Some inkling of the coalition agreement reached Stockholm. The royal Council met to discuss measures of defense. The prevailing judgment was that negotiations should be opened with one or another of the allies with a view to a separate peace. Charles listened for a long time in silence, then rose abruptly. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I have resolved never to engage in an unjust war, but . . . never to conclude a just war but by the ruin of my foes.” 25 He renounced all amusements, all luxuries, all intercourse with women, all use of wine. His army and navy were in readiness. With them he left Stockholm on April 24, 1700, to begin one of the most spectacular military careers in history. He never saw his capital again.
He attacked Denmark first, for he had to protect the southern provinces of Sweden from Danish assaults while he faced Poland and Russia. With characteristic daring and speed, over the protest of his admiral, he led his ships across the eastern—supposedly unnavigable—channel of the Sound, and landed in Sjaelland, only a few miles from Copenhagen (August 4, 1700). The Danish King, Frederick IV, dreading the capture of his capital, hastily signed the Peace of Travendal (August 18), paying an indemnity of 200,000 rix-dollars, and swearing that he would never attack Sweden.
In May, 1700, Augustus II tried to take Riga. He was defeated by the seventy-five-year-old Swedish general Count Erik Dahlberg, who had gained the title “the Vauban of Sweden” by his skill in fortification. Augustus, retreating, appealed to Peter to relieve him by invading Ingria. Peter responded by ordering forty thousand men to besiege Narva. Thinking to help Dahlberg, Charles XII transported his army by sea to Pernau (Parnu), on the Gulf of Riga; but finding that warrior victorious, he turned north, and marched through swamps and dangerous passes to appear suddenly in the rear of Peter’s army. The Czar was surprised into what seemed disgraceful cowardice; he left the army (in which he had been serving only as a lieutenant), and fled to Novgorod and Moscow. Probably he knew that his crude conscripts would collapse in their first test; he could not afford to be captured, for he thought himself more valuable to Russia alive than dead. The forty thousand Russians, under the incompetent command of the Magyar Prince Carl Eugene de Croy, were defeated by Charles’s eight thousand Swedes in the battle of Narva (November 20, 1700), the first setback in Peter’s adult career.
The Swedish generals urged Charles to march upon Moscow and finish Peter. But his army was small, winter had begun, even the young Napoleon’s courage must have hesitated before the engulfing distances of Russia, and the problem of feeding his army in a hostile land. Moreover (pledges being paper), could he trust the Danish King, or the Polish, not to invade Sweden while its main army and leader were so far from home? After reorganizing the government and defense of Livonia, Charles marched south into Poland, occupied Warsaw without a struggle (1702) like his grandfather forty-seven years earlier, deposed Augustus, and made Stanislas Leszczynski King of Poland (1704). Each of the allies had now been defeated; but the Russian bear had just begun to fight.
Peter had not only recovered from his fright, he had organized and equipped another army. To provide it with artillery, he ordered the bells of the churches and monasteries to be melted down; three hundred cannon were forged, and a school was set up to train artillerymen. Soon the new Jevies were winning victories; Peter’s own battalion of artillery led in capturing Nienskans, at the mouth of the Neva (1703); and here at once the Czar began to build “Petersburg,” hardly realizing as yet that this was to be his capital, but resolved that it should be one portal to the sea. While Charles was busy in Poland, Peter came up again before Narva. Charles had left too small a garrison there; the great fortress was taken by assault (August 20, 1704); the victors avenged the former failure with a frightful massacre, which Peter finally stopped by killing twelve of the blood-maddened Russians with his own hand.
