Peter’s Triumph: Battle of Poltava

THE RUSSIAN INVASION IN 1709

After the worst of the cold spell was over the Swedes attempted to capture the hilltop fort of Veprik. The first attempt was repelled with 400 Swedes killed and another 600 wounded. The casualties were heaviest among the officers, and Field Marshal Rehnskiöld was among the wounded. Veprik surrendered to the Swedes on the night of 7–8 January 1709.

Leaving Field Marshal Rehnskiöld in charge of the winter camp, Karl XII carried out a merciless winter campaign against the Russians, capturing several towns and—taking a page from Peter—laying waste the countryside to provide more security for the Swedish encampment. In a lightning raid on Menshikov’s headquarters, Karl XII nearly captured the Russian general, who managed to flee, but the raid killed 400 of his men while only two Swedes were killed. An early thaw began in mid-February, turning the ground to mud. Campaigning for both Russians and Swedes was impossible.

Rumors from the north reported that a large Russian army was now heading for Poland. This, combined with the fact that the king of Poland and General Krassow would probably not arrive, prompted Count Karl Piper to recommend a retreat to Poland. The advice was rejected by Karl XII. He had in effect decided to move the Swedish camp to new positions between the Psiol and Vorksla rivers. The main army went into quarters in March and April along the Vorksla, two miles south of Poltava, a fortress that commanded the road to Moscow.

The Swedes began a siege of Poltava on 1 May but made little headway. The siege followed what may have been a peace feeler by Peter the Great in the guise of a prisoner exchange. The message was carried by Erik Johan Eh -ren roos, who had been captured at Lesnaya. The message was simply that Peter was inclined to make peace but would not give up St. Petersburg. The reply was sent back by Ehrenroos on 1 May and it ignored the peace offering.

Karl XII’s search for allies had meantime proved fruitless. The Khan of the Crimean Tartars was ready to provide support, but he was a vassal of the sultan in Constantinople who had decided not to get involved and forbade the Khan from doing so. The rebellion by the Zaporozhian Cossacks was put down by the Russians in May 1709.

The Russians were eager to prevent the Swedes from capturing the Poltava fort because its vast stores of supplies would provide those sorely needed by Karl XII’s men. They made an unsuccessful attempt to force their way across the Vorskla River. At a Russian war council it was decided to cross the river far enough from Poltava to avoid the Swedish defenses, and the spot selected was Petrovka. The operation was given urgency by a message from the fort’s commandant that he would not be able to hold out much longer. The Swedes were, however, aware of the Russian plan and their own plan called for allowing a large portion—but not all—of the enemy army to cross before attacking.

THE BATTLE OF POLTAVA

The Swedish king had received a foot wound on 17 June from a musket fired from an island in the river while he was reconnoitering the bank. The wound was sustained around 0800 hours but the king continued his rounds before returning to his headquarters around 1100 hours where he fainted while trying to get off his horse. The musket ball struck the heel of his left foot and traveled the length of his sole before it exited.

Rehnskiöld, with ten cavalry and eight infantry regiments, had been given the mission to execute the agreed upon plan against the Russian crossing. The king would remain at Poltava but would join the field marshal to take part in the battle as soon as the situation at Poltava allowed. This was before he was wounded.

After he was wounded but still able to issue orders, he left it up to his field marshal whether or not to fight at Petrovka. The field marshal consulted his senior commanders and all agreed not to fight the battle, not only because of the king being wounded but also because the Russians were already well entrenched. Some historians have criticized the field marshal’s decision and claimed the failure not to attack the Russians at Petrovka contributed to the disaster that followed. While he was recovering from his wound, Karl XII received definite word that neither Stanislaw nor General Krassow was coming, since they were fully engaged in Poland.

The Russians began building a second fortified camp just north of Poltava. It was fortified on three sides while the side facing the river was left open as no threat there existed. It was a strong camp but had the disadvantage that if forced to retreat the Russians would have to retrace their steps back to Vorskla since only one track led directly to the river from the encampment. A battle had become inevitable after the Russians brought their main army across, and neither side had good withdrawal routes, being virtually surrounded by rivers.

