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’. 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.
Between 1700 and 1708, success bred success. The defeats inflicted on Schlippenbach in the Baltic provinces could be dismissed as of minor significance so long as the main army was victorious; once it could be turned against the Russians, Sweden’s losses could be recovered. Yet the very confidence which flowed from the long run of victories could itself be a source of danger. For the threat from the Russian army was growing. Buoyed by their victories in the Baltic, Peter and his commanders were becoming more confident, while intensive drill was improving the quality of the ordinary soldiers. Despite the continuing shortage of talented officers, even foreign observers were beginning to recognise the good effects of Peter’s work. In July 1705, the Austrian ambassador Otto Pleyer remarked after the mustering of the army in Moscow that ‘the newly-arrived officers avowed they had seen no German army that was better clad, exercised or armed.’ In reporting Sheremetev’s defeat at Gemauerthof (July 1705), Whitworth noted approvingly how firmly the Russians had stood their ground. For all his reports on Russian problems over desertion and the quality of officers, he described in 1708 how the army was ‘composed of leesty, well made fellows’ and recognised that ‘the exercise [is] good, their air quite altered since their campaigns in Poland, and many of their regiments will doubtless fight well.’ The Russians themselves were increasingly confident of the quality of their troops: Peter, the harshest of critics, wrote in March 1707 that the army was ‘in good shape’; in April 1708, Sheremetev wrote of the ‘good state’ of his infantry. Most tellingly, if Charles is often accused of underestimating the fighting qualities of the Russians, there is much evidence to suggest that his army did not. After Holowczyn, Jeffreyes remarked that:
The Svedes must now own the Muscovites have learnt their lesson much better than they had either at the battles of Narva or Fraustadt, and that they equal if not exceed the Saxons both in discipline and valour, ’tis true their cavalry is not able to cope with owrs, but their infantry stand their ground obstinately, and ’tis a difficult matter to separate them or bring them in a confusion if they be not attacked sword in hand.
Posse claimed that ‘all those who saw and heard that action, must confess that they had never seen or heard such great fire from salvos, which we had to endure’. Lyth acknowledged the proficiency of Russian musketry and commented on the skill with which the Russians had chosen their positions. In the past, Swedes had felt that although the Russians had always fought sturdily enough they tended to take flight if the battle began to turn against them, but Lewenhaupt’s grudging praise of their fighting qualities at Lesnaia included a recognition that they were now capable of rallying after being forced back.
Most significantly, the Russian army was developing its own style of fighting, as Peter and his commanders gained experience of Swedish methods of waging war and realised that for all the technical help brought by westerners, western methods were not always effective. There were already signs of this at Narva, when it was Boris Sheremetev who suggested that the army should emerge from the protection of the countervallation to confront the Swedes in the open field, where its superior numbers could be made to tell. As the Saxon army went down to defeat after defeat, the spell of western competence was broken, and Peter’s reliance on western officers at the top level of service diminished steadily. The frequent military councils – twenty-two were held in 1708 alone – at which high-ranking officers, foreign and Russian, discussed strategy and tactics with government ministers were important for developing the fusion of western and eastern principles which increasingly characterised Petrine warfare. Papers were submitted by participants, debate was strongly encouraged, and decisions were only taken after full consideration of the situation.