In Poland the triumph of Charles seemed complete. The deposed Augustus signed a treaty acknowledging Leszczyński as king, renouncing his alliances against Sweden, and surrendering to Charles the man who had first organized the coalition; Johann von Patkul was broken on the wheel and then beheaded (1707). Peter found himself alone against the young Swedish terror. He tried to bribe the English ministry to arrange a peace, but it refused to interfere. Peter’s agent went directly to Marlborough, who agreed to intercede in return for a principality in Russia; 26 Peter offered him Kiev or Vladimir or Siberia, a guarantee of fifty thousand thalers a year, and “a rock ruby such as no European potentate possesses”; 27 but these negotiations fell through. Western statesmen sympathized with Charles, despised Augustus, feared Peter; some of them argued that if Russia were allowed to expand westward, all Europe would soon tremble before a Slavic inundation. 28
On January 1, 1708, Charles crossed the Vistula on unsafe ice at the head of 44,000 men, half of them cavalry. He reached Grodno on the twenty-sixth only two hours after Peter had abandoned it. The Czar had decided on defense by depth and devastation; he ordered his armies to retreat, to draw Charles farther and farther into the Russian mattress, and to burn all crops as they passed; he commanded the peasants to hide their corn in the earth or the snow, and scatter their cattle in forests and swamps. He entrusted to the Cossack hetman Ivan Mazeppa the defense of “Little Russia” and the Ukraine. Mazeppa had been brought up as a page at the Polish court; a Polish nobleman whom he had cuckolded had him bound naked on a wild Ukrainian horse; the horse (as Byron was to tell) was deliberately frightened by the cuts of a whip and the firing of a pistol close to his ear; the steed rushed through thickets and woods to his native haunts; Mazeppa, though torn and bloody, survived, and rose to be leader of the Zaporogue Cossacks. He pretended loyalty to Peter, but resented the Czar’s autocracy, and waited for a chance to revolt. Hearing that Peter was retreating and Charles advancing, he decided that his opportunity had come. He sent Charles an offer of co-operation.
It was probably that offer that led Charles to continue his reckless march into Russia. The “scorched-earth” policy was having its effect; the Swedes found nothing but charred wilderness in their path, and began to starve. Charles had relied upon reinforcements from Riga; these tried to reach him, but were half destroyed by the Russians on their way. Charles hoped that Mazeppa would join him with provisions and the full force of the Dnieper Cossacks; but Peter, suspecting treachery, sent an army under Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov to arrest Mazeppa; the hetman, surprised before he could raise his horsemen, fled to Charles at Horki, bringing only thirteen hundred men. Charles marched south to capture Mazeppa’s capital, Baturin, and its supplies; Menshikov reached it first, burned the city to the ground, and appointed a hetman faithful to Russia. Peter, using every weapon, discouraged the Cossacks from joining the Swedes by manifestoes describing the invaders as heretics who “deny the doctrines of the true religion and spit on the picture of the Blessed Virgin.” 29 Charles’s hope now was that the Tatars and Turks would come to his aid in revenge for Peter’s seizure of Azov.
None came, and the winter of 1708–9 proved a terrible enemy to the Swedes. It was especially severe everywhere in Europe: the Baltic froze so deeply that heavily laden wagons crossed the Sound on the ice; in Germany the fruit trees died; in France the Rhone, in Venice the canals, were covered with ice. In the Ukraine snow blanketed the ground from October 1 to April 5; birds fell dead in their flight; saliva congealed in its passage from the mouth to the ground; wine and spirits froze into solid blocks; firewood would not burn in the open air; and the wind cut like a knife over the level plains and into the face. Charles’s soldiers suffered in silent fortitude while two thousand of them died of hunger or cold. “You could see,” said an eyewitness, “some without hands, some without feet, some without ears or noses, many creeping along after the manner of quadrupeds.” 30 Charles bade them march on, trusting that somewhere soon they would come upon Peter’s main army and win all Russia with one overwhelming victory. Wherever he made contact with the enemy, at Holowczyn, Cerkova, and Opressa, he won through superior generalship and courage, often against forces ten times greater than his own. But when that winter ended, his army had dwindled from 44,000 to 24,000 men.
