The Battle of Poltava (Swedish language: Slaget vid Poltava , Russian: Полта́вская би́тва, Ukrainian language: Полта́вська би́тва ) on 27 June 1709 (8 July, N.S.) was the decisive victory of Peter I of Russia over the Swedish forces under Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld in one of the battles of the Great Northern War. It is widely believed to have been the beginning of Sweden's decline as a Great Power; as Russia (Russian Empire from 1721) took their place as the leading nation of north-eastern Europe.
Charles XII led early Swedish victories at Copenhagen and at the Battle of Narva in 1700 when he knocked both Denmark-Norway and Russia temporarily out of the war. However, he was unable to bring the war to a conclusion, and it would take six years before he had dealt with the remaining combatant Augustus II of Saxony-Poland.
During this time Peter I of Russia rebuilt his army into modern form, basing it primarily on infantry trained to use linear tactics and modern firearms properly. He then achieved a stunning propaganda victory when he established the city of Saint Petersburg on Swedish territory, in Ingria.
Trying to end the war, Charles ordered a final attack on the Russian heartland with a possible assault on Moscow from his campaign base in Poland. The Swedish army of almost 44,000 men left Saxony on 22 August 1707 and marched slowly eastwards. When they reached the Vistula River they waited for it to freeze and didn't cross until 30 December, then continued through a hostile Masuria and took Grodno on 28 January 1708 after the Russians had left without a fight. At that time, the Russians had been dealing with a large rebellion of Don Cossacks, known as Bulavin Rebellion. The mutiny was contained in part by the forces of the Cossack Hetmanate led by Hetman Ivan Mazepa. The Swedes continued to the area around Smorgon and Minsk where the army went into winter quarters. Left in western Poland were 8,000 dragoons under major-general von Krassow.
The Swedish army, which had suffered badly from different epidemic diseases during the winter, left its quarters in early June 1708 and marched towards Smolensk. During the spring General Lewenhaupt in Courland had been ordered to gather supplies and march with his army of about 12,000 men to join Charles' army, although he didn't leave Mitau until late June and couldn't join Charles' forces until 11 October.
At one point they were only 130 kilometres apart, but Charles gave up because he needed supplies, and turned south into Ukraine in search of grain and better weather. According to the Russian history the Ukrainian forces, under the command of Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa, had been in discussions with Charles for some time, and at this point he, Mazepa, officially allied himself to the Swedes in order to gain independence from Russia. However there is no direct evidence or documentary proof of any preliminary negotiations between Mazepa and Charles. Mazepa, however, had sent most of his Cossacks to Belarus and Right-bank Ukraine to contain Polish forces, and Charles's decision to turn to Ukraine, according to Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, was unexpected for Mazepa. His plans were that Charles's forces would move forward to Moscow and then he could create his own uprising in Ukraine.
As Charles forces were moving towards Ukraine, Peter sent his Moscow reserves to intercept them at Starodub and asked Mazepa to supply some reinforcements. Lewenhaupt followed south and was attacked while crossing a river near a small village that gave name to the Battle of Lesnaya. His forces met the Russian attack, but they were amazed to find that the new Russian army gave them a serious fight. Lewenhaupt, seeing that he was about to lose, decided to rejoin Charles with all speed, so he abandoned the cannon, the cattle and most of the food, driving the soldiers to mutiny. Stealing all of the alcohol, the soldiers became drunk, and Lewenhaupt was forced to leave about 1,000 men drunk in the woods. By the time they finally reached Charles and the main force in the winter, only 6,000 men without supplies remained. Mazepa was hesitant and gathered the Starshina Council to decide the further course of actions. The council approved the negotiations with Charles. He left his last Cossack reserves in Baturin and moved to the Desna River for negotiations with Charles. When Peter heard of that move he sent Aleksandr Menshikov to Baturin and mercilessly razed the city. A series of repressions spread throughout the Cossack Hetmanate along with claims that Mazepa had deserted to the Swedes in order to subjugate Ukraine to Poland, provide Unia, and root Orthodoxy out of Ukraine. Tsar decrees were sent to starshina inviting them to Glukhov. In Glukhov Mazepa was figuratively dismissed as Hetman and replaced with the Starodub Colonel Ivan Skoropadsky.
