Monday, January 11, 2016

Great Leaders: Who was Peter the Great? (Part 2): The Great Northern War

Battle of Poltava
For his dream navy, Peter the Great declared war on Sweden that dragged the whole region into ablaze for the two decades. Explore how Peter the Great led Russia through the Great Northern War.

Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, dreamt of a powerful Russia - a country mighty both in land and in sea. After his trip to Europe, Tsar Peter embarked in one of the greatest conflict that the Baltic region experienced. He fought against the superpower of the region of that time – Sweden. But in order to succeed, he moved his nation from a backward upstart power into a great modern power. On the ashes of the Great Northern War, a nation was destroyed and another emerged.

Causes of the Great Northern War

The causes of the Great Northern War for Russia had been sparked by Peter’s disappointment in gaining a window to Europe through the Black Sea. Although Russian ships gained access to the Sea of Azov, they cannot go further to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea because of the Ottomans. Europe refused to join Peter’s crusade against the Ottoman Turks. And so Peter looked for another window to the west. He laid his eyes on the Baltic Sea.

Russians had desired the Baltics for almost a century. During the Time of Troubles under Feodor II, Russia gained access to the Gulf of Finland. But Tsar Vasily Shuisky gave up the territories to gain Swedish support in order to maintain power. More Baltic territories had to be given up under Tsar Michael and the terms of the Peace of Stolbovo.

Almost a hundred years later, Peter the Great desired to grab the region once again. He received good news when the Polish King Augustus II agreed to an alliance against the country that made the Baltic Sea as its lake – Sweden. Both men also found another ally in form of King Frederick IV of Denmark who desired Swedish controlled territories to re-impose its lucrative sound toll. In addition, the alliance found Sweden ripe for conquest when a new teenage King - inexperience and assumed politically and military impotent - Charles XII or Karl XII ascended to the Silver Throne.

Opening Salvos of the Great Northern War

The opening salvos of the Great Northern War began in 1700. In April of that year, Denmark attacked the Swedish-aligned Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein and threatened to invade the Swedish held province of Scania located across the Sound. Poland followed suit and attacked the Swedish held city of Riga, which lasted for several months. In August 1700, Russia declared war on Sweden and attacked Narva in Livonia. Sweden faced war in three fronts.
Charles XII landing in Denmark
The initial attacks of the triple alliance, however, immediately lose its momentum. As Russia began its assault in Narva, Charles XII showed great audacity and leadership by launching an unexpected amphibious assault near Copenhagen. Shocked and frightened by the sudden appearance of Carolean troops, King Frederick IV sued quickly for peace, concluding with the Peace of Travendal. The peace agreement temporarily knock Denmark out of the war instantly. Charles then turned his attention to the east and attempted to knock out the lesser powerful foe - Russia.

Battle of Narva

The Battle of Narva between the Russians and the Swedes led to Russia’s hiatus as a major participant in the war. In November, the Russian forces met King Charles personally leading his troops in Narva. Peter, on the other hand, was no present in the siege of Narva and went to Novgorod. 35,000 to 40,000 Russians faced just around 8,000 Swedes in Narva. On November 18, 1700, a blinding blizzard descended upon Narva. During the terrible weather, Russian troops suddenly found Swedish troops with their blue and yellow coats emerging from the snowstorm, advancing towards them. The Russians had been routed by Charles and their army had to surrender to the Swedes.

A substantial part of Peter's army became prisoners of war as a result of the stunning Swedish victory in Narva. The defeat of the Russians allowed Charles to advance south towards the besieged city of Riga. By September 1701, Charles relieved the city from its Polish attackers. Sweden had held off the initial attacks of the alliance and Peter’s armed forces laid in ruins.

War in Poland

Sweden invaded Poland the relief of Riga. Charles saw Poland as a greater threat to Sweden than Russia. He viewed Russia, the same as Denmark and Poland - a weak or minor country. A minor power that Charles planned to last. He then retook Livonia and then invaded Courland.

