Karl XII – The Baltic and Saxon Campaigns I

Karl XII spent much of September 1700 at his headquarters in Sweden conferring with his advisers and the high command about how to best deal with Augustus. Since the armistice between Russia and Turkey was now known, the tsar’s intentions were not certain. Peter had actually issued a declaration of war on Sweden on 30 August but it did not become known in Sweden until much later.

It was obvious that additional Swedish troops had to be sent to the Baltic provinces. However, the most thorny question was how and where to strike back at Augustus. One option was to begin an offensive from Livonia. The second option was a direct attack on Augustus in Saxony.

The second option was the soundest from a military standpoint and the one that Karl XII favored. Swedish forces would be going against a root of the current problem—Saxony. Forces could be augmented from those already in Germany—in Pomerania, Bremen, and Verden. The forces in Germany had gone through a strengthening program during the summer, and even if almost half were left in garrisons, over 10,000 could be provided for an invasion of Saxony. By further strengthening from the army used on Zealand, a force easily capable of dealing with the Saxons could be rapidly assembled. Furthermore, an offensive into Saxony would keep the Baltic provinces from becoming a battlefield. Livonia, for example, still had not recovered from the destructive effects of the great famine that had swept through the province in 1695–1696, leaving more than 50,000 dead. The problem of crossing Brandenburg territory was initially believed manageable since Brandenburg had allowed Saxon troops to cross its territory. An order was sent to Field Marshal Gyllenstierna in Germany to be prepared for the operation, either as a main attack or as a diversion in case the Livonian option was chosen.

The option to attack Saxony directly ran into a hornet’s nest of foreign policy problems. The Dutch and English opposed it vigorously. They were primarily concerned about the effect of such an action in case the issue of the Spanish succession turned into war. King William III was primarily worried that he would lose his traditional recruiting ground for mercenaries. The Dutch were also providing quantities of supplies to Sweden for use in their war with Augustus. This welcomed help could be jeopardized by an invasion of Germany.

The Saxon invasion of Livonia was a breach of the 1660 Treaty of Oliva, for which France was a guarantor. Sweden suggested to Louis XIV that he might want to cooperate in the proposed invasion as guarantor to the treaty which had been broken. Help was not expected but Sweden wanted to know the French attitude on the issue. The French were not willing to go further than to offer their good offices for mediation. In view of the strong views of Holland and England, particularly William III, those powers were informed that Karl XII would attack Augustus through Livonia.

The final nail in the coffin of the planned Saxon invasion was news from Ingria that a large Russian army was approaching its border with obvious intentions to invade. To regain Ingria was a primary Russian goal since its earlier loss had excluded them from access to the Baltic. The Russian declaration of war was received in late September. There was no way of countering a Russian invasion by going after Saxony. Winter was approaching and all available troops were quickly embarked to defend against the attacks by Augustus, now joined by Russia.

Swedish operations in Livonia had been too reactive and tame for Karl XII, despite the fact that Riga had held and General George Johan Maidel had inflicted a significant defeat on a part of Saxon army, forcing it to retire back behind the Dvina. The major worry was that the Livonian nobility was showing signs of unrest, and the Swedes did not fully trust their troops led by a Swedish officer, Count Otto Vellingsk.

Augustus made a second attempt in July to take Riga with an army of 17,000. A Swedish success was required to keep the loyalty of the Livonians. The news that Denmark had been knocked out of the alliance caused Augustus to halt his operation against Riga. Augustus was the epitome of duplicity and double dealing among a number of like-minded rulers of that time. He sent an urgent message to Tsar Peter for help while at the same time appealing to Louis XIV to arrange an armistice with Karl XII. Simultaneously, he shrewdly reinforced garrisons that had to be held to keep a line of communication open to his Russian ally.

Karl XII did not know about the Saxon withdrawal from Riga until he reached Pernau, but he knew about a mediation offer from Louis XIV. This led to a debate about the king’s methods concerning foreign policy by chancery officials both at his headquarters and in Stockholm. These complaints began at the time the king returned from Zealand, and centered on his openness and naiveté in dealing with foreign diplomats, and in not leaving adequate instructions and sufficient power for others to act in his place.

