The planned pursuit of Peter the Great was contingent upon
first having knocked Augustus out of the war, and the failure to do so upset
the plans. There was no way the Swedes could move against the Russians with a full-strength
Polish-Saxon army in their rear or flank. The Swedes spent the rest of the year
securing Courland and Swedish Livonia. The Saxons abandoned the forts of
Kokenhausen and Kobron without a fight, but they had to be forcibly ejected
from Dünamunde. The main Swedish army took up positions in Courland from which
they could foil any Saxon attempt to link up with the Russians, and which were
also centrally located for the defense of the northern territories. It was also
a good location for the receipt of reinforcements and supplies from Sweden.
Swedish relations with the maritime powers were soured by
English, Dutch, and Prussian suspicions that Sweden’s intent was to incorporate
Courland into their empire, despite Swedish assurances to the contrary. In fact
such a step was on the long-term Swedish calendar. The Swedes also launched an
expedition against Archangel on the White Sea but it failed and the Swedes
accused the Dutch of revealing their plans.
Naively, Karl XII was drawn into the complicated politics
and internal squabbles in Poland. Up to now Karl XII had basically fought
Augustus as the elector of Saxony, but now that he had withdrawn his army into
Poland the Swedes were presented with a problem. Cardinal Michael Stephan
Radiejowki, the Primate of Poland, wrote a letter to Karl XII at the request of
Augustus, warning the king not to enter Poland. Letters were also received from
Poles of the opposite opinion, primarily James Sobieski who lived in exile in
Silesia after his unsuccessful attempt to gain the Polish crown in 1697.
The idea of Augustus’ dethronement and his replacement by
Sobieski originated at the Swedish Chancery. The chancellor had raised this
with the king on several occasions. Karl XII therefore proposed that the Poles
be told that if they wanted to get rid of Augustus, Sweden would help. This
went too far for the diplomats who wanted the Poles to sort out their own
affairs. They urged caution in dealing with Polish groups.
For Karl XII’s military campaign against both Augustus and
Peter the Great, it was important to get this issue settled without waiting for
the slow diplomatic route. He therefore answered the Polish Primate’s letter by
coming out in the open with his demand that the Poles dethrone Augustus,
unwisely promising he would not enter Poland until an answer was received. The
king did not realize—as he admitted—that Radiejowski would make the letter
public in preparation for the Diet in December 1701.
In the long run what Karl XII had done made little
difference. His dilemma was that he could not undertake a campaign against
Russia with an undefeated Augustus in his rear. Karl XII felt he had the
blessings of the chancery, but admitted that he should not have put the
dethronement demand on paper.
The answer to Karl XII’s July letter to the Polish Primate
did not arrive until the middle of October, and it turned down his suggestion
and warned against any encroachment of Polish territory. The war against Saxony
had now also become a war against Poland, because Augustus had sought sanctuary
in that country and the Poles were not willing to expel him. Karl XII was
furious but it was too late in the year to do anything about it and this was
probably the reason for the three-month delay in the Polish answer.
Russian forces were also going into action against Swedish
territory in the north, destroying Swedish hopes of keeping the war away from
their provinces. Colonel (later General) Anton von Schlippenbach had been left
to defend Livonia with 7,000 troops. Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev fought an
indecisive battle with Schlippenbach near Dorpat. Each side suffered about
1,000 casualties but the Russians captured 350 Swedes that were sent to Moscow.
This caused great joy in a city used to being constantly defeated by the
The Russians, under Sheremetev, administered a severe defeat
to Schlippenbach at Hummelsh of six months later (18 July 1702). The Swedes
were virtually annihilated—2,500 casualties from a total force of 5,000. An
additional 300 were captured while the Russian losses were placed at 800. The
virtual destruction of Schlippenbach’s army left Livonia wide open to the
Russians except for a few garrisons in the main cities. Sheremetev’s army had
free reign in the Swedish province. The savage Kalmuk and Cossack cavalry moved
at will through Livonia laying the countryside waste, burning villages, and
taking thousands of civilian prisoners.