On May 11, 1709, it reached Poltava, on a tributary of the Dnieper, eighty-five miles southwest of Kharkov. Here at last Charles sighted Peter’s army, eighty thousand strong. While on reconnaissance he was struck in the foot by a bullet. He made nothing of the wound, and calmly extracted the bullet with his own knife; but when he regained his camp he fainted. Unable to lead in person, he delegated the command to General Carl Rehnskjoll, and ordered him to attack on the morrow (June 26). At first the Swedes, who had never lost a battle under Charles, carried everything before them. To urge them on, Charles had himself carried to the field of battle on a litter, which was shattered under him by enemy fire. Peter, though still officially a mere lieutenant, rode to the forefront, encouraging his troops; a bullet passed through his hat, another was stopped by a golden cross on his breast. His years of preparing and training artillery now served him well; his cannon fired five times to every once of the Swedes. When Swedish ammunition ran out the Swedish infantry was massacred wholesale by the Russian artillery. Seeing the situation hopeless, the Swedish cavalry surrendered. Charles himself mounted a horse and fled with Mazeppa and a thousand men across the Dnieper into Turkish territory. The Swedish lost, in killed and wounded, four thousand men; the Russians lost 4,635, but took 18,670 prisoners, including three generals and many officers. Peter treated the officers honorably, but employed the prisoners on fortifications and public works. Leibniz hailed his humanity and concluded, from the size of the Russian battalions, that God was on the side of the Russians. 31 Peter agreed with him. “Now by God’s help,” he wrote, “the foundations of Petersburg are securely laid for all time.” 32
The battle had endless and far-reaching results. Leszczyński fled to Alsace, and Augustus II remounted the Polish throne. Russia appropriated the Baltic principalities and all of the Ukraine. Denmark rejoined the alliance against Sweden, invaded Skåne, but was repulsed. Frederick William of Prussia took Stettin and Holstein, and part of Pomerania. Russian prestige and pride ran high; Louis XIV offered his alliance to Peter, who rejected it but consented to receive an envoy.
Charles did not admit that he was definitely beaten. The Turks, grateful to anyone who had made trouble for Russia, gave their royal refugee all but royal honors. At Bender (now Tighina), near the Dniester, he maintained his own court, and received from Sultan Ahmed III supplies for himself and eighteen hundred Swedes still in his service. As soon as his foot healed he resumed martial exercises, and drilled his little army. His abstinence from wine, and his regular attendance at public prayers, led to the report that he was a convert to Islam. He employed every means to persuade the Sultan or the vizier to make war against Russia; and in that hope he refused to be taken back to Sweden by French vessels offered to his use. An attempt was made to poison him, but it was detected in time. Peter demanded that Mazeppa be surrendered to him as a traitorous Russian subject; Charles would not permit it, and Mazeppa cut the knot by dying (1710).
Every victory breeds new enemies or inflames old ones. Charles was able to convince the Sultan that the rising power of Russia, now unchecked in the north, would sooner or later challenge Turkish control of the Black Sea and the Bosporus. The Sultan declared war, and sent against Russia 200,000 men under his vizier. Peter, caught by surprise, could gather only 38,000 soldiers in the south to stop this avalanche. His Bulgarian and Serbian allies failed him. When the two armies met at the River Prut (now the eastern boundary of Romania), Peter had to give battle, for the surrounding country had been ravaged, and he had provisions for only two days. Expecting defeat and death, he sent instructions to Moscow for the election of a new czar in case his fears should be realized; then he retired to his tent and forbade anyone to enter. But his second wife, Catherine, agreed with his generals that surrender was better than mass suicide. She braved Peter’s wrath by taking in to him for his signature a letter asking the vizier for terms. Peter signed without hope. Catherine collected all her jewels, borrowed money from the officers, and sent Vice-Chancellor Peter Shafirov, armed with 230,000 rubles, to negotiate terms with the vizier. The vizier took the rubles and jewels, and allowed Peter to withdraw his army and equipment unhindered, on his promise to surrender Azov, to dismantle the Russian forts and ships there, to allow Charles clear passage to Sweden, and to interfere no more in Polish affairs. Peter readily made these promises (August 1, 1711), and led his troops away. Charles, coming up ready for battle, raged when he found peace. He secured the dismissal of the pacific vizier and continued his efforts for war; but Shafirov, with 84,900 ducats, persuaded the new vizier to confirm the Treaty of the Prut.
