Poland’s New King
Charles was determined to prosecute this war to its bitter end and despite the losses elsewhere in his empire[i] and despite the pleas of his subjects, the Swedish parliament, the entire military establishment and his sister to give up this senseless war in Poland, Charles was immovable, saying
‘Believe that I would give Augustus peace immediately if I could trust his word, but as soon as peace is made and we are on our march to Muscovy, he will accept Russian money and attack us in our back.’[ii]Having decided to use the avenue of the Polish constitution to remove his enemy Augustus, from his powerbase in Poland, Charles XII helped foment dissatisfaction amongst Augustus’s Polish subjects who did not appreciate his autocratic style of ruling. Despite the setbacks in Estonia Charles fully believed that when the time came, he would be able to sweep the Russians from his former territory.
Charles argued with the Poles that Augustus had overreached his authority as monarch, by dragging Poland into the war against Sweden without the consent of his subjects. Charles had invaded Poland and was now using the countryside to support his troops[iii], telling his generals.
‘The Poles must either be annihilated or forced to join us.’[iv]
Siege of Thorn
In 1704 the Swedes took the fortress town of Thorn, with a garrison of 5,000 Saxons taken prisoner. It was now that the Polish Diet agreed with Charles, deciding that Poland would remain at war with Sweden as long as Augustus remained king. In February 1704 Augustus was deposed and in a rigged election Charles’s candidate Stanislaus Leszczynski[v], was elected. A rump of the Diet was rounded up on 2nd July by Swedish soldiers, in a field near Warsaw and, protected by 100 Swedish troops, voted at the Swedish king’s direction.
‘Count Hoorn and two other general officers assisted publickly at the solemnity, as Embassadors extraordinary from Charles to the Republick. The session lasted until nine in the evening; and the Bishop of Posnania put an end to it by declaring in the name of the Diete Stanislaus elected King of Poland. Charles XII was the first in the crowd to cry out Vivat.’[vi]Having gained his objective Charles felt unable to leave his client unsupported. The Pope, furious that the candidate of a Protestant monarch had been elected, was threatening to excommunicate those who had taken part in the coronation[vii], which very few of the great Polish magnates attended. Soon after the coronation Charles and Stanislaus signed an anti-Russian alliance.
The Taking of Narva
In May 1704 Peter took his armies back to Narva and supervised the transport of the siege artillery in barges from St Petersburg. He intended to take control of Dorpat[viii] and Narva, two key towns in Estonia. Peter placed Field Marshal George Ogilvie in command of the besieging army.Peter then rode to Dorpat, which Sheremetev, with 23,000 men, had been besieging since June. He found fault with Sheremetev’s placement of the cannon, which were aimed at the towns strongest bastion rather than the weakest. Peter changed the placement of the guns and the weak point was breached; on 13th July the Swedish garrison surrendered.
Peter hurried back to Narva with Sheremetev’s troops and a heavy bombardment of the town began on 30th July, lasting ten days. When the walls were breached Peter offered generous terms to Count Arvid Horn[ix], Horn refused the offer in insulting language.
The assault on the town began on August 9th; within the hour the walls were breached by soldiers of the Preobrazhensky Guards, to be followed by waves of Russian infantry overwhelming the town. The Russians slaughtered everyone in sight; Count Horn tried to offer a parley but he had left it too late.
‘He [Peter] not only began to be a great soldier himself, but also to teach his Moscovites the art of war: Discipline was established in his troops; he had good engineers, and a great many good officers; and learnt the great art of subsisting his armies……he had got together a fleet which was able to make head against the Swedes in the Baltick Sea..
Having gained all these advantages which were due to his genius only, and the absence of the King of Sweden, he took Narva by assault.’[x]The taking of Narva removed the danger to St Petersburg from the west.
Sweden’s Next Gambit
On 29th December 1705 Charles struck camp at Warsaw and marched on Grodno, where Peter’s main army was camped on the far side of the river Neman He left behind him a Poland that was not entirely secure as Augustus was still in the field.. This entailed leaving 10,000 troops behind to keep a watch on the Saxons.
In May 1705, en route to his army, Peter was struck down by an illness, which entailed spending a month at Golovin’s house to recuperate. Peter reached his army in June, where it was quartered at Polotsk on the Dvina; from where it could be moved into Livonia, Lithuania or Poland as needed.
The army of 40,000 infantrymen, 20,000 cavalry and dragoons was well equipped and well supplied with artillery. The main problem was the rivalry between the Russian and the foreign senior officers. Ogilvie[xi] was not liked by the Russian officers; he had particular problems with Sheremetev, Menshikov and Repnin.
Peter’s attempted to solve the problem by splitting up the army. But when Sheremetev’s forces were defeated by the Swedes on 16th July in Livonia, Peter wrote bitterly to his Field Marshal, blaming the problem on.
‘Inadequate training of the dragoons about which I have spoken many times.’[xii]Ogilvie’s problems with Menshikov were acute[xiii]. The situation was complicated by the arrival of Augustus, to whom Peter gave overall command of the army at Grodno. Ogilvie was kept as senior military commander, while Menshikov commanded 8the cavalry and Repnin and a German cavalry officer had subordinate commands.