The Russian camp was built in the form of a quadrilateral, with strong redoubts that would channel the attacks and keep the attacking columns in a deadly crossfire as long as possible. The southern side was difficult to attack because of ravines and woods. The western side faced an open plain with a forest behind it. Between this forest and the one on the south side was a piece of open ground. The Russians built six redoubts and were in the process of building four more when the battle started.

The Swedish strength consisted of 8,200 infantry, 7,800 cavalry, 1,000 irregular Wallachians, 1,300 siege-work troops with 2 guns, a baggage train protected by 2,000 cavalry and 28 guns, an unknown number of Zaporozhian Cossacks, and 1,800 cavalry along the lower Vorskla. The Russian forces consisted of 25,500 infantry with 73 pieces of artillery, 9,000 cavalry with 13 pieces of artillery, a redoubt force of 4,000 infantry with 16 artillery pieces, vthe Poltava garrison of 4,000 infantry with 28 cannons, an outpost at Yakovtsi with 2,000 troops equally divided between infantry and cavalry, and an unknown number of Cossacks.

The appalling picture painted by the above order of battle is not only in the fact that the Swedes were heavily outnumbered in infantry, but that they had no artillery placed to assist in the battle. Of their 30 pieces, two were with the besiegers of Poltava and the other 28 were with the baggage train! The Russians, on the other hand, had 130 artillery pieces.

The Swedes were outnumbered almost 3 to 1, the enemy had complete dominance in artillery, and the Swedes were going against a well entrenched foe which normally requires a superiority of 3 to 1. Only an unabashed believer in miracles could expect the Swedes to prevail under these circumstances. Since the king had decided to be carried onto the battlefield on a litter, he failed to appoint a single overall battle commander, and the orders were issued in such a hurry that by the time they got to battalion and company level there was not enough time to become familiar with them. Finally, the personality and tactical eye of the king was not present to give his troops the morale lift they sorely needed.

The Swedes had expected to launch a surprise attack at first light on June 28, and for that purpose some of the troop movements took place shielded by the woods to their rear. However, the Russians learned about the Swedish plans and moved strong cavalry forces behind their redoubts. When the Swedes realized that their surprise had been discovered they hurried their preparations. Orders went out to change from a line formation to a column in approaching the enemy positions. This caused further confusion. The Russian artillery had already opened fire on the Swedes. Rehnskiöld commanded the Swedish right and Roos the center, while Lewenhaupt commanded the left.

The Swedes easily captured the first two redoubts but bitter fighting ensued for the rest, and the attackers were severely mauled. The dust raised by the cavalry and the smoke from artillery and muskets ruined visibility. One part of the Swedish army under General Roos became separated from the rest, attacked and surrounded by cavalry, and relief forces were unable to break through. Having failed to take all the T-shaped redoubts the Swedes began to withdraw.

The Russians now came out of their entrenchments and prepared to attack. The Swedes decided to take the initiative with their own attack. The king, who was consulted, suggested that it was best to first get rid of the enemy cavalry. This was probably the best thing to do in this impossible situation, but when Rehnskiöld told him it was impossible the king is alleged to have muttered, “Well, you must do as you will.”

The Swedes thereupon launched an infantry attack while posting their cavalry in the rear. The depleted Swedish infantry lines—no more than 4,000 strong—faced 18,000 Russian infantry supported by over 70 field guns. The Cossacks were asked to bring their 28 guns forward but it was too late.

The Swedish right drove the Russians back and captured some field guns which they turned against their enemy. However, a gap had developed between some of the regiments, and Russian infantry poured into that gap. Panic began to set in among the Swedish infantry, and Lewenhaupt’s attempt to halt the stampede failed. Rehnskiöld, who tried to come to Lewenhaupt’s aid, was captured. Most of the Swedish infantry which had crossed the field against the Russian lines was destroyed.