There is probably truth to these complaints. We have seen in the previous chapter that Karl’s father had a strong dislike for diplomacy, and this probably extended to his son. Karl was very direct and a person of few words. His advisers would present him various options; he thanked them and told them he would let them know his decision. This he did, but what apparently did not sit well with them is that he did not tell them why he had selected one option over another.

The chancellery officials felt that he was too preoccupied by military matters at the expense of diplomacy, and that when he did venture into that field failed to follow the elaborate customs that had come to characterize that craft. But it also sounds a bit like sour grapes. Karl XII sought and listened to advice from both military and civilian leaders who had more experience, and in the case of both Denmark and Saxony he bowed to foreign policy necessities.

Gustaf Jonasson provides an example of the difficulties between the civilian chancellery officials and the king. Karl graciously accepted Louis XIV’s offer to mediate between Augustus and himself. However, to the officials in the chancellery, who had to negotiate the offer, he insisted that Augustus had to evacuate Swedish Livonia before an armistice was signed. To the civilians this was the same as throwing down a gauntlet, showing that he did not want peace.

Chancellery papers and correspondence with the king and among themselves have been used to paint a monarch who preferred the sword to the pen. Professor Hatton provides some very rational explanations for these difficulties. The first is that the king was young and inexperienced. She observes that the king was naturally more concerned with short-term objectives, and that this is the natural difference in attitude between a soldier and a diplomat. It is an early example of the difficulties in civil-military relations. She also notes that the officials who prepared letters and documents did so with an eye for the future. She writes: In times of crisis, therefore, and in times of decision, officials tended to emphasize Charles XII’s sole responsibility for the course adopted and to set down their objections and fears on paper as a form of insurance for the future.

Andrina Stiles, among others, considered Professor Hatton an apologist for Karl XII and his obstinacy. As an example Stiles quotes Hatton:

If anyone could have saved Sweden’s great power position he [Karl XII] would have been the man, with his gifts as a commander, with his capacity for inspiring loyalty in his maturity, and with his dedication to the task fate had allotted him.

Karl assumed, probably correctly, that the reason for Augustus’ peace feeler was to delay the departure of Swedish forces from Sweden until it was too late in the season. Karl felt he would be negotiating from a position of weakness until he had his army in Livonia. This is shown by the fact that after landing in Livonia he expressed himself ready to proceed with an armistice while Augustus still held three Livonian forts. He was also willing to conclude an armistice at this time for another important reason—it would leave him free to deal with the Russians. It was clear thinking and correct strategy.

Vellingk reported to Karl XII that Augustus had become alarmed when the Russians appeared to concentrate their effort in Ingria while ignoring his pleas for help. Augustus had put his army in winter quarters in Courland while he traveled to Warsaw. Karl XII and his military advisors decided that pursuing the Saxons in Courland was probably a waste of time in view of the Russian threat to Ingria. The Swedish king found the recommendation of the French emissary, Count Louis Guiscard-Magny, who arrived in mid-November, convincing. He agreed with Karl XII that Augustus should return the forts he had seized and pay restitution costs before ratification of any treaty.

The decision had already been made to turn against the Russians with all forces that could be spared, since the threat from Augustus seemed rather remote. The Swedish forces—8,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry—were to be marshaled at Wesenberg. Magazines to support a six-week campaign were established, including winter clothing. Colonel Henning Horn, the garrison commander at Narva, was told that help was on its way. When Karl XII was asked where he intended to go into winter quarters, he answered simply that winter quarters would not be necessary since the army would be on the move.

