Karl XII – The Baltic and Saxon Campaigns II

The planned pursuit of Peter the Great was contingent upon first having knocked Augustus out of the war, and the failure to do so upset the plans. There was no way the Swedes could move against the Russians with a full-strength Polish-Saxon army in their rear or flank. The Swedes spent the rest of the year securing Courland and Swedish Livonia. The Saxons abandoned the forts of Kokenhausen and Kobron without a fight, but they had to be forcibly ejected from Dünamunde. The main Swedish army took up positions in Courland from which they could foil any Saxon attempt to link up with the Russians, and which were also centrally located for the defense of the northern territories. It was also a good location for the receipt of reinforcements and supplies from Sweden.

Swedish relations with the maritime powers were soured by English, Dutch, and Prussian suspicions that Sweden’s intent was to incorporate Courland into their empire, despite Swedish assurances to the contrary. In fact such a step was on the long-term Swedish calendar. The Swedes also launched an expedition against Archangel on the White Sea but it failed and the Swedes accused the Dutch of revealing their plans.

Naively, Karl XII was drawn into the complicated politics and internal squabbles in Poland. Up to now Karl XII had basically fought Augustus as the elector of Saxony, but now that he had withdrawn his army into Poland the Swedes were presented with a problem. Cardinal Michael Stephan Radiejowki, the Primate of Poland, wrote a letter to Karl XII at the request of Augustus, warning the king not to enter Poland. Letters were also received from Poles of the opposite opinion, primarily James Sobieski who lived in exile in Silesia after his unsuccessful attempt to gain the Polish crown in 1697.

The idea of Augustus’ dethronement and his replacement by Sobieski originated at the Swedish Chancery. The chancellor had raised this with the king on several occasions. Karl XII therefore proposed that the Poles be told that if they wanted to get rid of Augustus, Sweden would help. This went too far for the diplomats who wanted the Poles to sort out their own affairs. They urged caution in dealing with Polish groups.

For Karl XII’s military campaign against both Augustus and Peter the Great, it was important to get this issue settled without waiting for the slow diplomatic route. He therefore answered the Polish Primate’s letter by coming out in the open with his demand that the Poles dethrone Augustus, unwisely promising he would not enter Poland until an answer was received. The king did not realize—as he admitted—that Radiejowski would make the letter public in preparation for the Diet in December 1701.

In the long run what Karl XII had done made little difference. His dilemma was that he could not undertake a campaign against Russia with an undefeated Augustus in his rear. Karl XII felt he had the blessings of the chancery, but admitted that he should not have put the dethronement demand on paper.

The answer to Karl XII’s July letter to the Polish Primate did not arrive until the middle of October, and it turned down his suggestion and warned against any encroachment of Polish territory. The war against Saxony had now also become a war against Poland, because Augustus had sought sanctuary in that country and the Poles were not willing to expel him. Karl XII was furious but it was too late in the year to do anything about it and this was probably the reason for the three-month delay in the Polish answer.

Russian forces were also going into action against Swedish territory in the north, destroying Swedish hopes of keeping the war away from their provinces. Colonel (later General) Anton von Schlippenbach had been left to defend Livonia with 7,000 troops. Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev fought an indecisive battle with Schlippenbach near Dorpat. Each side suffered about 1,000 casualties but the Russians captured 350 Swedes that were sent to Moscow. This caused great joy in a city used to being constantly defeated by the Swedes.

The Russians, under Sheremetev, administered a severe defeat to Schlippenbach at Hummelsh of six months later (18 July 1702). The Swedes were virtually annihilated—2,500 casualties from a total force of 5,000. An additional 300 were captured while the Russian losses were placed at 800. The virtual destruction of Schlippenbach’s army left Livonia wide open to the Russians except for a few garrisons in the main cities. Sheremetev’s army had free reign in the Swedish province. The savage Kalmuk and Cossack cavalry moved at will through Livonia laying the countryside waste, burning villages, and taking thousands of civilian prisoners.

