Battle of Lesnaya by Jean-Marc Nattier

Reviews Birth of the Russian Empire. Tenacious retreat of Sweden as a great power

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, p 29-31
Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 3, 2011

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In 2009, the three-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Poltava was marked in Sweden, Russia, and Ukraine. In addition to a Swedish-Russian anthology whose main focus was on the consequences of the battle for Sweden’s and Russia’s historical development and long-term relations, the tercentenary saw the publication of new literature about the course of military events. In addition to new source material, the latter studies benefited from unprecedented collaboration among Swedish, Russian, and Ukrainian scholars.

The prelude to the Battle of Poltava is the subject of Vägen till Poltava: Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708 [The road to Poltava: The battle of Lesnaya, 1708], written by Russian military historian Pavel Kono-valchuk and retired Swedish Brigadier Einar Lyth. In the foreword, the authors thank Professor Vladimir A. Artamonov of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and Russian-Ukrainian historian Valery A. Moltusov for their kind assistance, while Artamonov thanks Konovalchuk and Lyth for the same in the foreword to his book, Poltavskoye srazhenie: K 300 letiyu Poltavskoy pobedy [The engagement at Poltava: In commemoration of the tercentenary of the victory at Poltava]. Artamonov also thanks Bertil Wennerholm, who, along with Lyth, made significant editorial contributions to the presentation of Valery A. Moltusov’s Poltava 1709 — vändpunkten [Poltava, 1709: the turning point] to Swedish readers. Wennerholm, a former Swedish Air Force colonel, is a prominent expert on Caroline military history. His research on the Swedish standards captured at the Battle of Poltava has cast doubt on previously established beliefs about the size of the Swedish army and thus the number of fallen Swedish soldiers. According to Wennerholm, there were between 8,000 and 9,000 casualties, rather than the accepted figure of 6,900.

Finally, it must be said that Moltusov’s Poltava book is a reworked version of his 2002 master’s degree thesis at Moscow State University — for which Artamonov was his academic adviser!

Such is the intricacy of the interconnectedness of the various projects.

Another work that can be added to the circle of new Poltava studies is Pavel A. Krotov’s book, entitled Bitva pri Poltave: K 300-letnej godovsjtjinje [The Battle of Poltava: On the occasion of the 300th anniversary]. Krotov is a professor at Saint Petersburg State University, whose previous work includes studies of Peter the Great’s navy.

One problem confronting scholars studying Charles XII’s Russian campaign is that Swedish field records were lost after the battle. Given, however, that Charles XII, the absolute monarch of Sweden, was not in the habit of justifying his decisions to anyone, it is uncertain whether we would have known that much more about the plans for the Swedish campaign if the records had survived. But there is abundant contemporary source material preserved on the Russian side, which includes not only orders and reports, but also minutes of meetings of Peter I’s councils of war with his generals. The Tsar was wont to listen to his generals and compel them to argue in defense of their positions. Once the decisions had been made, they were also forced to sign the minutes along with the monarch so they would be unable to disclaim responsibility later. Even though the most important Russian documents from the campaign of 1708—1709 have been in print for at least a century, the Russian perspective has been surprisingly absent from Swedish scholarship. Karolinska förbundet (The Society for Research on the Swedish Caroline Age) made significant investments in order to translate Russian documents from the 1708—1709 campaign into Swedish. Nevertheless, interest in the project waned after World War I, and the documents that had been translated were published finally in the society’s 1933 yearbook. At that point, the project had not yet gotten as far as the actual Battle of Poltava.1

According to the interpretation brought out in Sweden by 19th century historians critical of Charles XII, such as Julius Mankell and Ernst Carlson, the battle in June 1709 was a desperate undertaking. The Swedes, who had laid siege to the city of Poltava in Ukraine, were weakened by starvation and disease and lacked ammunition. When Peter I arrived with a numerically strong relief army, the Swedes were aiming for a swift conclusion by means of a bold attack on the Russian camp, but Charles XII and Field Marshall Rehnskiöld had not clearly communicated the plan to their subordinates. Russian redoubts in the path of the advancing Swedish army came as a total surprise: the Swedish battle array was fragmented and the initiative lost. When Peter I’s superior forces moved out of their fortified camp and began to form battle lines for a counterattack, the Swedes were forced to stake everything on a single turn of the cards and attack. The Swedish onslaught was shattered in a downpour of artillery fire, the soldiers scattered, and it all ended in crushing defeat. The capitulation of the defeated army at Perevolochna
three days later was depicted as the logical conclusion to what had been a reckless military operation from the outset.2