At this time a Russian army of about 40,000 had begun the bombardment of Narva. The Russian army was not a rabble as some writers would have us believe, but included seasoned veterans from the war with Turkey, and there were many highly qualified foreign advisers. Among those was Field Marshal Charles Eugen de Croy, a former imperial general. The expectation was that Narva would fall to the Russians by the end of November. Tsar Peter sent General Boris Sheremetev (1652–1719), promoted to field marshal in 1701, with 5,000 men to destroy the Swedish supply depots at Wesenberg, but General Vellingk’s Livonian troops stopped him before he reached the depots. However, he turned the territory between Wesenberg and Narva into a wasteland to delay the Swedish advance which had started on 13 November with less than 11,000 troops—despite arguments by some at headquarters that marching to the relief of Narva would risk a battle with the huge Russian army.

The march to Narva was grueling as troops waded, hungry and tired, through mud from autumn rains halfway up their legs. At night they slept in the open. King Karl XII demonstrated his supreme confidence in victory by ordering a regiment that had not reached Wesenberg by the designated departure date not to hurry after the army but instead take up position at Lake Peipus to prevent the beaten Russian army from bringing their artillery safely across the lake. Such optimism was infectious and caused rising morale among the troops.

The Swedes were encouraged by the news that about 400 Swedish cavalry commanded by the king had encountered Sherementev’s force and put it to flight. The engagement is reported that way in a number of earlier books including books from the 1960s, but the initial reports on which they relied were not accurate. General Sherementev had already received orders to withdraw from a pass where he was posted and not to engage the Swedish army. The force the king encountered was therefore only a rearguard. The Swedes did capture a number of guns and supplies. However, the word spread through the ranks of the Swedish army that the king had won a major victory, and this helped to further raise their morale.

The Swedish army was within two kilometers of Narva by 19 November and a series of shots were fired to let Colonel Horn know that the help he was waiting for had arrived. The Russians had been warned by General Sheremetev that the Swedes were approaching, but they were not expected to launch an immediate attack on an adversary outnumbering them almost four to one. Instead the Russians expected the Swedes to undertake the customary build-up of forces before a battle took place.

This lack of urgency may have been the reason for a historically controversial event. Tsar Peter left his army on the night of 17–18 November for Ingria, ostensibly to organize reinforcements and meet with Augustus. Not only did he depart on the eve of the battle, but he took the nominal army com mander, Field Marshal Fedor Golovin, with him. Peter turned the command over to the very reluctant Eugen Croy. Some have described Tsar Peter’s departure as an act of cowardice, but Massie takes exception to this charge. However, it seems highly unusual for Peter and his principal deputy to choose the eve of battle to leave. Some accounts have—incorrectly—the tsar fleeing with his defeated army.

The Russian army was positioned in a large fortified camp on the southern side of Narva. It is generally agreed that the Russian army numbered 40,000 and that the Swedes had 10,000. Croy, when he saw how small the approaching Swedish army was, wanted to take a strong force and leave the fortified camp to meet them in open battle, but the reluctance of his Russian subordinates forced him to change his mind. The Russian army remained within their camp. It was protected by a wall nine feet high, and a ditch about six feet wide. The artillery numbered some 140 cannon. The weakness of their position, pointed out to the tsar by Croy, was that they were spread out for seven kilometers, leaving open the possibility that a concentrated enemy attack at one point could achieve local superiority before reinforcements could arrive on the scene.

Croy watched the Swedish approach with growing alarm. All had expected that the Swedes would start digging their own trenches and establish a camp, but instead he saw through his telescope that the Swedish soldiers were carrying equipment needed to cross obstacles. He was beginning to realize that the Swedes, contrary to all rules for an inferior force, were about to storm his position.

The Swedes had noticed the weakness of the Russian deployment and the king ordered General Karl Gustav Rehnskiöld to quickly prepare a plan of attack. It was decided that the infantry would launch the main attack against the center of the Russian camp in two groups. After breaking in, one group would turn north and one would turn south, rolling up the Russian line. The Swedish artillery, positioned on a slight rise, would support the attack. The cavalry was to remain outside the camp to deal with possible sorties or flight. Rehnskiöld would command the left wing of the Swedish army while Vellingk commanded the right. King Karl commanded a separate small force on the far left in the company of Colonel Magnus Stenbock (promoted to field marshal in 1713).

