As Russian confidence grew, so arguments over strategy with western commanders became more frequent. The most significant such dispute came at Grodno in early 1706, where Peter had deputed Menshikov to keep an eye on the Scottish field-marshal Ogilvy who, following the departure of Augustus, was in sole command of forty-five infantry battalions and six dragoon regiments, some 35,000 men.58 All correspondance with Ogilvy was conducted via Repnin, the senior Russian officer present, who received a copy of every order Peter sent Ogilvy. As Charles advanced on Grodno, Peter, fearing the loss of much of his precious army, ordered Ogilvy to abandon the city and withdraw towards the Russian frontier. Ogilvy, despite the fact that supplies were running short, and against the advice of Repnin, Menshikov, Hallart and Wenediger, argued that it was impossible to evacuate Grodno, expressing his wish that Charles would attack, adding that: ‘do not doubt that it will bring complete victory in a few hours.’ He objected that he would be forced to destroy the heavy artillery because he did not have enough horses to transport it. Peter’s reply, sent after he received news of the disaster at Fraustadt, was sharp: he ordered Ogilvy to abandon Grodno forthwith, to take only regimental artillery with him, and to destroy the heavy guns. Once he had left the city, Ogilvy was to divide his forces and send them eastwards by separate routes. This might expose individual sections to destruction, but Peter wished at all costs to avoid a general battle which might wipe out the whole army. Ogilvy finally began the evacuation on 11/22 March, but not before he had once more risked Peter’s wrath by bluntly contesting his order, stating that it would be better to stay in Grodno until the summer, despite the shortage of provisions; as he admitted, the Swedish light cavalry was picking off foraging parties sent out from the city. Even when he was on the point of abandoning Grodno, he urged Peter to retake it.
The dispute with Ogilvy demonstrated the extent to which Peter and his Russian commanders had begun to liberate themselves from the assumptions of their western advisers. Defence must be based on mobility, not fortresses, which could be death-traps for armies, something which Peter could not risk. The different philosophies were revealed in a further argument over the composition of the army, when Peter rejected Ogilvy’s recommendation of a force of thirty regiments of foot and only sixteen of horse, deciding on a ratio of forty-seven infantry to thirty-three cavalry regiments; as Sheremetev recognised, cavalry was vitally important even in siege warfare in the east. The parting of the ways was not long delayed. In April, Ogilvy requested his release from Russian service; in September, he was finally allowed to leave. Henceforth, the Russian army was largely commanded by Russians. The long apprenticeship was over, and the new maturity of Russian strategic thinking was apparent in the council which met in Żółkiew in April 1707. Here the decision was taken not to join battle in Poland-Lithuania, despite Polish pressure, or to garrison fortresses in the Commonweath, but to withdraw through Lithuania into Russia itself, and organise a flexible defence against possible Swedish lines of attack.64 Although Peter is often credited as the creator of this plan, it is clear that Russian commanders, especially Sheremetev, played an important part in its formulation. It was dangerous, since it risked alienating the Sandomierz confederates, who wished to adopt an offensive strategy and force Charles to a decisive battle in the Commonwealth.
As the Swedes marched east, the Russians melted away before them, destroying everything in their path. The Swedes faced similar problems to those experienced by Batory 130 years earlier. Lyth’s description of marching through deep forest in the autumn of 1708 could have been lifted from Piotrowski’s diary:
we lost many men and many horses, which died of hunger, so that our misery grew ever greater; we had to watch as both men and horses alike, exhausted by hunger, dropped to the ground and died there miserably; so it remained for us doubly worse.
