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Great Northern War: Battle of Poltava

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Great Northern War: Battle of Poltava

Battle of Poltava by Denis Martens the Younger,

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Conflict:

The Battle of Poltava was fought during the Great Northern War.

Date:

Charles XII was defeated on July 8, 1709 (New Style).

Armies & Commanders:

Sweden

  • King Charles XII
  • Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld
  • General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt
  • 24,000 men, 4 guns

Russia

  • Peter the Great
  • 42,500 men, 102 guns

Battle of Poltava Summary:

In 1708, King Charles XII of Sweden invaded Russia with the goal of bringing the Great Northern War to an end. Turned away at Smolensk, he moved into the Ukraine for the winter. As his troops endured the frigid weather, Charles sought allies for his cause. While he had previously received a commitment from Ivan Mazepa's Hetman Cossacks, the only additional forces who were willing to join him were the Zaporozhian Cossacks of Otaman Kost Hordiienko. Charles' position was further weakened by the need to leave an army corps in Poland to aid King Stanislaus I Leszczyñski.

As the campaigning season approached, Charles' generals advised him to fall back to Volhynia as the Russians were beginning to surround their position. Unwilling to retreat, Charles planned an ambitious campaign to capture Moscow by crossing the Vorskla River and moving via Kharkov and Kursk. Advancing with 24,000 men, but only 4 guns, Charles first invested the city of Poltava along the banks of the Vorskla. Defended by 6,900 Russian and Ukrainian troops, Poltava held out against Charles' attack, while waiting for Tsar Peter the Great to arrive with reinforcements.

Marching south with 42,500 men and 102 guns, Peter sought to relieve the city and inflict a damaging blow on Charles. Over the previous few years Peter had rebuilt his army along modern European lines after suffered multiple defeats at the hands of the Swedes. Arriving near Poltava, his army went into camp and erected defenses against a possible Swedish attack. Across the lines, field command of the Swedish army had devolved to Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld and General Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt after Charles had been wounded in the foot on June 17.

On July 7, Charles was informed that 40,000 Kalmyks were marching to reinforce Peter. Rather than retreat, and despite being outnumbered, the king elected to strike at the Russian camp the next morning. Around 5:00 AM on July 8, the Swedish infantry advanced towards the Russian camp. Its attack was met by the Russian cavalry which forced them to retreat. As the infantry withdrew, the Swedish cavalry counterattacked, driving back the Russians. Their advance was halted by heavy fire and they fell back. Rehnskiöld again sent the infantry forward and they succeeded in taking two Russian redoubts.

Despite this foothold, the Swedes were not able to hold them. As they attempted to bypass the Russian defenses, Prince Aleksandr Menshikov's forces nearly encircled them and inflicted massive casualties. Fleeing back, the Swedes took refuge in the Budyshcha Forest where Charles rallied them. Around 9:00 AM, both sides advanced into the open. Charging forward, the Swedish ranks were pounded by the Russian guns. Striking the Russian lines, they nearly broke through. As the Swedes battled, the Russian right swung around to flank them.

Under extreme pressure, the Swedish infantry broke and began fleeing the field. The cavalry advanced to cover their withdrawal, but was met with heavy fire. From his stretcher at the rear, Charles ordered the army to begin retreating.

Aftermath:

The Battle of Poltava was a disaster for Sweden and a turning point in the Great Northern War. Swedish casualties numbered 6,900 dead and wounded, as well as 2,800 taken prisoner. Among those captured was Field Marshal Rehnskiöld. Russian losses were 1,350 killed and 3,300 wounded. Retreating from the field, the Swedes moved along the Vorskla towards its confluence with the Dnieper. Lacking enought boats to cross the river, Charles and Ivan Mazepa crossed with a bodyguard of 1,000-3,000 men. Riding west, Charles found sanctuary with the Ottomans in Bendery, Moldavia. He remained in exile for five years before returning to Sweden. Along the Dnieper, Lewenhaupt was elected to surrender the remnants of the Swedish army (12,000 men) to Menshikov on July 11.

Selected Sources

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

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