Peter the Great 1702-25 – Russian Army at War II

If Peter’s economic policies sustained Peter’s army, albeit barely, they do not account for the outcome of the Great Northern War. The economic mobilization of Russia ensured that Peter would have something to fight with, but it did not foreordain his victory. To understand how the Swedes were defeated we must look at Petrine operations and strategy. It is immediately apparent that Peter’s operational practices and his strategic planning were profoundly informed by his knowledge of himself and his enemy. War, no less than politics, is the art of the possible, and Peter had a keen sense of what was militarily possible for an army like his and what was not.

There were three salient characteristics of Peter’s operational style: fortification, mobility, and naval support. The emphasis on fortification was the outgrowth of Peter’s awareness of the sources of Swedish military strength in the field.

In terms of population and resources, Sweden rated low among the states of Europe in the early eighteenth century. Sweden’s 3 million inhabitants was a paltry total when compared with France’s 20 million, the empire’s 20 million, and even Russia’s 14 million. But Sweden’s army was not composed of mercenaries, as were the armies of most other European powers. Rather its forces were chiefly made up of highly motivated troops conscripted from the nation at large. It was the national character of the army (and the high morale this engendered) that enabled Sweden to perfect the gå-på tactics with which its commanders regularly overcame numerically superior enemies. Unlike many other Western generals, who preferred infantry firelights, Sweden’s military leaders constantly insisted on shock. Arranged in four lines, Swedish battalions would hurl themselves upon the enemy. At a distance of seventy paces the men in the first two lines would suddenly stoop over, allowing the soldiers behind to fire a blasting volley. The charge would resume with the men in the van firing their weapons at point blank range. A general melée would then ensue as the Swedes attempted to finish off their enemies hand to hand with bayonet and pike. Cavalry procedures were analogous. Armed with long, thrusting swords, the Swedish horse would form a flying wedge and charge pell-mell into the serried ranks of the enemy. Confronted with such ferociously aggressive tactics, the opposing army often broke and ran.

Peter the Great had been given a lesson in just how effective Swedish impetus could be at Narva in 1700. Thereafter neither he nor his generals were particularly enthusiastic about confronting the Swedes in battle unless Russian forces were overwhelmingly superior. Sheremet’ev, whose numerical superiority over Schlippenback at the battle of Erestfer was almost three to one, has often been criticized for excessive caution. He was invariably averse to taking military action unless he was confident that he outnumbered his enemies by a large margin; indeed, he often delayed opening a campaign while he waited for reinforcements. But Sheremet’ev’s prudence was not misplaced, for the Swedes repeatedly demonstrated throughout the war that they were capable of fighting and routing superior Russian forces, as they did when they nearly annihilated Repnin’s cavalry division at Holovzin (July 1708). As late as 1713, Peter the Great would himself command his generals to avoid battle in Finland if the Russian forces were not numerically much stronger than Swedish ones.

Peter’s solution to the problem posed by Swedish gå-på tactics was fortification. He sheltered his infantry in forts, behind field works, in trenches. So important did Peter deem the ability to improvise field fortifications rapidly that he especially trained his cavalry for that function. He commanded that over 40 percent of his dragoons carry axes, sharpened spades, and shovels. Peter stressed the benefits of fortification even to his irregular forces. In a letter of January 1707 Peter ordered Hetman Ivan Mazeppa (whom he then believed still loyal) to concentrate his Cossack forces in Kiev, recommending that he bring along with him “adequate quantities of spades and shovels . . . so that it would be possible to make fortifications with trenches at suitable places along the Dniepr and by this means bar the path of the enemy.”

There were many military advantages to fortifications, either permanent or hastily thrown up. In the first place, such defenses might blunt the impact of a Swedish charge while allowing the Russians to inflict numerous casualties from relative safety. That predilection for the trench, not a shortage of firearms, caused Peter after 1706 to arm one-third of his troops with pikes and halberds. The sight of strong Russian field works bristling with pikes occasionally could be enough by itself to deter a Swedish attack. Jeffreyes wrote from Poltava in the early summer of 1709 that on many occasions when the Swedes advanced against the Russians, “we found them so deeply burryed in the earth that we have not been able to attack them without hazarding the loss of our infantry.” But when the Swedes decided that they had to secure a Russian position, the result could be a Pyrrhic victory. In January 1709 King Charles lost at least four hundred killed and six hundred wounded capturing the miserable little Ukrainian outpost of Veprik, where the Russian defenders poured water over the tops of their earthworks to transform them into walls of sheet ice.