Among the captives was a 17-year old peasant girl named Martha Shavronska who was not sent to work on the Azov fortifications as the others. Instead she begun an amazing “career” as a concubine, first to Sheremetev, then to Menshikov, and finally to Peter the Great himself who married her in 1707 and crowned her Empress Catherine I of Russia.

The Russians also took control of Lake Ladoga and Lake Peipus south of Narva. Finally, they captured the Swedish fort of Nöteborg at the southern end of Lake Ladoga where it connects with the Neva River. The fort controlled the trade from the Baltic to the Russian interior via a network of rivers. Nöteborg, with a small garrison of only 450, was captured after a 10-day siege on 22 October 1702, and renamed Schlüsselburg. The whole length of the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland was occupied, and Peter founded a city at the mouth of that river named St. Petersburg.

Despite holding the military advantage for the next five years and winning every engagement, Karl XII was unable to achieve final victory. He became mired in the same wars and political maneuvering as his predecessors. When his campaigns are reduced to lines on a map, it looks like a spider’s web of maneuvering. The Swedes being mired down in Poland and Lithuania was like a gift on a silver platter for the Russians. It gave Peter the Great seven precious years between the defeat at Narva and the Swedish invasion to rebuild and strengthen his army. He also did his best to keep the Swedes mired down by generous subsidies to factions opposed to Karl XII, even entering into an alliance with Lithuania in 1702.

Karl XII marched on Warsaw in 1702 and occupied it on 14 May with no opposition. Then he marched westward seeking out Augustus, who had finally reappeared to defend his crown. The armies met in the battle of Klissow. The Swedes were outnumbered almost two to one, with their army consisting of 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. Opposing them in strong positions difficult to assault were 7,500 Saxon infantry, 9,000 Saxon cavalry, and 6,000 Polish cavalry. Almost all the Swedish artillery was behind struggling through the mud to keep up with the army. There were only four guns available at the start of the battle. The Saxons had 46 guns.

After viewing the Saxon positions, Karl XII changed his battle deployment by thinning out his center and right to mount a risky envelopment of the Saxon right. The weakened Swedish center and right were barely able to repulse heavy assaults while the envelopment was in progress. Eventually, the Swedes fell on the Saxon right flank as the center and right moved forward to pin down the troops to their front. The Saxons were hopelessly caught in a pincer and forced back on the marshland in their rear. When it was all over the Swedes entered the enemy camp. They had lost 300 killed and about 500 wounded. The Saxons had about 2,000 killed and 1,000 captured. One of those killed on the Swedish side was Karl’s brother-in-law, Fredrik IV, the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. Augustus escaped by fleeing through the swampy marshland.

The next substantial engagement with the Saxon army came about a year later, in June 1703, at Pultusk. After a rapid forced march the Swedes pounced on the surprised Saxons and scattered their army. Karl XII chose not to pursue but laid siege to the nearby fortress of Thorn, which Augustus had garrisoned with 6,000 of his best infantry. When Karl proposed to storm the fortress with only 600 men, his officers protested. At that time Karl XII is alleged to have uttered these words: Where my soldiers are, there also will I be. As for Sweden, I should be no great loss to her, for she has had little profit out of me hitherto. He was persuaded not to undertake the reckless attack, and the army settled down to a six-month siege. It was successful in the end and cost only 50 Swedish casualties. In addition to the garrison, the booty included 84 cannons and 1,000 stands of arms. The walls of the fort were razed and the city had to pay a contribution of 60,000 riks-dollars. The following year the Swedes, through excellent use of their cavalry, produced another victory at Ponitz.

Karl XII was still fixed on destroying Augustus and his influence in Poland. His pacification campaign went on to capture Cracow and Poznan, and Ebling was occupied in 1704. In July that year Karl saw to it that his candidate, Stanislaw Leszynski was elected king of Poland and Lithuania.

