Armies Battles and Sieges Colours and Standards












Örjan Martinsson

When Charles XII became king in 1697, he also inherited an army of 65 000 man. Considering the limited resources of Sweden, its army’s size was impressive but still just enough to match the two largest armies of Sweden’s enemies in the previous conflict (the Scanian War 1675-1679). The eternal enemy of Sweden, Denmark-Norway, had an army of 36 000 men. And the opportunistic state of Brandenburg-Prussia , which desired Sweden’s German possessions, had an army of more than 22 000 men. Add to that the huge army of Russia, which even though it was of limited quality, could field an army of 120 000 men for the Azov campaign against the Turks in 1695. Furthermore there were several other German states with disproportionately large armies and appetites for territorial expansion. Most notably the Electorate of Saxony with a growing army which had reached 18 000 men when it to the great surprise of Sweden started the Great Northern War by attacking Riga in 1700, with Denmark and Russia following soon after.

The outbreak of war in 1700 forced Sweden to expand its already large army. During the first years of the war the army gradually increased in size until it peaked in 1707 with a strength of about 115 000 men. At that time Sweden had knocked out Denmark and Saxony from the war and only Russia remained. But Russia too had expanded its army. The Swedish main army was destroyed in the Ukraine in 1709 and during the following years a large number of Swedish fortresses with its garrisons fell to the enemy coalition, which now Denmark and Saxony had re-joined and from 1715 also included the German states of Prussia and Hanover. The latter state had then an army of up to 20 000 men while the Prussian army at the same time had grown to about 40 000 men. The Swedish army on the other hand reached its nadir in 1716 when the last overseas fortress fell and was then reduced to a mere 40 000 men. Charles XII strengthened the army to 60 000 men while preparing for the Norwegian campaign of 1718 but this was now just enough to match the size of Denmark-Norway’s expanded armies. Sweden was still hopelessly outnumbered and after the death of Charles XII the army suffered great losses during their hasty and ill prepared retreat from Norway. At the closing stage of the war the Swedish army was only about 45 000 men strong, which would also be the peacetime strength of the now greatly reduced Swedish kingdom.


The Great Northern War and the limited resources of Sweden meant that the Swedish army had to rely on many different methods of raising regiments. The main difference is between the provincial regiments and the enlisted (värvade) regiment. The latter category consisted of regiments which were recruited by their colonels in a manner similar to most other armies. These were soldiers who for a sum of money had volunteered to serve in the army for a period of time. About 25 000 men of the army Charles XII had inherited were enlisted soldiers. The remaining 40 000 men belonged to the former category which was more diverse. But all the infantry regiments could trace their origin to the system of conscription set up by Gustav II Adolf in the 1620s, which is called “the older indelningsverk” as opposed to “the younger indelningsverk” created up by Charles XII’s father Charles XI after the Scanian War.

The provincial cavalry regiments were recruited by administrative units called “rusthåll”. In charge of each rusthåll was a “rusthållare” who in exchange for tax reductions supplied the army with a cavalryman and a horse. The rusthållare was normally a wealthy peasant but in central Sweden there were also many cases of noblemen being rusthållare and these individuals could be in charge of more than one rusthåll. This system of recruitment for the cavalry was used in both the older and the younger indelningsverk. Some restrictions had been put in place for the rusthållare in the provinces which had been conquered from Denmark and Norway 1645 and 1658. The Crown had deemed the local inhabitants there (especially Scania) to be too unreliable for military service so the rusthållare had been forced to recruit only proper “Swedes”. However, Charles XII removed the last of these restrictions in the beginning of his reign.

The older indelningsverk had created permanent provincial regiments (usually one for each administrative county) which would form the backbone of the Swedish army during all its wars to come. The recruitment of the infantry regiments basically followed the same procedure as ordinary taxation, which meant that conscriptions had to be approved by parliament and the ratio of conscripts had to respect the privileges of various groups in the society. So for example if one in ten of every able bodied man was to be conscripted, the peasants working land owned by the nobility or the Church only had to provide half that ratio (one in twenty). And those peasants of the nobility who were living less than ten kilometres from a noble estate (i.e. within the “freedom mile”) were exempt all together from conscription. Further exemptions or reductions were also given to workers who were essential for the economy, such as the mining industry. However, when war broke out the need for more soldiers meant that all had to carry their weight and temporary provincial regiments were raised. The exact methods could vary from each war but in the Great Northern War so called “Estate Dragoons” (ståndsdragoner in Swedish but also referred to as “Priest Dragoons”) were raised from the estates of the nobility and the Church. And the mining districts supplied the army with “Mountain battalions” (bergsbataljoner), soon merged into a “Mountain regiment”. In this context we can also mention the “Adelsfane” regiments which were permanent cavalry units raised by the nobility in exchange for their privileges.

