We experienced such cold as I shall never forget. The spittle from mouths turned to ice before it reached the ground, sparrows fell frozen from roofs to the ground. You could see some men without hands and feet, others deprived of fingers, face, ears and noses, others crawling like quadrupeds.

Such were the recollections of a chaplain serving with what had been the finest army in Europe during the winter of 1709. The Swedish army, under the command of the young King Charles XII, was widely acknowledged as the best-trained, best-equipped and best-disciplined military force that had existed in Europe for a very long time. By the summer of 1708 Charles was ready for a showdown with Peter I, the barbaric ruler of Russia who had presumed to challenge Sweden’s command of the Baltic. He was about to pit his magnificent fighting machine against Peter’s army of half-trained peasants. It was, as one English commentator observed, an army of veterans facing a mob. Charles’s contest with Peter and his allies had, in fact, been under way for nine years and, in virtually every encounter, the Swedes had whipped the pants off their opponents. But Charles had never been able to bring his enemy to face him in a major battle. That was about to change. He was now all set to take the war into Russia and deliver the coup de grâce. His foe would be forced to stand and fight. Failure to do so would simply leave open the door to Moscow.

Charles’s strategy was straightforward. He had 35,000 men under his command when he reached the River Dnieper. At Riga (capital of Latvia) on the Baltic Coast his general, Count Adam Löwenhaupt, was stationed with another 12,500 troops and wagons loaded with vital supplies. When these arrived Charles would be ready to cross the Russian frontier and strike north-eastwards towards Moscow, 800 kilometres away. Before the autumn set in he would have brought the Russian tsar to his knees. There could be no question of venturing into enemy territory until he had the fresh troops, food and equipment his subordinate was bringing. But Löwenhaupt was expected every day. He did not arrive. His start had been delayed by difficulties in commandeering horses. Fortunately Charles did have a plan B. He had formed an alliance with the Cossack chief, Mazeppa, whose territory lay farther south in the grain-rich Ukraine. Clearly the invasion would have to be postponed until the next campaign season. Until then Charles had a choice of strategies: he could either set up camp for the winter where he was and wait for Löwenhaupt or march his men to the Ukraine. He decided on the latter course. Too late he learned that both Mazeppa and Löwenhaupt had met with Russian attacks and been badly mauled. There would be no immediate relief for Charles’s hungry men. By this time the Swedes had reached an area to the east of Kiev. There was no option but to dig in where they were to see out the winter.

For a disciplined army like the Swedes that would not have been a major problem – under normal circumstances. But the winter of 1708–9 was very far from normal. In fact, it was the coldest and the longest for more than 200 years (and, very probably, for much longer still). In Paris on 14 January a temperature of minus fifteen degrees centigrade was recorded. In London the thermometer recorded minus twelve (the recommended temperature for a modern domestic freezer is minus eighteen). Average temperatures throughout Europe were seven degrees centigrade below normal. Rivers iced over, coastal waters froze from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Venetians were able to walk across their lagoon. The earth became like iron to a depth of more than a metre. Autumn-sown crops perished. Fish died in their ponds, cattle in their byres, birds fell from the sky, wild animals collapsed with hypothermia and starvation, mature trees exploded as their sap froze solid. Nor was this frightening phenomenon a mere cold snap: the great freeze began around the turn of the year and, with only a brief intermission, continued until the end of March.

When nature ‘breaks the rules’ so dramatically, human suffering reaches new depths. No houses, not even the palaces of the wealthy, were equipped to cope with such fierce cold. The Duchess of Orleans wrote from luxurious Versailles to a relative: ‘I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen’. She was one of the lucky ones. In villages throughout Europe people huddled around bonfires, which were kept burning perpetually as long as branches, seasoned timber or even furniture could be found to feed the flames. English sailors aboard a man-o-war in an Italian harbour died in their cots.

