In the Spring of 1700, Sweden faced a war on two fronts. In 1699, Denmark, Saxony and Russia had signed a secret military alliance. Their goal was to attack the Swedish Empire, break her dominance of the Baltic and carve up her territories. The victories against Denmark and Russia in 1700 allowed Sweden to regain the initiative and take to the offensive against her enemies. The Battle of Narva on the 20th November 1700 was a stunning success for the Swedish army and clearly demonstrated what a well organised state could achieve despite limited resources. Swedish forces, outnumbered four to one, fought and defeated a Russian force besieging the town of Narva. Revisionist historians have tried to explain the Russian defeat as that of a smaller modern force against a much larger, ill-trained backward rabble. They argue that the Russian army was almost medieval in equipment and organisation in comparison to the Swedes. Recent studies of the Russian military reforms of Peter the Great have now made this position untenable. The Russian troops facing Karl XII of Sweden were largely veterans of Russia’s recent campaign against the Turks. In addition, the Russian government employed no fewer than 560 foreign officers as instructors in modern military doctrine. Arguably, the Russian defeat was not so much the fault of an inadequate Russian military as it was the superior Swedish army fielded by Karl XII. Whilst there were a number of factors involved in the Swedish army’s victory, the crucial factors were its superior tactics, organisation and the development of the Caroline military system upon which Sweden based its defences.
Portrait of Karl XII in 1700. He wore the simple uniform of a soldier for the rest of his life.
Sweden’s role as a great power in Europe occurred almost by accident. Having intervened in the Thirty Years War, Sweden found itself as the principal arbitrator in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Having already expanded into the Baltic region in the 1620s, Sweden acquired yet more land through its participation in the war and was afterwards expected to maintain the balance of power in Central and Northern Europe. Unfortunately, her newly acquired territories put her into contact with hostile neighbours who saw Sweden as an obstacle to their own expansion. With only a small population of 1.5 million and few natural resources (apart from timber and iron ore) the country was not well suited to the role thrust upon it at Westphalia. Wars against Denmark and Saxony in the latter half of the seventeenth century soon made it apparent that reform would be needed if Sweden were to survive as a major power in Europe.
These reforms were pushed through in 1680 when Karl XII’s father, Karl XI organised a ‘reduction’ of the total land held by the nobles of Sweden. Karl was able to reclaim a third of the lands held by the aristocracy for the crown and thus bring in an addition 4 million riksdaler to the treasury. By 1697, the national debt had been reduced from 40 million riksdaler to 10 million. These savings and additional revenue freed up resources for the state to construct a standing army and adequate civil service. Karl XI and his advisors organised a system known as the ‘indelningsverk’. Each province in the Swedish Empire would now be responsible for maintaining a certain number of regiments fixed size. Farms were grouped together in parts called ‘rota’. Each rota was required to provide and equip one soldier. Maintenance of cavalry units was organised on a similar basis. One or more prosperous farms made up a ‘rusthåll’ which supplied one or more cavalrymen. The system also provided incentives for farmers to enter the agreement by granted special tax privileges. Soldiers supported by these farms were obliged to work as farm hands when not at war or in training.
By 1697 this system provided 11 cavalry regiments and 23 of infantry. This meant Sweden could rely upon a trained force of 11,000 horse and 30,000 infantry. Money saved by the system paid for an additional 25,000 mercenaries to be hired for overseas garrison duty. The navy was also increased to a total of 53,000 tons. A new naval base was constructed at Karlskrona in the south of Sweden, thus providing the fleet with an ice-free port earlier in the year than would otherwise be possible in Stockholm. The system therefore allowed for a trained standing army to be available at relatively little cost to the state. The indelningsverk was so successful that it remained in place until 1901.
When war erupted in 1700 there were therefore a clear organised system in place for rapidly mobilising Sweden’s defences. When Karl XII gave orders to mobilise the army, troops marched to clearly designated assembly points throughout the Empire. This allowed Karl to react quickly against multiple enemies. The Russians besieging Narva had expected Karl to be preoccupied with dealing with Denmark. By July 1700, the Danes had already been defeated and a Swedish army was being organised to relieve Narva. By the 19th November, Karl had successfully managed to transport an army of 10,000 men across the Baltic, march overland and engage the Russian army. This in itself was a great achievement given the logistical and administration difficulties which faced most armies in the late seventeenth-early eighteenth centuries.
Approaching the Russian encampment outside the besieged Narva, Karl could see that that the Russians had built a fortified camp. They had constructed earthern walls nine feet high behind six foot wide ditches. One hundred and forty cannon were mounted along the walls, supported by 26,000 infantry. The Russians also fielded another two infantry regiments, two regiments of dragoons and some 5000 assorted cavalry. There were also reports of Russian reinforcements approaching the area. Outnumbered nearly four to one, the situation was critical. Having been on the march for nearly a month, the Swedish army was also desperately low on supplies. The last of the bread rations had been given out four days before.
On the 20th November, Karl decided to attack. He had been raised with the Swedish style of aggressive warfare. The infantry were equipped with the best flintlock muskets in Europe. Their bayonets had a superior mount system to the majority of versions and each infantryman carried a sword which Karl had personally designed. Swedish tactics could be summarised by the phrase ‘Gå på!’. Loosely translated, this means ‘Up and at ‘em’. Swedish infantry were trained to charge across a battlefield and bring their opponent into hand to hand combat as quickly as possible. Once they had reached to within thirty yards of the enemy, they would fire a devastating musket volley before finally settling the matter with bayonets and swords. These tactics were employed at the Battle of Narva.
With over a hundred cannon facing them, as well as thousands of infantry, the potential for failure for the Swedes was high. However, just as the Swedish infantry were approaching the Russian lines, a blizzard broke out and began to blow into the faces of the Russians, blinding them. Within fifteen minutes the infantry were inside the entrenchments and the Swedish cavalry had seen off the Russian horse. Many of the Russians attempted to flee across the bridge over the River Narva. Unfortunately for them, the bridge collapsed under the combined weight of thousands of men and horses. The surviving Russians retreated to their supply camp where hundreds of wagons were parked. By dawn they too had surrendered and Karl found himself with more prisoners than he had troops. Disarming them, he kept the officers and sent the rest of the defeated Russians home.
Portrait of the defeated Russian prisoners surrendering their arms with heads bowed to Karl XII
The logistical success in mobilising the Swedish army was the direct result of the well-organised plan and administration established by Karl XI. The success of the Swedish army at Narva should be put down to the aggressive tactics and discipline of its troops as well as exemplary leadership from their King, Karl XII. It was these factors, combined with a degree of luck that made Sweden’s victory at Narva possible.
If you are interested in reading more about Swedish military history have a look at these books.
Lars Ericson, Martin Hårdstet, Per Iko, Ingvar Sjöblom, Gunnar Asellius, Svenska Slagfält (Värname, 2004)
Gary Dean Peterson, The rise of an Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: warrior Kings of Sweden (Jefferson, 2007)
Paul Douglas Lockhart, Sweden in the seventeenth century (Hampshire, 2004)
Michael Roberts, The Swedish Imperial Experience 1560-1718 (Cambridge, 1979)
Herman Lindqvist, A History of Sweden (Värnamo, 2006)