The Great Northern War in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth II


At 11.00 on the hot summer’s morning of 8/19 July 1702 a surprised Augustus II was informed at his headquarters in Kliszów, south of Kielce, that the Swedish army which he had understood to be encamped five kilometres to the north had appeared unexpectedly out of woods near the village of Borczyn. After hurrying forward to confirm the report, he ordered the Saxon army to deploy in a strong position on a small rise to the north of their encampment. The Swedes were also surprised. Charles had persuaded his reluctant advisers to march on the Saxons at nine o’clock having spent two hours drawn up in battle order waiting for an attack which never materialised. He had not, however, expected the Saxon position to be so strong: protected by an impassible swamp it could not be outflanked on its left, while the stream which ran through the boggy valley between the armies made a frontal assault a risky proposition. Moreover, Charles was substantially outnumbered: the Swedish army consisted of 8,000 foot, and 4,000 horse; with most of its artillery struggling far to the rear on the dreadful roads it was supported by only four three-pounder guns. It faced 9,000 Saxon cavalry, 7,500 Saxon foot, 6,000 Polish cavalry and forty-six guns. With no fortuitous snowstorms to be expected from the clear July heavens, it looked as if the impetuous Charles would at last receive his comeuppance. The startled Saxon officers, forced to abandon their leisurely picnic, certainly thought so: as they dashed to take up their positions, they ordered their servants to keep lunch warm. They would soon be back.

If the servants heeded their masters, it was to no avail. After a brief survey of the terrain, Charles ordered a daring manoeuvre which decided the battle. Since the major weakness of the Saxon position lay on its right, where Lubomirski’s Poles had just squeezed into line, he changed his battle order, strengthening his left wing to mount a bold enveloping move. After a Swedish charge was beaten back, the Swedes withstood two great onslaughts by Lubomirski’s cavalry while the weakened centre and right beat back a Saxon thrust across the marshy valley which now offered them a measure of protection. When Lubomirski withdrew from the battlefield after his failed assaults, the main Swedish force turned in on the exposed Saxon flank as the Swedish right and centre advanced. The Saxons, hemmed in by the marshland to their left and rear, fought with great determination, but were slowly crushed between the Swedish pincers. By half past four, Charles was mounting a triumphal entry to the Saxon camp as Augustus and the remnants of his army squelched their way to safety through the evil-smelling bog. For the loss of some 300 dead, including Charles’s brother-in-law Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp – sliced in two by a Polish cannon-ball – and 500–800 wounded, the Swedes killed some 2,000 Saxons and captured 1,000. Lunch would have to wait.

It is important to consider Narva in the context of what happened at Kliszöw. For it was not just Russian armies which were unable to deal with the Swedes. At Kliszów Charles routed a regular, numerically-superior and experienced western army drawn up in a strong defensive position with a substantial advantage in artillery. The Swedish army is often regarded as western, and many of its officers had considerable experience of warfare in the west, yet it did not fight as western armies were supposed to fight. Throughout the seventeenth century, European armies had built their strategy and tactics round firepower and fortifications. The improvements in firearms technology in the second half of the seventeenth century, which saw the replacement of the matchlock by the flintlock, the introduction of the bayonet, which enabled armies to dispense with pikemen, and the increased discipline which could be instilled into the new regular armies, ensured that gunpowder’s role was more important than ever. The increased rate of fire made possible by flintlocks meant that experienced infantry who had time to form up could no longer be broken by cavalry, as Lubomirski’s hussars discovered at Kliszów, and were less vulnerable on the march. The battlefield in the age of Marlborough and Eugene was increasingly obscured by the acrid black smoke of gunpowder, as the intricate geometrical patterns of Vauban’s fortifications twirled their way round European cities.

