Armies Battles and Sieges Colours and Standards












Örjan Martinsson

During the summer of 1709 a major battle became more and more likely as the two armies closed in on each other and concentrated their forces in an ever smaller area around the besieged fortress of Poltava. The smaller area in which the Swedes now operated in resulted in difficulties to feed their army and this would soon force some form of decision. At least one Russian general, Menshikov, believed that the Swedes would be forced to abandon the siege without a fight. But even though the Swedish morale was greatly affected by the growing feeling of being surrounded by the enemy in a small area, the rank and file remained confident that they would defeat the Russians in the event of a battle. A sentiment which was likely shared by the Swedish king Charles XII and his right hand field marshal Rehnskiöld.

The Russian army crossed the Vorskla north of Poltava on 17 June and set up a camp on the same side of the river as the Swedes. Two diversionary attacks further down the river had been conducted simultaneously to keep the Swedes away from the main attack. But despite of this a superior Swedish force of 17-18 regiments led by Rehnskiöld was nearby when the Russian advance guard of just three regiments crossed the river. Curiously enough the Swedes made no attempt the stop them and this has fueled speculation among historians that the Swedes allowed the Russians to cross because they wanted a major battle. And that the whole purpose of the siege was nothing but an attempt to lure the Russians in to battle. In any event the diversionary attacks proved to be very successful for the Russians because Charles XII was seriously injured in the foot in one of them. With the king incapacitated and close to death because of the wound being infected, the Swedes now led by Rehnskiöld remained passive during the following days when the entire Russian army crossed the river and then moved further south where they built a fortified camp on 22 June.

On the very same day more disappointing news for the Swedes arrived. Charles XII had for a very long time been hoping for reinforcements. Either from the Swedish force left behind in Poland or from potential allies as the Crimean Tatars. But on that day messengers reported that the Crimean Tatars were not interested and the Swedes in Poland had been forced to retreat far away from the main army because of Polish insurgents. This meant that the Swedes had nothing to gain by waiting any further for a battle.

The Swedish army responded to the Russian advance on 22 June by deploying in battle order and inviting the Russians to fight them on the open field. The Russians decided however to remain in their fortified camp which the Swedes made no attempt to attack. After this the Swedes continued to be passive, concerned about their King who just now began to recover from his injury. The Russians wasted no time and moved their fortified camp even further to the south on 24 June (only five kilometres from Poltava). They then proceeded to construct a line of redoubts extending from that camp to protect the cavalry which was camped on the open ground. When this was completed the Russians continued to build a second line of redoubts perpendicular from the first line.

After almost a week of inaction the Swedes finally decided to attack the Russians on 28 June. Charles XII had not yet fully recovered and Rehnskiöld was still in command even though the king would accompany the army in a makeshift litter. The battle plan was devised by Rehnskiöld and he probably intended to replicate the success of the battle of Narva nine years earlier by turning the Russian camp into a death trap where they could neither escape nor take advantage of their greater numbers. This required the Swedes to position themselves northwest of the camp and the only way to do this was to march through the Russian line of redoubts. But it was thought that if the march was carried out at dawn and caught the Russians by surprise it should not cause that much problems.

However, the Swedes suffered from delays and confusions when they assembled their army during the night. Thus allowing for the Russians to learn about their advance in time and deploy their cavalry among the redoubts. The Swedes had to fight their way through the redoubts, organised as they were in four infantry columns in the front (led by colonel Posse and major generals Roos, Stackelberg, and Sparre) and six cavalry columns in the rear (led by major general Creutz, colonels Horn, Taube, Dücker and Torstensson and major general Hamilton). The overall commander of the Infantry was general Lewenhaupt while the cavalry was to be deployed in two wings led by Creutz and Hamilton. All in all the infantry was about 9,000 men strong and the cavalry was slightly less than that. The opposing force was more than twice as strong but that did not deter the Swedes since they were after nine years of war accustomed to succeed against those odds.

Behind them they left about a 1,200 Swedish infantry and dragoons in the siege lines in the front of the town of Poltava together with a small force of allied Cossacks. Most of the artillery was left in the Swedish camp at Pushkaryovka due to the speed needed to affect the Swedish attack plan. The Swedish camp itself was guarded by a few thousand Swedish cavalry and the bulk of the allied Cossack forces under hetman Mazepa. A further few thousand Swedish cavalry were guarding the lower Vorskla River to guard against a possible Russian thrust from the rear. A small force of Swedish light cavalry was posted north of Poltava to make a diversionary attack on some Russian troops known to be near the village of Yakovetski.

