The Road to Poltava
By now Charles’s army was in a dreadful state,
‘After several small skirmishes, and some disadvantages, the King’s army was reduced in April to eighteen thousand Swedes. Mazeppa alone, the Prince of the Cosaques, supplied them with the necessaries of life, and without his assistance the army must have perished through hunger and want.’[i]But Charles himself seemed not to notice, writing on April 11th to Stanislaus, his client king of Poland;
‘I and the army are in very good condition. The enemy has been beaten and put to flight in all the engagements.’[ii]But Count Piper[iii] wrote to his wife;
‘The campaign is so difficult and our condition so pitiful that such great misery cannot be described and is beyond belief.’[iv]On one thing Piper and Charles were in agreement on; the Swedish army should vacate the Ukraine and make its way westwards towards Poland, to obtain new supplies and recruits from King Stanislaus. Charles ordered his commander in Poland to join with the Polish army and then march the united forces to Kiev and then down to join the beleaguered Swedish forces.
The overly optimistic Charles then intended to join up with dissident Cossacks and to persuade the Ottomans to break their treaty with Peter; the parties would march on Moscow and divide Russia up amongst the allies. Mazeppa was able to persuade the Zaporozhsky Cossacks[v] to join the mad enterprise; Charles promised to remove his army from Ukraine as soon as it was militarily sensible to do so. Charles was so optimistic about the future that he rejected a Russian offer of peace.Russian Preparations
Meanwhile the Russians took the Zaporozhsky Cossacks’ base; razing their town and burning all their boats. This victory gave any tribe considering joining the rebellion against Peter cause to think again. But Devlet Gerey, Khan of the Crimean Tartars, was also attempting to persuade the Sublime Porte to overturn the armistice with Russia.Aware of these machinations Peter’s ambassador in Constantinople, Peter Tolstoy was directed to thwart the Swedish ambitions. Tolstoy ensured that the Porte was aware of the miserable state of the Swedish army and disseminated the news that the Russian navy at Taganrog was being strengthened. Rumours of an imminent peace between the Swedes and Russians were set in motion, backed up by lavish bribes of Turkish officials. Tolstoy’s hard work was effective and the Sultan forbad the Russophobe Gerey from allying with the Swedes.
One of Peter’s main pre-occupations during the winter and spring of 1709 was to stop reinforcements reaching Charles. In December 1708 a large mobile force was sent to patrol the Polish border; but Peter intended to sail his fleet to sail on the Black Sea in the hope of discouraging any attempts to relieve the beleaguered Swedish army from the south.Peter inspected the ships at Vorozneh and, discovering that many were rotted beyond saving, personally assisted in breaking them up to save rigging and other salvageable materials. He was joined by Catherine and Alexis.
In April, once the river ice had melted, Peter sailed down to Azov where the fleet was being readied for sea. He was unable to sail with the fleet as he was once again struck down by illness. Peter was recovered in time to receive the news from Tolstoy that the Ottomans would not be allying with the Swedes.
The Siege of Poltava
In the spring Charles decided to move south, nearer to where he could expect to meet up with the reinforcements from Poland. His aim was to take the town of Poltava; the Russians had spent the winter reinforcing the defences. The wooden walls were defended by 91 cannon, 4,182 soldiers and 2,600 armed townsmen.
‘Charles…..had not laid aside the design, or hopes of penetrating as far as Moscow. Towards the end of May he went to lay siege to Pultawa, upon the river Vorsklat, on the borders of Ukrainia eastward, abut thirteen long leagues from the Borysthenes, where the Czar had made a magazine. If the King took it, it would open him the road to Moscow.’[vi]The Swedes commenced the siege of Poltava on 1st May, but were short of gunpowder. This led to Charles ordering a halt to the bombardment on the first day and thereafter only five shots a day were to be fired. This order confused his senior staff and Rehnskjold observed;
‘The King wishes to have a little amusement until the Poles come.’[vii]The siege continued for six weeks and the besiegers ran short of food; having already stripped the region; the only food available was horsemeat and black bread. The seriously low supplies of gunpowder were deteriorating and musket balls were so scarce that foraging parties were sent to collect stray Russian balls.
The Russians inside Poltava were able to communicate with Menshikov[viii], by means of firing hollow cannonballs into and out of the town over the river. At the end of May Menshikov’s cavalry were joined by Sheremetev and his infantry. The commander of Poltava informed them that his supplies of gunpowder were dangerously low and that the Swedes had completed their undermining of the walls.Peter arrived on 4th June, much to the relief of his generals, who were unwilling to act without him. The Russians had twice the strength of the Swedes and another army waiting across Charles’s line of retreat back to Poland. On 17th June[ix], while inspecting the river defences, Charles was shot through the foot; the bullet entering his heel and exiting via his big toe.
‘When the King, having rode into the river to take a nearer view of some f the works, received a shot from a carbine, which pierced through his boot, and split in pieces a bone of his heel’[x]Charles continued his inspection and, when the wound was inspected, it was discovered that several bones had been smashed. Until now Charles’s soldiers had always viewed their king as invincible; Charles, realising this, assured his staff that the wound was slight. But it began to fester.
For two days from 19th June Charles was close to death; he’d given Rehnskjold authority for major decision making. Rehnskjold decided not to make the attack to the north that Charles had been planning.
