November 30, 1700: Peter the Great Almost Loses His Adjective
In 1700, Peter the Great, along with the kings of Denmark and Saxony, expected to take candy from a baby. But the baby almost killed them. The candy was actually Sweden and the baby was its teenage king. Today’s Sweden is the kind of country that would make a perfect suburb: placid but sophisticated. (Many of us fondly remember that Swedish films had nudity when Hollywood still apparently believed in storks.) But three centuries ago, Sweden was the bully of the Baltic. With the best army and navy in the North, the overachieving Swedes had won control of Norway, Finland, the Baltic States, and most of the area that would have been Poland’s and Germany’s coasts.
However, Sweden’s resentful neighbors saw their chance for vengeance and territory when a fifteen year-old ascended the throne in Stockholm in 1697. His youth was not the only perceived handicap of Charles XII; the young man was very strange. Some thought him “backward”; we might diagnose him as autistic. He never mastered the charm or the etiquette of the Court; he had no interest in the pleasures and vices that were his royal privilege. All Charles ever wanted to do was to play soldier; but, as it turned out, he was very good at it.
When, in February 1700, Russia, Denmark and Saxony declared war on Sweden and its callow king, the allies must have based their strategy on an accountant’s assessment. Their amassed armies far outnumbered Sweden’s forces; the Swedes would inevitably be overwhelmed. However, Charles did not wait for the inevitable. He attacked. Denmark’s proximity was its misfortune; by the summer of 1700 an overrun, devastated Denmark was suing for peace and ceding more territory to Sweden. In fact, Denmark was lucky that Charles acceded to a peace treaty. He didn’t like treaties because they required him to stop fighting. At least, Charles found solace in that he still had a war with Russia and Saxony.
A Russian army threatened to wrest Estonia and Latvia from Sweden. Peter the Great commanded an impressive number–40,000 men–but the invasion had accomplished little more than trespassing. Cannons and muskets require aiming, but no one had provided the Russian horde with adequate training. Furthermore, many of the Russian soldiers did not even have muskets; they were armed with clubs, axes and halberds, weapons only fairly effective in the 15th century. (But Peter’s officers had the latest fashions in uniforms.) Charles felt that 10,000 of his highly trained soldiers could handle the Russian horde, and he proved it this day–November 30– at the battle of Narva in 1700.
With half of his force dead or captured and the rest scattered, his country at the mercy of an unscathed Swedish army, Peter was prepared for any demand and every humiliation; but he still was amazed by Charles. The Swedish king simply marched away to begin an invasion of Saxony. This was not an act of mercy or generosity but contempt. Charles thought so little of Russia that he snubbed it; he wanted his enemies to have some fight in them. So Russia could recuperate before Charles would demolish it again.
Peter certainly had underestimated the young Swedish king; but now Charles underestimated the Tsar. Having seen–and barely surviving–a highly trained army, Peter proved an apt student. Over the next few years, while Charles was rampaging through central Europe, Peter rebuilt the Russian army along the model of its Swedish nemesis. If Ikea had a military catalog, Peter would have bought out the store. By 1703, the Russian army was ready for a rematch, and this time it successfully invaded the Baltic States. On newly acquired territory along the gulf of Finland, the Tsar ordered the construction of a fortress-with room for expansion–named St. Petersburg.
Yet Charles ignored the reviving Russian menace. He was preoccupied with a relatively unimportant but endless campaign in Saxony and Poland. Did it really matter who would be the next figurehead king of a powerless Poland? Inexplicably, it did to Charles. By 1708, however, he finally turned his attention to Russia; and this time he was going to oust Peter. To do so, Charles would lead his army into the heartland of Russia, through the Ukraine and on to Moscow. At least, that was the plan. His over-extended, precarious supply lines might have seemed an obstacle, but Charles expected to be feted, supplied, and reinforced by the Ukrainians and Cossacks. They were known to hate the Russians, so wouldn’t they regard Charles as their liberator? If so, their gratitude did not extend to fighting along side the Swedes.
Of course, Charles stayed on the attack. What did it matter if the Russian army at Poltava was three times the size of his force? Vell–as they might say in Swedish, eight years of training did make a substantial difference in the Tsar’s army. Most of Charles’ army was either killed or captured. Now, if Charles wouldn’t end a war when he was winning, imagine how he felt when he was losing. Riding south, he avoided capture and managed to get to the Ottoman Empire. There, the celebrity refugee convinced the Turks to declare war on Russia.
Peter welcomed this additional war as a chance to advance Russia’s southern frontiers to the Black Sea. He was so eager that he repeated the same mistakes that Charles had made at Poltava. Now, it was a Russian army deep in enemy territory, with its supplies cut off, and badly outnumbered. There was one difference, however, in Peter’s disastrous loss at Pruth in 1711. He, along with his entire army, was captured. The Turks were in a position to exact any terms that they wanted; and their ally Charles was insisting on the restoration on everything he had lost. However, after two years of Charles, the Turks realized that they did not like him, either. All they asked of the captured Tsar was that he return any territory that the Russians had previously won from the Turks…and that Charles must be allowed safe passage through Russia back to Sweden. Yes, the Turks were that eager to get rid of him. In fact, they placed him under house arrest until he got the message.
When back in Sweden, Charles simply scrounged whatever he could to continue the war. He was oblivious to the fact that the war was irretrievably lost, and that his strickened country had neither the manpower nor the resources left to accommodate his bloody hobby. Of course, Charles would not be content until he was killed in battle; in 1718, in a pointless siege of a Norwegian town, someone finally obliged him. The marksman is unknown; it might even have been an exhausted Swede.
History has had a number of great yet self-destructive generals. Charles XII is unique among them in that he is so colorless. Perhaps that is the consequence of being Swedish. History remembers him as “The Lion of the North” but he could have been an idiot savant whose savoir happened to be war.