The Battle of Lesnaya (Russian: Битва при Лесной Bitva pri Lesnoy, Swedish language: Slaget vid Lesna ), was one of the major battles of the Great Northern War. It took place on September 28, 1708 (O.S.) / September 29, 1708 (Swedish calendar) / October 9, 1708 (N.S.) between a Russian army of 18,000 regulars and an unknown number of irregulars commanded by the Princes Repnin and Menshikov, and a Swedish force of around 12,000 men,:54 under the command of General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt, at the village of Lesnaya, located close to the border between the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia (now the village of Lyasnaya, south-east of Mogilev in Belarus). The Swedes were escorting a supply column of 4,500 wagons, needed by their army in the Ukraine.
Early Swedish victories at Humlebaek and at the Battle of Narva in 1700 temporarily took both Denmark and Russia out of the war. However, King Charles XII of Sweden proved unable to speedily end the war as it took eight years to deal with the remaining combatant Charles Augustus of Saxony-Poland. Meanwhile, Peter the Great rebuilt his army into modern form, concentrating on infantry trained to use linear tactics and modern firearms properly. He then achieved a stunning victory in Livonia, where he established the city of Saint Petersburg. In retaliation, Charles ordered an attack on the Russian heartland, launching an assault on Moscow from his campaign base in Poland. Lewenhaupt, one of Sweden's foremost generals, was the commander of one of Sweden's best armies, based at the Baltic Sea port of Riga. In the summer of 1708, King Charles ordered him to march southward with most of his force and link up with the main army of 25,000 men, based in Poland. Lewenhaupt was to bring a fresh supply of ammunition and food to support the Swedish army in a proposed march on the Russian capital of Moscow.
However, Lewenhaupt found that gathering the needed supplies and preparing the army for an overland march took longer than expected and, on September 26, after waiting for Lewenhaupt for weeks, Charles XII abandoned his camps and decided to invade Ukraine, hoping to reach that rich granary before winter. At the time, Lewenhaupt was only about 80 miles from Charles's position.
Having observed these movements, Peter decided to attack Lewenhaupt's smaller force before Charles could support it. Menshikov moved quickly to intercept Lewenhaupt's force and prevented it from crossing the Sozh River to safety.
In early April 1708, the governor of Riga, Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt visited Charles XII at the Royal army's winter quarters in Radoszkowice to discuss strategy and receive orders for the ongoing campaign against Russia. Here he was instructed to obtain a large amount of supplies and wagons that could be sufficient for the main army for about three weeks. Once having collected the supplies Lewenhaupt would assemble as much men as possible from the area, without leaving the garrisons completely stripped. Lewenhaupt would then use these troops to escort the convoy and rendezvous with Charles' main army at Mogilev, in early August.:102
In May same year, Lewenhaupt returned to Riga in order to complete the task, which proved far from easy. The near lands had suffered many campaigns in the years of the Great Northern War and so much was drained of needed resources. In early June, the column—of which Lewenhaupt was gathering—was ordered to start campaigning to reach Charles XII in Mogilev, according to schedule. However, the convoy was nowhere ready to leave because of the difficulties assembling it. Only in the beginning of July it was ready, having then suffered three to four weeks behind the schedule:102–105 and a significant shortage of men (20,000 men were expected, however, in reality only 12,000 soldiers were ready to march:54 with a general size of 13,000 soldiers and 1,300 officers):22 proved unable to make it to Charles' army before September.:103
On the march