The Swedish attack began at 1400 hours in the middle of a snowstorm that was more of a problem for the defenders than the attackers as the wind blew the snow into the defenders’ faces. The Swedish infantry halted thirty paces from the breastworks and fired a devastating volley that made the defenders fall like grass. Throwing bundles of twigs and brush into the ditch, the Swedes climbed over, scaled the breastwork, and killed everyone they found in what one Swedish officer described as a terrible massacre.28 Within fifteen minutes the Swedes had broken into the center of the fortified camp and a furious battle ensued.

The first part of the Russian army to give way was their right wing. Many thousands fled toward the river, so many in fact that the bridge collapsed. The rest defended themselves within a wagon fort until darkness. The Russian left held out until dawn when it found itself completely surrounded and surrendered. There were so many prisoners captured that the Swedes found themselves unable to feed them. They were divided into groups. Those who had fought bravely were allowed to keep their arms while those who had not proven themselves worthy of that honor were disarmed. All soldiers were permitted to return home. From 0400 on the 21st until far into the next day a steady stream of Russians left and marched east. High-ranking officers were detained; the non-Russian officers were freed without ransom; the Russians were sent to Sweden in the hope that they could be used in a future prisoner swap.

The Swedish losses were 677 dead and 1,205 wounded. Some of the Swedish casualties were incurred by friendly fire in the night battle. The most reliable figure on Russian casualties is that between eight and ten thousand were killed. The rest of the Russian army were wounded and/or captured. The wounded were freed along with the prisoners but it is doubtful that many reached their homeland. Field Marshal Croy and nine other generals were captured, along with ten colonels and thirty-three other senior officers. The most important booty captured was the Russian artillery: 145 guns, 12 mortars, and 4 howitzers. Also captured were 10,000 cannonballs and 397 barrels of powder. The captured standards were sent to Stockholm.

The young king acquitted himself well. He was one of the first over the entrenchment, lost his horse and sword in the ditch, mounted a new one provided by a cavalryman, and had three shots fired at him—one failed to penetrate his water-soaked uniform while the second bullet was found after the battle in his neckerchief. Word of his courage spread like wildfire among the troops.

The magazines of food in the Russian camp were welcomed additions to the meager Swedish supplies, and the Swedish soldiers moved into the abandoned Russian tents. Before long, this proved to have been a grave mistake because of disease (see below). The victory, particularly its magnitude, astonished Europe.

Many historians consider that Karl XII made a strategic mistake in not following up his victory at Narva despite the urgings of his advisers. They felt that the Russian realm was demoralized after Peter’s already brutal reforms and that a Swedish invasion might have begun a revolt against the tsar.

Karl, in choosing to turn instead against Poland, made the right military decision based on what he knew at the time by going after what he considered his strongest opponent, Augustus. He had little respect for the Russian army after Narva, and could not have known that the feverish activities carried out by Peter the Great over seven years would result in a vastly improved and well-equipped army. Only in retrospect, and with the knowledge of what Peter was going to do, can it be remotely considered a strategic mistake. Even then, to leave the undefeated Polish-Lithuanian-Saxon armies on his flanks and rear would have been a perilous gamble.

The decision made by Karl XII is very much like that made after the Battle of Breitenfeld when Gustav Adolf opted not to risk a drive against Vienna with unreliable allies in his rear and a hostile Bavaria hugging his flank. Most historians, with the notable exception of General Fuller, apparently fail to see the similarity in the strategic decision made by Karl XII. Finally, it should be noted that the forces available to Karl XII in 1700 were totally inadequate for an invasion of Russia.

Happenings at the other end of Europe created difficulty for Sweden’s operations against Augustus. About the same time as the battle of Narva, Charles II of Spain died, thus triggering the struggle over his succession. The French changed their attitude to the war in the Baltic almost overnight. The French emissary Guiscard had worked hard to bring about an armistice between Augustus and Sweden. With a possible war looming on the horizon it was in French interests to see the war in the Baltic continue so as to keep either Sweden or Augustus from joining the maritime powers.