Since Karl did not have sufficient forces to also effectively counter the Russians in the far north, they were allowed to pick off Swedish possessions one at a time. Dorpat was captured in July 1705 and Narva the following month. All the Swedish inhabitants of Narva were massacred by the Russians. A Russian army under Scottish General George Ogilvie occupied Courland in 1705 but avoided any major engagement with Karl XII. The Swedish king chased the Russians out of Lithuania but halted when he reached Pinsk in July 1706.

The Swedish cavalry had proven a decisive arm in several battles, and the best example is the Battle of Fraustadt on February 3, 1706. At this time Karl XII was besieging the fortress of Grondo where Ogilvie had been forced to retreat with his whole army corps. Peter was determined that Grondo be held, otherwise the road into Russia would be open to the Swedes. Ogilvie was ordered to withdraw from Grondo by the tsar after the news of Fraustadt. After he threw all his guns into the river Ogilvie managed to escape from Grondo in the direction of Kiev through the Pripet Marshes as ordered.

General Rehnskiöld had been left behind to secure Poland. Tsar Peter implored Augustus to make a diversionary attack in the west to relieve the pressure on Grondo. To accommodate his ally, Augustus crossed the Oder with 15,000 troops while the Saxon General Johann Matthias von Schulenburg with 20,000–30,000 men, composed of Russians and Saxons, approached from the west simultaneously. Augustus was so sure of victory that he sent his minister to Berlin to request that Prussia not provide a safe refuge for the escaping Swedes.

General Rehnskiöld had only 8,000 men, mostly cavalry, and he was therefore heavily outnumbered by both Augustus and Schulenburg. He could not let them join and decided to strike at the stronger force under Schulenburg. Despite being outnumbered by more than three to one, he attacked the Saxons and Russians in strong positions, deliberately chosen to resist the feared Swedish cavalry by being anchored on two villages. Attacking at full gallop, the Swedes put the Saxon cavalry on the wings to flight. They then pressed in on the center in a double envelopment while the Swedish infantry attacked the center. The result was disastrous for the Saxons. Of the combined Saxon-Russian army of 30,000,50 eighty percent were killed or captured. Those killed were estimated at 7,000–8,000. The Russians who were captured were massacred, undoubtedly in revenge for the Russian massacre of Swedish civilians at Narva.

Augustus did not try his own luck against the Swedes, and withdrew his army. Karl XII was so impressed by Rehnskiöld’s victory that he immediately promoted him to field marshal.

Peter the Great was furious and worried. Portions of a letter he wrote to his Foreign Minister Fedor Golovin are quoted by Massie:

All the Saxon army has been beaten by Rehnskjold and has lost all its artillery. The treachery and cowardice of the Saxons are now plain: 30,000 men beaten by 8,000! The cavalry, without firing a single round, ran away. More than half of the infantry, throwing down their muskets, disappeared, leaving our men alone, not half of whom, I think, are now alive … By giving money [to Augustus] we have only brought ourselves misfortune … .

After the Blenheim and Ramillies campaigns (1704–1706) the maritime powers appeared to have the upper hand in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Karl XII felt they would no longer be sensitive to a Swedish invasion of Saxony. The maritime powers were also worried about the possibility of an alliance between Saxony and Prussia. William III sent John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to Berlin to dissuade King Frederick I by threats, bribes, and promises alike to convince the king to prepare to fight France.

Karl XII decided to strike at Saxony, and the Swedish army crossed the border into Silesia on 22 August 1706. They were greeted as liberators by Protestant Silesians. By the time the Swedes reached the Saxon border a state of panic existed in the electorate. Augustus and his family fled in various directions. The Saxon governing council, empowered to govern in Augustus’ absence, resolved not to fight. They were war weary after losing 36,000 of their troops trying to keep Augustus on the Polish throne. The primary cities such as Leipzig and Dresden were quickly occupied without resistance, and Karl XII dictated his terms to the Saxons at his headquarters in Altranstädt Castle.