The march turned out slower than expected, torrential rain turned the roads into mud, streams became over flooded which turned out to be a major task to cross and so, unfortunately for Lewenhaupt and Charles, the expected time of arrival kept moving back. However, after several weeks of waiting and no words heard from Lewenhaupt, there was a twist to the plans as Charles found his position in Mogilev unsustainable and instead on September 26, decided to abandon his camps and march South towards Severia in Ukraine, hoping to reach that rich granary before winter. During this time Lewenhaupt was about 135 kilometers (90 miles) away from Charles and on September 28, he received new orders to rendezvous at Starodub and started marching south himself. His convoy passed between Mogilev and Gorki heading for Propoisk on the river Sozh.:103 By October 3, Lewenhaupt had crossed the Dnieper and headed south, the crossing itself has to be considered a "military masterpiece".:75 Having observed these movements, Peter I dispatched an army under Boris Sheremetev after Charles and gathered a force of his own to intercept with Lewenhaupt. The Russians made contact with Lewenhaupt's convoy on October 6, and immediately started harassing it, forcing the Swedes to march in defensive formation across difficult terrain while the numbers of shadowing Russian troops steady grew.:103–105
Skirmish at Belitsa
Peter I, who overestimated the Swedish force being 16,000 men strong, had gathered numbers far superior of those of Lewenhaupt and was eager to catch his convoy while it was still out of reach of Charles' main army and safety.:113 Therefore, he desired to confront and destroy it before its' crossing of the river Sozh where it would otherwise reach—as Peter thought—the protection of the main army (the Russians had misleading reports saying Charles was 25 kilometers away from Sozh and not 120 as they had previously presumed).:102 On October 8, the Russians in the area were large enough that they posed a considerable threat to the convoy and so the two sides confronted each other for some time at the village of Belitsa. Subsequently however, Lewenhaupt ordered a cavalry attack consisting of 4,000 men on the equally numbered Russian dragoons who were facing them, the Russian horse did not desire a fight and instead started retreating, persecuted by their enemies for a good four–kilometers step. In this encounter losses amounted to about fifty Russians and three to four wounded Swedes, a real battle did not develop as both sides parted and the confrontation ended with the quick cavalry skirmish.:106
Later the same day, Lewenhaupt reached the small village of Lesnaya and was within a day's march from Propoisk. By now he knew that Peter I was in the area with a fairly large amount of Russian troops. But he did not know exactly how large the Russian army was of if more units were on its' way. Once he reached Propoisk he could cross the Sozh river and achieve relative safety in case he was the target of the whole Russian force.:105
The Russians gathered their forces to attack the Swedes in the rear as they were crossing the stream of Lesnjanka at the village of Lesnaya, to march south against Propoisk in order to reach safety by crossing the river of Sozh. Thousands of wagons made for slow progress and bottlenecks and the scattered Swedish army was by then very vulnerable to Russian attacks,:137 subsequently Peter I took the advantage and pressed home the assault. His forces included 26,000 Russian regulars (13,000 under his direct command), 5,000 dragoons under Christian Felix Bauer at Berezovka, 8,000 infantry under Werden at Patskovo (infantry which would not participate in the battle):164 and an irregular force of 'estimated' 2,500 to 5,000 Cossacks and Kalmyks:108 in total, Peter had close to 30,000 men against Lewenhaupt. When the attack began, more than half of the Swedish army had crossed the Lesnjanka stream. They numbered about 12,000 men in seventeen battalions, with more than 4,500 wagons in their train.:142–144
Peter I split his force of 13,000 regulars into two columns, the right (Western, 6,045 men) under himself with Mikhail Mikhailovich Golitsyn assisting (in reality Golitsyn commanded this group and Peter worked as his assistant):107 and the left (Eastern, 6,896 men) under General Aleksandr Menshikov. The two columns marched toward the Middlefield between the northern and southern forest fringes. Lewenhaupt's army was behind the southern fringe and Peter I attacked from the north. Menshikov's force traversed two kilometers of road while Peter I struggled to penetrate three kilometers of dense forest.:142–144 Excluding officers, at least 17,000 Russian regulars including Bauer's dragoon force would engage during the battle:229–235 (adding ~10% officers to this number it would reach close to 19,000), with 2,500–5,000 irregulars.:108 In total, 21,000 to 24,000 engaged.
