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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.