Augustus II of Poland (1670-1733)

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“Friedrich Augustus. Elector of Saxony (1694-1733); king of Poland (1697-1704; 1709-1733).” A member of the Wettin dynasty and an elector of the Holy Roman Empire (Saxony), Augustus was elected king of Poland in 1697, after deeming that Warsaw was worth a Mass, converting to Catholicism, and agreeing to permit extraordinary privileges to the szlachta, even beyond the broad powers the nobility already enjoyed. In time this deal fatally weakened the monarchy within Poland. In foreign policy, however, Augustus enjoyed an independence his Vasa predecessors never had. This was facilitated by his personal control of a separate Saxon Army of 26,000 excellent troops, along with a discrete diplomatic service and bureaucracy. Together, these resources permitted him to conduct diplomacy and even war without consulting the szlachta in Poland or the Sapiehas in Lithuania. In 1699 Augustus forged an aggressive alliance with Peter I of Russia and Fredrik IV of Denmark that aimed to take advantage of the immaturity and inexperience of the new Swedish king, Karl XII. He immediately besieged Riga, launching the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Like the other members of this rapacious anti-Swedish alliance, Augustus greatly underestimated Karl XII. He and they all paid a heavy price for that mistake: Augustus’ Polish territories were invaded by Swedish armies. He lost and fled Warsaw in early 1702. Augustus subsequently was soundly defeated and lost most of his army at Kliszow (July 8/19, 1702). After recruiting over the winter, he took to the field with a new but undertrained and poorly equipped force, only to be smashed again by the Swedes at Pultusk (April 10/21, 1703). Augustus was expelled from Poland in favor of Stanislaw I in 1704, when the “Warsaw Confederation” that opposed him was supported by armed Swedish intervention. Civil war ensued in Poland, in which Augustus had support from the “Sandomierz Confederacy” of anti-Stanislaw nobles. This drew Karl back into Poland, where he completely defeated Augustus and his Polish allies in two small but sharp battles. Early in the new year Augustus lost again at Fraustadt (February 2/13, 1706). That opened the door to a Swedish invasion of Saxony and the fall of Dresden and Leipzig. Their fall compelled Augustus to agree to the Treaty of Altranstädt (September 13/24, 1706), renouncing his claim to the Polish throne. What saved Augustus was no effort of his own but the disastrous decision by Karl to invade Russia, which resulted in decisive defeat of the Swedish army at Poltava (June 27/July 8, 1709). That catastrophe, along with Karl’s wasted years spent in Ottoman exile, permitted Augustus to reopen the Polish war with Stanislaw I. With help from Tsar Peter, Augustus was restored to the Polish throne in 1709. He held onto it through the remaining years of the Great Northern War and afterward, until his death in 1733.

The battle of Fraustadt (February 1706) was next to the battle of Narva the greatest Swedish victory in the Great Northern Wart. A Swedish army of 10 000 men commanded by Carl Gustaf Rehnsköld attacked and almost annihilated a two times larger Saxon-Russian army near Poland’s western border. The Swedish war effort in Poland was before the battle seemingly close to a complete collapse because the Swedish main army led by Charles XII had their hands full in the east. But thanks to Rehnsköld’s victory at Fraustadt and Charles XII’s encirclement of the Russian main army in Grodno the campaign instead ended in a complete Swedish triumph. Before the year was over would Saxony sue for peace and accept Stanislaw Leszczynski as Polish king. The Swedish army could thereafter direct all its effort on defeating the last remaining enemy, Russia.

The battle itself, which according to the Swedish calendar happened 3 February, but according the Gregorian calendar (used by the Saxons) 13 February and according to the Julian calendar (used by the Russians) 2 February, have often been called a Swedish variant of Hannibal’s pincer movement in the battle of Cannae 216 BC. But the battle was actually planned by Rehnsköld as a frontal attack in which the Swedish numerical inferiority would be countered by thrusting through the enemy line with cold steel weapons before the enemies superior fire power could make an impact. Circumstances in the battle resulted however in the cavalry wings moving around obstacles and attacking the Saxon’s flanks in classic Hannibal style. In any way the battle ended with a total victory for the Swedish army. Over 7 000 Saxons and Russians were killed and just as many were captured. The Swedes only lost 400 men.