It is no exaggeration to say that the use of fortifications was one of the central elements in Peter’s victory over the Swedes at Poltava on June 27, 1709. It was only after the Swedish army had dissipated its strength battering against Peter’s famous system of redans and redoubts that the Russian army emerged from its fortified camp to give general battle. Indeed, there can be no doubt that such humble instruments as the spade, the pike, and the ax were at least as valuable, if not more valuable, to Peter’s soldiers as the musket. The Russian peasant may not have known how to shoot, but he did know how to dig, hack, and stab. Peter’s decision to deploy his infantry behind defensive fortifications thus made excellent sense.

Peter’s approach to the use of cavalry was strikingly different. Here the most desired quality was mobility, for Peter conceived of the cavalry as a force to harry, skirmish, and raid. One of the most interesting characteristics of Peter’s cavalry was that it contained no heavy units—no cuirassiers or carabineers. All of Peter’s cavalry regiments were organized as lightly armed dragoons. As far back as 1702 Patkul had authored a memorandum to Peter in which he expatiated on the superiority of dragoons over other kinds of cavalry units; the Livonian noted that they were “much more handy in the field and cheaper.” They were handy because they could be dismounted and pressed into service as infantry if the occasion demanded; they were cheaper because they did not require such expensive equipment as breastplates and pistols, which cuirassiers or reiters commonly wore. The chief advantage of dragoons, however, was their speed. They were able to make sudden surprise attacks on small enemy parties and strong points. Although the history of the campaigns of 1700–1704 is a tale of tedious Baltic sieges, what made the sieges possible in the first place was Sheremet’ev’s disruption of Swedish lines of communication and retreat by means of cavalry raids, which made offensive action too risky for Charles’s commanders to contemplate. When Sheremet’ev galloped into Livonia in 1703, destroying the Swedish army’s magazines as he went, Schlippenback had no choice but to fall back on Revel. During the Swedish invasion of 1707–8 Peter employed “frequent skirmishes of his light horse,” in the words of the English Ambassador, “to ambush the Swedish army in the flanks and rear.”

On many occasions Peter demanded high rates of mobility not only from his cavalry but from selected infantry formations and entire armies. The speed of small cavalry parties could certainly result in successful ambushes; speedy travel by large units, however, could translate into operational surprise. Peter’s war plan against Turkey in 1711 involved marching his troops to the Danubian principalities before the enemy could mobilize against him. Of course, the plan did not work, but at least Peter succeeded in moving his forces quickly. So relentlessly did he drive his army that, in the words of John Perry it “arrived on the Borders of Moldavia with an Expedition that is scarce to be credited.” During the Finnish campaign of 1713 Peter’s army regularly performed forced marches of 15 miles a day; European armies of that time, by contrast, rarely ever traveled more than 12 miles in twenty-four hours. During his war with Persia in 1722 Peter managed to top even that rate, achieving as much as 18 miles a day over non-mountainous terrain. Yet such tempos of advance as those, when imposed on an entire army, could destroy it with fatigue before the enemy was ever in sight, which was one of the reasons Peter negotiated his way out of both the 1711 and 1722 campaigns.

Peter’s most successful application of the principle of mobility, in fact, involved not a whole Russian army but an improvised corps of picked troops. In the summer of 1708 Peter knew that the Swedish general Löwenhaupt was advancing southeast from the Baltic in order to link up with Charles XII in the Ukraine. Peter also knew that it was vital to prevent that rendezvous. Löwenhaupt’s sixteen thousand men would, of course, provide Charles with much desired reinforcements. Yet Charles needed the seven thousand cartloads of victuals and supplies in Löwenhaupt’s train even more badly. On the night of September 11–12, 1708 Peter left his headquarters at Sobelev at the head of his corps volant, or “flying corps”—seven thousand dragoons and five thousand infantry temporarily mounted on pack horses. Sixteen days later Peter fell on the unprepared Löwenhaupt at Lesnaia and crushed him. On the morning of September 29 Löwenhaupt abandoned the all-important wagon train and fled south with the surviving third of his forces. We shall return to the battle of Lesnaia subsequently, but we should note that on this occasion Peter’s exploitation of mobility produced results of the highest strategic significance.

