Battle of Holowczyn. Battle of Holowczyn 1708 scenario for Pike & Shot

Swedish plan on the battle of Holowczyn


As always, there is some disagreement in the sources as to the number of Swedes who participated in the invasion of Russia. The army which moved against the tsar is traditionally numbered at 33,000 to 43,000. Hatton concludes that the strength of the Swedish main army was not far from 44,000.

More troops were on their way from Sweden to Livonia but had not yet joined the main army. An army of 14,000 under General Georg Lybeker, stationed in Finland, was expected to be brought into action by attacking St. Petersburg to tie down Russian forces. Furthermore, Karl XII expected to be joined by 11,400 troops under General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt in Livonia.

Karl XII left General Lewenhaupt in Livonia with the mission of bringing supplies forward. Lewenhaupt was to follow the main army when called forward. It would have been wiser to bring those supplies and Lewenhaupt’s troops along at a distance that could be supported by the main army in an emergency. The fact that this might have slowed the Swedish invasion is not convincing. The Swedes were not in a hurry, spending a long time waiting for the Vistula to freeze, and the arrival of fresh troops from Sweden via Livonia, and then going into winter quarters near Grondo. Even a large supply train would not have slowed them down. To allow that train to move on its own far behind the main army through hostile territory with the flanks wide open for hundreds of kilometers was a reckless decision. If those supplies had accompanied the main army there would have been no reason to turn south to the Ukraine; it would have allowed the Swedes to proceed directly to Moscow. Downing writes that Defeat came to Charles XII deep in the Ukraine as a result, at least in part, of a glaring weakness of indelningsverket: its lack of a rationalized system of supply. It would also, as suggested by Napoleon, have kept the Swedish forces concentrated. As it was, only about 50 percent of available forces took part in the actual campaign.

There were another 22,000 men in various parts of the Swedish empire and 17,000 in Sweden. These forces were roughly equal to the main operational army in number but it was not planned that they would take part in the main campaign. No Swedish king had commanded an army of this size and quality.

The Swedes had been outfitted with new uniforms, and contemporary sources report that they made an imposing sight as tens of thousands headed eastward in their blue and gold uniforms. The population of Silesia came out to greet them as liberators by the thousands as they crossed that state from Saxony on their way to Poland.

Karl XII was aware as he marched east that there was unrest in Peter’s empire, which began with a revolt in Astrakhan in 1705, but whether that played any part in his calculations is doubtful. He also knew that Peter’s brutal and unpopular reforms of the army were far from complete and that the regular army was still relatively small. He also knew about the discontent among the Cossacks, which led to an uprising in 1707–1708, and the eventual defection of Ivan Mazepa, a leader among the Ukrainian Cossacks. News of the events in the east came primarily from Polish sources. King Stanislaw Leszcynski, while he had urged against the Swedish invasion of Russia, had stated his desire to incorporate all of the Ukraine into his kingdom.

Peter the Great had assembled an army of about 70,000 to meet the Swedes. At the beginning of the Swedish move from Saxony he was not sure what route they would take, but like so many others, he believed they would move to recapture their lost territories and then move toward Moscow after capturing Pskov.

Peter the Great had already taken action in January 1707 to make the invasion difficult for the Swedes. He had ordered a belt of devastation intended to prevent the invaders from living off the countryside. This area extended into broad swatches of Poland where he sent Cossacks and Kalmuks with instructions to destroy everything that could be useful to the Swedes.

Feverish activities were undertaken to strengthen fortifications, and the near panic this brought about in Moscow caused both Russian merchants and foreigners to flee with their families. It was not only the Swedes who were feared but a general revolt in Moscow where the people were bitter and resentful at continuous increases in taxes.

Peter the Great spent two months during the summer of 1707 in Warsaw, partly because he was ill. He left as soon as he learned that the Swedes were marching east. At a council of military commanders held by Peter and General Alexander Danilovich Menshikov (who became a field marshal in 1709), it was decided not to offer the Swedes battle in Poland because the Russian infantry was not fully ready and Peter refused to risk its destruction. Menshikov was given the mission of delaying the Swedes at river crossings.

In October 1707 Peter traveled to St. Petersburg to ensure that its defenses were in order. Massie reports that Peter was almost overcome in early winter by anxiety and depression. He was not completely well during the winter months as news flowed in about Cossack revolts in the southern part of his realm. While he was in St. Petersburg he married Catherine, a person who was able to calm his anxiety. They traveled to Moscow in late November to celebrate Christmas and inspect the fortifications being built.

