Great Northern War – When Sweden Ruled the World – Extra History – #1


1697 Sweden is one of the truly great powers of Europe, with a unstoppable army, and an empire that nearly encircles the Baltic. But as the church bells toll the world knows: The king is dead and his 14 year old son is inheritor to the Crown. The Vultures begin to circle ♪♪ Intro Music ♪♪ The danger of Empire, is that the more you have, the more you have that other people want. And the Swedish Empire was no exception. In this case, the lands of the Swedish Empire had drawn the attention of someone brilliant, dynamic, ruthless, and ambitious: The 25 year old, Peter the Great. Peter had a love of the west, he was drawn to all things European. He saw the future of Russia not to the South or the East, but chasing the setting sun. He saw that future in becoming part of the great European economic system. But there was one obstacle to this grand design. He needed a port in the Baltic. He needed a way his ships could sail west, bearing Russian goods or, projecting the might of Russian arms. But the Baltic ports that Russia had once held, had all been gobbled up by the Swedish Empire. Now, It was time to take them back. But Peter wasn’t alone, the King of the Danes had long chafed under the idea that traditionally Danish land in southern Sweden had been taken from them by the Swedish Empire, and he longs to get it back. And Augustus, the king of Poland-Lithuania, found an intriguing prospect within the Swedish borders as well. You see, the Polish-Lithuanian King was an elected title without much power. But he wanted to become a hereditary monarch, ruling over Poland-Lithuania as many of the other monarchs of Europe ruled over their domain. Right on his border, just inside the Swedish territory, was the small province of Livonia. The nobles there offered to declare him their hereditary king if he would liberate them from the Swedish. This intrigued him. If he could get them to declare him king and then integrate them with Poland-Lithuania, it would go a long way toward achieving his larger goal of making a real kingship out of the Polish-Lithuanian crown. Soon these three forces became secret allies against the Swedish. Things dragged on for a while as Peter continued to pretend to be a friend of Sweden, hoping to avoid a war with them until his current war with the Ottomans could be wrapped up. But at last, in 1700, his allies moved ahead, striking at the Swedes without warning. Though in a piecemeal and ill-coordinated fashion. 14,000 Polish-Lithuanian troops marched across the border of Livonia first, and laid siege to the capital. But the Swedes counter-attacked. The Polish-Lithuanian troops were shattered. Their general lay dead. Soon they were in full retreat back to the border. Then the Danes made their move, a move to which Charles XII., the Boy King of Sweden, responded with unexpected vigor. With the energy of youth Charles raised money from every quarter, bolstering the finances of the overextended Swedish Empire and launching a force that he himself would lead. After daring naval Maneuvers and a surprise landing, the stunned Danish forces capitulated and left the Alliance against the Swedes entirely. Meanwhile Peter still stood by. It was the perfect time to press the Swedes and he knew it. But still no word of peace had come from the Ottomans. At last, when the peace was signed with the Ottomans in the hottest days of summer, it was finally Peter’s turn to act. And act he did. To support the now reeling Polish-Lithuanian forces, he raised a massive army and marched toward Livonia. His objective was Narva, a major town right on the Russian border But in this age, with the mud and roads of Russia, an army of that size moved pretty slowly. It was November before they reached Narva. In the biting cold, they dug trenches into the frozen ground and prepared for a siege. But their guns did little and their assaults were swept aside, so a real siege it became to starve the town out. But once Charles XII. had thrashed the Danes, he had wasted no time packing up his little army and moving it east, to deal with the invasion of Livonia. Braving autumn storms on the Baltic, he personally led his forces toward the true test of their strength. Many of his counselors argued against this endeavor. After all, even if he got to Livonia, he’d have to march his troops 150 miles across wasted ground in the middle of winter. And if he actually reached Narva, he would be outnumbered at least four to one. More than that, the Russians he planned to assault, were dug in with siege works, defenses, they’d been preparing for weeks. But the now 18 year old Charles was not put off. He was spoiling for a fight. So with the same boundless energy he applied to everything, he launched his winter campaign. And thus it was, that on the 30th of November, the young king assembled his 10,000 men against at least 40,000 Russians. They calmly began to prepare for an assault. The Russians watched this in disbelief Peter, who was used to a much slower pace of warfare, thought that it was impossible that anyone could attack immediately after completing a march like Charles just had. So, he had left the night before, to attend a business in Russia, leaving in command a subordinate, who in line with Peter’s policy of bringing in foreign experts, was a foreigner who barely spoke Russian. The rain began to pour and yet the Swedish army calmly continued to ready for an assault. The sky darkened, a storm rolled in, the snow was pouring in sheets, sleet slashing at the troops, the Blizzard blinded both sides. Fighting was impossible. Men stood shivering in regimental formation, weapons at the ready for a battle that wasn’t gonna come. Charles’s advisers suggested that he’d call off the assault, but then the roaring wind began to turn and Charles’s keen eyes saw it. During this brief window the enemy would be entirely blinded by the snow. He ordered the advance. Two columns hidden by a sea of white, fell upon the Russian lines which quickly began to break. Shots flying high in the snow. Soon it was down to bayonet and saber in the Russian trenches. Most of the Russian troops were ill trained levies and began to scatter before the Swedish veterans. The Swedes had pierced the enemy line and the Russian troops began to melt away. Soon it was a complete rout, panicked Russian soldiers chased by ragged and wraith-like Swedes appearing like ghosts from out of the snow. The men stampeded over one of the only bridges across the Narva River. Under the weight of so many panicked souls, it collapsed. Timber and stone and Russian bodies tumbling into the water below. Thousands of Russians were trapped. It was an impossible victory, a crushing blow. But now Charles had another objective: The king of Poland-Lithuania had yet to personally suffer at his hand, and Charles was not a man to let what he considered to be a perfidious treachery go unpunished. So, though Peter greatly feared a Swedish advance into Russia and began immediately patching together a second force for defense of the Motherland, Charles did not pursue Peter’s deeply wounded army. Instead, he wintered in Livonia and prepared to bring the fight to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the following year. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe had tumbled into the chaos of the War of the Spanish succession. So preoccupied they were with the events in the west, that they were no longer engaged enough in the events of the east, to serve as arbiters or brokers for peace. In fact, diplomats and ministers wrote to Charles to tell him that he had a singular opportunity: He could tip the scales of Europe. If he would make a victorious peace with the powers he had just crushed, he could determine the outcome of the Spanish war, and decide who would inherit the vast lands of the Spanish crown. Play it right, and he could ensure another hundred years of preeminence for the Swedish people But he never responded to any of these letters. He had his sights set on only one thing: War. So join us next time, as we explore the character of the two great antagonists of this conflict: Peter and Charles. And cover the invasion of Poland-Lithuania; The second phase of the Great Northern War.

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