One observer reckoned that ‘the great frost was most severely felt in France, where in most places the fruit trees were killed, and the corn frozen to the ground, which occasioned there a dreadful calamity and desolation’. As Europe’s principal wine producer, France was, inevitably, hit very badly when millions of vines were destroyed. The national economy and the livelihoods of thousands of vineyard owners and workers were shattered and it took several years for fresh stock to be planted and matured to the point where production could recover its pre-Great Freeze levels. But there was one important French export that never recovered. A species of tree that suffered particularly badly in France was the walnut, known by cabinetmakers as ‘Grenoble wood’. Among wealthy patrons in late-seventeenth-/early-eighteenth-century society, furniture made of, or veneered in, walnut was greatly prized. To own cabinets surfaced in this wood with its beautifully patterned grain – ‘very black in colour and so admirably streaked, as to represent natural flowers, landskips and other fancies’ – was the height of fashion. Walnut fuelled a major native furniture industry and was an important timber export. In 1720 that export was banned as the stocks of seasoned timber dwindled. It would be almost a century before new trees would reach the maturity to be felled and so provide fresh stocks of wood.

By the time that happened fashion had passed on from what furniture historians call the ‘age of walnut’. Cabinetmakers had been obliged to look elsewhere for their timber. A writer in 1786 informed his readers:

Formerly the walnut tree was propagated for its wood but since the importation of mahogany and the Virginia walnut it has considerably decreased in reputation.

Europe began to look to the colonies to make good the deficiency in native timber. Initially this gave a boost to the economy of Virginia, where a related species of walnut grew in abundance. But the real winners were the plantation owners of Jamaica, Cuba and Honduras, who filled the gap in the market with mahogany. Fashion was quick to make a virtue of necessity. By the mid-1720s the ‘new look’ was the lustrous deep reddish-brown of the exotic tropical timber that would never grow in Europe. The ‘age of mahogany’ had arrived. And the deforestation of large areas of the Caribbean began. This very dense wood had, according to the salesmen, uses far beyond the decoration of the homes of the wealthy:

The excellence of this wood for all domestic uses is now sufficiently known… it is in no less esteem for shipbuilding, having properties for that use excelling oak and all other wood.

This change in public taste was directly due to the appalling winter of 1709. But the same circumstances that provided a challenge to craftsmen, and an opportunity to the owners of town and country mansions to exhibit the new ‘cool’, were a matter of life and death to the majority of peasant farmers who, at the best of times, lived not far above the level of subsistence. We are all familiar with the images of drought-parched lands in Africa with their skeletal inhabitants forced to rely on foreign aid. Such extreme weather has only very rarely occurred in the temperate lands of Europe, but it did appear in 1709.

What hope was there for individual citizens? Their heart-rending lamentations filled the listening air and existence seemed only possible in another clime and other new conditions.

If that contemporary account seems to us a bit OTT, we have only to call to mind the wailing women of disaster zones pictured on our TV screens as they bury their children or raise their despairing cries over the graves of their husbands. At least French countrymen in the summer of 1709 could go out into the fields, get down on all fours and eat grass like sheep. Many did just that. The same chronicler went on to describe one concomitant of the Great Freeze with which we, too, are depressingly familiar:

To make matters worse, even in that time of dire distress, speculators came to the front, bought the grain that frugal farmers had saved and sought to make a profit even out of famine. Nor could all the efforts on the part of the government check it.

It was not only country-dwellers who suffered. The few available supplies could not reach the major centres of population because roads and rivers were blocked by snow and ice. The city of Paris was effectively cut off from the outside world for three months. And it was not alone. When the wagons, ships and river barges did begin to move again, they had little relief to bring to the clamouring citizenry. The summer and autumn brought only the most meagre yields of grain, fruit and olives. People made ‘bread’ from ground ferns, nettles and thistles. The government, with good reason, feared street riots. To avert revolution they forced the wealthy to open their larders, dole out food at their gates and set up soup kitchens.

If life was terrible for ordinary French people in the year 1709, for the Swedish soldiers trapped on Russia’s western border it was a living hell. The land was soon scavenged dry. Parties sent farther afield in search of food ran the risk of being picked off by Russian patrols. The soliders needed to build up their bodies in order to survive the appalling climatic conditions, but had to exist on the most meagre rations. Those who managed to commandeer space in a ruined cottage or a barn were the lucky ones. The rest made do as best they could. They had an inadequate supply of tents and, in any case, these provided no insulation against the bitter winds and the frequent blizzards. Some of Charles’s men could do no better for themselves than crouch against walls, or huddle together in trenches gouged out of the iron earth. Thousands succumbed to frostbite, hypothermia and malnutrition. By the time winter relaxed its hold on the earth, half of the Swedish army was dead. Tsar Peter’s men, of course, had to endure the same weather, but they had secure supply lines and could build themselves suitable shelters.