Yet Charles obstinately refused to follow fashion. Even though flintlock and bayonet were standard issue in Swedish armies – indeed the Swedish bayonet was better fixed and hence superior to many western versions – the pike was retained, not because Sweden was backward, but because pikemen, who constituted about a third of each battalion, still had a role to play. Charles had a healthy contempt for firepower, placing far greater trust in cold steel. Each Swedish infantryman was armed with a sword, the design of which was of great concern to Charles. Swedish infantry regulations, from those drawn up by Magnus Stenbock at Lais in the winter of 1700–1, played down the role of firepower and stressed the importance of infantry attack at the double. Salvos were to be delivered as close as possible to the enemy, and attacks were to be pressed home with maximum vigour: eyewitness accounts describe how the Swedish foot charged at the run; even during its doomed attack against overwhelming odds at Poltava, the weary infantry was running so fast it was ‘almost leaping’. At Fraustadt (2/13 February 1706), most of the Swedish foot did not even bother to fire a salvo as it attacked in one line, five ranks deep, with pikemen between the second and third ranks; only the right wing loosed its muskets. Elsewhere, the infantry pressed forward across the last hundred yards through three artillery salvos and one musket volley, brushed aside the bristling Spanish riders chained together in front of the Saxon ranks, and plunged in at the run with sword, pike and bayonet. At Holowczyn (July 1708), which Charles considered the best of his battles, ‘the King himself went from one battalion to another, … ordering them above all things, instead of firing, to use their pikes, their bayonets and their swords.’

It was not that Charles failed to appreciate the importance of firepower: Swedish artillery and musket technology remained the equal of any in Europe and he was perfectly capable of using artillery effectively where he felt it appropriate, as at the forcing of the Dvina in July 1701, or to cover his surprise crossing of the Vabich at Holowczyn which, despite Charles’s urgings, was largely a bitter firefight. Yet Charles judged weapons in terms of effectiveness not fashion. Although technology had certainly improved, the profound limitations of contemporary firearms still shaped tactics. Flintlocks might be better than matchlocks, but their rate of fire was still slow and their reliability uncertain, especially in damp weather; battleplans consequently tended to emphasise the defensive over the offensive. Charles, however, believed in speed of movement and the seizure of the initiative; this led him to downplay the role of the musket and of field artillery. For, if cavalry was no longer capable of breaking ordered formations of infantry, a disciplined, aggressive charge by well-drilled, motivated infantry with high morale could achieve what cavalry could not. Even troops experienced in the handling of firearms were vulnerable to a coordinated and rapid infantry assault. At Fraustadt, where much of the Saxon army was composed of French, Bavarian and Swiss mercenaries, each infantry platoon, firing in turn, should in theory have been capable of unleashing five or six salvos in the time it took the Swedes to approach. In practice they only managed one or two, since they were ordered to wait until the Swedes were eighty paces away. If, as one source suggests, some of the Saxons fired high, the damage inflicted would have been minimal.

Swedish success was not dependent upon infantry alone. Cavalry still played a central role on the battlefield, protecting the flanks and preventing envelopment by the enemy. With the division of the Commonwealth’s forces in what became a civil war, the Swedish cavalry were able to play a more central role than had been possible in the 1650s. Backed by substantial quantites of Polish medium and light cavalry, either recruited directly into the Swedish army as Vallacker (Wallachian) regiments, or as part of the pro-Leszczyński forces, Swedish cavalry enjoyed the freedom to roam widely. On the battlefield, mounted on robust, powerful horses, they were direct and devastating. According to Stenbock’s 1710 regulations, a cavalryman was to charge ‘with sword in hand’, and never to ‘caracolle or use his carbine or pistol’ in preference to his sword. The cavalry charged in closed wedge formation, with knees locked together. It is a matter of some controversy as to whether it was possible to maintain an attack in such close formation at high speed; in part it depended on the terrain, but eyewitness reports make it clear that Charles’s cavalry charged home at the gallop, even if they did not always maintain close formation.