The rivalries between the various commanders spelt out disaster for the army. Peter forbad Ogilvie to risk his army in open battle even though when Charles hoved into the locality the Swedes were outnumbered two to one. Ogilvie suggested a siege but his subordinates disagreed and urged a retreat. Augustus was unwilling to make a decision and eventually wrote to Peter.Before an answer could be received Augustus decided he saw an opportunity to regain his throne and slipped away with four regiments of dragoons, promising to retune in three weeks with the entire Saxon army. The Allies could then deal with the Swedes who they would outnumber three to one.
But the Saxons were defeated and a furious Peter wrote to Golovin;
‘All the Saxon army has been defeated by Rehnskjold[xiv] and has lost all its artillery. The treachery and cowardice of the Saxons are now plain: 30,000 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 who, I think, are still alive.’[xv]The Russians in Grodno, now running out of supplies, were dismayed to hear of the defeat. The news made Peter determined to move his army out of Grodno and on 4th April the Russian army, throwing more than one hundred cannon into the Neman, started its retreat towards the Pripet Marshes.
Ogilvie’s retreat from Grodno only increased the quarrelling between himself and Menshikov, who gave contrary orders without informing his superior officer. Finally Ogilvie handed in his resignation, which Peter accepted. Ogilvie then transferred to Augustus’s service.
Russia and the Russians – Geoffrey Hosking, The Penguin Press 2001
Pripet Marshesharles ordered his men to following the retreating army; the Swedes were delayed by the destruction of their pontoon bridge across the river[xvi]. He ordered that the army take a short cut through the Pripet marshes which bogged the Swedes down. One observer wrote
‘It is impossible to describe how men and horses suffered on this march. The country was covered with marshes, the spring had thawed the ground, the cavalry could scarcely move, the wagon train got so deep in the mud it was impossible to advance.’[xvii]It was in Pinsk that Charles resigned himself to the escape of the Russian army, across the featureless plains stretching from horizon to horizon.
Dealing with AugustusIn late summer Charles decided to end the problems caused by Augustus for once and for all. On 28th August 1706 the Swedes crossed the border into Saxony. Augustus’s family had already been dispersed and the state treasury and jewels hidden. The Saxon Governing Council[xviii] had already decided not to resist the Swedes; they had been disillusioned of Augustus’s Polish ambitions, too many lives and too much money had already been lost.
Charles XII at Altranstadt
On 14th September Charles began his negotiations with the council and on 13th November the Treaty of Altranstadt was signed. Augustus was to give up his claim to the throne of Poland and break his alliance with Russia. The Swedish army was to overwinter in Saxony at the expense of the Saxon state.
Meanwhile Menshikov and Augustus were in Poland with a large force of Russian cavalry. Augustus failed to inform Menshikov of the Treaty of Altranstadt, when details were sent to him. Instead he wrote to inform the commander of the opposing Swedish forces of the treaty and begged him to retreat. Augustus’ highly justified reputation for mendacity served him ill; his letter was not believed. His Russian allies defeated his new Swedish allies at the battle of Kalisz on 25th October.
‘The Moscovites that day conquered the Swedes in a pitched battle for the first time. This victory, which King Augustus gained almost against his own inclination, was compleat, and he entered triumphant in the midst of his bad fortune into Warsaw.’[xix]Peter was overjoyed with the victory, despite the overwhelming odds in his favour[xx]. Augustus meanwhile apologised to Charles and persuaded Menshikov to give him charge of the 1,800 Swedish prisoners, who he immediately sent on parole back to Swedish Pomerania, freeing them up to fight against his erstwhile allies the following fighting season.
BibliographyNatasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes, Penguin Books Ltd 2002
Russia and the Russians – Geoffrey Hosking, The Penguin Press 2001
Peter the Great – Robert K Massie, Abacus 1992The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Mr de Voltaire, C Davis & A Lyon 1732
[i] The devastation of Livonia, the breadbasket of Sweden, and the capture of large numbers of Swedish subjects as well as the losses in Estonia and on Lake Ladoga
[ii] Peter the Great - Massie
[iii] Having promised on arrival not to take more than was absolutely essential
[iv] Peter the Great - Massie
[v] His qualification for the job being a strong supporter of Charles XII of Sweden
[vi] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire
[vii] Held in Warsaw, not Cracow where the Polish kings were traditionally crowned and not with the historic crown of Poland, still held by Augustus, who believed that his dethronement was illegal
[viii] Now Tartu
[ix] A childhood friend of Charles XII
[x] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire
[xi] Whose concern for them had made him popular with the men
[xii] Peter the Great - Massie
[xiii] Menshikov traded on his close friendship with the Czar and unknown to Ogilvie, pocketed his senior’s letters to Peter on the grounds that he was already writing to Peter and would inform him of what was happening in any event.
[xiv] Field Marshal and Charles’ senior commander
[xv] Peter the Great - Massie
[xvi] By ice floes carried down by the river’s melt water
[xvii] Peter the Great - Massie
[xviii] Empowered to act in Augustus’s absence
[xix] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire
[xx] The formidable Swedes had frequently overcome greater odds than two to one.