Lewenhaupt initially had around 4,500 men (excluding officers) on the northern side of the Lesnjanka stream to receive the initial attack, his other forces having crossed the stream and marching towards Propoisk.:216 However, as the battle raged, he was able to obtain reinforcements and reach a total fighting force of around 9,000 men (including officers) against the Russians. At least 2,900 men were ordered to protect and maintain the baggage convoy. A Swedish outpost had also been placed on the Middlefield, consisting of no more than three battalions (reduced to 900 men), to warn of and stall a possible Russian attack. This is where the two columns of Peter I marched.:142–144
Around 10:00, October 9, 1708 (N.S.), the battle began. Peter I's column under Menshikov had reached the Middlefield from the north-west, finding the 900 Swedes deployed there. Unfortunately for Menshikov, the commander of the heavily outnumbered Swedish outpost, Lieutenant Colonel Freijbourg, seized the initiative and launched a Carolean-style surprise attack which threw the Russian column into confusion, while the sudden musket and cannon fire alerted the nearby main Swedish force.:142−144 After this initial success, the Swedes were forced to retreat with many wounded through the southern fringe of the forest, where they were relieved by five fresh battalions under the command of Berndt Otto Stackelberg which had marched from Lesnaya.:147–155
Meanwhile, Tsar Peter's right column had reached the Crossroads and traversed the marshes of Krivl, just south of the Middlefield, close to where Menshikov's column had been in action. Having Peter to their left flank and Menshikov to the front, Stackelberg's five Swedish battalions were now fighting two Russian columns numbering 13,000 in all. Six other Swedish battalions were on their way to the battle zone. The Russians at the Crossroads under Peter were almost routed by the Swedes and could have faced a crushing defeat, had not the Russian Guards halted their advance. The fighting at the Crossroads surged back and forth. The Russian line was strengthened by six artillery pieces. However, the Swedes who themselves had no artillery in this particular fight, were able to capture four of them and block Peter's progress at the Krivl bridge.:147–155
At little past 11:00, Facing the Swedish right flank at the Middlefield, Menshikov's guardsmen executed a successful flanking maneuver, forcing the five Swedish battalions to retreat into the southern fringe of the forest and prepare to receive the expected Russian onslaught. Their departure left unguarded a bridge near the Crossroads, leaving it clear for Russian troops to march out and form up en masse. Thus trapped in a "pincer movement", hemmed in and outnumbered, Stackelberg—against the wishes of Lewenhaupt—ordered an orderly withdrawal. The six Swedish battalions which were yet to arrive on their march through the forest, were also ordered to retreat, an action which isolated and exposed Hälsinge's second battalion which had previously routed the Russians and now came close to being annihilated by them.:147–155
Lewenhaupt (who sought to gather his cavalry to support the Swedish infantry during the fighting at the Middlefield and Crossroads) came under attack by Russian dragoons who swept eastward through the southern fringe of the forest and headed for the Swedish dragoons deployed east of Lesnaya, on the open field. The Russians had some success at first, but as soon as the main bulk of the Swedish cavalry arrived and charged in typical Carolean wedge formation the Russian cavalry was being repulsed and quickly broke.:156–166
Tsar Peter with his Russian infantry and dragoons had now pushed away the last retreating Swedes and had full control over the southern forest edge. The Russians now strove to reach the Lesnaya field between the forest and the village of Lesnaya, to block the bridge over which the Swedes might obtain further reinforcements. (A company of 1,000 cavalry had already managed to get back to assist in the fight at Lesnaya.) A Swedish counter-offensive to push the Russians out of the forest was now ordered by Lewenhaupt, who had been very disappointed by Stackelberg's decision to retreat. The Swedes counter–attacked with the support of 16 artillery pieces from Lesnaya. However the Russian troops, backed by their own 30 cannons, were too strong and the Swedes had to fall back.:156–166
Pause in hostilities
The Swedes retreated almost to the village of Lesnaya and the Russians followed them to the adjacent open terrain, intending to launch a decisive attack from there. However, both sides being exhausted by the day's intense combat, hostilities were ceased at about 15:00 when, separated by only 150–200 meters, the two sides sank down on the field, facing each other, and rested. During this extraordinary interlude, in which only three Russian cannons sounded off, the two armies distributed food, water and ammunition to their ranks, issued orders and deployed reinforcements in preparation for the final conflict. Somehow during this remarkable phase, the Russian General Friedrich von Hessen-Darmstadt was shot and mortally wounded as he rode back and forth in a provocative manner between the two armies. He died of his wounds four days later. The hour-long pause concluded at about 16:00, with the arrival, after a long march, of Bauer's company of 5,000 Russian dragoons.:167–170