The superior Swedish cavalry proved decisive in several battles, including Pułtusk (June 1703) and Ponitz (September 1704). At Fraustadt, where Rehnskiöld was outnumbered nearly two to one (and nearly three to one in infantry), he used his cavalry on both wings in a double envelopment of Schulenburg’s force which was deliberately deployed in a position thought to be impregnable to cavalry attack, with each wing resting on a village, and battalions turned at right angles to offer flanking cover. The Swedish cavalry, attacking at the gallop, drove off the Saxon horse on the wings and pressed in on the allied centre as the infantry mounted a frontal assault against the allied foot. The result was a massacre. Of some 18,000 Saxons and Russians, 7–8,000 were killed, including the Russians cut down in cold blood after surrendering. Four-fifths of the allied army was killed or captured.

The spectacular results of these aggressive tactics themselves played an important part in their success, since they ensured that morale remained high. Faith in Charles’s powers as a general and a feeling of superiority towards other armies took root. Belief in the king, trust in the providential protection of a Lutheran God and the confidence which stemmed from an unbroken run of success drove Sweden’s armies forward. Charles’s oft-criticised insistence on leading from the front and exposing himself to danger helped strengthen this belief: his preservation from harm, especially given the mounting toll of men killed or wounded at his side, seemed to confirm that he enjoyed divine protection.

Charles’s bravura tactics have endeared him to military historians with a romantic streak; in the early twentieth century, when the doctrine of attack à l’outrance was again fashionable, a team of historians in the Swedish General Staff under Carl Bennedich sought to rescue Charles’s military reputation from charges of impetuous rashness, for which he had been condemned since his death. Bennedich saw in Charles’s generalship the embodiment of the supreme military virtues. According to the General Staff, he perfected the Swedish school of Erik XIV, Gustav Adolf, Charles X and Charles XI. Throughout the work he is compared to Alexander the Great and Napoleon.

The General Staff had nothing but contempt for the linear tactics of contemporary European armies. These led, it argued, to timid, defensive battles in which the initiative was handed to the enemy. This distinction between linear tactics and the war of movement and attack favoured by Charles led them to blame the Poltava disaster on a group of officers, in particular Lewenhaupt and Magnus Stenbock, who had served their apprenticeships in western Europe, and who were allegedly proponents of the western school. Lewenhaupt is criticised for his defensive posture at Gemauerthof (1705), which was at least a Swedish victory, and Lesnaia (1708), when his lack of initiative was supposedly to blame for his defeat and loss of the vital supply train. At Poltava the bitter disagreements between generals of the Swedish school, principally Rehnskiöld – who was in overall command – and those of the western school – in particular Lewenhaupt, who led the infantry – were blamed for fatally compromising Charles’s brilliant battle plan.

The General Staff account is tendentious and one-sided, relying too much on over-interpretation of the self-serving exculpations of Swedish generals granted too much time to ponder and quarrel over responsibility for the Poltava debacle in their long years of Russian captivity. The distinctions between linear and Caroline tactics are overdrawn, relying too much on a theoretical approach to the study of war which rests on questionable foundations. In their own way, Bennedich and his supporters were the Swedish equivalent of Soviet historians who claimed that western methods had little influence on the Russian military art, and explained Russian success by a chauvinist, wholly mystical and utterly unscientific belief in the invincibility of the Russian people. Nevertheless, despite the obvious weaknesses in the General Staff’s account of Charles’s wars, it would be unwise to reject their arguments entirely.

For all that west European tactics in the age of Marlborough and Eugene were by no means as defensive as they were depicted by the General Staff, Wernstedt goes too far in asserting that there were no substantial differences between Swedish and western methods of waging war. There is an abundance of contemporary evidence that western observers were nonplussed by Swedish tactics. De Croy, who commanded the Russian army at Narva, told the French envoy Guiscard that when the Swedish army approached the Russian countervallation he assumed it was merely the advance guard, unable to believe that Charles ‘would have dared to attack an army so well intrenched, and so infinitely superior to his own’. Guiscard himself was so surprised that he claimed to be unable to speak for several days, a condition as rare as it was excruciating for a French diplomat, as Bengtsson drily observed. While Wrede, serving with the Swedes, dismissed reports that the Russian army numbered 80,000, he still found it astonishing for 8,000 men to attack 40,000, protected by extensive fieldworks, armed with 130 good artillery pieces and with such copious supplies of ammunition. Magnus Stenbock, who had learned his trade in Dutch and Imperial service, wrote that he had now seen war waged ‘in a completely different way from that which I understand or have learnt.’ In 1701, the Saxons defending the line of the Dvina were astonished when the Swedish infantry charged at them through a hail of bullets with pike, bayonet and sword.