As the weather eased, prudence might have suggested that Charles should withdraw westwards, await reinforcements and allow his surviving troops to recover completely. But the Swedish king was determined not to relax his pressure on the Russians. Although his army was now greatly outnumbered and his enemy was fighting on his own ground, Charles still believed he could dispose of the barbarian menace in one pitched battle. The result was the Battle of Poltava (27 June 1709), one of the major turning points in European history – and, indeed, in world history. When news of it reached London, the novelist and leading man of letters, Daniel Defoe, described it as ‘an army of veterans defeated by a mob, a crowd, a mere militia; an army of the bravest fellows in the world beaten by scoundrels’. Charles XII was certainly not defeated by any superior generalship on the part of Tsar Peter, nor by the superior fighting abilities of the Russians. Poltava was not a ‘great battle’ in any tactical sense. Peter established a strong defensive position and allowed the Swedish army to dash itself to pieces against his wooden palisade and the musket fire of his troops. Had the Swedes not been weakened by their privation or lack of supplies, they would, in all likelihood, have been able to prevail or at least withdraw in good order. As it was, they finally fled, leaving behind 10,000 dead, wounded or prisoner.

The Battle of Poltava ushered onto the stage of European affairs a nation hitherto regarded as a backward Asiatic people ruled by an uncouth tyrant. Ever since that day in June 1709, Russia has held a leading position among the world’s major powers. The history books never fail to point this out. What they often omit to mention is that the victory that transformed the fate of the nation was, in large measure, due to climatic conditions beyond the powers of any human monarch or general to control.

These very conditions were, at the same time, creating problems for the government in distant London. During the months of May and June 1709, the citizens of the city of London were astonished to find the streets of that metropolis swarming with men and women of an alien race, speaking an unknown tongue and bearing unmistakable indications of poverty, misery and want. It soon became known that about 5,000 of these people were sheltered under tents in the suburbs of the city. Additions were almost daily made to their number during June, July, August and September, and by October between 13,000 and 14,000 had come.

This unprecedented influx of destitute refugees came from an area of the German Rhineland between Cologne and Mannheim. For eight years these people from the cockpit of Europe had suffered as armies fighting the War of the Spanish Succession had advanced and retreated over their lands, trampling their crops, requisitioning their livestock, raping their daughters and firing their barns. All this they had been able to endure because the tide of war rolled on; the battalions moved out in search of new battlegrounds; there had been time to repair damaged buildings, plant the new season’s crops and, if necessary, start again from scratch. Humble German farmers were resilient and used to hardship. But the past winter had broken their spirit. Now, it seemed, the very fields worked by the same families for generations had turned against them. The ground was unworkable. No ploughshare could turn it – always supposing that horses had survived to pull the ploughs. One eyewitness to the misery of the people wrote:

The pen almost refuses to do its task when asked to tell of the hundreds of strong men who, during that memorable winter, lay down to die of cold and hunger in the once fruitful valley of the Rhine. So intense was the cold that even the wild animals of the forest and the birds of the air were frozen to death. Wine was frozen in the casks and bottles. The vineyards were frozen to the ground and the fruit trees completely destroyed.

The Great Freeze had started the previous Christmas Eve with massive falls of snow. Unlike other winters with reflected sunshine glaring from the white landscape and glistening on icicles, this one was dark and drear. For three months grey cloud overshadowed all, occasionally tipping more snow onto earlier deposits, which were encrusted with centimetres-thick ice. Most farmers would have had supplies of meat and fish salted down for the winter and grain to feed the next season’s breeding stock. But now there was not going to be a next season. They had to slaughter and eat the young animals to keep them from dying in misery. They had to use up or sell the seedcorn because the planting time came and went but the soil remained like granite. The savage winter had robbed farming communities of their future. Famine loomed, as those who did not leave in the first wave of emigration soon discovered. Over much of Europe the 1709 harvests were virtually non-existent. Nor was it only the workers on the land who suffered. Since agriculture was the economic basis of society, commercial intercourse ground to a halt, as another observer reported:

Nobody could pay any more, because nobody was paid. The people of the country in consequence of exactions had become insolvent; commerce dried up and brought no returns. Good faith and confidence were abolished. Chaos, ruin and universal suffering prevailed.