At a little past 16:00, the Swedes opened fire, with cannons positioned 600 meters from the southern forest edge, on the newly arrived dragoons, who were then attaching themselves to the Russians' left flank. The Russian dragoons under Bauer then—without awaiting orders from Peter I—charged against the Swedes, supported by most of the other Russian troops. The open terrain gave the Swedish army opportunity to closely coordinate its infantry and cavalry, an advantage which they gratefully seized. Repeatedly, Russian front line troops retreated from infantry Gå–På shock attacks only to find themselves under immediate attack from the rear by Swedish cavalry.:170–180 However, this could only be a temporary advantage in view of the Russian reserve strength, reportedly three battalions deep by this time, enabling an irresistible grinding advance.:167–170 The Russian right flank under Mikhail Mikhailovich Golitsyn moved to secure the sole bridge across the Lesnjanka in order to prevent the flow of Swedish reinforcements across it, while seeking to trap them with their backs to the river. However, the bridge was ferociously defended and the Russians were beaten off, suffering heavy losses. At this time, both sides were inconvenienced by a snowstorm, a rare event for early–October, even in Russia. At 17:00, Lewenhaupt ordered a concerted attack which, however, was blunted by a tactic of continuous fire which the Russians had devised to counter the Swedish Gå–På onslaught. The Swedes took heavy casualties and were driven further back towards the village. Their line was also split in two, one side against the Lesnaya (east of the bridge) and the other against the forest to the west. The all–important bridge was on the brink of being taken when it was saved by the arrival of 900 Swedish dragoons from across the river, whose fierce onslaught drove the Russians back.:170–180 At 19:00 when night fell, the Russians left the field and drew back to the forest fringe. The Swedes stood in their battle formations for several hours, expecting a night attack which did not come.:181–182
For a few hours the Swedes remained in their positions in case of a renewed attack and to convince the Russians that they intended to stay. Subsequently Lewenhaupt decided to withdraw his army under the cover of the darkness and continue on his march against Propoisk. Each unit slowly made its way across the stream as they were covered by the remaining units. During this progress, a number of wagons broke and partially blocked the road where the Swedish artillery was moving down, so it was decided a number of these would be sunk in the mud (to prevent them falling in Russian hands) as they were hard bringing in the rapid march. Having successfully crossed the stream with all his troops, Lewenhaupt continued towards Propoisk. However, this withdrawal was the beginning of the end for a large part of his army.:116
Despite the difficult condition, having men lost in the woods during the march, the Swedes reached Propoisk, only to find that the town and bridge had been burned down. This was most likely done by Bauer's detachment as they were still blocking the crossing. By now the Swedish army was disintegrating into a mob as fear grew, possibly of being trapped between Peter's army behind them and Bauer's detachment. There were also no suited material for building a bridge. The Swedes saw the risk in having the Russian army pursue them from behind and so Lewenhaupt decided that everything that could be carried be taken from the wagons, subsequently the whole wagon train was burned and the bulk of the essential supplies within. This resulted in that a large part of the army took the opportunity to get drunk and so was left for the enemy to catch, others decided that they were better off surrendering or try to reach home by themselves,:117 in total perhaps 4,000 men went missing after the battle. The next morning the Russians caught of with these deserters and stranglers, about 500 of them were killed at Propoisk. The Russians were content with this and proceeded to round up any deserters they could find, however, they did not attempt to confront the main body of Lewenhaupt's army as they were allowed to withdraw unmolested.:117 The following day Lewenhaupt found a crossing over the river Sozh and over the next two days the soldiers swam across the river to relative safety. By now order had been restored in the Swedish army and all signs of Russian pursuit had gone. The army—now without any artillery or wagon train—made good speed to reach its' rendezvous with Charles' army at Starodub. During their way they were attacked by a large detachment of Russians, however, these were soon driven off. On October 23, Lewenhaupt's troops reached the main army at Rukova, having only 6,500 men left in his lines without the sufficient wagon train.:117–118