Charles’s aggressive instincts and his relative neglect of firepower were quite distinctive. Yet the employment of such methods was not due to quirks of character or inspirational genius, as is often alleged, although Charles’s powerful and unusual temperament played a part. He was nurtured in a military tradition which was already distinctive long before his birth. His principal instructors, Magnus Stuart and Rehnskiöld, had fought under Charles XI, and had themselves been instructed by those who had served Charles X, including Erik Dahlberg and Rutger von Ascheberg. Stuart insisted that his pupil study in depth the wars of Gustav Adolf and Charles X; as an adult, Charles was able to recall their campaigns in detail, and made a special tour of the site of the 1656 battle of Warsaw in 1702. Sweden’s famous ‘gå på’ (have at them) tactics may have reached their apotheosis under Charles XII; he did not create them.

If even those hostile to Charles recognise his tactical ability, he is widely accused of having little strategic grasp. The aggression which, on the tactical level, brought such spectacular victories, it is argued, was his greatest strategic weakness; some have even seen it as indicative of mental imbalance: ‘[Charles’s] motives were largely aggressive. … Here was a monarch … whose dedication to the practice of the martial arts and sciences at times bordered on the near-insane.’ Russian historians have been particularly critical. Leer argues that Charles was ‘no strategist’ and Tarle considers that his Russian campaign was based on wholly unrealistic premises, claiming that Charles’s own generals by 1708–9 were horrified by his strategic decisions. Such arguments have been echoed by foreign historians of Russia, with Fuller claiming that Charles was ‘deeply inferior’ to Peter as a strategist. Above all he is criticised for the decision not to follow up Narva by pushing into Russia to defeat Peter once and for all while he still had the chance; thereafter an attack on Russia would be more difficult since the loss of Ingria, Kexholm, Narva and Dorpat destroyed the land bridge between Finland and Livonia and ensured that Peter could disrupt Swedish communications by land and, with his new navy, by sea.

The Russian campaign of 1708–9 is usually presented as definitive proof of Charles’s hubristic failure to take account of military reality. Ignoring Peter’s peace offers and willingness to restore most of Russia’s conquests in return for being allowed to keep St Petersburg, Charles launched his attack. Instead of attempting to reconquer the lost territories, or to invade via Pskov, so remaining close to his supply lines, he chose a direct thrust at Moscow through Lithuania. Even worse, it is argued, was the decision to turn south into the Ukraine without waiting for the provisions being brought laboriously from Livonia by Lewenhaupt, which ensured their loss at Lesnaia in September 1708 and condemned the Swedes to starve in the hideous winter of 1708–9. By May 1709, the proud force of 33–36,000 Charles had led into Russia had been reduced by at least a third, and it was short of food, ammunition and gunpowder. Trapped at Poltava, it faced its nemesis 225 kilometres east of Kiev and over a thousand from Riga. The disaster, it seems, was eminently avoidable.