Tired of these complications, the Sultan asked Charles to leave Turkey. He refused. A Turkish force of twelve thousand men was sent to compel him; with forty men he held them off for eight hours, killing ten Turks himself; finally a dozen Janissaries overpowered him (February 1, 1713). He was transported to Dimotika, near Adrianople, but was allowed to remain there for twenty months while a new vizier meditated war with Russia. When this hope faded, Charles consented to return to Sweden. Ht was provided with military escort, gifts, and funds. He left Dimotika (September 20, 1714), traveled through Wallachia, Transylvania, and Austria, and at midnight, November 11, reached Pomerania and its port and fort, Stralsund, on the Baltic coast due south of Sweden. This and Wismar, to the west, were the last Swedish strongholds on the mainland.
By this time Charles’s insistence upon governing Sweden from Turkey, and his refusal to make any concessions to Peter, had brought the Swedish empire to collapse. On August 1, 1714, Elector George of Hanover had become King George I of England. Resolved to use his new power to add Bremen and Verden to Hanover, he joined Britain with Denmark and Prussia in a new coalition against Sweden, and the British fleet reinforced the Danish in the Straits. Charles found himself locked up in Stralsund, at war with England, Hanover, Denmark, Saxony, Prussia, and Russia. For twelve months he stood siege there by 36,000 men, frequently leading his garrison on heroic futile sallies. After the town and its walls had been shattered by the besiegers’ cannon, and surrender was inevitable, Charles leaped into a small vessel, sailed through enemy fire, and reached Karlskrona on the Swedish coast (December 12, 1715).
Stockholm awaited him as its desperate hero, but he refused to return there except as a victor. He ordered new levies of men, even of youths fifteen years old; he conscripted all articles of iron to build another fleet; and taxed almost every article used by his people, even to their wigs. They obeyed silently, thinking him perhaps mad, but glorious. Baron Georg von Görtz, now his chief minister, labored to break up the coalition. Noting that George I was quarreling with Peter over the division of the spoils, he tried to make peace between Sweden and Russia, and aid the Stuart revolt in England; but his plans failed. By the fall of 1717 Charles had assembled an army of twenty thousand men. That year, and again in 1718, he invaded Norway, hoping to win territory that might compensate for his mainland losses. In December he laid siege to the fortress of Fredrikssten. On the twelfth he raised his head for a moment over the parapet of the foremost trench. A Norwegian bullet struck him in the right temple and killed him instantly. He was thirty-six years old.
He died as he had lived, stupefied with bravery. He was a great general, and won unbelievable victories against great odds; but he loved war to intoxication, never had victories enough, and, in search of them, planned campaigns to the verge of insanity. His generosity was spoiled by his pride; he gave much, but demanded more; and time and again he prevented peace by refusing concessions that might have saved his empire and his face. History pardons him because it was not he who had begun this “Great Northern War” that he refused to finish except with victory.
The Swedish government, seldom extreme, hastened negotiations for peace. By the Treaties of Stockholm (November 20, 1719, and February 1, 1720) it yielded Bremen and Verden to Hanover, and Stettin to Prussia. At first it refused Peter’s demands for all the Swedish territory in the eastern Baltic. Russian armies three times invaded a Sweden bled white with war, and devastated her coastal lands and cities. Finally, by the Treaty of Nystad (August 30, 1721), Russia obtained Livonia, Esthonia, Ingria, and part of Finland. The struggle for the Baltic had left Russia victorious, and had made her a “Great Power.”
The weary, aging, but triumphant Czar, arriving at Petersburg with the news and cry of “Mir! Mir!” (Peace! Peace!), was hailed by his people as Father of his Country, Emperor of All the Russias, and Peter the Great.