August the Strong – Saxony 1706

Friedrich Augustus. Elector of Saxony (1694-1733); king of Poland (1697-1704; 1709-1733).

The shattered sanctuary 1706

On 8 January 1706 a Swedish army of between 18,000 and 20,000 men left Blonie. `My soldiers have enjoyed their winter quarters in summer’, declared their enigmatic King, so it was `only right that they should take the field in winter’. Covering nearly 200 miles in 16 days (five being rest-days), by 24 January the Swedes stood on the south bank of the River Niemen opposite Ogilvie’s force in Grodno.

Six days later Augustus left that town at the head of some 5000 Saxon cavalry and Russian dragoons. By 5 February he was in Warsaw, where he waited for a further body of horsemen to join him from the south, which brought his force up to around 8000. With it he intended falling upon the rear of Rehnskjöld’s army of about 12,000, which was quartered west of Poznan’.

To his west, from Silesia, Rehnskjöld anticipated the advance of a considerable `Saxon’ army under the command of LieutenantGeneral Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg (1661-1747). This was Augustus’s `mysterious project’, which had cost him so much money and was designed to procure `great and sure success’ by crushing Rehnskjöld between two armies. After that the victorious Saxons would take Charles too from the rear, while Ogilvie held him at Grodno.

Schulenburg’s force is variously computed as between 16,000 and 22,000 strong, with a cavalry component of 2000-5000. One-third of his infantry was Russian, and other units of the foot were battalions comprising French, Swiss and Bavarian deserters and prisoners of war. According to Stepney, this army consisted mainly `of troops newly raised’.

But there was no victory for Augustus. He was at Kalisz, some four days’ march away, when Schulenburg and Rehnskjöld clashed at Fraustadt (Wschowa), near the Silesian-Polish border, on the morning of 14 February. It was another disaster for our hero, and a bloody one.

Stepney’s account, based upon letters from Silesia, was sent to London on 20 February. He described how the Saxon left wing `began the attack with some success, but their horse being soon routed, the foot suffered extremely, being abandoned in a plain’. The Muscovites `made a valiant defence and orderly retreat’ for over an hour; but finally they were `so warmly plied, that hardly any of the 6000 escaped’, since Rehnskjöld had `resolved to give them no quarter’.

The Saxons `shifted something better by retiring to a village’. The Swedes surrounded it and set it on fire, and seven or eight battalions surrendered there. In all, `the whole body of foot’ was lost with all its baggage and artillery: perhaps 7000 infantry died and 6000 to 8000 became prisoners. However, only 100 of 5000 cavalry and dragoons were slain `upon the spot’; the rest had fled.

Raby sent his own version of events that same day, along with a copy of Rehnskjöld’s letter, to his wife. `Nous n’avons perdu de nos braves Soldats qu’un fort petit nombre’, wrote the Swede of his light losses of 400 dead and 1400 wounded. `Dieu m’a specialement conserve”, he added, `ayant eu un cheval tue’ sous Moy’.

Schulenburg lost more than a horse shot from under him. Raby reported that he was held responsible for the disaster, in `that he would take it upon him to attack the Swedes, when his King was with 6000 men within four days march of him’. The expectation was that `his best fate will be keeping M Patkul company in prison’.

After Fraustadt, Augustus retreated south-eastwards from Kalisz towards Cracow. Peter was `now absolutely disgusted at the repeated misfortunes of his ill-fated ally’, contended Whitworth. Despite `all the money he had given the King (which is near 1,600,000 roubles) he had brought nothing but bad luck’, while Muscovy was `drained of men and money’. The Tsar was `resolved to shut up his purse-strings’.

In the east Charles tried to engage Ogilvie in Grodno, but the weather thwarted him. At the beginning of April the Scot led the remains of an army depleted by privations southwards. By the time Charles could cross the thawing Niemen, Ogilvie had a four-day start. Struggling through the Pripet marshes, the Swedes pursued their foes as far as Pinsk, which they reached on 4 May. There Charles called off the chase, and the Muscovites staggered on to Kiev. Although Peter’s main army was saved, the Russians had `abandoned all Courland and Lithuania with the same precipitation as they took possession’, noted Whitworth.

Charles stayed at Pinsk until early June 1706, both to rest his troops and to harry Augustus’s supporters. Then his army tramped south-westwards to Luck, the capital of Volhynia, a region almost untouched by war. Arriving there in mid-June, the Swedes replenished themselves and their horses from the abundant grain stocks; for their next trek would be lengthy.

