The Battle of Holowczyn or Holofzin or Golovchin was fought between the Russian army, led by Field Marshal Boris Sheremetyev, and the Swedish army, led by Charles XII of Sweden, only 26 years of age at the time. Despite difficult natural obstacles and superior enemy artillery, the Swedes were able to achieve surprise and defeat the numerically superior Russian forces. Reportedly it was Charles' favorite victory.
After dealing with Saxony-Poland, Charles was ready to take on his remaining enemy in the Great Northern War: Russia. The best route into the Russian heartland was along the continental divide from Grodno to Minsk and Smolensk. From there, Moscow could be reached without having to cross any major rivers. Charles chose instead a straighter – but more difficult – route, over the Berezina and Drut rivers. The army was moved from its winter camp near Radoszkowice in June 1708; the movement was plagued by poor road conditions and weather.
The unexpected choice of route made the Russians unsure of the Swedish intentions. In addition, with Peter I of Russia away the Field Marshal Boris Sheremetyev had to contend with the rivalry of Aleksander Menshikov. After a council of war, it was decided to draw the Russian defence line by the Dnieper River. In June and July the army was moved piecemeal towards Vabich, a marshy tributary of the Drut river.
The main force of the Russian army was deployed around the village of Vasilki, east and across the Vabich from Holowczyn. The bridges across Vabich were fortified and defended with artillery. To the south, General Anikita Repnin deployed his force and fortified his position three kilometers to the southeast. Between the two fortified camps lay marshy territory that could not be fortified.
The Swedes had observed the Russian deployment along the Vabich. Starting on the 30'th of June, Swedish regiments started bivouacking on the heights west of Holowczyn. Charles and his followers noticed the gap in the fortifications, and decided on a plan of attack. Crossing the marshy area between the two Russian camps would not only be an unsuspected move, but would also serve to divide the enemy force in two. To ensure success, the attack was to be carried out in the darkness of night.
At midnight on the 4th of July the Swedes started moving quietly towards the river. Infantry carried fascines to help them traverse the waterlogged ground before crossing the Vabich on leather pontoon bridges. However, heavy rainfall made the pontoons too heavy to carry; they were left behind. At 2:30 the Russian alarm was raised as Swedish artillery started bombarding the opposite river bank. Swedish success would depend on how many troops could cross the river without the aid of pontoons before the enemy forces could arrive. Charles as so often led the charge personally, by wading across the water in front of his men. After forming with difficulty on the boggy far bank, the Swedes began to advance through the marsh. Meanwhile, fascines were laid on the river banks to assist the cavalry's crossing. Both the engineers and the Swedish vanguard began to be targeted by Repnin's artillery.
General Repnin soon saw the danger of a Swedish wedge forming between the two Russian positions, and ordered his men to decamp and head north toward Sheremetyev. Five Swedish battalions fought hard to prevent the Russian regiments from merging. Sheremetyev, hearing the sound of battle, dispatched reinforcements towards Repnin's position, but by now enough Swedish forces had arrived to prevent these reinforcements from joining Repnin. The latter was forced to retire his forces eastwards and southwards. Swedish cavalry by now had followed the infantry across the river, and scattered their Russian counterparts towards the south.
At this point, Sheremetyev's forces were still waiting across the river from Holowczyn. They had been on full alert for hours, in the belief that the attack on Repnin was a feint and expecting the main Swedish attack to come from Holowczyn. Finally, Sheremetev took the initiative to attack the almost undefended Swedish camp to the west. However, when news of the Repnin's setback reached Sheremetev, he decided not to wait for a Swedish attack on his rear, but instead began retreating towards Shklov by the Dnieper.
The victory provided the Swedes with a defensive line along the Dnieper and the area around Mogilev could be used as a base of operations in their campaign against Russia. However, since so many of the Russian troops were able to escape it was not a decisive strategic victory.
- Liljegren, B "Karl XII: En Biografi", 2000, p. 156
- Ericson, Lars (ed) (2003) (in Swedish). Svenska slagfält. Wahlström & Widstrand. p. 280. ISBN 91-46-21087-3.
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- Cooper, Leonard (1968). Many Roads to Moscow: Three Historic Invasions. London: Hamish Hamilton. p. 42. ISBN 0-241-01574-X.
- Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire, 1682- 1719 - R. Nisbet Bain
- Ericson, Lars (ed) (2003) (in Swedish). Svenska slagfält. Wahlström & Widstrand. p. 286. ISBN 91-46-21087-3.
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