As the Swedes approached the redoubts, they could see that there were a total of 10 redoubts (which had a garrison of either 3,000 or 4,700 infantry). But because of the troubled start of the Swedish advance the redoubts were now also supported by 17 fully deployed dragoon regiments led by Menshikov. And while the infantry only had a few 3-pounder cannons, each dragoon regiment had an 18-pounder howitzer which delivered deadly canister fire on the Swedes when they attacked around 4 am in the morning. In the confused battle the Swedish infantry columns disintegrated and the army effectively broke into at least three parts. With two parts trying to bypass the redoubts from each end while a third part (exclusively infantry) got stuck in the middle in a misdirected attempt to conquer the redoubts one by one.

Menshikov could sense that he had victory in his grasp and repeatedly urged the tsar to advance against the Swedes with his infantry. However, Peter the Great was a much more cautious commander and he was not willing to leave the safety of his fortified camp until he got a clearer picture of what was going on. It did not help that Menshikov sent him captured Swedish colours to show him that he was winning. Eventually Menshikov had to retreat with his cavalry from the battle scene. It is unclear if that was because the Russian dragoons where driven off the battle field and pursued by the Swedish cavalry as the Swedish sources say or if they were just ordered to retreat as the Russians would have it.

On the left and the right of the redoubt line Swedish forces eventually bypassed the redoubts while conquering one redoubt each in the process. The Swedish infantry that emerged from the right was subsequently deployed to attack the Russian fortified camp by Lewenhaupt who believed to have seen a weak point. This was however counter ordered by an angry Rehnskiöld who wanted to stick to his battle plan and move the army further north before attacking the Russians. So instead of attacking the camp the Swedes to the right marched west to join the Swedish left and then advance north. It then came to Rehnskiöld’s attention that one third of the infantry led by major general Roos was missing and was still fighting among the redoubts. So he had to let the army rest while he sent several staff officers to find Roos and show him the way back to the main force. Rehnskiöld also sent the two battalions of Västmanland regiment with some cavalry back south to link up with the lost battalions.

The missing battalions in the centre had managed to quickly capture the first redoubt, which was only partially completed, and with a little more effort they had conquered the second redoubt too. But the third redoubt proved to be a much tougher challenge, maybe because it was bigger than the others or because it had been strengthened with survivors from the conquered redoubts. In any way a total of six battalions from three different columns had eventually found themselves making repeated attempts to storm this redoubt and suffer high casualties in the process. This was an unnecessary fight as the plan was just to pass through the redoubts as quickly as possible. A reason why this did not happen could be that the talented colonel Siegroth, who had been assigned with the task of dealing with the redoubts, was mortally wounded during these fighting and instead major general Roos took command of the battalions engaged with the third redoubt (i.e. two battalions of the Dal-regiment, two battalions of Västerbotten regiment and one battalion each of Jönköping and Närke-Värmland regiment). Presumably he just got so carried away with attacking the redoubt that he did not notice that the rest of the army disappeared.

When Roos realised that the rest of the army was gone he ordered his battered battalions to retire to the edge of the Yakovetski woods and where they would be out of range from the Russians. However, by retreating to the east side of the redoubts rather than the west side he caused himself the problem that he would have to go through another Russian gauntlet he if were to re-join the main force. But according to his own report Roos did not know where the main force had went and when count Bonde arrived from the main force to show him the way, he told Bonde to wait while he reorganised his battalions from six to four. Another testimony from a junior officer serving in the Dal-regiment reveals that the mortally wounded colonel Siegroth was very annoyed with Roos for waiting too long and not marching away to join the main force.

At the same time two Russian forces consisting of five battalions and five dragoon regiments arrived and proceeded to attack Roos’ battalions from different directions. It is unclear whether the Russians knew about Roos and intended to destroy his force or if the purpose was just to relieve the besieged city of Poltava and that they by chance discovered Roos on their way. In any way the force that Roos led, which before the battle had been 3,000 men strong, was now so depleted, demoralised and disorganised that they were not able to put up much of a fight. According to Roos he formed his battalions in an open square with their backs to the Yakovetski woods, which prevented the dragoons from doing much damage, although another source claims that the fighting started before the square could be completed. In any event the Swedes fired against orders the first volley which the Russians responded to by firing a more effective volley. After another exchange of volleys the Russians launched a bayonet attack causing the Swedish line to break and a mass flight through the forest. Roos claimed that the severe shortage of officers made it impossible for him to keep the soldiers in line.

