Warfare in the 18th Century: Poltava and the Swedes


I just finished The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire by Peter Englund.  Definitely a worth your time but here are the bits I found particularly interesting.

The Swedish king Charles the XII, instituted some military reforms including a system of conscription called indelningverk (which, I think, translates into something like ‘group work’). Provinces were broken up into subdivisions that would supply a cavalry or infantry man, house and support him in peacetime and replace him if lost in wartime. When I went to Skanses (the open air museum in Stockholm that focuses on Swedish life throughout history) they had an example of a little house that a farmer or craftsman might have on their property for a soldier to live in (called a soldattorp or soldier’s cottage). In these provincial regiments (which were different from more traditional regiments that apparently existed in parallel with them) promotions were handled differently from many other armies in that the officers had to start their service in the enlisted ranks and were promoted by merit.

The king had a bodyguard called the Drabants which, at least from the description of their service in the battle of Poltava, served as sort of a Secret Service (frequently surrounding the king in order to take the musket or cannon fire intended for him) as well as a body of shock troops. While I’m sure there was a lot of prestige associated with a posting as a Drabant it did have its downside. Of the 147 that began the Great Northern War in 1700, only 14 were still left alive in 1716.

Pay in old armies always interests me in that it provides some indication of what value society put on soldiering (at least where soldiers had some sort of choice in serving and allocating their labor) and what specific skills or activities militaries wanted to encourage (or discourage by withholding pay). Since plunder remained a legitimate form of compensation for some 18th century armies, Englund describes how the spoils accrued at Saladen were divided among the troops:

  • wounded captain: 80 riksdalar
  • unwounded captain: 40 riksdalar
  • wounded lieutenant: 40 riksdalar
  • unwounded lieutenant: 20 riksdalar
  • unwounded NCO: 2 riksdalar
  • wounded private: 2 riksdalar
  • unwounded private: 1 riksdalar

It’s nice to see the wounded given their due but, of course, it’s not clear if that means any wound or a would sufficient to preclude them from further service. The salary descrepencies today are nowhere near what there were listed as here which might reflect the increasing responsibility and autonomy that lower ranks have increasingly been given over the past three centuries.

Ah…but what of the grenadiers? In the period that I reenact, the grenadiers were really well on their way to losing any real difference from other infantry forces. Still, they maintained some (increasingly superficial) differences in uniform (the sword, the matchcase, etc.) and tougher recruitment standards which made them the ‘go to’ troops when you needed that extra bit of confidence that at attack would succeed or a long would hold under pressure. One of the most visible aspects of grenadiers of all nationalities was their tall caps. In part, the height of the caps were designed to create an imposing appearance to strike fear into the enemy. It worked (or didn’t) along the same lines as ancient warriors who had crests of horsehair or other material on their helmets. Englund however, notes another, more practical, use for the the shaped hats:

Their peculier tall caps replaced the normal wide-brimmed three corner hat, which would have impreded them when they slung their muskets before lobbing their hand-grenades.

Swedish grenadier hat from the early 18th century

Even then, grenadiers were regarded as a form of elite soldier, being used as bodyguards, marksmen and to storm fortifications.

The 18th century was kind of a weird time.  The last of the middle age armor had disappeared but firearms still left a bit to be desired both in terms of accuracy and rate of fire.  So, edged weapons hadn’t yet faded into irrelevance yet.  Ladies and gentlemen, the bayonet.

The bayonet was probably most commonly employed when pursuing the fleeing, and killing off wounded opponents. If bayonet to bayonet fighting did occur it was usually of little consequence, only lasting a few confused moments. Nevertheless, if it did come to hand-to-hand combat the equipment of the Swedish soldier gave him a certain advantage. The sword that every Swede carried was probably the best naked weapon that has ever existed, as well suited for thrust as cut. The Swedish bayonet had a more stable fitting than was otherwise normal. It was a considerably better weapon for thrusting than that of many other armies, whose bayonets tended to fall off, or remain embedded when muscle, skin and bone closed around the blade.

I have no idea if that last bit is true or not but as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts it’s not clear to me that the average 18th century soldier had much training with sword or bayonet.  Without training, weapon quality doesn’t matter quite that much.

The whole battle was a mess from the Swedish perspective (great from the Russian).  The Swedes suffered from debilitating overconfidence, convinced that since the Russians were incompetent in the early years of the war that they would forever remain that way.  So overconfident that the Swedes convinced themselves that it would be a good idea to attack an entrenched foe almost twice as numerous as themselves who also had a more than 3 to 1 superiority in artillery.

Let’s just say it didn’t go well for them.

Still, you can’t say the Swedes weren’t brave.  Here’s a description of the opening of the battle as the Swedes advanced towards the Russian lines:

They had approximately 800 meters to cover before they closed with the compact Russian ranks. The first 600 meters would be taken at the normal pace of 100 strides (75 meters) to the minute: a duration of about 8 minutes. The last stretch would be covered at a significantly higher speed, the standards procedure when attacking a rapidly firing enemy.

Cannon began firing at about 500 meters which meant that the advancing Swedes would have to walk (at a pretty slow pace) into firing artillery for 3 minutes before charging into the enemy and knowing that it would only get worse from there on out.

I suspect my response to being given a order to do something like that would have been along the lines of ‘Go fuck yourself.’

But Russian cannon, flintlocks, bayonets and swords isn’t all the Swedes had to worry about.  They also needed to keep an eye over their shoulder at the knuckleheads behind them:

Some calculations estimate that up to 25 percent of all infantry losses arose when the rear lines accidentally shot their comrades standing further forward.

English: Battle of Poltava 1709

And that is how you have your day ruined.

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