Among the captives was a 17-year old peasant girl named
Martha Shavronska who was not sent to work on the Azov fortifications as the
others. Instead she begun an amazing “career” as a concubine, first to
Sheremetev, then to Menshikov, and finally to Peter the Great himself who
married her in 1707 and crowned her Empress Catherine I of Russia.
The Russians also took control of Lake Ladoga and Lake Peipus south of Narva. Finally, they captured the Swedish fort of Nöteborg at the southern end of Lake Ladoga where it connects with the Neva River. The fort controlled the trade from the Baltic to the Russian interior via a network of rivers. Nöteborg, with a small garrison of only 450, was captured after a 10-day siege on 22 October 1702, and renamed Schlüsselburg. The whole length of the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland was occupied, and Peter founded a city at the mouth of that river named St. Petersburg.
Despite holding the military advantage for the next five
years and winning every engagement, Karl XII was unable to achieve final
victory. He became mired in the same wars and political maneuvering as his
predecessors. When his campaigns are reduced to lines on a map, it looks like a
spider’s web of maneuvering. The Swedes being mired down in Poland and
Lithuania was like a gift on a silver platter for the Russians. It gave Peter
the Great seven precious years between the defeat at Narva and the Swedish
invasion to rebuild and strengthen his army. He also did his best to keep the
Swedes mired down by generous subsidies to factions opposed to Karl XII, even
entering into an alliance with Lithuania in 1702.
Karl XII marched on Warsaw in 1702 and occupied it on 14 May
with no opposition. Then he marched westward seeking out Augustus, who had
finally reappeared to defend his crown. The armies met in the battle of
Klissow. The Swedes were outnumbered almost two to one, with their army
consisting of 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. Opposing them in strong
positions difficult to assault were 7,500 Saxon infantry, 9,000 Saxon cavalry,
and 6,000 Polish cavalry. Almost all the Swedish artillery was behind
struggling through the mud to keep up with the army. There were only four guns
available at the start of the battle. The Saxons had 46 guns.
After viewing the Saxon positions, Karl XII changed his
battle deployment by thinning out his center and right to mount a risky
envelopment of the Saxon right. The weakened Swedish center and right were
barely able to repulse heavy assaults while the envelopment was in progress.
Eventually, the Swedes fell on the Saxon right flank as the center and right
moved forward to pin down the troops to their front. The Saxons were hopelessly
caught in a pincer and forced back on the marshland in their rear. When it was
all over the Swedes entered the enemy camp. They had lost 300 killed and about
500 wounded. The Saxons had about 2,000 killed and 1,000 captured. One of those
killed on the Swedish side was Karl’s brother-in-law, Fredrik IV, the Duke of
Holstein-Gottorp. Augustus escaped by fleeing through the swampy marshland.
The next substantial engagement with the Saxon army came
about a year later, in June 1703, at Pultusk. After a rapid forced march the
Swedes pounced on the surprised Saxons and scattered their army. Karl XII chose
not to pursue but laid siege to the nearby fortress of Thorn, which Augustus
had garrisoned with 6,000 of his best infantry. When Karl proposed to storm the
fortress with only 600 men, his officers protested. At that time Karl XII is
alleged to have uttered these words: Where my soldiers are, there also will I
be. As for Sweden, I should be no great loss to her, for she has had little
profit out of me hitherto. He was persuaded not to undertake the reckless
attack, and the army settled down to a six-month siege. It was successful in
the end and cost only 50 Swedish casualties. In addition to the garrison, the
booty included 84 cannons and 1,000 stands of arms. The walls of the fort were
razed and the city had to pay a contribution of 60,000 riks-dollars. The
following year the Swedes, through excellent use of their cavalry, produced
another victory at Ponitz.
Karl XII was still fixed on destroying Augustus and his
influence in Poland. His pacification campaign went on to capture Cracow and
Poznan, and Ebling was occupied in 1704. In July that year Karl saw to it that
his candidate, Stanislaw Leszynski was elected king of Poland and Lithuania.