Those who remained with Roos marched south east to reach a high ground where Charles XIIs head quarter had been located and which was very close to the area where the Swedish infantry had been deployed before they marched to battle. Oddly enough Roos thought this could be the location of the main force. Bonde had not been given time to tell Roos the actual location before the Russians attacked and he got separated from Roos during the battle. A possible explanation to why Roos thought the army could be near the former head quarter is that he may have seen the Swedish units which bypassed the redoubts from the east side and then mistakenly concluded that they continued in that direction. That could also help to understand why he made the fatal decision to retreat from the redoubts to the east rather than to the west (although that was according to himself motivated by the fact that Yakovetski woods were closest to him). But even so it is very strange that Roos could have thought that the army went through the ordeal of passing the redoubt lines and then just marched back to the same place where they had started.

Nevertheless, when he reached the high ground there were no Swedish army to great him, just hostile Cossacks. So he decided to continue his march south hoping to reach the siege works outside Poltava and join the small Swedish force that had been left there. During this march he passed through a monastery where some Swedish civilian personnel had barricaded themselves against the Russians. Roos had offered them to join him in his march to Poltava but they refused. Roos then discovered that the path to the siege works was blocked by Russians so he and his men had to seek refuge in an abandoned redoubt just north of Poltava where they were surrounded by a growing number of Russian forces, including artillery. The Russians offered terms of surrender to Roos who (according to himself) claimed two hours’ time to consider it, which was granted when the clock was nine in the morning. Another source says that Roos wanted to wait until the evening but was only given two hours by the Russians. Anyhow the Russians shortly afterwards told Roos that the Swedish main army had been defeated and that Rehnskiöld and many more were captured. If Roos used his two hours as he wrote in his report is not clear but he most likely did deliberate with his officers as he said and came to the conclusion that he ought to surrender. Of the original force of 3,000 men only 400 remained, who after five hours of fighting now marched into Russian captivity.

The main force of the Swedish army had waited to long for Roos. Throughout the early morning the cautious tsar Peter the Great had behaved just the way the Swedes wanted him to. Waiting inside the presumed safety of his fortified camp and thus giving the Swedes ample of time of cutting the Russians’ ways of retreat and position them for a lethal attack. But eventually even the tsar found courage to act against the passive Swedes whose battle plan obviously had not worked as intended. When he saw the Swedish army moving south he ordered the Russian army to march out of the camp and deploy in battle order. This move alarmed the Swedes who thought the Russians were about to cut off their only way of retreat so Rehnskiöld ordered an attack which Swedes were not prepared to carry out. The Cavalry was disorganised and Västmanland regiment had not returned to its place in the line after its mission to search for Roos. The much reduced Swedish infantry had to attack without proper support from the cavalry. The battalions were not synchronised and a gap had opened in the middle. The Swedes managed to push back the Russian line a little bit but the line held. With no breakthrough and hopelessly outnumbered the Swedes were finished. The northern flank was first the break When Östergötland and Närke-Värmland battalions fled and caused Västmanland regiment which was marching behind them to flee as well. This left Uppland regiment isolated and it was nearly annihilated by overwhelming Russian forces. The four Guard battalions on the southern flank managed to retreat in good order fared better than average, but even they suffered 52 % casualties. Next to them were battalions of Kalmar and Skaraborg which were also badly hit, the latter being annihilated. Together with the casualty rate of 31 % for the cavalry all this make 28 June 1709 the bloodiest day in Swedish history.

The remnants of a once proud and formidable army surrendered three days later at Perevolochna. A new army would be raised to replace it and the war dragged on for an additional twelve years. But Sweden would never recover from this defeat and was henceforth forced to fight on the defensive to protect its rapidly shrinking borders. The battle of Poltava was the turning point of the war and it was the unlucky fate of major general Roos to be responsible for the turning point of that battle. He spent the remainder of the war in Russian captivity and died after the release in Åbo (Turku) on the journey home to Sweden.

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