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Örjan Martinsson

Road to Poltava

Of the three countries that attacked Sweden in 1700 all but Russia had been forced to sue for peace after the Swedish king Charles XII invaded Saxony in 1706. Charles XII spent a year in Saxony preparing for the final confrontation with the Russian tsar Peter I while building up his army. The Russian campaign began in August 1707 when the Swedish main army ("Huvudarmén" in the maps) with a strength of up to 44 000 men left their quarters in Saxony to march through Poland. Because of Russian support to the Polish opposition was Charles XII forced to detach 8 000 men commanded by Krassow to bolster the pro-Swedish king Stanisław Leszczyński. The rest of the army continued its march in December through Masuria where Polish peasants waged a guerrilla war against the Swedes. But this did not prevent them from seizing Grodno from the Russians at the end of January.

During the whole spring of 1708 the Swedish army lay still in Belarus preparing for this year's campaign. Lewenhaupt who was in charge of Swedish forces in the Baltics provinces was ordered to join his army (13 000 men) with the main army during the summer together with supplies. Lewenhaupt was however unwilling to carry out his order and deliberately delayed the execution of it. It was not until the Russian army in the Baltics was pulled back in August that Lewenhaupt began to put some effort to his mission. In the meantime Charles XII had been active since early June and defeated a large Russian force in the battle of Holowczyn 4 July. After this the main army waited for a month in Mogiljov until it made an advance to Smolensk. But a shortage of supplies forced the army to turn south to Severia in the middle of September. Charles XII who believed that Lewenhaupt was much closer to the main army then he actually was put Lewenhaupt's army in great danger with this change of direction. A large Russian force was detached to attack Lewenhaupt's numerically inferior army. The two armies met at Lesnaya 29 September and fought a tactically indecisive battle. Lewenhaupt had however no other choice than to retreat in the middle of the night which led to large part of his army being scattered. Furthermore the large baggage train had to be abandoned and with the infantry mounted on horses a quick march south was carried out to join the main army. When Lewenhaupt arrived to his destination 9 October only 6 000 men remained of his army.

Charles XII's advance guard had during the march through Severia failed to take strategically important strongholds and encouraged by the Cossack leader Mazepa's rebellion the Swedish army decided to continue marching further south to the Ukraine. The Russians however responded quickly and seized Mazepa's fortress Baturin 2 November, in which important supplies had been waiting for the Swedes. A new Cossack leader was appointed by the Russians and the campaign developed into a Ukrainian civil war in which the Russians mercilessly stamped down all tendencies to rebellion. The Swedes on the other hand tried to force the Russians out of the region to encourage the Cossacks to rebel as well as securing supplies for the army. The fighting was limited only by an exceptionally cold winter which caused thousands to suffer from frostbites on both sides. Another setback for the Swedes was the storming of the fortress Veprik, which was seized 7 January but to a cost of over 1 000 killed. During the month of February a new Swedish offensive was carried out but it had to be aborted when mild weather made movements difficult.

In the following months the Zaporozhnian Cossacks joined the Swedish side and Charles XII changed strategy when he in the beginning of April began to blockade the Russian fortress at Poltava. A formal siege began later in May. In the months leading to the battle on 28 June the Russians made several attempts to relieve Poltava and the opposing armies came ever closer to each other. This also meant that the armies pulled back forces from other areas and concentrated their strength in a very limited space, thus causing supply difficulties for the Swedes. The entire Russian army crossed the river Vorskla on 21 June and set up a fortified camp north of Poltava. Five days later the camp was moved further south so that it stood only about five kilometres north of Poltava. The proximity between the two armies made a battle within the coming days unavoidable. The Russians had however hopes that the hard pressed Swedes would be forced out without a fight. But the Swedish response to these movements was delayed because the Charles XII had been shot in his foot 17 June during a diversionary attack by the Russians south of Poltava. The injury became infected and the king's life was for a while in danger. The Russians used this extra time to fortify their position by building redoubts and for each passing day it would become harder for the Swedes to defeat them. The Swedish army could not wait for Charles XII's recovery so the task fell to field marshal Rehnsköld to lead the army on the fateful day 28 June 1709.

Read about the Battle of Poltava.