There is no shortage of contemporary accounts to substantiate such arguments. As early as the autumn of 1708, Whitworth’s cogent summary of the situation anticipated many subsequent criticisms. He praised the qualities of the Swedish armies, but suggested that Charles ‘seems to undervalue all subordinate means of proceeding with success and to rely wholly on the goodness of his army and justice of his cause, by which he has hitherto carried on a prosperous war, contrary to all ordinary rules of acting’. He concluded that if Charles had invaded Russia after Narva, Peter would probably have been forced to make peace on any terms; once that opportunity was missed, however, Peter was given the chance to train and discipline his new forces and, ‘by acting with whole armies against small detachments the soldiers became inured to fire, and easily begun to taste the sweets of conquest’.30 In their accounts of the campaign, several Swedish officers, in particular Gyllenkrook and Lewenhaupt, stressed that they had disagreed with Charles over many of his strategic decisions: Gyllenkrook, who had prepared the plan for a strike through Livonia at Pskov, claimed that he ‘never advised’ an attack on Moscow, but always sought to hinder it. Lewenhaupt criticised Charles for failing to wait for the supply train when it was only a day’s ride away by courier; over the siege of Poltava; and for the decision not to deploy artillery during the battle. James Jeffreyes, an English agent attached to Charles’s army, wrote immediately after Poltava:

Thus … you see a victorious and numerous army destroy’d in less than two years time, much because of the little regard they had for their enemy; but chiefly because the King would not hearken to any advice that was given him by his Councillors, who I can assure you were for carrying on this war after another method.

When Peter asked the captured Swedish generals after Poltava to explain certain of Charles’s decisions which he found hard to comprehend, Lewenhaupt remarked that the only reply they could make was that they did not know.

While it would be foolish to deny that the headstrong, intense Charles made mistakes, or bore a great deal of responsibility for what happened at Poltava, hindsight has overly coloured judgments of his strategic abilities. Concentration on the ill-fated Russian campaign unbalances many accounts, while contemporary assessments cannot be regarded as objective: the desire of Gyllenkrook and Lewenhaupt to clear themselves of responsibility for Poltava and the shameful surrender at Perevolochna casts more than a shadow of doubt over their accounts. One need not adopt the fervid hyperbole of the Swedish General Staff to acknowledge that the Charles who lost Poltava was also the Charles whose strategic grasp at the age of eighteen was sure enough for him to play a significant role in planning the spectacular victory over three powerful enemies in 1700. The brilliant campaigns of 1702–6 and the marshalling of exiguous forces in defence of Sweden against the most powerful coalition it ever faced between 1714 and 1718 suggest that those who dismiss his strategic abilities as negligible are the ones whose judgment is clouded.

The invasion of Russia was undoubtedly a gamble, yet the fact that it ended in disaster should not blind the historian to the reasons for adopting it, nor to the misfortunes which played a part in its failure. Russian historians frequently condemn Charles for his aggression, comparing him to Napoleon and Hitler, whose presumption also brought their downfall. It was the Russians, however, not the Swedes, who were the aggressors in the Great Northern War, which Peter launched on the flimsiest of pretexts. Moreover, Charles had good reason for rejecting Peter’s peace overtures. In 1706–8, Peter’s reforms were by no means secure, the regular core of his army was still small, and the Swedes were aware of the great upsurge in opposition to Peter which had begun with the Astrakhan rising in 1705, and the widespread Cossack discontent, which was to see Bulavin’s rising in 1707–8 and the defection of Mazepa and significant numbers of Zaporozhians in late 1708. As Whitworth remarked:

should this army come to any considerable miscarriage, it would probably draw after it the ruin of the whole empire, since I do not know where the Czar would be able to get another; for the new raised regiments in Ingria and much more those, who are now mustering up here and in the several garrisons on the frontiers, cannot deserve the name of regular forces, not to mention the usual despondency of the russians after any misfortunes, and their general discontent and inclinations to a revolt.

