Battle of Lesnaya by Nicolas Larmessin (1722–1724)

Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt (1659 – 1719), Riga governor, by David von Krafft.

Karl XII had decided to personally deliver the main attack against General Repnin to the south of the marsh while Field Marshal Rehnskiöld would lead the Swedish cavalry against General Goltz’ cavalry expected to come to Repnin’s assistance from the south. There was a mist rising from the river on the night and morning of the battle, and this gave the Swedes some natural concealment. Some of the heaviest Swedish artillery had been moved into position during the night directly across from the Russians at the crossing site. At the first light these guns opened a thunderous salvo at the surprised Russians. At the same time Karl XII plunged into the river at the head of 7,000 of his infantry.

The river was deep enough so that in places it reached to the shoulder but, with muskets over their heads, the soldiers calmly crossed despite heavy enemy fire. Exiting the river on the Russian side the king regrouped his forces. To his surprise the Russians stood and fought, but were not willing to come to hand-to-hand combat. The battle developed into a firefight as the Swedes steadily advanced, delivering their own salvos at the Russians. This was not the normal pattern of Karl XII’s many battles.

By 0700 Repnin realized he was the object of the Swedish main attack and called for help. A 1,200-strong force of dragoons from Goltz came to his assistance, trying to drive into the right flank of the Swedish infantry. Rehnskiöld, on the opposite side of the river, went into immediate action with 600 of the Guards cavalry. After splashing across the stream, they fell on the Russian dragoons in a bloody engagement. As additional Swedish cavalry squadrons joined the fight Goltz’ troops were forced to retreat into the woods. In the meantime the Swedes poured additional infantry across the river. Repnin’s forces retreated, rallied, and retreated again. They were finally scattered into company-size units which withdrew through the woods, leaving behind their camp and artillery. It was not a Russian rout, as they maintained good order. The casualties in this battle were 975 dead and a reported 675 wounded on the Russian side while the Swedes had 267 dead and 1,000 wounded. Repnin was court-martialed for his failure at Holowczyn. Karl XII for unknown reasons considered this his finest victory.

Karl XII next turned to meet Marshal Sheremetev’s army but that officer had already left the field and retreated toward Mogilev and the Dnieper. This was in accordance with earlier instructions from the tsar to avoid a decisive battle. The road to the Dnieper was now clear for the Swedes and they reached that river at Mogilev on 9 July. The king sent strong reconnaissance forces across but no resistance was encountered. Here Karl XII hesitated. He remained on the western bank with the main army for almost a month— from 9 July to 5 August. The troops were perplexed.

The reason for the pause was the failure of Lewenhaupt’s supply train to arrive, something that was of increasing concern to the king. The instructions given to Lewenhaupt at the meeting with the king at Radoshkovichi was to bring enough supplies for a six-weeks campaign. The troops he was bringing forward would also augment Karl’s army in the move to Moscow. It had been calculated that if Lewenhaupt left at the beginning of June he could traverse the 650 kilometers in two months.

Lewenhaupt was not able to leave until the last days of June with 2,000 wagons and 8,000 horses, escorted by 7,500 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. He did not personally join the train until 29 July. At that time they should have neared a junction with the main army but they had only covered 250 kilometers and were still 400 kilometers short of their meeting point at Mogilev.

Karl XII was in a quandary. If he knew, that Lewenhaupt had not yet reached the Dnieper, he should have turned around to link up with the supply convoy. This was a difficult decision to make since he had successfully crossed five great watersheds and he may have been reluctant to give up two of them. Furthermore, a turnabout at this time might cause morale problems among his own troops, encourage the Russians, and appear to an adoring following in western Europe and Poland as a serious setback. Karl had also realized that the Swedes were not fighting the same Russians as at Narva. The Russian army now showed a steadiness that surprised him, particularly the infantry. On the other hand, the linking up with the supply train would still give him time to reach Moscow, about 500 kilometers away. After all, he had already covered more than 1,200 kilometers.

The Swedish king became involved in some short-range and desultory maneuvering while waiting for Lewenhaupt. By 21 August the Swedes had reached Cherikov on the Sozh River, only to find Russian cavalry and infantry in position on the far bank. A sharp infantry engagement took place on 30 August as a Russian force of 13,000 attacked the Swedish rearguard under General Axel Roos. Learning from the Swedes, the Russians approached the Swedish force through a swamp near the town of Molyatychy. The Russians broke off the fight after Swedish reinforcements arrived, having suffered twice as many casualties as the Swedes. Karl believed this indicated that the Russians were finally ready for a battle, but the next day a reconnaissance found the Russian positions empty.