A third prominent characteristic of Peter’s operational approach was his emphasis on combined arms, the use of his navy to support his ground forces. Of course, Peter had a lifelong fascination with matters nautical; his most important wars had as their objective the Russian annexation of coastlines. But Peter did not build his navy solely to gratify his vanity. He understood the mutual relationship of sea and land power more completely than did most other statesmen of his time, as he indicated in this crude but striking image: “[A]ny potentate who has only an army has one hand, but whoever has a fleet as well has both of his hands.” Peter learned that lesson—that a king without a navy is like an amputee—during the first serious military campaign of his reign. Peter’s initial attempt to take the Turkish fort of Azov (1695) failed in part because the Turks were able to provision and reinforce the garrison from the sea unmolested. When Peter renewed the siege the following year, he brought his own flotilla of galleys along. They effectively cut off Azov from the seaward side, dispersed the Turkish relief ships, and helped induce the fort to capitulate. Thereafter the value of combined land and sea operations was rarely far from Peter’s mind. Sea power could have an even greater impact, Peter discovered, if the fleet suddenly intervened in an unexpected location. In August 1702, for instance, Peter transferred the bulk of his White Sea flotilla from Arkhangel to Lake Ladoga—across 150 miles of rivers, swamps, and portages—in order to support the siege of Nöteburg. There are many other instances in which Peter arranged similar surprise appearances for his ships. To cite but one: in the summer of 1714 Peter ordered a wooden bridge 1.5 miles long built across the Hangö Peninsula so that his galleys could be hauled from one side to another. That measure forced the Swedish admiral to divide his fleet, which importantly contributed to the great Russian naval victory of July 26–27.

Peter’s most imaginative combined arms operations, however, were his Finnish campaigns of 1712–14. They depended for success on the simultaneous maneuvering of ground forces, galleys, and sailing vessels. The army was supposed to march up the southern coast of Finland, capturing important strong points: Vyborg, Forsbi, Helsingfors, Åbo, and Hangö. It was assisted in its sieges and to some extent supplied by the galley fleet, which rowed on a course parallel to the army’s advance, negotiating the treacherous Finnish fjords and skerries. Farther south, and still parallel to the army, the sailing fleet operated in the deeper channels of the Gulf of Finland in order to protect the army and the galleys from Swedish naval attack. Although Russian soldiers and sailors suffered horribly during those brutal campaigns, Peter’s combined arms approach did in the end enable him to achieve his goal, for he conquered all of southern Finland and capped off the achievement by defeating the Swedish fleet at Hangö. It is a measure of the importance Peter attached to the maritime component of those operations that he entrusted an admiral—F.A. Apraksin—with supreme command over all forces in the Finnish theater. Indeed, it was precisely combined land and sea operations that brought the Great Northern War to a close, since it was Russia’s three amphibious raids into Sweden from 1719 to 1721 that finally deprived the Stockholm government of any will to resist. During the first of those attacks, we are told, the Russian troops disembarked from barges and ships and devastated the countryside, burning villages, blowing up iron mines, and carrying off thousands of civilians as virtual slaves. It is no surprise that Sweden finally caved in to that pressure. But we should stress that it was a pressure that could be applied only with the assistance of the Russian navy.

The peculiarities of Peter’s operational style thus conferred several advantages on the Russian armed forces. When Russia was on the defensive, operational subtlety could be used to compensate for severe military deficiencies. Since the Russian army—ragged, undernourished, and ill-trained as it was—could not meet the Swedish army in the field on an equal footing, Peter relied on fortifications to neutralize Swedish tactics and to turn Swedish aggressiveness into a liability. The tsar could also launch cavalry raid after cavalry raid to improve the odds still further. But when Russia took to the offensive, Peter’s approach to operations emphasized the quest for surprise. High mobility enabled Peter to strike powerful blows in unlikely places, as with the corps volant at Lesnaia. And the bold combination of land and sea forces permitted Peter to carry the war into inhospitable theaters, such as Finland, or even into the Swedish heartland itself.

In the final analysis, however, Peter’s strategy was a more important ingredient in Russia’s victory over Sweden than was his operational art. Despite Peter’s innovations, the Swedes were almost always tactically and operationally superior to their Russian opponents. Yet the strategy of Charles XII was deeply inferior to Peter’s. It was on the strategic level that Peter really defeated the Swedish monarch.

