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  POLTAVA 1709
 
  Road to Poltava
  Battle of Poltava
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  Redoubt battle
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Örjan Martinsson

Russian Strength and Casualties in the
Battle of Poltava

Making an estimate of the Russian army's strength is difficult because it seems to be many uncertainties about which regiments were actually present at the battlefield. It would appear as if each book has its own set of regiments. The only thing the literature is relatively unanimous about are the regiments who participated in the main battle, i.e. 18 infantry regiments fielding 42 battalions and 17.5 dragoon regiments fielding 69 squadrons. The literature is also in agreement that an average Russian infantry battalion had 500 men at Poltava. The estimates of the strength of the average dragoon regiment however vary greatly in the literature, from 425 men to 915 men. Some of these differences may be attributed to different definitions of how a regiment's strength should be measured (the estimates of the Swedish regiments for example only count the number of privates fit for battle). Also the entire Russian army did not participate in the main battle and there were troops assigned to various locations which would raise the sum greatly if you include them. Exactly how many these were is however uncertain since many regiments who are reported to have participated in the Poltava campaign are very hard to place in the battlefield.

Despite the uncertainties, with many different bids on the strength of the Russian army, it is in my literature only the work by the Swedish General Staff "Karl XII på slagfältet" (1919) which makes a thorough presentation of the source material their estimates is based on. Although Nicholas Dorrell's book "The Dawn of the Tsarist Empire" (2009) separates itself from the rest by giving very exact strength numbers for each individual regiment he does not name the sources from which this information comes from. In addition to these two works I have also used the Poltava books by Peter Englund (1988), Angus Konstam (1994), Bertil Wennerholm (2000), Peter From (2007) and Valery Moltusov (2010).

According to the General Staff the sources only give the strength for one infantry regiment (Astrachanski) and for a force of six dragoon regiments which consisted of 2 500 men. Astrachanski Regiment had 920 men and fielded two battalions. Since Astrachanski was an elite regiment it was probably given priority to receive new recruits and it had not participated in battles in any larger extent than the other regiments. Its 460 men strong battalions are supposedly the only solid clue to how strong the Russian infantry was (of which the average battalion size the General Staff estimate to be 500 men). The mentioned dragoon regiments had 14 June an average size of little over 400 men, which bears witness of the great losses the Russian army had suffered in the previous winter campaign when a full size regiment was 1 100 men strong (1 200 men for the infantry). According to the General staff it was harder for the Russian army to replace cavalry casualties than for the infantry, which would explain their lower strengths. The effective strength of an average Russian dragoon regiment which excludes those not fit for battle is therefore estimated to be 425 men or in other words 10 000 men distributed to 23,5 regiments.

Nicholas Dorrell has as previously mentioned very exact strength reports for the individual regiments. According to him Astrachanski Regiment had as much as 1 800 men, which appears to be a suspiciously high number for a regiment with only two battalions. But despite of this high number for Astrachanski Dorrel's information also show the average battalion size to be about 500 men. Dorrell has however a considerably higher size for the Russian dragoon regiments' average than the General Staff's estimate. According to two sources not named by Dorrell and combined with his own estimates of regiments not included in these, Dorrell gives a total strength of the Russian cavalry of either 28 600 or 34300 men. Dorrell states that these sources refer to the situation after the battle and speculates that the differences may be due to different definitions of regimental strengths (with or without NCOs and officers). The first source is however not consistently lower than the second so the question marks remain. The number of cavalry units in these sums is in any way 35 dragoon regiments and 5 independent squadrons. If the squadrons are counted as half regiments the average regimental size is 763 or 915 men. Dorrell has however a very high number of regiments and all of these cannot be placed in the battlefield. If six dragoon regiments are excluded, which Dorrell thinks was a support group posted further away from the battlefield (and includes Narvski which Wennerholm claim to have been in Carelia at the time of the battle, then the sums are instead 22 800 or 28600 men. These numbers are considerably different from the General Staff who however may have known these sources since they explicitly only refer to information from the time before the battle and is also focused on determining the effective strength (and just like with its Swedish estimates probably have a narrow definition of regimental strength). Lack of horses, sick soldiers and/or new recruits arriving after the battle may have resulted in the real strength being much lower than the levels stated by Dorrell's sources. Either way the General Staff and Nicholas Dorrell represents the two extremes when it comes to the size of the cavalry.

The higher variant of Dorrell's strength reports for the Russian regiments in the main battle are presented on this page.