The splitting of the continent into pro-French and anti-French states served to complicate things for Sweden. Sweden found herself driven by the need for international loans—which came from the maritime powers—and by the need to have the Travendal Treaty upheld by them.

Sweden was obligated by the Travendal Treaty to help the maritime powers in case they were attacked. In February 1702 Karl XII promised both defensive and offensive help as soon as his own war was concluded. We now run into a situation where everyone saw their own problems clearly but not those of others. The maritime powers became annoyed when Karl XII did not end the war in the Baltic and join them.

Karl XII could not gain freedom of action lest he upset relations with the maritime powers, and that he could not do since their cooperation was what kept Denmark-Norway in place. He could not move against Augustus in Saxony for fear of upsetting England and the Dutch Republic. After the enemies of France gained substantial victories in 1706 they could no longer claim that Karl XII was spoiling their war by entering Germany. When this opportunity came Karl XII immediately invaded Saxony. The calculated risk worked and immediately knocked Augustus out of the war. If this could have taken place much earlier the many years of Swedish war in Poland could have been avoided and forces released for use against Russia in the 1702–1706 period.

Swedish campaign plans had to be changed considerably. An infectious disease had ravaged the Russian camp at Narva before the battle, and unfortunately it spread to the Swedish soldiers when they moved into the Russian tents. It spread like wildfire among the Swedes, causing untold deaths. Karl XII determined to avoid enclosed camps from then on.

It proved impossible to bring reinforcements from Sweden until spring, and the same was true for equipment and money. As a result the Swedish army was forced to go into winter quarters in Livonia and Estonia.

There were no indications that the defeat at Narva would lead Peter to the negotiating table. He became thoroughly determined to rebuild his shattered army. Church bells were melted down to make cannons, taxes were increased, and training was intensified.

The tsar and Augustus concluded a treaty when they met at Birsen in February 1701. Augustus had been wooed by both France and the Empire, and he had entered into a secret understanding with Emperor Leopold in return for a guarantee of his position as king of Poland. He was therefore able to demand stiff conditions from Tsar Peter who had just sustained a major defeat at the hands of the Swedes. In the Treaty of Birsen the tsar agreed that Estonia and Livonia would pass to Augustus when Sweden’s Baltic possessions were divided. The Russians also agreed to pay heavy subsidies and provide an auxiliary army of up to 20,000 troops to assist Augustus. Ingria was to go to the Russians.

Augustus was now in a seemingly strong position. He had secured a very favorable treaty with Russia, and the Emperor had guaranteed his Polish crown, as had Prussia. Augustus also held up hopes that Denmark-Norway would re-enter the war provided Sweden suffered defeats in the Baltic.

Montross writes that Augustus, Karl XII’s cousin, typified the worst German despotism of the age:

Called Augustus the Strong because of his gross appetites, he left 354 illegitimate children as his chief claim to historical fame. The moral tone of the court at Dresden is suggested by the fact that one of his natural daughters became his mistress after marrying her half-brother.

The strong position of the Saxons meant that for Karl XII, they had become the primary enemy. The Russians were kept in their place by their defeat and by Swedish garrisons spread along their borders. Augustus falsely professed his peaceful intent to the emperor and the maritime powers, but he had set his sight on delivering a serious defeat to the Swedes, and his troops raided southern Livonia from their base in Courland.

Reinforcements from Sweden in the spring brought the strength of their army to about 24,000. This was not enough to mount simultaneous attacks against Augustus and the tsar. It was important, however, to keep both enemies guessing as long as possible. In the end it was planned to make a crossing of the Dvina that would bring on a main battle with the Saxons. After the hoped for victory, the Swedes could then clear out Courland with part of their forces while the majority of the army took on the Russians in the dry weather of the late summer or after the roads had frozen in mid-winter. The rainy season had to be avoided. In this way the battlefields would be moved away from the provinces.

