anticipating weeks of inaction, Peter left for the Russian city of Novgorod to confer with Augustus of Poland, whose retreat from Riga had come as an irritation and a disappointment.
He was due for an astonishing surprise and unwelcome surprise, however. The very next day, in the middle of a snowstorm, Charles ordered his beleaguered forces to charge the Russian siege line. Panic broke out amongst the untested, undisciplined Russian soldiers, who, in the words of one observer, “fell like grass.”. Surrender followed, but there were so many more defeated Russian soldiers than there were victorious Swedes that the Swedish officers were nervous that the Russians would notice their numerical advantage and mount a counter-attack. Instead, the Russians departed east for Russia, leaving most of their officers behind as prisoners of war.
Years later, after Peter’s great victory against the Swedish at Poltava, he wrote of the aftermath of his defeat at Narva:
“Our army was vanquished by the Swedes—that is incontestable. But one should remember what sort of army it was. The Lefort regiment was the only old one. The two regiments of Guards…had never seen any field fighting, especially with regular troops. The other regiments consisted—even to some of the colonels—of raw recruits, both officers and soldiers. Besides that, there was the great famine… In brief, it was like child’s play [for the Swedes]. One cannot, then, be surprised that against such an old, disciplined, and experienced army, these untried pupils got the worst of it. The victory then was indeed a sad and severe blow to us. It seemed to rob us of all hope for the future, and to come from the wrath of God. But now, when we think of it rightly, we ascribe it rather to the goodness of God than his anger; for if we had conquered then, when we knew as little of war as of government, this piece of luck might have had unfortunate consequences… That we lived through this disaster, or rather this good fortune, forced us to be industrious, laborious, and experienced.”
In the wake of his victory, Charles had a choice: either to follow the retreating soldiers and invade Russia itself, or to invade Poland and redress his grievance against Augustus. At this juncture, it becomes evident why Peter later considered his defeat at Narva to be a blessing. Russia was now the laughingstock of Europe. There could be little glory for Charles in winning additional victories against the Russians; he stood to gain nothing except Peter’s humiliation, which he had already achieved. The Saxon army of the Polish king, on the other hand, was technically undefeated, which made it a more tempting challenge for a soldier like Charles. Furthermore, the political climate in Poland was auspicious for an invasion. Augustus’s relationship with his Polish subjects was growing uneasy. He had not won the promised victory over Livonia; instead, he had angered the Swedes and risked their retaliation. The Primate of Poland, Cardinal Radiejowski, had written to Charles, declaring that Augustus had made war against Sweden without the consent of the Polish people, who wanted only peace with his country. Charles replied by asking the Poles to convene the Diet, dethrone Augustus, and choose another king.
When this request met with no definitive response, Charles decided to invade Poland, with the intent of forcing a new election. This was the best possible outcome for Peter. Had Charles not been diverted by Poland, he would have found the road to Moscow virtually unobstructed—Peter’s armies were in no condition to repel an invasion. Though he was deliberately choosing to invade the stronger of his two enemies, Charles believed he was on the path to another rapid victory. Instead, he became embroiled in a war that would last for six years—six years of reprieve for Russia that Peter would put to excellent use.
In 1702, while Charles was distracted by Poland, Russian forces seized the Swedish fortress of Nöteberg; this gave them undisputed possession of the Neva river, and, through it, a permanent foothold on the Baltic Sea. Conquest of Ingria followed in 1703. Anticipating that the Swedish would soon try to wrest these possessions from his grasp, Peter set about making his claim on them in as permanent a fashion as can be imagined—by building a fortress at the mouth of the Neva, and, around the fortress, a city, which he named St. Petersburg. More convenient than Archangel, blessed with slightly warmer winters, Peter’s city was the Russian answer to Amsterdam, to London, to Venice. Some part of him had loathed Moscow and the Kremlin since the Streltsy revolt in his childhood. A new capital, named for his patron saint, with its face turned to the sea, was Peter’s attempt to remake Russia in his image.
Abdication of Augustus of Poland
In 1705, after years of indecisive conflict between the Swedish army of Charles XII and the Saxon army in Poland, the Polish Diet bowed to pressure and elected a new king, Charles’s hand-picked protégé, Stanislaus I. But the election was considered illegitimate by many Poles—not only had it been transparently manipulated by Charles, but Stanislaus was crowned in Warsaw, rather than the traditional coronation seat of Krakow, with a new crown and scepter ordered and paid for by Charles. Furthermore, Augustus refused to abdicate, which meant that Charles was obliged to leave some ten thousand Swedish troops in Poland when he turned his sights back on Peter—who, in 1704, had reversed his disastrous defeat at Narva and seized the fortress. Swedish troops advanced on Grodno, a fortress town in Lithuania, some four hundred miles away from Moscow. But Peter, wishing to preserve his army, abandoned Grodno rather than engaging the Swedish in open battle. When Charles attempted to follow their retreat, the bridge over the river Neman collapsed. By the time the Swedish had navigated around it, the Russians had made a clean escape.