A month later the army emerged into a wilderness of deserted and smoking villages, whence everything had been carried away, in which they were constantly harried by enemy raids, so that they were not safe from attack ‘for a single hour’, as the great cry went up from the army ‘what shall we eat?’ Like Batory’s army at Pskov, units had to forage for miles in all directions to obtain supplies. There was one major difference, however. When Batory laid siege to Pskov he was facing an exhausted and disorganised enemy, and his cavalry dominated the theatre of operations. Charles, for all the formidable qualities of his army, was facing a very different opponent. Peter might be cautious about exposing his precious new army in open battle, but his forces, augmented by large numbers of Cossack and Kalmuk irregulars, were more than capable of subjecting the Swedes to the high-level harrassment Charles X’s armies had experienced in Poland in the 1650s. This ensured that Swedish supply problems steadily increased: forage parties were easy targets for roaming Russian units, and the constant skirmishes hit morale badly. The Swedish cavalry may have been superior on the battlefield, but the Russians were numerically stronger and well-suited to a campaign of harassment.
For all the sense of tragic inevitability which pervades accounts of Charles’s Russian campaign, he had little choice but to attempt what he recognised was a risky operation, and his conduct of it was by no means as strategically inept as it is often portrayed. There were good reasons for the decision to turn south in the autumn of 1708. The move into the Ukraine would open easier lines of communication through Volhynia, Podolia and Ruthenia to Leszczyński, and bring the Swedes closer to the Turks and Tatars, whom Charles had good reason to believe might be persuaded to join the war against Russia. Whether or not Charles wished to force Peter to a decisive battle after crossing the Dnieper, or, as Stille believes, he was attempting an ambitious flanking move, he had failed by mid-September. The Swedes did catch the Russian cavalry at Tatarsk (10/21 September), but the ground was unfavourable and Charles was unwilling to risk an attack. A march north was now impossible. The Russians were laying waste the countryside – the Swedes counted the flames of twenty-four burning villages from their encampment – while Lewenhaupt and Rehnskióld agreed that the roads from Smolensk to Moscow would be impassible. The supply situation was becoming serious, morale was suffering, and the army greeted the decision to turn south with relief:
we have been in a very desolate country … half a mile from the boarders of Muscovy, where we found nothing but what was burnt and destroyd, and of large villages little left but the bare names, we had allso news of the like destruction as farr as Smolensko, which has had this happy effect on His Maj:ty that he has desisted from pursuing the ennemy, and turnd his march to the right, with intention as is supposd to make an incursion into Ukrain, this is a country … wery plentifull of all necessaryes and where no army as yet has been.
It was undoubtedly an error to turn south without waiting for Lewenhaupt, or turning back towards the Dnieper to meet him, as Piper urged; it is clear that Charles, despite optimistic reports that Lewenhaupt was across the Dnieper, was aware that he was not. Charles was confident that Lewenhaupt would be capable of beating off any attack, but underestimated the Russian ability to seize the opportunity. Peter sent Sheremetev to shadow the main Swedish army, while detaching a force of 6,795 dragoons and 4,830 infantry, mounted on horses to ensure rapidity of movement. This korvolant (corps volant) moved swiftly on Lewenhaupt’s force, whose speed was reduced by the need to maintain full battle order on the march to protect the cumbersome wagon train. The Swedes gave a good account of themselves at Lesnaia, but although they slightly outnumbered the Russians, they were unable to save the vital supply-train, losing nearly half their strength into the bargain. The Russian horse might be inferior to the Swedish cavalry, but Lesnaia underlined the usefulness of dragoons in the eastern theatre of war.
Charles had paid the price of not waiting for Lewenhaupt, and it is unlikely that Peter would have risked an attack if the main Swedish army had not turned south. Nevertheless, if the loss of the supply train was a blow, it was by no means fatal. Initially it seemed that the move south was justified. On crossing into the Ukraine in early November, Lyth reported that it was rich in grain, fruit, tobacco and cattle, with few forests and extensive fields. There was an abundance of honey, flax and hemp, which could be bought very cheaply; although the Russians had made some effort at destruction, the Swedes were able to excavate buried supplies, and bread, beer, spirits, wines, mead, honey, cattle and fodder for the horses were plentiful. By December, however, the situation had deteriorated sharply; although the Swedes found ample supplies of tobacco, food and fodder began to be a problem, while the growing shortages were exacerbated by a sudden and vicious turn in the weather in what was to prove one of the fiercest winters of the century. In the coldest snap, in late December, men froze to death in the saddle overnight; on Christmas Eve, 25–26 men from Lyth’s company succumbed and Lewenhaupt calculated that 4,000 men fell victim to the cold. This seriously weakened the army and had a severe effect on morale, but Charles cannot be blamed for the exceptional severity of the winter. The period of extreme cold was relatively brief, and although conditions thereafter were far from comfortable, they were bearable, and if the Swedes suffered, so did the Russians. The Russians were far better able to replace their losses, however, and it remains true that the Swedish losses helped shift the balance of advantage towards Peter.