After 1900, when nationalist currents in Swedish historical research led to more favorable estimations of Charles XII as king and military commander, Lund University professor Arthur Stille and Swedish general staff historian Carl Bennedich instead contended that the Swedes had voluntarily elected to fight at Poltava and had every prerequisite for victory, if only the king had not been wounded before the battle and forced to relinquish command to his less decisive generals. Despite the setback, the army had also been in good shape afterwards and the capitulation at Perevolochna was thus needless. Bennedich’s version, in which infantry commander General Lewenhaupt was assigned the lion’s share of blame for the defeat, went down in the official history of the General Staff and later influenced the accounts in Frans G. Bengtsson’s and Ragnild Hatton’s classic biographies of Charles XII.3 There was no reevaluation of the battle until Gustaf Petri’s essay in Karolinska Förbundets Årsbok of 1958, which revived Mankell’s and Carlson’s pessimistic assessments of Swedish prospects.4

Peter Englund’s The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire still bears traces of Bennedich’s account. Unlike Bennedich, Englund has no desire to heap encomiums on the warrior king, but still aims to keep the excitement alive for his readers, and thus describes the final engagement outside the Russian camp as a relatively open question. Here and there in the book, it is obvious that Englund’s text was based on the general staff history.5

How then do the recently published works on the Battle of Poltava relate to the earlier, traditional interpretations?

Peter I described the victory at Lesnaya in September 1708 as “the Mother of Poltava”. General Lewenhaupt — who had departed Riga in June with 13,000 soldiers and a supply convoy of 4,500 wagons, 1,000 pack horses, and 13,000 head of cattle — was meant to join Charles XII’s invading army, which had marched from Saxony, somewhere south of Smolensk. The plan might have been to use these supplies to mount an offensive against Moscow, where there were further stores available to prepare for the winter. Lewenhaupt was attacked by the Russians at Lesnaya in present-day Belarus, and when he was able to join the king two weeks later, all the supplies and half of his troops had been lost. In the classic manner, Konovalchuk and Lyth examine the commanders’ words and deeds, but also recreate the mundane concerns of war, with its marches and transports, its bread baking and foraging. Although much remains shrouded in mystery, no one has previously devoted this kind of scholarly effort to the logistical conditions of Charles XII’s Russian campaign. Lewenhaupt’s supply column had a theoretical length of 83 kilometers, but really was closer to 150 kilometers, we are told. It seems obvious that it was more or less impossible to protect it effectively. And it was hardly possible to exploit local resources to supply an invading army in these sparsely populated outlands of Europe, especially not when the Russians systematically laid waste to the land in the path of the Swedes. As a result, the Russian campaign of Charles XII was a highly doubtful enterprise from the start.

Konovalchuk and Lyth not only calculated wagon space and feed consumption, played war games, and climbed the terrain, they also made use of previously almost entirely neglected source material — records, found in the archives of the Justice Council in the Swedish National Archives, of interviews with 1,100 soldiers and officers who managed to get back to Swedish-controlled territory in the Baltic region after the Battle of Lesnaya. In order to clear themselves of suspicion of desertion, each and every man had to recount his experiences before a military tribunal in Riga. As with the Cathar village of Montaillou in French medieval historian Roy de Ladurie’s famous book of the 1970s, the Swedish Caroline army is brought to life through court records — a fascinating community that was at once multicultural and orthodox Lutheran, strictly hierarchical and Swedish egalitarian. The recounting of the thoughts and memories that may have crossed the minds of soldiers and officers on the morning of the day of battle — Michaelmas Day — with detailed descriptions of contemporary customs related to the holiday in various parts of Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic region — is beyond doubt one of the highlights of the book.

Lesnaya demonstrated that Peter I’s military reforms after his defeat by the Swedes at Narva in 1700 had begun to bear fruit. According to Artamonov, Menshikov’s victory at Kalisz, Poland, in the fall of 1706, must be regarded as an early turning point. The number of Swedish prisoners taken there — 2,600 — would not be exceeded until Poltava. The reorganized Russian cavalry in particular was a force to be reckoned with. The bulk of the lightning-fast “flying corps” (corps volant) that took Lewenhaupt by surprise at Lesnaya was made up of special dragoon regiments, which could not only fight on foot, but also brought their own mounted artillery. The Swedes had no mounted artillery, nor any mounted reconnaissance units comparable to the Russian Cossack units. The lack of cavalry and concomitant weak intelligence service explain much of the Swedish misfortune in Russia.