Since Karl did not have sufficient forces to also
effectively counter the Russians in the far north, they were allowed to pick
off Swedish possessions one at a time. Dorpat was captured in July 1705 and
Narva the following month. All the Swedish inhabitants of Narva were massacred
by the Russians. A Russian army under Scottish General George Ogilvie occupied
Courland in 1705 but avoided any major engagement with Karl XII. The Swedish
king chased the Russians out of Lithuania but halted when he reached Pinsk in
The Swedish cavalry had proven a decisive arm in several
battles, and the best example is the Battle of Fraustadt on February 3, 1706.
At this time Karl XII was besieging the fortress of Grondo where Ogilvie had
been forced to retreat with his whole army corps. Peter was determined that
Grondo be held, otherwise the road into Russia would be open to the Swedes.
Ogilvie was ordered to withdraw from Grondo by the tsar after the news of
Fraustadt. After he threw all his guns into the river Ogilvie managed to escape
from Grondo in the direction of Kiev through the Pripet Marshes as ordered.
General Rehnskiöld had been left behind to secure Poland.
Tsar Peter implored Augustus to make a diversionary attack in the west to
relieve the pressure on Grondo. To accommodate his ally, Augustus crossed the
Oder with 15,000 troops while the Saxon General Johann Matthias von Schulenburg
with 20,000–30,000 men, composed of Russians and Saxons, approached from the
west simultaneously. Augustus was so sure of victory that he sent his minister
to Berlin to request that Prussia not provide a safe refuge for the escaping
General Rehnskiöld had only 8,000 men, mostly cavalry, and
he was therefore heavily outnumbered by both Augustus and Schulenburg. He could
not let them join and decided to strike at the stronger force under
Schulenburg. Despite being outnumbered by more than three to one, he attacked
the Saxons and Russians in strong positions, deliberately chosen to resist the
feared Swedish cavalry by being anchored on two villages. Attacking at full
gallop, the Swedes put the Saxon cavalry on the wings to flight. They then
pressed in on the center in a double envelopment while the Swedish infantry
attacked the center. The result was disastrous for the Saxons. Of the combined
Saxon-Russian army of 30,000,50 eighty percent were killed or captured. Those
killed were estimated at 7,000–8,000. The Russians who were captured were
massacred, undoubtedly in revenge for the Russian massacre of Swedish civilians
Augustus did not try his own luck against the Swedes, and
withdrew his army. Karl XII was so impressed by Rehnskiöld’s victory that he
immediately promoted him to field marshal.
Peter the Great was furious and worried. Portions of a
letter he wrote to his Foreign Minister Fedor Golovin are quoted by Massie:
All the Saxon army has
been beaten by Rehnskjold and has lost all its artillery. The treachery and
cowardice of the Saxons are now plain: 30,000 men beaten by 8,000! The cavalry,
without firing a single round, ran away. More than half of the infantry,
throwing down their muskets, disappeared, leaving our men alone, not half of
whom, I think, are now alive … By giving money [to Augustus] we have only
brought ourselves misfortune … .
After the Blenheim and Ramillies campaigns (1704–1706) the
maritime powers appeared to have the upper hand in the War of the Spanish
Succession, and Karl XII felt they would no longer be sensitive to a Swedish
invasion of Saxony. The maritime powers were also worried about the possibility
of an alliance between Saxony and Prussia. William III sent John Churchill,
Duke of Marlborough, to Berlin to dissuade King Frederick I by threats, bribes,
and promises alike to convince the king to prepare to fight France.
Karl XII decided to strike at Saxony, and the Swedish army
crossed the border into Silesia on 22 August 1706. They were greeted as
liberators by Protestant Silesians. By the time the Swedes reached the Saxon
border a state of panic existed in the electorate. Augustus and his family fled
in various directions. The Saxon governing council, empowered to govern in
Augustus’ absence, resolved not to fight. They were war weary after losing
36,000 of their troops trying to keep Augustus on the Polish throne. The
primary cities such as Leipzig and Dresden were quickly occupied without
resistance, and Karl XII dictated his terms to the Saxons at his headquarters
in Altranstädt Castle.