In 1706, Charles forced Augustus’s hand by invading Saxony, where he met with little resistance, as the Saxons were tired of Augustus’s long war on foreign soil and were not willing to see the electorate pillaged by Swedish soldiers for the sake of their erratic Elector. Without the support of the Saxon army, Augustus was no longer a useful ally to Peter. He traveled to meet Charles in person, promising to abdicate from the Polish throne in exchange for mercy towards Saxony. To Peter, this meant one thing. Charles was well-known for fighting only one war at a time. His attempted attack against Grodno had been unsuccessful in part because his heart was not in it, not while matters with Augustus in Poland remained unsettled. When Peter received word of Augustus’s abdication, however, he knew that Charles’s next move would be an attempted invasion of Russia—of Moscow itself.
The Great Northern War had begun with a coalition of Russia, Poland, and Denmark arrayed in opposition against the Swedish empire. Now, only Russia remained. Peter was without allies. Charles was inclined towards single-minded vendettas; any nation that attacked him must be prepared to fight to the bitter finish, because Charles would end the war on no other terms. Now, with the Swedish army positioned in Saxony, near the heart of western Europe, no European monarch would dare risk angering him by coming to Russia’s assistance, even if they wished to. The Protestant powers, England, Holland, and the German states, were particularly concerned that Charles might make an alliance with France, which would radically unbalance the distribution of power in Europe. It was in their best interests for Charles to engage distant Russia, and leave the French to them. And though Peter made tentative overtures of peace towards Charles, they had little common ground from which to negotiate. Peter would not surrender St. Petersburg upon any persuasion, and St. Petersburg’s position at the mouth of the Neva effectively cut Sweden’s Baltic possessions in half, disrupting communications and lines of supply. Charles could make no concession on this point.
Besides all of this, Charles was eager to face the Russian army in open battle once more. He had heard rumors of the extraordinary reformation of the Russian army that had taken place since the first battle of Narva, and he looked forward to the opportunity to face them in open battle. There was a certain strain of fanaticism in his character; not only would a negotiated peace fail to satisfy him, but so would a victory that consisted only in restoring the Baltic states to the Swedish empire. These were the two options that lay before him—either a Baltic offensive, or an arduous campaign to the heart of Russia, crossing thousands of miles overland. He opted for the latter, over the concerns of his generals, for reasons that were more mystical and personal than pragmatic. Peter must be utterly and decisively ruined; God had chosen Charles for that mission. Moscow itself must be seized, and a puppet tsar of Charles’s choosing installed in the Kremlin.
Though Charles attempted to confuse Peter regarding his chosen route by ordering military actions in the Baltic, Peter was not taken by surprise. He had been anticipating and preparing for a Swedish invasion of Moscow for years; indeed, he had feared that it would follow swiftly after his defeat at Narva. Since 1707, Peter had left standing orders with the Don Cossacks of the steppes to utterly destroy the countryside frontier bordering Poland as soon as Swedish troops were spotted. Advancing armies could not carry enough food and supplies with them to sustain a march of so many miles; they depended on being able to raid farms and ransack villages as they passed. Peter’s goal was to leave them with no source of sustenance. In case this was not sufficient, he likewise ordered new fortifications for the city of Moscow itself.
Advancing through Poland, the Swedish made their first strike in Grodno, the fortress that commanded the Neman river. Russian troops were on their way to secure Grodno, but the Swedish beat them to it; it was so deserted that once they had taken the bridge, they allowed the few Russian soldiers present to retreat to the town unmolested. Unbeknownst to Charles, Peter himself was in residence at the fortress, conferring with Menshikov, his most capable native Russian commander. It was a near-miss with disastrous potential consequences. If Peter’s person fell into Swedish hands, the war would effectively be over. Charles remained in Lithuania near Minsk throughout the winter, which was reckoned the be “the worst winter within memory”; many of his soldiers, inadequately sheltered and supplied, died of disease and cold. Though the Swedish army was famous for its hardiness in extreme winter weather, it would not be able to move again until the grasses began to thaw in June of 1708.