In 1702, Charles advanced to the lands of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By the middle of 1702, Warsaw fell. Later on, even the capital of Krakow fell to Charles. King Augustus II and Charles continued to fight each other for years. In 1705, Charles crowned his own Polish King Stanislaw I Leszczynski, while Augustus escaped to his homeland of Saxony. Charles pursued Augustus and invaded Saxony in 1706. The major cities of Dresden and Leipzig fell to Sweden. With the Swedish juggernaut seemed unstoppable, Augustus had no choice but to surrender to Charles XII in September 1706, signing the Treaty of Altranstadt.

For Peter, Charles' invasion of Poland, allowed him to rebuild his army and modernize his country in preparation of what seemed to be a difficult task of defeating the mighty Swedish army and its young and aggressive King.

Russia’s Small Participation

Peter and Russia continued to participate in the Great Northern War despite being defeated in the Battle of Narva. While Charles XII ravaged Poland and King Augustus II, Peter sent Russian troops to support the Poles. Although their participation had been in a minimal, they managed to delay the threat of Swedish invasion of Russia. They bogged down Charles XII in Poland, giving Peter the much needed time to rebuild his country and his armed forces.

Russian forces managed to score some small victories. On December 29, 1701, they won the Battle of Erastfer. Few months later, they gained another victory in the Battle of Hummelshoff on July 18 and 19 of 1702. By the late 1702, Peter advanced in the Neva River, capturing the Fort of Noteborg and turning it as his base of operation, renaming it as Shlusselburg or Key Castle in German. From Shlusselburg, Peter continued capturing the surrounding nearby towns. Finally by the following year, Peter had captured the mouth of the Neva River and established a fortress – the Sts. Peter and Paul. Later on, it became the site of Peter’s city – St. Petersburg.
Peter the Great Meditating the Idea of Building St. Petersburg
at the Shores of the Baltic by Alexandre Benois 
Victories continued to be gained by the Russians. In August of 1704, Peter’s army successfully recaptured Narva, the site of the disastrous Russia defeat about four years ago. Although Russia won victories during the time of Swedish invasion of Poland, it failed to stop the eventual defeat of King Augustus II in the hands of Charles XII. Nevertheless, it provided a training ground for Peter’s rebuilding army that allowed them to gain confidence in fighting the formidable and feared Carolean soldiers of the Swedish army. Their gains became embodied in the city of St. Petersburg, a city founded in the captured lands during the time of Russia’s rebuilding of military might.

Charles Turns to Peter

Sweden invaded Russia in 1708 after it defeated the Poles. Charles XII wanted to settle his unfinished business with Peter the Great. He also wanted to retake the lands that Peter took from Sweden during the young king’s campaign in Poland. For Peter, his years of reform and rearming his military would then be tested with the invasion of the Sweden. He wanted to avenge his defeat in Narva.

In January 1708, 45,000 Swedes invaded Russia under the direct command of King Charles XII. For months, Swedish forces marched deep into Russian territory. On July 4, 1708, Russian forces faced the Swedes in the Battle of Holowczyn near the city of Minsk. Russian forces suffered a defeat. Peter then took a drastic measure to slow down the Swedish advance and weaken its forces.

Scorched-Earth Policy

Peter ordered a scorched-earth policy. He knew that Swedish troops lived off the land they captured and exploited this information to his advantage. In launching a scorched-earth policy, Russian troops made strategic retreats. But upon their retreat they lived nothing but desolation in the path of the marching Swedes. Every village and towns within the Swedish path laid in ruins. Food taken, wells destroyed, fields burned, livestock killed, and shelters ruined.

The scorched-earth policy brought a devastating effect to the advanding Swedish army. With the scorched-earth policy, Swedish army’s supplies dwindled. Many Carolean troops fell to hunger and exposure to the harsh Russian climate. In September of 1708, Charles halted his advance in order to wait for supplies and reinforcement coming from Riga.