The permanent provincial regiments could also be strengthened by additional conscription which would raise the ratio of able men going to the army. These additional conscriptions were however unpopular and a different method of recruiting the permanent regiments was introduced already when the older Indelningsverk was established. In the province of Dalarna the peasants rejected conscription and made an agreement with the Crown in 1621 that they instead of conscription would recruit and maintain 1 400 soldiers at all time. How this worked in practice was that the province was divided into 1 400 permanent “rotar” (“rote” in singular) with each of them responsible for the upkeep of one soldier. The size of the rote was based on how much they paid in taxes and not on population size. This model was later adopted by other provinces such as Jämtland and Västerbotten. After the Scanian War the Indelningsverk was reformed so that all provincial infantry regiments were to be recruited by the peasants rather than by conscription, thus creating the “Younger Indelningsverk”.

The reformation of the Indelningsverk was however not finished when the Great Northern War began. Österbotten Regiment which comprised the northern half of Finland, where the peasants had rejected the new model, would continue with conscription until 1733. The province of Scania had suffered so much from the Scanian War that the plan to recruit two infantry regiments there was postponed. So during the Great Northern War the province was instead subjected to repeated conscriptions. In the beginning these conscriptions were used to replace losses of other temporary regiments but from 1711 they were used to create regiments of their own.

From the Crown’s point of view the upside with the Younger Indelningsverk was that it provided a reliable source of manpower. The older system had suffered from desertions (with conscripts fleeing to the woods rather than reporting to their regiment) which meant that the Crown never knew how many conscripts that would actually arrive to the army. With the new system it was the job of the land owning peasants to find willing recruits and pay them what was needed for them to enlist, because if they failed with this they would themselves be forced to join the army.

The downside with the new system was that the number of soldiers the peasants was obliged to provide was fixed and could, according to the signed contracts, not be expanded in times of emergency. However, this proved to have little effect when the war broke out in 1700 as the Crown asked for and was given additional recruits by the peasants.

The manner in which the peasants provided additional recruits was to create so called “männing” regiments. All the existing rotar were grouped in threes to recruit an additional soldier which were called “tremänningar” (= three men [-ings]). These were then used to create new regiments which were promised to stay and defend the homeland while the permanent regiments were sent overseas. The same thing was done with the rusthåll which provided recruits for the cavalry regiments. The promise to keep all these regimens in the homeland was however not kept. The Finnish 3-männing regiments were shipped over to the Baltic provinces already in 1700 and many of the Swedish 3-männing regiments followed the next year. Finland felt so exposed by the absence of troops that they raised so called double regiments. If the permanent regiment had a strength of 1 000 men the double regiment would consist of 667 men (together with the 333 men raised to the 3-männing regiments this effectively doubled the recruitment from that regimental district). In Sweden proper the measures taken were not as drastic, but there too a second wave of männing-regiments was raised. Those provinces that had seen their 3-männing regiments shipped overseas had to recruit a 5-männing regiment (the rotar were grouped in groups of five with each raising a new soldier). Those provinces where the 3-männing regiments had stayed home had to raise a higher ratio of soldiers so they created 4-männing regiments.

The männing regiments were, except in Finland, a one off recruitment. The rotar in Sweden proper were thus not required to replace losses as they did with the permanent regiments. So too keep these männing regiments up to strength conscripts from Scania were used as well as enlisting volunteers. The number of regiments also dwindled through mergers so all in all their provincial character was gradually hollowed out. The last of the männing regiments that had been sent overseas were lost in the Russian campaign 1707-1709 and after Poltava new waves of männing regiments would be created in the same manner as in the beginning of the war.

The Indelningsverk also had rotar and rusthåll which supplied the navy with sailors. In an effort to boost the size of the army Charles XII transformed these into seven infantry regiments in 1717. These were however disbanded after the King’s death and the men were returned to the navy.