In the spring Charles resumed his advance, but his army had been reduced by about one-third due to starvation, frostbite and other effects of the weather. The wet weather had also seriously depleted the army's supplies of gunpowder; the cannon were also essentially out of action, due to a lack of usable ammunition. Charles's first action was to lay siege to the fort of Poltava on the Vorskla River in Ukraine. Peter had already organized a huge force to protect it, and he quickly arrived. On 27 June, Charles received information that large Kalmyk forces were going to join Peter and cut off all supplies to the Swedish Army. The Zaporozhian Host that was in opposition to Mazepa decided after some hesitation to side with Mazepa and Charles. Moscow forces with the help of the Cossack starshina Galagan, who disclosed Mazepa's intentions, conducted a pre-emptive strike and destroyed the Sich, thus denying any possible reinforcements to Swedish troops.
When the battle opened, Charles had about 14,000 men, while Peter commanded about 45,000. However, although Charles had faced great odds before, his expertise could not be brought forth during the actual battle, as he had been wounded during the siege on 17 June, when he was hit in the foot while taking part in a small engagement during an inspection of the Swedish outposts on the banks of the Vorskla. He had to turn over command to Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld and General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt. This was made all the more unfortunate by the divergent personalities of the two generals. The change in command was not communicated to the subordinate commanders when the battle was planned. Also the Russians managed to weaken the Cossacks who had decided to join the Swedes against them. The Russian army occupied and destroyed the Zaporozhian Host with the help of Galagan, a former Cossack officer. The rest of the Cossacks moved their Host down the Dnieper River for the next 19 years.
The battle began before dawn at 3:45 a.m. on 28 June (Swedish calendar), with the Swedes advancing boldly against the Russian fortified lines just north of Poltava. At first, the battle started off in a traditional fashion, with the better trained Swedes pressing in on the Russians' redoubts, overrunning a few Russian defensive redoubts within the first 15 minutes. The Swedish seemed to possess an advantage, but this was quickly nullified. By dawn (at around 4:30 a.m.), the weather was unusually very hot and humid with the rising sun obscured by smoke from cannon and musket fire. The Swedish infantry, commanded by General Lewenhaupt, attempted to attack the Russians in their fortified camp just north of Poltava. But the Swedish advance soon faltered, partly because the infantry had been ordered to withdraw and reorganize. To make matters worse, one Swedish detachment, commanded by General Roos, had not been told about the overall plan and became isolated in the Russian defensive redoubts when a column of about 4,000 Russian reinforcements reoccupied the fortified positions, trapping Roos and his 2,600-man force at 6:15 a.m. With over 1,000 casualties and ammunition running low, Roos was forced to surrender his command at 9:30 a.m.
At 8:30 a.m. the bulk of the Swedish army moved north to attack the Russian fortified camp, but waited for Roos to return, unaware of his defeat. As time went by, the Russian infantry, led by Peter himself, moved out of its fortified camp and formed two battle lines facing the Swedes massing just west of their camp, supported by overhead cannon fire from its camp. At 9:45 a.m., Lewenhaupt ordered the Swedish line to move forward; 4,000 Swedish infantry against 20,000 Russian infantry. They advanced and the Russians opened fire on them with their cannons creating a firestorm of shells. When the Swedes were 100 meters from the Russian line, the Russians aimed and fired their muskets. When they were 30 meters from the Russian line, the Swedes fired one volley and charged with their musket and pikesmen, actually pushing the Russians back slowly towards their camp despite suffering heavy casualties. The Swedes were on the verge of a breakthrough and needed the cavalry of General Cruetz; unfortunately for the Swedes, it was disorganised. The Russian line was longer than the Swedish line, and the Russian right flank, led by Menshikov, soon flanked the Swedish infantry. Several Swede regiments were surrounded in a classic Cannae-style battle as Bauer's Russian cavalry swarmed around the Swedish army and attacked the Swedish rear guard. Cruetz and the cavalry tried to buy the infantry time to get away; several units attacked the Russians head on despite them forming into squares. By this stage, the Swedes had no organised bodies of troops to oppose the Russian infantry or cavalry. Small groups of foot soldiers managed to break through and escape to the south while most of the rest were overwhelmed and ridden down. Seeing the defeat of his army from a stretcher in the rear, Charles ordered the army to retreat at 11:00 a.m. By noon, the battle was over as Russian cavalry had mopped up the stragglers on the battlefield and returned to their own lines. Charles then gathered the remainder of his troops and baggage train, and retreated to the south later that same day, abandoning the siege of Poltava. Rehnskiöld was captured. Lewenhaupt led the surviving Swedes and some of the Cossack forces to the Dnieper River, but was doggedly pursued by the Russian regular cavalry and 3,000 Kalmyks and forced to surrender three days later at Perevolochna, on 1 July.