Peter, however, discovered the marching supply convoy of Charles XII coming from Riga. On September 28, 1708, he ordered 6,800 Russian dragoons and Cossacks to attack the convoy in the plains of Lesnaya. Russian cavalry forces killed 5,000 Swedes from the convoy out of its 11,000 troops. The Russians also gained control of Charles’ much needed supply. Peter’s attack on the convoy forced Charles to march south, to his allies in Ukraine.

Cossack Participation

Ivan Mazepa

A faction of Cossacks allied themselves with the Swedes during their invasion of Russia. In October 1708, Charles had few supplies and his army was left exposed to the harsh Russian winter and needed refuge before the onset of the cold and unbearable Russian winter. He decided to swing south, to Ukraine, where he planned to link up with the Hetman or Chief of the Ukranian Cossack Hetmanate – Ivan Mazepa.

Prior to the invasion, Charles had exchanged correspondence with the Ukrainian Cossack leader that hated Tsar Peter. The Ukrainian Cossacks, however, differed in their thoughts over supporting the Swedes. Many feared Peter the Great’s wrath. Some received payment from Tsarist government to not to join the Swedes. But some Cossacks joined Mazepa and supported the Swedes to protest over the restrictions of Peter and his government over their much loved freedom. But Peter saw Mazepa’s inclination and acted quickly. On November 2, 1708, under the command of his trusted adviser, Alexander Menshikov, Russian forces sacked the Ukrainian Hetmanate capital of Baturin, with 6,000 Cossacks perishing in the process.

Mazepa escaped with few followers. Days later, on November 8, 1708, Mazepa, with 2,000 to 3,000 Cossacks, linked up with Charles XII. To the disappointment of the Swedes, Mazepa offered little additional troops, supplies, and even shelter. They suffered throughout winter. By the spring of 1709, the number of Swedes that emerged out the winter numbered around 25,000, almost half of the initial size of the invasion force. After the terrible winter, Charles look for a battle to save his reputation.

The Battle of Poltava

The Battle of Polatava was the climax of the Great Northern War. Charles had suffered heavily during the winter of 1708 and his forces suffered heavy casualties due to exposure. He needed supplies and a victory to save his face from humiliation back home and abroad. He then saw an attack to the town of Poltava as his opportunity. Tsar Peter, however, with his 40,000 strong army met the Swedes in Poltava. In a climactic battle, Russian forces deceived the Swedes into advancing to a position that had been set up in a cross fire for Russian artillery. When the Swedes marched into Peter’s trap, they fell by their thousands. In the end of the battle, 10,000 Carolean troops laid dead while about 15,000 fell into Russian captivity. But before the Battle of Poltava, to the disappointment of Tsar Peter, Charles had suffered a wound and left with 1,500 Swedish troops along with Mazepa and his followers. The King was not present in the battle. They then escaped to Turkish held Moldavia for protection and stayed there for few years.

The Battle of Poltava greatly affected Russia and direly affected Sweden. From Poltava, the war turned bad for the Swedes and good for the Russians and their allies. The battle signaled the end of Swedish supremacy in the Baltic and Northern Europe. It also hailed the emergence of the giant Russia as its replacement. Peter the Great’s prestige sky-rocketed abroad.

Peter won the Battle of Poltava but the war itself dragged on. As long as Charles XII lived, the Great Northern War continued. Poltava might have cemented Peter’s and Russia’s new status, but a new threat in the south threatened to ruin all what Peter had gained for the past decade.

Explore also:

“Great Northern War.” In Wars of the Age of Louis XIV: 1650 – 1750. Edited by Cathal Nolan. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Boterbloem, Kess. A History of Russia and Its Empire: From Mikhail Romanov to Vladimir Putin. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014.

Bucher, Greta. Daily Life in Imperial Russia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Buskovitch, Paul. A Concise History of Russia. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Gilbert, Adrian. Encyclopedia of Warfare: From Earliest Time to the Present Day. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.

Kort, Michael. A Brief History of Russia. New York, New York: Facts On File, 2008.

Moss, Walter. A History of Russia Volume I: To 1917. London: Anthem Press, 2005.

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