The main terms were simple and the Saxons accepted them in
the Treaty of Altranstädt, signed on 13 October 1706:
Total and permanent abdication by Augustus of his claim to
the Polish crown.
Augustus’ recognition of Stanislaw as the king of Poland.
Saxony to break its alliance with Russia.
Surrender to the Swedes all Swedish nationals in Saxon
service or prisoners.
Saxony to pay all the costs of the Swedish army wintering in
At age twenty-four the Swedish king was at the apex of his
career. In six years of continuous campaigns against Danes, Saxons, Poles, and
Russians he had never lost a battle, and his reputation in Europe had never
stood higher. But he had also spent six years that proved precious to Russia.
Karl XII now settled down for the winter while contemplating his next moves.
KARL XII IN SAXONY
Karl XII and his army spent the winter of 1706–1707 and much
of the following year in well-deserved rest in Saxony at the expense of their
former enemy. In an unbroken string of victories Karl XII had eliminated two of
the three enemies ranged against Sweden in the Great Nordic War—Denmark and
Saxony. However, Russia still remained, and the Swedish king was deter mined to
deal with that power next. The Swedes also did not sit idle in Saxony. They
were constantly drilling, and reinforcements were arriving in preparation for
the next campaign.
Two events during Karl XII’s stay in Saxony are worth
mentioning. The appearance of the Swedish army in the heart of Germany sent
earthquakelike tremors through Europe. During the winter of 1706–1707, numerous
emissaries arrived in Saxony trying to divine Karl XII’s intentions now that he
was only some 300 kilometers from the Rhine. Louis XIV proposed an alliance
that would tip the European balance in his favor. The two countries would then
divide the German states between them. Silesia begged the Swedes to remain and
defend them against the Empire. Karl went so far as threatening to march on
Vienna if the Lutherans in Silesia were not granted religious freedom. Voltaire
reports that Emperor Joseph is alleged to have commented to a representative of
the Pope who was angry at the effrontery of the Swedish king: You may think
yourself happy that the King of Sweden did not propose to make me a Lutheran;
for if he had, I do not know what I might have done.
The most famous emissary was John Churchill, Duke of
Marlborough (1650–1722). The maritime powers were anxious not to have Karl XII
align himself with France, and, judging from the instructions Marlborough had
received before he set out on his mission, to prevent such an eventuality they
were willing to go far.
The two-day meeting between the two most successful generals
of the age tells one much about the difference in their personalities.
Marlborough, commander-in-chief of British forces, showed up splendidly
attired. Karl XII appeared in the same blue coat he always wore.
Karl XII told Marlborough that he had his hands full in
dealing with Russia, a war he expected to last two years. He had no desire to
be the arbiter of Europe. It appears Marlborough agreed to support Sweden with
respect to its problems both with Denmark and the Empire, to recognize
Stanislaw as king of Poland, and guarantee the Treaty of Altrastädt.
Marlborough, an experienced diplomat as well as general, was careful not to put
his promises on paper, thereby affording him some deniability when it came to
his assurances concerning Stanislaw and Altrastädt, items that would not sit
well with his allies, especially the Dutch. His mission was judged a success since
he had assured himself, after discussions with Karl XII and some of his
officers, and stealing a glance at a map the Swedish king either intentionally
or inadvertently left on his desk, that the Swedes would be busy with the
Russians for the next two years and had no intention to involve themselves in
affairs in the west. Karl XII had asked that a document detailing what had been
agreed to be provided. Such a document was delivered to the king after he had
The alarm in the west was somewhat, but not totally, put to
rest. If the Swedes were quickly victorious, as was expected, there was nothing
to prevent them from turning west and dictating terms to both sides.
