The battle of Narva

I continue to work through my biography of Karl XII of Sweden.  Today, the Battle of Narva.

In 1700, the powers of Denmark, Poland and Russia formed a coalition to further their great power ambitions and take advantage of the young Karl XII by waging war on Sweden and reducing them to ruin.  Sweden at that point was in a weak state.  While it had accrued a great deal of influence during the reign of Karl XI, the country was broke, had one navy and few allies willing or able to provide much in the way of assistance.

Karl XII decided on an aggressive strategy and risking his carefully constructed fleet he landed on Zealand (a very risky undertaking given that the Swedish soldiers were few in number, had only five days of provisions and no cavalry at first) by bottling up the Danish fleet with assistance from the British and the Dutch.  Karl’s forces directly threatened Copenhagen and the Danes were so unnerved by the landing that they surrendered almost immediately.

The King of Poland sued for peace but Karl XII was not inclined to settle the war since he felt betrayed by Augustus and was determined to remove him from the throne.  Just about everyone and their brother was urging peace but Karl was having none of that.  After a couple of months of rest and reinforcement he decided to take his forces to modern day Estonia to confront the Russians and lift their siege of Narva.

The Russian besiegers numbered approximately 40,000 men and were well dug in.  The countryside was boggy, difficult to travel, beset by storms and had been laid waste by the Russians.  The Swedish king decided on ignoring all of his advisers and ordered an immediate forced march to relieve Narva.  The route between Karl’s camp and Narva was restricted to three passes.  The Russians left two of the passes unguarded and the third, manned by 6,000 men was routed by Karl at the head of a force of 400 cavalry.

Upon arrival in the region of Narva, the Russian commander (possibly known to you as Peter the Great) freaked out, decided he had urgent business elsewhere and thrust the command of his forces on a very unwilling Duke de Croy (who was apparently just visiting and observing events).  That kind of set the stage for the rest of the battle.

But, that was clear at the time.  The Russians were well supplied, rested, heavily outnumbered the Swedes and had the benefit of good terrain and lots of artillery.

South of the town, commanding the only road by which the enemy could approach, the Russians had entrenched themselves between a double line of circumvallation which cut off the town from succor and at the same time protected them from outside attack.  The outer line of circumvallation had a rampart nine feet high and a trench six feet wide, and was defended by one hundred and forty cannons.

Karl, therefore, decided upon a direct attack.

As he marched his army out, the Russians at first thought his entire army was only a vanguard as it was so small.  At approximately 2pm, the Swedes decided to attack just as a snow storm started raging.  By incredible fortune, the storm blew directly into the Russian lines and reduced visibility to less than “thirty paces”, negating the advantage of their cannons.  Therefore, the first many of the Russians saw of the Swedes was as they were coming over the entrenchments.

The rest was all mopping up.  So many Russians surrendered that the Swedes had to let many go after being disarmed.  The Russians lost between 9-10,000 soldiers and the Swedes about 2,000.  In addition, the Russians lost all of their artillery and much in the way of booty.  The siege was lifted, Narva was returned to the Swedish fold, Poland and Russian were on the run and Sweden looked to be the primary power in the North.

And because I love user generated content, here are some videos of the battle (Not videos of the actual battle, you would have needed a time machine for that and, let’s face it, if you had a time machine at your disposal the Battle of Narva probably wouldn’t be at the top of your list of places to visit.  You get the idea.)

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One response to “The battle of Narva

  1. Pingback: The perils of giving a teenager ‘absolut’ power « Travels with Shiloh

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