On hearing of Charles’s incapacitation Peter ordered his army across the Vorskla River and the crossing was uncontested. The Swedes offered battle, but Peter did not choose to accept it; he had gained his point by relieving the pressure on Poltava.The Battle
And then Charles discovered that fresh troops from Poland and Stanislaus would not be forthcoming. He decided to risk all on a battle that would take the Russians by surprise. He hoped that, in the event of a Swedish victory, the Turks and Tartars would be happy to join the Swedes in a march on Moscow.Charles’s irreplaceable troops were being killed and wounded on a daily basis, in minor skirmishes. The heat was badly affecting the men and food and artillery supplies were extremely low.
On the 26th Peter established a camp only four miles north of Poltava and the troops threw up earthworks. On the same day Peter issued a proclamation to his army;
‘Soldiers: the hour has struck when the fate of the whole Motherland lies in your hands. Either Russia will perish or she will be reborn in nobler shape. The soldiers must not think of themselves as armed and drawn up to fight for Peter, but for stardom, entrusted to Peter by his birth and by the people.’[xi]The following day the greatly diminished Swedish army[xii] prepared to give battle to an army 42,000 strong. Charles ensured that 2,000 infantrymen were left at Poltava, to stop the garrison attacking their rear, resulting in 19,000 men facing the enemy.
‘The King conducted the march, carried in a litter at the head of his foot. A party of horse advanced by his order to attack that of the enemy. The battle began with this engagement at half an hour after four in the morning.’[xiii]The Swedish senior officers were at loggerheads; Rehnskjold[xiv] did not get on with Piper, nor did he like Lewenhaupt[xv]. Charles’s plans, as agreed with Rehnskjold, were not communicated to Lewenhaupt, as Rehnskjold could not even bear to speak to his deputy.
‘He [Charles] ranged what troops were left him in two lines; his foot were posted in the center, and his horse made up the two wings. The Czar disposed his army in the same manner; he had the advantage of numbers, and of seventy cannon, whilst the Swedes had no more than four, and began to want powder.’[xvi]
The Battle of Poltava
The poor relations between the Swedish commanders continued to cause problems, and the Swedish line was broken. Peter, conspicuous by his height was hit three times, but was not wounded[xvii]. Rehnskjold was taken prisoner; 21 of Charles’s 24 litter bearers were cut down by a Russian barrage. Charles was taken from the field on a horse belonging to one of his officers.By noon the survivors from the battle had been collected together and the tattered remnants of the Swedish army limped into camp; Mazeppa’s men were posted to ward off Russian pursuit. Meanwhile Peter had attended a battlefield service of thanks for his victory and dined.
The Russian losses were relatively slight[xviii], even so the disorganised infantry did not pursue the retreating Swedes. After dinner Peter questioned the Swedish officers, including Rehnskjold, politely and with consideration. During the afternoon Count Piper too was brought in and seated next to Peter. That evening Peter wrote to his wife;
‘I declare to you that the all merciful God has this day granted us an unprecedented victory over the enemy. In a word, the whole of the enemy’s army is knocked on the head.’[xix]The balance of power in Europe had permanently shifted. The courts of Europe had confidently expected to hear of a Swedish victory and the installation of a puppet Czar in Moscow. Now a new power had to be taken in consideration.
SurrenderDuring the afternoon the stragglers and wounded struggled into the Swedish camp; where the decision was made to leave before the Russians regrouped and wiped out the 21,000 Swedes and Cossacks now left to Charles. The only road open to the defeated army was south.
Reaching the junction of the Vorskla and Dnieper rivers the bedraggled army found there were too few boats to ferry them across before the Russian pursuit could catch up. Charles was persuaded to escape. As a prisoner Charles would be a liability to the Swedes in any peace negotiations. It was decided to take the wounded and Mazeppa’s Cossacks with Charles and his household staff across the steppes and the Bug River to take sanctuary in the Ottoman Empire.On the 9th July Charles crossed the border, there were insufficient boats to carry all the men under his command across the river and 600 Swedes and Cossacks were captured by the pursuing Russians.
The remainder of the army, under Lewenhaupt’s command, turned north. The next morning the disgruntled, tired and fractious troops came face to face with Russian troops under Menshikov. On the morning of July 1st the Swedes surrendered. The Swedes were made prisoners of war, but the 5,000 Cossacks who remained were hunted down and hung.Bibliography
Natasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes, Penguin Books Ltd 2002Russia 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 History of Charles XII of Sweden – Voltaire
[ii] Peter the Great - Massie
[iii] Charles’ senior civilian adviser
[iv] Peter the Great - Massie
[v] Living on a series of islands in the Dnieper River; these Cossacks were brigands preying on the river traffic
[vi] The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Voltaire
[vii] Peter the Great - Massie
[viii] Menshikov had been ordered to observe the Swedes, but not attack
[ix] Charles’s birthday
[x] The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Voltaire
[xi] Peter the Great - Massie
[xii] Just over half the numbers that had marched out of Saxony two years before
[xiii] The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Voltaire
[xiv] A superior cavalry general
[xv] After Charles the best infantry commander
[xvi] The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Voltaire
[xvii] Once his hat was blown off, another bullet hit his saddle and the third hit an icon worn on Peter’s chest.
[xviii] 1,345 killed and 3,290 wounded out of 42,000
[xix] Peter the Great - Massie