Charles `had forborne several times to invade Saxony, when all the reasons both of war and politics should have engaged him to it’ and despite `having destroyed their army and having the country at his mercy’. This was how the Swedish ambassador in Berlin expressed matters to Raby in April. Possibly he was preparing the political groundwork.

Following the allied victory over the French at Ramillies in May 1706, the envoy returned to the issue of removing Augustus as a player. He argued that it was in England’s interest to recognize the puppet Stanislaw instead, since as King of Poland he `could not be able to do anything to disturb the allies’. If Augustus remained upon the throne, then once the Swedes withdrew `he’d begin his old play again, for he was a prince that would not be quiet’. He would revamp `his old project’ of making the Polish throne hereditary `and joining Saxony to it’. Then Augustus would marry his son to Emperor Joseph’s daughter, and if `the Austrian family should be extinct’ in the male line, `by this match his son might pretend to the greatest part of the hereditary country and to be chosen Emperor’. Then, concluded the envoy, Augustus `would be more to be feared than the French King and have as great (at least) a power’.

Whether or not the Swedish sovereign endorsed such political arguments, he had settled by now upon a solution by the sword. On 17 July 1706 Charles marched out of Luck. Having crossed the Bug and the Vistula he teamed up with Rehnskjöld’s force north of Lodz on 16 August. A week later he forded the Warta. Passing full circle through his old base of Rawicz, Charles led his army across the Oder at Steinau (north-west of Breslau) on 2 September, and four days later the Swedes entered Saxony.

`Their march goes straight to Dresden’, hazarded Stepney from Vienna. Eberhardine fled to her father’s, while Augustus’s mother and son left for Magdeburg. The few Saxon troops remaining in the Electorate melted away into Thuringia. The general population, recalling Swedish ravages from the Thirty Years War, were on the move too, with their effects.

`This attempt in Saxony is only to put a speedy end to the war in Poland’, maintained the Swedish envoy in Vienna; Charles had no intention of disturbing the Empire, `provided they do not molest him in his present undertaking’. Stepney hardly anticipated any Imperial interference with the activities of the Swedish King. For `as near as I can perceive, the princes on all sides are in awe of the lion’ and fear that the slightest `remonstrance’ might provoke him `to fall upon them’. Ironically, only Augustus would be molesting the Swedes, and he was desperately trying to avoid just such an outcome.

After Fraustadt, Augustus retreated to Cracow; we know little of what he did there. On 24 April the visiting Plantamour (now in Augustus’s service) told Raby in Berlin that `the King diverts himself very well’. He was `under no apprehensions of the Swedes’, and had more of the Polish nobility with him `than before the unfortunate battle of Schulenburg’s’. He also retained 6000 men in Saxony and at present had no fear of a Swedish invasion of his Electorate.

In late July Whitworth reported that Augustus had retired from Cracow to Hungary. On 18 August the envoy told London that the Elector-King was marching towards Grodno with the Crown Army and 7000 Saxon horse, a `good part whereof, he has insensibly drawn from his Electorate by small troops’ since Fraustadt.

In fact Augustus was currently about 80 miles east of Grodno, in Nowogro’dek. His close adviser (Referendarius) Georg Ernst Pfingsten left that town on 16 August bearing a letter to Charles. This expressed the Saxon’s wish that the two cousins might fully reconcile their differences. Besides this missive, Pfingsten carried a set of principal and subsidiary instructions (Haupt- und Nebeninstruktion) for use at a conference with Swedish representatives. These made clear that the surrender of the Polish crown was only to be agreed to as a last resort, in order to prevent the invasion of Saxony. If the negotiations broke down, Augustus expected the Regency Council to defend the Electorate by all possible means.

Pfingsten only reached Dresden on 1 September; given a Swedish army on the march in western Poland, this was probably not excessive. But it also meant that Augustus’s negotiating position was already shattered. When the Saxon Privy Council met on the morning of 2 September, the Swedes were crossing the Oder and only a few days off from invading Saxony. Moreover, the panic and disorder in the Electorate precluded any possibility of armed resistance.

Charles was in possession of Augustus’s letter on 4 September, two days before he crossed the Saxon frontier. His answer would come better from the sword of an occupying power, than the pen of a negotiator. Therefore, it was not until 12 September that the Swedes consented to receive Pfingsten and the Geheimrat Anton Albrecht Baron von Imhoff at Charles’s temporary headquarters in Bischofswerda, about 20 miles east of Dresden. This proved to be the one and only `negotiating’ session.

