MIGHTY HISTORY

The punk kid who couldn't stop beating Russia

Prince Charles ascended to the Swedish throne in 1697 at the age of 15 as Sweden, then one of the most powerful countries in the world, was beset on all sides by enemies and rivals that began attacking early into his reign. Unfortunately for them, the new King Charles XII just couldn't stop winning battles, even when severely outnumbered.


Swedish King Charles XII led a series of successful counter invasions after his country was attacked by a three-way alliance anchored on Peter the Great.

(David von Krafft)

Charles's forebears had built Sweden into a massive country for the time, consisting of modern-day Sweden, Finland, and Estonia as well as sections of Russia, Latvia, Norway, and Germany. By the time that Charles XII ascended, some small sections had been lost, especially in Norway, but Sweden still had a firm grip on the Baltic Sea.

Meanwhile, Russia wanted a year-round port on that sea, and the Tsar Peter the Great created an alliance with the Frederick IV of Denmark-Norway and Augustus II of Saxony and Poland-Lithuania. This three-way alliance mustered the power of six nations and marched on Sweden with the belief that support for the young king was weak and the nobility would rebel in case of armed conflict.

They were wrong. The Swedish people rallied around their young king in 1700 at the beginning of the invasion, and Charles XII marched with his men to meet the threat. The first two attacks came from Poland-Lithuania and then Denmark-Norway, but both were weak and easily beat back, and Frederick IV was knocked out of the war.

The true threat would come that November when Peter the Great marched on Livonia, a Swedish province that bordered Poland-Lithuania and Russia.

It's important to note here that Sweden's armed forces were the envy of much of Europe. Their army was known for discipline, and the navy was highly capable. But the Russian and Polish-Lithuanian forces arrived first and laboriously dug into the frozen ground to prepare for a siege.

But Charles the XII, riding high after his battlefield success against Danish troops, sailed to Narva and prepared to attack despite the freezing cold. Some of his father's top advisers pushed hard against that plan. Swedish forces would be outnumbered 4 to 1 while fighting against a dug-in force.

Peter the Great, certain that Charles XII wouldn't attack until his men could rest and refit from their long movement, left the battlefield to attend to other matters of state. Charles XII, meanwhile, figured his 10,000 men would perform just as well now, tired from their long march from the coast, as they would after weeks of "resting" in the snow and ice.

So, near the end of November (November 30 by our modern calendar, but the 19th or 20th by calendars in use at the time), Charles XII ordered his men into formation for an assault despite a blizzard that was blowing snow into his own men's faces.

The advisers, again, begged Charles to back off. But then the winds shifted. For some number of minutes, the Russians and their allies would be blind while the wind was at the Swedish back. Despite the string of questionable decisions leading up to this point, he was now in perfect position to crush the primary rival attempting to break up his empire.

His men attacked, appearing like ghosts in the wind-driven snow. They fired their weapons at close range and then dived into Russian trenches, fighting bayonet against saber for control of the battlefield.

The Battle of Narva in 1700 saw Swedish forces break Russian lines despite being horribly outnumbered.

(Alexander Kotzebue)

The Russians and their allies, despite outnumbering the Swedes 4 to 1, were driven from their defenses and fled east, attempting to ford a swollen, freezing river or cross one bridge near the battlefield which collapsed under the weight of the retreating forces.

Charles XII had broken Russia's only major force, seized much of its supplies, and was well-positioned to invade the motherland before Peter could raise a new force. But instead, Charles XII wintered in Livonia and then pushed south into Poland-Lithuania, quickly driving Augustus II into Saxony, allowing Charles to name his own puppet to the Polish-Lithuanian crown.

In six years of war, Charles XII had won nearly every engagement, had knocked one of Russia's allies out of power and crippled the second, and had forced Peter the Great to rebuild his broken army from scratch.

But all of this success had gone to the young king's head. It was 1706, and he was now 24 and the power behind the throne of a large kingdom that bordered his own empire. Charles XII struck north with all the bravado that the early successes could muster in his young soul.

But while he was marching to victory in Poland, Peter the Great had been battling Swedish generals to the north, winning more than he lost and cutting through the Baltic provinces to create St. Petersburg on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Peter had his port and offered to give everything else back if he could keep it. Charles XII declined and headed north to re-take his coastline.

But Charles had been so successful against Russia in 1700 thanks to a bit of luck and the high discipline of Swedish troops against less experienced and drilled conscripts. By 1706, Peter had a large core of battle-hardened troops that were real rivals for Swedish forces, and he would exploit most any mistake Charles XII would make.

A portrait of Peter the Great.

(Paul Delaroche)

Charles XII marched on Russia, and his initial thrusts were even more successful than his first forays against Russian forces. His men would hit Russian lines before the troops could even dig in, forcing Peter to pull back faster and faster.

But Peter was secretly cool with this. Remember, he just wanted to keep his fort, and he was steadily fortifying it as his men withdrew. Swedish advisers still thought they could take St. Petersburg, but it would be a hard-fought thing by the time they arrived.

But Charles would reach even further, overreaching by far. He marched against Moscow instead. The advisers begged him not to do so. It was impossible, they thought.

Peter launched a destructive defense just like Russians would do for generations after him, stopping invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. They burned bridges behind them, sent horsemen to harry the Swedish attackers, and waited for the cold to drain Swedish strength.

Peter began picking good ground to defend, but the Swedish king was still successful in battle after battle. At Grodno, Holowczyn, Neva, Malatitze, and Rajovka, Swedish forces were victorious despite often fighting outnumbered both in terms of total men and artillery strength. Some of these, like at Holowczyn and Malatitze, were decisive victories where Sweden inflicted thousands of casualties while only suffering hundreds of their own.

But Peter the Great had traded space for time. Sweden was racking up tactical victories, but his men lacked sufficient supplies as the Russian winter set in, and this was the Great Frost of 1709, the coldest winter in 500 years of European history.

Russian forces smashed Swedish troops at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.

(Louis Caravaque)

Both sides lost forces to the cold, but disease and starvation took out over half of Charles XII's army. Charles tried supporting a revolution by Cossacks in Ukraine to gain more troops and supplies there, but it failed, and Peter was able to pen Charles XII in, cutting him off from Swedish lines of re-supply.

At the Battle of Poltava, Charles XII tried to conduct a siege without artillery and with only 18,000 men ready to fight. Peter arrived at the fort with 80,000 men. Charles XII, unable to walk or ride because of a shot to his foot during the siege, ordered an attack anyway.

Charles was nearly captured during the fight, narrowly rescued by a Swedish major who sacrificed himself to save the king. 14,000 Swedish soldiers were captured, and Charles XII barely escaped to the Ottoman Empire, a historical rival of Russia. Charles would overstay his welcome here.

While he was stuck, Norway and Poland began war against Sweden once again, and Prussia and England joined the fray. Charles XII was killed in the trenches near Frederiksten in 1718, in some ways the victim of his own early success as a boy-king. Sweden would see its territory chipped away, much of it lost in 1720.