There are very few situations in life so thoroughly negative that nobody wins. The desire of people to escape from the Rhineland was a godsend to property speculators. Never was land so cheap. Capitalists with the necessary resources to play the long game bought farms and holdings at a fraction of their normal value, knowing that they would be able to sell at huge profit when normal conditions returned.

Thousands of individuals and families were, therefore, on the move. They congregated in Holland but their destination was England, that traditional refuge of displaced persons from the Huguenots of the sixteenth century to the EU migrants of the twenty-first. Some of the Germans hoped to find in the island a new home and a fresh start. Others did not look that far ahead. They were driven by the imperative of the moment, believing only that whatever lay ahead could not be worse than what they were leaving behind. Then there were those who saw Queen Anne’s realm as a staging post to the New World. For several decades groups of émigrés had made their way to the colonies of the Americas. The most attractive state to Germans contemplating crossing the Atlantic was Pennsylvania because it had a liberal constitution, was growing rapidly and was, around the turn of the eighteenth century, the most successful colony on the eastern seaboard. But to make such a huge move required organisation, money and the chartering of ships. Thus, the desperate travellers made first for England, with mixed hopes and plans. For the moment all they sought was employment, the chance to earn money to feed their families and, perhaps, to save enough to enable them, in the fullness of time, to move on.

Mass immigration is an alarming phenomenon and people respond in a variety of ways. Humanitarian feelings come up against economic realities and sheer racial prejudice. On 20 April 1968, the Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered a speech about a problem that was then facing Britain. His words have achieved a lasting notoriety.

There are among the Commonwealth immigrants who have come to live here in the last fifteen years or so many thousands whose will and purpose is to be integrated… But to imagine that such a thing enters the heads of a great and growing majority of immigrants and their descendants is a ludicrous misconception, and a dangerous one. We are on the verge here of a change… As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.

Such alarmist rhetoric raised enormous pro and anti responses from reactionaries and liberals at the time. In recent years similar prejudices have been stirred up by immigrants coming into Britain from EU countries. These instances may help us to understand the reactions of English or Dutch citizens to thousands of destitute Germans fleeing from the results of the Great Freeze and turning up on their doorsteps. There was a natural sympathy for these people, forced from their homes against their will. The good folk of several Dutch cities put their hands in their purses to help. They wanted to see the newcomers settled, but ‘not in my back yard’. In April the burgomasters of Rotterdam authorised the distribution of money to the poverty-stricken Germans – not to relieve their immediate suffering but to help them on their way to England. The trouble was that that policy simply encouraged more refugees to make the journey. The Rhinelanders kept on coming, and kept on accepting the Dutch handouts. Enough was enough. On 12 August the city fathers issued a total prohibition on any further influx. They might as well have ordered a high North Sea tide not to overflow their dykes. Desperate people who could not turn back found numerous ways of infiltrating Holland. Like the determined young men who, in recent years, have besieged the ports of France in order to stow away in container lorries, these eighteenth-century seekers of a better life used ingenuity and ran grave risks to reach that horizon beyond which, they believed, lay a brighter future. River barges were set to patrol the Waal and the Maas.

In Britain there was a similar pattern of response; initial sympathy and support was superseded by reluctance and firm prohibition. In the spring the House of Commons addressed the problem. Members were told that Queen Anne herself was moved by the plight of these poor people. As a result funds were raised to bring over 5,000 German immigrants. Thus the tented camps in the suburbs. But, by June, the temporary accommodation was bulging at the seams. Twice as many poor strangers were dwelling in the environs of the city as had been bargained for. Shanty towns grew up with the inevitable sights, sounds and smells always attendant upon overcrowded, unsanitary human agglomerations. The government was under pressure to ‘do something’, to get rid of the ‘dirty foreigners’. There were protests, scuffles, mini-riots. Ministers did two things. They sent urgent orders to Mr Dayrolles, the English minister at The Hague. No more migrants could be accepted until satisfactory permanent provision had been made for those who had already arrived. The order had little effect. Poor people were still finding their way across the North Sea, often because they were surreptitiously being helped by the Dutch authorities to continue their journey. Since they could not reverse the tide, the best thing to do was help it on its way. When the English government protested through diplomatic channels, they received the vague response that the Dutch would ‘make their best endeavours’ to stem the flow. The other official action taken was to arrange passages for the unwelcome guests to those overseas places where few British citizens could be persuaded to go. The West Indies were short of minor officials and craftsmen. There was always room in Ireland for Protestant settlers to help keep the Catholic majority in order, and most of the Rhinelanders were Protestants. Getting immigrants to do jobs that indigenous people don’t want to do is nothing new.