The Swedish army began a slow move in the direction of Smolensk. The Russians were still carrying out a thorough destruction ahead of the invaders. The smoke from burning villages and farms was at times so thick that it blotted out the sun. Whether Karl XII intended to proceed as far as Smolensk is not known. The key to the decision was Lewenhaupt’s supply train. In view of the Russians’ scorched earth policy, to try to go on without the supplies was out of the question.

Karl XII had basically two choices: return to the Dnieper and wait for the supply train or turn south away from Smolensk and Moscow into the province of Severia. Although the Swedish king appeared to believe that Lewenhaupt would show up, the time was running out for him to make a decision. He found a withdrawal to the Dnieper repugnant while a march into Severia would continue his offensive. In that province they were just beginning to harvest their crops. Karl could march on Moscow after his troops were replenished and he was reinforced by Lewenhaupt.

The final decision to turn south was made at a prolonged conference after the Swedes reached Tatarsk. We don’t know who took part in this conference besides Field Marshal Rehnskiöld and Karl Piper, a senior Swedish official who accompanied the king on the Russian campaign. There were no disagreements recorded.

The importance now was to get to Severia before the Russians. Speed was of the essence. A special vanguard of picked infantry and cavalry numbering 3,000 under General Anders Lagercrona were given rations for three weeks and ordered to proceed rapidly to seize the bridges and towns that would open the area for the Swedes and thereupon deny them to the Russians. The provincial capital of Starodub was to be seized. The distance that had to be covered was 200 kilometers.

The Swedish army began its southward march on 15 September. We now know that Lewenhaupt on that date was 50 kilometers west of the Dnieper and therefore 150 kilometers from Tatarsk. The column reached the Dnieper on 18 September and there Lewenhaupt received the messages from the king ordering him to turn south to the new rendezvous point at Starodub. We can only speculate what the impact would have been on the campaign if the main Swedish army had retrograded to the Dnieper. It took until 23 September for the tired soldiers to get the wagon train across the river.

Lewenhaupt now became aware that Russian forces were moving against him. The Russians had followed the progress of the supply train and they now saw an opportunity to destroy it since it was separated by 150 kilometers from the main Swedish army. The strength of the Russian forces, under the personal command of the tsar, was 14,625, not the 50,000 claimed by Creasy. The force under Lewenhaupt numbered 12,500.

Lewenhaupt was desperately trying to reach the town of Propoisk on the Sozh River. If he could cross that stream there was a possibility he could reach the main army. But the heavy wagons were slow to move over the muddy roads, and it became obvious that a fight was imminent. There were no good options but he chose to make a stand with his wagons instead of sending them ahead while fighting a rearguard action. This may have been a mistake.

The Swedes spent the whole day of 27 September in battle formation waiting for a Russian attack that never came. Lewenhaupt finally dissolved his battle formation and proceeded several kilometers along the road and again formed up for battle for the night. On the morning of 28 September there was still no attack and the Swedish column reached the village of Lesnaya, a few hours march from Propoisk. Had it not been for the stop on the 27th there was a chance the Swedes could have crossed the Sozh to relative safety, the fords over that river having already been secured. Lewenhaupt was under enormous pressure and may have chosen the wrong solution, but the fault lies with Karl XII for not waiting for his supplies or returning to the Dnieper to link with the column.

The battle began shortly after noon on 28 September. The fighting continued until nightfall when a snowstorm brought it to a halt. Although his lines were unbroken, Lewenhaupt decided to retreat and began burning the supply wagons. The cannons were buried in pits. In the shimmering light of the burning wagons there was mass confusion and discipline began to break down as the Swedish soldiers began plundering their own wagons. Infantrymen took off on horses that had been used to pull wagons, while others fled into the woods. When the survivors reached the crossing site at Propoisk they found the bridge burned by those who had fled earlier and the rest of the wagons had to be burned as Cossack and Kalmuk cavalry arrived and killed another 500 Swedes on the riverbank.

The disaster was complete. Lewenhaupt had not only lost the wagon train but half his force. His total loss was 6,307, and of these over 3,000 were taken prisoners. Many of those who fled into the forest died or were eventually captured. Amazingly, about 1,000 found their way back to Riga after an 800-kilometer trek. The Russian losses were 1,111 killed and 2,856 wounded.