All these provincial units were recruited in Sweden proper and Finland but there were potential supplies of man power in the Baltic and German provinces as well. Traditionally the regiments recruited from these areas were enlisted, but during the Great Northern War Sweden tried to create provincial regiments through conscription, so called national militia regiments (“lantmilis”). In the Baltic provinces of Estonia and Livonia this was actually even more ground-breaking since this meant large scale recruiting from Estonian and Latvian speaking peasants, something that had not been done before because of language difficulties. Unlike the Finnish nobility which spoke both Swedish and Finnish, the Baltic nobility usually only spoke German and the regiments had thus primarily been recruited in the German speaking cities. Unfortunately these Baltic national militia regiments would be very unlucky as the war did not go well in the Livonian theatre, and the remaining regiments were destroyed in 1710 when Russia conquered the Baltic provinces. That year a national militia was created in the German provinces. But these were of a lesser quality, they were apparently not issued uniforms, and also short-lived.

While both provincial and enlisted regiments were generally recruited within the borders of the Swedish realm, there were some distinctively foreign elements. The most notable of these were the Vallacks which were recruited in Poland and served as light cavalry in a role akin to later day hussars. These continued to serve in the Swedish army as late as the Norwegian campaign of 1718.

The successes against Saxony in the early part of the war also led to a large number of prisoners of wars being captured which were then recruited and used to raise “Saxon” units. The most colourful of these units was a French grenadier battalion which previously had been captured by the allies in the battle of Blenheim and then given to the Saxons who lost them to the Swedes in the battle of Fraustadt 1706. These French were then retaken by the Saxons the same year in the battle of Kalisz but yet again handed over to the Swedes as a condition of the peace treaty at Altranstädt. Apart from a brief interlude when they were press ganged to fight with Hungarian rebels against the Austrians (!) they then served the Swedish king as horse grenadiers until the fall of Rügen 1715, after which the remaining soldiers found a new home in the Prussian army…

A Swiss battalion, with the same prehistory as the French, also served in the Swedish army. Other foreign elements were the four Holstein-Gottorp regiments in Swedish service 1714-1715, although this duchy had very strong ties to Sweden and its duke was a likely successor to Charles XII. The Swedish king was also duke of Pfalz-Zweibrücken near the French border and had a regiment raised there in 1712 to help defend Sweden’s endangered German possessions

The officers

Unlike their Danish and Russian opponents the Swedish officer corps was almost exclusively of native stock. The ratio of noblemen in the officer corps was also relatively small. At the start of the war 58 % of the officers were noblemen (in Sweden proper), and by 1719 this number had dropped to 34 % as a result of both heavy casualties and a vastly expanded officer corps. Nobility was thus not a requirement to be an officer, although a military career was a good way to become a nobleman. Those who reached the rank of major were more or less automatically elevated to the nobility. Having a good family background was however necessary and those officers who were neither noblemen nor members of an officer family were in most cases the sons of priests.

Other than a good family background the only requirement to become an officer was spending a couple of months to do the so called “rank passage”. This was a way for an aspiring officer to learn his trade by beginning to serve as a private and then gradually serve in all the other ranks until he became an officer. This requirement was introduced by Charles XI and was not well received by all. The future general Adam Ludvig Lewenhaupt for example was a count and he thought that it was beneath his dignity to serve as a common private so instead he began his military career by serving the Holy Roman Emperor.

The officers of the permanent provincial regiments (also called the “indelta” regiments) distinguished themselves in the manner in which they were paid. Rather than receiving cash salaries they were given an indelning (= allotment) which consisted of a homestead and rights to the tax revenue from adjacent farms (hence the name indelningsverk which means “allotment office”). This was meant to exactly match the cash salaries of the enlisted regiments, but this system was never adjusted after it was organised in the 1680s and 1690s. That had the beneficial result that “indelta” officers were not affected by inflation which hollowed out the cash salaries of the officers in the enlisted regiments during the course of the 18th century. The indelning was however connected to each individual rank in the regiment so every time an officer was promoted he had to change his indelning, and the exact value of them was dependent on how well the predecessors had taken care of them. This is a likely cause to the form of corruption called “accord” which is primarily known from the period after the Great Northern War but is believed to have originated in the “indelta” regiments already during the 17th century. The accord was the large sum of money an officer had to pay to his predecessor in order to receive his promotion. This might originally have been motivated as a way for an officer to receive compensation for improvements he had done on the indelning, but in the middle of the 18th century this practice had, despite of frequent bans from the government, spread to all army regiments and the accords were then so huge that they represented several years of income, effectively a barrier for less affluent persons to become officers.