Peter left Moscow on 6 January 1708 and proceeded to join his army. On the way he learned that the Swedish army was advancing rapidly across the wintry landscape of Poland. He therefore hurried to Grondo. The ability of the Swedes to move quickly in winter further raised his anxiety. The Swedes had crossed into Poland at Rawicz, a town that had been burned to the ground by the Russians. Menshikov, who had caused all the destruction, stayed away from the Swedish army which advanced in six parallel columns.

Karl XII initially headed directly for Warsaw but just before reaching that city he turned north. He stopped at Posen and set up a temporary camp while he waited for reinforcements to arrive from Sweden via Livonia. He detached 9,000 troops—6,000 dragoons and 3,000 infantry under General Ernst Detlow von Krassow—to bolster the forces of King Stanislaw.

As winter approached and the Swedish king had not made any move, the Russians in the vicinity gained more confidence and became lackluster. They concluded that the Swedes would remain in their camp until spring. However, this was not Karl XII’s intention. He was training his new troops and waiting for the fall rains to stop.

In this part of the invasion we see a change in Karl XII’s tactics. He temporarily set aside his usual fast and furious frontal attack, and turned to maneuvering. He allowed the Russians to establish defensive positions behind rivers and then outflanked them by crossing the rivers away from their defenses. This would force them to withdraw without a battle. One may question the wisdom of this method of not going for an early decisive battle, but it brought results.

At the end of November 1707, after waiting for two months, the Swedes left their camp at Posen and marched 80 kilometers in a northeasterly direction to the great bend in the Vistula. The river was wide and there were no Russians on the far bank. Despite a heavy snowfall, the wide river was still flowing and drifting ice made it impossible to build a bridge. The Swedes had to wait another month for the river to freeze. By 28 December the river had frozen to a thickness of three inches. By using straw and planks sprayed with water the ice froze sufficiently to support the artillery and supply wagons, allowing the Swedes to make a successful crossing between 28 and 31 December.

The whole army was east of the Vistula by New Years Day, 1708. This forced General Menshikov to evacuate Warsaw and withdraw behind the Narew River.


Karl XII again outflanked the new Russian position, but with less ease than at the Vistula. He decided to approach the Russian positions by a tortuous trek through some of the worst terrain in eastern Europe, the heavily forested Masurian Lake area, full of marshes. The troops and animals suffered greatly on this march and we see the first outbreak of guerrilla warfare and Swedish reprisals. This would not have been the kind of terrain for the use of supply trains, but they could have set up camp waiting for the main army to secure crossings that would have allowed them to take a more direct route.

The Swedes exited the nightmarish march at the town of Kolno, about 20 kilometers southwest of Grondo. They were observed by Russian cavalry but all they could do was to report the situation to General Menshikov. The Russians were forced to retreat from their positions along the Narew River.

Karl XII used different tactics in forcing the third river line, the Neman. Whatever route Karl XII selected in his continual march, he had to pass through the Lithuanian frontier town of Grondo. Peter the Great had arrived in that town to stiffen the resolve of a frustrated Menshikov, who had been outwitted by the Swedes in every defensive position. The Russians, knowing that the Swedes needed Grondo so as to use the road to avoid the surrounding swampy and forested areas, were pouring troops into the town.

Karl XII decided to attack immediately before the enemy had a chance to establish themselves securely. He left the army to follow and rode ahead with only 600 men of the Guards Cavalry. Finding the bridge, which had not been destroyed, guarded by 2,000 troops commanded by a German Brigadier named Mühlenfels in Russian service, he immediately attacked without waiting for the arrival of the rest of the army. Some of the Swedes headed directly for the bridge while others rode across the ice to attack the Russian rear. In the confused hand-to-hand combat, Karl himself killed two Russians. The Swedes captured the bridge and camped for the night at the town walls, waiting for the rest of the army—not knowing that Peter the Great was within the town, only a few hundred yards away.

Believing that the whole Swedish army had arrived, the tsar and General Menshikov fled the town before daylight, heading for Vilna. When he found that Karl XII only had a small detachment in Grondo the tsar sent General Mühlenfels back with 3,000 cavalry to recapture the town and hopefully Karl XII. The Russians might have succeeded in their stealthy post-midnight approach except for two alert sentries who raised the alarm. The Swedes were so surprised that the king did not have a chance to put his boots on before he entered the pitch black fight which forced the Russians to withdraw. General Mühlenfels was captured but escaped. He was recaptured by the Swedes on his way back to Germany and joined them.

The apparent ease with which the Swedes had crossed three defended river lines and traversed all of Poland had political repercussions. England, which had earlier been reluctant to recognize Stanislaw as the Polish king, now quickly gave that recognition. The recalcitrant Polish nobles also gave their support to Stanislaw. Western Europe gave Peter the Great little chance of survival. The Swedes went into winter quarters at Radoskovichi northwest of Minsk. After covering 800 kilometers in one campaign it needed a rest.