The Swedish crossing of the Dvina was well prepared. A pontoon bridge was constructed in Riga in the spring, strong enough to support cavalry. It would only be floated into position at the last moment. Diversionary plans were also made to confuse the Saxons and protect the operation. Furthermore, troops were stationed so as to protect Estonia and northern Livonia from invasion, while other forces were sent north to test Russian defenses in preparation for future operations.

There was a narrow window for beginning the operation. It could not start until the roads had dried out after the spring thaw but before the fall rains. It also could not begin until the grass was high enough for horses to eat and, most important perhaps, until more reinforcements from Sweden had arrived. Ten thousand soldiers landed in Reval in May, and the forces already in the Baltic provinces were ordered to leave their winter quarters. The army began its southward march from the Dorpat area on 17 June, which also happened to be Karl XII’s nineteenth birthday. The army followed the road to Riga, but at Wenden it turned right towards Kokenhausen in an attempt to draw the Saxons away from the planned crossing site over the Dvina. When the army had reached a point about five kilometers from Kokenhausen on 3 July, it turned left and headed for Riga at maximum speed. Everything was ready at Riga.

Since Augustus was in Warsaw, General Adam Heinrich von Steinau commanded the Saxon forces. He had at his disposal 9,000 Saxons plus some Russian auxiliaries under General Repnin. He did not know where the Swedes would cross and had spread his troops thin to cover the likely crossings. This operation demonstrates the superiority of the offense against a defense when the main point of attack is unknown. He could only concentrate his forces once the enemy intention was known, and by then it could be too late. Steinau also fell for a Swedish feint against Kokenhausen by sending reinforcements to that fort. He was further misled by another Swedish feint towards Dünamunde the night before the crossing. The crossing began at dawn on 9 July.

The Swedes had achieved tactical surprise. The river was crossed using a dense smoke screen as Gustav Adolf had done at the Battle of the Lech in 1632. The boats made the crossing behind the smoke screen. In addition, there was a screen of small boats piled high with bales of hay to absorb musket and cannon fire. The troop transports were provided with large rectangular sheets of leather to absorb musket fire.

The Riga fort and armed merchant ships provided excellent covering fire by engaging enemy gun positions. The fire support was so effective that General Steinau gave them high praise for the Swedish success. An important part of the assault plan miscarried. The pre-constructed bridge, built in sections, to span the 2,000-foot-wide river could not be launched in a timely manner since a strong northwesterly wind prevented its deployment. The failure of the bridge prevented the use of most of the Swedish cavalry.

The crossing of the infantry and small units of cavalry was meantime a complete success. About 6,000 Swedes were eventually in the bridgehead. Karl XII went across in the first wave despite the protests of his aides and advisers. There was some hard fighting as the Saxons tried to drive the Swedes back. However, after a battle that lasted several hours the Saxons decided to withdraw. Due to the absence of most of their cavalry, however, the objective of forcing a decisive battle on the Saxons through pursuit could not be carried out. Although the Swedes improvised in getting their cavalry across after the bridge failure, it took such a long time that it was too late to launch a pursuit.

The Swedish infantry showed great discipline under heavy fire. They carried the fight to the enemy in such a determined manner that the experienced Saxon troops were astonished. This was particularly true at the beginning of the battle when the Swedes were heavily outnumbered as they tried to establish a beachhead.

The Swedish victory in crossing the Dvina made an even greater impression in Europe than the victory at Narva because the Saxon army was viewed as more experienced and had a high reputation. The conduct of the Russian auxiliary troops was a disappointment for the Saxons. The four Russian regiments that General Steinau had placed in reserve panicked and fled before taking part in the battle. The losses in the battle were relatively light. The Swedes lost 500 in dead and wounded; the Saxons lost 800 dead and wounded plus 700 captured.

The failure to get the cavalry across the river in a timely manner robbed the Swedes of the decisive victory they had hoped for. Consequently, they were forced to change their campaign plan for the year.

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