Karl XII did not blame Lewenhaupt. He may have realized that despite lingering and waiting for him, he had not waited long enough. The most disconcerting lesson was that the Russians had been victorious in a battle in which the two sides were about equally matched; it demonstrated the new fighting quality of the Russian troops. However, it was not an open battle. The detailed description sounds more like an ambush where the dismounted Russian dragoons and cavalry were pouring short-range fire into the Swedish troops protecting the wagon train along a rather narrow trail.

More good news for the Russians arrived while Tsar Peter was in Smo -lensk in mid-October. General Lybecker in Finland with 14,000 troops was supposed to carry out a diversionary attack against St. Petersburg from the Karelian Isthmus. He crossed the Neva River on 29 August 1708, but false information planted by the Russians convinced him that St. Petersburg was too heavily fortified to be taken. In the end, General Lybecker’s aimless and desultory campaign in Ingria achieved nothing but the loss of 3,000 soldiers and 6,000 horses.

In the south, General Lagercrona’s mission had been to seize key towns in Severia, including the provincial capital of Starodub, before the expected Russian troops appeared. However, due to a series of tragic mistakes in routes and failure to secure the capital, all key towns were occupied by the Russians.

The main Swedish army, which used the crossings seized by Lagercrona on the Sozh and Iput rivers, was suffering immensely as it crossed the primeval wooded area between the Sozh and Iput. Men and animals expired after weeks of hunger, and dysentery was ravaging the army. When it was learned that Lagercrona had failed to seize the empty capital, despite pleas from his colonels to do so, Karl exclaimed, “Lagercrona must be mad!” On 11 October Lewenhaupt, with less than 7,000 starving survivors, stumbled into the Swedish camp in front of the town of Mglin. Karl XII had already decided that his army was in no shape to try to take Mglin, and that Severia was lost with Marshal Sheremetev’s army pouring into the province. The Swedish king broke camp the same day as Lewenhaupt’s survivors arrived, and headed for the Desna River which formed the boundary between Severia and the Ukraine.

The Swedish king’s plunge into the Ukraine has often been attributed to rashness, but the condition of his army left no other choice. The fertile Ukraine, rich in both cattle and grain, offered the Swedes what they needed most for the winter that was just around the corner. Turning south also offered the prospects of an alliance with the ongoing Cossack rebellion. Under the circumstances it was the right decision.

The Swedish king had sent an advance guard under Colonel Karl Gustav Kreutz (later General) to secure the bridge across the Desna River into the Ukraine and take the town of Novgorod-Seversky. Kreutz arrived at the border on October 22 only to discover that the Russians were there first and had destroyed the bridge. However, the main Swedish army continued its southern advance to the Desna and the Ukraine, the homeland of General Ivan Mazeppa, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

There is a long and complicated history of Polish-Swedish contacts with Mazeppa that is not covered in this book. Appeals from the hetman for the Swedes to come to his aid had reached Karl XII. Mazeppa with 2,000 Cossacks arrived in the Swedish camp at Larinowka while preparations were being made to cross the Desna. The hetman also brought the news that General Menshikov was headed towards Mazeppa’s capital of Baturin.

The Swedes forced a crossing of the Desna on 2 November at Mezin against determined Russian resistance. They were too late to save Baturin, which was stormed by Menshikov’s troops on 3 November and burned to the ground to prevent its capture by the approaching Swedes. This was a serious setback for the Swedes who had hoped to capture its well-stocked magazines as compensation for the loss of Lewenhaupt’s wagon train.

The Swedish army went into winter quarters southeast of Baturin, but Tsar Peter was not about to allow the Swedes a restful stay. The coldest winter in Europe’s memory had now begun. It was in Peter’s interest to weaken the Swedes as much as possible during the winter, and they undertook what could be called hit-and-run tactics. They would appear to threaten a place but withdraw as soon as the Swedes approached. The Swedes captured some towns taken over by the Russians and drove the tsar out of his headquarters in Lebedin. Although the two armies had been within half of mile of each other at the town of Hadyach, Peter withdrew rather than face the Swedes. The winter campaign was meantime taking its toll on the Swedes, as many died or became incapacitated with frostbite. The cancellation of the Christmas services in 1708 because of the bitter cold was an unheard of event in the Swedish army. The Russians suffered even more and lost more men.

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