While the military system of Gustav Adolf served as the basis for European warfare in the eighteenth century, few were able to apply it fully. While the external aspects of his ideas were practitioners failed to understand his flexible employment of the combined arms team on the battlefield. Arnold J. Toynbee refers to an historical cycle of invention, triumph, lethargy and disaster.

Walter Goerlitz writes that the strategy of the time was that of a chess board which concentrated on felicitous maneuvering and avoided, wherever possible, the more painful decisions of a direct encounter. One of the foremost military historians of that age, Count Wilhelm von Schaumberg Lippe, writes in his Mémeoires sur la Guerre Défensive that the aim of the art of war should be to avoid war altogether, or when that was not possible, to lessen the evil aspects of war. Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill and Orrery, wrote in the 1670s:

Battells do not now decide national quarrels, and expose countries to the pillage of the conquerors, as formerly. For we make war more like foxes, than like lyons, and you will have twenty sieges for one battell.

As so often in history, economics dictated how wars were fought. The professional armies of the western powers were expensive instruments that could not be quickly replaced. Long periods of training were required to perform the mathematically prescribed deployments and maneuvering with precision. The infantry under Marlborough and Eugène of Savoy (1663– 1736) fought in long thin lines often several kilometers in length. The infantry were trained to march directly into several sets of triple deployments, one behind the other and each three or four ranks deep. These lines were expected to retain their perfect alignment even during the heat of battle. The soldiers were drilled to carry out intricate movements and to keep strictly in step in their ingenious wheeling and maneuvering.

It is not surprising that in such an environment there were few advances in weapons technology. Identifiable progress was primarily in refinements of weapons already in existence. The flintlock musket with the ring bayonet remained the basic infantry weapon, with only minor alterations.

There was practically no change in artillery. The Swedish technology of the early seventeenth century quickly spread across Europe, spurred on by a lively export from Sweden to the arms merchants in Amsterdam of at least 1,000 pieces annually starting in the 1650s. The weapons manufacturers in other countries were quick to copy.

Cavalry had a diminished role. They were used primarily as skirmishers, to fight enemy cavalry, as flank security, and for raiding the enemy’s lines of communications.

The most notable achievement was in the field of siege craft—both the construction of fortifications and in breaking through them. The credit for these achievements belongs to Marshal Sébastian le Prestre de Vauban (1633– 1707). Space forbids going into his accomplishments, but two books are recommended for those who wish to pursue this subject further.

The new fortresses created problems that were not easy to solve. As pointed out by Parker, a fortress or walled town with a strong garrison and supported by strategically located strongpoints was too dangerous to bypass and had to be taken. Most of the pitched battles therefore took place between the besiegers and armies sent to help the besieged. The number of sieges increased while the number of pitched battles declined dramatically. Marl-borough fought only four major battles during his ten campaigns but was involved in thirty sieges.

The expanse of the battlefield and the extent of campaigns were dictated by three factors—the reduced role of cavalry, the limited range of weapons, and logistics. Supplies were gathered in a limited number of magazines. The location of these magazines and their distances from the battlefield dictated the scope of campaigns and put a limit on wars.

What did the Swedes think about the western form of warfare in the early eighteenth century? They were not very impressed, to say the least. Frost writes that the Swedish General Staff had nothing but contempt for the linear tactics of contemporary European armies. In the view of the Swedes, western warfare was too defensive and precluded any final decisions by arms.

Frost believes that the differences between western linear tactics and those of the Swedes are overdrawn and that western tactics were not as defensive as depicted. However, as an excellent historian, Frost qualifies his statements by pointing out that western observers were baffled by Swedish tactics.

There were considerable differences between the western approach to warfare and that of Sweden, driven largely by Karl XII’s war aims based on two centuries of endless wars in the Baltic. Swedish war aims were the total defeat of its enemies, not the acquisition of a fort, city, or even a province, and the Swedish army was trained and organized to achieve those objectives. In short, the Swedish forces were geared for offensive war.

The Swedish army was as well equipped as its western counterparts. They were superbly trained and had a high level of discipline. This discipline was not based on severe corporal punishment or death as in the armies in the west, but on exemplary leadership. Karl XII shared the life of his soldiers, including sleeping in the open, eating the same rations as his men, and enduring the same hardships as they did. This example was followed by the other officers in the army. The king and his officers exposed themselves to hostile fire as much as the men. The king was invariably to be found at the hottest place on the battlefield, and his rashness was often deplored but the men liked it. He was truly loved and respected by his men, and this was sufficient to instill in them a discipline and aggressive spirit that seldom made disciplinary measures necessary.

The Swedes retained the pike while it had been discarded by western armies. This was not because modern infantry weapons, including bayonets, were lacking—in fact Frost points out that the Swedish bayonet was superior to many found in the west. The Swedes simply considered that the pike still had a role to play.

During Gustav Adolf’s time the Swedish infantry attack on enemy infantry was conducted at a steady pace behind continuous musket salvos delivered by each forward rank as one passed through the other, moving ever closer to their enemy. The Swedish infantry regulations under Karl XII had the infantry engaging the enemy infantry on the run, in some cases without unslinging their muskets. There was no pretension of any fire and maneuver, as the first—and in most cases the only salvo—was delivered as close to the enemy as possible. At the battle of Fraustadt on 13 February 1706, some of the infantry did not let loose even a salvo as it attacked headlong in one wave through three artillery salvos and one musket salvo before they stormed the enemy infantry line with sword, pike, and bayonet.