The main terms were simple and the Saxons accepted them in the Treaty of Altranstädt, signed on 13 October 1706:

Total and permanent abdication by Augustus of his claim to the Polish crown.

Augustus’ recognition of Stanislaw as the king of Poland.

Saxony to break its alliance with Russia.

Surrender to the Swedes all Swedish nationals in Saxon service or prisoners.

Saxony to pay all the costs of the Swedish army wintering in Saxony.

At age twenty-four the Swedish king was at the apex of his career. In six years of continuous campaigns against Danes, Saxons, Poles, and Russians he had never lost a battle, and his reputation in Europe had never stood higher. But he had also spent six years that proved precious to Russia. Karl XII now settled down for the winter while contemplating his next moves.


Karl XII and his army spent the winter of 1706–1707 and much of the following year in well-deserved rest in Saxony at the expense of their former enemy. In an unbroken string of victories Karl XII had eliminated two of the three enemies ranged against Sweden in the Great Nordic War—Denmark and Saxony. However, Russia still remained, and the Swedish king was deter mined to deal with that power next. The Swedes also did not sit idle in Saxony. They were constantly drilling, and reinforcements were arriving in preparation for the next campaign.

Two events during Karl XII’s stay in Saxony are worth mentioning. The appearance of the Swedish army in the heart of Germany sent earthquakelike tremors through Europe. During the winter of 1706–1707, numerous emissaries arrived in Saxony trying to divine Karl XII’s intentions now that he was only some 300 kilometers from the Rhine. Louis XIV proposed an alliance that would tip the European balance in his favor. The two countries would then divide the German states between them. Silesia begged the Swedes to remain and defend them against the Empire. Karl went so far as threatening to march on Vienna if the Lutherans in Silesia were not granted religious freedom. Voltaire reports that Emperor Joseph is alleged to have commented to a representative of the Pope who was angry at the effrontery of the Swedish king: You may think yourself happy that the King of Sweden did not propose to make me a Lutheran; for if he had, I do not know what I might have done.

The most famous emissary was John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722). The maritime powers were anxious not to have Karl XII align himself with France, and, judging from the instructions Marlborough had received before he set out on his mission, to prevent such an eventuality they were willing to go far.

The two-day meeting between the two most successful generals of the age tells one much about the difference in their personalities. Marlborough, commander-in-chief of British forces, showed up splendidly attired. Karl XII appeared in the same blue coat he always wore.

Karl XII told Marlborough that he had his hands full in dealing with Russia, a war he expected to last two years. He had no desire to be the arbiter of Europe. It appears Marlborough agreed to support Sweden with respect to its problems both with Denmark and the Empire, to recognize Stanislaw as king of Poland, and guarantee the Treaty of Altrastädt. Marlborough, an experienced diplomat as well as general, was careful not to put his promises on paper, thereby affording him some deniability when it came to his assurances concerning Stanislaw and Altrastädt, items that would not sit well with his allies, especially the Dutch. His mission was judged a success since he had assured himself, after discussions with Karl XII and some of his officers, and stealing a glance at a map the Swedish king either intentionally or inadvertently left on his desk, that the Swedes would be busy with the Russians for the next two years and had no intention to involve themselves in affairs in the west. Karl XII had asked that a document detailing what had been agreed to be provided. Such a document was delivered to the king after he had left Saxony.

The alarm in the west was somewhat, but not totally, put to rest. If the Swedes were quickly victorious, as was expected, there was nothing to prevent them from turning west and dictating terms to both sides.


That Peter the Great was worried when he became convinced that Karl XII would invade Russia, and that he would be left to face him alone, is best illustrated by his feverish search for allies and the massive peace offensive he launched. As most accounts of the peace offensive differ to some extent.