Thus Charles is criticised for not invading Russia in 1700–1, and for invading in 1708–9. Yet conditions were far more favourable in 1708. Following the pleasant interlude in Saxony, the Swedish field army was larger, more experienced and better-equipped than at any point since 1700. The political situation in Poland-Lithuania was more favourable, and Saxony was out of the war. Even if the Russian army had improved substantially since Narva, the Swedes had good reason to believe that they were capable of defeating it if they could force it to battle. Why should Charles make peace, and permit the continued existence of a Russian bridgehead on the Gulf of Finland, thus giving Peter time to stifle dissent at home and build up his navy and army? Charles would have been naive to believe that Peter would be content with the cession of St Petersburg alone; it was the Russians who would benefit most from a suspension of hostilities. The only way to secure a lasting peace and long-term security for the Baltic provinces was to destroy the Russian army and force Peter to settle on Swedish terms. An invasion of Russia was the only way to achieve that end.

Charles’s reign demonstrated once more the harsh realities of Sweden’s strategic position, for all that it was better in 1700 than in 1655 or 1675. Sweden had a large, well-trained army which could be mobilised rapidly and effectively; it had to be supplemented by further recruitment, but the costs involved were not crippling. Although government income was largely static in the years before the war, it had been possible to build up a small reserve fund, amounting to roughly 1 million silver dalers in 1696, while regimental cash reserves were nearly as great, at 900,000 silver dalers. Yet although Sweden was better prepared for war than ever before, and was able to raise new funds from extraordinary taxes, such as the tenth penny levied between November 1699 and February 1700, and various expedients, the harsh realities of its chronic shortage of specie soon became apparent: the costs of mobilisation were reckoned in January 1700 at 6,374,141 silver dalers, while extraordinary sources were estimated to be capable of producing only 1,514,001. Hopes of raising loans in Holland and England at a maximum of 5 per cent interest, were dashed, since Sweden could offer little as security apart from customs tolls at Riga, Narva, Reval and Nyen. With Saxon and Russian armies heading for Livonia, the Dutch and English were understandably reluctant to risk their money, although a Dutch loan of 300,000 riksdalers was secured at 5 per cent in 1702. Sweden’s reserves underpinned the mobilisation of 1700, and made possible Travendal and Narva, but they were rapidly exhausted, and were utterly incapable of sustaining a long war: government credit was poor, and loans from private individuals were difficult to raise, while the outbreak of war brought a serious liquidity crisis for the new Bank of Sweden.

Thus Sweden, for all that Charles XI’s reforms had transformed its military capacity, faced a familiar set of problems. It could not long fight a defensive war. As had been the case in 1655, once it mobilised its army, it was forced to carry the war into enemy territory, and the war could only be sustained by fighting abroad. The indelningsverk performed well in filling gaps in the ranks, but for all the meticulous preparations of the excellent commissariat, once the troops were detached from the farms which supported them in peacetime, the problems multiplied. They were already evident when the army gathered in Scania, Sweden’s richest province; once it reached Livonia, they only worsened. In the winter of 1700–1 it rapidly became clear that if the army were to stay together it would have to leave the Baltic provinces. One of the most important arguments against an attack on Pskov was that even without taking into account the political problems following the reduktion, Livonia, devastated by famine in the 1690s, was exhausted: to strike at Pskov the army would have to retrace its steps northward across territories which had already paid substantial contributions. The move south into Courland in July 1701 was thus partly motivated by supply considerations. Courland was small, however; by early 1702 it was exhausted, and the army was suffering: after it entered Poland one observer noted the contrast between the half-naked Swedish soldiers and the regiment of Sapieha foot which accompanied them, smartly clad in green uniforms. Merely to support itself, the army had to move. It was difficult to imagine that an invasion of Russia could be sustained from an exhausted and politically unreliable supply-base, while the area round Pskov was not known to flow with milk and honey.