If Charles’s strategy was undoubtedly risky, it was not the work of a madman or an aggressive psychopath. Nevertheless, the Swedes were always fighting at a disadvantage in country familiar to their enemies. Further reverses were to follow. After the loss of Lewenhaupt’s baggage train it was essential that an alternative store of supplies be secured, but the Swedes lost by a whisker the race for Baturyn, Mazepa’s headquarters. After the Cossack hetman had finally declared for Charles, on 24 October (OS), Menshikov sacked Baturyn (2/13 November), cruelly massacring the population and destroying or carrying off the precious reserves of arms, ammunition and food with which Charles had hoped to augment his rapidly-diminishing supplies.
Although Mazepa’s defection was a considerable boost for Charles, especially when it was followed in March 1709 by that of the Zaporozhians, it was not to prove decisive. The 1650s, when the Cossacks had briefly promised to emerge as a significant political force in the southeast, were long gone. The Ukrainian Ruina had shattered Cossack unity. By looking to the Swedes Mazepa and the Zaporozhian hetman Kost’ Hordiienko were merely continuing the politics of the last half century, in which Cossack leaders had manoeuvred between Poland, Russia and the Ottomans, seeking a basis for the autonomy they had enjoyed under Khmelnytsky. The Cossacks, although still extremely useful as sharpshooters and irregular troops, were not the military force they had once been. Indeed, the heavy casualties which Mazepa’s Cossacks had incurred when forced by Peter to fight in the north against the Swedes, where they had proved no match for regular troops, had played a significant role in alienating them. Moreover, the Zaporozhians were strongly hostile to the Poles, and Charles’s ill-disguised scheming with Mazepa to eliminate the Commonwealth once and for all from the Ukraine not only ensured the continuing hostility of the Sandomierz confederates, it also threatened his relations with Leszczyński, the Ottomans and the Tatars. In March 1709, Wiśniowiecki, who had extensive Ukrainian estates, abandoned Leszczyński and rejoined the Sandomierz Confederation. The destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich by a Russian force in May 1709 merely demonstrated that Charles’s hopes for a widespread Ukrainian rebellion against Russia were ill-founded, and that the mobile and much larger Russian forces were in control of the wider theatre of campaign.
Thus when Charles’s diminishing army finally launched the general battle he had sought for so long at Poltava on 27 June 1709 (OS) it was not under the favourable circumstances for which he had hoped. Indeed, although it was characteristically the Swedes who took the initiative with an ambitious plan to assault the Russian camp, it was the Russians who had issued the challenge by crossing the Vorskla to the north of Poltava on 20 June (OS), three days after Charles’s luck ran out when he received a bad wound in his foot from a stray bullet while observing the Russian positions. Two days later, he received final confirmation that neither Leszczyński nor Krassau would be joining him. Although he accompanied his army into battle borne on a litter, Rehnskióld took operational command. Unable to provide the inspirational leadership for which he was famous, Charles was condemned to follow the battle from a distance, while the morale of his troops was undoubtedly affected. Nevertheless, a battle was necessary. A Swedish victory, while it might not destroy the Russian army, would relieve the pressing supply problems, would help Leszczyński, and might tempt the Ottomans and Tatars to commit themselves. The only viable alternatives were to withdraw across the Dnieper, southwards to the Crimea or back towards Poland; both would be hazardous with the Russians across the Vorskla