Almost the entire surviving Swedish army amounting to several thousands capitulated at Perevolochna on 30 June 1709 (O.S.) / 1 July 1709 (Swedish calendar) / 11 July 1709 (N.S.). Prisoners were put to work building the new city of Saint Petersburg. Charles and Mazepa were allowed to escape with about 1,500 men to Bendery, Moldavia, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Charles spent five years in exile there before he was able to return to Sweden.
- The battle was portrayed in Poltava, a poem by Alexander Pushkin written in 1828-9, and the monumental 1925 Swedish film Karl XII with Gösta Ekman as king Charles XII and the Russian emigrant actor Nicolai de Seversky as Peter I. Recently the battle was also portrayed in the 2007 Russian film The Sovereign's Servant (Russian: Слуга Государев, Sluga Gosudarev). The story of the battle, told from the point of view of a dying soldier, is related in the Al Stewart song The Coldest Winter in Memory. On their 2012 album Carolus Rex, Swedish power metal band Sabaton has a song named "Poltava", detailing the battle.
Notes and references
- There were factions of the Dnieper Cossacks allied with each of the combatants.
- Moltusov, Valerij Aleksejevitj (2009) (in Swedish). Poltava 1709: Vändpunkten. SMB. p. 93. ISBN 978-91-85789-75-7.
- About 2,000 sick and injured soldiers were standing in the Pushkarivka camp
- The exact numbers of Mazepa's and Zaporizhian Cossacks is unknown but are usually given to 3,000 up to 7,000. They were stationed in the Pushkarivka camp and did not participate in the battle.
- (Russian) О составе русской и шведской армий в Полтавском сражении
- Ericson, Lars (ed) (2003) (in Swedish). Svenska slagfält. Wahlström & Widstrand. p. 297. ISBN 91-46-21087-3.
- (Russian) Istorīia Petra Velikago, by Nikolai Alekseevich Polevoi, 1843, p. 38
- Russian sources quote the captive Field Marshal Rehnskiöld stating that his combined army before the battle consisted of up to 30,000 men.
- Peter Englund: Poltava, p.215. Atlantis 1988. ISBN 91-7486-834-9.
- (Swedish) Christer Kuvaja: Karolinska krigare 1660–1721, p.192. Schildts Förlags AB 2008. ISBN 978-951-50-1823-6.
- Derek Wilson (March 9, 2009). "Poltava : the Battle that Changed the World". London. pp. 23–29.
- (Russian) Битва под Полтавой
- Encyclopedia of Ukraine
- (Russian) Istorīia Petra Velikago, p. 355
- 28 June according to the then-used Swedish calendar
27 June in the old style
8 July in the new style
- Christer Kuvaja: Karolinska krigare 1660–1721, p.179. Schildts Förlags AB 2008. ISBN 978-951-50-1823-6.
- Christer Kuvaja: Karolinska krigare 1660–1721, p.180–185. Schildts Förlags AB 2008. ISBN 978-951-50-1823-6.
- The Internet Movie Database
- The Internet Movie Database
- G. Adlerfelt, The Military History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, Written by the Express Order of His Majesty. London, 3 vols, 1740.
- Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, Illustrated history of Ukraine. Donetsk, 2003. ISBN 966-548-571-7
- Peter Englund, The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire. London, 1992, 288 pages. ISBN 1-86064-847-9
- Angus Konstam, Poltava 1709, Russia Comes of Age. Osprey Campaign Series #34. Osprey Publishing, 1994, 96 pages. ISBN 1-85532-416-4
- Robert K. Massie, Peter The Great: His Life and Times Ballantine Books; 1981. 932 Pages, ISBN 0-345-29806-3 : ISBN 978-0-345-29806-5
- Stephen Velychenko, "the battle of poltava and the decline of cossack ukraine in light of russian and english methods of rule in their borderlands 1707-1914." http://historians.in.ua/index.php/doslidzhennya/326-stephen-velychenko-the-battle-of-poltava-and-the-decline-of-cossack-ukraine-in-light-of-russian-and-english-methods-of-rule-in-their-borderlands-1707-1914
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to battle of Poltava.|
- Sequel to Poltava: Diplomacy to contain Russia 1709-1714 By Bertil Haggman
- Battle of Poltava on the Encyclopedia of Ukraine
- Russian Order at Battle
- Swedish Order at Battle
- Battle of Poltava animated battle map by Jonathan Webb
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