Peter I, however, felt healthy respect for the Swedes, and was unwilling to meet them on the open field without support from field fortifications. Accordingly, he ordered the building of the Naryshkin line — a fortification line of redoubts and abatis stretching a full 750 kilometers and laid the entire way from Pskov down to Sevsk at the outskirts of the steppes. Moltusov contends that the Naryshkin line contributed to Charles XII’s decision in the fall of 1708 to veer south and down into Ukraine instead of continuing via Smolensk along the main road to Moscow, the route that followed the wide Russian rivers Don and Dnieper, which both Napoleon and Hitler would later choose.

Field fortifications were also used on the battlefield at Poltava in the form of the ten famous redoubts southwest of the Russian camp. Unbeknownst to the Swedes, construction of the last four began the night before the battle. The position and formation of the redoubts is still an unresolved issue. The last remnants of them were torn down in 1817, and the sites marked with monuments on the terrain at the bicentennial commemoration in 1909 are incorrect, as far as can be judged. The question of whether the redoubts were grouped in a T or a V is essential to assessing the Russians’ intentions, and not merely a silly academic dispute. Saint Petersburg historian Pavel Krotov, whose aim is to shed light on the founder of his home city, Peter I, and the Tsar’s knowledge of classical and Byzantine military authors, speculates that the redoubts were built as a deliberate stratagem to splinter a Swedish attack. He thus supports the T-formation theory. Moltusov, who holds that the redoubts were built as a purely routine measure to protect the Russian camp against surprise attacks, is more inclined towards the V-formation. Whether or not the Russians had planned it, however, one third of the Swedish infantry — six battalions under the command of Major General Roos — became bogged down in a fruitless onslaught against the third of the four newly built redoubts. (Six battalions may sound insignificant, but it is noteworthy, by way of comparison, that the total battle force of today’s Swedish army is seven battalions!) After suffering heavy losses, Roos surrendered his command to a Russian detachment in a ravine south of the city. According to Moltusov, the detachment that accepted the capitulation had actually been dispatched to relieve the garrison in Poltava and happened to be in the area mainly by coincidence.

The rest of the Swedish army waited for two hours on the other side of the redoubt line for Roos’s battalions to join them. When the Russians were about to attack, the Swedes were finally forced to advance on the Russian camp. The element of surprise was utterly lost. The Caroline tactic of charging the enemy with edged weapons had worked against Russian troops before, but now the Russian army had another kind of confidence and an astounding mass of artillery — according to Krotov, a full 282 guns including the artillery on the redoubts. The Swedish army had four guns, none of which were used in the final battle. That the Swedish cannons were left behind had to do with the need for speed and surprise. The Russian tactic of dominating through superior firepower seems, at least in hindsight, more modern and forward-looking than the Swedish tactic of subduing the enemy by charging with swords.

The enormous Russian firestorm unleashed over the Swedes in the final stages of the battle makes Krotov skeptical of the accepted wisdom that the Royal Swedish Life Guard — broken down and routed before the attack — nevertheless managed to break through the Russian front line. Krotov also doubts the notion that the Tsar personally commanded the Novgorod regiment in the famous counterattack that is supposed to have pushed back the Swedish Life Guard. No such feat on the part of the Tsar is mentioned in the original dispatches from the battle: the story was told for the first time in the 1750s by Russian historian Pyotr Kryokshin. Artamonov, who like Moltusov has faith in the report, objects that the original victory bulletins were extremely laconic and that Peter I would hardly have found Swedish bullets in his scarf after the battle if he had not personally fought on the front line.

In other words, there are still things about Poltava open to debate. In their remarks on Moltusov’s book, Lyth and Wennerholm list additional unresolved issues.

Old-fashioned patriotic tones sometimes ring through in Artamonov’s book — especially when the Ukrainian Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa, who chose to collaborate with the invading Swedes, comes up. It is easy to see why the publication of the work was granted financial support from the state program for the “patriotic education of the citizens of the Russian Federation”. Still, no one can deny that Artamonov is one of the foremost authorities on Russian military history of the epoch and that he fully understands both the Russian and Swedish source material on the Russian campaign of Charles XII. To some extent, his judgmental evaluations of Mazepa are part of a polemic against certain Ukrainian historians who have chosen in recent years to describe the events of 1708—1709 in an at least equally patriotic context. However, the close collaboration now established among scholars in different countries provides hope that further advances are possible. Broad consensus prevails among the authors that the battle became a turning point in the Great Northern War and laid the foundations for the Russian Empire. But here as well, there is latitude for gradations of meaning. The war continued for another eleven years. The Swedish Empire put two additional armies together after this original army had been lost down in Ukraine. Caroline Sweden thus proved surprisingly tenacious, even after an unimaginable military disaster like the one at Poltava. ≈