That Peter the Great was worried when he became convinced
that Karl XII would invade Russia, and that he would be left to face him alone,
is best illustrated by his feverish search for allies and the massive peace
offensive he launched. As most accounts of the peace offensive differ to some
Peter’s peace offer eventually included the return of
Dorpat, Livonia, and Estonia with the exceptions that he wanted to retain
Schlusselburg, the Neva river valley, St. Petersburg, Narva, and Reval. This
was totally unacceptable to Karl XII. While some members of the Riksdag and the
administration in Stockholm urged acceptance as they had done with respect to
earlier peace offers from Augustus, the king politely refused. He viewed it as
only “kicking the can down the road,” not the permanent solution he was
In his peace offensive, the Russian tsar approached both
sides in the War of the Spanish Succession, first the maritime powers and the
Empire. He promised to provide 30,000 troops for their fight against France if
they could convince Sweden to accept his peace offer. The Dutch did not reply
to his request and he thereupon approached Denmark and Prussia. The attempt to
get these countries involved failed. He then approached France, promising to
provide troops for use against the Empire, the Netherlands, and England if they
could mediate a peace. Louis XIV accepted, but his offer of mediation was
politely refused by the Swedish king, who stated that the Russians could not be
trusted to keep their promises.
Peter’s final attempt, which had begun before 1707, was to
seek the help of England. For this purpose he was willing to give huge bribes
to Marlborough and others—even though, due to his enormous wealth, he was
skeptical of Marlborough accepting a bribe. The English duke nevertheless
arranged for the Russian emissary to travel to London and meet Queen Anne. The
queen told the Russian that, provided that her current allies Holland and the
Empire agreed, she was prepared to make an alliance with Russia through it
becoming a member of the Grand Alliance. Marlborough kept Russian hopes alive
by promising to use his influence with the Dutch. This was at the same time
that Marlborough had his two-day meeting with the Swedish king and made the
promises mentioned earlier in this chapter.
English duplicity went even further according to Massie. A
Russian ambassador-at-large in Europe, Heinrich von Huyssen, claimed that a
different approach to Marlborough was under consideration. The Duke had said
that he would be willing to arrange English help for Russia in return for a
substantial Russian gift of money and land for him personally. Peter, when
informed, said Marlborough could have any one of three fiefs and 50,000 ducats
per year for life. Nothing came of this offer.
Tsar Peter also sought the support of the Empire for a new
candidate for the Polish throne. His suggested candidates included James
Sobieski, the son of the former king, Eugène of Savoy, and finally Francis
Rakoczy. Sobieski declined and the emperor, wary of offending Karl XII, made
the excuse that Eugène was preparing for another campaign and therefore not
available. Rakoczy did accept but only on condition that the Polish Diet make a
request for him.
Karl XII’s principal subordinates had assumed that the Swedish
army would proceed north to retake the territories seized by the Russians. When
they learned the king’s real intent, Bain reports that they all objected except
for Field Marshal Rehnskiöld.
The Swedish army was ready for its greatest test in mid-August
1707. In the late afternoon of 27 August 1707, Karl XII himself rode out of
Altrastädt to catch up to his main army which had already departed. Accompanied
by only seven officers he detoured and rode into Dresden, the enemy capital, to
pay a surprise visit to his cousin Augustus. Surprise was achieved; the Swedish
king found his relative in his dressing gown. Quickly donning something more
appropriate, the two relatives embraced before taking a ride along the Elbe.
Now that Augustus had been punished, Karl harbored no ill feelings. He also
visited his aunt, Augustus’ mother. It was the last time he would see either.
The king’s foray into the enemy capital practically alone
gave his subordinates a sense of alarm at his recklessness. They told the king
that they were ready to besiege Dresden had he been made a prisoner. The next
day Augustus held an unscheduled council meeting in Dresden. This led Baron
Henning von Stralenheim, a Swedish diplomat in the field with the king, to
comment to Karl XII: You see they are deliberating upon what they should have
done yesterday. We don’t know what caused the king to make the detour to
Dresden; it appears to have been a sudden impulse to see his relatives.
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