The decision to move south was eminently sensible. For the next six years, the Swedes supplied themselves without major difficulty. Charles did not face the concerted resistance that had frustrated his grandfather, he enjoyed substantial political support, and his army was manifestly superior to all its opponents. Small Swedish detachments were still vulnejable to attack, but the fact that they had significant support from Augustus’s enemies meant that they could deploy Polish light cavalry of their own to counter the threat and provide reconnaissance; Charles placed great store on the recruitment of these Vallacker units, and there was an entire regiment in the army which left Saxony in 1707. Swedish military dominance ensured that Magnus Stenbock, director of the General War Commissariat, could raise contributions from a wide area in a way which had not been possible in the 1650s: when the palatinates of Ruthenia and Volhynia were the object of a special expedition in the winter of 1702–3, he returned with six barrels of gold and a considerable haul of supplies in kind at a cost of 68 killed or missing and 36 horses. After the fall of Thorn in October 1703 there were for the moment no Saxon troops in the Commonwealth. With the army stationed in Warmia and Polish Prussia in the first half of 1704, the supply situation was remarkably good. It remained so when the Swedes moved their headquarters to Rawicz after the 1704 campaign, or when Volhynia was placed under contribution in 1705.

There was a price to be paid, however, for the very efficiency of the Swedish operation. Although marauding and looting were punished severely by the military authorities, who made conspicuous efforts to investigate Polish complaints against Swedish soldiers, there is reason to doubt Hatton’s indulgent assessment of their behaviour. Even in pro-Swedish areas, the very efficiency with which they collected contributions provoked hostile reactions from those subject to constant requisitions. Given that this was a civil war, and that Swedish control was never absolute, communities could be faced by successive demands from Swedish, Saxon and Polish forces: in December 1705 the villagers of Ilewo wrote to Thorn Council, their landlords, that, having been forced to pay contributions in cash and kind to support the Saxon garrison in 1703, they had then been placed under contributions by the Swedes, and had since faced Sapieha exactions. In such circumstances, the demands of even the best-behaved troops were resented, and local officials were deluged with requests for the waiving of rent payments to take account of the demands of the military, which were often heavy: of 217 rams inventoried in the village of Gremboczyn in 1703, the Swedes took 100; by the end of the year, after deaths, other exactions and wastage, there were only 44 left.

Such demands did little for Leszczyński’s hopes of winning support; furthermore, if they had the advantage over Gustav Adolf and Charles X that they were not bottled up in one corner of the Commonwealth, but could occupy new areas when their supply-base became exhausted, this meant that they spread their unpopularity over a steadily widening area. Their exactions inevitably provoked resistance; where they met it, they behaved with striking ruthlessness. Hatton’s picture of the Swedish soldier ‘of peasant stock and a smallholder himself in peacetime’ cheerfully chopping wood and helping round the farms on which he was billeted is not a complete fantasy, but it scarcely characterises the normal relationship between the Swedes and the local population. Charles believed it was good practice to deal ‘harshly and brusquely’ with Poles. When Wojnicz failed to pay its allotted contributions in October 1702, he ordered its division into quarters, each of which was plundered by a detachment of 100 men, before the town was burnt. The properties of Augustus’s supporters were treated with startling ruthlessness: Charles ordered Stenbock to ruin the estates of general Brandt, one of Augustus’s commanders, ‘as best thou can’. On Charles’s direct orders villages were burned, fields were laid waste, cattle were driven off to feed the army and any who objected were put to the sword. The harsh behaviour of the Swedes towards the local population during the Russian campaign of 1707–9 had its clear antecedents in Poland. At the very least, it ensured that potential supporters would think twice before abandoning the Sandomierz Confederation.

Swedish strategy was not entirely driven by considerations of supply. There were good military reasons for Charles’s desire for a war of movement. Confident of the superiority of his army, he sought battle, as had Chodkiewicz or Żółkiewski before him. Charles’s forces were too small to scatter around in garrisons, and he pursued Batory’s policy of demolishing fortifications instead of manning them. After the fall of Thorn in 1703, Charles ordered the razing of its walls, behind which a Saxon garrison of 6,000 had mouldered away. Charles could not afford to be so profligate with his army or waste too much time on irrelevant siege operations: when the Swedes captured Lwów in 1704, they spent five days on Charles’s orders blowing up the best of the 160 ‘fine large guns’ which had fallen into their hands. Charles had no use for them; Swedish military dominance was not dependent upon control of fortresses.


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