Petrine strategy had several distinctive characteristics. In the first place, it was collectively debated and collectively made in formal councils of war. Those councils, variously called voennye sovety, konsilii, or konsiliumy, took place ten to twenty times a year. (There were, for instance, twenty-two of them during that period of crisis, 1708). Usually attended by Peter, his principal generals, and his ranking foreign policy experts, the councils were remarkably sophisticated decision-making institutions. The standard format was for one particular general to present a written paper in which he outlined the operational and strategic situation as he saw it and proposed a particular course of action. Sometimes the rapporteur would be a foreigner, such as Ogilvie or Hallart; at others, Menshikov or Sheremet’ev would be the first to address the group. After the designated speaker had been heard, lively discussion and heated criticism would follow. For example, when at the military council held on January 9, 1706, Lieutenant General Wenediger urged that the Russian army prudently retire from Grodno to Polotsk, Ogilvie raised shrill objections. He noted that in view of the lack of transport the artillery and shells would have to be left behind and would fall into Swedish hands; that a retreat would consign the three thousand men of the Grodno garrison to certain death; that the Swedes would pursue the evacuating Russians anyway; and that thousands of Russian troops would surely die if a winter march were attempted. He concluded that the very idea of a retreat was “dangerous, harmful, and also shameful.” After the discussion was over, a formal protocol of the meeting would be prepared for the tsar’s perusal. On occasion the most prominent critics of the original proposal would then be invited to submit written memoranda expanding on the counterarguments they had originally presented orally. In any event, the final decision was taken by the tsar and the tsar alone. If Peter was present, the decision might be issued quickly. If he was away, the entire dossier of proposals and counterproposals would have to be shipped to him, which was the upshot of the Grodno meeting discussed above. In a truly pressing emergency, Peter’s generals might write and implore him to pay a flying visit to the army’s headquarters for an extraordinary conference. It was Prince Menshikov’s appeal of November 1706 that brought Peter to Zholkiev for the most momentous military council of the entire war.

This system was obviously adopted originally as a heuristic devise. In the aftermath of the Narva defeat of 1700, Peter realized that neither he nor any of his native born generals had more than a shallow grasp of Western strategy. The formal military council could therefore serve as a sort of intensive strategy course, a forum in which Peter and his Russians could learn about the subject by debating Russia’s most able foreign officers. Peter stuck with this method of decision-making, however, long after such people as Menshikov and Sheremet’ev had acquired the requisite conceptual sophistication; the evident benefits of the conciliar system continued to impress him.

What made the military council particularly excellent? One benefit was the intense scrutiny any proposal or plan received there. Since criticism was invited, even expected, council members did not hesitate to castigate a written memorandum for errors of fact, logic, or plausibility. The mere clash of fiercely divergent opinions, of course, does not necessarily guarantee that the truth will emerge. But heated debate can do much to expand the repertory of approaches to a problem. One of the most useful results of the conciliar method was the open consideration of multiple alternatives—not only alternatives that the Russian army might entertain but also alternative courses of action that the Swedes might themselves select. One of the greatest errors in any war is the construction of war plans for one’s own country based on the false assumption that the enemy can be trusted to behave in a predictable fashion, almost if in accord with an unwritten script. But no enemy is ever consistently predictable. The conciliar system was thus Peter’s insurance policy against the stale thinking that could lead to unpleasant surprises. A good illustration of the way in which the give and take of discussion could stimulate original insights and creativity is the military council held in Beshenkovichi in early March 1708. By that point Augustus II had left the war; there was nothing standing between Russia and the Swedish army. But what would be Charles XII’s objective? What axis or axes of advance would he follow? The debate at Beshenkovichi among Menshikov, Sheremet’ev, Hallart, and Gol’ts resulted in the drafting of five plausible Swedish campaign scenarios, with detailed recommendations about how Russia might respond to each.

But the conciliar system did more than facilitate clearer thinking about the enemy and his intentions, for it also gave Peter I the opportunity to correct for the personal animosities and service rivalries that otherwise could have spoiled his own war plans. For example, in the early stages of the war the Russian cavalry and infantry were not accustomed to joint operations—“the foot soldier is no comrade to the cavalry” was a contemporary saying. Actually the statement might have been more accurate in reverse, for in Peter’s army the horse trooper generally showed more disdain for the unmounted infantryman than the other way around. Prince A. D. Menshikov, Russia’s leading cavalry general, well exemplified this sort of arrogance. He was well known for concocting projects that assigned the most central and glamorous role to the cavalry while loading the infantry with inglorious and mundane responsibilities. At Beshenkovichi, for example, Menshikov posited the following situation: Charles XII might feint in the direction of the Dniepr, then suddenly veer back into Germany for another attack on Saxony. In such a case, Menshikov advised that the Russian cavalry be split entirely away from the infantry and formed into an army of pursuit. Meanwhile Sheremet’ev should march the infantry north and attempt the siege of Riga. Sheremet’ev wisely condemned the scheme, observing that no siege would be possible without the reconnoitering and protection that only cavalry could provide. The point is that Menshikov actually had some quite good ideas about cavalry raiding and strategic pursuit. The conciliar format, with its open discussion, written memoranda, and so forth, allowed Peter to draw on them while purging Menshikov’s plan of its vainglorious elements by incorporating Sheremet’ev’s objections.


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