Battle of Poltava, 1709
Peter the Great versus Karl Rehnskjold and Charles XII: A Swedish army under Rehnskjold and Charles loses the element of surprise before it attacks a Russian army under Peter. Can Rehnskjold and Charles rely on the Swedish soldier’s reputation of past victories or has Peter successfully built a Russian soldier which can hold its own? Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation.
Poltava holds a place on every list of decisive battles because it marks the irreversible rise of one state’s power and influence at the expense of another’s. Peter’s victory in the Great Northern War would bring Russia closer to Europe not just geographically but culturally. In purely empirical, military terms however, Poltava is less significant. The battle was fought deep within Russia as Peter taps the traditional Russian strategy of eluding battle and weakening the enemy with the harsh climate. Anything short of a crushing victory for the Swedes only led them deeper into Russia. Peter’s victory at Poltava did not immediately bear fruits as he was lucky to escape from the Turks at all in his disastrous Pruth campaign of 1711. But Peter’s victory at Poltava is consistent with trends of the subsequent history and thus serves as a sort of placeholder in history.
Tactically, this battle is fairly easy to analyze given the challenges in communication, command and control Charles and Rehnskjold created for themselves. The Swedish army was unified in purpose from the highest officer to the lowest soldier – Lewenhaupt’s strict compliance with detested orders to rejoin the army rather than storm the Russian camp prove this – but it was not clear how the battle was to go. Bengstton claims only two Swedish generals other than Rehnskjold and Charles were explicitly familiar with the plan of attack (1960: 348). Fuller argues the “Swedish unity of command was non-existent” and that “it is important to bear this in mind, for otherwise the battle of Poltava becomes unintelligible” (1956: 176).
Peter, for his part, incidentally magnified Swedish command issues with the sudden construction of the line of redoubts perpendicular to the original line which instantly divided the Swedish army. The real talent of Peter however was not as a field commander – although he performed well at Poltava – but as an administrator. The army he gained victory with at Poltava was completely his own, built from the defeated ruins of the Battle of Narva in 1700.
Charles’ plan did not recognize that the Russian army had improved greatly since Narva and was likely going to fail even if all went well. Charles’ plan was to rush past the redoubts, march across the edge of the plain and then position themselves between the Russians and their ford at Petrovka; Peter would then be forced to accept Charles’ challenge to fight a reversed front battle or starve. The plan is impressive in its audacity and consideration of the indirect approach but many of the same factors in the actual Swedish defeat remain. The Russians would still hold an overwhelming superiority in infantry and artillery whose performance would completely shock Charles. Peter would have likely calmly lead his army out of camp and defeated the Swedes, a disastrous result for any army fighting a reversed front battle.
I resisted animating this battle because I felt it would be confusing or less informative due to the Swedish command issues. However, I feel such issues should not be excluded from a visual representation of war and strategy, being just as important as which weapons were used or where units were deployed.
Note on commander labels: they are a disaster. Sources’ maps simply did not agree with each other in the least and so I added commander labels based on who actually influenced the sector or who was “really” in charge. I did this by being consistent with the narrative of the battle as a whole. For example, technically or at least according to one confident source, the four Swedish columns from left to right were commanded by Charles, Roos, Stackelberg and Sparre, and were under the overall command of Lewenhaupt (Massie, 1981: 492). However, my labels make it clearer which commanders were on the ground with which formations and who actually exerted influence and command over them.
This animation took much longer than expected but turned out much better as well. When I initially scout battles, I typically use fairly general sources (books like Davis’ 100 Decisive Battles for example) to get an idea of what the essence of the battle was, what made it special. When I am actually taking notes on battles, I begin with these broader sources and move on to more specific sources which go in to more depth. This way, I slowly get a sense of the important details first but don’t have to write down the same things over and over. However, this battle changed drastically the more detailed it became and I was constantly shaking my head. By putting more time into this animation, I overcame the issues with sources and was able to include the genuine friction that took place between commanders and their subordinates, and of course, the two armies.
- Jonathan Webb
Bengtsson, Frans Gunnar. The Life of Charles XII, King of Sweden 1697-1718. London: Macmillan, 1960.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. New York: Longman, 2000.
Fuller, J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World Vol. 2. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956.
Jackson, W.G.F. Seven Roads to Moscow. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957.
Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great, his Life and World. London: V. Gollancz, 1981.
Stone, David R. A Military History of Russia: From Ivan the Terrible to the War in Chechnya. Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006.
Karl Rehnskjold: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Gustaf_Rehnski%C3%B6ld
Charles XII: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_xii
Peter the Great: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_the_Great
Russian artillery: http://www.models2u.co.uk/Shop/contents/en-uk/d1178.html
Russian cavalry: http://www.models2u.co.uk/Shop/contents/en-uk/d1178.html
Russian infantry: http://www.models2u.co.uk/Shop/contents/en-uk/d1178.html
Swedish artillery: http://www.models2u.co.uk/Shop/contents/en-uk/d1178.html
Swedish cavalry: http://www.models2u.co.uk/Shop/contents/en-uk/d1178.html
Swedish infantry: http://www.models2u.co.uk/Shop/contents/en-uk/d1178.html
Tags: 1700s, artillery, attack from a defensive position, cavalry, Charles XII, Eastern Europe, envelopment of a single flank, Great Northern War, Gunpowder Era, indirect approach, infantry, Karl Rehnskjold, land, modern day Ukraine, Peter the Great, Russians, Season 7, Swedes
Weider History Group