The great variation in recruitment in the Swedish army also meant a great variation in organisation. But the standard strength of a Swedish infantry regiment was 1 200 men divided into eight companies of 150 men. In battle these were grouped into two battalions of 600 men each. In addition each company had in peace time five NCOs (fältväbel, sergeant, rustmästare, furir and förare) and three officers (captain, Lieutenant and ensign). Each regiment was led by a colonel, lieutenant-colonel and major who also acted as company commanders (hence an eight company regiment would only have five captains). After the war broke out the number of officers and NCOs was temporarily doubled in most regiments

The largest regiment was the Guard which eventually reached a strength of 2 592 men divided into 24 companies of 108 men each. It fielded four battalions with one of them being a grenadier battalion. The largest provincial regiment was Närke-Värmland Regiment with 1 674 men in ten companies of unequal size. Many provincial regiments in Finland and northern Sweden only had about a 1 000 men (but still eight companies).

One third of the infantry in the field armies was equipped with pikes which was a weapon the Swedes used to good effect in their aggressive battle field tactics. The other two thirds were armed with muskets and bayonets with some of them being grenadiers. In the provincial regiments the grenadiers were dispersed among the regular companies while they had their own companies in the enlisted regiments. Garrison units generally did not have pikes and after the battle Poltava there was a trend to replace pikes with muskets in the field regiments as well, even though this was greatly opposed by the absent king.

The normal establishment of a cavalry regiment was 1 000 men divided into eight companies of 125 men each. The tactical unit was the squadron which at the start of the war may have been formed by two companies but was later identical with a company. Each company had four NCOs (one quarter master and three corporals, who unlike in the infantry held NCO rank) and three officers (same as in the infantry), and just like in the infantry these numbers were doubled in most regiments in the beginning of the war.

While technically mounted infantry the Dragoons were, with just one exception (Jämtland), used as cavalry. Their main distinction being that they cost less and rode horses of lesser quality. Due to the limited resources of Sweden most mounted regiments that were raised when the Swedish army was expanded in the Great Northern War were dragoon regiments. The proper cavalry regiments were with the exception of männing regiment almost exclusively regiments that had existed before the war. The largest dragoon regiment was the Life Dragoon Regiment which was raised in Sweden proper in 1700 and eventually became 1 500 men strong (also the only new enlisted regiment from that region during the war). The smallest dragon unit was likely Gotland’s Priest Dragoons, which was a tiny outfit of just 50 men. They never left the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, serving as their only defence force.

The largest cavalry regiment was Livregementet with 1 505 men in twelve companies. This was a provincial regiment recruited in several provinces in central Sweden. The smallest provincial cavalry unit was Jämtland Cavalry Company. The most legendary cavalry unit was the Drabant Corps which became a separate all officer unit in 1700. As the official body guard of Charles XII it fought in all his battles with great distinction. Its official strength was 200 men even though casualties and promotions to other regiments made it difficult to maintain that size.


When Charles XI had finished reorganising the Swedish army, it had as previously stated, a strength of 65 000 men. The enlisted regiments were used as garrison troops in the fortresses while the provincial regiments were dispersed in their regimental districts. These provincial soldiers were effectively part time soldiers who spent most of their time at their homesteads working as farmers on land they had been allotted to by the peasants according to the Indelningsverk.

The provincial units comprised In Sweden proper of 15 infantry regiments (including Jämtland Dragoon Regiment), 7 cavalry regiments, one cavalry company and one dragoon squadron. All in all 18 000 infantry and 8 000 mounted troops. In Finland there were seven infantry regiments (7 000 men), three cavalry regiments (3 000 men) and a dragoon squadron (313 men). Together with the 600 men strong Swedish Adelsfana (which was recruited in both Sweden and Finland) the combined strength of the provincial regiments was 37 000 men (not counting officers and NCOs).

The enlisted regiments can be divided into three geographic groups, Sweden, Germany and the Baltic. The Baltic regiments counted 6 500 men distributed in four infantry regiments, one cavalry regiment and three minor Adelsfane units. The German possessions were defended by about 10 000 men (seven infantry regiments, two cavalry regiments and two minor Adelsfane units). In Sweden proper there were 5 200 enlisted soldiers in four infantry regiments, among these were the then 1 900 man strong Guard located in Stockholm while the others were garrisoning fortresses on the west coast from Malmö to Gothenburg. In this category we should also add the artillery which was organised as a 1 888 men strong regiment, although it was dispersed to 42 different locations. All in all about 23 600 enlisted soldiers (again not counting officers and NCOs).

All the enlisted infantry regiments, with the exceptions of the Guard, would continue to serve as garrison units throughout the Great Northern War as the field armies would be primarily composed of the provincial regiments.