Peter the Great went to Vilna after his flight from Grondo. He was still not sure where the Swedes were heading, but if they went toward Minsk there could be no question but that they were aiming for Moscow. When the Swedes took up winter quarters at Radoskovichi, Peter ordered a 200-kilometer zone of devastation from Pskov to Smolensk. He conducted one of the first, most thorough and successful scorched earth campaigns in military history. When Karl XII went into winter quarters, Peter traveled to St. Petersburg. He again became very ill, and judging from his correspondence with various officials it appears that he believed the end was near.

While in his winter camp, Karl XII ordered General Lewenhaupt to Radoskovichi. Lewenhaupt was ordered to bring a vast amount of food, powder, and ammunition, to scour the Livonian countryside for horses, and to junction with the Swedish army during midsummer.

The Swedish camp came alive with activities in late April 1708. Training was intensified and foraging brought in sufficient food for a six-week campaign. A primary reason for going into winter quarters was that there was no feed for the horses after frost and snow covered the ground and until grass began to grow in spring.

The Swedish army was still in good shape. Their main army had twelve regiments of infantry and sixteen regiments of cavalry for a total of 35,000 men. The Swedish forces in Livonia and Finland and those left in Poland still had a function to play, and some of these were expected to join the main army during summer. The entire campaign front still had 70,000 troops.

The Russian army was considerably larger, numbering some 110,000. It was spread out in an arch around the Swedish winter camp from Vitebsk in the north to Mogilev in the south. The main army consisted of 26 regiments of infantry and 33 regiments of dragoons, numbering together 57,500 men. The main army was under the command of Marshal Sheremetev and General Menshikov. General Heinrich Goltz with large cavalry formations covered the Minsk-Smolensk road and patrolled the Berezina River. They were expected to absorb the first shock of the Swedish attack if the Swedes continued eastward. An army of 24,500 under General Apraxin had the mission to defend St. Petersburg. General Bauer with 16,000 men covered the Swedish army in Livonia. Finally, a force of 12,000 under General Golitsyn was stationed near Kiev to cover Ukraine. These forces could of course be shifted around as the situation dictated.

Sheremetev and Menshikov had decided to make their first stand on the Berezina River line. The Russians occupied this line on a forty mile front. The most obvious crossing point was at Borsiov, and 8,000 Russian troops under Goltz were dug in at that location.

By 6 June the grass was sufficiently high to provide fodder for the horses, and Karl XII broke out of the winter camp with Minsk designated as the army’s mustering point. When heading from Minsk towards Berezina heavy rain set in, making the roads soft and difficult for the supply wagons to follow the army. Miles of planks had to be laid to make the roads passable.

Karl XII again decided to turn the enemy flank, this time from the south. He sent General Sparre’s cavalry in a feint against Borsiov, followed by the main army. After some distance the main army made a sharp turn eastward on side roads and reached the river at Berezina-Sapezhinskaya on June 16. Driving back a covering force of Cossacks and Russian dragoons, Swedish engineers constructed two bridges and the Swedes crossed the river with only minor losses. The Russians had again been outmaneuvered and they knew it. It was decided at a war council on 23 June to attempt to cover the towns of Mogilev and Shklov from behind the Vabich River.

Having been out-maneuvered four times by Swedish flanking movements at river crossings, the Russians spread their armies out along all possible crossing sites, and although they had a two-to-one superiority, they were spread thin. This left the attacker at an advantage since he could pick the time and place for the attack and achieve local superiority. Karl XII made excellent use of this opportunity.

Swedish reconnaissance revealed that what appeared to be the main Russian army of 30,000 had taken up position behind the Vabich River, near a place called Holowczyn. Deserters confirmed that the Russians had decided to fight. The enemy was divided into two main concentrations. Sheremetev and Menshikov were to the north with thirteen regiments of infantry and ten regiments of cavalry; General Nikita Ivanovich Repnin was located to the south with nine regiments of infantry and three regiments of dragoons. There were other large concentrations of Russian forces on the flanks of these main concentrations. The Russians were dug in behind strong field fortifications. The two central groupings were separated by a marshy and heavily wooded area—considered impenetrable by the Russians—along a tributary stream that flowed into the Vabich River. This is where Karl XII decided to strike.

Karl XII’s army at hand numbered about 20,000 by 3 July, the date that the Swedes were ordered to prepare for battle as silently as they could. The troops had grown restless, not knowing why they were not ordered to cross the very fordable river and scatter the Russian rabble to their front. The king was anxious for the Russians not to change their positions and therefore carried out a number of feints along their whole front.

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