The Saxon plenipotentiaries received their powers from the Privy Council and not from Augustus. It made little difference to the Swedish terms. Their first and unalterable condition remained Augustus’s renunciation of the Polish crown, and his recognition of Stanislaw as the legitimate King of Poland. All attempts by the Saxons to evade this point shattered against the rock of Charles’s obstinacy.

The Saxons endeavoured to obtain a Swedish withdrawal from the Electorate as a quid pro quo for accepting Augustus’s abdication. They argued that Saxony could not sustain such a large force, particularly the numerous Swedish cavalry, and generously suggested Brandenburg as a more congenial site (`dort gebe es fette Quartiere’). However, they were foiled here as well. As a Swedish diplomat phrased it, occupation of the Electorate would be the very means whereby `Saxony should be put out of condition for the future to assist King Augustus with men and money’. Occupation would also increase pressure upon Dresden to ratify and execute the peace treaty.

Once Pfingsten and Imhoff had conceded abdication and occupation, they capitulated down the line: on Patkul’s handover, the release of the Sobieskis and abrogation of Augustus’s treaties with the Tsar. Satisfied with the results, Charles removed his brooding presence from Bischofswerda the next day, and on 15 September he crossed the Elbe at Meissen. Six days later he reached the castle of Altranstädt, situated a few miles west of Leipzig, where he would maintain his headquarters throughout the Swedish occupation.

On 24 September 1706 the two Saxon plenipotentiaries arrived there. Together with Piper and Cederhielm for Sweden, and two shadowy representatives of King Stanislaw I of Poland, they signed the 22 articles of the Treaty of Altranstädt. For the moment its provisions were academic, since strict secrecy had successfully shrouded the negotiations.

Charles had not wanted any publicity to interfere with his subjugation of Saxony. Nor had Augustus courted it, since his position was far more precarious. He had ostensibly made peace with his Swedish cousin and voided all treaties with his ally Peter. Yet currently, he was surrounded by thousands of Russian cavalry, who under his leadership were aiming to destroy a Swedish army.

Fraustadt-Grodno Massacres (1706)

This refers to the Swedish massacre of probably over 8,000 soldiers of the Saxon army and supplementary Russian troops allied with Augustus II Wettin during and after the Battle of Fraustadt (present-day Wschowa) on February 13, 1706. Simultaneously, the Swedish army enforced a blockade of the distant city of Grodno during January-March 1706, where about 23,000 Russian troops were left without assistance, and in effect, suffered some 17,000 casualties in the city and during its evacuation.

The Battle of Fraustadt was one of the greatest Swedish victories of the Great Northern War, which opened the road to Saxony to Charles XII and even resulted in the short-lived abdication of the King of Poland Augustus II. At Fraustadt, the Swedish forces of Karl Gustaf Rehnskjöld were outnumbered by the Saxon-Russian troops of Johann Matthias von Schulenburg by two to one (three to one in infantry). The Saxon troops were, in fact, composed of French, Bavarian, Swiss, and Saxon soldiers. Deployed between two villages, the allied army was believed by the commanders to be impregnable to a cavalry attack. Yet, the Swedish horsemen attacked both flanks and, having beaten them, pressed on the centrally deployed troops, massacring them. Of roughly 18,000 Saxon-Russian troops, over 8,000 were killed. Historians cannot agree as to whether several hundred Russians were killed in cold blood after the battle.

About one month prior to the Battle of Fraustadt, in the distant city of Grodno (today in Belaurus), the Swedish forces managed to cut all supply lines to the Russian garrison in the city. The Russian troops numbering about 23,000 men, under the command of a Scottish general Fd. Mar. George Ogilvy and Gen. Nikita Ivanovich Repnin were left without provisions, assistance, and the necessary cavalry to either break through or withhold the blockade. The Polish-Lithuanian king, Augustus II left the area, heading for central Poland, taking with him all cavalry (even the Russian dragoons). In effect, about 8,000 Russian soldiers died of famine and disease, before Oglivy decided to evacuate the city on March 22. Historians claim, that another 9,000 were killed during the retreat.

Further Reading Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars. War, State and Society in Northeastern Europe 1558-1721. New York: Longman, 2000.

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