Some of the refugees fared better than those sent to the fever-ridden Caribbean or the remoter parts of Ireland. Those who had capital and/or contacts made good their original intention of heading for the east coast of North America. Some were assisted by the energetic recruiting activities of Benjamin Furley. This Quaker businessman who had settled in Rotterdam was a friend and associate of George Fox and William Penn, who were working hard to develop Pennsylvania. Land in the colony was available at knock-down prices and Furley offered additional cash inducements for families and individuals willing to make their home on the far side of the Atlantic.

It is only fair to point out that in 1709 Holland and Britain had reason for not wanting thousands of extra mouths to feed. The Great Freeze affected these countries too. The harvests were the worst in living memory. The prices of farm produce soared. Extra demand created by the immigrants sent them even higher. So the refugees were moved on – willingly or unwillingly.

But this did not entirely solve the problem. On the last day of 1709, the British government issued the following statement:

Inasmuch as during the summer just past a number of poor people arrived here in England, from different parts of Germany, who have hitherto been supported by Her Royal Majesty, and have gradually been sent to the West Indies, and afterwards to Ireland: and whereas more such poor people have come here since, notice has consequently been sent to Holland and elsewhere that none such would be passed, much less supported, and that those who have arrived here since the first of last October were to be sent back to Germany via Holland at the first opportunity. All such as intend to come hither are therefore notified to desist from their voyage which would assuredly result in failure unless it be that they have means of their own with which to support themselves.

But any stemming of the flow that such directives might have succeeded in achieving was only of a temporary nature. What began in 1709 was one of the most significant migrations in Western history. Throughout the ensuing decades over 100,000 men, women and children would leave Germany to become settlers in overseas territories ruled by other nations.

If you read the standard history books you will discover that in 1709 the ‘Ancien Régime’ in Europe, the system of rule by absolute monarchies, was at its height and the ugly spectre of popular revolution was absent from the feast. There were no serious disturbances to the ordered hierarchic society and the conspicuous consumption of royal and aristocratic families that have left for posterity stunning proofs of their patronage of artists and craftsmen. The ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV, presided over an effulgently glittering court at Versailles and set the tone for neighbouring monarchs to emulate. You will read of splendid battles fought and won by talented generals like the Duke of Marlborough, who defeated the French at Malplaquet in this very year. You may find reference to the surprising triumph of Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava. You will learn that, despite the wars, art, science, philosophy, literature and architecture were flourishing in Europe. You will learn how this spectacular and superior European culture was beginning to export itself around the globe and establish mimetic hierarchies in the Americas. You may be directed to the works of the great polymath Gottfried Leibnitz, who, in this same year, was putting the final touches to his Théodicée, a magisterial philosophical tome covering most aspects of the human condition, in which he asserted that God had placed his human creatures in the best of all possible worlds.

Whether the majority of eighteenth-century Europeans would have agreed with him may be doubted. Even if we leave aside those areas which were devastated by the armed conflicts of the major powers that raged intermittently for many years, life was never easy for the inhabitants of central Europe. ‘Germany’, a term of convenience we use to refer to the greater part of this geographical area, simply did not exist. What did exist was a patchwork of some three hundred petty states, within ambiguous and fluctuating borders, each guarding its own customs and privileges, each harbouring its own ambitions, each jealously eyeing the territory of its neighbours. This politically unstable continent could never know meaningful peace as long as it was a prey to great-power rivalries and small-power inter-state tensions.

All this you may well glean from the standard histories. What you will almost certainly find no reference to is the Great Freeze. And this, despite the fact that it changed Europe more profoundly than all the activities of kings, parliaments and armies put together. It transformed the political balance in the East and North. It gave a new impetus to colonial settlement. It changed the shape of economic activity. It shifted large masses of Europe’s population. It created new fashions. And it killed more people than all the wars that had raged for half a century or more. And that puts us human beings in our place. It reminds us that all our endeavours – good and bad – may at any time be swept into the dustbin of history. No one knows what caused the Great Freeze, but the fact is that for a mere three months out of the last half-millennium Europe was subjected to arctic conditions the like of which it had never before experienced and which it has never since experienced. We need to be humble enough to allot the Great Freeze its appropriate place in our story.