In a slow, traditional approach by the infantry, stopping momentarily to fire salvos, the enemy’s stationary infantry should have been able to deliver 4 to 5 well-directed musket salvos and several artillery salvos at the attackers while they were in the killing zone to their front. In a dead run the enemy only had time to fire one, or at the most two, musket salvos. Having thousands of screaming Swedes approach at a dead run was enough to unnerve the best trained and battle-hardened infantry and make their fire inaccurate. Running at the enemy could theoretically reduce casualties and this may well be what was behind Swedish thinking.

Karl XII, while making some use of artillery, appears to have put less faith in firepower than his predecessors, and this is a definite divergence from the combined arms doctrine of Gustav Adolf. Marlborough, while walking through the Swedish camp in Saxony, was surprised at the scarcity of artillery.

At the Battle of Klissow in 1702, Karl XII, having only four guns at the outset, launched his attack on the Saxons without waiting for the rest of the artillery to arrive. In the invasion of Russia, Karl XII brought a total of 72 guns to support an army three times as large as Gustav Adolf had brought to Germany, supported by over 80 guns. Gustav Adolf had 200 guns at Frankfurt on Oder and 150 at the Battle of Werden. At Poltava, Russian artillery dominated the battlefield while most of the Swedish artillery was with their baggage train.

Unlike the western armies, Sweden still placed great emphasis on the cavalry arm. The Swedish cavalry charged theoretically in “knee to knee” formations mounted on large horses that must have been a disconcerting view to enemy formations.

Frost’s observation that the spectacular results of these aggressive tactics [by the Swedes] played an important part in their success, since they ensured that morale remained high, is on the mark. An unbroken string of victories over a decade instilled a great sense of loyalty to and blind faith from the troops in Karl XII as a military leader. The king’s simple life in the field and his reckless courage endeared him to his men. This military virtue of an army is labeled by Carl von Clausewitz as one of the most important moral powers in war.

As with any military commander who loses a battle, particularly one as history-changing as Poltava, there is no lack in the literature of criticism and reasons for the ultimate defeat. I am reminded of the famous saying by Marshal Turenne that when a general makes no mistakes in war, it is because he has not been at it long.


In examining and judging Karl XII’s strategy we must do so based on what the king knew or should have known when he launched his invasion of Russia. Military strategy must specify the ends—objectives to be achieved; military strategic concepts—the ways in which these objectives are to be achieved; and finally military resources adequate to achieve the objectives.

Napoleon was one of Karl XII’s severest critics. In his memoirs dictated from his exile in St. Helena, Napoleon bluntly claimed that Karl XII was merely a brave soldier who knew nothing about the art of war. It must be kept in mind that Napoleon was writing for posterity after his own disastrous Russian campaign, which he wanted to put in the best of lights.

Napoleon’s arguments are not that the goal was unreasonable or that the resources were inadequate, as so many other writers have contended. He noted that Karl XII had 80,000 of the best troops in the world available for the invasion. He focused on the military strategic concepts, claiming that these were wrong. Napoleon’s severest criticism is aimed at Karl splitting his forces and not following the example of Hannibal by abandoning all lines of communication and establishing a base in Russia.

This is strange criticism coming from a military leader who did just that in 1812; he captured Moscow but lost his army and empire in a disastrous winter retreat with inadequate provisions. Napoleon’s criticism of Karl XII turning south instead of continuing on to Moscow, only ten days march away, has more logic. Clausewitz also levels mild criticism at Karl XII for not going after Russia’s center of power: its capital.

Napoleon, who took basically the same route as Karl XII initially, kept a copy of Voltaire’s history of Karl XII on his nightstand or desk throughout his invasion in 1812. While dismissing Voltaire’s arguments with annoyance, he assured his subordinates and advisers that he would not repeat the mistakes of the Swede.

We must look at the situation as it existed at the time of the invasion. The Swedes, based on past experience, had little respect for the Russian army. For Karl XII, the Russian weaknesses were demonstrated at the Battle of Narva. The king had concluded that the Swedish Baltic provinces could not be secured except by eliminating the Russian menace. This was to be done by dictating a lasting peace in the Russian capital. Karl XII believed strongly that this was achievable, as did most observers. Near panic gripped Moscow when Peter the Great began to strengthen the Kremlin defenses. Fuller writes: There was nothing astonishing in this, for Charles’s [Karl XII’s] prestige now stood so high that, with the exception of a few clear-sighted observers, all Europe predicted that he would crush the Tsar and dictate peace from the Kremlin.

While Sweden had begun the war on sound financial footing, it now found itself in the usual financial straits, and this made a long defensive war unthinkable. The usual source for loans—the maritime powers—had dried up as they were fully engaged in the War of the Spanish Succession. Karl XII was well aware of these facts and concluded that the only reasonable course of action was to deliver a quick and decisive blow at the Russians in their homeland, and for this he had adequate supplies. In view of Peter the Great’s feverish attempts to rebuild and transform his army, Karl may have concluded that time was not on Sweden’s side since Russia would be more difficult to deal with 10–20 years in the future.

When it comes to the concept of operations selected by the Swedish king, there are some reasons for criticism. The direct route he chose through Lithuania—rather than the more northerly one—was obviously chosen to avoid leaving Poland to the mercy of the Russians who had already begun large-scale raids in that country. It was a logical decision but the logistical support that Karl XII arranged proved disastrous.

There was one thing the Swedes had not counted on: one of the severest winters on record in Russia. As in the case of 1812 and again in 1941, “General Winter” came to Russia’s assistance. Karl XII was to learn, as Napoleon and Hitler did, that an army without sound logistics is at a distinct disadvantage when operating against a patient enemy willing to trade space for time.

Leave a Reply