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Great Northern War: Battle of Narva

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Great Northern War: Battle of Narva

King Charles XII of Sweden

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Narva was fought November 30, 1700, during the Great Northern War (1700-1721).

Armies & Commanders:

Sweden

  • King Charles XII
  • 8,500 men

Russia

  • Duke Charles Eugène de Croy
  • 30,000-37,000 men

Battle of Narva Background:

In 1700, Sweden was the dominant power in the Baltic. Victories during the Thirty Years' War and subsequent conflicts had enlarged the nation to include territories ranging from northern Germany to Karelia and Finland. Eager to combat Sweden's power, its neighbors of Russia, Denmark-Norway, Saxony, and Poland-Lithuania conspired to attack in the late 1690s. Opening hostilities in April 1700, the allies intended to strike Sweden from several directions at once. Moving to meet the threat, 18-year old King Charles XII of Sweden elected to deal with Denmark first.

Leading a well-equipped and highly trained army, Charles launched a bold invasion of Zealand and began marching on Copenhagen. This campaign forced the Danes out of the war and they signed the Treaty of Travendal in August. Concluding business in Denmark, Charles embarked with around 8,000 men for Livonia in October with the intention of driving an invading Polish-Saxon army from the province. Landing, he instead decided to move east to aid the city of Narva which was threatened by Tsar Peter the Great's Russian army.

The Battle of Narva:

Arriving at Narva in early November, Russian forces began laying siege to the Swedish garrison. Though possessing a core of well-drilled infantry, the Russian army had not yet been fully modernized by the tsar. Numbering between 30,000 and 37,000 men, the Russian force was arrayed from south of the city in a curved line running to the northwest, with their left flank anchored on the Narva River. Though aware of Charles' approach, Peter departed the army on November 28 leaving Duke Charles Eugène de Croy in command. Pressing east through bad weather, the Swedes arrived outside the city on November 29.

Forming for battle atop Hermansberg hill a bit more than a mile from the city, Charles and his chief field commander, General Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld, prepared to assault the Russian lines the next day. Opposite, Croy, who had been alerted to the Swedish approach and relatively small size of Charles' force, dismissed the idea that the enemy would attack. On the morning of November 30, a blizzard descended across the battlefield. Despite the foul weather, the Swedes still prepared for battle, while Croy instead invited the majority of his senior officers to dinner.

Around midday, the wind shifted to the south, blowing the snow directly into the Russians' eyes. Spotting the advantage, Charles and Rehnskiöld began advancing against the Russian center. Using the weather as cover, the Swedes were able to approach to within fifty yards of the Russian lines without being spotted. Surging forward in two columns, they shattered the troops of General Adam Weyde and Prince Ivan Trubetskoy and broke Croy's line in three. Pressing home the assault, the Swedes forced the surrender of the Russian center and captured Croy.

On the Russian left, Croy's cavalry mounted a spirited defense but was driven back. In this part of the field, the retreat of Russian forces led to the collapse of a pontoon bridge over the Narva River which trapped the bulk of the army on the west bank. Having gained the upper hand, the Swedes defeated the remnants of Croy's army in detail through the rest of the day. Looting the Russian camps, Swedish discipline wavered but the officers were able to maintain control of the army. By morning, the fighting had ended with the destruction of the Russian army.

Aftermath of Narva:

A stunning victory against overwhelming odds, the Battle of Narva was one of Sweden's greatest military triumphs. In the fighting, Charles lost 667 killed and around 1,200 wounded. Russian losses were approximately 10,000 killed and 20,000 captured. Unable to care for such a large number of prisoners, Charles had the enlisted Russian soldiers disarmed and sent east while only the officers were kept as prisoners of war. In addition to the captured arms, the Swedes captured nearly all of Croy's artillery, supplies, and equipment.

Having effectively eliminated the Russians as a threat, Charles controversially elected to turn south into Poland-Lithuania rather than attack into Russia. Though he won several notable victories, the young king missed a key opportunity to take Russia out of the war. This failure would come to haunt him as Peter rebuilt his army along modern lines and eventually crushed Charles at Poltava in 1709.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1601-1800
  6. Battle of Narva - Great Northern War Battle of Narva

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