Lesnaya is often seen as the first great Russian victory of the war and the first indication of the final result of the campaign, in Russia it is said to be the mother of Poltava. The battle was certainly proclaimed as a Russian triumph at the time, but in modern view, this may not be the case. The victorious Russian army had suffered considerable losses throughout the battle and did not manage to succeed with their goal, to crush the Lewenhaupt's army. Neither did it seriously pursue the retreating Swedish army, instead they contented themselves with catching the stranglers and march in the opposite direction of Lewenhaupt to celebrate their victory. Tsar Peter arranged for the news of the victory to be spread as much as possibly through official declarations and leaflets. At first the Russian version of events claimed they had completely destroyed a superior force, it soon became clear that this was not true so they subsequently modified it down to only equal odds. But the official declarations, leaflets etc, had already been dispatched and still influence the view of the battle today.:119
The two sides were in fact not equal in numbers, they only appear so in many accounts because the numbers given usually only count the initial Russian forces under the Tsar without taking in account the irregulars that accompanied the force or the later arrival of Bauer's command. Sometimes the Swedish units are also assumed to have been at full strength at the battle. Also while the initial Russian forces were about the same strength as the whole Swedish army, they did not all participate in the fighting. The Russians, in fact enjoyed a considerable numerical advantage in all stages of the battle, yet they had not been able to defeat their enemy. Similarly the Swedes were greatly constrained during the battle by the need to protect the vital wagons and their supplies.:119–120
Swedish casualties numbered not much more than 1,000 dead and captured during the battle itself, along with some thousands of wounded, totalling fewer than 3,000, according to Lewenhaupt. 1,000 Swedes were later killed or captured while making their way to the main army; 3,000 went missing (about 1,500 of whom found their way back to Courland). All of the supply wagons were abandoned and destroyed. According to official Russian estimates, the Swedes lost 8,000 killed in the battle and another 1,000 on the march, along with 876 captured, numbers which are questionable.:229–235 Russian casualties amounted to about 1,111 dead and another 2,856 wounded in the battle, according to Russian official claims, figures which are disputed as "incomplete and contradictory", according to Russian historian Pavel Konovaltjuk. The Swedish official reports claimed more than 20,000 Russians died in the battle, again a questionable number. Lewenhaupt initially estimated more than 6,000 dead and wounded Russians during the battle, but later—during captivity in Moscow—discovered that numbers of 9,000 dead and wounded Russians were reported by officers who took part in the battle.:229–235
- Svenska slagfält p.290
- Konovaltjuk & Lyth (2009)
- Nicholas Dorrell (2009)
- Peter From, Katastrofen vid Poltava (2007), Lund, Historiska media. pp. 104.
- Konovaltjuk & Lyth, Pavel & Einar (2009) (in Swedish). Vägen till Poltava. Slaget vid Lesnaja 1708. Svenskt Militärhistorisk Biblioteks Förlag. ISBN 978-91-85789-14-6.
- Dorrell, Nicholas. The Dawn of the Tsarist Empire: Poltava & the Russian Campaigns of 1708—1709, Partizan Press (2009)
- History of the Art of War - История военного искусства / Под общ. ред П.Д. Ротмистрова. — М., 1963. - T.I. - С. 132-135.
- History of the Northern War - История Северной войны. 1700—1721. / Отв. ред. И.И. Ростунов. — М., 1987. С. 73-76.
- The Book of Marsov or of Affairs of War - Книга Марсова или воинских дел. — Изд.2. — СПб., 1766.
- Kresnovsky's History of the Russian Army, from Narva to Paris: 1700-1814 - Кресновский А.А. История русской армии: В 4-х т. — М., 1992. — T.I. От Нарвы до Парижа 1700—1814. — С. 35—36.
- Letters and papers by Emperor Peter the Great - Письма и бумаги императора Петра Великого. — Т.5. — СПб., 1907.
- Soviet War Encyclopaedia - Советская военная энциклопедия: В 8-й т. / Гл. ред. комис. Н.В. Огарков (пред.) и др. — М., 1977. — Т.4. — С. 624.
- Strokov's History of the Art of War - Строков А.А. История военного искусства. —М., 1955. —T.I. — С. 496.
- Description of the battle at www.historyofwar.org (English)
- Battle of Lesnaya at Hronos.km.ru (Russian)
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