  1. “Valda handlingar rörande fälttåget i Ryssland Juli—Oktober 1708: Svensk öfversättning ur dokument till Stora nordiska krigets historia utgifna av kejserliga ryska krigshistoriska sällskapet” [Select documents relating to the campaign in Russia from July to October 1708: Swedish translation of documents about the history of the Great Northern War published by the Imperial Russian Military Historical Society], Karolinska Förbundets Årsbok 1932—1933, Lund 1933.
  2. Julius Mankell, “Om Karl XII såsom fältherre, jemte en öfversigt af de strategiska grunddragen af hans fälttåg” [On Charles XII as commander, and review of the strategic elements of his campaign], in Kungl. krigsvetenskapsakademiens Handlingar och Tidskrift [The proceedings and journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences] 1867; Ernst Carlson, “Slaget vid Poltava och dess krigshistoriska förutsättningar enligt samtida förutsättningar” [The Battle of Poltava and its military historical conditions according to contemporary conditions], in Historiska studier: Festskrift tillägnad Carl Gustaf Malmström den 2 november 1897 [Historical studies: Festschrift for Carl Gustaf Malmström, 2 November, 1897], Stockholm 1897. 
  3. Ragnhild M. Hatton, Charles XII of Sweden, London 1968; Frans G. Bengtsson, Karl XII:s levnad 1—2, Stockholm 1935—1936; an abridged English translation: The Sword Does Not Jest: The Heroic Life of King Charles XII of Sweden, New York 1960.
  4. Arthur Stille, Carl XII:s fälttågsplaner 1707—1709 [Charles XII of Sweden’s campaign plans 1707—1709], Lund 1908; Carl Bennedich, “Poltava”, in Nordisk familjebok: Konversationslexikon och realencyklopedi [Nordic family book: encyclopedia], Stockholm 1915; Swedish General Staff, Karl XII på slagfältet: Karolinsk slagordning sedd mot bakgrund av slagtaktikens utveckling från alla äldsta tider [Charles XII on the battlefield: Caroline battle array in light of the evolution of battle tactics from the earliest times], Stockholm 1918; Gustaf Petri, “Slaget vid Poltava” [the Battle of Poltava], Karolinska Förbundets Årsbok 1958.
  5. In particular, compare Swedish General Staff, Karl XII på slagfältet [Charles XII on the battlefield], pp. 852—857, with chapter 17 of Englund, The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire, London 2003.


Pavel Konovalchuk & Einar Lyth, Vägen till Poltava, Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708 [The road to Poltava: The battle of Lesnaya, 1708] Svenskt militärhistoriskt bibliotek Stockholm 2009, 249 pages + Vladimir A. Artamonov
Poltavskoye srazhenie K 300 letiyu Poltavskoy pobedy [The engagement at Poltava: In commemoration of the tercentenary of the victory at Poltava] MPPA BIMPBA , Moscow 2009, 640 pages + Valery A. Moltusov Poltava 1709 — vändpunkten [Poltava, 1709: 
the turning point] Svenskt militärhistoriskt bibliotek, Stockholm 2010, 213 pages + Pavel A. Krotov, Bitva pri Poltave K 300-letnej godovsjtjinje [The Battle of Poltava:
 On the occasion of the 300th anniversary] Istoricheskaya Illyustratsiya, Saint Petersburg 2009, 397 pages

  • Joacim Nieminen

    Just a word on this article, which was very interesting indeed. Please, use the correct term for the Swedish Army of Carl XII – it is Carolean and not Caroline. The Swedish term is ”Karoliner”. A mark of words but Caroline sounds so wrong!

  • Alex P.

    Thank you for this excellent summary of the historiography of Charles XII's Russian campaign, especially regarding how this event was so distorted by the analyses of various nationalist historians. As a student of the Great Northern War, I greatly appreciate it!

Pavel Konovalchuk & Einar Lyth, Vägen till Poltava, Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708 [The road to Poltava: The battle of Lesnaya, 1708] Svenskt militärhistoriskt bibliotek Stockholm 2009, 249 pages + Vladimir A. Artamonov Poltavskoye srazhenie K 300 letiyu Poltavskoy pobedy [The engagement at Poltava: In commemoration of the tercentenary of the victory at Poltava] MPPA BIMPBA , Moscow 2009, 640 pages

+ Valery A. Moltusov Poltava 1709 — vändpunkten [Poltava, 1709: the turning point] Svenskt militärhistoriskt bibliotek, Stockholm 2010, 213 pages

+ Pavel A. Krotov, Bitva pri Poltave K 300-letnej godovsjtjinje [The Battle of Poltava: On the occasion of the 300th anniversary] Istoricheskaya Illyustratsiya, Saint Petersburg 2009, 397 pages