The peace time deployment was based on fear of a war against Denmark, and in anticipation of just that the Swedish army increased its size already before the outbreak of war by raising a German dragoon regiment in Bremen in 1699. Furthermore five provincial infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment were transferred from Sweden proper to the German possessions. The garrison of the Livonian city of Riga was also strengthened by one Finnish regiment and parts of two other Finnish regiments. However, the defence of the Baltic provinces were poorly neglected and after the Saxons attacked Riga the remaining Finnish regiments were transferred to the Baltics as well.

When the war broke out the army was enlarged with newly raised provincial regiments. The männing regiments alone represented over 21 000 men and they were joined by 2 000 priest dragoons and two mountain battalions. Most of these new units were deployed to defend Sweden’s eastern borders against Russian attacks.

But the Baltic provinces had to contribute more to their own defence so by using conscription a national militia was set up in the Baltic provinces. In Estonia four infantry regiments of this kind were raised. In Livonia the organisation was different since the governor general was sceptical to the quality of the conscripted Latvians and Estonian peasants. He raised 13 independent militia battalions of about 300 men each, thinking the smaller size would make them easier to manage. On the island of Ösel a 500 men strong militia battalion was raised bringing the total infantry strength of the militia to about 7 000 men. Four independent dragoon squadrons were also raised in a provincial manner but these had a combined strength of just under a 1 000 men. Conscription was however not enough. Not even for the militia regiments to which enlisted soldiers were added as the war dragged on. In Estonia, Ingria and Livonia a further 6 600 men were recruited through enlistment in 1700 (11 regiments and battalions). Additional enlisted units would follow which would bring the total to 4 dragoon squadrons (about 2 000 men) and 11 infantry regiments and battalions (about 8 000 men). Losses made it however difficult to reach the projected numbers and by the end 1710 all Baltic regiments had been destroyed except for an Ingrian dragoon regiment.

Furthermore the main army in Poland was boosted by a growing number of dragoon regiments (eleven in 1707). Apart from the Life Dragoons recruited in Sweden and the French horse grenadiers mentioned previously these were recruited from ethnic Germans. Only one enlisted infantry regiment was recruited for the Polish theatre before 1706 and it was used to garrison the city of Elbingen. The other enlisted infantry units that came into being after the battle of Fraustadt were created by recruiting prisoners of war. These were short-lived and there were never more than five units of varying size at the same time. After 1711 only one regiment remained (located in Sweden proper). Those German regiments that had stayed in Poland and avoided the disaster in Ukraine retreated to Sweden’s German possessions where they and the regiments already there eventually met the same fate as the Baltic regiments. After the fall of the last German fortress in 1716 only one German dragoon regiment remained, and it had just been created from survivors from nine different regiments (two of which who had previously been created in the Ottoman empire by survivors from the Poltava campaign)

The Swedes had been fortunate to have knocked out Denmark early in the war but that did not really change the nature of the Great Northern War as a war on three fronts. The Danish army had been left intact and was expected to re-enter the war when given an opportunity. For this reason about a quarter of the soon more than 100 000 strong Swedish army remained in Sweden proper and in the German possessions to guard the border from Danish aggression. These were much needed troops as the originally largest share of the Swedish forces struggled in the Baltic provinces while Charles XII deployed his best troops in a five year long campaign in Poland to knock out Saxony from the war. When Charles XII finally succeeded with this in 1706 he was free to turn on Russia with the largest field army he or any other Swedish king had ever commanded, 44 000 men. But the events of the Russian campaign led not only to the destruction of this army but also of the remaining field army that had guarded Livonia. The following years the Swedish suffered great losses in men and territory as fortress after fortress and yet another field army capitulated to the enemy forces. A late surge of the Swedish army’s strength in Charles XII’s last years, which among other things created an independent grenadier battalion as well as the previously mentioned naval infantry, was not enough to change the outcome of the war.

When the war was over the Swedish army reorganised. The permanent provincial regiments were restored to its former strength with the exception of territorial losses for some Finnish regiments near the new border, resulting in the reduction of 431 rotar and 270 rusthåll. An additional 400 rusthåll in the Swedish west coast were transferred to the Navy. But all in all these losses were very marginal and the Swedish provincial regiments were close to the same strength as before the war. It was instead the enlisted part of the Swedish army that was severely reduced. Only six enlisted infantry regiment remained (7 800 men) plus the artillery regiment and the Pomeranian Adelsfana. This represented an army of just 45 000 men and unlike in 1700 when the Swedish army was twice as large as any of its neighbours (except Russia) the Swedish army after 1721 was smaller than any of its neighbours (except Mecklenburg). Sweden was no longer a great power.

Back to the Campaigns of the Swedish Army.