Peter’s peace offer eventually included the return of Dorpat, Livonia, and Estonia with the exceptions that he wanted to retain Schlusselburg, the Neva river valley, St. Petersburg, Narva, and Reval. This was totally unacceptable to Karl XII. While some members of the Riksdag and the administration in Stockholm urged acceptance as they had done with respect to earlier peace offers from Augustus, the king politely refused. He viewed it as only “kicking the can down the road,” not the permanent solution he was seeking.

In his peace offensive, the Russian tsar approached both sides in the War of the Spanish Succession, first the maritime powers and the Empire. He promised to provide 30,000 troops for their fight against France if they could convince Sweden to accept his peace offer. The Dutch did not reply to his request and he thereupon approached Denmark and Prussia. The attempt to get these countries involved failed. He then approached France, promising to provide troops for use against the Empire, the Netherlands, and England if they could mediate a peace. Louis XIV accepted, but his offer of mediation was politely refused by the Swedish king, who stated that the Russians could not be trusted to keep their promises.

Peter’s final attempt, which had begun before 1707, was to seek the help of England. For this purpose he was willing to give huge bribes to Marlborough and others—even though, due to his enormous wealth, he was skeptical of Marlborough accepting a bribe. The English duke nevertheless arranged for the Russian emissary to travel to London and meet Queen Anne. The queen told the Russian that, provided that her current allies Holland and the Empire agreed, she was prepared to make an alliance with Russia through it becoming a member of the Grand Alliance. Marlborough kept Russian hopes alive by promising to use his influence with the Dutch. This was at the same time that Marlborough had his two-day meeting with the Swedish king and made the promises mentioned earlier in this chapter.

English duplicity went even further according to Massie. A Russian ambassador-at-large in Europe, Heinrich von Huyssen, claimed that a different approach to Marlborough was under consideration. The Duke had said that he would be willing to arrange English help for Russia in return for a substantial Russian gift of money and land for him personally. Peter, when informed, said Marlborough could have any one of three fiefs and 50,000 ducats per year for life. Nothing came of this offer.

Tsar Peter also sought the support of the Empire for a new candidate for the Polish throne. His suggested candidates included James Sobieski, the son of the former king, Eugène of Savoy, and finally Francis Rakoczy. Sobieski declined and the emperor, wary of offending Karl XII, made the excuse that Eugène was preparing for another campaign and therefore not available. Rakoczy did accept but only on condition that the Polish Diet make a request for him.

Karl XII’s principal subordinates had assumed that the Swedish army would proceed north to retake the territories seized by the Russians. When they learned the king’s real intent, Bain reports that they all objected except for Field Marshal Rehnskiöld.

The Swedish army was ready for its greatest test in mid-August 1707. In the late afternoon of 27 August 1707, Karl XII himself rode out of Altrastädt to catch up to his main army which had already departed. Accompanied by only seven officers he detoured and rode into Dresden, the enemy capital, to pay a surprise visit to his cousin Augustus. Surprise was achieved; the Swedish king found his relative in his dressing gown. Quickly donning something more appropriate, the two relatives embraced before taking a ride along the Elbe. Now that Augustus had been punished, Karl harbored no ill feelings. He also visited his aunt, Augustus’ mother. It was the last time he would see either.

The king’s foray into the enemy capital practically alone gave his subordinates a sense of alarm at his recklessness. They told the king that they were ready to besiege Dresden had he been made a prisoner. The next day Augustus held an unscheduled council meeting in Dresden. This led Baron Henning von Stralenheim, a Swedish diplomat in the field with the king, to comment to Karl XII: You see they are deliberating upon what they should have done yesterday. We don’t know what caused the king to make the detour to Dresden; it appears to have been a sudden impulse to see his relatives.

The Best Mods for Pike & Shot: Campaigns: Great Northern War – Narva, Poltava, Lesnaya, Jakobstadt, Kliszow, Holowzyn, Duna, Warsaw, Systerback, Fraustadt, Poniec, Gemauerhof

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