Roos, who had earlier become separated from the main Swedish army after he lost 1,100 men in attacking the redoubts, withdrew to the south, not knowing where the main army was. He was pounced upon by Russian cavalry and infantry and forced to surrender his remnants.

The battle was over but the killing continued. With Rehnskiöld and Piper captured, Lewenhaupt was left in command. Karl XII was in the middle of the debacle and tried his best to stem the stampede, but his feeble voice could not be heard above the din. The murderous fire was like a great scythe bringing down men, horses, and trees. Twenty-one of the king’s twenty-four litter-carriers were killed, and the litter was finally shattered. It looked like the king would be captured but an officer stopped, dismounted, and lifted Karl into the saddle, only to have the horse shot from under him. Another horse was provided but now his wound was fully reopened and bleeding profusely.

The Swedish cavalry, which was basically intact, covered the remnants of the infantry in their withdrawal to the camp at Pushkarivka. The reserve regiments, artillery, and Mazeppa’s Cossacks were placed in defensive positions around the camp. The two infantry regiments besieging Poltava managed to fight their way through the Russian lines to the camp. Most of the defeated army had reached the camp by noon. The Swedes had left some ten thousand on the battlefield, 6,901 dead and 2,760 prisoners. The Russian losses were relatively light: 1,345 killed and 3,290 wounded. It was almost the exact opposite of previous Swedish-Russian encounters.

No immediate pursuit was launched by the Russians, as their troops were almost as confused as the Swedes, and Peter wanted to celebrate the victory. The Swedish army had been defeated but it had not surrendered. About 16,000 Swedes gathered at Pushkarivka to join the approximately 6,000 Cossacks already there.

Future plans had to be laid and they boiled down to a retreat to Poland to join Stanislaw and Krassow by one of several routes known to the Cossacks. The first leg of the retreat was a withdrawal to Perevolotjna, at the junction of the Vorskla and Dnieper rivers. The route would then go north to the Vorskla fords, cross the river and move south along the Dnieper to the Khan’s dominions and join the king at Ochakov on the Black Sea from where the entire army would return to Poland. The baggage was sent ahead and the infantry and cavalry followed under the command of General Kreutz. Horses were gathered for the infantry to increase the speed. The march continued through the heat of the day of 28 June and through most of the night. The whole army arrived safely at Perevolotjna on 30 June.

The first order of business was to get the Cossacks, starting with the leadership, across the Dnieper to safety since the Russians would not show them any mercy. To do otherwise would be a stain on Swedish honor. Second, the wounded king had to be spirited away to safety in Turkey, despite his own arguments to stay with the army. Lewenhaupt chose to remain with the army after he gave the king his word that he would continue the fight; but he chose his words carefully. The Cossack leaders were moved across the river on 30 June, followed by the king and his group the following day.

General Menshikov appeared with 6,000 dragoons and 2,000 Cossacks early on 1 July and asked for a parley. Kreutz was sent to find out what terms the Russians were offering. He came back stating that Menshikov offered normal surrender terms. Lewenhaupt consulted his colonels and they asked what the king’s last order had been. Lewenhaupt gave a rather evasive answer that he had only asked the army to “defend itself as long as it could.” Lewenhaupt directed the colonels to poll the soldiers if they were willing to fight. This was contrary to all Swedish army practice. The answer from the soldiers was that they would fight if the others did.

The surrender—termed by some as shameful—took place at 1100 hours on 1 July: 1,161 officers and 13,138 non-commissioned officers and men filed into Meshikov’s camp and laid down their arms. Englund gives higher figures for the Swedes who were surrendered (see below). Only few ever saw their homeland again. It should be noted that several of the Swedish regiments had seen little action, particularly the cavalry which was virtually intact. The Swedes actually outnumbered Menshikov’s tired troops, and an inspiring and resolute combat leader would have opted for a daring attack rather than captivity. Lewenhaupt was no such leader. The 5,000 Cossacks who had remained with Lewenhaupt were not included in the capitulation, and most grabbed horses and rode away, but some were caught, tortured in the most brutal manner, and killed.