The other books also show that an average sized Russian battalion had 500 men while the estimates for the cavalry continue to vary, although Peter Englund follows the General Staff with an average regimental size of 425 men and a combined cavalry strength of about 10 000. Angus Konstam states that 13 800 men cavalry (17.5 regiments) participated in the main battle and this does not include the five dragoon regiments attacking Roos' battalions. Konstam's average dragoon regiment should therefore be about 790 men, which means that the other dragoon regiments should have had a strength of 4 000. The six regiments led by Volkonsky are just like in the work by the General Staff not mentioned, but if they are included then you will reach the same levels as Nicholas Dorrell. Valery Moltusov has seemingly two contradictory sums for the cavalry. On page 93 he states that the number of dragoons were over 20 000 and you get the impression that this sum does not include the six regiments led by Volkonsky. But just before that and on the same page he go through the various cavalry groups (including Volkonsky) and mention their strength. If you add these strengths together then the sum is only 18 600 men. The latter sum also include the 11 000 men strong force which would participate in the main battle, although they were probably reduced to 9 000 - 9 500 men after the redoubt battle.

Peter From estimate the average strength of a Russian dragoon regiment to be 550 men, which with 23 regiments gives a total cavalry strength of 12 650 man. Furthermore he states that the strength of the artillery was between 2 000 and 2500 men with 127 cannons (not including regimental artillery). In a footnote he also writes that: "Another modern Russian source states that the Russians had 74 battalions, 119 squadrons, 5 000 Cossacks and 119 cannons. The final sum, including irregular troops remains nonetheless at about 55 000 men". Bertil Wennerholm mention that the Russian historian Porfiriev counted 17.5 dragoon regiments with an average strength of 600 men, which gives a total sum of about 10 000 men. Wennerholm himself states in his book "Emporterade troféer" that the cavalry strength should be within the interval of 10 000 - 14 000 men. This would mean that their casualties during the battle were 4-6% killed and 10-14% injured which according to him is a reasonable level for a victorious army. In the comments to Moltusov's book, published ten years later, Wennerholm states that available sources indicate that the original strength of the units participating in the main battle was 10 000 - 10 500.

The strength of the Cossacks are reported by Konstam to have been about 1 500 men and the number of cannons in the main battle to be 77. The General Staff reports that the Russians had 72 artillery guns and that there are no source material that can be used to assess the Cossack force. Dorrell states that the Cossacks (together with the Calmucks) were at least 5 000 and Moltusov writes that the number of irregular troops was as high as 23 000.

Regarding the number of tactical units, the General Staff states that the total force had 61 battalions. This piece of information however includes an older misunderstanding that the redoubts were manned by just two battalions from Belgorodski Regiment. According to Wennerholm the crew consisted of 7-8 battalions from three regiments and Russian historians mention a total force of 4 730 men distributed to 13 battalions (9 of them manning the redoubts passed by the Swedes according to Moltusov). Furthermore there are additional infantry regiments sometimes mentioned as participants in the Poltava campaign despite the fact it is very hard to determine where they in that case were located. The same thing applies for the cavalry for which the General Staff mention 23.5 regiments as part of the Russian main army. The 17.5 who participated in the main battle are relatively uncontroversial but the others were more than just six regiments even though little is known of them. Narvski Dragoon Regiment which both the General Staff and Nicholas Dorrell mention as participants was however according to Wennerholm nowhere near Poltava. But there were five dragoon regiments in the force sent to fight the battalions led by Roos and six regiments led by Volkonsky were deployed to support the pro-Russian Cossacks. Although there is some confusion regarding which regiment was part of which force and Moltusov actually states that these forces were partly composed of the same regiments. Those who do not mention Volkonsky's force may in fact have concluded that it was identical with the one fighting Roos. Furthermore, two regiments were located at Yakovtsy south of the Russian camp and there are other regiments mentioned as participants of which it is not possible to place them on the map.

In the presentation above I have not included Poltava's garrison which according to the Swedish literature was one half armed townspeople and one half regular infantry, all of this including the artillery had a combined strength of 4 000 men. The regular units consisted of 6-7 battalions. Dorrell states however that the garrison was 4 182 men strong excluding the armed townspeople which leads him to speculate about which additional regiments could have been included in the garrison. Moltusov counts 7 mostly weak battalions and a combined strength of the regular soldiers (including Cossacks and artillery) of about 3 000 while stating that there were at least 4 500 mouths to feed.

If we were to summarise the books' estimates of the Russian army's effective strength, then the infantry consisted of about 29 500 men (59 battalions) in the fortified camp plus an additional 4 730 men in the redoubts. For the cavalry there seems to be two different kinds of estimates. One showing the effective strength and with an average regimental size between 425 and 600 men resulting in a combined strength for 30.5 regiments of 13 000 - 18 000 men. Then a second type of estimates, which probably includes soldiers not fit for battle and uses a different definition of regimental strength, which result in a range of 22 000 - 28 000 men. The estimates of the Cossacks' numbers vary greatly and because they were never intended to take part in a pitched battle we can leave them aside. Finally add over 2 000 men serving the artillery and we get a sum for the effective regular force of somewhere between 50 000 and 55 000 men (excluding the Poltava garrison of 4 000 men). Of these 42 battalions and 17.5 dragoon regiments participated in the main battle (between 28 500 and 31 500 men).

Russian Casualties

According to Peter Englund the total casualties of the Russian army were 1 345 killed and 3 290 injured. More detailed information can be found in Wennerholm's book. According to him the official Russian casualties for the infantry (privates) were: 691 killed and 1 784 injured. Regrettably it is not known which regiments are included in these figures. Wennerholm consider it likely that the 6-7 battalions in the Poltava garrison were included. But for one of these regiments the casualties are known. In the only battalion of the Permski Regiment as many as 134 NCOs and privates as well as 3 officers were killed (= 44.7 % of a 300 men strong battalion). If more garrison regiments suffered similar casualties then not much remain for those regiments which participated in the main battle (or the redoubts). Because it could also have been in the best interest of the Russians to make the casualties seem low by excluding the garrison I consider it probable that they did just that. This would mean that the total casualty figure should be divided between the main battle’s 42, the redoubt battle's 9 and Rentzel's 5 battalions attacking Roos. This gives an average of 2.5% killed and 6.4% injured, which would be a low but reasonable casualty rate for a victorious army. But when you distribute the casualties on individual regiments it is appropriate to exclude the 18 battalions standing in the second line during the main battle because they hardly participated in any fighting. This raises the average to 3.6% killed and 9.4% injured. Translated to absolute numbers this would mean that in average 18 men were killed in each battalion that participated in the fighting.

But as you could expect the casualty rate varies from regiment to regiment. In the 15 battalions in Hallart's division only 81 men were killed and 454 were injured. If we distribute these to the 8 battalions in the first line then they would have a death toll of just 2.0%. In the three battalions strong Semenovski Guard 59 men were killed and 102 were injured, which distributed to the two battalions in the first line (and assuming each were 500 men strong) gives a death toll of 5.9%. The Semenovski Guard's casualties are surprisingly high considering that their participation in the fighting probably was very limited. A possible explanation could be that the Swedish cavalry got a lucky hit when the Guard was pursuing fleeing Swedish infantry. Less surprising is that Novgorodski Regiment with two battalions suffered 69 deaths and 53 men injured, which concentrated to the one battalion in the first line result in a death toll of 13.8%. Their high casualties can be explained by the fact that the four Swedish Guard battalions fought in their sector. For the Schlüsselburgski Regiment (also two battalions) the number of killed is unknown but we do know that 72 men were injured. If all these numbers are added together we will get the sum of 209 killed. The remaining 482 killed soldiers should be distributed to the other 13 battalions in the first line as well as those in the redoubts and in Rentzel's force. Altogether 27 battalions which saw action and in average had 18 men killed (3.6 %). Or in other words the same average as for the entire infantry that saw action combined. Although it has to be said that the redoubts battalions most likely suffered much higher casualties than the other battalions which must therefore have suffered quite low casualties.

Wennerholm does not mention the total casualties for the cavalry but if he uses the same source as Englund then that would be 654 killed and 1 506 injured. Casualties for individual regiments are known for half of the participating regiments and they are presented below:

Participated in the main battle Killed in Battle Killed by Injuries Total Injured
Men.
Missing
Horses
Officers NCOs +
Privates
Horses NCOs +
Privates
Horses Men Horses
A. Kropotov's Horse Grenadiers
Nevski
Nizhegorodski
G. Kropotov's Horse Grenadiers



2
53
3

52

22
54
150
4
2

2
16

24
94
57
5

56
16
22
78
246
1+1

1+0
 



 

Participated in the main battle and the redoubt battle
Sibirski
Novgorodski
Vologodski
Life Regiment

1
2
 
20
16
13
18

47
59
83
13

3
10


49
 
33
17
18
28

47
108
83

0+9
2+6
 


19
 

Part of Volkonsky's force (may have participated in the redoubt battle or fought against Roos' force)
Tverski
Ryazanski
Novotroitski
Azovski
3
2

 
29
6
7
29

36
50
70


6 (+1 Off.)
 
  32
8
14
29

36
50
70
1+1
1+0

 



43

Participated in the fighting against Roos' force
Kargopolski
Troitski
1
 
4
44

67
2
22
  7
66

67
1+7
 

8
Sum 11 294 638 65 183 370 821 7+24 70


Read also about the Swedish army's strength and casualties in the battle of Poltava or the Russian army's order of battle and uniforms.