Englund gives precise and startling figures of the losses sustained by the Swedish army—which had numbered 49,500 the previous summer. He notes that almost exactly 20,000 entered captivity and when the roughly 2,800 taken prisoner during the battle are added, he arrives at a grand total of about 23,000 prisoners.

Karl XII reached the Bug River on 7 July and entered the Ottoman Empire on 10 July, eventually joined by about 1,800 of his troops. They were granted asylum and treated as welcomed guests. The last action was that of the rearguard on the other side of the Bug when it was caught by Russian cavalry. The 300 Swedes surrendered, but an equal number of Cossacks fought to the last man.

IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES OF POLTAVA

It is not surprising that the consequences of a battle historians have long considered one of most decisive in history would be great and long-lasting. Here we will only deal with the immediate effects.

The results of the battle shocked Europe; in a matter of days the whole political situation on the continent had been changed. However, the Great Northern War dragged on, inconclusively, for another decade, which caused great fiscal strain and disaffection in war-weary Sweden.

The scavengers moved in to carve up the carcass of the Swedish Empire. Denmark seized Schleswig, Bremen, and Verden, but turned some of those territories over to Hannover in order to gain its alliance. Danish forces also invaded southern Sweden but were defeated by General Magnus Stenbock in the Battle of Helsingborg in February 1710, forcing them to withdraw across the Sound. Stenbock then proceeded to Germany where he defeated the Danish army at the Battle of Gadebusch in 1712. He was thereafter set upon by much stronger allied forces and compelled to surrender in 1713. Russia occupied Poland, Karelia, Livonia, Estonia, and Ingria. Augustus (who was reinstated as King of Poland), moved against Pomerania with a Saxon-Polish army but was stopped. The Saxons and Russians were also repulsed from Stralsund in 1713. A Russian fleet defeated a Swedish squadron in the Gulf of Finland in the Battle of Hangö in 1714. However, they did not yet feel strong enough to offer an open challenge to the Swedish navy. There were still some teeth left in the old lion.

Karl XII stayed in exile for four years, trying to convince the sultan to attack Russia. He had some success as Turkey entered the war in October 1710 and moved an army of 200,000 under Grand Vizier Baltaji Mehmet to the Russian frontier. This move by the Ottoman Empire was also encouraged by the French.

An overconfident Tsar Peter invaded Moldavia with 60,000 men, was outmaneuvered by the Turks, and driven back to the Pruth River where his starving army was surrounded in July 1711. Peter had never been in greater peril; however, luck was with him. Rather than forcing Peter to surrender Mehmet entered into negotiations which led to the Treaty of Pruth on 21 July 1711. Among the terms of the treaty was a promise by Peter to withdraw from Poland, stay out of Polish internal affairs, and provide Karl XII a safe passage back to Sweden. Forcing Peter to surrender on the Pruth would have had unimaginable historical consequences.

Karl XII was bitterly disappointed, and stayed in Turkey for the next three years. He wisely did not believe Peter the Great would keep his promise of safe passage any more than he did regarding the Polish provisions. The Swedish king kept insisting that his host should renew the war. Karl was finally placed under house arrest after a fierce hand-to-hand struggle on 1 February 1713. He remained under virtual arrest until he departed the following year. While General Sparre and 1,200 Swedes who had been in Turkey took a separate route, Karl XII in the company of two aides made the dangerous journey, incognito, across the unfriendly states of Europe to enter Stralsund on 11 November 1714.

Will and Ariel Durant present a different version of these events. They write that Karl XII was encouraged to return by the Turks who gave him gifts, money, and a military escort. If Karl was given a military escort, it could only have been as far as the border with the Holy Roman Empire in Hungary. For the rest of the journey through Hungary, Austria, and into Germany southeast of Nuremberg, the king probably traveled incognito. Karl XII stayed in Stralsund helping to fight off a siege, but headed back to Sweden in December 1715 after an absence of more than 15 years.

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